Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s sprawling and busy capital. It’s sometimes seen as a place to merely travel in and out of Cambodia, but it’s a great destination to enjoy culture, art, shopping, history, and lots and lots of drinking. These are some of the must-see and must-do activities in Phnom Penh.
Tour the Royal Palace
Nothing in Phnom Penh was quite as beautiful as the Royal Palace. The stunning complex features several beautiful structures used for different reasons, like the Throne Hall, where royal ceremonies like weddings are held and the Moonlight Pavillion, which faces Sothearos Boulevard and is used during parades. One of the most important parts of the Royal Palace is the Silver Pagoda, which houses the Royal Temple and the Emerald Buddha. The palace serves as the residence for the king of Cambodia, so some parts of the complex are not accessible.
Tickets are $10 for foreigners. The palace sometimes closes for certain holidays or events, like elections. I recommend double checking opening hours when you arrive because visiting hours can be limited. As with all religious sites in Cambodia, you should dress modestly; keep knees and shoulders covered.
Visit the Killing Fields
It’s impossible to walk a few feet in Phnom Penh without a tuk tuk driver offering to take you to the Killing Fields, so there’s no shortage of transportation to the area. It’s important to note that if you’re really interested in the history of genocide in Cambodia, there are two sites, not one, that you should make a point to visit. One is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is housed in a former Khmer Rouge prison (S-21). The other is the memorial at Choeung Ek, the killing fields where over a million people were executed. This is around 40 minutes out of Phnom Penh.
There is a small fee to enter both sites with optional audio guides. To get the most of your visit, it’s probably best to get an audio guide, which tells the stories of people who lived through the horror firsthand. Obviously, these sites are not for the faint of heart, and they’re places where you should exercise the utmost level of respect, as Cambodians still visit regularly to mourn their family members.
See the temples of Phnom Penh
The city has some beautiful Buddhist temples that you shouldn’t miss. Perhaps the most exquisite is Wat Ounalom, which is right next to the Royal Palace. It’s small and extremely ornate with golden stupas that glisten in the sun and a quiet temple hall. One of the stupas is believed to contain Buddha’s eyebrow hair. Another must-see is Wat Phnom, which is the tallest religious structure in the city. Aside from the main pagoda, the hilltop temple has carved stairways, stupas, and a giant flower clock that adorns the base of the temple.
Phnom Penh’s markets are not so touristy that you feel like people won’t leave you alone (like in Siem Reap), and they have everything you could ever dream of needing from housewares to clothing. There are several major markets in the city, the biggest of which is the Central Market. It’s one of the cleanest markets I’ve ever seen, even compared to some cities in Europe, and it sprawls with four large spokes that serve as “departments” of sorts.
The Old Market is another place to see to experience local culture, as many locals shop here for fruits and vegetables and secondhand clothes. This is across from the Night Market, which comes to life from 5 pm to 11 pm every night. For how peaceful everything is during the day, the area around the markets at night becomes a crowded and loud with motorbikes whizzing between pedestrians and tuk tuks. It’s overwhelming but exceedingly fun.
Enjoy the nightlife
Phnom Penh is large so there are different areas with different nightlife offerings. On the side streets along the river, you’ll find many affordable (though somewhat touristy) options that include clubs, bars, and lounges. Some of these are 24 hours, so you can enjoy a $1 draft any time of day or night. After you have a drink at Catch-22, you can stumble into a massage parlor and get a cheap massage.
South of the Independence Day monument, which is situated on a large boulevard worth a visit, you’ll find slightly more upscale and modern options to go out and dine. For instance, the small alley of Bassac Lane has a slew of themed cocktail bars. I recommend Elbow Room and Hangar 44 for drink quality, though they’ll be slightly pricier, and Jack Saloon for totally over-the-top kitsch.
Visit the National Museum of Cambodia
The country’s largest historical and archeological museum is in Phnom Penh. The terracotta building of the National Museum alone is worth the price of admission ($10) with a beautiful and peaceful inner courtyard. It has a ton of artifacts including sculpture, paintings, and crafts. It’s divided into several sections, depending on time period, from pre-Angkorian times to the modern age. You’ll find sculptures recovered from Angkor Wat as well as the recently crowned largest hand-woven scarf, made by weavers from all over the country. The audio guide is extensive, as almost everything in the museum is catalogued and explained by the audio guide.
Bonus: Check out a cat cafe
Though cat cafes have become increasingly popular around the world, Phnom Penh has a truly fabulous one called CHHMA Catfe. These aren’t just house cats, their café houses some of the most sought after and expensive cat breeds in the world, like the Sphynx, Bengal, and Maine Coon. You can buy snacks for the cats and a nice cup of joe for yourself. I recommend the Cambodian coffee, strong black coffee with sweetened condensed milk.