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14 Things to Do in Phnom Penh

Updated on September 15, 2022
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Mary has lived in Cambodia for a few months each year, working on education projects.

What to do in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has recently revitalized itself as The City of Charm and is growing in chic: old French colonial buildings transformed into fashion houses, restaurants, or boutique hotels; edgy bistros line the riverfront that now has a growing night market; galleries owned by established and budding artists; a vibrant nightlife; and better infrastructure.

In the past, Phnom Penh was an active trading port under French colonial rule from 1863-to 1953. It became the capital of Cambodia in 1866. The city flourished in the 50s and 60s until the Khmer Rouge evacuated it in the mid-70s. In the 80s, Phnom Penh again gained its significance as the country's center and continued to experience rapid change and development.

Foreigners touched by the Penh's charm never leave. The pace of life and the excitement of this rebuilding capital seems to gather them.

Get here soon, or you will miss one of Asia's great bargains as it moves up the cost stairway. Change is happening, and development is fast on its way, so come now while it's still a bit unique and VERY affordable.

Independence Monument in Phnom Penh
Independence Monument in Phnom Penh | Source

1. Stroll in Chaktomuk, the Riverside of Phnom Penh

Chaktomuk is the name used by Cambodians for this riverside area in Phnom Penh where the three rivers meet, the confluence of the four rivers, the Upper Mekong, the Lower Mekong, the Tonle Sap and the Bassac. When you visit Phnom Penh, take a walk or, even better, stay in one of the hotels on Riverside (Sisowath).

As you stroll, take time to visit the Sisowath temple. This temple is very popular with the local Khmer who come and offer lotus flowers, pray and buy some birds they let free.

Riverside is full of life and worth a stroll. There are dozens of stores selling traditionally woven silk and cotton scarves. Restaurants are spilling out into the street, and the range of food is fantastic! Have a drink of the local beer, Anchor or Angkor.

Then, shuffle to the meeting of the rivers and the constant traffic both in the rivers and the streets. There are many al fresco restaurants and bars to enjoy a drink and a pleasant evening.

Cruising the Mekong
Cruising the Mekong | Source

2. Visit the Statue of the Founder of Phnom Penh

The legend about the founding of Phnom Penh tells of an old lady, Duan Penh, living around the 14th century in Chaktomuk. While gathering firewood on the banks of the Chaktomuk, Penh spotted a floating koki tree. She fished this from the water, and inside the tree, she found four statues of Buddha and one of Vishnu.

To honour these statues, Penh built a shrine on a small hill at the site where Wat Phnom is now. Because of this, the area around the hill where Penh built the shrine became known as Phnom Penh. Phnom in Khmer means hill.

To many, this discovery of the sacred statues became a sign that the capital, which was then in Angkor, be moved to Phnom Penh. That is how Phnom Penh became the capital city.

Duan Penh's statue is at Wat Phnom, one of the oldest temples in the city.

Wat in Phnom Penh
Wat in Phnom Penh | Source

3. Visit Phnom Penh's Original Wats or Temples

Phnom Penh has several wats or pagodas or temples, but 5 of these are the most historic. Wat Phnom, the oldest, is an important place of worship for Cambodians who flock to this place daily to offer flowers, food, light incense and prayer.

Wat Langka, as the name suggests, was built not only as a sanctuary for The Holy Writings but as a meeting place between monks from Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Wat Botum is very ornate and houses the towering Buddha's Relic Stupa.

Established in the early 15th century, Wat Koh occupies a prominent place in the city's center.

The city's oldest Buddhist foundation, Wat Ounalom, is home to the Buddhist Patriarch. Located on the riverfront, a popular tourist area, you can quickly go in, and if you're lucky, you can have a peek at some of the Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. You can pray to Buddha, talk to the monks or learn meditation.

4. Ride and Feed Sambo, the Elephant

In Wat Phnom, the oldest Wat, you can Ride Sambo, the Elephant. Don't miss this one. If you don't like to ride, feed him. Sambo just celebrated his 50th birthday last year. He works in Wat Phnom, giving tourists a ride as he walks around the temple amid street traffic. Sambo has lived throughout Phnom Penh's history, and the city has given him a special place to stay close to the river. So, you will see Sambo walk to and from work each day.

Sambo has passed, but other elephants are there to take his place.

