Get your bucket list ready. In this guide, we’ll show you the best things to do in Phnom Penh and how to experience them. Need help planning your trip? Check out our tips for visiting Phnom Penh — you’ll find the best restaurants, where to stay, how to get around and more!
What to expect in Phnom Penh
There’s no such thing as rush hour in Phnom Penh. The capital city of Cambodia is always busy, packed with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, people and street food. It’s part of Phnom Penh’s charm and adds to the excitement of exploring this city. It’s the epitome of hustle and bustle.
Aside from the busy streets, Phnom Penh offers a glimpse back in time through its 1920’s French colonial architecture, a culinary journey with its plethora of restaurants and a thought-provoking history lesson at the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison.
Between 1975 and 1979, almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and communist dictator Pol Pot. The Killing Fields and S21 Museum played a central role in this.
Both of these sites force us to remember a gruesome and catastrophic time in Cambodia’s history, but it’s one that we have to face in order not to repeat it. That’s why visiting Phnom Penh and these sites is so important.
But don’t worry, your visit to Phnom Penh isn’t all doom and gloom, the liveliness and vibrancy of the city is guaranteed to lift your spirits.
Top tours in and around Phnom Penh
- Guided tour of S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields for $21
- All day private tour to the Killing Fields, S-21 Prison, Central Market, Royal Palace and more for $50
- Food tour with over 20 tastings for $69
#1 Visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison)
What was intended to be a school full of happy and laughing children ended up being one of the most notorious interrogation centres in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime.
During its time as a detention centre it’s believed that between 14,000 to 17,000 prisoners were detained here, often elite prisoners that were once part of the Khmer Rouge. The former classrooms were used as prison cells and places to torture information out of the prisoners.
Some prisoners died within the walls of the school, but most were transported and then executed at the nearby killing centre known as Cheoung Ek. It’s believed that only twelve people survived the S-21 prison.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
It’s important that we don’t forget the atrocities that human beings can commit. For this reason the school is now a museum telling the devastating story of what happened.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is pretty close to what the prison/school was like under the Khmer Rouge, brought to life with an entire wall of black and white photos of the prisoners who were held there.
It’s truly heartbreaking as you wander the corridors.
How to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
If you’re not visiting with a guide, we highly recommend paying $3 extra for the audio guide. It takes you back in time to this dark point in history through the touching stories of survivors.
To hear the true emotion in New Zealander Rob Hamil’s testimony, I suggest listening to this one in English rather than in your native language.
The audio guide takes around 1.5-2 hours. We recommend visiting the S-21 prison in the morning so that you can continue to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields afterwards. We also think it’s best done in this order, as that’s the journey the prisoners of S-21 would have experienced too.
Entrance costs $5 for foreigners.
How to get to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The best way to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum if you want to visit independently, is by hiring a tuk-tuk for the day. That way they can take you to both Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields, before taking you back to Phnom Penh. Hiring a tuk-tuk for the day should cost between $10-15.
Alternatively, if you’d like a tour guide to bring both the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields to life, you can join a guided tour, with transportation included, for $21.
#2 Walk through the Choeung Ek Killing Fields
After seeing S-21, it’s hard to believe that it can somehow get worse. But it does!
Choeung Ek Killing Fields is where you’ll find the mass graves of the people who were detained and tortured in the prison.
In 1980, the remains of over 8,000 people were dug out from the graves, but it’s believed that around 20,000 people were executed here. A heart wrenching sight is the 17-story stupa that’s full of human skulls, erected in 1988 to commemorate those who died here.
How to visit Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Like the S-21 Prison, you can also get an audio guide with stories told at each of the stops throughout the site. It takes you on a similar journey to what the victims would have gone through.
Maartens thoughts: Both the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison are extremely shocking but memorable and eye-opening experiences. Visiting these sites will give you an understanding and respect for the history of Cambodia. They’re not to be missed.
Entrance to Choeung Ek Killing Fields costs $6. It’s a 40-minute drive from S-21 to the Killing Fields.
Join this guided tour of S-21 and Choeung Ek Killing Fields so you can forget about the logistics and focus on what you’re experiencing.
#3 Take a peek at the king’s residence at the Royal Palace
For a fascinating mixture of history and stunning architecture, visit the Royal Palace. Striking and majestic, this golden palace is truly fit for a king. Good thing that’s the case, as this is the king’s actual residence.
For that reason you’ll find that a large majority of the palace is off-limits to the public. But don’t worry, you can still visit most of the best sites in the complex.
Throne Hall is the most impressive building in the complex, with its distinctive Khmer-style architecture and impressive gilded roof.
And not too far away is the Silver Pagoda, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. A magnificent structure that houses a collection of priceless treasures, including a solid gold Buddha statue adorned with diamonds and other precious gems.
Don’t forget to check out the iron Napoleon III Pavilion, which was a gift from King Napoleon III of France.
