Phnom Penh and around Travel Guide

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Phnom Penh is the charming capital city of Cambodia. This captivating and vibrant city has undeniable charm, with its roadsides teeming with street food stalls and colourful, bustling markets. Situated in a virtually flat area at the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong rivers, the compact city hasn’t yet been overwhelmed by the towering high-rise developments that blight neighbouring Southeast Asian capitals.

Phnom Penh’s travel highlights include the thriving art scene, culinary experiences and stunning examples of architecture. The walkable riverfront is lined with parks, restaurants and bars, and you’ll also discover the ornate Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda here. Phnom Penh has a French colonial heritage, and the French influence is evident in the open-fronted shophouses lining the streets and several monuments.

For many visitors, Phnom Penh is a transit stop before hopping on to Siem Reap and Angkor, Sihanoukville or to the Vietnamese border crossings at Bavet and Chau Doc. But there are plenty of reasons to linger in the city. The capital has the best shopping in the country, with a vast selection of souvenirs and crafts, and an excellent range of cuisines in its many restaurants. There are also several rewarding day-trips from the capital out into the surrounding countryside.

Brief history of Phnom Pehn

In 1432, Phnom Penh began its first stint as a capital when King Ponhea Yat fled from Angkor and the invading Siamese. He set up a Royal Palace and founded five monasteries. Wat Botum, Wat Koh, Wat Langka, Wat Ounalom and Wat Phnom - all of which survive today.

19th century - The Vietnamese assumed control over Cambodia, and there were continued power struggles between the Thais and Vietnamese. In 1863, King Norodom signed a treaty for Cambodia to become a French protectorate. Hyun de Verneville started to create a chic colonial town, building roads, law courts, banks and schools.

1954 - Phnom Penh gained independence from the French, and an educated middle class began to gain prominence. Cafe society began to blossom, cinemas and theatres thrived.

1970 - Lon Nol’s forces fought a civil war against the Khmer Rouge. As the city came under siege, food became scarce.

1975 - In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge forces marched into Phnom Penh and instituted a brutal regime to eradicate all perceived opposition. The Khmer Rouge defined the darkest period in Phnom Penh’s history. They were led by French-educated Saloth Sar, subsequently known as Pol Pot. He ordered the mass extermination of intellectuals, teachers, writers, educated people and their families. Even wearing glasses was considered a crime. Soldiers ordered the rest of the population out of the capital to work as peasants on the land. The Khmer Rouge killed between one and three million people.

1979 - With Vietnamese entry into Phnom Penh both original inhabitants and new settlers began to arrive. The Khmer Rouge fled to the jungle near the Thai border.

1989 - The Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia. The UN subsequently took charge. Later the country became flooded with highly paid UNTAC forces, and the city started to boom again. Hotels, restaurants and bars sprang up to keep the troops entertained.

Today the city is repairing the dereliction caused decades ago; roads are much improved, electricity is reliable, and the charming colonial buildings are being restored. In this Phnom Penh guide, learn more about the vibrant culture visitors can expect today.

Places to go in Phnom Penh

Riverside - Sisowath Quay and around

Sisowath Quay is a real tourist hub. Sisowath Quay runs north and south of the centre, and it is lined with tall palms on one side, and bars, cafés and restaurants on the other. It is always lively, and in the evening it is the city’s social centre. You’ll discover food vendors and an atmospheric night market at the northern end by the tourist docks. Here, numerous boat companies offer sunset cruises along the Tonle Sap, or boats can be rented along the shore.

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

Set back from the riverbank on Sothearos Boulevard, stands the Royal Palace and adjacent Silver Pagoda. Arguably the most impressive of the city’s attractions, The Royal Palace is well worth a visit for its classic Khmer architecture, its ornate gilding and its tranquil French landscaped gardens. The Silver Pagoda is also well known for its elaborate silver-tiled floor and priceless Buddha statues.

Boeung Keng Kang (BKK)

Boeung Keng Kang, or BKK, is a neighbourhood that’s popular with ex-pats and it’s also home to an increasing number of stylish hotels, bars and restaurants. It’s located south of the Independence Monument. Here you’ll find embassies and UN and NGO offices.

Wat Botum Park and around

The peaceful Wat Botum Park gets its name from the adjacent temple. At the park, you’ll find the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument, with massive sandstone figures of a Khmer woman holding a baby, flanked by two armed Vietnamese liberation soldiers. It commemorates the Vietnamese liberation of Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.

The French Quarter

During the colonial era, Wat Phnom was at the heart of the French Quarter, and its leafy boulevards were graced by several delightful colonial buildings. These included the main post office, the National Library, Raffles Hotel Le Royal and the rather grand train station. Many of these survive today, and the area is worth exploring to get a taste of their historic grandeur. In the northeast of the city, set back just a few hundred metres from the riverfront, the imposing white chedi of Wat Phnom sits atop the hill that gave the city its name. This spot draws crowds, especially at weekends.

