Phnom Penh Itinerary: The Perfect Itinerary for History Lovers
Phnom Penh might not have gorgeous white-sandy beaches, breathtaking rice terraces, or charming colonial architecture like a lot of popular Southeast Asian destinations. But what it does have is something much better. It has history–a history that EVERYONE should know and NO ONE should ever forget.
Phnom Penh is the location of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (also known as the Killing Fields). Two places where people can learn what happened in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 when 20% of the population of Cambodia died from starvation, disease, torture, and execution.
In this Phnom Penh itinerary – 2 days, I’m going to share with how you can not only see all of these historically important sights but also experience a bit of Cambodian culture. This itinerary is part of my Cambodia itinerary of 2 and 3 weeks.
This Phnom Penh itinerary is also based on what I did during my trip to Phnom Penh. I was there for 4 days (2 days at the beginning of my Cambodia trip and 2 days at the end of my trip). On top of that, I’ve added a few tour and activity options that I didn’t do because they hadn’t existed at the time I was there. If they had, I probably would have done them.
If you’re planning on visiting Siem Reap, you can also check out my Angkor Wat Itinerary–an itinerary that is ideal for the history lover.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
PRO TIP: No one likes to think about insurance, but accidents do happen. I highly recommend getting travel medical insurance. During my travels over the past 3 years, I've been using SafetyWing for my medical insurance. They're very affordable and digital nomads can use their insurance long-term.
Why you should visit Phnom Penh
If it’s such an unpleasant city, you’re probably wondering why you should even visit.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Phnom Penh is the sight of two of the most important landmarks in the world: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Most of the deaths during Khmer Rouge happened outside of Phnom Penh, but the city is the only place that has museums and landmarks that teach the world and Cambodians about what happened during those times.
Big cities aren’t usually known for their friendly citizens. But Phnom Penh is different. Out of all the places in Cambodia I found the people in this city to be the friendliest and most open.
Great Place to Try Cambodian Food
There are also some terrific restaurants here where you can try Cambodian food.
Reasonably-Priced Boutique Hotels
I also found some good deals on boutique hotels here in Phnom Penh. Even if you’re traveling on a budget, you can get a taste of luxury in a stylish hotel.
PRO TIP: Theft is a problem in Phnom Penh, especially bag snatching. While riding in a tuk-tuk. Make sure to hold on tightly to your bag. When I was in Phnom Penh, a story was going around about a foreign tourist who was dragged off her tuk-tuk when a thief tried to grab it. She was pulled off and run over by another vehicle.
PHNOM PENH ITINERARY: DAY 1
On day 1’s Cambodia itinerary you’ll explore the ancient and imperial side of Cambodia’s history.
Lots of countries in Southeast Asia have their own myth on how their city was first founded. Phnom Penh is no different. The story goes that Phnom Penh was founded in 1372 by a woman named Penh who came across a tree containing four bronze Buddha statues and a statue of Vishnu floating down the river. She ordered the villagers to raise the hill next to her house and to build a temple on the hill to house the four statues and a shrine further down the hill for the Vishnu statue. The temple was called Wat Phnom Dau Penh, which is today called Wat Phnom The city surrounding that temple on a hill dedicated to Penh is called Phnom Penh (Phnom=hill).
Phnom Penh first became the capital of the Khmers in 1434 when they needed to move their capital from Angkor (Angkor Wat) to somewhere further away from the pesky Thais who kept on invading them. Phnom Penh’s location along the Mekong River also made it an ideal place to develop their sea trade with the powerful and wealthy Chinese Empire.
Over the centuries, the capital moved to different locations until it finally settled permanently in 1866 when it agreed to become a French protectorate in exchange for protection against the Thais and Vietnamese, who were looking to annex Cambodia until it disappeared from the map.
The current layout of the city was created by the French.
