As this was my first trip to Cambodia I was super excited about visiting the temples of the Angkor Archeological Park and, unfairly, hadn’t given much thought to my stay in the Cambodian capital and what to do in Phnom Penh. It didn’t take long before I fell in love with the city though, with its sticky air, broken sidewalks and super friendly tuk-tuk drivers!
As soon as I got off the plane and the warmth and smells of South East Asia hit me I was back in my happy place and ready to see what Phnom Penh had to offer. In the end we managed to fit in a great number of experiences into our three-day stay.
What to do in Phnom Penh
Not as westernised as say Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh surprised me with how much it has to offer visitors in terms of culture, history, entertainment and food. So, from my experiences I’ve put together this guide to how best spend three days in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh – Day 1
Once you’ve grabbed a filling breakfast it’s time to ‘get your tourist on’ and head over to the Royal Palace and Silva Pagoda – as most of the buildings face east the best light for photos is in the morning!
Entry costs $6.50 per person but I recommend paying out for a guide – they mill around the entrance selling their wares, and you can expect to pay $10 for someone to take you around.
It’s well worth doing though, as we learnt the hard way. With only a small map that offered minimal information we had to garner what info we could from our Lonely Planet guide and sneakily listen in to the guides taking other visitors around.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Once you walk down the entrance pathway you’re greeted with a number of beautiful, intricately designed buildings very similar to Thai in style. These belong to the royal family and include throne and meeting rooms. Many you can only see from the outside and no interior picture taking is allowed, but it’s still great to peek in through the windows to see the opulence you’d expect from royal apartments.
Separated into two distinct zones, the second area is all about the silver pagoda, named for its silver tiled floor, where the king meets monks. Here you’ll find the emerald Buddha, in front of which you can see a gold Buddha, encrusted with over 2,000 diamonds – one of which that’s over 25 carats!
The National Museum
If you’re game for more, next door you’ll find the National Museum, one of the most important repositories of Khmer artefacts in the country. Many people say that the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is a better option, but for those not heading that way, this is well worth a visit.
The Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC)
From here take a short walk over to the Tonle Sap River and then slowly stroll up along the riverside until you reach the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC). In the dark days of Pol Pot, this was a base for the overseas reporters to write up and send their stories back home – and quotes from many of them appear on the bar’s walls.
Head up the stairs to the bar, grab a stool and order a drink while you enjoy the view out over the river. With its colonial feel not dissimilar to the Long Bar at Raffles, Singapore, it’s a place steeped in history.
If you’d like an even quirkier watering hole then move on to the Mansion, just behind the FCC and owned by the same parent company. This run down French colonial building has been turned into a funky bar, and although you can’t actually go inside, it’s a great backdrop for a drink with its mismatched chairs and tables that look that they may just have been dragged outside from within.
Phnom Penh – Day 2
It may not be the most upbeat of experiences, but I think it’s important to acknowledge and pay respect to a country’s history, however tumultuous and horrifying it may be, which is why visitors should take the time to visit S:21 and the Killing Fields.
S21 – Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
Originally a school, S21 was the turned into the main prison and interrogation centre during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and has since become museum/memorial. It can be quite a disturbing place to visit, as there are graphic images all around the museum, but visitors will learn a lot about what exactly happened during this dark era. You’ll learn how Pol Pot went from hero to paranoid tyrant, eventually even turning the Khmer Rouge against itself, and the awful mistreatment of the country’s best and brightest, who were considered its biggest threat.
Again I’d recommend a guide – either of the audio ($3) or person ($10) variety – to get the most out of this visit, and it’s important to visit S:21 before heading out to the Killing Fields. This is where many prisoners would end up being taken to from the prison, and helps you to best understand (as painful as it might be) what they experienced.
The Killing Fields
Depending on traffic the Killing Fields is approximately a 30-minute journey from the city centre, and we booked up on a tour that took us to both locations, picking us up and returning us to our hotels.
When you arrive you’re faced with such a serene and beautiful country scene that’s it’s hard to imagine the horrors that occurred here. But once you grab your audio guide you’ll start to uncover the awful atrocities that took place in this peaceful-looking piece of paradise. It’s a hard place to visit, and it’s so sad to think this actually happened in my lifetime, but it’s an important part of Cambodia’s history and something that continues to affect them today. With this in mind I think it’s important as visitors to pay your respects and hopefully take back some of the lessons learnt from this terrible time.
If you’re interested in finding out more before you visit, then check out my article Remembering those lost: visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields.
David’s Restaurant – Handmade noodles
After a heartbreaking day filled with emotional experiences I’d recommend spending your evening at one of the happiest places in the city: David’s Restaurant – Handmade noodles.
We came across this restaurant by accident and were actually lured in by an Australian family who were telling us it was the most amazing food they’d eaten – they weren’t wrong!
A family-run restaurant, David makes fresh noodles and dumplings in front of you, which were one of the best things we ate in Cambodia and the atmosphere is just so lovely and relaxed! I’ll be writing a full review of David’s soon, so be sure to check back if you’d like to find out more!
Phnom Penh – Day 3
Spend your final day in the city doing frivolous fun things like…shopping!
Phnom Penh has some great markets scattered throughout the city and two you should not miss are the Central and Russian markets.
The Central Market is an amazing sight with its giant dome rising up in the middle of a sprawl of stalls. This dome, and the clock that stands tall below it, is the heart of the market, which then spreads out in all directions. Areas are dedicated to specific products ranging from electronics, food and sewing through to jewellery, clothes and tourist tat and it’s so much fun to weave your way through the market trying not to get lost!
The Russian Market
Not for the faint of heart, the Russian Market is even more intense; an indoor dark, hot warren of tiny pathways through stalls piled high with anything and everything.
Perfect for picking up souvenirs and gifts for those back home, both markets are also used by the locals and you’ll find anything you could ever think of here – from homewares to parts for your motorbike!
You’ll need some time to recover after that shopping experience, so after a break back at the hotel why not end your stay in Phnom Penh with a special dinner at Mok Mony. Highly rated on Trip Advisor the service here is amazing, as is the food. My recommendation? Try the grilled betel leaf with marinated beef – you won’t want to leave after you’ve eaten here!
Getting about in Phnom Penh
Many of the city’s main sights are central and walkable, just be prepared to keep stepping on and off the road as the pavements are often broken or used by shops and restaurants or as parking spaces.
This can be a bit tough of the legs if you’re not particularly fit/healthy, so if like me you can struggle with lots of walking in the heat, then the easiest way to get about is by tuk-tuk, also known locally as a moto-remorque.
Make sure you agree on a price before you hop aboard and start travelling and feel free to barter if you feel the charge is too high. On average you can expect to pay $1-2 for most short trips or $3-5 for longer ones – the Russian Market is quite far out for examples and we ended up paying $4 to get there.
We also took a tuk-tuk from the airport to the hotel for $10 and you can even hire a driver for the day for roughly $12-15.