Best things to do in Phnom Penh, the underrated capital

written by
Meera Dattani

updated 28.07.2021

Many people seem to skip the Cambodian capital and head straight for Siem Reap, fearing Phnom Penh to be a dangerous and uninteresting city. However, on a recent trip to Southeast Asia’s “unpopular capital”, Meera Dattani discovered all that the city has to offer and concluded that, while it is underrated and understated, Phnom Penh certainly deserves a few days at least. Here are our favourite things to do in Phnom Penh.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Cambodia, your essential guide for visiting Cambodia.

1. See ageing ceramics at the National Museum of Cambodia

“Do you think it’ll just be full of old pottery?” my friend asked as we set off for the National Museum, our first stop in the Cambodian capital. Now I won’t lie to those averse to aged ceramics, there is pottery. But there is also a sublime collection of Khmer sculptures and art, which, had the Khmer Rouge had their way, would not have survived to this day.

It’s one of the most absorbing national museums I’ve visited, just large enough to be comprehensive yet compact enough to see it all in a couple of hours, and bizarrely, a simple map illustrating the former domination of the Khmer Empire draws the largest crowds, united in astonishment upon realising just how far and wide it once ruled.

Prepare for the best things to do in Phnom Penh on this tailor-made Cambodia Cultural Discovery. Tour the capital, Phnom Penh, with its romantic cafes and haute cuisine, discover ancient, awe-inspiring temples, and stunning countryside and explore one of the greatest wonders of the world.

National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia © Marcel Toung/Shutterstock

National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia © Marcel Toung/Shutterstock

2. Discover the surprise factor on Sisowath Quay

Phnom Penh is all about this surprise factor. On a walk along Sisowath Quay, the city’s pedestrianised riverfront, you’re likely to witness an aerobics class, local boys skateboarding or the serene sight of monks strolling, clad in orange robes. At the weekend, you’ll probably end up at the Phsar Reatrey night market where chocolate waffles, cold beer, kebabs and fried insects are all abundantly available.

More traditional sights are on the menu too, though, as colourful wats and pagodas (temples) are scattered around the city, and for those who have visited Bangkok’s Grand Palace, the architecture of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace and glittering Silver Pagoda will ring a bell. Its murals, wats and gardens, and Baccarat crystal Buddha, are reminiscent of those found in the Thai capital.

Riverside Park that runs along the Tonlé Sap River and the Preah Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh, Cambodia © Shutterstock

Riverside Park that runs along the Tonlé Sap River and the Preah Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh, Cambodia © Shutterstock

3. Visit the sobering Genocide Museum

Harrowing monuments to Cambodia’s grisly past during the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rule. Not for the faint-hearted, just over 1km (0.6 miles) from Tuol Tom Pong Market, to the north of Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, stands the former Tuol Sleng Prison, now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Here, during Pol Pot’s years in power, around 20,000 people were interrogated under torture and murdered, generally together with their families.

Finally, for those with the stomach for the experience after visiting Tuol Sleng, about 12km (7.5 miles) southwest of the town are the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Here victims of the Khmer Rouge were executed and buried in mass graves. Many of these graves have now been exhumed, and a stupa-shaped mausoleum has been erected in the victims’ memory.

Prison of the Khmer Rouge high school S-21 turned into a torture and execution center © diy13/Shutterstock

Visiting the Prison of the Khmer Rouge high school is one of the things to do in Phnom Phen for those with the stomach for the experience © diy13/Shutterstock

4. Discover the best place for bagging bargains

There’s plenty of light relief in the city too. Luckily, Phnom Penh is widely (and quite rightly) considered to be the best place to shop in Cambodia. Under the striking yellow dome of Central Market (Phsar Thmey), you can pick up anything from cheap electronics to clothes and souvenirs.

When exploring the city, one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh is to visit the mazes inside the Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Pong). Here not only will you find ethical crafts and Khmer trinkets, you only need to delve deeper to discover all manner of stalls, selling obscure car parts and surreal-looking local fruits.

The Psar Chaa, or Old Market, located near the riverfront at the junction of Streets 108 and 13, is a densely packed locale offering a wide selection of all kinds of goods. Unlike some of the markets, it stays open late into the evening. A tidy, modern Phnom Penh night market is held in the square across the street, facing the river, and is now a favourite spot for weekend souvenir shopping.

Phnom Penh's Central Market © Shutterstock

Phnom Penh's Central Market © Shutterstock

5. Enjoy Phnom Penh nightlife

By night, Phnom Penh takes on another aura. The riverfront’s rooftop bars buzz with the clinking of glasses as sunset-seekers settle down, cocktails in hand, to watch the glowing red ball settle on the Mekong River. The legendary Foreign Correspondents’ Club remains a popular choice, where under the hum of the ceiling fans, a cold beer and the nightly sunset keep everyone happy.

See the best of beautiful Cambodia on this amazing tailor-made tour of Cambodia’s Beaches and Temples. Explore the busy capital Phnom Penh, laze on the golden sands of the south coast beaches, and discover local villages and Cambodian cuisine before you lose yourself among the mystical temples of Angkor.

6. Commendable Cambodian cuisine

Along with shopping, the capital is the best place in Cambodia for food, too – both international and Khmer, which is slowly developing its own identity with dishes like amok (coconut fish steamed in banana leaves), sticky rice with mango and Kampot pepper crab. These delectable culinary delights are among the top things to do in Phnom Penh.

