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At the junction of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers lies a city with a tortured past that is emerging as Asia’s premier capital of cool. Here’s our guide to the best things to do in Phnom Penh.


By: Paul Healy |
Published: 5 Apr 2024

Phnom Penh is one of our favourite cities in southeast Asia.

Dusty, but leafy streets give it a lovely village-like feel while grand palaces and world-class museums position Phnom Penh as a modern international city.

But it also has a long and painful history. Cambodia’s harrowing past is bought to life in meaningful memorials that, while confronting, are important in understanding the compelling resistance of the Cambodian people.

Phnom Penh has all the intensity of Asian culture in a town that can be both quiet and hectic, chilled yet buzzing with atmosphere.

Here are all our favourite things to do in Phnom Penh.  

1. SOSORO MUSEUM

The Cambodian Museum of Economy and Money, the Sosoro Museum, provides a unique perspective of the tenuous link between money, politics and power.

It’s a fascinating, well-organised museum and the highlight of our visit to Phnom Penh.

The story starts with an early 7th-century coin discovered in the Russian Market in 2012, providing proof that ancient Angkor societies used money.

From here, the exhibition covers the story of Cambodia through finance, trade, economics and politics. The best section is the history of the last 150 years which shows just how far Cambodia has come over the last few decades.

If you only visit one museum in Phnom Penh, this is definitely the one.

2. TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM (S-21)

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was the largest torture centre of the Khmer Rouge where 12,000 people were tortured and murdered.

The former high school was the height of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. When liberated by Vietnam, there were only 7 people left alive at Tuol Sleng. Photographs of those tortured and killed as Vietnam advanced on the city remain on the walls to this day.

As with many genocidal regimes, the Khmer Rouge documented their insanity in great detail. Thousands of B&W photos of each prisoner are displayed often before and after torture, along with harrowing descriptions of what they did to them.

Tours used to be given by some of the few survivors. However, there are now only two remaining inmates still alive, Bou Meng and Chum Mey. They are often in the grounds of the museum, selling their books.

We highly recommend getting the audio guide to fully understand this important but harrowing museum. Allow around 2 hours to visit.

3. CHOEUNG EK KILLING FIELDS

The Killing Fields are several sites across Cambodia where more than 1 million people were executed by the Khmer Rouge in state-sponsored genocide.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is one of these killing fields where around 20,000 prisoners from Tuol Sleng were detained, tortured and executed. There are 129 mass graves, spread across 6 acres.

Visiting is a humbling but important experience in understanding the atrocities Cambodia has experienced.

An audio guide provides detailed information about the site, as well as personal accounts from survivors.  

After the tour, visit the Memorial Stupa which contains 9,000 skulls, exhumed at the site, arranged by sex and age.

To get to the Killing Fields organise a Tuk-Tuk driver who will charge around $US15 to take you out, wait and bring you back. Allow about 90 minutes to visit.

4. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CAMBODIA

The National Museum of Cambodia houses the largest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world. It contains sculptures and statues discovered from the Angkor Temples near Siem Reap as well as ceramics and textiles, some of which date from pre-Angkor times.

One of the highlights at the museum is the building itself. Constructed in 1920, it’s a traditional Khmer building with a lovely central courtyard.

If you enter the building and turn left, you’ll see the collection in chronological order.

5. NIGHT MARKET (PSAR REATREY)

The Phnom Penh Night Market is a riverside open air market selling clothing, handbags, fake designer goods and souvenirs.

Past the stalls firmly focused on tourists, there’s a fantastic Cambodia street food market.

Expect to pay around $US1 to $US2 for a steaming bowl of noodle soup, fried rice straight from the wok, or pork skewers, steamed buns and much more.

Grab your food from one of the stalls then either sit on mats in the central space or at table and chairs around the edge. It’s one of the best local eating experiences in Phnom Penh.

The entrance is on Sisowath Quay between street 106 and street 108. The night market is open every night from around 5 pm.

6. ROYAL PALACE & SILVER PAGODA

The Royal Palace is the official residence of the king. It’s a remarkable example of traditional Khmer architecture and well worth a visit on your trip to Phnom Penh.

As a royal residence, many areas are closed to the public, but you can visit the Throne Hall, used for official ceremonies. It has a 59-metre tower inspired by Bayon at Angkor Wat.

The other main highlight in the complex is the Silver Pagoda, named after the silver tiles covering the floor. Don’t miss the murals around the pagoda on the northwest side.

You need to adhere to the dress code to visit the palace which is shorts that reach the knees and shirts that cover elbows. However, we it seemed that the rules were much stricter for women.