Cambodia was a French protectorate until 1885, when the French forced the Khmer King Norodom at gunpoint to sign a new treaty giving the French complete control over the country. The King held onto his title but was really just a figurehead. The French controlled onto Cambodia until 1953 when they gave the country its independence.
The French turned what was essentially a village into a city. It built the royal palace, government buildings, the post office, markets, prisons, hotels, villas, hospitals, along with 300 buildings to be used as shops.
1. Royal Palace
- OPEN: 8:00 – 10:30 am; 2:00 – 5:00 pm (M – Su; on holidays times vary)
- COST: US$10 for non-Cambodians
- HIGHLIGHT: Throne Hall, Silver Pagoda, Moonlight Pavilion
- BUILT: 1866-1870; the royal family moved here in 1871 when they moved the capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh
- LOCATION: Google Maps
Start your Phnom Penh itinerary with the beautiful Royal Palace. The palace grounds are surrounded by walls that block out the noise of the city, making it a peaceful respite.
It closes from 10:30 am to 2:00 pm so make sure to get here early in the morning.
There are two cool things to know about the Royal Palace. One is that it’s still a functioning palace as the King still resides there. It’s pretty rare to find a country these days with a royal family, albeit one without much power. His part of the palace is off-limits but there are still some interesting buildings that you can visit.
Number two is that some of the buildings are over 100 years old, which is also rare in Asia since most historic buildings and landmarks in Asia are post-WWII reconstructions. The Khmer Rouge actually kept the palace buildings intact as a way to show the outside world that they were preserving Khmer traditional culture.
You’ll find a lot of buildings on the temple complex grounds. The two most important ones are the Throne Hall and the Silver Pagoda.
Built in 1917, the Throne Hall is where religious and royal ceremonies are held. You’ll find three royal thrones and the busts of all of the kings of Cambodia. I think the coolest part of the Throne Hall is on top of the building—a spire made up of four-faced Buddha.
The Silver Pagoda is the other highlight of the Royal Palace. The temple gets its name from the 5,000 silver tiles covering its floor. The other not-to-miss sights are two Buddha statues. One is a small Buddha called the Emerald Buddha made up baccarat crystal and the other one is a life-sized solid gold Maitreya Buddha covered in 9,584 diamonds. You can also see traditional artworks like masks and Buddha statues here.
There are a few other structures to check out such as a host of shrines and statues dedicated to various kings and footprints of the Buddha, and a pavilion given as a gift from Napoleon II of France.
PRO TIP: To enter the Royal Palace, you must be wearing appropriate attire. Your shirt’s sleeves must go to the elbow and your shorts or skirt must be below the knees.
2. National Museum of Cambodia
- OPEN: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
- COST: US$10 for non-Cambodians 18 and older | US$5 for foreigners 10 – 17 years old
- HIGHLIGHTS: Hindu and Buddhist statues from the Angkor Kingdom
- BUILT: 1917 by George Groslier
- LOCATION: Google Maps
After visiting the Royal Palace, head over to the National Museum of Cambodia to learn about the ancient history of Cambodia. The museum contains the world’s largest collection of Khmer sculptures. Rightly so. There’s also a beautiful courtyard garden to take a rest in.
This visit will make for a nice introduction to Angkor Wat history before heading to Siem Reap. You can read about visiting Siem Reap in my Angkor Wat itinerary guide.
The museum was originally built by a French person named George Groslier in 1917. I want to say something about France’s contribution to Cambodia. I’m usually not someone who has many good things to say about colonialism regardless of the country, including my own, the United States. But the one good thing France did was the work they did in uncovering and restoring the ancient structures, works of art, and Buddhist texts from the Angkor Empire and reviving Cambodia’s pride in their glorious past.
Friends: Friends (Google Maps) is one of the many restaurants whose profits go toward funding social programs in Cambodia. Friends specifically trains street children and marginalized young people to work in the hospitality industry. Another reason to go here is that it’s conveniently located near the National Museum. The restaurant serves healthy western food with vegetarian options. I do think it’s a bit pricey for Southeast Asia (you can see their menu online), but the cause is a good one and the food was delicious when I was there.
