Looking for tips on what to do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Tammy Lowe who has lived in Phnom Penh for 9 months with her husband who both came as volunteers to
work in the international development sector for 6 months, but loved it so much that they decided to stay a little longer.
Tammy shares with us her insider travel tips on what to do in Phnom Penh for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore.
Take it away Tammy…
Why visit Phnom Penh?
Phnom Penh is often only a whistle stop for many travelers who just stop by on their way to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. In my opinion it shouldn’t be overseen though as it has so much to offer.
Phnom Penh today is almost unrecognizable to the Phnom Penh of 10 years ago, when people still lived in traditional wooden houses, rice paddies lined the river, and UN vehicles roamed the dirt tracks trying to bring peace to a country after 30 years of conflict.
Today there are decent roads, modern bars and restaurants, shopping malls, a numerous amount of high-rise buildings, and many historical sights. Phnom Penh is a city on the up.
For me it is not just the sights though. For me Phnom Penh is all about the people, the atmosphere and pace of life. Unlike other Asian cities, such as Bangkok, Phnom Penh is the perfect sized city and much more relaxing.
If you visit Cambodia come and explore Phnom Penh for at least a few days. Slow down, take walks, get lost and explore the jewel of Southeast Asia.
What to Do in Phnom Penh
To really understand Cambodia as a country, its culture and people I really recommend learning a bit about Cambodia’s tragic past and the genocide during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 70’s.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, a former school, used to be one of the most brutal re-education camps in Cambodia, where thousands of people got killed and tortured. Most prisoners were then bought to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh.
Both sights are heartbreaking and a lot of visitors can’t take it, as the brutality of the regime is portrayed in so much detail. But I think it is important to remind people about what happened here to make sure that these things will never happen again.
A more cheerful sight is the Royal Palace, which is a stark contrast to Phnom Penh’s dusty streets with its manicured gardens and golden buildings. It is a beautiful complex with lots of impressive Khmer architecture to explore. Cover your shoulders and knees though, as you can’t get in otherwise.
There are also a number of beautiful temples (or wats) scattered around Phnom Penh, which are all worth seeing. You won’t find many tourists visiting these temples, so most of the time you will have them all to yourself. The most famous one is Wat Phnom, where Phnom Penh was allegedly founded in 1422.
Other temples really worth seeing for their architectural delights are Wat Lanka, Wat Ounalom, and Wat Botum. If you visit any temples make sure
to take off your shoes before you enter, cover your shoulders and knees and never point your foot soles at anyone, especially not the Buddha statues.
Best Neighborhoods to Explore in Phnom Penh
My favourite neighbourhood for exploring is the riverfront, which is lovely for a stroll, but also great to grab a bite to eat, enjoy a cold drink and visit some local markets, such as the old market in the old French quarter.
It is always busy with locals and tourists alike and if you fancy getting active you can even join one of the outdoor aerobic sessions with the locals for $0.25.
Where to Eat in Phnom Penh
Khmer food is not very well known outside of Cambodia, but it is definitely worth trying. Street food can be found everywhere in Phnom Penh, as vendors have mobile kitchens attached to their motorbikes and so are able to prepare food anywhere they stop. It is delicious and really cheap where a meal often only costs $1.
If you are thirsty make sure to try delicious Khmer ice coffee, fresh sugarcane juice with lime or fresh coconut juice, all available from mobile drink carts for roughly $0.50.
If you are a vegetarian I highly recommend K’nyay Restaurant, which offers vegan and vegetarian cuisine and unusual local specialties, such as jackfruit or banana curries.
My favourite restaurant has got to be Samaky Restaurant though. Samaky is a social enterprise that trains street children in the catering business and teaches them English. I have never seen more friendly staff in any other restaurant and by eating there you support a really good cause as well.
I recommend the national dish Fish Amok, and sweet and sticky rice with mangoes.
