Phnom Penh is a common stop on the way to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. This guide shares what to do in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
Phnom Penh isn’t a very touristy city and most of the sites are linked to the genocide that occurred when the Khmer Rouge was controlling the government – it is heavy and heartbreaking. I saw the Royal Palace, the Killing Fields, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the National Museum, and a traditional dance show in one day and I still had time to spend a couple of hours at the hotel pool.
I think that one full day is plenty of time to spend in Phnom Penh. Make it two days if you want to devote a day to visiting the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, which is excellent.
What to do in Phnom Penh:
Cambodia has a royal family, and the king lives at the Royal Palace. Built in the 1860s when the capital was relocated to Phnom Penh, the palace isn’t just where the king lives, it’s an entire complex of buildings that include a throne hall, the Khemarin Palace, the Moonlight Pavillion (where traditional dances are performed), and royal stupas.
When you visit the Royal Palace, make sure you go into the Silver Pagoda. This pagoda gets its name from the floors which are tiled with squares of silver. Inside you will find a statue of Buddha made of gold and diamonds, and a statue of Buddha carved out of emerald.
The National Museum is home to statues, sculptures, and works of art that have been moved out of Cambodian temples. The museum is able to protect these pieces of history from weather and preserve them for generations to come.
Visiting the museum gave me insight into both Hinduism and Buddhism. My guide explained how the statues of Buddha is different poses all have their own meaning, and he taught me about the different deities within the Hindu faith.
This Buddhist temple was built in 1327 and is at the top of a manmade hill. According to local legend, a woman named Penh found four statues of Buddha in a koki tree. Penh constructed the temple to house these statues. Throughout the following centuries, the structure has been changed and rebuilt.
Wat Phnom has a large staircase leading to the temple, a temple with figures of Buddha, stupas, and a shrine to Lady Penh.
Cambodian Living Arts Dance Show
This is the best thing that I did in Phnom Penh. I absolutely loved it, and when you go, you are supporting an organization that is working with the master artists to pass down their craft. Artists were targeted by the Khmer Rouge, so it is important that organizations like Cambodian Living Arts work to revive and preserve these important parts of Cambodian culture.
The hour-long show combined traditional dance and music with stories of Cambodia’s culture and religion and mythology. Make sure you read the program so that you can fully understand the stories being told.
The highlight was the Apsara dance, a classical Khmer dance that represents Apsara the female spirit of the clouds and waters. Apsara dances wear golden headdresses and move in poses based on the images of Apsara depicted in the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat. Even if you aren’t into dance, I think that you will be mesmerized by the gorgeous costumes and the distinct style of dance.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and won the Cambodian Civil War. From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge forced people out of cities, killed anyone they thought might be a threat (including teachers and anyone with an education), and ultimately 25% of the country’s population perished. They carried out torture and executions and their policies lead to famine and death by preventable diseases. By the time the Khmer Rouge lost control of the country, Cambodia’s infrastructure was decimated. There were no schools or hospitals.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide museum stands as a record of the abuse Cambodian citizens endured during the Khmer Rouge. The museum located in a school that the Khmer Rouge closed and turned into S-21 a prison known for brutal torture. Classrooms were converted into tiny cells with brick walls – Alcatraz looks fancy in comparison.
The saddest thing might have been the chalkboard with faded writing on it, one of the only things remains from the time the building was a school.
Prisoners who survived S-21 were brought to the Killing Fields where they were beaten to death under the cover of darkness and then buried in mass graves. It is one of the most heart-wrenching places that I have ever been to.
Heavy rains bring bits of clothing in the mass graves to the surface, and seeing the rags of clothing across the ground was hard to see.
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center
On my second day in Phnom Penh, I took a day trip that took me to this wildlife center that is run by the Wildlife Alliance, a US-based NGO. The organization is devoted to rescuing native Cambodian animals and they are able to release 80% of the animals they treat back into the wild.
They rescue animals that have been found injured in the wild, animals that have been confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade and pet markets and animals that were poorly treated by zoos. In addition to running the wildlife center, Wildlife Alliance also has a team of rangers that patrol forestland and remove illegal snare traps.
The highlight of the day was getting to meet the four elephants that they care for. Lucky was found abandoned in the jungle when she was six months old, and she was unable to care for herself. She’s well behaved and allowed to wander around the property so we joined her for a walk and then fed her watermelon.
Next, we meet Chhouk, an elephant that was found in the jungle with a severed foot. The Wildlife Alliance nursed him back to health and then had a prosthetic foot made for him. Now he is happy and healthy and he spends his days hanging out with Lucky.
After hanging out with elephants, we toured the rest of the center. We saw tigers, leopards, monkeys, and gibbons, and I learned what a binturong is – it looks like a nightmarish cross between a bear cub and a raccoon.
The tour of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center lasted a full day, and I really enjoyed it and I was happy to be supporting an organization that improves the lives of so many animals.
Heads up, if you are also going to Siem Reap I would suggest skipping this market and going to the market in Siem Reap which is better.
Where to Eat in Phnom Penh:
This restaurant is run by students who are gaining training in hospitality and the culinary arts. They serve a mix of Asian and Western foods at very affordable prices.
Ma Ma Thai
Thai food is very popular in Cambodia since Thailand is just next door. Ma Ma Thai is a popular Thai place and it is affordable and very good. It also has air-conditioned rooms!
Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC)
Located right on the river and in an area filled with bars and restaurants, FFC is a bit more mellow and sophisticated than its neighbors. The large menu has lots of variety and you will find a mix of foods from all over the world. Even if you don’t want to have dinner there, stop and have a cocktail on the rooftop.
Please avoid the Phnom Penh Safari. They do not treat animals ethically and it is more of a circus than a safari. They use bull hooks on elephants and they run orangutan fights.
What to Know Before You Go:
You Will Need a Visa
You can get it on arrival or you can pre-register to save you some time. Bring passport photos and US Dollars to pay the fee. If you are arriving by boat from Vietnam you can’t pre-register for a visa, but the ferries have guides that walk you through the process of getting a visa.
Pack US Dollars
US Dollars are accepted everywhere. I recommend bringing at least $100 in fives and one dollar bills. It will make things easier, and tuk-tuk drivers can’t always change larger bills.
Plan on Taking Tuk-tuks
Phnom Penh is one of the least walkable places I have been. They used the sidewalks to park cars and motorbikes! This means that there is no space for pedestrians to walk and you are forced to walk in the street, and the streets are chaotic. I highly recommend taking a tuk-tuk instead of walking. A tuk-tuk will cost $3-$5.
It is HOT
Cambodia is a hot and sweaty place to visit. In the afternoon most people rest and avoid the heat. You might want to book a hotel with a pool so that you can cool off there in the afternoons. I visited in May and it was 90-95 degrees every day.
Hinduism and Buddhism Co-exist
Locals explained that while the majority of the country practices Buddhism, they still weave Hinduism into their religious practice. One person said that she is 80% Buddhist and 20% Hindu. You will often see Buddism and Hinduism side by side in Cambodia. One reason is that some temples were created for one religion and then converted and used by the other. For example, Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, but it was later converted to a Buddhist temple. When you visit you will see Hindu carvings on the wall beside statues of Buddha. I wanted to explain this here since I found it a little confusing at first.