4. Afternoon Itinerary Ideas
There are a number of things you can do in the afternoon on day 1 of your Phnom Penh itinerary.
4.1 Relax by the Pool
If this is your first stop in Southeast Asia and the heat and humidity are getting to you, spend the rest of the day relaxing by your hotel pool. This is what I did on my first day in Phnom Penh. I stayed at the Blue Lime (Google Maps) and they had a lovely pool.
After spending some time swimming at the hotel pool, I spent the rest of the afternoon on day 1 getting a massage. Because my hotel failed to pick me up at the airport when I arrived in Phnom Penh (I had arranged it beforehand), I received a complementary massage at the Pavilion Hotel.
There are several other places around the capital to get a massage. You can get a massage at Daughters, an NGO that provides vocational tradition to help women get out of the sex industry.
4.3 Khmer Architecture Tours
Khmer Architectures Tours – Another great option is to go on a tour. One tour that I think sounds interesting and that I’ll try to take when I make it back to Phnom Penh is a tour of the architecture and history of colonial and post-independence Phnom Penh with Khmer Architecture Tours.
Group tours only happen on Sundays (8:30 am -11:30 am or 2:30 – 5:30 pm). They cost US$15. However, you can do a private tour, which will be around US$45 + $10 or $15 for a cyclo or tuk-tuk and go on another day besides Sunday. Visit the Khmer Architecture Tours website for further details on their schedule and pricing.
4.4 Mekong Island Bicycle Tour
One unique activity that you can do is a 20-25-kilometer bicycle tour of Mekong Island, the home of a Muslim Cham community. It’ll also give you a chance to take a ferry across the Mekong River. You can purchase tickets for the bike tour through Klook.
Phnom Penh Itinerary: Day 2
Day 2 of this Phnom Penh Itinerary takes you to the sights and horrors of twentieth-century Cambodia.
Getting around: For your day 2 Phnom Penh itinerary, hire a drive and tuk-tuk from through your hotel that will take you to both the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields. You’ll pay one price and the driver will wait for you and return you to your accommodations. You can also then tour the sights at your own pace.
Another option is to do a Hop-On-Hop-Off self-guided group tour of both the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields. I’ve heard that these tours don’t give you enough time at the museum, so I’m not sure how much I’d recommend them. You can learn more about these Hop-On-Hop-Off tours here.
Cambodian Independence: 1953 – 1970
Cambodia finally became independent from France in 1953. From 1953 – 1970, it was run like a royal-welfare state under the rule of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. He was a big proponent of socialism, agriculture, and traditional culture and a critic of capitalism, science, and modernization. The country was largely agricultural with only 10% of the population (500,000 people) living in cities.
After 70 years of almost no effort to improve the education of Cambodians under the French (there was one high school and no universities in Cambodia at the time of independence), Sihanouk’s government invested heavily in education (25% of the budget).
Sihanouk also gave a lot of attention to the architecture of Phnom Penh, going on a building spree. Young Cambodian architects who’d been trained in France were designing buildings that mixed European post-modernism with a traditional Angkor style. Join one of the tours organized by Khmer Architecture Tours.
The war between Vietnam and the United States put Cambodia in a precarious situation. Sihanouk wanted to keep Cambodia out of the war, but it ended up being impossible. In the end, he sided with China and North Vietnam over the Americans, and he allowed the North Vietnamese to set up bases in Cambodia. This pretty much sealed his fate.
Civil War: 1970 – 1975
The army overthrew Sihanouk and the Americans started bombing Cambodia in order to drive out the Viet Cong. Not many people were disappointed to see him go as they were pretty much fed up with the government’s corruption. Unfortunately, the corruption only got worse under the new government of General Lon Nol. On top of that, Lon Nol set up a Buddhist military state and launched a pogrom against Chinese and Vietnamese who’d been living in Cambodia for decades and then started a war with Vietnam.
