To understand Phnom Penh, you need to understand its history. On April 17, 1975, a vicious military guerilla group led by heinous leader Pol Pot, drove tanks through the streets of Phnom Penh and began a reign of terror over the country. First, they removed families from their homes, separated children from their parents, turned kids into gun wielding-soldiers, and filled labor camps around the country.
The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted doctors, lawyers, artists, teachers and intellectuals- anyone who could think for themselves and possibly revolt. These people were murdered. The Khmer Rouge was in power for just 4 years. By the time the regime fell in 1979, over 2 million people were murdered. That was only 40 years ago. Today, Cambodia is been rebuilding their infrastructure, culture, and government from the ground up. What you’ll experience when you visit Phnom Penh- the former epicenter of the regime- is a city that holds dear to the traditions that survived and a society reinventing itself to push for a better future.
Today, Phnom Penh is a rather safe city full of kindhearted people. While you can still see remnants of Cambodia’s cruel recent history, you can also visit beautiful masterpieces from the country’s rich ancient history and witness the progress that has been made to move forward. There is lots to eat, plenty of shopping to do, lots of relaxing to be had, and so much history to be learned. Don’t hesitate in spending a few rewarding days in this underrated city.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Phnom Penh:
1. The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields are emotional. It’s not a pleasant experience or even an easy one- but if you want to grasp the reality of what happened here in Cambodia, you need to see it with your own eyes.
These fields are where hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were brought and killed. Their bodies were stacked in huge ditches in the ground where their bones still remain. The large pits with human bones and clothing sticking out from the ground have not been staged for dramatics. In fact, when heavy rains fall on these fields, more and more bones tend to rise up out of the earth.
Upon your visit to the field, you’ll be given a headset that will guide you through, painting the picture of the monstrous acts that happened here with narration and personal stories from survivors. Walk silently and respectfully as you take it all in.
Suggested tour: Phnom Penh Killing Fields and S21 Hop-on-Hop-off Joint Tour
2. S21 Prison
When the Khmer Rouge took power in Phnom Penh, they needed a place to gather and brutalize their victims and so they converted a high school into a torture prison. Over 4 years, 14,000 people entered this prison and only 7 survived.
Today, the prison has been turned into a museum with the photos of prisoners on the walls, torture chambers still in place, and stories depicting the reality these victims faced. In some areas of the prison, there are scratch marks on the walls and blood stained into the floor. It’s gruesome but tells an important story.
Outside of the prison, an old man has set up a table with a book he wrote about surviving the S21 prison. He is one of the only survivors and today he bravely tells his story in person.
Many people join their visits to The Killing Fields and the S21 prison into one somber day with a tuk tuk driver and then go for much-needed beers afterwards.
3. Phnom Penh Night Market
After a rouge day of cultural sightseeing, treat yourself to the modern pleasures of Cambodian life at the Phnom Penh Night Market. Interact with cheerful vendors as you sample bites of Cambodian food. You’ll find lots of grilled meat on sticks, noodle soups, dried seafood, and fruit shakes. There will also be drinks. Nearby are plastic tables and chairs where you can gather all your goodies and have a feast.
After you’ve had your fill, wander around to the shopping sections. There is stall after stall selling clothing, jewelry, bags, shoes, dishes, hardware, and a collection of small trinkets that make for perfect souvenirs.
4. National Museum
With ancient artifacts from the 1600s, cultural performances by Khmer dancers, stone busts of Buddhist figures, full statues of Cambodian warriors, models of traditional Khmer houses, clothing and accessories worn by modern day farmers, and more- the National Museum is a comprehensive representation of Khmer culture. Covering ancient times to present day, give yourself a few hours to absorb all of the information presented in the various galleries.
The museum itself is gorgeous, built with dark red clay bricks and roofs that spirals toward the heavens. It is surrounded by a lush green garden providing areas to sit and shade to cool you down. There are also a few pagodas in the garden with gorgeous meditating Buddha statues.
Admission is from $5-$10, depending on whether you opt for the audio guide to take you through the museum.