How to visit the Royal Palace
Entrance to the Royal Palace costs $6.50. If you’d like to join a guided tour, it’s $10 per person. You can easily spot the official tour guides by their uniforms. We recommend taking this guided tour as there isn’t much information available otherwise. The tour takes 1-hour.
Alternatively, you can join this all day private tour that takes you around the Royal Palace and to most of the important sites in Phnom Penh such as the Killing Fields, S-21 Prison, Central Market and more for $50.
Top tip: The palace has a dress code which requires elbows and knees to be covered.
#4 Watch sunset cruising down the Mekong
Cruising along the rivers of Phnom Penh during sunset is a magical and unique way to experience the city. You get to take a front-row river seat and enjoy the views whilst being able to escape the noise and chaos of the city. It gives you a whole new perspective of the city.
Most of the boat cruises go at sunset, when there’s a little more magic in the air. You’ll witness Phnom Penh’s skyline light up and start glittering against the night sky.
Picking your river boat cruise
There are plenty of boat cruises to choose from, each one offering a slightly different experience to the next.
For example, this sunset boat cruise will take you along the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Four Faces Rivers, as well as Diamond Island and the local fishing village. And whilst you’re enjoying the sights, they offer unlimited beers and soft drinks for only $16.
Another option is to enjoy dinner on your boat cruise. This relaxing boat cruise includes dinner and live Khmer music for $28.
#5 Go on a culinary journey on a Cambodian food tour
Cambodian food often gets overshadowed by the likes of Vietnamese and Thai food, but if you know where to look, you’ll discover that it has some gems of its own.
One of the best ways to get a taste of the most delicious food in the city is by joining a food tour.
This ultimate food tour has seven stops, over twenty tastings, plus unlimited beer and soft drinks throughout the night. Your stops include street food stalls, local restaurants and even a cocktail bar.
Along the way you’ll get to savour local specialties, discover hidden gems of Cambodia’s culinary scene and learn about the local food, culture, and history of the Cambodian capital from your guide.
The food tour really is a night to remember!
#6 Learn traditional Khmer cooking techniques in a cooking class
Continuing with the theme of food…if you want to take a taste of Cambodia home with you, then why not learn how to cook some of the dishes yourself?
This half day cooking class starts at the very beginning of the culinary journey — at the market. You’ll get a chance to learn about local fruit, vegetables and herbs before buying them to use later.
Back in the kitchen, your experienced chef will teach you how to create dishes such as spring rolls, amok and banana palm. You’ll cook using tried-and-true Khmer cooking techniques.
And after all your hard work, you can sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labour!
Take a taste of Cambodia home with you and book this traditional Khmer cooking class for $36
#7 Visit the silk weaving capital of Cambodia — Koh Dach
There are so many reasons why you should visit Koh Dach — to escape the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, to see a different way of life in Cambodia and to visit the silk capital of Cambodia.
Koh Dach is a small island in the Mekong River. The island’s biggest claim to fame is the traditional silk weaving that’s been part of the island’s culture for centuries. The stilted houses spread throughout the shores are also a big part of Koh Dach’s charm.
Spend your day here wandering through rice paddies, admiring the abundance of crops and learning about their traditional weaving methods.
Bike tour on Koh Dach
We think the best way to experience Koh Dach is to join this bike tour. In between exploring the stunning countryside by bike, you’ll get to visit silk weaving houses and enjoy an authentic Khmer lunch in a village. With a local guide by your side, you’ll get a better glimpse into life on Koh Dach.
The bike tour lasts for around 6-hours and costs $49.
#8 Show support for Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is home to over 1,200 animals that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, poaching and other forms of exploitation. At the centre, they are given a chance to recover with the help of the centre’s medical care and rehabilitation.
As you wander around, you’ll get the chance to see tigers, elephants, gibbons, sun bears and plenty more.
How to visit Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
You can visit Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre independently, arranging your own transportation and paying the $5 entrance fee.
If you really want to experience the incredible work and magnificent animals at the centre, we recommend joining the behind-the-scenes tour. This allows you to follow a worker around for the day, getting up close to the animals and learning about them too.
You’ll get to hand feed their female elephants, interact with rescued baby macaque monkeys and visit the nursery area. The day also includes pick-up and drop-off, plus lunch. It’s not the cheapest of days out, but the unforgettable experience is worth it.
The day costs $150 per person between 1st January-30th April and $120 per person between 1st May-31st October.
You can find out exactly what the day entails on Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre’s website.
Bear Care tour
If bears are more your thing, they also offer a Bear Care tour. Having rescued over 900 bears in Cambodia, the organisation Free the Bears is doing an incredible job. Right now there are around 100 moon bears (Asiatic black bears) and sun bears (honey bears) at the centre.
Your morning will consist of learning about the bears and the rehabilitation efforts that go on at the centre, before preparing their food and treats for them. Not many people can say they’ve had this opportunity.
After the bears are fed and happy, you’ll also get to explore the rest of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
The Bear Care tour costs $90. You can find out all the information you need on Free the Bear’s website.