From 1970 to 1975, the country erupted into civil war with the communist Khmer Rouge on one side and the right-wing corrupt government of Lon Nol on the other. Refugees flooded Phnom Penh, increasing its population to 3 million.
Khmer Rouge: 1975 – 1979
In April 16, 1975, the government fell and the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and wasting no time on April 17, they began emptying the city of its people, moving nearly everyone to the countryside.
They hunted down the elites of society (the doctors, the government employees, the professors) and killed them. Everyone else ended up in labor camps where they worked as slaves under horrible conditions with little food and primitive shelter. Many died from starvation, disease, overwork, torture, and execution. It’s estimated that from 1975 to 1979 2 million Cambodians or 20% of the population died due to the ineptitude and cruelty of the Khmer Rouge.
Form April 1975 to January 1979, Phnom Penh was like a ghost town. The only people residing in the town were high-level cadres of the Khmer Rouge, the military, and factory workers. Shops, schools, restaurants, temples were all closed. Cows were more common than cars.
1. Tuol Sleng Museum “Hillock of the Poisonous Fruit”
- OPEN: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm | documentary: 9:30 am & 3:45
- COST: US$5/adults and US$3/ages 10 – 18 for non-Cambodians
- AUDIO GUIDE: US$3.00 for non-Cambodians
- BUILT: 1962 as a high school called Tuol Svay Prey; in 1976 it became S-21 torture and interrogation facility in 1976 and then the name was changed to Tuol Sleng Museum when the Vietnamese invaded and turned the prison into a museum
- GETTING THERE: hire a tuk-tuk to visit both the museum and the Killing Fields or join a Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour
- LOCATION: Google Maps
- WEBSITE: http://www.killingfieldsmuseum.com/s21-victims.html and https://tuolsleng.gov.kh/en/
Today you’re going to experience the most important stop on this Phnom Penh itinerary: Tuol Sleng Museum. It’s a grim and depressing reminder of how evil humans can be and what a dictatorship that follows an extreme ideology can do.
Before Tuol Sleng became a prison, it was Tuol Svay Prey High School. Nearby was a primary school named Tuol Sleng Primary School.
In 1976 the Khmer Rouge turned the high school into a secret interrogation and torture facility, naming it S-21. S stands for the word “salla” which means “hall” and 21 is a code name for security police (santabal). When Vietnam liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, they turned it into a museum and gave it the name of the primary school nearby rather than the high school because “Tuol Sleng” had a more ominous sound to it: “Hillock of the Poisonous Fruit” than Tuol Svay Prey.
There are four three-story buildings with a balcony corridor on the top two floors. All look like a typical high school building that you find all over Southeast Asia. The buildings surround an open yard. There’s a fifth building that had originally been used for the school administration.
The first building you come to is a set of former classrooms turned into rooms where the prisoners were kept. They were shackled either to the floor or each other and were not allowed to speak. The first Vietnamese who entered Tuol Sleng in 1979 found fourteen dead bodies whose throats had been slashed and who were still shackled to iron beds. The Vietnamese took photos of the bodies, which are the ones you’ll see on the walls in this building.Who were the prisoners?
This was one of the many misconceptions I had about Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. I thought the people who were in the prison were the intellectuals like teachers, doctors, engineers, government officials, and military personnel from the previous regime, business people, or wealthy landowners. Yes, the Khmer Rouge did go after them, and they were the majority of the people who died, but they did it either in the first year or by pushing them out into labor camps in the countryside and executing or working them to death there.
Most of the people who were interrogated, tortured, and died at Tuol Sleng were Khmer Rouge cadres who were accused of being spies or saboteurs. Even those who worked at Tuol Sleng were not immune to suspicion and ended up dead. Knowing this information now, I’m not as horrified or sad as I would be if they weren’t part of the Khmer Rouge.
