Things to do in Phnom Penh

Things to do in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is the capital city and main transport hub of Cambodia. We found it to be quite modern, developing very quickly, and reminded us of a smaller Bangkok. The majority of the country’s visitors skip Phnom Penh and head straight to Siem Reap which is a shame.  

In this post, you will find our favorite things to do and plenty of tips for your trip to Phnom Penh. We stayed for 3 days in Phnom Penh, but 2 days is definitely more than enough to get a taste of Phnom Penh, a feel for Cambodia and its history.  

How to get there 

There are no direct flights from Belgium to Phnom Penh but there are good connections with Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, and Qatar Airways. 

AirAsia has flights flying to Phnom Penh from literally every major city in South East Asia. We got there with AirAsia from Bangkok. 

Where to stay

We stayed at the Pavilion which we highly recommend! We loved our stay at the Pavilion; it’s a wonderful old boutique hotel, peaceful, beautiful, relaxing, friendly staff, great food. It is in a great location for exploring Phnom Penh. 

Eat noodles as breakfast 

The Cambodians start their day with Num Banh Chok or Khmer noodle soup; Rice noodle served with fish gravy and vegetables. 

We had noodles for breakfast on our first morning in Cambodia and surprisingly loved it. You will see a lot of places with dozens of breakfasting locals hunched over steaming bowls of fresh noodle soup. 

The Royal Palace 

The Royal Palace covers a big area near the riverfront and has various temples and buildings to check out. It’s not as old as you may think, with construction beginning only in 1865 at the behest of the then-King Norodom who had decided to make Phnom Penh his capital. 

The Throne Hall is the main building of the Royal Palace. It’s topped by a 59m-high tower inspired by the Bayon at Angkor. The hall is used for coronations and ceremonies such as the presentation of credentials by diplomats. Many of the items once displayed here were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. 

Sadly you can’t go inside or take photos inside. But you are allowed to peek in the windows. 

The highlight of a visit to the Royal Palace is the Silver Pagoda. The temple is also known as Wat Preah Keo or Temple of the Emerald Buddha is a part of the Royal Palace and included in the ticket. The temple was first built in 1892, but then it was expensively rebuilt in 1962 with a massive amount of gold, silver, and diamonds.

The name of the pagoda comes from the silver floor inside, which has almost 5000 silver tiles weighing over 4 tons. Inside is a series of lavish Buddha statues made of precious metals. 

More than half of the pagoda’s contents were lost, stolen, or destroyed in the turmoil that followed the Vietnamese invasion, but what remains is spectacular! 

Photography is not allowed inside the building. 

Tips: 

  1. There is a strictly enforced dress code for visitors to the Royal Palace. All visitors need to wear shorts that reach to the knees, and a T-shirt or blouse that reaches to the elbows; otherwise you will have to buy a sarong as a covering at the ticket booth. 
  2. There will be people on the street telling you that the Royal Palace is closed today. Due to its short opening hours and the fact it can be closed to the public for Royal events, this may sometimes be true, but it often isn’t true. The scam is really just to try and get you to take a tour with them to somewhere else, the best thing you can do is to go to the entrance gate yourself and check whether the Palace is open or not. 

The Royal Palace is open from 8 am – 11. 30 am and from 2 pm – 5 pm daily, and the entrance fee is 10 USD. You can get to the Royal Palace by tuck-tuck or maybe on foot depending on where you are staying in Phnom Penh. 

National Museum of Cambodia 

The National Museum of Cambodia is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculptures. It’s housed in a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design with an inviting courtyard garden, just north of the Royal Palace. It’s not allowed to photograph inside the museum, you can only make photographs in the central courtyard. 

The National Museum of Cambodia is open from 8 am – 5 pm daily, and the entrance fee is 10 USD. There are also audio guides available in eight languages for 5 USD.  You can get to the National Museum of Cambodia by tuck-tuck or maybe on foot depending on where you are staying in Phnom Penh. 

Visit The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum 

Over the span of 4 years, the Khmer Rouge gathered up millions of people, usually educated ones, and send them to “new houses or training centers”. These were just code names for killing fields or special centers. The most notorious of these centers was the S21 prison in Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng was a secondary school before the Khmer Rouge took power. They transformed the school into a prison; classrooms were divided into small cells, interrogation, and torture rooms. Coils of electric barbed wire were placed along the high walls to make sure no one could escape, and iron bars covered the windows. Around 20 000 people were imprisoned during the time the regime was in power. 