The Royal Palace of Cambodia
The Royal Palace of Cambodia | Source

5. Visit the Royal Palace of Cambodia

Spend one full day in and around the Royal Palace and Museum. It's a series of buildings and monuments. These classic old colonial French buildings house exciting relics and royal artifacts.

The Silver Pagoda houses the Emerald Buddha. And don't miss its silver floor tiles. In one of the featured Khmer houses inside the palace grounds, you can try playing Cambodian musical instruments with some of the palace musicians. Dress appropriately (sleeves and pants below the knees) and observe the rules when visiting this place, as some buildings are sacred places and temples where local people come for pilgrimage and worship.

The National Art Museum in Phnom Penh
The National Art Museum in Phnom Penh | Source

6. Have a peek at Cambodian Heritage and Architecture in the National Art Museum

Although Phnom Penh is now seeing many high-rises, it still has some old Khmer homes, and Cambodians have started to preserve some of these ancient relics. Many of the buildings still have traditional details typical of the Khmer style.

The National Museum shows well this Khmer architecture. It is also the best repository of Angkorian artifacts and rare pieces from other periods. Galleries and ateliers where Khmer artists carve traditional stone crafts abound the streets outside. You can buy some original art at incredible prices, too.

But dotting the city also influenced Khmer architecture in its colonial past. French colonial buildings abound near the Royal Palace, the post office square, and the Wat Phnom area. The Royal Palace and Museum, the Post Office, the old Royal Villa, and UNESCO's current office are prominent. To visit one, you can go for dinner at Van's, which was formerly the Banque de l'Indochine. Look on the ground floor for the old bank vault. And don't miss the domed market structure, Phsar Thmey.

7. Watch Traditional Performances - Shadow Puppetry, Apsara Dance and Khmer Music

Phnom Penh has had an active art community under royal patronage, which dwindled during the Khmer Rouge. There is energy in reviving some traditional performances today, including the Apsara dance, shadow puppetry, drama, and circus. Sovanna Phum Art Association offers regular perfomances and proceeds to revive these age-old art traditions.

Go and watch one of these performances. There are several restaurants and theatres where you can go. Even the TukTuk drivers know where to bring you.

The Apsara Dance
The Apsara Dance | Source

8. Jog and Dance at the Parks - Or dance and sing with the locals in the evening

Come to Independence Monument in the morning and enjoy jogging with the locals. While you're there, ask one of the monks begging to bless you on their morning. Make sure to take off your sandals, put your hands together on your chest and bow. Don't forget to give some change.

Come back to the park in the evening and rock yourself with hundreds if not thousands of people dancing to the music. You can join any of the groups.

Independence Park in Phnom Penh
Independence Park in Phnom Penh | Source

9. Shop at the Phsars or Traditional Markets of Phnom Penh

In Khmer, Phsar is a market, and Phnom Penh has great traditional markets that are fun, like the Phsar Toul Tompong (Russian Market) and Phsar Thmey (Central Market). These two are very popular with tourists as they are colourful and filled with better products.

You can find the over-runs from the garment factories, so Gap t-shirts, J Crew, Aeropostale, Abercrombie, the Children's Place, and Eddie Bauer pants abound. There are endless stacks of silk and handwoven cotton scarves, silk fabrics, cushions, bags and accessories.

Amazingly inexpensive, these two markets are part of every tourist itinerary in Phnom Penh. They offer the avid shopper many cheap souvenirs and glimpses of the local culinary culture, from deep-fried cockroaches to sparrow-like Colonel Saunders imitations.

You get even more of this local colour in the even more traditional markets (Olympic, Kandal or O Rousey), not frequented by tourists but just as lively and more colourful as Cambodians buy their everyday needs from these places. When you take a walk in the city, you often come across street or neighbourhood markets. From pots and pans to clothes and shirts and every tropical vegetable and fruit imaginable, they sell them at local prices. But if you are only visiting, try exploring any of the following. AND TAKE YOUR CAMERA!

Phnom Penh Market
Phnom Penh Market | Source

10. Try one of Phnom Penh's Outstanding Restaurants

800. That is the number of registered restaurants in Phnom Penh. But multiply this number by 3 to include the unregistered ones. And every day, more restaurants are opening, attracting customers with significant discounts. Customers are happy, but many restaurant owners are complaining.

Since the government approved a decree on standards for the restaurant industry, the restaurants have kept up. Right now, the food and service in some restaurants are exceptional, and training continues. Have lunch at Friends or dinner at Romdeng. You can see the ones delivering the service identified as teachers or trainees. But, this is not the norm.