Most of the prisoners were Cambodian men, but there were also women and children and foreigners including American, Australian, and British sailors, Thai and Vietnamese fishermen, Vietnamese soldiers, and others from other countries. I can only imagine what it must have been like for these prisoners, especially the non-Cambodians who just happened to accidentally sail into Cambodian waters and end up being picked up by the Cambodian navy, only to be brought to this horrible place to be tortured and then murdered.
The next building to tour is across the yard and was for me, the most disturbing part. This one contains displays of the artifacts and documents that the Vietnamese uncovered. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous at documenting everything that went on at the prison.
You can see their photographs when they first entered the prison, their confessions (they were recorded and transcribed), and for some another photograph after they died. If the prisoner wasn’t important enough, they didn’t bother interrogating them. They just killed them.
How many died?
Once you entered Tuol Sleng, you were guaranteed never to come out alive. No one is completely certain how many people died at Tuol Sleng. It is said somewhere between 14,000 and 20,000.
How many lived?
Twelve people lived, seven of whom have come forward. When I visited, two of those survivors were at the prison selling their books, answering questions, and taking photos with the tourists.
Who were the people who ran Tuol Sleng?
There were two heads of S-21: Kang Keck Ieu (Duch) and Son Sen. Both were former teachers. In fact, many of the cadres in the upper levels of the Khmer Rouge were former schoolteachers. As a teacher, I find this information fascinating. Most of the guards, interrogators, and executioners were young cadres in their teens and early twenties—easily manipulated and a desire to please superiors.
Here’s the really crazy thing:
Even though the Khmer Rouge were toppled by the Vietnamese invasion, Duch was not arrested until 1999 and Son Sen until 1997–18-20 years after the Khmer Rouge lost power! Most of the Khmer Rouge high ranking officers escaped capture until the late 1990s. It feels like the people responsible for this cruelty and ineptitude were never really punished.
PRO TIP: Don't travel anywhere without bringing these essential items with you to keep you safe and secure:
Combination lock - The one thing you MUST bring with you to Asia if you're planning on staying in hostels is a combination lock. Hostels provide lockers and you provide the lock.
Money belt - Even though these are not the most comfortable things to wear, a money belt is essential. I've tried both these traditional travel belts and ones that runners use.
RFID Blocking Sleeves - Another great item to use is an RFID sleeve for your credit and debit cards and passport so that thieves can't scan your credit and debit cards and passport.
Anti-Theft Purses - Travel-on Anti-theft purses are great because they're made of a material that's difficult for thieves to slash. They've got lots of pockets as well and a way to lock the zippers.
Privacy Screen Protectors - Privacy screen protectors prevent people from seeing what's on your screen while working cafes, hostels, or co-working spaces. You can buy one for any type of laptop.
2. Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
- OPEN: 7:30 am – 5:30 pm
- COST: I couldn’t find the latest ticket price
- AUDIO GUIDE: Get the excellent audio-guide
- HIGHLIGHTS: the display case of 8,000 skulls, the tree where children were killed
- BUILT: the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek began to be used in 1977
- GETTING THERE: hire a tuk-tuk to visit both the museum and the Killing Fields or join a tour; you can visit Klook’s website for a list of tours.
- LOCATION: Google Maps
- WEBSITE: http://www.killingfieldsmuseum.com/
After visiting Tuol Sleng on day 2 of your Phnom Penh itinerary, you’ll go to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Your tuk-tuk driver who was waiting for you outside of Tuol Sleng can take you there. Make sure to get the audio guide at the entrance. It’s excellent.
Choung Ek is the place where the prisoners from Tuol Sleng were executed.
Originally, prisoners were killed and buried right outside of Tuol Sleng prison. But some time in 1977, the space outside of the prison filled up with bodies, so the prisoners were taken to a cemetery near the village of Choeung Ek about 1.5 kilometers away from Phnom Penh.
