Phnom Penh Has Many Things to Do
So, you’re going to Southeast Asia? Maybe you’re finally making it to Bangkok. Perhaps you’re checking Angkor Wat off your bucket list or going to some of Thailand’s world-famous beaches. Or possibly you’ve planned a road trip up the Vietnamese coast.
Whatever your plan, it’s recommended giving this up-and-coming city a second or, perhaps, first look. Why? There are so many undiscovered and exciting things to do in Phnom Penh.
The vibrant capital of Cambodia is definitely not lacking in activities. It’s 1.5 million residents, the charming Riverside Path, and numerous markets give this city a distinctly Southeast Asian vibe. But the former Pearl of Asia offers more than what simply meets the eye. Authentically Cambodian and out to prove itself as a destination, Phnom Penh captivates travelers with its bustling food scene and beautiful Colonial French architecture and educates those willing to seek out its sobering homages to its dark history. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat may represent Cambodia’s visual appeal, but Cambodia’s heart and identity beat from its capital. While Phnom Penh lies in the shadow of Siem Reap & Angkor Wat, the city rewards visitors with an unspoiled perspective into Khmer culture and identity. Then, there is the entrepreneurial hustle and passion for the future that can be felt in every corner of the city. So, to help you figure out if Phnom Penh should be on your itinerary, here are The Top 8 Things to do in Phnom Penh. And if you have several days to spend there check out Loredana Elena’s post for a 3 day Phnom Penh Itinerary.
8 Things to Do in Phnom Penh
The Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
The quintessential attraction in Phnom Penh, overlooking the intersection of the roaring Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, is the brilliantly beautiful Royal Palace, home of the current king. The Decadent Royal Palace displays a unique blend of Khmer and French architecture and represents a piece of architectural history. Visitors can see the throne hall area and can wander around the palace grounds – something not to be missed as decadent gold artifacts and unique French-inspired, Khmer influenced architectural accents can be seen in just about every nook and cranny.
Located in the middle of the tourist zone the Royal Palace is easy to find, and you’ll likely see it on the way to one sight or another. There are several ways to enter the Palace, giving visitors the chance to see its illustrious decadence first hand with an admission of about $10 or 40,000 Reil. The Throne Hall, once a place Royals considered an HQ, is stunningly decorated in gold, gold and more gold. The difficult to miss Moonlight Pavilion is visible from the street and sits adjacent to some simple and well-sculpted gardens, serving as a stage for traditional ceremonies usually involving music and dance.
It’s definitely one of the most significant Khmer monuments left standing, untouched by Pol Pot’s regime as it was used for propaganda. Don’t miss the Silver Pagoda on the south side of the compound to see a nice collection of historical treasures and a 700kg silver floor – but make sure you take off your shoes and any hats! Beautiful gardens, glorious architecture, well-balanced Feng Shui, and cultural significance are all reasons to stop by this Palace, soak in the royal vibes, and snap a picture.
How to Get to The Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
These architectural monuments sit right along the Riverside Path. Hail one of the many Tuk-Tuk drivers and tell them you want to see the Royal Palace – they’ll know what you’re talking about.
Note that Phnom Penh is a bit rougher around the edges than Siem Reap. Your Tuk-Tuk drivers will be experts at negotiating high fares. Feel free to bargain heavily!
When to Go to The Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
For the best pictures and most appealing visual experience, go right before they close (5 pm) for optimal lighting. You may find more people visiting at that time, but its never too many (one of the great things about cities off-the-radar like Phnom Penh). The gold glistening in the late afternoon sun is a sight to see, and will certainly put your camera to work.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
(Reader Discretion Advised)
Choeung Ek, also known as The Killing Fields, is one of the most sobering sights in the world, paying homage to some of the millions of people killed in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and Genocidal regime. A short Tuk-Tuk ride outside the city, the grounds of Choeung Ek are a mass grave open to the public. The Cambodian government encourages tourists to visit for the purposes of spreading awareness to the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge. Roughly 9,000 people are buried at this site, one of nearly 300 “Killing Fields” spread throughout Cambodia.
Upon arriving, paying the 6$ admissions fee and picking up a headset, a voice recorded tour commences guiding visitors around the site, stopping to explain the history of the site at various points. The tour explains that the land and facilities here were used to execute educated Cambodians in Pol Pot’s attempt to create an agrarian society. Throughout the tour, visitors learn who Pol Pot was and how this horrible atrocity took place. At the end of the tour sits a monument with thousands of skulls.
While this site is definitely not for many, for those finding it important to see, it takes about 20 minutes by Tuk-Tuk to get to and you spend roughly 30-45 minutes on the voice-guided tour. There has been controversy regarding the ethics of ‘Genocide Tourism’, which is why it is up to you how you interpret it to inform whether you make a visit or not. Nevertheless, The Khmer Rouge is one of human history’s darkest hours and one that millions of Cambodians will never forget.
