Once deemed to be ‘The Pearl of Asia’, there are plenty of things to do in Phnom Penh – the war tarnished Cambodian capital. The city has managed to retain its claim as a rising metropolis in comparison to the capitals of the neighboring countries, despite having been reduced to ashes not so long ago.
This busy capital by the Mekong river, despite all the beguiling scenes of mad traffic and exuding of pungent aromas in the backdrop of a cacophony of sounds, is a place you would never want to miss out on should you happen to visit Cambodia.
So just in case you have been deprived of your usual dose of wanderlust, do remember to cover these amazing things to do in Phnom Penh.
Table of Content
- 1 25 Things to do in Phnom Penh for First Time Visitors
- 1.1 Have a Quiet Evening at the Killing Fields
- 1.2 Shop till you Drop at the Central Market
- 1.3 Smoke one up at Dirty old Sailor’s
- 1.4 Take a Sunset Cruise on the Mekong River and spend a night at Floating Bungalows
- 1.5 Visit the local temples
- 1.6 Explore the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
- 1.7 Get clicked at the Independence Monument
- 1.8 Spend an evening at the Cambodian Living Arts
- 1.9 Gulp $1 Angkor beer
- 1.10 Get some respite at the Silk Island
- 1.11 Watch a show at Meta House
- 1.12 Immerse yourself in the grandeur of the National Museum
- 1.13 Spend time with the family at Sisowath Quay
- 1.14 Soak in the Themed Bar Culture at Bassac Lane
- 1.15 Experience the old city at the Post Office Square
- 1.16 Enjoy Marijuana infused Khmer Cuisine
- 1.17 Get Pampered at a Salon
- 1.18 Step away from the mainstream at the Backstreet Academy
- 1.19 Pass time at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall
- 1.20 Stay At The Plantation
- 1.21 Get close to nature at Phnom Tamao Wildlife rescue center
- 1.22 Join a Cooking Class
- 1.23 Take a stroll on the Riverfront
- 1.24 Take a tour to Phnom Udong
- 1.25 Ride a Tuk Tuk
- 2 Phnom Penh Map
25 Things to do in Phnom Penh for First Time Visitors
Have a Quiet Evening at the Killing Fields
There are plenty of places to visit in Phnom Penh but killing fields of Choeung Ek and the S-21 prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) top every travelers dark tourism list.
While the cultural scene of Cambodia can be easily experienced by simply walking the streets and mingling with the locals, the past history can only be understood by paying a visit to these two sites which form a vital part of the history of Phnom Penh, when under the bloody Khmer Rouge regime.
The prison stands as a monument to the many who were imprisoned and murdered, while the killing fields portray a ghastly similarity to the infamous German death camps of World War II. Seeing the remains of the dead may make one feel depressed while visiting the museums, but it is only by doing so can one come to grips with the resilience and strong will power of the Cambodian people.
Just sit quietly on one of the benches at the killing fields with your audio guide (provided at entrance) as you understand the full effect of the mass genocide that this country went through.
A world of warning – a visit to the killing fields is not everyone’s cup of tea. Read about my experience of visiting the Killing fields, which left me feeling both humbled and depressed.
Shop till you Drop at the Central Market
Like any market in Asia, the Central Market in Phnom Penh too mesmerizes visitors with its hues and colors. From local handicrafts to designer outfits, this market is the place which can challenge your haggling skills. Once you have had enough of the shopping fun, just head a few blocks down to the Night Market to gorge on the local cuisine.
Smoke one up at Dirty old Sailor’s
Wondering what to do in Phnom Penh? Well, you can quite honestly never run out of options. Phnom Penh also happens to be a mecca for marijuana lovers. Even though drugs are illegal in the city, you can always head to smokers bars like Dirty Old Sailor’s for your stash of $1 joints. Even if you don’t smoke, its an interesting pub to grab a beer and enjoy your evening or indulge in some “cookies” if edibles are your thing.
Take a Sunset Cruise on the Mekong River and spend a night at Floating Bungalows
The city of Phnom Penh is conveniently located on the confluence of two major rivers Mekong and Tonle Sap. This provides great opportunities to witness the sights of the city from a different perspective – by cruising.
With so many Phnom Penh things to do and see, you will surely be spoilt for options in this bustling city. However, don’t miss this popular sunset river cruise. It takes visitors past the charming floating villages of Kampong Chhnang, while at the same time enjoying a meal and drinks en-route.
End your evening, by spending a night on the Mekong river. Yes! That’s right, you can actually stay in a floating bungalow – Floatation by MAADS, which is totally private space with round the clock staff. I would’ve not enjoyed my hour long sunset cruise if it didn’t end in this lavish floating bungalow.