Recommended tour: Phnom Penh: National Museum, Russian Market & Wat Phnom
5. Daughters of Cambodia Visitor Centre
In Cambodia, the sex trade is still a harsh reality. Daughters of Cambodia Visitor Centre is a place where former victims of sex trafficking have been given a chance to start over by acquiring skills and learning a trade that will lead them to a better life.
Visit the boutique where you can buy souvenirs with a cause. From fashion accessories to children’s toys, every item is handmade by Cambodian workers on the road to a bright future.
Have a seat in the café where chefs in training will whip you up a scrumptious brunch or a decadent dessert while you lounge in the air-conditioned dining room.
Afterwards, women can treat themselves to a much needed massage, manicure and pedicure.
6. The Russian Market
Many tuk tuk drivers will call out to you on the streets offering to take you to the Russian Market. It’s called “The Russian Market” as this was the popular area amongst Russian expats back in the 1980s. You’ll find a few “Russian” things here like Russian dolls and small Russian flags, but the bulk of the selection is classically Cambodian. You can expect to find great souvenirs like silk scarves, spices, woodcarvings, and more.
As one of the largest markets with the widest variety of goods in Phnom Penh, the Russian Market is the best market to visit if you’re short on time as you’ll find a little bit of everything here.
Bring a bottle of water with you as this market tends to tire you out with the heat.
Recommended tour: Phnom Penh: National Museum, Russian Market & Wat Phnom
7. Wildlife Alliance
Rest assured, the Wildlife Alliance is an animal sanctuary and conservation center- not a zoo. Founded in 1995, this non-profit organization has been working around the world to strengthen protected areas and educate communities on conservation. In Cambodia in particular, the alliance works with anti-animal trafficking efforts and towards habitat conservation.
Here in Phnom Penh, you can take a tour with the Wildlife Alliance where you’ll visit a local fruit market to pick up fresh fruit which you’ll then hand feed to a group of rescued elephants. You’ll visit tigers, play with monkeys, and stop by the nursery where a collection of wild animals are undergoing rehabilitation.
A traditional Cambodian lunch is included, as well as pick up and drop off to and from your hotel.
8. Central Market
This huge golden domed market in the center of Phnom Penh has literally every item you could ever want to buy while on vacation. Need sunglasses? They have hundreds. In the market for a knock-off NBA cap? They’ve got every team represented. Looking for children’s clothes to send back to your niece and nephew? Outfit them like an adorable Khmer kid. You could easily spend hours wandering this market.
When you get hungry, they’ve got row after row of Khmer food stands selling fried fish, hot soup, and an array of fried bugs and spiders.
Bring your camera as there are plenty of novel things to see here.
9. ATV Tour
Phnom Penh is the land of dirt roads, so why not explore them the right way? Hop on an ATV and go from city life to village life with the crew over at Village Quad Bike Trails.
The ATV tour starts out in the city where you ride over to the Killing Fields and the S21 prison. After your intense experience here, settle down with a calming and peaceful ride through the rural villages of Phnom Penh. You’ll pass by farmers in the bright green rice paddies, traditional Cambodian houses, cows grazing, kids playing, and birds chirping. You can stop by some village shops to buy some goodies before you head back to base.
The entire tour lasts about 4 hours and you can choose to go on a morning tour or afternoon tour.
Pro Tip: The morning tour will offer lower temperatures in the dry season, and dryer temperatures in the rainy season.
10. The Royal Palace
Built in the 1860’s, this opulent palace has since served as the royal residence in Phnom Penh, discounting a brief point of abandonment during the Khmer Rouge.
On site, there are multiple golden temples and quarters, each more beautiful than the next. The entire complex sits riverside where you can watch motorboats and paddle boats floating on by and capture some great photos of daily river life in Phnom Penh. You’ll get a chance to learn about the history of the royal family in Cambodia and the history of Phnom Penh with the help of informational plaques and guide available on site.
When you visit, dress appropriately for Buddhist culture. Women should cover their knees and shoulders while men should wear shirts with sleeves.
Included in: Best of Phnom Penh: Half-Day Private City Tour
11. Silver Pagoda
This gorgeous Buddhist temple represents the epitome of South East Asian culture. From the shiny golden roof to the monks dressed in bright orange, the Silver Pagoda brings everything you envisioned about Cambodia to life.
