Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia and was our first stop when we visited the country. Compared to the rest of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a hot and steamy, bustling city that is full of life. Walking down its busy streets full of motorbikes and tuk tuks, you’ll come across friendly people, tasty street food and restaurants, temples, markets and museums. To really understand Cambodia, a visit to Phnom Penh is a must.
Things to do in Phnom Penh
You’ll need a few days to really experience everything that Phnom Penh has to offer, both inside and outside the city. I found that four days was a good amount of time to see the sites. After that I was ready for a more quieter destination.
Like Thailand, Cambodia is a kingdom with a very loved royal family, and, just like Thailand, the capital city has a very elegant Royal Palace. Compared to the overall history of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a fairly new city, established as the capital in the 1860’s, and the Royal Palace was built in the years after. That being said, the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh does not lack the extravagance and grandeur that befits the residence of a royal family. The architecture and artwork is simply breathtaking, the gem of it all being the Silver Pagoda with its thousands of silver tiles and other priceless treasures, including a 90kg gold Buddha statue that is covered in over 9000 diamonds.
Entrance to the Royal Palace costs $6.25 and is open 8-11am and 2-5pm every day.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
As you may know, Cambodia has an unfortunately horrific history due to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. During that time Phnom Penh was completely evacuated apart from the Khmer Rouge itself, and Tuol Sleng Prison (formerly a school) was where they began their genocide. Also known as S-21, this was where prisoners were brought to be processed, tortured and interrogated, later being taken to the nearby killing fields for their execution. Tuol Sleng is now a museum and has been left exactly as it was when the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979. This is a tough place to visit. You will literally see bloody footprints on the floors, the tiny cells, shackles and photos of those who went through the prison during that time. It is a very sombre experience, but a must if you want to understand the country of Cambodia and its people.
Entrance to Tuol Sleng costs $2 and is open from 8am-5pm.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Located 14km outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek is just one of many Khmer Rouge killing fields in the country, but it is the most well known and stands as a memorial for all of the people who were murdered during the genocide. Like Tuol Sleng, visiting the killing fields at Choeung Ek is not an easy experience. You will be staring at grave sites, viewing where people of all ages, including children, were murdered. You will see the actual bones and rags of the victims, their skulls staring back at you. You will learn about how they were killed and what they had to go through. It is hard to take in and imagine, but like Tuol Sleng, it is a must visit place if you want to truly understand Cambodia.
Take your time, listen to the audio guide, and just take in what humanity is like at its worst.
Entrance to the Killing Fields costs $5 and includes an excellent audio guide to show you around the site and tell you all about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide.
Central Market (Psar Thmei)
Phnom Penh is actually not a bad place to do some shopping, and its Central Market has plenty to offer. This busy market sells pretty much everything, from clothes to fresh produce. You can also get a cheap and tasty meal here.
The market is located right in the centre of the city next to the bus station.
If you love history and museums, then this place is for you. The National Museum in Phnom Penh is set inside a beautiful building and contains lots of interesting items and information from throughout Cambodia’s history, including the world’s best collection of Khmer sculpture.
Entrance to the National Museum costs $5 and is open 8am-5pm.
Russian Market (Tsar Tuol Tom Pong)
The Russian Market is another great shopping spot in Phnom Penh, located in the south of the city. It is known as the Russian Market because this was the main market frequented by foreigners in the 1980’s, when most of the foreigners in the country were Russian. It’s a great place to buy some souvenirs and wood carvings, though they sell everything else here as well.
Religion is strong in Cambodia and there are Buddhist temples everywhere in Phnom Penh. The best are in the Royal Palace, but some others to check out include Wat Phnom and Wat Ounalom.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
There isn’t really a main tourist area in Phnom Penh, but rather several different “tourist streets” spread out around the city where you can find places to stay. You just need to decide on which street you want to stay on. Personally, I quite liked staying on Street 258 as there were a few good choices and it is within walking distance of the Royal Palace, the river front, and we even walked to the Central Market from here.
Lazy Gecko Guest House
This was the first place that we stayed at in Phnom Penh, taken from the Lonely Planet Guide. Located on Street 258, the room was hot and stuffy and a bit grubby, but for $10 per night you can’t expect a lot. It only had a bed for furnishing but it was comfortable. The room also had a fan and private bathroom with hot water, which all worked. The restaurant/bar downstairs serves nice food, though a little pricey, if you’re after some western food. They also have a very cute pug called Chook who will win your heart.