The Tuol Sleng Museum is open from 8 am – 5 pm and the entrance fee is 5 USD, plus 3 USD for the audio guide. You can get to the museum by tuk-tuk from Phnom Penh or maybe on foot depending on where you are staying in the city. 

Read more about The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum here

The Killing Fields 

It is here that between 1975 and 1979 around 17 000 men, women, children, and infants who had been tortured at Tuol Sleng were transported to be killed.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are open from 8 am – 5.30 pm and the entrance fee is 6 USD. This price includes the audio guide. You can get here by tuk-tuk from the Tuol Sleng Museum (45 minutes).

Read more about The Killing Fields here

Wat Phnom 

Built-in 1372, it sits atop the only hill in town which gave Phnom Penh its name, and it is the most important spiritual site in the city. Its ivory white stupa is iconic, various myths and legends surround its origins. 

The main entrance is guarded by lions and mythical serpent beings. Today, many people come here to pray for good luck and success in school exams or business affairs. When a wish is granted, the faithful return to deliver on the offering promised, such as a garland of jasmine flowers or a bunch of bananas (of which the spirits are said to be especially fond). 

Wat Phnom is open from 7 am -6 pm daily, and the entrance fee is 1 USD. You can get to Wat Phnom by tuck-tuck or maybe on foot depending on where you are staying in Phnom Penh. 

Explore the sidestreets 

In truth, the pace of development and modernization within central Phnom Penh is clear down certain boulevards. This means that the pockets of poetry and serendipity are best found by following your curiosity down the side streets, the back streets, and in the hustle and bustle of the markets dotted around the neighborhoods. 

We loved the Urban vibe; colors, movement, and fragments of managed confusion with fading French quarters or stacked iron balconies as a backdrop. 

Tip: It’s important to know that rapid bag snatches are an issue in Phnom Penh. We advise you to take precautions when you are going out with your backpack, camera, and phone. 

The Central Market 

This pale lemon-yellow Art Deco building is an architectural highlight of Phnom Penh. The building is designed and built by the french in 1930, right in the middle of their period of colonial rule over Cambodia. 

Here you can buy fake designer watches, clothes, genie lamps, and other fascinating things. The Central Market is also a good place to have breakfast or lunch at one of the many food stalls. 

The Central Market is open from 6.30 am – 5.30 pm daily. You can get to the Central Market by tuck-tuck or maybe on foot depending on where you are staying in Phnom Penh. 

The Russian Market 

This is the place to buy souvenirs like miniature Buddhas, woodcarvings, betel-nut boxes, silks, silver jewelry, musical instruments, and so on. It got the name Russian Market because of the large cohort of Soviet ex-pats that lived and shopped in the area in the 1980s. 

The area around the Russian Market is a hipster’s paradise with various coffee shops, restaurants, and boutiques creating a vibrant scene that contrasts and complements the hectic, authentic local industries in and around the marketplace.

The Russian Market is open from 6 am – 4.30 pm daily. You can get to the Russian Market by tuck-tuck or maybe on foot depending on where you are staying in Phnom Penh.  

Night Market

We loved wandering around the night market and take in the scents of noodles, spring rolls, meat, and vegetarian dishes. It’s popular with tourists, but also very popular with locals. 

Everyone sits down to eat on mats, but remember to take your shoes off before walking on or across them. Behind the food, stalls is a shopping market. 

Pickpocket incidents are not uncommon here, so keep an eye open! 

The Night Market is open from 5 pm – 11 pm daily. You can get to the Night Market by tuck-tuck or maybe on foot depending on where you are staying in Phnom Penh.  

Sisowath Quay and Riverside Area

One of the best things to do in Phnom Penh is mixing with the locals. The riverside area is definitely the best place for it. 

During the day it’s too hot to sit by the riverside, it comes to life later in the cool of the evening. The local families bring picnics, vendors sell ice-cold beer and snacks. We enjoyed hanging out here in the evening! 

Have you ever visited Phnom Penh? 

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