Nestled on the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, Phnom Penh is the colourful, chaotic and intriguing capital of Cambodia. It’s often viewed as merely the starting point for adventures to the famous tourist haunts of Angkor Wat and surrounds, and the beaches of the south, so many travellers skip over spending more than a day or so here.
We’re here to tell you not to be those peeps who decide it’s not worth visiting. It is.
There’s more to this city than being a stepping stone for greater Cambodia, with its colourful markets, cosmopolitan dining and compelling day trips. You might only have 48 hours here, but that’s plenty of time. Follow our Quickguide for Phnom Penh and walk away feeling content with your visit.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – S21
It’s not pleasant, but a visit to Phnom Penh and indeed Cambodia isn’t complete without visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S21.
This former high school was converted into a notorious prison by the Khmer Rouge and between 1975-1979 over 17,000 prisoners were tortured and sent to the killing fields close by. Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records of each prisoner and these are on show at the museum, including displays of black and white photographs of the men, women and children who passed through here, and instruments used in their torture.
If you can, take a guided tour; otherwise, you can listen to an audio tour which is provided free of charge and details the various sectors of S21.
It goes without saying that a visit here is extremely harrowing and you’ll feel more than a little depressed by mankind when you leave. However, it’s essential to gaining a true understanding of the brief but brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and its lasting impact on modern Cambodia today.
Admission is around $6USD
Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (The Killing Fields)
Another must do for those keen on learning more about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge is to visit the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre, or The Killing Fields, located on the outskirts of the city.
Those who were tortured at S21 were sent to what seems like a quiet farming district. Yet they weren’t sent to work. Here, many innocent Cambodians were executed by the Khmer Rouge, often by barbaric methods.
It’s here that you see first hand the physical affects of the brutality; bone and clothing fragments often reappear from the mass graves after a rain storm. The stories told through the excellent audio tour are harrowing as is the memorial stupa, which houses up to 8000 skulls of those killed.
We’d suggest visiting S21 and Choeung Ek in one day as it can take quite an emotional toll on you. And drinking away the sorrows is not an option, not today.
Admission costs around $6USD
Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
Located close to the river and city centre, the Royal Palace is a vast complex of beautiful royal buildings in an equally beautiful setting. The buildings include the gilded Chan Chaya Pavilion and the extravagant Silver Pagoda – the floor of which is covered by five tons of gleaming silver. Internally, a crystal Buddha sits atop a gilded pedestal. Heavenly.
You can spend hours exploring the area and people watching; this is a major attraction for locals as well as travellers.
For the ladies, remember to cover your shoulders and legs (scarves won’t cut it this time!); for the guys, shorts below the knees.
Admission cost is around $2USD
Phsar Thmei (Central Markets) and Russian Market (Phsar Tuol Tom Pong)
SE Asia and markets go together like cheese and crackers, and Phnom Penh is no different. There are many markets dotted throughout the city to grab a bargain but our picks of the bunch are: Phsar Thmei, otherwise known as the Central Market, and Phsar Tuol Tom Pong, aka the Russian Market.
Central Market is located in a beautiful art deco style building in the centre of town, near the bus station. The entrances to the market are littered with usual selection of Asian souvenirs including shirts, curios and sunglasses, while on the inside you can find jewellery, electronics and local fashion.
The Russian market is less central and certainly more chaotic, but it’s worth the effort to get to. You can find the usual here, but also genuine brand names that have been stitched in local factories. Did someone say bargain?
Stroll along the Riverfront at Sunset
The ultimate afternoon activity, especially on weekends is to head down to the Tonle Sap waterfront promenade of Sisowath Quay and watch the locals go about their business.
It’s chaotic at best, with a heady mix of balloon sellers, street food vendors, hordes of children, mass exercise classes, and just about the rest of the city enjoying the sunset.
Night Markets for Food and Beer
The night markets, located to the north of the city, are where locals and tourists alike come for dinner. They’re pretty much your average SE Asian night market but for one thing; the K-pop style Night Market Band. If you’re into local live pop music belted out at 1000dbs, this is the place for you. If you’re not, this is still an awesome place to enjoy local street food, sink a few beers and finish it off with a coconut ice cream and a spot of people watching.
Bonus tip: watch out for the local street kids here, as they can sometimes be a little pushy (as in, one hissed and yelled at us when we didn’t give money!). Other than that, it’s a great night out.
So there you have it; the Phnom Penh quickguide to help you get the most out of your stay. Have you visited Phnom Penh? Have we missed anything? Let us know in the comments below.