We stayed here for one night while we were in transit from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap (we wanted to split up the bus ride). For $11 per night the room was very nice, large, clean and quiet with working fan and private bathroom with an amazing hot water shower. Air con is also an option for a few extra bucks if you want it. Don’t expect much from the staff as they weren’t interested in helping us and they also didn’t have any change, so make sure that you bring the exact amount of money to pay for your room.
Pich Guesthouse is located on Street 19 in a fairly local part of the city, not too far from the Central Market. This is not a touristy area, so good if you want a more local location.
We stayed here for two nights on our return to Phnom Penh before heading north. Okay Guesthouse is located on Street 258, a couple of places down from Lazy Gecko. A fan room costs $10 per night (same as Lazy Gecko) and is a much nicer and cleaner room. We paid an extra $3 per night for aircon as it was very hot in Phnom Penh at this time and Veronika was sick. The staff were great and always said hello when we walked past. They also organise tuk tuks for great prices (cheaper than I could haggle myself). The only con about this place? The room had the smallest bathroom I’ve ever seen! It wasn’t a real problem for me… but maybe not great if you’re claustrophobic ;-).
I’d stay here again if I return to Phnom Penh.
Where to eat in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is so spread out that there was no way for me to try a huge range of restaurants, but I certainly did try. Where ever you stay in the city, there is no shortage of places to eat.
Lazy Gecko Cafe
This is obviously the restaurant/bar at the bottom of Lazy Gecko Guest House on Street 258. The menu mostly consists of western food, but if you’re feeling “riced out”, then it is a good option. There are also a couple of Khmer options. The prices weren’t the cheapest when it comes to Cambodia, but that means about $3-$6 for a meal. They serve draft beer here for 75 cents per glass and they have a roast every Sunday.
The food area at Tsar Thmei (Central Market) has lots of cheap and tasty food options, and you won’t have much trouble ordering something. It’s a great spot for some lunch after shopping at the market. I got some tasty Khmer fried noodles with egg here for $1.25.
This place doesn’t seem to have a name in English, but it is a little local family owned restaurant on Street 258 located basically next door to Lazy Gecko. The food here is traditional Khmer food and it is super cheap and delicious. They have an English menu and lots of options. Most include meat but my wife (who is vegetarian) had no problem asking for “no meat”. We had breakfast here every morning which consisted of a fresh baguette, a tasty omelette and a coffee for $1.50. Some other tasty meals I tried here included Khmer fried rice and a delicious pork curry served with a baguette for dipping. Everything on the menu is under $2. This place is popular with locals, but I never once saw another foreigner here. I have no idea why.
Tsar Tuol Tom Pong (The Russian Market) also has a cheap and tasty Khmer food court. It was a hot and steamy place to eat, but the food was great and only cost about $1 for a meal.
If you fancy some Indian food, this place is great. Located on Street 130, close to the river front, Sher-e-Punjab has great service and serves up all the Indian favourites. We had a couple of very good vegetarian curry dishes, but apparently their traditional tandoori is worth trying as well. The food also comes with a whole bunch of free snacks.
Getting to and around Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has an international airport and you can fly here from many major Asian cities. Phnom Penh is the centre of the country and has bus connections to all major destinations in Cambodia, and other cities in Southeast Asia such has Saigon and Bangkok. Buses are the cheapest and best way to get around the country. We arrived in Phnom Penh from Vietnam by taking a combined boat and minivan trip from Chau Doc in Vietnam.
Phnom Penh isn’t a very walkable city, so you will need to use tuk tuks to get around a lot of the time. Staying on Street 258, we were able to walk to the Royal Palace, the National Museum and the Central Market, though it was a fair way in the heat and we took a tuk tuk back. Tuk tuks are both cheap and safe to use in Phnom Penh and usually only cost a couple of dollars for trips within the city. Always agree on a price before you get into the tuk tuk. Haggling is generally expected.
If you want to visit the Killing Fields, it’s a good idea to combine it with a trip to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as well, as they are in the same direction. We hired a tuk tuk driver for the day and went to Choueng Ek Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng and the Russian Market for $15