Phnom Penh - Essential Itinerary
Be honest, what was the first thing on your mind about when you thought of visiting Cambodia? Googling the Top 9 Things to Do in Phnom Penh was unlikely it. Images of you exploring the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat are the usual bet. But Cambodia offers more than Angkor Wat. As bucket list-worthy as the temples are, there is so much more to see and experience in Cambodia.
Combining white-sand beaches, exotic spiced foods, and a lively capital city, Cambodia lives up to its nickname, the Kingdom of Wonder. In fact, if you are thinking about moving to Cambodia, Phnom Penh should be the first place you consider. The country's buzzing capital hosts the vast majority of expats and is home to over two million people.
With the city's nightlife, bustling markets, and storied history, you will soon understand why people choose living here. If you are looking for Phnom Penh's historical sights or its cultural attractions, follow this guide to see the best sites in the city.
What Are Essential Itineraries?
These bite-sized guides focus on the Top Sights to See and Best Things to Do for New Expats.
Written in collaboration with my network of expats and experienced travelers, you get up-to-date first hand knowledge and local tips.
Perfect for short trips, these overviews for visiting a new city are available for download.
Visit the Royal Palace
Let's start your tour at the Royal Palace. If you are from the US, the knowledge that Cambodia has a king likely surprised you. Don't let your ignorance of Cambodia's monarchy get you in trouble. The country's reverence and respect toward their King is cultural and stamped in law. If you insult or disparage the King, be prepared for a hefty fine and probable jail time.
The official residence of King Sihamoni is the Royal Palace. Manicured grounds and iconic high yellow walls shelter the Palace from the chaos of the city surrounding it. The Palace is a popular attraction for locals and expats alike. Parts of the Palace used by the King are off-limits. The rest of the complex, filled with intricate temples, giant murals, and gifts from foreign leaders is open to the public.
The impressive throne room, where coronations and special ceremonies take place, is a highlight. Inside, you can see statues of previous kings, as well as the three royal thrones. The main throne is an ornate multi-level traditional Khmer throne used when crowning the new King. It's the big one. You can't miss it.
WARNING: There is a strict dress code. Dress respectfully and modestly. Long pants must cover the knee and sleeves must cover shoulders (no tank tops or cutoffs allowed).
Check Out the Diamonds at Wat Preah Keo
Next up on our tour of top things to do is a short walk from the Royal Palace. The gilded and frescoed Wat Preah Keo (or Silver Pagoda), houses several Cambodian cultural treasures. The original Khmer artworks include a life-size Buddha statue encrusted with over 2,500 diamonds. The main diamond tips the scales at a whopping 25 carats. A smaller emerald buddha is significant, as the Wat's other name is Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Wat's design required six tons of silver for the 5000+ tiles covering the floor.
Learn about Khmer History at the National Museum
A short one-kilometer walk sits another must-see Phnom Penh attraction, the National Museum of Cambodia. We recommend visiting the National Museum before visiting the temples of Angkor Wat. The ancient Angkorian history, art, and architecture help contextualize what you will see at Angkor Wat. Understanding the Khmer empire's religious sculptures and royal artifacts will help you appreciate the culture represented by Angkor Wat.
Travel Contribution: Voyager
People watch on the Sisowath Quay
Next on our list of Top Things To do In Phnom Penh is a two-for-one. The next must-see attraction includes a 1.5 km walk to Wat Phnom. Instead of taking a boring direct route, a 20-minute stroll down the historical river promenade that runs along the Mekong and Tonle Sap River.
The Sisowath Quay, teeming with hotels, restaurants, vendors, and cafes, is a popular local meeting point. All the roads leading to the city's main attractions intersect here. The architecture here is a mash-up of colonial French and local Cambodian-styled buildings. The same cultural mix occurs on the boardwalk where sightseeing foreigners mix with locals going about their day.
If you are up early enough, observe locals practicing their morning Tai Chi. In the afternoon, Sisowath Quay fills with hawkers, hungry office workers, and expats. Everyone hangs out together to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere with a street snack and cup of coffee. Walk the entire length of the Quay, past the stalls of the Night Market, until you reach Wat Phnom.
Take a break at Wat Phnom
No Top Things to Do in Phnom Penh list is complete without visiting the famous and stunning Wat Phnom. Built-in the late 1300s, the Buddhist temple or Wat sits at the top of a 27 meters hill. You will need to pay a small entrance of $1 for tourists. Give yourself a couple of hours to admire the intricate details of the architecture around you. Walk around the back of the temple and treat yourself to a beautiful garden. It is so peaceful and quiet; you could hardly imagine it is only a stone throw away from busy surrounding streets.
Don't forget your water. The hill is 27 meters up, and there are a few flights of stairs to take before you enter the main temple. Make your way straight to the small ticket office to the right and head on up the stairs. The imposing gold Buddha statue towards the back wall will capture your gaze on entering.
Visitors are welcome to walk around the complex and take photos. Or, take a seat inside the temple to soak up the peaceful vibration. It is quite a unique temple with beautiful surroundings. Be sure to look up at the ceiling around the entrance. Take a few moments to admire the intricate artwork accented with dashes of shiny gold.