Once approaching the entrance of the temple, you’ll realize why this temple is called the “Silver Pagoda”. The floor is covered in 5,000 glittering silver tiles as a gift to Buddha. To protect these tiles, you cannot walk on them but you can look.
Head up the grand staircase and you’ll be led to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha who is sparkling in 2086 diamonds. As if that wasn’t lavish enough, this Buddha sits next to an 80kg bronze Buddha, a pure gold Buddha, and a silver-gold Buddha, each with its own story to tell.
12. Wat Phnom
You won’t find many hills in Phnom Penh, and certainly not many covered in grass and trees. That’s what makes Wat Phnom so special. Sitting atop a 27 meter-high grassy knoll with scattered trees is Wat Phnom, a pagoda that is said to have first been built in the 1300’s. Climb the wide staircase lined with Buddha statues and lions and you’ll be met with a traditional temple with an extraordinary purpose.
Home to 4 statues of Buddha, Wat Phnom now serves as a place for local school kids to pray to Buddha for good marks on their school exams and for gamblers to pray for good luck in the casino. Try it out for yourself- it couldn’t hurt.
Suggested tour: Half Day Royal Palace, National Musuem and Wat Phnom Tour
13. The Old Market
Rise and shine, kiddos. The vendors are up at 5am waiting to sell you some delicious fruit.
The Old Market, also known as Phsar Chas, is an authentic Cambodian market known to the locals as the best produce shopping spot. If you want to taste truly fresh and organic mangoes or jackfruit- this is the place.
Located in the Old French Quarter next to the river, this market is the perfect place to start your morning. Sit on a bench with your fresh finds and watch morning traffic zooming motorbikes and food stalls feeding workers on their way to work.
14. The Olympic Market
If you were thinking of having a dress or custom bed sheets made, then you’re going to need to pick out some fantastic fabrics at the Olympic Market. With three levels and hundreds of fabric stalls, take your time feeling your way through. You can haggle with the vendors and also ask them for advice in choosing the right fabric for your intended design.
You’ll come across a few tailors in the plaza who can create what it is that you’ve dreamed up. If you can’t spot a tailor on your own, ask the fabric vendors where to find one and they’ll point you in the right direction.
Don’t forget to check out some of the food carts that line the market, catering towards the local vendors- this is how you find some of the most authentic Khmer dishes.
15. Friends the Restaurant
Taco Salads, Sun-dried Tomato Hummus, Khmer Style Scotch Egg, Seared Snapper…these are only a few of the gourmet dishes you can dig into at Friends the Restaurant in Phnom Penh.
In addition to having some of the best western food in Phnom Penh, this restaurant serves at a training school for young Cambodians to learn skills in hospitality, cooking, and beyond. Many of these young people come from rough backgrounds, some of whom have even lived on the streets. Now, they have been given an opportunity to create a promising future.
This restaurant in consistent in incredible service by young people who are truly grateful for the opportunity to serve and interact with you.
16. Visit Silk Island
All of those silk scarves and cotton tops you see in the markets around Cambodia- most of them come from Silk Island. Also known as Koh Dach, this small island in the middle of Phnom Penh serves as a unique way to see the rural side of Cambodia without traveling far outside the city.
Many locals here live in traditional Cambodian teak wood houses on dirt roads. You’ll notice that almost every house has a silk spinning machine under their home where women are busy hand-making these gorgeous accessories.
On the island is a silk factory where caterpillars produce silk and staff harvest them. Take a tour by the factory guide and buy silk products for a fraction of the price. Afterwards, ask the locals to point you in the direction of the yummy (and cheap) local riverside restaurant. Have an authentic meal then jump in the river with your clothes on as the locals do.
Bring a bicycle or motorbike as the best way to explore the island.
Related tour: Silk Cruise along the Mekong River from Phnom Penh
17. Sisowath Quay Boardwalk
Visit the boardwalk in the evening and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the orange sun setting over the city. The boardwalk is lined with comfy benches where you can rest as vendors, both adult and adolescent, come up to you selling peanuts, popcorn, beer, coconuts, and more. Keep you beer or soda cans to give to can-collecting kids passing by.