Where to Drink in Phnom Penh
As Phnom Penh has a large expat community there are plenty of bars scattered around Phnom Penh. Most of them have happy hours where a glass of ice-cold Angkor beer will usually cost you $0.75, and a cocktail $2. Most bars are down the riverfront, on street 278 or 51. You will be spoiled for choice.
If you prefer drinking with the locals you can try out one of the plentiful Khmer beer gardens, where a pitcher of beer will cost you around $1.5. Be repared for some karaoke though.
Best Place for a Night on the Town in Phnom Penh
No visit to Phnom Penh is completed without a visit to the famous Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC). The FCC is a very historic building, as it was here where the war correspondents filed their breaking stories in the early days of the Khmer Rouge regime, until they were all forced to leave the country.
Its rooftop bar offers beautiful views over the riverside. The food is delicious, but a bit more on the pricy side. There is also regular live music.
If you would like to see some traditional Cambodian dancing I recommend the Chaktomuk Theatre on Sisowath Quay where you can see the Apsara Dance and some very elaborate costumes.
If you want to party in a private space you can rent one of the many boats along the river which can host up to 50 people. Costs are around $20 for a 2-hour cruise and you can bring your own drinks and food. The boat takes you down both the Mekong river and the Tonle Sap – very relaxing way to spend your night.
Where to Stay in Phnom Penh
There are a lot of cheap guesthouses on the Golden Mile on street 278, called golden mile because most guesthouses have the word golden in their name.
I stayed in the New Golden Bridge Guest House when I first arrived and was very happy with the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff and the clean rooms.
A mid-range hotel I can really recommend is the Hotel 252. It has a swimming pool, which is very refreshing after a hot day of sightseeing. The food is Khmer and Swiss and very delicious.
If you are into more upmarket hotels then I can recommend the Raffles Hotel, which is simply beautiful in architecture, luxurious, offers delicious high noon teas and also has a great swimming pool.
For more places to stay in Phnom Penh choose from the largest range of hotels, apartments, and guesthouses with our partner Booking.com. You get free cancellation on most rooms, and in most cases you only pay when you stay.
Markets and Shopping in Phnom Penh
There are three markets where you can buy souvenirs.
- The biggest is the Russian Market on Street 163, which sells everything from souvenirs, to engine parts, antiques or fresh food.
- The Central Market on Street 128 is a beautiful art deco building, but sells similar products to the Russian market, but is a bit smaller.
- The Night Market on the riverfront at the corner of Street 108 is open on Friday and Saturday nights. It is a great place to sample some street food and to buy souvenirs.
Haggling is a must on all three markets to get the best deal. If you are into art and handicrafts in particular I recommend a visit to Street 178 where galleries and workshops line the street opposite the University of Arts.
Events and Festivals in Phnom Penh
The biggest event each year is the Water Festival in October. The 3-day festival is of great significance as it celebrates the end of the rainy season, the start of the fishing season, and also the unique natural phenomenon – the flow of the Tonle Sap river changing direction!
Many villagers throughout the country spend almost a full year preparing their villages boat for the famous boat races. These are elaborately and brightly decorated dug out canoes with large eyes on the prows to ward off evil spirits.
Another big event is the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which marks the beginning of the rainy and rice growing season. The Royal family is usually involved and you will be able to see parades on the grounds of the National Museum, Buddhist rituals, marching bands and the actual ploughing ceremony where two royal oxens plough the ground and are then offered a varierty of foods and spirits. Depending on what the oxen chooses to eat is a sign for a good or bad harvest.
Get around Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh hasn’t got the luxury of public buses or an underground system that other Asian metropolises have. So to get round you can either take a tuk tuk or a moto taxi. There are plenty of those around and you won’t be able to walk a meter without being offered a ride. Motos are a bit cheaper, but don’t expect the driver have a helmet for you.
I prefer tuk tuks. They are safe and you get to relax on the comfy seats whilst being able to take in the surrounding sights. Negotiate a price in advance and expect to pay between $2-$4, depending on how far you go.