Before visiting Phnom Penh, I had the wrong idea of what the Killing Fields was. This mistake was based on what I saw in the movie, “The Killing Fields.” In the movie, the main character, Haing Ngor, is seen escaping from wherever he was and coming across a field of skeletons. I thought these fields of dead bodies could be found throughout the country. Maybe they were before, but they’re not places that anyone has turned into a sight to honor the dead or to learn about what happened.
Instead, I learned that when people talk about the Killing Fields, they’re talking about this area near Choeung Ek where the prisoners from S-21 were taken to be executed.
The person responsible for much of the executions and was notorious for being exceptionally cruel, Him Huy, describes how prisoners were killed:
“They were ordered to kneel down at the edge of the hole. Their hands were tied behind them. They were beaten on the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, sometimes with one blow, sometimes with two…Ho inspected the killings and I recorded the names. We took the names back to Suos Thi. There could not be any missing names” (Chandler – Voices from S-21)
PRO TIP: Cambodia has some amazing tropical fruit. There is one type of fruit called the sapodilla that tastes exceptionally sweet and malty with a hint of honey. Others have described it as tasting like a caramel covered pear. It’s my favorite fruit in the world, but it’s not easy to find outside of Southeast Asia. You get buy these at fruit stalls at the Russian or Central Markets.
3. Central Market (Psar Thmei) + Lunch
- OPEN: It closes at 5:00 pm
- COST: free to enter
- HIGHLIGHTS: architecture | souvenirs | fruit vendors
- BUILT: 1937 by a French architect
- GETTING THERE: Have your tuk-tuk driver drop you off at the market
- LOCATION: Google Maps
Have your tuk-tuk driver take you to the Central Market. I bought lots of souvenirs here.
It’s also a great place to see a pre-war, art-deco style-building built by the French. There’s a huge building covered by a dome. You can buy clothes, jewelry, lots of different things. There are also walkways lined with shops. On the outside are venders selling food. Make sure to buy some tropical fruit while you’re there.
Lunch: While you’re at the market, grab some lunch from a nearby restaurant or food stall. I had lunch around here, but I don’t remember the name of the restaurant.
If you’re flying out of Phnom Penh at the end of your trip, you might want to wait until then to visit so you’re not lugging souvenirs around for your whole trip. That’s what I did.
The Russian Market (Google Maps) is an alternative market. I think it’s supposed to be more touristy than the Central Market. didn’t visit so I can’t say for sure which one is better. I’m recommending the Central Market because it’s closer to your next stop on this Phnom Penh itinerary, Wat Phnom, than the Russian Market is.
4. Wat Phnom
- OPEN: 7:00 am – 6:00 pm
- COST: don’t have current information on the entrance fee
- HIGHLIGHTS: a great place to people watch | look for the statue of Madame Penh—she’s a jolly, plump woman
- BUILT: 1372 by Penh, the woman who found four Buddha statues and one statue of Shiva—the city of Phnom Penh is supposedly named after her
- GETTING THERE: you can easily walk from the Central Market to the temple
- LOCATION: Google Maps
The last stop on this itinerary is a visit to the oldest structure in Phnom Penh: Wat Phnom (wat= a place of worship). This Buddhist temple is the same temple where the woman named Penh housed the Buddha statues that she found back in 1372.
When I was there, it was quite lively with lots of people praying, children begging, and people bringing their birds in cages to the temple.
5. Wat Ounalom Monastery
- OPEN: 6:00 am – 6:00 pm
- COST: don’t have information on the current entrance fee
- BUILT: 1443
- GETTING THERE: you can walk along the Mekong River from Wat Phnom to Wat Ounalom
- LOCATION: Google Maps
Wat Ounalom is the most important Buddhist temple in Cambodia and the headquarters of Buddhism is Cambodia. It was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and since then, has been restored. Supposedly, it contains the eyebrow of the Buddha (lots of temples throughout Southeast Asia claim to have something from the Buddha—a piece of hair or a tooth). This is the first eyebrow that I’ve heard of.
