What to Do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Why Visit Phnom Penh?
When most people think about Cambodia, they don’t see it as an easy travel destination. It’s for the more adventurous, most believe. And while it’s true that you have to be a little adventurous at heart in order to really experience everything Cambodia has to offer—you have to be willing to go off the beaten path and 'rough it' a little bit—Phnom Penh has something to offer more tentative travellers as well.
Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (Angkor) are visitor friendly. Phnom Penh is inexpensive to visit, the people are friendly and helpful, and the city has a relaxed atmosphere.
This sets it apart from many other cities in the region. While you might find friendly and helpful people in any other city in Southeast Asia, most are bustling. They are focused on the future, on technology and innovation, and that leaves very little time for getting to know new visitors and showing them around.
Phnom Penh is entirely different. They want you to stay because they care about you. The city is unlike any you’ve probably seen, especially if you’ve spent most of your time in the West.
Atmosphere in Phnom Penh
Old Dirt Roads
It was a little bit gritty, but it is changing fast. It has a certain 'unpolishedness' to it that you won’t find in most other industrialized places. While most roads are paved, some are still made of dirt and they get muddy when it rains. There are often people using oxen to pull carts up the streets mixed with people in cars and on motorbikes. Fancy hotels stand beside old and even abandoned buildings.
Phnom Penh Is Evolving
It is a city in transition, still finding its footing in the modern world. That means it still feels like a community, rather than cold and heartless like so many other cities do. When we first got to the city, nearly a decade ago, people still talked about ATM machines like they were some new toy. They were brand new to the city at the time.
Phnom Penh can be an adventure when you wander off the beaten paths, but ultimately, isn’t that what travel is about? Having an adventure? For those that are truly looking for something unique, this is the place to find it.
Unreliable Public Transportation
There might not be a reliable public transportation system (no German train systems here), but you will find plenty of tuk-tuks and moto-taxis, both of which can get you where you need to go, inexpensively and quickly. It’s one of the most unique ways to get around, but it’s commonplace here in the city.
The City Is Crazy and Relaxed at the Same Time
What really makes Phnom Penh special is the heart this city has. It’s a little bit crazy, but it’s also relaxed, beautiful, and welcoming. It’s a perfect city to visit if you’re wary of branching out. It’s changing rapidly, and soon, it will be not that different from just about every other city in Asia.
Right now is the time to visit, before the industrialization and modernization have an opportunity to change what Phnom Penh is at its core. Consider the following things to do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The Top 9 Things to See and Do in Phnom Penh
- Ride in a Tuk-Tuk
- Eat Authentic Khmer Food
- Shop at the Night Market
- Have a Drink at the FCC
- Tour the Riverfront
- Visit the Tuol Sleng S21 Prison Museum
- The Killing Fields
- Royal Palace Phnom Penh
- Temples in Phnom Penh
1. Ride in a Tuk-Tuk Around the City
It's probably not the most healthy mode of transportation, considering dust, but it’s something that everyone should do at least once in their life. The traffic in the east is an insane experience coming from the west. There seem to be no laws, and if there are laws, no one follows them.
Getting into a tuk-tuk means trusting your life into the hands of a man essentially toting you around on a cart attached to the back of his motorcycle. In the busy, loud traffic of Phnom Penh, it’s a unique experience. But because you won’t be closed off from the city, you’ll be able to really experience the city.
They can take you just about anywhere, and usually faster than a typical taxi or walking can. If it’s raining, as it often is in Cambodia, and you don’t want to walk back to your hotel after a day of exploring, take a tuk-tuk.
2. Eat Authentic Khmer Food
Phnom Penh, as it is being modernized, is seeing more and more western restaurants invade the city limits. That can be great for families traveling with small children that refuse to eat anything by chicken nuggets. I will say, however, that one of the best things my parents did for me instilled a love of adventurous eating in us when we were young.
My mother and father, though both European, lived in Japan and Korea respectively when they were in university. They both learned to love and learned to cook the cuisine that they ate during those years in those countries. And that meant that as children, we were served a wide variety of foods that our friends never encountered. We had a love of seaweed, spice, and soy at a young age and it has served us well. Introducing kids to different foods, especially when young can help them be less picky.
Don’t let the draw of familiar restaurant names pull you away from the magic that is trying new foods, especially in a city like Phnom Penh, where you can find a wide variety of restaurants, from lots of different traditions. Don’t avoid Cambodian food. It can be easy to dismiss this food as too foreign or too different, but the truth is that every cuisine has something that is tame enough for newcomers to try.
If you’ve made the step to be adventurous enough to visit the city, be adventurous enough to step outside of your culinary comfort zone and try something authentically Cambodian. Need help finding a restaurant? Ask a local. Need help choosing something that you’ll like. Phnom Penh is so well traveled that most waiters or restaurant owners will be able to point something out on the menu that you’re likely to enjoy. You can also join a Khmer cooking class for a day, similar to most cooking classes in Southeast Asia. You'll learn the local cuisine firsthand.