How to Get to Choeung Ek
Any Tuk-Tuk driver will be willing to take you there as it will likely be their largest fare of the day. It costs about $15-$20 to be taken there and back (your driver will wait for you at a nearby café). Be careful of scams, as many Tuk-Tuk drivers will try and claim that the fare was only a one-way fare upon bringing you back – Do not fall for this.
When to go to Choeung Ek
The least crowded time is likely in the morning, but the sight generally has a steady stream of international and domestic visitors at any given time during the day. Choeung Ek is open from 7:30 am – 5:30 pm.
The National Museum of Cambodia
One of the great things to do in Phnom Penh is visiting the National Museum of Cambodia. Directly next to The Royal Palace and the Riverside Path (which makes the perfect day itinerary), this museum displays some incredible artifacts of Khmer culture and Cambodian history.
One of the best parts of the National Museum of Cambodia is the gift shop, where you can buy a variety of awesome Cambodian artwork and sculptures at reasonable prices, making great gifts for family and friends back home. The Museum captivates visitors not only because it houses one of the world’s largest Khmer art collections, but the museum itself is a picturesque building on a beautiful plot of land, just north of The Royal Palace.
Anyone interested in a history lesson, including many pieces from before and after the Khmer Empire, should absolutely visit this wonderful museum. It’s one of the highest-rated things to do in Phnom Penh. This is Cambodia’s main state-run museum.
How to Get to The National Museum of Cambodia
A simple Tuk-Tuk ride from your hotel will be a cheap and affordable way to get to The National Museum of Cambodia. Located adjacent to The Royal Palace and The Riverside Path, every Tuk-Tuk driver in town will know where to go if you tell them to go to The National Museum of Cambodia or The Royal Palace.
When to Go to The National Museum of Cambodia
The Museum is open from 8 am to 5 pm. Best to go right before you go to The Royal Palace, so you can see the Palace and all it’s golden glory right as the sun is at its lowest (and most golden) point. Go around 3 pm, spend an hour and head on over to The Royal Palace.
The Riverside Path (Sisowath Quay)
If this is your only chance to see the mighty Mekong River, then this is an absolute must-see attraction. Beyond that, the Riverside Path is a promenade right along the end of the Tonle Sap River (right where it hits the Mekong) hosting numerous restaurants, bars, a pretty view, and lovely examples of French colonial architecture. On one end you have The Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda. Walk about a third of a mile (after you visit The Royal Palace) and you’ll hit the other end where, at sunset, you’re able to hit up a fantastic market that usually plays live music accompanied by local dance performances.
If you’re hungry, there are a ton of excellent sit-down restaurants along The Riverside Path and on the street over from the Riverside Path, marking the center of Phnom Penh’s Food scene. One great restaurant combining Khmer Cuisine and French is Metro Hassakan – definitely check it out if you’re looking to grab a bite and look at the pleasant view. The Path is a bit of a destination for folks to come to hang out with kids playing football (soccer) and couples on walks. It’s touristy but pleasant.
It’s the perfect thing to do in Phnom Penh in between The Royal Palace and The National Museum of Cambodia. Lined with a seemingly specific number of flags from countries around the world, it’s the place in Phnom Penh for a relaxing stroll as the busy nightlife begins to come alive.
How to Get to The Riverside Path (Sisowath Quay)
The Royal Palace and The Riverside Path are the two destinations that every Tuk-Tuk driver in the city knows. In fact, while hanging out in the area, you’ll likely be bombarded with requests to be taken to other monuments and city districts, as Tuk-Tuk drivers like to flock here since it’s the most touristy area of the city. Just tell your Tuk-Tuk driver “Riverside Path” and it likely is not more than a 5-10 minute Tuk-Tuk drive if you’re staying in downtown. There’s a decent chance you’re even staying right next to it, as many of the Hotels in Phnom Penh are in this area.
When to Go to The Riverside Path
Really any time is good, but due to the high quantity of good restaurants in the area, perhaps around Lunch or Dinner. It’s definitely pleasant in the evening time and makes for a relaxing vibe amidst the never-ending hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh.
Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
The Central Market in Downtown Phnom Penh is an 80 + year old market selling a variety of local goods, souvenirs, jewelry, clothes, and other random things. It’s quite busy, cramped, and lively and is a great example of a Southeast Asian market. What sets it apart, however, is the better than average deals that you can get here (I know, crazy!).
It’d definitely the best spot to come to get a little shopping done, admire the art deco building, and soak up the atmosphere. There are also some food options in the area that make it a good afternoon activity, should you find yourself looking to take home some souvenirs.