Want to get a glimpse of how this feels like? Here’s a video of the lovely floating bungalow on the Mekong –
Convinced? Book your stay at Floation here!.
Visit the local temples
Though Cambodia,and in particular the other major city of Siem Reap, are known just for their pagodas and temples, Phnom Penh too has a few which can merit attention. Places like Wat Phnom, Wat Langka, Phnom Chisor, Ta Prohm and Wat Ounalom are all amazing and worth a visit. The Cambodian temples are considered to be very sacred, so one must ensure to cover the knees and shoulders at all times while on the grounds.
Explore the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Covering a massive area of about 175000 square meters, the Royal Palace and the adjacent Silver Pagoda are two of the finest examples of Khmer architecture, making them the top places to visit in Phnom Penh.
For a nominal entry fee, visitors can choose to do the rounds of this breathtaking palace buildings on their own, or with the assistance of knowledgeable guides. The highlights of this occasional residence of the King, include the Moonlight Pavilion and the Throne Hall. Visits to the Silver Pagoda are free of charge. Here visitors get an opportunity to see the 17th century statue of the Emerald Buddha made entirely of Baccarat crystals.
Get clicked at the Independence Monument
This iconic landmark is located in the heart of Phnom Penh and is referred to locally as Vimean Ekareach. Cambodia was colonized by the French for close to a hundred years from 1863 to 1953, and the Independence Monument was erected to commemorate the liberation of the country from the French. The area comes alive on the 9th of November every year, when Cambodia celebrates its Independence Day. Every night the monument and the surrounding areas are illuminated with different colored lights, which give the whole area a captivating look.
Spend an evening at the Cambodian Living Arts
The traditional dances of Khmer date back to hundreds of years and has been kept alive by the non-profit Cambodian Living Arts organisation through sheer dedication and hard work. Shows are held on designated days of the week as well as all weekends at the National Museum grounds. The organisation has over time managed somehow to retain the services of surviving master artists in the field and pass on their expertise to the future generations. The different dances, in traditional Khmer costumes, symbolize the various ethnic minorities from all over the country.
Gulp $1 Angkor beer
$1 for Angkor beer in almost every pub and bar you try in the city ensures you are never thirsty in Phnom Penh. Beer is cheap, good and almost always chilled. Try hostel pubs for a friendly atmosphere and free pool tables.
Get some respite at the Silk Island
Located a short distance day away by road or boat from Phnom Penh, Koh Dach or Silk Island offers visitors a chance to spend a peaceful day away from the complex city life. This island is home to a silk weaving village where visitors can see for themselves how the complete production of silk, right from the silkworm stage, takes place. The center is hardly a kilometer away from the ferry pier and watching the master craftsmen patiently weaving scarves and shirts is a sight to behold.
Watch a show at Meta House
Located at 37, Samdach Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh, Meta House shows a wide variety of interesting documentaries and movies for free, from all over the world, including many from Cambodia, which are quite thought provoking. A unit of the German Cambodian Cultural Center, Meta House gives great insight on the local culture through the Arts Cafe. Guests can enjoy great German food from sausages, hummus pita, lentil salad and flame cakes for a unique dining experience.
Immerse yourself in the grandeur of the National Museum
This Museum occupies centre stage as being one of the largest archaeological and cultural building in Cambodia. The National Museum came into existence in 1920 as Musee Albert Sarraut by the French rulers and display an excellent example of Khmer architecture. The red sandstone building, houses an impressive 14,000 number of exhibits, all arranged according to the ascending ages the country has passed through, right from pre-Angkor period to the present era. The eight arm statue of Lord Vishnu, is the pride of the museum and dates back to the 6th century.
Spend time with the family at Sisowath Quay
Located next to the Royal Palace on the banks of the Mekong, this riverside strip is a popular public commercial and recreational area for many many years. The large number of vendors, shops and eateries here all give this area a touch of colour. The famous water festival of Phnom Penh is held here in mid April and showcases boat races to celebrate the Buddhist New Year. Sisowath Quay is considered one of the poshest neighbourhood of the city, having within its boundaries diplomatic missions and important colonial buildings.
Soak in the Themed Bar Culture at Bassac Lane
Bassac lane was surely one of the my top spots to enjoy Phnom penh’s bustling night life scene. It is a small quaint area with lovely themed bars like The Library (library themed and yes with actual books), Hangar 44 (motorbike theme) and the lovely cowboy themed bar we flocked to, which felt like stepping into a classic western flick!