Where to eat in Phnom Penh
I ate at the following restaurants in Phnom Penh. I ate at another restaurant, but I don’t remember its name.
Malis: I highly recommend treating yourself to a really good dinner and getting a taste of Cambodian cuisine at one of the best restaurants in Phnom Penh, Malis. Malis (Google Maps) serves really good Cambodian food in a beautiful atmospheric setting. Looking at the menu again, it’s much pricier than when I had eaten there. Here are the reviews from Trip Advisor.
Friends: I ate here for lunch, but it is also open for dinner. Friends is a restaurant run by an NGO that helps street kids and disadvantaged youth get experience in the hospitality industry. They serve western food. There are plenty of vegetarian options. Here are the reviews from Trip Advisor.
Romdeng: I also ate at Romdeng (Google Maps) twice. It’s another restaurant that is run by the same NGO that runs Friends. They serve Cambodian food. For one meal, I had the Red Tree Ants with Beef Fillet and Basil Stir Fry—ants taste like lemon pepper! Here are reviews from Trip Advisor.
Bassac Lane – Bassac Lane (Google Maps) is a nice little lane with some good restaurants, bars, and shops.
What to do in the Evening in Phnom Penh
There are a number of things you can do in the evening. Here are a few options. When I was in Phnom Penh, I did the sunset cruise and got drinks at the FCC.
- Food Tour – Get the inside scoop on Cambodian Food and a chance to try Cambodian BBQ. (US$60)
- FCC – Stop for a drink by this famous colonial bar near the Mekong River
- Cambodian Living Arts Performance (US$15)
- Dinner at Malis (US$20 – US$30) or Romdeng (US$10)
- FCC – Stop for a drink by this famous colonial bar near the Mekong River
- Sunset Cruise along the Mekong River (US$15)
- Dinner at Malis (US$20 – $30) or Romdeng (US$10)
- FCC – Stop for a drink by this famous colonial bar near the Mekong River
1. Food Tour
I always try to do a food tour when I first arrive in a country so that I can get someone to show me what to eat and how to eat it. Often the guides will give you the opportunity to sample foods or visit restaurants that you normally wouldn’t try on your own. Plus, you get some background and history to the food of the country as well as recommendations for the best restaurants to try.
For Phnom Penh, food tours are great for solo travelers because they often take you to try Khmer BBQ. Usually, you cook the BBQ yourself, so they’re better to eat at if you’re in a group.
The only negative thing about food tours is that solo travelers can have a hard time booking them as there is usually a two-person minimum.
Here are a few food tours you can try:
- Evening Urban Food Tour – visit a BBQ restaurant and over 25 tastings
- Lost Plate Food Tour – three-hour tour includes Prahok, BBQ, crushed eggplant, and more; ends with a drink at a rooftop bar
2. Cambodia Living Arts Performance
One of the best things you can do in Phnom Penh is to attend a traditional dance, drama, or puppet performance at Cambodia Living Arts. These are not shoddy imitations of Khmer dance and theater geared toward the foreign tourist. These are highly sophisticated and well-performed shows that give you a good experience in Cambodian culture and history.
90% of Cambodian artists and performers died during the Cambodian genocide. The Cambodian Living Arts’ mission is to revive and preserve the traditional art of Cambodia.
Shows usually begin at 7:00 pm, last one hour, and cost around US$15. You can find out their schedule on their website. They are located near the National Museum. You can purchase tickets online through Klook.
3. Sunset Cruise on the Mekong River
If you’re up for something a bit touristy but still an enjoyable experience, you can go on a river cruise along the Mekong River. You can do the cruise with or without dinner. I suggest NOT doing dinner and saving that for a visit to a restaurant I suggest later in this post.
The cruise I went on took us to the opposite shore where you’ll see lots of Vietnamese living on fishing boats. The Vietnamese in Cambodia have lived in the country for a long time, but they aren’t allowed to buy land or property in Cambodia because they aren’t considered Cambodian citizens.