Finding WiFi in Phnom Penh
Most restaurants, hotels and cafes have free wifi these days. The internet connection is also fairly fast, so you won’t have a problem getting in touch with your loved ones back home.
Best time to visit Phnom Penh
There are three seasons in Cambodia. The hot season (November to January), the very hot season (February to May) and the rainy season (June to October).
- The average temperature during the hot season is around 32 degrees Celsius, so this is a nice time to visit.
- The very hot season is almost unbearable when it gets as high as 39-42 degrees.
- The rainy season is quite a nice time to visit as well, as the rice paddies are very green and lush and the afternoon rainfalls cool the high temperatures down a little bit.
Favorite side trip from Phnom Penh
I would really recommend a visit to Tonle Bati and its nearby Angkorian temple ruin Ta Prom. Tonle Bati is a lake where locals often come for the weekend to have a picnic by the lake, go for a boat ride or a dip in the cool water.
Whilst I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the lake for health reasons, the picnic areas by the lake are the perfect spot to relax in a hammock and eat snacks provided by the various street vendors or restaurants.
A few minutes away from the lake is the Ta Prohm ruin, which dates back to the late 12th century. Whilst you get bigger ruins in the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, you will have this ruin all to yourself for a true Tomb Raider experience.
You can get there by booking private cars via tour operators or negotiate a deal with any tuk tuk driver in town. It takes about 1 hour in a car and 1.5 hours in a tuk tuk. Expect to pay about around $30 for either mode of transport.
Getting There and Away
Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from Europe, the US or Australia to Phnom, so you either have to stop in Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. I recommend Air Asia as it is very cheap and reliable.
Buses are much cheaper, but take a lot longer as well. If you come from Vietnam you can take a bus or boat from Ho Chi Minh City. The bus trip takes about 6 hours, and is very comfortable. The boat ride takes about 4 hours and is really picturesque as it takes you through the Mekong Delta.
There are also buses available from Bangkok, but they take a whole day with various changes involved. A bus from Pakse/Laos is about 15 hours.
Best insider tip for travellers to Phnom Penh
As most people only stay for a few days in Phnom Penh they often don’t get the chance to experience the surrounding countryside and its sights. I have already mentioned Tonle Bati above, but there is also another place that is easily reachable for a half-day trip, which is Oudong.
Oudong has been Cambodia’s former capital until Phnom Penh became the new capital in 1866. It is now the official resting place of the most sacred of Buddha’s bones possessed by Cambodia. The bones are in a temple on top of a mountain.
After a 10 to 20 minute climb from the base of the mountain you will be able to witness a wonderful view down to the surrounding Wats, rice fields and floodplains. You can get there via tuk tuk or booking a tour with a tour operator for roughly $30.
I love Phnom Penh because …
It is home to the most amazing and friendly people I have ever met. They don’t rip you off and locals will always greet you with the biggest smiles you can imagine. I love Phnom Penh because I feel home here.
Plan Your Trip to Phnom Penh
We’ve been traveling consistently for 17 years and have come to rely on a few trusted websites that save us money and time when booking accommodation, flights, and car rental. Below are our preferred partners:
- Booking.com has 450 properties in Phnom Penh including hotels, apartments, and guesthouses. You get free cancelation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.
Flights to Phnom Penh
- Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).
Popular tours in Cambodia
BIO – Tammy from Tammy & Chris on the move hails from Germany, and is therefore both efficient and punctual. Chris is hailing from the UK, which means he likes to talk about the weather, be polite, or sometimes even both at the same time. They both have civil service backgrounds, but have left their bowler-hats back in London and are currently working on justice and human right issues in Cambodia.
Whenever they get some time off, they travel around South East Asia or plan in which country they will live and work in next. Follow their journey on their blog, Tammy & Chris on the move, on Twitter or on facebook.
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