If you like to dive into Cambodia’s history, we recommend a visit to Security Prison 21 (S-21), now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. You can find S-21 on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It used to be Tuol Svay Pray High School until the Khmer Rouge turned it into the biggest detention and torture center in Cambodia.
Its courtyards, buildings and lawns are like any other high school’s, but don’t let that fool you. Once you’re inside, you’ll find black and white photographs of all who passed through S-21.
These portraits cover the walls of an entire building in the museum, telling ghastly tales. Walking through the rooms, you’ll get a first-hand look of what it was like for the prisoners as the rooms are still the same as they were since 1977.
It is a moving yet depressing experience, so it might not be the first choice for families with young children. It can be very educational for teens over 15, though, if parents want them immersed in history’s realities. In this prison, one can learn a lot about the darker side of the human spirit.
To educate as many Cambodians as possible about these horrors, there is no entrance fee for Cambodian citizens. For non-Cambodians, it’s only $5, plus $3 for an audio guide.
S-21 provides excellent audio guides in 15 different languages. The audio guide is full of touching stories from survivors, with one story at each stop. The audio guide is already of very high quality, but you can also ask for a local guide for a more personalized tour. Just add a donation on top of the $5 entrance fee.
If things get too overwhelming, you can rest in a quiet, air-conditioned room set aside for guests. There is also a small room where you can find an 87-year old survivor who is selling his book.
The museum is open from 8:00 to 17:00, and the audio tour takes 1,5-2 hours. You can read a very well-written introduction about the history of the prison on their website.
We recommend visiting S-21 Prison in the morning and then continue to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Once you’ve heard how the prisoners were tortured into confessing crimes, you can better imagine the horror these prisoners experienced before they were taken to the Killing Fields.
The best way to visit these places is to go by tuk-tuk. You can hire one at your accommodation, and it will bring you to both sites. Expect to pay between $10-$15.
Inside tip for the audio guide:
The most memorable but shocking part of the audio guide is the testimony from Kerry Hamill’s brother against Comrade Duch. Mr. Duch was the former director of the prison and was responsible for over 15,000 executions during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge captured New Zealander Kerry Hamill after his yacht strayed into Cambodian waters in 1978. They tortured him for at least two months until he confessed to a crime he did not commit, and then they killed him.
When his brother, Rob Hamill, testified in court against Comrade Duch in 2009, he expressed his anger against Mr. Duch. Kerry’s brother told the former director of S-21 Prison that his actions “removed him from the ranks of being human.”
I couldn’t agree more with this terrifying but painfully true message. To hear the true emotion in his testimonial, I recommend listening to this part in English. (Maarten – Founder of GeckoRoutes)
#2 Choeung Ek Killing Fields
After you’ve immersed yourself in the history of S-21, you can visit the Choeung Ek Killing Fields to see the mass graves of the people who were detained and tortured in the prison. You can find the Killing Fields 15 kilometers from Central Phnom Penh. It’s about a 40-minute drive from S-21 to the Killing Fields.
Walking through this place is like going back in time to the Khmer Rouge regime. The remains of over 8,000 people were exhumed from the graves in 1980. You can find the skulls placed in a 17-story glass dome, called a stupa, erected in 1988 in the area’s center. Like S-21, you can also get an audio guide with insightful stories at each stop.
The victims’ passage has been thoroughly documented at the site. Bone fragments can still appear on the surface in certain areas during the dry season when the wind shifts the soil.
Both the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison are extremely shocking but memorable, eye-opening experiences. Visiting these sites will give you an understanding and respect for the history of Cambodia. They’re not to be missed. (Maarten – Founder of GeckoRoutes)
This historical site is open from 7:30 to 17:30, and you can expect the visit to take around 1 to 1.5 hours.
There is no dress code, but please dress in a way that is respectful of the history of the place you are visiting.
Just like S-21 Prison, you can hire a guide or use the audio guide for more insight. The guide will be very helpful through all 19 stops of the site. Entrance to the killing fields costs $6, including an audio guide.
#3 Royal Palace
For a mix of history and stunning architecture, visit the Royal Palace. This time you can bring your kids! Striking and majestic, this golden palace is truly fit for a king. You can find the main entrance on the Samdech Sothearos Boulevard.
Because it’s the king’s actual residence, most of the massive palace is off-limits to the public. But don’t worry, you can still visit the Throne Hall where plenty of items are on display, as well as the surrounding buildings.
Don’t forget to check out the iron Napoleon III Pavilion, which was a gift from King Napoleon III of France. And finally, most visitors wouldn’t want to miss taking a picture at the Silver Pagoda, where the floor is made of—you guessed it—silver!
