Cambodia’s busy capital, Phnom Penh, is quite the assault on the senses. Motorbikes whiz past you every minute, markets exude pungent scents and both the Royal Palace and Mekong River glimmer in the heat. This all represents Phnom Penh though, what was once the ‘Pearl of Asia’ tarnished by war.
Now the beguiling sights and sounds that you hear walking down the street symbolize a new city. A city that has risen from the ashes to claim its place amongst its neighboring capitals.
Although not the prettiest of places, a visit here is a must to understand the history of what this country went to.
Here are our top things that you can’t miss out on doing while in Phnom Penh.
- 1 Things to Do in Phnom Penh
- 2 Bag a Bargain at the Central Market
- 3 Eat Kampot Pepper Crab
- 4 Get Your Adventure On
- 5 Admire the Temples
- 6 Spend a Night at the Movies
- 7 Cruise the Mekong River
- 8 Join in With Local Celebrations
- 9 Visit an Animal Sanctuary
- 10 Related: Riding Elephants: What’s the Big Deal?Safety in Cambodia
- 11 Transport Around Phnom Penh
Things to Do in Phnom Penh
Learn About the History
You can experience the Cambodian culture just by walking through its streets and mixing with the locals, but if you want to really understand it, you have to learn about its history. The two main places to visit if you want to understand the city is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
Both an important part of Phnom Penh’s bloody history under Khmer Rouge, the prison stands as a monument to the thousands that were murdered and imprisoned, while the killing fields finally stand as peaceful grounds.
Although just as haunting as the death camps in Germany, the experience is so powerful and moving that it is an experience you can’t miss. While the entire thing is slightly depressing, a visit to these museums is vital to understand the culture of the Cambodian people and seeing how they have remained resilient and strong.
Although a bit depressing, we 100% recommend going on a historical tour so you can really grasp the history of Phnom Penh.
Bag a Bargain at the Central Market
There’s something about markets in Asia. The hustle and bustle, the hundreds of colorful stalls and the fact they are like actual mazes! It’s no different in Phnom Penh.
If you want to test out your haggling skills and bag yourself a bargain, head to the central market. You can find anything from handicrafts and local art to designer handbags and furniture, it’s one of the most fun places to wander around!
If you spend enough time here and you get hungry, head a few blocks northwest to the Night Market. Open from 5 pm, you can gorge on a range of cheap local dishes.
Eat Kampot Pepper Crab
Being quite the hip capital, Phnom Penh is full of alluring cafes, bustling bars, and a world-class food scene. Let’s just say you’ll never be far from a good meal! Even with all this, the one dish you absolutely have to try is the Kampot Pepper Crab.
Originating from the small riverside town of Kampot, this seafood delicacy and its many variations have become somewhat of a national dish. I mean who wouldn’t enjoy whole fried or baked crab, smothered in a sweet and spicy peppercorn sauce? I’m salivating just thinking about it.
Don’t forget the street food scene! It’s no different in Cambodia to the rest of Asia. You will find amazing dishes around Phnom Penh, with some of the best stalls around Tuol Tompoung (Russian Market) just south of the city center. Fancy a deep-fried cricket, fried tarantula, or chicken foot?
Check out this evening food tour for the best experience around Phnom Penh!
Get Your Adventure On
You guessed it, Phnom Penh is full of adventure just waiting to be had. Offering activities from kayaking and white water rafting, to trekking and rock-climbing, you can fill your days with sports and laughter!
Our favorite though? Exploring the region by bike, vespa or motorbike!
There is nothing like whizzing through the city and discovering lesser-known country roads. You’ll often stumble upon some of the most amazing views this way. Happy exploring!
Admire the Temples
While Cambodia’s other major city, Siem Reap, is better known for its many temples and ruins, Phnom Penh has some wats (temples) of its own that deserve some attention. Whether you like to marvel at the different architecture or learn about each long and interesting history, there is a temple for everyone here! Don’t know where to start? Check out our top 5 must-visits.
- Wat Phnom
- Wat Ounalom
- Ta Prohm
- Wat Langka
- Phnom Chisor
Insider Tip: Whether exploring ruins or actual temples, always make sure that you are covering your shoulders and your knees. These are sacred grounds where locals come to pray so it’s important to be respectful. You don’t have to wear full-length clothes, a light scarf is adequate to cover what you need to.
This walking tour around the area is a great way to see and do the temples!
Spend a Night at the Movies
Perhaps not top of your list of things to do when you have limited days in Phnom Penh, but the cinema culture is big here so don’t miss out! This city is full of cinemas, from massive complexes playing the latest releases (in 4D as well which is awesome!) to the small indie film houses that epitomize the term ‘picture house.’
What are you waiting for? Head down to the Empire Movie House, grab a bucket of popcorn and park your butt in a huge bed-like seat to watch the film!
Cruise the Mekong River
As Phnom Penh is located at the point where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet, exploring the water is a pretty common thing to do here. You can take a tour of the sites, marvel at the floating villages, or even dine on the water (this is pretty cool so do it if you get the chance!). The most popular cruise though by far, are the sunset river cruises.
With all-inclusive refreshments, you can leisurely float along the river watching the city become surrounded with a warm orange glow.
There is nothing quite like these views! While the floating villages are commonly seen in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh has its own version called Kompong Chhnang which is much more low-key and not as touristy.
Join in With Local Celebrations
What better way to experience the true Cambodian culture than to join in on local festivals and celebrations? Festivals are our favorite thing to get involved in, it is such an insight into the local customs and traditions of a place.
Obviously, you might not be around for any, but if you are, don’t hesitate to participate! The two biggest festivals are Khmer New Year and Bonn Om Tuk (the water festival). They are both just as fun as each other so embrace them and enjoy the experience.
Another hip capital that’s hopefully made it to your list of must visits! With all its culture, adventure and one crazy food scene, Phnom Penh is a city that offers everything you need and more.
Visit an Animal Sanctuary
Cambodia is home to many elephant and wildlife sanctuaries, so take advantage of the experiences that they offer if you have time. These sanctuaries are dedicated to the rehabilitation and conservation of animals, so you can spend a day feeding them, washing them and trekking with them through their natural habitat.
It’s pretty amazing to see these animals at their best, plus you’re supporting these ethical sanctuaries rather than fuelling the cruel animal parks that Asia have a bad reputation for. While in Cambodia, we recommend to check out the Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary if you want to volunteer your time or even just to interact with elephants in an ethical way.
Related: Riding Elephants: What’s the Big Deal?Safety in Cambodia
Although most places are pretty safe in Southeast Asia, it is still best to remain vigilant, especially at night. There are a lot of children who will approach you and beg for money and although it is up to you if you want to give some money, I recommend that you find a reputable grassroots charity instead.
Transport Around Phnom Penh
We recommend downloading using Bookaway or 12Go website to view bus, boat, and train schedules ahead of time. We’ve used these websites all over Asia and it saves us the hassle of lining up in travel agencies or bus stations
Taxis are plentiful in the city but make sure that they use the meter before even getting in!
Overall, although a pretty grim looking city, Phnom Penh is a must- even just for a few days just to be able to get a better understanding of the Khmer Rouge regime and the atrocities that happened here.