Along with Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is also pioneering the concept of ethical eating with an ever-increasing number of restaurants and cafes training formerly disadvantaged people in all things culinary.

This concept is at the heart of the Friends International brand with places such as Friends the Restaurant, Romdeng and Le Café Mith Samlanh. Other recommendations include Cafe Yejj near the Russian Market and Sugar 'n Spice Café at Daughters.

Prawn Amok is a major national culinary tradition in Cambodia, and also popular in Laos and Thailand © sakadaphoto/Shutterstock

Prawn Amok is a major national culinary tradition in Cambodia © sakadaphoto/Shutterstock

7. Exploring the surroundings on foot or tuk-tuk

Tuk-tuks are the best way to get around this relatively compact capital, but if you enjoy walking, the French Quarter is probably the city’s only intact historic neighbourhood with wide boulevards and colonial architecture.

Look out for Raffles Hotel, Manolis Hotel and the former Banque de l’Indochine before heading river-wards to the 27-metre-high hill of Wat Phnom, after which Phnom Penh was named. These attractions are must-visit highlights when considering the best things to do in Phnom Penh.

It’s the highest point in this low-rise city so the views are not half-bad. Not-for-profit group KA Tours also runs an architecture tour around the city from the comfort of a pedal-powered cyclo.

8. Taking a cruise to the Silk Island

One of the best things to do in Phnom Penh is to take a cruise to the Silk Island. Also known as Koh Dach, the island is located on the Mekong River, about 15 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh and is easily reachable by boat or ferry. The island is renowned for silk weaving, and a visit will allow you to explore the delicate process of silk making and buy silk products directly from the makers.

Among other things, a trip to the island offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh city life. The island is characterised by tranquil and picturesque rural countryside and charming villages. It offers an opportunity to experience the rustic lifestyle and natural beauty of Cambodia. And if you are looking for more unusual islands to travel to, Cambodia also has an outstanding exotic destination for you.

9. Meet the animals at the Wildlife Alliance

About 13km (8 miles) south of Tonlé Bati, turn left at the sign, and head another 6km (4 miles) to reach Wildlife Alliance (Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre). The centre, part safari and part wildlife rehabilitation facility is home to numerous wild animals confiscated from poachers, traffickers and people keeping them illegally as pets.

The centre operates a breeding facility for endangered species and releases specimens into the wild when feasible. Both Betelnut Jeep Tours and Free the Bears organise enhanced tours of the centre, with special access to the wildlife for their guests.

This is a tailor-made trip to Cambodia for the adventurer. This trip takes you from the glorious temples and rolling countryside of Siem Reap to the attractive riverside capital of Phnom Penh where you can explore the city’s broad boulevards, new restaurants and myriad sights.

10. Discover Wat Ounalom

Exploring the rich history and spiritual significance of Wat Ounalom is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh. The headquarters of the Cambodian Buddhist sangha and Phnom Penh’s most important temple, Wat Ounalom stands northwest of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia (FCCC) and the Royal Palace.

To the west of the main temple stands a stupa said to contain the eyebrow hair of the Buddha. Within the temple are several archaic Buddha figures, smashed to pieces by the Khmer Rouge but since reassembled.

Also on display is a statue of Samdech Huot Tat, head of the sangha when Pol Pot came to power and was subsequently killed. On leaving the temple, turn right (south) along Sisowath Quay, the road that runs along the Sap River. This is a delightful area of small riverside cafés and restaurants where it is possible to experience the international affluence of the new Cambodia.

Wat Ounalom is a buddhist temple located on Sisowath Quay near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in Cambodia © Shutterstock

Wat Ounalom is a buddhist temple located on Sisowath Quay near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in Cambodia © Shutterstock

11. Visit the Emerald Buddha at the Silver Pagoda

A narrow southwesterly route leads to the North Gate of the celebrated Silver Pagoda compound. Commissioned by King Norodom in 1892, and then extensively rebuilt by Sihanouk in 1962, the floor of the pagoda is lined with more than 5,000 silver tiles weighing more than 1kg each. The pagoda is also known as Wat Preah Keo, or “Temple of the Emerald Buddha”.

Visiting the Pagoda is one of the essential things to do in Phnom Penh and in Cambodia in general. It houses the sacred symbol of the nation, the Emerald Buddha, which dates from the 17th century and is made of crystal. Note that photography within the building is forbidden.

On this tailor-made trip to Khmer Cultural Treasures, you will discover the wonders of Khmer architecture through temple tours around ancient Siem Reap, explore the Cambodian countryside, the floating markets of Tonle Sap and see all the cultural highlights of Phnom Penh.

‘Silver Pagoda’ or Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh © Shutterstock

‘Silver Pagoda’ or Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh © Shutterstock

12. Shop for fantastic fabrics at the Olympic Market

Olympic Market, also known as Phsar Olympic or Phsar Thom Thmey, is a popular market named for its location next to the Olympic Stadium. You can find a wide range of goods at the market. The Olympic market in particular is known for clothes, shoes, accessories and fabrics. You can explore a huge selection of traditional Khmer clothing as well as choose from modern fashion and sportswear.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Phnom Penh.

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Meera Dattani

written by
Meera Dattani

updated 28.07.2021

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