Still, the choices for those who are not picky are many. For Khmer food, nothing can beat the ambience and quality at Khmer Surin. For international food, there are several upscale restaurants like Van's located in an old colonial building which used to be a bank, Topaz, Le Residence, Pacharan, Malis, Wine 1 and some of the many restaurants at Naga World. Then, the more trendy choices have increased the streets of BKK. And the familiar ones like the FCC and Comme a la Maison, where you can have breakfast that reminds you of your Mom or Grandma.

For those who are travelling on a budget, not to worry. You can have a hearty plate of noodles or a big bowl of noodle soup for a dollar. Bread, here, is one of the best in the world. Thanks to the French.

And, if you want to learn how to cook Khmer food, go to Frizz at St. 240.

Tuktuk Ride in Phnom Penh
Tuktuk Ride in Phnom Penh | Source

11. Ride a Tuktuk

One of my favourite things to do with guests in Phnom Penh is to take them on a tuk-tuk drive along with the Monument through the palace and the riverfront. If you are lucky, groups will do line dancing amid the multicoloured dancing fountains around the Monument.

From the Monument, go through Naga World as there is always a band in the Lobby of this hotel. However, what is remarkable is going through the park in front of the hotel. You will see many locals sitting with friends around some snacks, singing to the music the band plays inside. What a way to enjoy the evening.

Then, you go through the Royal Palace, which is lighted fully during festivals. Proceed to the riverfront and have a drink at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) to cap the evening. During big feasts, you can sit and enjoy the fireworks.

12. Cruise the Rivers

Three rivers intersect in Phnom Penh, the Mekong, the Bassac and the Tonle Sap. In Sisowath, there are many boats, and you can rent one of these. There is no fixed price, so you need to bargain.

They do serve food in some of these boats, but you can bring your own. It is good to cruise the rivers in the evening as you can take some sunset shots.

River Cruise in Phnom Penh
River Cruise in Phnom Penh | Source
Choueng Ek Memorial, The Killing Fields
Choueng Ek Memorial, The Killing Fields | Source

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13. Visit Choeung Ek Memorial

Fifteen kilometres southwest of Phnom Penh stands the Choeung Ek Memorial, a stupa containing the remains of those killed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. Popularly referred to as the killing field, brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children occurred here.

There is a short documentary showing how the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh and how they marched the people of Phnom Penh to the countryside to learn about the traditional life attached to the land.

The Killing Fields

You must have seen this movie or heard about it. It won three academy awards. This British film on the Khmer Rouge's reign in Cambodia featured the Toul Sleng prison scenes. The film chronicles the experience of a Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran and his American journalist friend, Sydney Schanberg. If you have not seen it, watch it. You will have a peek at what Cambodia went through.

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14. Visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

S-21 Prison

Toul Sleng was a high school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and interrogation facility. Its administrator, Kaing Guek Eav or Duch, is currently under trial by an international tribunal.

The classrooms still have beds and torture instruments. The walls are full of pictures of the Khmer Rouge victims and their suffered torture. It is an unfortunate place to visit.

Mystere et Mekong
Mystere et Mekong | Source

Where to Stay in Phnom Penh

There are many places to stay at all levels of the budget. You can get good value for $20-40 a night or blow the budget in the 5 Stars like Sofitel, Inter-Continental and Raffles Hotel Le Royal, one of Phnom Penh's oldest. Golden Gate, a family-operated hotel, is just one example of a clean and efficient spot.

Also, check out the Frangipani. The other is Villa Langka. It offers excellent value for money as good restaurants and bars abound on Street 278, 282 and the surrounding area. Those strange creatures, the international consultants cluster here in droves. Comme a la Maison is close by for those who like French cuisine and pastry (baguettes to die for). Khmer Surin will make you love local Khmer food.

Options for Getting Around Phnom Penh

There are taxis in the airport waiting for you and tuk-tuks that you can rent. There are now many taxis operating in the city. TukTuks and motodups are still better options, as they give you a full view of the exhilarating life on the Penh's sidewalks. Motodups can be riskier but a lot cheaper.

You can also rent a private car. Some tuk-tuk drivers also have vehicles for rent for the day or even half a day, so take this if you want more comfort.

Green Bikes for Going Around Phnom Penh
Green Bikes for Going Around Phnom Penh | Source

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Mary Norton


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