3. Shop at the Night Market
If you’re in Phnom Penh over the weekend, you’ll probably see the Night Market starting to set up on Friday afternoon. It’s a great place to buy souvenirs and there is always the very best street food in the city at the Night Market. Most vendors sell artwork and crafts, especially since where the market sets up, is fairly close to the University of Arts. You'll see similar things to the markets in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but also some very specific Cambodian arts and crafts.
There is plenty of haggling to be had, and you can buy some really spectacular works of art and some high-quality crafts, for almost nothing if you’ve got the chops for it. You’re probably going to get some looks if you offer to pay what the product is listed for, though.
Another place to shop for souvenirs is over on Street 178. While it doesn’t have the riverfront view like the Night Market does, it is closer to the University of Arts and often has more artists and crafters than the Night Market.
4. Have a Drink at the FCC
The FCC stands for Foreign Correspondence Club, and it is located in one of the oldest and most historic buildings in the city. Before the Khmer Rouge took over the country and ousted foreign journalists, it was here that they would come to write and send their stories back to their home newspapers. Today, the building is home to bars and restaurants. This makes it a great place to have a drink and get something to eat, after a day of exploring the city.
Be warned, this is one of the more expensive places to eat and drink in the city. If you’re looking for something less expensive, you can always rely on street food, but it is worth it, at least one night in the city, to pay a little extra to see what real, authentic Cambodian food looks like in an upscale location. Plus, the building almost always has at least one bar that is featuring live music and dancing. While there are other places for nightlife in FCC, this is probably one of the most unique and one of the classiest.
If you don’t want to pay the high prices at the FCC, you can always adventure down to the Khmer beer gardens. A pitcher of beer for your entire party will run you around fifteen American dollars, and in addition to great beer, there is also karaoke. In fact, if you’re interested in karaoke, there are plenty of bars in the city where you can easily find it. It’s not always good, but it’s always fun and, again, isn’t that what travel is really about?
What is your favorite thing to do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia?
5. Tour the Riverfront
One of the most unique things about Phnom Penh is that lacks the distinct neighborhoods (and street names) that comprise most cities. When talking about what sights and activities you absolutely need to include in your vacation in the city, it can make it difficult to narrow down which area you should stick to. That said, if you’re looking for a place to start exploring the city, start with the riverfront. It’s a great place to walk, and there are always street food vendors here that make it easy to grab something to eat while you explore.
It’s also close to some of the best markets in the city, including the Night Market, when it’s open. In the "French Quarter", you’ll find yet another market, with some great goods that are a definite twist on what you’ll find in other markets in the city. While in the riverfront area, make sure to visit the temples. They are some of the best examples of Cambodian architecture. Their roofs are bright yellow, so they’re hard to miss.
6. Visit the Tuol Sleng S21 Prison Museum
We started with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It doesn’t sound pleasant, and it isn’t. If you’ve ever visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., USA, or Auschwitz in Poland, you’ll recognize the very heavy, reverent atmosphere in this place. People become naturally pensive in what was once a school and was then used to torture and kill Cambodian citizens.
Those who want to learn about the Khmer Rouge will find everything they want to know (and probably more than they want to know), in this museum. It’s brutal, but it’s an important part of Cambodian history.
7. The Killing Fields
The killing fields (Choeung Ek) are located just outside of Phnom Penh. You can reach it by tuk-tuk or a taxi. It's one of the sites where the Khmer Rouge killed many of its prisoners. The conditions and the scale of the slaughter are horrible and unimaginable.
You don't need a tour guide, they provide an audio guide that will suffice to get all the information you need to do a serene tour of this horrible place. If you don't know anything about the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields you should read up on the history and watch the movie "The Killing Fields".
8. Royal Palace Phnom Penh
After visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, you might feel the need, like we did, to do something uplifting and fun. That’s why we headed over to the Royal Palace. While the temples along the river are great examples of Cambodian architecture, the Royal Palace is the ultimate example. It’s downright cheery, with its bright colors and pointed spires.
Like many historical and religious sites in the area, you have to cover your knees and shoulders in order to get inside, so carry a jacket and wear long shorts or pants if you’re planning on visiting this site.
9. Temples in Phnom Penh
While you’re out, make sure to visit some of Phnom Penh’s most famous temples. Wat Phnom is the site of the city’s founding, about six hundred years ago. Wat Lanka, Wat Botum, and Wat Ounalom are all beautiful. Like the Royal Palace, you need to have knees and shoulders covered to get in.
You should also take off your shoes and it is considered bad manners to point the soles of your feet at anyone, including the statues of the Buddha. Of course, it's only fair to say the temples here are not worth comparing to Angkor, the pride of Cambodia.
The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)
There are many things to do in Phnom Penh, and the city has great people. If you consider Cambodia, also check out Siem Reap and Angkor, a city with a massive cultural heritage and temple complexes.
If you’re looking for a destination in Southeast Asia, Cambodia should definitely be at the top of your list if you can handle a rough patch here and there!
© 2019 Sam Shepards