The highlights of Phnom Penh – Cambodia

Far from the gleaming skyscrapers of modern Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is a dusty and edgy yet somewhat enchanting city of crumbling colonial architecture, wide boulevards and chaotic markets.

Phnom Penh riverside at dusk Photo: judithbluepool of Flickr

Phnom Penh riverside at dusk

It is gradually modernising, with a few contemporary skyscrapers appearing on the skyline and the popular riverside promenade (Sisowath Quay) now lined with lively cafés, juice bars, hostels, hotels and restaurants – many of them filled with backpackers and other travellers. Despite that, however, Phnom Penh still has an edge and atmosphere found in few other Southeast Asian capitals. Some elements of the city are quite charming, such as the ramshackle market stalls and historic temples, while others can prove to be quite the opposite: tiny children gathering recycling from bins to make a few Riel for their family, and amputee beggars vying for tourists’ pockets.

While most visits to the city are trouble-free, always watch your pockets and bags as there is a great deal of poverty in Phnom Penh that gives rise to opportunist theft. At the same time, look after your health by following the usual travel health tips such as avoiding ice in drinks (unless it’s from a trusted source) and always using a good mosquito repellent , particularly from dusk onwards, to protect yourself against malaria and dengue fever.

Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh Photo: Kirk Siang on Flickr

Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The main tourist sights of Phnom Penh

Dominating the city centre’s sightseeing attractions is the 19th century Royal Palace, including the fabulous Palace Grounds, Silver Pagoda and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It’s open from 8am, and this is the best time to visit to avoid the heat. You’ll need to wear something decent to cover legs and shoulders, or you can hire a sarong and large t-shirt for a small fee at the entrance.

Another central sight is the National Museum of Cambodia, which features an interesting collection of art from Cambodia’s ‘Golden Age’ of Angkor, alongside statues of Hindu Gods, ancient inscribed tablets and prehistoric burial artefacts. At its centre there is a lovely courtyard with a statue of Yama, the Hindu god of death (or the ‘Leper King’) taken from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Archaeological Park.

Garden at the National Museum of Cambodia Photo:  mookE on Flickr

Garden at the National Museum of Cambodia

A must-see sight for anyone who wants to better understand Cambodia’s horrific past during the Khmer Rouge’s  four-year campaign of terror is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This school, which was converted into the country’s most notorious prison (‘S21’) in 1975, housed more than 14,000 people who were tortured and then killed and buried at the Killing Fields just outside of the city. Only eight prisoners made it out of the prison alive.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Photo: timmarec of Flickr

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

You can hire a taxi or tuk-tuk for the 17km trip out of town to the tranquil yet moving Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A glass-sided Buddhist stupa containing thousands of human skulls lies at the heart of the mass graves that were discovered in 1979.

Perhaps one of the city’s most bizarre attractions, which commission-earning tuk-tuk drivers will be quick to tell you about and encourage you to visit, is the Thunder Ranch Shooting Range. Situated near the Killing Fields, it is said to be run by a unit of the Royal Cambodian Army, and for a relatively high fee you can try shooting pistols or machine guns at paper targets. Many tuk-tuk drivers will try to include it in a ‘package’ with the Killing Fields, but if you don’t want to go there just make it clear that you’re not interested.

And relax…

After a hard day’s sightseeing, treat your aching limbs to a massage – there are plenty of spa places around the main tourist areas, prices are cheap, and the massage is generally very relaxing.

This post is brought to you by  Gap Year Travel Store – where you can find equipment for backpackers and independent travellers

Photo credits: Phnom Penh riverside by judithbluepool, Silver Pagoda by Kirk Siang, National Museum Garden by mookE, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum by timmarec.