Travel Contribution: Hello Manpreet
INSIDER TIP: On arrival from the main road, small vendors may approach you. It can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming and unsafe. Politely but firmly refuse their services (especially the guys who ask for money to release caged birds). Keep your belongings secure just to be on the safe side.
Tuol Sleng- S-21 Prison Camp
Cambodia may be world-renowned for its youthful backpacking "wild wild west" vibes. Yet, Phnom Pehn remains an excellent choice for travelers past their twenties. It is even a realistic and affordable destination for retirement. I lived in Phnom Pehn for several months, and it still remains one of my favorite destinations.
Cambodia is a beautiful but historically unlucky country. You can't live in Phnom Penh without understanding the country's tragic history. To learn more about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era, you have to visit two places: the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Museum and the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocide Museum). These must-see sites serve as reminders of Cambodia's painful past.
In the late seventies, the Khmer Rouge regime in power systematically killed millions of their countrymen. According to some estimates, about two to three million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979. This regime tortured, starved, imprisoned, or executed roughly a third of the total population.
The Khmer Rouge demolished the professional class of doctors, scientists, professors, and artists. The professional class represented the Western influence despised by the Khmer Rouge. But by targeting the most educated citizenship, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the future of the country and its people. It took decades to recover, and in many aspects, Cambodia is still battling.
The old S-21 prison houses the Tuol Sleng Museum. Once a high school, the Khmer Rouge transformed the buildings into a prison camp. Out of the estimated 17,000 prisoners detained here, only six survived. When space for graves ran out, the Khmer Rouge moved prisoners about 10 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, in what was later named the Killing Fields.
Perfect for first time visitors, this Things To Do in Phnom Penh guide is available for download.
Killing Fields- Choeung Ek
The Khmer Rouge brought over 1,000,000 prisoners to the Killing Fields (also known as Choeung Ek), to be tortured and executed. The tranquil outdoor museum that sits there is a quiet but morbid reminder of Cambodia's violent suffering. On-site is a somber memorial constructed of more than 8,000 skulls of victims found on site.
These two attractions make for a heartbreaking afternoon, but remembrance is the least we owe to the victims. To understand Cambodia's history is to understand Cambodia and its people.
Travel Contribution: Rest and Recuperation
INSIDER TIP: The Killing Fields is not shown on our map. It is about 40 minutes outside of Phnom Penh and will cost roughly $15 (round trip) to get there via tuk-tuk.
On the way back from the Killing Fields, you can slip an extra $2 to the tuk-tuk driver to get dropped off at number 8 on your Things to Do in Phnom Penh Tour. The Khmer Rouge left a massive scar the country is still healing from. Here are some surprising facts illustrating the Khmer Rouge legacy.
If the previous two attractions represent the city's tragic history, the following two represent the rich cultural heritage of Cambodia's past.
Try Apsara Dance at Cambodia Living Arts
The Royal Ballet of Cambodia, also known as Apsara dance, is a mesmerizing art form combining nuanced movements, dramatic costumes, and detailed storytelling. In Phnom Penh, you can watch world-class performances, and if you're up for some hands-on learning, you can even try it yourself.
The talented dancers at Cambodian Living Arts host professional and fun dance workshops with live musicians. The dancers will patiently teach you about the cast of characters, hand positions, and motions. All these elements combine to tell stories of princes and princesses, love, and evil. By watching and imitating the various movements of each character, you can begin to appreciate the complexity of this art form. Learning the intricate combinations is like trying to understand a new language.
Clumsiness is guaranteed, but the instructors are gracious and make every student feel at ease. Apsara's distinctive hand positions, with the fingers gracefully pulled back into unnatural curves, have to be attempted to be fully appreciated. The class ends with some simpler contemporary dance styles often enjoyed at local parties, which are a breeze after the complexity of the refined ballet style.
Cambodia's creative class of artists, dancers, and musicians did not survive the Khmer Rouge purge. Supporting cultural programs are vital to the ongoing development of Cambodia's cultural heritage. Though Cambodia is best known for its spectacular temples, the local culture runs far deeper, and a traditional dance workshop is a fun way for you to learn about and appreciate it first-hand.
Travel Contribution: Exploring Wild
Attend a Shadow Puppet Show
The Khmer Puppet Theatre is one of the few arts that made it past Cambodia's turbulent history. The Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, spearheads the way in the revival of this art form that was once so popular. So popular it was, that it found its way to the walls of Angkor Wat. So attending a Khmer Shadow Puppet Show should be on your Phnom Penh Must-See list.
After a long day of visiting places at Phnom Penh, a great way to kick back and still take in Cambodian Culture is by attending a Shadow Puppet Show. As the name describes, the shadows of puppets are used to enact scenes, mostly from the Reamkher (Khmer version of Ramayana). The puppets sway, dance, and even fight to the rhythms of a live band playing nearby. This is coupled with a traditional Khmer dance, where dance artists showcase their skills. Expect a good show to last for an entire hour.
We recommend a show by the Sovannaphum Theatre, a non-profit organization that has their theater near the S21 Prison. They are among the pioneers of the revival of Khmer Puppetry in Phnom Penh and come highly recommended. They have shows every alternate day, and tickets can be booked through your hotel or in person.
Travel Contribution: Unbound Outbound
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