Experience the old city at the Post Office Square
The Post Office Square, made famous by the movie City of Ghosts, is the last surviving area where one can get a peep of Phnom Penh of the old. The Post Office building came into existence in 1890, and has other good examples of colonial architecture in the surrounding area. This place also happened to be the heart of the French Quarter, where all the commercial and business transactions used to take place. The abandoned vaults of the erstwhile Indochina Bank can still be seen as one heads up the stairs to the popular Van’s Restaurant which has since taken up the place. The former dilapidated police station or Commissariat can still be seen to the north of the square.
Enjoy Marijuana infused Khmer Cuisine
Khmer cuisine has a secret ingredient – Marijuana. It could be a myth but I have certainly felt ‘happier’ after every meal. Oh well, I love food so every meal makes me happy in any case. However, if you are wondering about what to eat in Phnom Penh, then a “happy pizza” should be on your list – Just for the experience of it. Word of warning – This might get you stoned out of your mind!
Get Pampered at a Salon
I don’t usually pamper myself (Apart from massages) on my travels but salons in Phnom Penh are cheap and good. You can spend an entire day indulging in some “me-time” without breaking the bank and looking like a million dollars at the end of it. Worth it? Hell yeah!
I would recommend the New jack holt beauty salon for cost effective and quality salon services in Phnom Penh.
Step away from the mainstream at the Backstreet Academy
Though there are a plethora of places to see in Phnom Penh, a few hidden gems can only be found in the charming backstreets of the city. The Backstreet Academy is for those who want to experience Phnom Penh through the eyes of a local who has spent years perfecting this art. Unlike other tourist outlets, this academy primarily aims at providing a unique and authentic experience, be it Cambodian boxing or fishing on the Mekong with a local fisherman from his house.
Pass time at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall
Designed by the well known architect Vann Molyvann, the Chaktomuk Conference Hall was inaugurated in 1961 and is currently located at Sisowath Quay. From a restaurant to a theater and ultimately as a center for international conferences, the Hall has witnessed many changes. Today the Hall acts as a convenient place to host lectures and activities related to performing arts. The architectural splendor of the building has made it a leading attraction for tourists to Phnom Penh.
Stay At The Plantation
For the best lounge style swimming pool and quaint boutique sleeps – The Plantation is the answer. I simply loved my stay here and being centrally located, this lovely hotel is perfect for travelers looking to experience Phnom Penh in style and comfort.
Get close to nature at Phnom Tamao Wildlife rescue center
This is a must visit place for nature and animal lovers. As the name suggests, the Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center was established to save the abandoned and mistreated animals. The center has been doing yeoman service for animals since its establishment in 1995. The center is situated 25 km from Phnom Penh and offers visitors a unique interactive experience with animals.
Join a Cooking Class
This is one of the most exciting thing to do in Phnom Penh for those who love to cook. Local cooking class tours are held from early morning every day, starting with a 0900 hrs pickup from your hotel. The course includes a trip to the local market for purchase of fresh produce, followed by preparing special dishes under guidance of the Cambodian Chef and a drop back to your hotel hotel.
Take a stroll on the Riverfront
After a lovely day exploring the city, you might wonder about what to see in Phnom Penh in evenings? The Riverfront and the adjoining park are considered to be one of the leading attractions of Phnom Penh and a paradise for tourists, especially in later hours of the day. The Park area is lined with pubs, shopping outlets and restaurants and is open throughout the day. The area offers superb views of the confluence of the city’s two major water bodies, the Mekong river and the Tonle Sap lake in the background of the Royal Palace.
Take a tour to Phnom Udong
The word Phnom translates to mountain in English, so if you are a fan of the mountains then head to Mount Udong. The province of Udong used to serve as the capital of Cambodia, prior to Phnom Penh, for close to 250 years. Though the Udong region has paled in significance these days, there are still a number of humps of the mountain that attract visitors till today. This is due to the different stupas which have set root in these humps and house a number of important relics, statues and figures pertaining to Lord Buddha.
Ride a Tuk Tuk
Your visit to Phnom Penh is incomplete if you haven’t taken a ride on the local tuk-tuks. You will be hassled by the drivers if you step out anywhere on foot. Sometimes, you can simply indulge in a lovely $5 ride to the riverfront or agree to go around town, just for the experience of it. I prefer to walk around town but few attractions are quite far and tuk tuks are a great way to commute on a budget. For example, a trip to the killing fields and prison can easily be done via Tuk Tuk for $30 for half a day.
Phnom Penh Map
Here’s a simple Phnom Penh city map highlighting all major districts in the capital –
So have your been to this ‘Pearl of Asia’? Tell me your favorite things to do in Phnom Penh in comments below.