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  • Reply
    Barbara Weibel
    August 17, 2012 at 1:25 am

    I just returned from Phnom Penh – I also found it a very interesting city, full of contrasts.
    Barbara Weibel´s last blog post ..PHOTO: Ceramic decorated Stupas at Wat Pho, Bangkok

  • Reply
    August 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Wow, looks incredible! Really need to get to Phnom Penh – and learn to spell it without looking up actually 🙂
    Vicky´s last blog post ..Creative Ways to Make Money for Travelling

    • Reply
      August 20, 2012 at 7:14 pm

      @Vicky Yes I struggle with the spelling too – but I it’s somewhere that would really repay a visit

  • Reply
    Elle of Solo Female Nomad
    August 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Your post made me realise that a visit to Phnom Penh is long overdue! The sights look incredible; although, must admit the cheap spas is pulling me too.
    Elle of Solo Female Nomad´s last blog post ..Chania: Crete’s Most Beautiful City

    • Reply
      August 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      @Elle Yes – there are plenty of great things to see there – a fascinating mixture of experiences

  • Reply
    August 27, 2012 at 8:12 am

    I really loved Phnom Penh. Like Barbara says, a city of contrasts. Tuol Sleng and the young beggars on the street are confronting but despite that the city had a really nice vibe. Tuol Sleng and Cheung Ek are must visits to understand the complex history of this country.
    Rebecca´s last blog post ..Sunset in Dallas

    • Reply
      August 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm

      @Rebecca Thanks – it’s a city that sounds fascinating if a little challenging

  • Reply
    Emma Becker
    March 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I am going to Cambodia on September this year. Besides Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are also listed to be visited. But still I have a question about a hotel you might have seen during your visit in Siem Reap. I booked the following hotel: Tara Angkor Hotel. You know if it is a good hotel? I heard good stories about it. What are the best attractions to visit in Siem Reap and in the surrounding?

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      March 13, 2013 at 5:06 pm

      @Emma I haven’t yet visited Cambodia, as this article was a guest post. I recommend you take a look at http://holeinthedonut.com/ who has visited Cambodia fairly recently and you may find some ideas for things you would enjoy in her articles. With regard to the hotel, I don’t have any knowledge of the one you mention, however, I normally take a look at Tripadvisor when deciding which hotel to book. Don’t just take the ratings at face value but read through the comments to identify any things that might be an issue for you.

  • Reply
    Emma Becker
    March 22, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Dear Heather,

    Thank you for responding. I had a look at the link you send me, and it was helpful. I wanted to hear some different opinions about Siem Reap and their restaurants. Of course in the end I will look at the reviews, but I think people told me a lot already.

  • Reply
    May 15, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Hello Emma,
    I read your message and wanted to help you, because I have been in Siem Reap a lot of times. The Tara Angkor hotel is a beautiful hotel and is ideally and conveniently located, Tara Angkor Hotel is situated only 6 km from the Angkor Wat Temples, 15 min drive from the Siem Reap International Airport, a few minutes stroll to the Angkor National Museum and a short ride to the city town center with an array of Cambodian souvenirs, shopping and culture. They have a few promotions that you can make use of if you haven’t booked already: Last minute bookings, summer sales, early bird promotion or Angkor temptations. Of course there are a lot more, but have a look at their website. It is not that far to the Angkor temples that I would advise you to see for sure. I would say, grab yourself a 3 day pass and find yourself a decent tuk tuk driver to take you to the farther ruins and for a drive in some of the outlying villages. If you’re up for it consider renting a bike and checking out Angkor Wat on your own. There’s a lot to see and do so a lot depends on your time and budget. A few temples I would strongly suggest you check out besides Angkor Wat itself are Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom and of course Ta Prohm just to see the amazing tree. The Banteay Srei temple is farther out of Siem Reap but has a very different feel than a lot of the others. If you want to do something else as well, you can visit the day and night market. I can really recommend these attractions. If you need to know more, let me know.

    • Reply
      Heather Cowper
      May 15, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      @Molly Thanks for taking the time to leave these additional tips

  • Reply
    November 18, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Nice post there Heather. I also travel Cambodia and enjoyed the people and the places and especially enjoyed the art and dance the Khmer people hold so closely to their hearts. Then i went to Phnom Penh and done the S21 and killing fields and at the same time read the book “first they killed my father”. It was a hard 2 weeks and i shed some tears but it amazed me how happy the people there are. beautiful country. Thanks for documenting. Dave (also from Bristol)

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