The bustling and fast developing capital Phnom Penh is a city that tells the story of Cambodia’s dark history under the Khmer Rouge. Visitors come here to educate themselves about the complexities of this magnificent country before venturing out to see the many other wonders that it has to offer.
From the Killing Fields, to the S-21 Genocide Museum get ready for a thought provoking history lesson that will move, surprise and shock you. However history is not all that Cambodia’s capital has to offer. Spend a few days in this chaotic place and you’ll find it has a lot more to it than eager tuk tuk drivers and noisy traffic jams.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital city and many airlines fly directly into the main airport. If you book early enough you can find yourself some pretty cheap flight deals.
Buses also run to and from the capital to most major cities in Cambodia. The bus from Siem Reap takes approximately 5 – 7 hours and there are various bus companies that you can book through. Capitol Tours Bus is the cheapest at $6 – $8, Mekong Express is a little pricier ($12 – 14) but will get you there in 4 – 6 hours.
There is also the option to take a night bus from Siem Reap. However in the past there have been many accidents occurring with night buses in Cambodia so be sure to choose a reputable bus company. Giant Ibis have been known for their safety standards and the price for this journey will cost you $15.
For shorter distances to places such as Sihanoukville and Kampot you have the choice between a coach and a mini-bus. The coach from Sihanoukville takes about 5 hours and will cost you $6 – $7. The mini-bus takes about 4 hours and will cost you $10. If you need a faster option, a taxi from Sihanoukville will cost you $45 – $60 and takes 2 – 3 hours.
The Giant Ibis mini-bus is the best option if you want to get from Kampot to Phnom Penh. The trip takes 2 – 3 hours and will cost you $8. You can also take a coach but it will take 5 hours and the price isn’t much cheaper at $5.
It is very easy to organise travel between major cities in Cambodia, either through your hostel or at a travel agent. Use these prices as a guide as sometimes the company you book through can charge unnecessary fees.
You don’t have to walk too far before half a dozen tuk tuk drivers are calling at you asking if you want a ride. Phnom Penh is full of tuk tuks and it’s one of the easiest and safest ways around town. It will cost you a little more than other cities with the going rate around $2 – $3 to anywhere in the main city area. If you’re in a group of 3 or more you can get away with $4 – $5 for all of you.
Motorcycle Taxi (Motodop)
Along with the dozens of tuk tuk drivers offering you their services you will also find a number of Moto drivers calling at you as well. Getting a Moto around town is a quick and easy option as they are able to push through the traffic jams easier than the tuk tuks. Moto’s are also a cheaper option and you can get anywhere in town for $2.
You can walk around certain areas of Phnom Penh, for example the expat area of BKK1, however other areas are a little more chaotic and crowded with cars and motorbikes on the footpath. The city is not as easy to walk around as Siem Reap, so depending where you are staying you may want to opt for a tuk tuk or Moto. The riverbank is a nice area to stroll down and admire all the small restaurants and coffee shops lit up during the evenings, however if you want to venture out of the main areas at night it is best to walk in a group.
Safety precaution: Phnom Penh is known for bag snatchers and numerous accounts of bag snatchings are reported each week. If you are walking it is advised that you carry your bag around your waist or preferably not take your bag out at all. If you need to, be sure that you carry minimal money and valuables with you.
The amount of traffic in Phnom Penh makes it a difficult place to cycle. It is best to keep the cycling for smaller towns such as Kampot or Kep, however if you are a fully confident bicycle rider and don’t like to take other forms of transportation the safest place to ride would be along the riverside away from the busy streets.
Not to miss
Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (Killing Fields)
Around 20 minutes outside of the city centre are some of many mass graves left by the horrific Khmer Rouge regime. While the story is confronting, it will help you to understand the struggles of Cambodia today. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is a memorial centre for those who lost their lives during the Pol Pot regime from 1975 – 1979 and you can take an audio guided tour through the centre, listening to the stories of the people and the horrors that happened here not so long ago. It is a very moving and at times upsetting experience. The center hopes that awareness and education about the atrocities will prevent it ever happening again here or anywhere else in the world.
The audio tour will cost you $6 and you can get a tuk tuk to take you the 20 minutes outside of town for around $15, which can also include a visit to the S-21 Genocidal Museum.
S-21 Genocide Museum
The S-21 Genocide Museum is located further in town near to the Russian Market. An old high school turned prison, it is where prisoners were taken for interrogation during the Khmer Rouge regime, many never making it out alive. The museum tells a story of a dismal time for the Cambodian people but also tells stories of hope and survival. What was once a place full of dismay is now a bleak shell of a building for tourists to learn about Cambodia’s history. The museum costs $6 and also includes an audio guide. Note that students can enter here for free.
Mekong Island (Koh Dach)
Just across the river from the Phnom Penh city centre you can escape the chaos of the big city and step into Cambodian village life. Mekong Island is the home of the silk trade and many families spend their days working to make and sell silk to locals and foreigners who wish to visit. Hire a tuk tuk for half a day and take the small trip across to the island to witness, and maybe join in, on some silk weaving. The cost of the tour is $20 – $25 and you can split it between a group to lessen the price. You will need to pay $1 for the boat ride both there and back but it is well worth the visit to get a glimpse of the way the locals live.