Top tip: We recommend boots instead of flip-flops to avoid insect bites, and wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
#9 Shop until midnight at Phsar Nat Night Market
Fancy a bit of night shopping? Visit the Phsar Nat Night Market, where you can try authentic street food, dine on a mat, and dance to live music.
Phsar Nat isn’t massive, but tourists and locals head there looking for cheap evening haunts. Its highlight is definitely the street food. You will be stunned by the wide variety of barbecued meat, fish, veggies, rice dishes and sauces there are to choose from.
If you weren’t hungry when you arrived, the scent of grilled meat and vegetables will change your mind.
Sprawl on a mat with your street food and watch live performances on the pop-up stage. The market is also known for discount prices of various products, so keep your eyes open for a bargain.
Stalls are open from 17:00 to midnight. A $5 tuk-tuk ride will take you to the night market from anywhere in Phnom Penh.
#10 Learn about Cambodia’s culture and history at the National Museum
Learning about a country’s history gives you a good idea of who the country is today. Visiting the National Museum of Cambodia gives you a good foundation of knowledge of what Cambodia has been through, as well as its cultural heritage.
The National Museum of Cambodia is the largest museum on Cambodian history and culture in the country, housing over 14,000 objects. These objects include Khmer art, sculptures, ceramics, bronzes and textile, dating all the way back to prehistoric times.
The National Museum of Cambodia costs $10 to enter.
#11 Explore Wat Phnom
If there’s any temple that you’re going to visit in Phnom Penh, it should probably be Wat Phnom. It’s the most significant and the tallest religious structure in Phnom Penh, standing at 27 metres high.
Built in 1373, it stands on the only hill in the city and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and statues. The temple itself is very impressive, adorned with elaborate murals and carvings. Inside there’s a central shrine where visitors can offer prayers and incense to Buddha.
Top tip: As you’re wandering around Wat Phnom, keep an eye out for the pesky resident monkeys.
Entrance to Wat Phnom costs only $1.
#12 Experience art and culture at Meta House
Meta House is a cultural centre that has become a platform for the arts and media sector in Cambodia.
They host a range of cultural events, including film screenings, art exhibitions, music performances, workshops and talks. Alongside this they provide education programs such as language courses, cultural studies and media training. It’s a brilliant place!
We highly recommend heading there for one of their performances or showings. They also have an onsite bar and restaurant, so you can plan to spend a whole evening in Phnom Penh here.
You can find out their events schedule on the Meta House website.
Rounding it up
Now you’ve picked the best things to do in Phnom Penh, it’s time to start ticking off that bucket list. Not sure how to plan your trip? Our Phnom Penh guide is here to help! You’ll find out how long to stay in Phnom Penh, where to eat, how to get around and more. Happy planning!
Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia, split into a number of districts that each offer something different. Here’s a quick rundown of the best districts to stay in:
- Daun Penh is the city centre and historic area of Phnom Penh. It’s where you’ll find the Royal Palace, government buildings and the most colonial architecture. Here is the place to stay if you want to be close to the top things to do in the city.
- BBK1 boasts a vibrant and lively atmosphere. It’s close to the city centre, without being as hectic. There are plenty of nightclubs, bars, restaurants and hipsters cafes here.
- Riverside is, as the name suggests, along the river. You’ll wake up to river views and be close to plenty of cafes, bars, restaurants and street food.
Check out our favourite places to stay in Phnom Penh:
White Corner Hotel - Budget Friendly
As the name suggests, White Corner Hotel has a very white colour scheme both inside and out, giving it a clean and modern feel. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, providing everything that you need.
If you stay here, you’ll be located in the BBK1 neighbourhood, a very fun place to be staying. It’s also within walking distance of the must-visit S-21 prison.
- Clean and modern
- Great location
- Comfortable and spacious rooms
- Bikes are available
Private rooms start from $21 per night.
Stay Sweet Homestay - Mid Range
With only four rooms available in this intimate homestay, you’ll need to book Stay Sweet in advance if you want to guarantee yourself a room. The almost perfect rating is mainly down to the incredible owner, Panha, who provides a friendly welcome and the best recommendations.
Staying here you’ll also receive a discount at the local swimming pool and gym. The onsite restaurant is also a must-try, the food is delicious!
- Gets booked up
- Amazing owner
- Access to local swimming pool and gym
- Delicious onsite restaurant
Private rooms start from $30 per night.
TAO Riverside Residence - Treating Yourself
TAO Riverside Residence is located right on the river offering spectacular views. Most of the rooms have private balconies where you can relax after a long day of exploring and just watch the boats gliding along the river.
The rooms are mainly studio style with most rooms having their own kitchenette and seating areas. They’re beautifully designed and super modern, creating an environment you won’t want to leave. On top of that, the Wi-Fi is great!
- Amazing river views
- Private balconies
- Large and modern rooms
- Great Wi-Fi
Deluxe double studios start from $60 per night.
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