7. THE WAT’S OF PHNOM PENH

There are a few temples in Phnom Penh worth visiting on your way past.

The main one is Wat Phnom. Located on the top of a grassy hill (Phnom means hill), Wat Phnom is reached via a staircase adorned with lions and nāga (semi-divine, half-human, half-serpent creatures).

There’s often great atmosphere at the bottom of the stairs with locals purchasing offerings to take to the temple.

It’s $1 to visit and, as with all temples in Cambodia, you need to take your shoes off to enter.

The second wat worth visiting is Wat Ounalom. This is the oldest Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh and the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism. You’ll find lots of monks who live in the complex wandering around. 

8. KOH DACH (SILK ISLAND)

Koh Dach is a small island in the middle of the Mekong River, famous for its silk production.

You can visit on your own steam; however, Silk Island is one of the few attractions we recommend visiting on an organised tour.

Join a boat tour, where you can enjoy a relaxing ride down the river, then learn about the island and its silk traditions from a knowledgeable guide.

You’ll be taken on a quick tour of the school before meeting the woman behind the silk production. Watch them create intricate patterns on traditional looms and follow the silk process from worm to finish scarf.

There are toilets and a small hut selling drinks and snacks. Beer or soft drink is included for free on the boat. Book your Koh Dach tour which takes about 3 hours.

9. PHNOM PENH’S BEST MARKETS

Life in Phnom Penh happens in the markets. No visit would be complete without soaking up the atmosphere of the city’s vibrant markets. They are all a little different but here are the ones we think you should visit.

RUSSIAN MARKET (TUOL TOMPOUNG)

The Russian Market is laid out under a patchwork of tin roofs with hundreds of stalls vying for space underneath. Find everything from fresh food and vegetables to pig’s trotters and spices, car parts and wicker baskets.

Our tip: Visit Tuol Sleng in the morning, walk up to the Russian Market for lunch, then organise a tuk-tuk to go out to the Killing Fields.

ORUSSEY MARKET

Orussey Market is the true local market in Phnom Penh and there were almost no tourists when we were there. It’s spread over 3 floors with clothing and fabrics on the top two and everything you could imagine on the ground floor. It’s a wonderful experience, with stalls stretching as far as the eye can see, but mostly for photo opportunities.   

orussey market phnom penh
ORUSSEY MARKET

CENTRAL MARKET (PSAR THMEI)

The Central Market, often referred to as the New Market is an art deco landmark in Phnom Penh shaped like a giant beehive. The huge domed hall is one of the largest in the world and acts to keep the market as cool as possible. You’ll find jewellery, antique coins and watches, but the fresh food section is best for photography.

Tip: Go in the morning when it’s busiest and have breakfast at the food stalls on the western side.

10. MONUMENTS OF PHNOM PENH

Phnom Penh is a proud city with several monuments to Cambodia’s independence from various occupiers. You don’t need long to see them, but they are worth picking up as you stroll around the city.

Independence Monument – Modelled on the central tower of Angkor Wat, the Independence Monument celebrates Cambodia’s independence from France. The design is beautiful, and it’s surrounded by a park which is a nice place to relax.

Norodom Sihanouk – The 4.5-metre-tall statue of King Norodom Sihanouk is housed under a 27-metre stupa east of the Independence Monument.

Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument – The Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument was built in 1979 by the communist regime that took over after the country was liberated by the Vietnamese.

11. BASSAC LANE & LANGKA LANE

Phnom Penh has a neighborhood vibe with tree-lined streets and cafes housed in ramshackle buildings. Although it maintains the intensity of Asian culture for the most part, there are a few areas specifically aimed at tourists which we loved.

Bassac Lane – Also known as Street 308, Bassac Lane was a quiet residential lane that has been transformed into a hub for eating and drinking. Try White Rabbit for some of the best cocktails in town, Mama Wong for excellent homemade noodles, Yacht Club for stylish cocktails, and Elia Greek Kitchen for some tasty Mediterranean food.

Langka Lane – Just around the corner, Langka Lane is a tiny street with a smart collection of stylish western bars. We loved, GroovyRoom lounge bar, TicTic for stylish cocktails and BattBong, a speakeasy hidden behind a Coca-Cola fridge.

12. SUNSET RIVER CRUISE

A sunset cruise on the Mekong is a very cost-effective way to experience Phnom Penh from the river. See the lights of Phnom Penh fade and get a glimpse of local life from the other side of the Mekong.

All tours include unlimited beer and soft drink plus a seasonal fruit platter. Most will pick you up from your hotel, but you need to find your own way back.

Book your sunset river cruise here.

After the cruise, walk down to the Night market for dinner.

MORE CAMBODIA READIN

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