You can buy your ticket through Klook or through your hotel.
4. Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC)
You cannot leave Phnom Penh without a visit to the famous and atmospheric Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) overlooking the Mekong River (Google Maps). The bar was the hangout of foreign journalists covering the wars in Indochina during the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a fun place to get a drink.
5. Bassac Lane
Bassac Lane is a small street filled with bars, cafes, and restaurants catering to the expatriates.
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Where to stay in Phnom Penh
I stayed in two different hotels in Phnom Penh.
Blue Lime – (BOOKING.COM | AGODA) I loved this hotel. The staff were friendly, the rooms were gorgeous, the breakfast was delicious, the location was near the Royal Palace and National Museum, and the pool area was a mini-paradise. Some rooms have their own private pools.
Teahouse – (BOOKING.COM | AGODA) I stayed here before my flight out of Cambodia. It’s owned by the same company that owns the Blue Lime. This is another great hotel in a great location, with friendly and attentive service, modern and clean rooms, a pool, and an excellent buffet breakfast.
Pavilion – (BOOKING.COM | AGODA) Pavilion is part of the same hotel group as Blue Lime and Teahouse are, but it’s more elegant and more expensive.
Budgeting for Phnom Penh
Cambodia is one of the more expensive Southeast Asian destinations. Phnom Penh is no exception. It could be due to the fact that even though Cambodia has its own currency, it also uses US dollars. And most attractions have two prices: foreign price and local price.
- Medium-Priced Hotels: US$60 – US$100
- Budget-Priced Hotels: US$30 – $40
- Hostels: US$10
- Tourist sights: US$10 – US$15
- Food: Street food and local restaurants – US$2 – $3 mid-range tourist-catered restaurants: US$7 – US$15 (entrée)
- Tours: US$30 – US$60
- Transportation: Day 1 – go by foot | Day 2 – US$15
Daily costs for those on a budget (staying in a dorm) is around US$40 – $60. For those on a mid-range budget, daily costs should be around US$100 – $150. This is all without alcohol and drinks. My daily costs were around US$100.
Phnom Penh for Solo Travelers
I felt pretty safe as a solo female traveler in Phnom Penh. I wasn’t harassed as I walked down the street alone. I did walk alone to restaurants in the evening.
I was really careful with my bag as there’s a lot of theft in the city.
Wifi in Phnom Penh
I had decent WiFi in my hotel rooms in Phnom Penh–much better than when I was in Siem Reap.
When you arrive in Cambodia, make sure to get a local SIM card for your phone. I don’t remember which card I used. Here are the three most popular cellular companies:
- Cell Card
Currency and ATMs in Phnom Penh
Cambodia’s currency is called the riel. However, they also use US dollars. Businesses will give prices in US dollars or riel.
I never used riel when I was in Cambodia. When you’re exchanging money when you first arrive, it’s best to just get US dollars. Make sure your dollars are crisp and clean with no tears or folds.
You can find ATMs at the airport when you arrive. The most common banks are ANZ Royal Bank, Canadia, and Acleda Bank. You’ll probably be charged a withdrawal fee of around US$5 each time you withdraw money. It’s best to get a debit card that refunds you your fees like Charles Schwaab.
I used several sources to write this post.
- Voices from S-21 – By David Chandler
- When the War Was Over – By Elizabeth Becker
- Lonely Planet Cambodia
Phnom Penh–it sort of grows on you. I’ve been to the city twice. The first time I didn’t like it. Noisy, crowded, polluted. The second time I returned after spending 3 weeks exploring the rest of Cambodia and by then, I was more used to the country and I didn’t mind the city. It’s got some great restaurants, friendly locals, and some of the most important historic sights in Asia.
Looking For More Info on Traveling in Southeast Asia?
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- Penang Itinerary
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- Ho Chi Minh Itinerary 3 Days
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