How to Get to the Central Market
Definitely find a Tuk-Tuk driver for this one. While it is walkable from the Riverside Path, it’s slightly longer than some travelers may be comfortable with. From Riverside Path, it’ll probably take about 5 minutes to get to on Tuk-Tuk. It’s otherwise a 20 to 25-minute walk. If you can do the walk, it’ll put you up close and personal with Phnom Penh’s energetic downtown.
When to Go to The Central Market
I’d recommend one of two options. The first is to go during lunchtime to avoid some of the crowds (this is probably the most crowded attraction in Phnom Penh), and then get lunch either before or after. The market opens at 7 am and closes at 6 pm. The second option can be seen below.
Chris & Reg’s Traveler Tip:
Take one day out of your Phnom Penh visit and do the following simple itinerary:
- 1:30 pm – Lunch at Metro Hakkasan
- 2:30 pm – stroll along Riverside Path south
- 3:00 pm – Visit the National Museum of Cambodia (don’t miss the museum store)
- 4:00 pm – Visit The Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda (for optimal lighting)
- 5:00 pm – Catch a Tuk-Tuk to the Central Market (see below for in-depth explanation)
- 6:45 pm – Catch a Tuk-Tuk back to the North end of Riverside Path for a streetfood dinner at the lively night market (and watch the local’s live music and dance performances)
- 8:00 pm – Optional: Go to one of the many rooftop bars for a glass of wine and a spectacular view of the sprawling city of Phnom Penh (I recommend Paragon Central & Skybar for a relaxing atmosphere and great view)
This itinerary can be done in any order and will be an educational, relaxing and satisfying day in what is otherwise a busy, and sometimes hectic, city. The night market at the end of the Riverside Path seems to turn on around 7ish and has traditional performances from local dancers and musicians looking to make a name for themselves, along with street food, clothes, souvenirs and any other things you may sniff out at a Cambodian night market.
This 647-year-old picturesque Buddhist temple sits atop the only hill in Phnom Penh. Located in a park, this temple offers users a nice bit of relaxation in an otherwise busy city, with the added benefit of seeing a pretty temple of historical significance. On the temple grounds, you’ll find a beautiful clock in the grass which compliments the tranquility of this temple.
This temple is not Angkor Wat (really no temple holds a candle to the sheer awesomeness of Angkor Wat), but what it does offer is a nice thing to do to see in downtown Phnom Penh, just a short walk from the end of the Riverside Path. Inside the temple, you’ll find glow in the dark murals that show the lives and stories of Buddhist monks. But outside, especially in the morning hour, visitors can enjoy a serene morning stroll amidst the backdrop of the temple. It’s a perfect way to start the day after breakfast along the riverside walk or elsewhere in and around the hill.
How to Get to Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is a short walk from the night market (at the end of the riverside path). You’ll notice that a good chunk of things to do in Phnom Penh is in and around this Riverside Path. Unless you’re a Cambodian national, you must pay $1(USD) to get into the temple grounds.
When to Go to Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is best to go to in the morning – this is because it’s great to see a Buddhist temple when there are as few visitors as possible. Wat Phnom is a picturesque temple, albeit it is slightly small, and makes for some good photographs in the morning light (when no one is around). Furthermore, it’s a perfect thing to do to walk off that morning bowl of noodles or your western style breakfast you had at the hotel. The temple is open from 7 am – 6 pm.
Phnom Penh Food Tour
The Cambodian capital’s food scene is definitely on the come-up. Home to an international array of cuisine, local cuisine, and artesian chefs looking to find unique balances between the two, visitors looking to explore an underrated style of Asian food are treated dishes not found many places in the world. So, one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh is to take a guided food tour.
There are many operators offering food tours in Phnom Penh, offering a variety of custom-tailored tours. One signature attitude in this bustling city is the entrepreneurial chip that many young Cambodians have on their shoulders. This is quite evident in the vast array of ‘types’ of food tours possible to be found in the city. Below is a list of reputable Food Tour Operators with excellent reviews:
- Phnom Penh Food Tours
- Lost Plate
- Urban Forage
- With Locals Personal Operator (This one is unique – definitely check this out before you decide!)
- AirBnB – Log in and check out what some locals offer, as these can be the most personalized!)
This entrepreneurial spirit beating in every corner of Phnom Penh creates services that are truly an awesome experience. In Southeast Asia, food tours have become quite popular (Saigon I’m looking at you), but Cambodian cuisine is very far under the radar. What’s great about Cambodian cuisine is that, like Vietnamese, it is influenced by the French. This means that extreme care for the craft and precision is applied, yielding a truly awesome culinary experience sure to make happy tummies. Outside of your Cambodian temple hopping and the main Phnom Penh attractions, this is absolutely a must-do to explore a cuisine that will likely be rising in popularity over the coming decades as new cuisines begin to find their own on the international stage.
