By Mario Ng
Phnom Penh is often compared unfavourably to Siem Reap, and many visitors often treat the capital as a short stopover before heading towards Siem Reap to see the world-famous Angkor Wat. However, Phnom Penh is more than just a layover, and we have come up with the Top 10 Things to Do in Phnom Penh to prove it!
Find out below what makes Phnom Penh so special, and why it deserves to be treated as a destination in itself! Click on each attraction to find a more detailed write-up on what makes that attraction so unique!
1. THE ROYAL PALACE
The official residence of the King of Cambodia, all Kings have lived in it since the Royal Palace was built in the 1860s. Comprising numerous buildings and stupas, it takes at least two hours to complete the self-guided tour around the complex. Among some of the more famous buildings include the Throne Hall. Where it used to be the place for the King’s military and ministers to discuss issues, it is currently used during religious and royal ceremonies. Check out the statue of King Norodom as well, where he is depicted to be riding a white horse. Known as the first modern Khmer King, he is credited by many to be the one who ensured Cambodia’s survival in the 1800s. A keen follower of the arts, it was he who oversaw the construction of the Silver Pagoda, a building that contains many priceless treasures.
Fun fact: The reason why the Royal Palace is relatively new (less than 200 years old), was due to King Norodom deciding to shift the capital of the country to Phnom Penh in the mid-1800s.
Address: Samdach Sothearos Blvd (3), Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 8am to 5pm daily
Suggested itinerary: Head there first thing in the morning to avoid the heat as the sun rises!
An important place of interest in Phnom Penh, this museum is simply a must-go for all visitors to Phnom Penh. Only less than 40 years ago, the entire country was under siege by Khmer Rouge, who essentially ordered the destruction of the country. This museum tries its best to depict what happened then, and why out of the 17,000 people who were sent here, only 7 walked out alive. The overwhelming majority of those who were sent here were ordinary Cambodians. With all but 7 tortured or sent to their deaths, this prison is a necessary reminder that evil is always lurking around. Visitors to this museum will reflect on the freedom most take for granted, and appreciate the resilience Cambodians possess.
Address: St 113, Phnom Penh 12304, Cambodia
Opening hours: 8am to 5pm daily
Suggested itinerary: Take a tour bus/tuk tuk that brings you to S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields. Tours usually start in the morning and will end by lunch time.
An essential follow-up to the S-21 Prison visit, this place explains what happened to those who survived the torture at the prison. As the name suggests, all who were sent here were executed. Killing methods vary, and it shows the cruelty the soldiers possessed. This place was discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and a decision was taken not to disturb the mass grave, where it is estimated to have nearly 9,000 victims. A Buddhist stupa now stands at the site, built to commemorate the victims.
Address: Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 8am to 5pm daily
Suggested itinerary: This place should be headed to after first visiting the S-21 prison. This will allow a natural flow on the chain of events that occurred some 40 years ago.
Sisowath Quay, or the Riverside, is where all the action happens in Phnom Penh. In the day, it looks just like any other busy road in downtown Phnom Penh. Come evening time, the road is as busy as ever, but with a lot more human traffic. Littered with bars, pubs, and restaurants, all tourists venture to Sisowath Quay to get some food and entertainment. Located by the Royal Palace, many locals also head here to relax and spend a nice evening with their families. At night, simply choose an eatery, or a few, have dinner, and grab a few beers!
Opening hours: Till late
Suggested places to eat: Find out more about our recommended food places in Phnom Penh here!
Not many people are aware that a river cruise is possible, and we highly recommend it! As night falls, the city lights brighten the skies, and it is a beautiful sight. Many boat companies offer river cruises, with various durations, that take you around the Tonle Sap. Some offer food options while others simply provide a boat ride. Regardless of which company you choose, our suggestion is to take a sunset cruise, and enjoy the sights as the sun retire for the night.
Opening hours: Any time of the day till night
Suggested itinerary: A sunset cruise that starts around 5pm, and will usually last till 6.30pm, when it will be dark.
Suggested cruise company: Kanika Cruises
6. PLAE PAKAA
Located on the grounds of the National Museum, Plae Pakaa is a traditional dance show that celebrates Khmer culture. With three different shows alternated depending on the day of the week, one can actually head there more than once if you are keen in local culture. While the shows are spoken and sung in the local language, a brief explanation is provided in English and French before each scene, so you can briefly understand what is going on. For those interested in what Cambodia is all about, you have to watch this show to get a glimpse of the Khmer’s way of life.
Address: National Museum of Cambodia, Preah Ang Eng Street 13, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: Shows start at 7pm and will end by 8pm
Pro tip: Be sure to book your tickets early as shows do sell out. You can either book them online or head to the National Museum to get your tickets, where they have a booth selling them. Good hotel concierges will also be able to help you get your tickets.
As with many other Southeast Asian cities, Phnom Penh also has its fair share of markets to go to. Russian Market is the go-to place to get your souvenirs and fake merchandise. Think t-shirts, paintings, backpacks, and cheap “designer” bags. Evidently, many visitors head to Russian Market to get a taste of some touristy products. If you are game for some street food, Russian Market has got it covered as well, with food stalls selling local delights at really affordable prices!
Address: Street 444, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 6.30am to 5pm
Located in downtown Phnom Penh, Central Market is arguably easier to reach, compared to Russian Market. It is actually a sprawling building that seemingly sells almost everything. From the usual touristy finds to toiletries, from china to shoes, from fake watches to electronic goods, and from jewellery to a wet market, Central Market has got it. It has a large place where many food stalls are located as well. Many locals also eat there, which acts as a vote of confidence on the food sold there. However, the hygiene standards may not be the strictest possible. Be aware of this!
Address: 128 Kampuchea Krom Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 7am to 6pm128 Kampuchea Krom Blvd (128), Phnom Penh, Cambodia
One of the more distinguished structures in Phnom Penh, the Independence Monument was erected in 1958, to celebrate Cambodia's independence in 1953. A stone’s throw away from it is the newly built King Norodom Sihanouk Memorial, which commemorates the King who successfully achieved independence for Cambodia, from France. While they may look “ordinary” in the day, the scene changes at night, as the lights beautify the monuments. It is also at night that locals come out to play, and the nearby boulevard comes alive with many Cambodians having dinner and relaxing under the cool night breeze.
Address: Street 274, Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 24 hours a day
Just beside the Royal Palace, most visitors see both attractions on the same day to maximise their time in Phnom Penh. Many invaluable treasures can be found in this museum, with some artefacts dating all the way back to the prehistoric era. With all the types of prized possessions on display, including bronze, wood, stone, and ceramic sculptures, it is said that the total number of artefacts number at more than 10,000. For cultural enthusiasts, feast your eyes on them! The museum is also an important part of Cambodia’s culture, especially since many prehistoric sites were found in Cambodia itself, giving Cambodia a crucial role in understanding humans’ past, and how we evolved since then. The museum also has a beautiful courtyard, where four ponds were constructed, adding to the calm the museum brings.
Address: Preah Ang Eng Street 13, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 8am to 5pm
Suggested itinerary: Visit the National Museum right after a tour to the Royal Palace. They are beside each other, and a short walk of less than five minutes is required to reach the National Museum. As it is mostly indoors, the warm climate will be kept manageable.
Note: Photography is strictly prohibited in the museum galleries. The courtyard is the only place in the museum where pictures can be taken. Take note and respect this rule!
Published by Mario Ng
Mario enjoys travelling around the world but finds himself visiting the same cities again and again. At this rate, it is unlikely he will travel "around the world" any time soon. He also has a dream to spend one year catching all the Formula 1 races live.