Central Phnom Penh and Psar Thmei

The centre of Phnom Penh is home to the art-deco inspired Psar Thmei market. Browse the Central market for electronics, jewellery, clothing, souvenirs, and more. It’s also a short walking distance from the Sorya Mall which house many shops, a food court and Starbucks.

Top things to do in Phnom Penh

Here are some of the highlights and the top things to do in Phnom Penh:

  1. The Royal PalaceThe golden spires, landscaped gardens and Silver Pagoda make up the capital’s most appealing sight.
  2. The National MuseumSituated just north of the Royal Palace on Street 13, Its four galleries are set around a tranquil courtyard. The galleries shelter an impressive array of relics, art and sculpture. It covers Cambodian history from to the present day. A highlight includes a mythical sandstone bird that stands over two metres high.
  3. Toul Sleng Genocide MuseumThe Toul Svay Prey Secondary School in a quiet Phnom Penh neighbourhood was transformed into a prison and interrogation centre when the Khmer Rouge had their reign of terror. An estimated twenty thousand victims were imprisoned in Security Prison 21 or S21. If you visit, you will begin to get a scale of the suffering endured by the Cambodian people.
  4. Choeung EkChoeung Ek is one of many killing fields in Cambodia, and a visit here is a very sobering experience. The killing fields feature a memorial temple containing thousands of human skulls. It was here that the bodies of 8985 people, victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were exhumed from 86 mass graves. The area is best visited with a guide.
  5. Wat PhnomWat Phnom is situated atop the city’s only hill at the northern end of Norodom Boulevard. It was founded by a local widow named Daun Penh in 1373. Today, many people come here to pray for good luck. The temple is open daily to foreign visitors from 8 am to 5 pm.
  6. The Central MarketThe airy and bright Central Market is also called Psar Thmei. You can expect to barter with savvy vendors here. You can find electronic goods, clothes, jewellery and more.
  7. The Russian MarketIt’s is called the Russian market because all of its goods used to come from Russia. The country provided aid to Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation. This market remains the place to buy textiles, antiques, silver and even motorbike parts. At the south end of the market, you’ll find vendors selling silver jewellery, handicrafts and piles of multicoloured silks.
  8. Mekong CruiseBoats can be hired for a late afternoon cruise with their captain on the Mekong. You can sip on a beer and watch the sun come down behind the Royal Palace.
  9. Wat OunalomWat Ounalom is one of Phnom Penh’s oldest and most important pagodas - it dates back to the reign of Ponhea Yat in the fifteenth century. Within the chedi, there are four sanctuaries. The one facing east has a fine bronze Buddha.

Accommodation in Phnom Penh

If you’re considering where to stay in Phnom Penh, you’ll find a range of accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes. You can choose from budget, mid-range and luxury options.

At the luxury end you could opt to stay in the historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal, rooms are restored to reflect a blend of Art Deco, Khmer and French colonial architecture. There are many choices of where to stay in Phnom Penh, including a range of charming accommodation on the Sisowath Quay. If you stay here, you’ll be just a short stroll from the Royal Palace and many other attractions. If you are looking for a backpacker vibe, you can find it in central Phnom Penh and the BKK neighbourhood.

Backpackers could try a dorm at the Happy Backpackers starting from as little as five US dollars per night. In Boeung Keng Kang you’ll find the flashpacker hostel Mad Monkey. It has a reputation for a party pool, chill out areas and lively bar and restaurant. BKK is also a good choice for stylish bars and restaurants, and it’s nearby the independence monument.

Eating in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is filled with Cambodian culinary delights. There are a plethora of street stalls where you can fill up on noodle dishes, filled baguettes and fruit shakes. You can also find a good selection of street food vendors at the riverside and night market.

The bustling riverfront and Sisowath Quay are lined with cafés, restaurants and bars serving cuisine from all over the world. Boeung Keng Kang is also packed with swish cafes, restaurants and bars. The restaurants are reasonably priced, and many visitors end up lingering in Phnom Penh for the restaurant scene.

Phnom Penh drinking and nightlife

For most Khmers, nightlife centres around an early evening meal out, followed by a burst of karaoke. You can find plenty of karaoke restaurants around town. Most bars and restaurants promote daily happy hours, from late afternoon to well after sunset. Boeung Keng Kang has a more upmarket vibe, and you’ll also find atmospheric bars in Bassac Lane. If you want a lively drink and to meet fellow backpackers try the Top Banana bar.

The streets surrounding the Russian market also have a selection of cocktail bars and fun bars that host live music, open-mic and comedy nights.

Arts, culture and entertainment in Phnom Penh

The Khmer Rouge banned Cambodia’s traditional arts and culture, but since then it has seen a revival. The Chaktomuk Theatre in Phnom Penh hosts several musical performances, and Sovanna Phum (meaning Golden Era) is an independent Khmer association focussed on the performing arts in Cambodia.

Performances include folk and classical dance, mask theatre, music, circus performances and shadow puppetry. There are performances at the theatre every Friday and Saturday night.