Other attractions & sights
Phnom Penh is home to various traditional Cambodian marketplaces where you can pick yourself up a bargain for just about anything. From shoes to silk, clothing, souvenirs, electronics, gems and jewelry, you’ll find them all here. Walk down the small alleys lined with stalls, grab yourself a Cambodian snack or just watch the constant lively trade that goes on throughout the marketplace. The best picks are the Russian Market (which can get quite hot during the day so try to visit in the morning or late afternoon), the Central Market or, if you’re after some cheap food, the Night Market by the river.
The National Museum & The Royal Palace
Cambodia’s largest museum of cultural history is here in Phnom Penh. Spend half a day walking through the museum marveling at the ancient statues and artworks or just spend some time relaxing in the peaceful and shaded courtyard. If you head there in the morning you can spend the afternoon visiting the Royal Palace, which is located nearby. Be sure to wear modest clothing when visiting the Palace, otherwise there is available clothing for rent. The National Museum will cost you $5 for entry and the Royal Palace will set you back $6.
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is located about 1 hour from Phnom Penh. The centre is home to over 1200 animals that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade and brought to the centre for rehabilitation. The centre is operated by Wildlife Alliance, an organisation that conducts wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and release in coordination with the Cambodian government. Interactive wildlife tours run from Monday to Friday in the centre with 100% of all the profits going directly back to the protection of the animals. A tour will cost you $150, which includes lunch, pick-up and drop-off from Phnom Penh, and the chance to get up close with elephants, leopards, gibbons, otters and the other endangered animals.
Located in the center of Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom sits on the only hill in the city, standing at 27 meters above ground it is the highest religious building in the capital. Although originally constructed in 1373 it has been rebuilt several times since the 19th century and again in 1926. Admission to the temple is $1 and entry to the small museum will cost $2. The interior of the temple is covered with wall murals and features a central alter with a large bronze seated Buddha.
Keep an eye on your possessions as it can get quite chaotic around Wat Phnom with beggars and various vendors trying to get your attention.
Fair Trade Shopping
Aside from the markets Phnom Penh also has a number of small shops where you can purchase handmade goods and souvenirs made by locals, through organisations that provide fair wage and working opportunity for disadvantaged people in the community. The Cambodian Handicraft Association offers women with disabilities (from landmines or polio) new skills in handicrafts, tailoring, weaving and running a small business. You can visit their shop on Street 350 and pick up some unique handmade gifts that go towards a great cause. Other fair trade businesses located in Phnom Penh include Rajana, YodiCraft & Artisandesigner.
Built in 1958 to mark Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953 the monument is located on the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard in the center of Phnom Penh.
The monument is in the form of a lotus-shape stupa, the same easily recognizable style seen at the temple Angkor Wat. Behind the monument you will find the newly constructed statue of Norodom Sihanouk who was the King of Cambodia from 1941 to 1955 and again from 1993 to 2004.
Food & drink
You can find a variety of restaurants here in Phnom Penh, restaurants that vary in cuisine and restaurants that vary in price. For restaurant dining be prepared to pay a little extra for your meal than in smaller towns such as Kampot and Kep, however you can pick yourself up a bargain if you look hard enough.
For cheap food your best bet is the Night Market by the river where you can pick up some Cambodian noodles for around $1.50. Otherwise most restaurants along the river will charge upwards of $4 for a meal, however it is a pleasant place to dine and watch the Phnom Penh nightlife unfold.
Downtown in the BKK1 area you will also find a number of restaurants but you need to look harder to find one that sells mainly Khmer food. Western brands such as Starbucks and Dominos have made their way to this area so the choice of Western food is plentiful.
If dining for a cause is what you are after, Phnom Penh has a number of social enterprise restaurants run by NGOs doing great work in the community. Try some sweets at the Bloom Café, a training centre for vulnerable women in the community, or taste some of the best burgers in town at the Restore One café, a café run by an NGO that tackles the issue of poverty in the Cambodia. Some others include Lotus Blanc, Connecting Hands Café, Romdeng, & Friends Restaurant. If you’re looking for a good cup of coffee then pay a visit to the Feel Good Coffee Shop which responsibly sources coffee from farmers in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Phnom Penh is not short of accommodation to suit any budget. If you’re after location the riverside or BKK1 areas are still your best bet, as these areas give you the best access to the main sights.
If you’re after budget accommodation the Mad Monkey Hostel or the One Stop Hostel have some good deals and offer guests a comfortable stay including assistance with pretty much anything you need while in Phnom Penh. Mad Monkey Hostel can also help with visa extensions if you require.
For a mid – high range budget there are a number of hotels and guesthouses in most areas of the city that offer accommodation to suit all needs. The DoDo Guesthouse offers recently refurbished, modern rooms in a central location for around $20 a night (for a double with en-suite).
Medical care in Phnom Penh is easy to find. The main (and best) international hospital in town is the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital located on Russian Confederation Blvd. There is also the Sen Sok International University Hospital located on Street 1986.
There are a number of medical clinics located in town. These are the Khema Clinic located on Street 528, Embassy Medical Centre located on Street 228 and International SOS Cambodia located on Street 51
Pharmacies are also plentiful and you can find most basic medicines here. Keep an eye out for U-Care pharmacies as these are very helpful and often have English speaking staff.
Phnom Penh has some of the highest crime rates in Cambodia, mainly comprising of theft. Be sure to take care of your belongings at all times as bag snatchings are a common occurrence here.
The tourist police station in Phnom Penh is located on street 598 and their contact number is 012 942 484.
For a guide to other useful emergency numbers in Cambodia you can visit the embassy website here.
Cambodia City Guides