On the main street across from the boardwalk, you’ll find both Khmer and Western restaurants, as well as bars serving ice-cold Ankor beer. There are shops to get your shoes repaired, keys made, passport photos taken, hair cut- the whole lot.
18. Dine in the Dark
Try something new for dinner. Dine in the Dark is a unique concept where you sit in a completely blacked out restaurant while you are served meals in total darkness.
Servers bring you a 4-course meal, which you will never see- only taste. Without sight, your other senses become heightened, creating a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience. All the dishes are gourmet, and vegetarian options are available.
The concept of Dine in the Dark in Phnom Penh is supported by the reality that there are nearly 15,000 blind people in Cambodia who eat this way each and every day. Dine in the Dark is an organization that gives disabled people in Cambodia equal working opportunities while offering guests a rare perspective.
20. Phocea Mekong Cruises
Whether it’s romance you seek or adventure you’re after, there’s no better way to fulfill your desires than a sunset river cruise. Phocea Mekong Cruises has a variety of river cruises on the Mekong to choose from.
The Sunset Cocktail River Cruise offers an onboard BBQ with local ingredients and traditional Khmer sides, along with cocktails and wine. Eat slowly as you pass the Royal Palace and watch the sun go down over the river. This cruise lasts about 2 ½ hours and is perfect for couples and groups.
There are also destination cruises to choose from that take you to places such as the former capitol of Cambodia called Udong, Silk Island, and even multi-day cruises up to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
Recommended cruise: Mekong River Sunset Cocktail Dinner Cruise
21. Bear Care Tour
Sun Bears and Moon Bears are indigenous to Asia, but their habitats are slowly being destroyed. Free the Bears is a sanctuary that focuses on bear habitat conservation and preservation of the species. That means baby bears.
When you visit the center, you can see the happy bears playing in their enclosed forest habitats, and learn what the bears eat. You’ll make snacks for the bears and then hide the snacks within their enclosure for them to forage and find later.
This is an all-day trip from 8am to 5:30pm and includes lunch and transportation.
22. David’s Restaurant – Handmade Noodles
You’ve never had noodles this fresh. Enjoy handmade dumplings and artisan noodles when you dine at David’s Restaurant in Phnom Penh. Ingredients here are super fresh and each meal is made from scratch. The dumpling soup is one of the most popular and most recommended dishes here.
Outside of noodles, the traditional Amok Curry with rice is phenomenal and the fresh spring rolls are a must-try. There is also Cambodian draft beer on tap.
To top it all off, the service in on point and the waiters speak impressive English.
23. Spa Day
With all the tension from traveling and the trauma from the Khmer Rouge information sessions, you deserve to relieve some stress at Bliss Spa Cambodia.
Go all out with a lavish 2-hour experience including a body scrub with Himalayan salts, an aroma massage, and a scalp massage.
For the “Royal Indulgence”, spend 3 hours with an herbal steam treatment, a body scrub, a Balinese massage, and a rejuvenation facial.
There are Khmer Massages, detox treatments, and even massages for babies. This place does it all for great prices, in a truly serene environment and by professional relaxation specialists.
25. Volunteer with CHOICE
The saying goes in Cambodia, “kids are not zoo animals”.
Many visitors come to Cambodia with a good heart and pure intentions to help the needy, particularly children. This, however, has given birth to a profitable industry of orphanage scams. With the influx of western tourists looking to volunteer, hundreds of “orphanages” have popped up and needlessly filled with children. The estimate is that 70% of these children have at least 1 parent and are essentially being rented from their families for western volunteers to play with and unknowingly, exploit.
If you want to make a positive impact during your time in Cambodia, instead, volunteer with trusted and transparent organizations like CHOICE who aim to provide resources to Cambodia’s poorest communities. You can join CHOICE on village trips where they collect water and food and then deliver them to villages in need. No photos and no “playing with the kids” are offered on these trips. Instead, you’ll donate $15 to the organization to keep the resources coming and leave with an insight into how an invisible population struggles to survive in South East Asia.
A rule of thumb for Cambodia: any organization that let’s strangers come and play with their kids does not have the kids’ best intentions in mind.