The theatres of Phnom Penh also play host to the Cambodian International Film Festival. The Meta House promotes the development of contemporary Cambodian art.

Phnom Penh also has a volunteer cinema called the flicks which has comfy sofas and popcorn and shows a variety of Western and Cambodian films.

Shopping in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has several lively and colourful markets to visit. Here you can shop for clothes and souvenirs to your heart’s content, but you may not have time to visit all of the markets. Try the Russian market, which is at the southern end of town; it has an array of jewellery, gems, ethical crafts, food, Khmer souvenirs and more. The markets are liveliest in the morning, and things wind down by 5 pm. From 5 pm you can visit the night market down by the riverside. It has a mixture of clothes and food. There are also several shopping malls around the city.

Try Tree-lined St 240 for boutique shops, mainly selling clothes and homewares, and almost all with an ethical slant. They are open daily from 8 am–8 pm. Numerous NGOs and other organisations have shops and outlets that directly help street children, women at risk, the disabled and other disadvantaged groups. The Daughters of Cambodia in Sisowath Quay is one such boutique selling interesting jewellery and accessories. The shop is run by women who have been rescued from the sex trafficking industry and the profits go toward saving other victims. You can sponsor a girl and donate directly to the foundation.

Safety in Phnom Penh

It’s best to be extra vigilant when travelling at night. There are instances of robberies and bags being snatched from tourists walking around key tourist areas, including the riverfront and Central Market. Moto riders have also fallen prey to bag snatchers. Keep your bag well out of sight and consider wearing a money belt to stay safe. Phnom Penh is safe to travel in, but gun crime is a regular occurrence. Crime usually reaches a peak at festival times and Khmer New Year. Find out more about safety in the latest travel advice for Cambodia.

Around Phnom Penh

There are many things to do in Phnom Penh itself, but the surrounding area is also worth exploring.

Chroy Chung Va peninsula

Just a short journey from Phnom Penh you’ll find a landscape of rice paddies and sugar palms. The Chroy Chung Va peninsula is at the tip of land facing the city at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong River. It’s home to a collection of small villages that feel a long way from the bustle of the city.

Koh Dach

Koh Dach is reached by a short ferry trip from Phnom Penh. It’s a lush green island in the Mekong. The inhabitants weave silk and grow a wide variety of produce.

Kien Svay & Wat Champuk Ka-Ek

Kien Svay is east of town along National Route 1. Get away from the bustle of the city and have a riverside lunch in a local village. Wat Champuk Ka-Ek has a collection on 10000 Buddhas.

Oudong & Lovek

Oudong is the old capital of Phnom Penh. The area is dotted with the history of various Kings, stupas and shrines. Combine it with a trip to Lovek, which was also the nation’s capital in the 16th century.

The legend of Lovek

When Lovek was capital, it was said to house two statues of Preah Ko and Preah Kaew that contained sacred texts, written in gold, recording “all the knowledge and wisdom in the world”. During one of the periodic conflicts between the Thai and Khmer, the Thai army was encamped outside Lovek, which it had repeatedly failed to capture, and was about to make its seasonal retreat in advance of the rains.

The story goes that the Thai fired a cannon loaded with silver coins into the bamboo thickets that afforded the city some natural protection. During the rainy season, the Khmer gradually cleared the bamboo in their search for the coins, such that the Thai were easily able to capture the city in the following dry season. Removing the statues to Ayutthaya, the Thai were able to read the sacred texts and so became more knowledgeable than the Khmer. The legend has it that the statues are still hidden in Bangkok and that when they are returned to Cambodia the country will once again have ascendancy over Thailand.

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek is just twelve kilometres south of Phnom Penh. The memorial at Choeung Ek now contains the remains of over 8000 bodies exhumed in 1980 when the killing field burial pits were excavated. Anecdotal estimates suggest that more than 17,000 people may have been slaughtered here. An excellent audio guide leads you around the site, stopping at various key points and finishing up at the memorial stupa. It includes harrowing commentary from victims and a former Khmer Rouge guard.

Tonle Bati

35km south of Phnom Penh, peaceful Tonle Bati is set on the banks of the Bati River in a well-tended grove of coconut and mango trees, where you can swim and picnic as well as seeing the two small but appealing temples. You will be met immediately by a gaggle of young girls selling flowers, who will most likely follow you around until you leave, even if you’re adamant about not buying.

Phnom Chisor

Further south, you can find spectacular views from the ancient hilltop temple of Phnom Chisor. Built early in the eleventh century by Suryavarman I and once a site of some significance, the temples houses one of four sacred linga installed by the king in temples at the boundaries of his kingdom. There’s a modern pagoda at the summit and a burgeoning number of sanctuaries scattered about. You could combine this as a day trip to also visit Phnom Tamao. It‘s Cambodia’s only state-run zoo and wildlife rescue centre.

Top image © saiko3p/Shutterstock

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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