All food tours happen either on motorbike or Tuk-Tuk, but I highly recommend finding a service that lets you ride on the back of a motorbike. On the back of a motorbike, riders are able to see the city in a whole new light and truly become part of the organized chaos. It’s a great experience that entertains for the entire 3-4 hours they typically take. All reputable food tour businesses will have trained riders and will offer insurance policies, helmets, and all necessary precautions to feel safe on your unforgettable food adventure. It’s one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh and it’s highly recommended not to miss it.
How to find Phnom Penh Food Tours
Use the above list as a guide to starting your search. I highly recommend booking online, as food tour businesses that have invested in websites are more ‘legit’ and will offer a more comprehensive and informed experience. These businesses are going to focus on working with the best businesses in Phnom Penh to ensure the quality of the highest level. Booking in person can sometimes lead to scams or poor experience, especially related to food tours. No one wants to be on the toilet all morning the next morning – reputable companies will be sure to pick places that will allow users to leave a positive review on their website and other travel websites as they are looking to expand their businesses within Cambodia and beyond.
After using our guide, search on google for other reviews.
When to Go on a Phnom Penh Food Tour
I recommend doing an evening food tour as it will also be a great time to see the happenings in the city on a motorbike. Furthermore, your guide(s) are likely to take you to places that locals frequent, giving you the chance to see how locals eat, interact, and hang out. Right around dinner time, riders will be able to become one with the city while slowly finding culinary divinity. Be sure to skip lunch, or any meal prior to when you choose to go on a food tour. While some operators offer a morning tour, we are of the belief that it is impossible to eat everything they offer you at that time of day (although everyone is different). They generally cost $40-$60 and last 3-4 hours.
Chris & Reg’s Traveler Tip:
Vespa Adventures is a company operating out of Southeast Asia ran by a nice American gentleman and his wife offering tour services throughout Southeast Asia. Currently, this company offers the best service for tour operating in Southeast Asia. All of his Vespas are vintage Vespas that he has picked out all over the world and fixed up. It’s definitely an awesome service. He operates out of many southeast Asian cities, but recently has opened in Phnom Penh after a lot of planning and we highly recommend doing either of his three tours!
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center
The largest wildlife rescue center in Cambodia, Phnom Tamao sits roughly 25 miles south of the city (1h – 1.5h drive) and manages 6,000 acres of regenerating rainforest. Rescuing animals from poachers and hunters, Phnom Tamao nurses animals back to health and releases them back into the wild. During the process, visitors to the center are able to tour the facility, and interact with many of the animals in the park. All proceeds go to the operation itself, so you know your money is going to a good cause.
This is a highly recommended day trip to do out of Phnom Penh if you are interested in Southeast Asian wildlife, and want to learn about what this organization is doing to help keep Cambodian nature as pristine as possible. The rescue center rescues animals such as bears, tigers, and elephants, as well as other rare animals from poachers and other groups looking to take advantage of wildlife.
Visitors are able to purchase options such as “Bear keeper for a day” or “Behind the Scenes” and participate in expertly guided activities and tours. Highly reputable, and for a good cause, it’s recommended to visit Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center and is one of the best things to do in the Phnom Penh area.
How to Get to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center
Explore a day tour here, where you’ll get a fully immersive day-long tour where you’ll be able to feed elephants, interact with leopards and other animals, and includes lunch. You can also book a tour directly with the wildlife center, but you’ll have to arrange your own transportation.
When to go to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center
Tours have a set time, so be sure to be at the indicated location at the right time (if they don’t pick you up from your hotel). Alternatively, if you book a program with the rescue center, be sure to note when it is and arrange your transportation accordingly. I would strongly recommend hiring a vehicle for this as it is too far away for a Tuk-Tuk.
The Final Word: Your Up-and-Coming Destination
While these aren’t the only things to do in Phnom Penh, it’s a great place to start when planning your itinerary for this city. We hope this guide has helped you decide whether you want to visit Phnom Penh. Almost directly in between Siem Reap, Cambodia (the jump-off for Angkor Wat) and Saigon, Vietnam, the capital of Cambodia it’s about a 6-hour bus ride from either destination or a 1-hour flight.
While it’s easy to skip over this city, for a more untouched Cambodian experience away from the crowds of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh offers a great array of things to do, eat and see. French Colonial architecture and French-influenced cuisine mixed with an entrepreneurial chip on its shoulder, the capital of Cambodia is out to prove that it is a worthy destination to visit. Definitely consider it in your Southeast Asian Itinerary.
Thinking about going to Siem Reap or elsewhere in Cambodia? Learn more about Cambodia.
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