The Royal Palace is open daily from 8:00 to 10:30, and then from 14:00 to 17:00. The entrance fee is $6,50, and if you’d like to join a guided tour, it’s $10 per person. You can easily spot the tour guides by their uniforms, designating them as Palace employees. We recommend taking this guided tour as there isn’t much information available for those touring alone. The tour takes one hour.
Be aware that the palace has a visitor dress code. Tops must have sleeves that reach below the elbow, while skirts or shorts must fall below the knee. If you are dressed inappropriately, you can always purchase sarongs at the ticket booth, but they can be expensive.
The palace attracts large crowds on Sundays. It’s busy, but it’s a good opportunity to mingle with the locals.
#4 Bicycle Tour
There is no better way to experience Phnom Penh than by bicycle. Exploring this captivating city in this way allows you to take in its beautiful sights up close and learn the local life. From sampling authentic street food to enjoying incredible architecture, there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
If you’d like to get out of the busy city, we recommend taking a guided tour. The two below are run by Grasshopper Adventures and receive great reviews. We don’t recommend renting a bike on your own as you won’t find all the places to go and you could end up in dangerous areas.
Islands of Mekong Tour by Grasshopper Adventures Day Tours
Explore the islands of the Mekong in this half-day bike tour. A ferry will take you 5 kilometers north of Phnom Penh’s center, where you’ll discover rural Cambodia. It’s quite different from what the average tourist experiences because these back roads show you a more traditional way of life.
It’s a peaceful ride through farmlands, villages and local communities. As long as you know how to ride a bike, you’ll have an easy time. It’s a family-friendly activity, too, as Grasshopper Adventures has kids’ bikes and child seats.
The mountain bikes are well-maintained, and they even provide helmets and sports water bottles. You may get hungry during the tour, but don’t worry—the ticket price includes snacks and lunch.
The tour takes half a day and costs $45. It starts at 8:00 and you can expect to be back in Phnom Penh around 12:30. Children get a 10% to 50% discount depending on their ages.
Wear light, comfortable clothes suitable for biking. You might be visiting village temples, so cover your shoulders and knees if you want to be able to enter.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, you can buy woven silk at the silk farm you’ll visit, although this can be expensive. Souvenirs are cheaper at the market.
Bike the Oudong Trail Tour by Grasshopper Adventures Day Tours
Bike through the countryside of Phnom Penh to Oudong Mountain on this whole-day bike tour. Just like the Islands of Mekong tour, you’ll get a glimpse of rural Cambodia with over 45 kilometers of trails and back roads.
Along the way, you’ll see rice fields, local villages and railway stations. The final stop is Oudong Mountain, where you’ll visit its hilltop temple.
This trail is for those who are reasonably fit. The tracks are mainly flat, but you’ll be spending a long time on a bike.
The tour costs $90. It starts at 7:00 and ends at 16:00. We recommend booking this tour a few days in advance as it fills up fast.
Make sure your devices are fully charged because you won’t be able to charge them on the tour. Bring a power bank if you have one. Don’t forget a camera for photo ops. It’s a good idea to bring sunscreen, too.
Opt for casual, athletic clothing, and choose shoes that are good for biking. Because you’ll be visiting the hilltop temple, make sure you can cover your shoulders and knees.
#5 Boat Cruise
Cruising the rivers of Phnom Penh is a unique way to experience the city. It makes for a relaxing, lazy afternoon, especially if you’re tired of biking and walking. Take in the palaces, pagodas and wats from a front-row seat. You’ll even get to watch the beautiful Cambodian sunset. We’ve listed two cruises with top ratings on TripAdvisor.
Mekong and Tonle Sap River Sunset Cruise by Phocea Mekong Cruises
This cruise takes you through Phnom Penh’s main rivers. The cheapest and shortest cruise lets you enjoy the sunset with free water. The cocktail upgrade offers cocktails and appetizers, while the cocktail and dinner upgrade includes unlimited soft drinks, one cocktail, a barbecue dinner and French wine.
You’ll get a lovely view of the Royal Palace and the river’s surrounding landscapes. Make sure you snap a photo of the floating villages and the Japanese Friendship Bridge.
Tour rate starts at $14. There is a minimum of 2 persons if you’re booking with dinner, and a minimum of 4 persons for other options.
You’ll board at the Titanic tourism port at 17:30. It lasts 1.5 to 2.5 hours.
The tour is best on a sunny day with a clear sky. This way you can fully enjoy the cruise and experience a stunning sunset on the Mekong River.
If you like hopping from one exciting sight to another, this cruise isn’t for you. The boat goes back and forth along the river at a slow pace, perfect for those who just want to relax at the end of the day. If you don’t want the full tour, take the cheaper one-hour tour and have dinner on the riverside. Take the full day cruise if you want to see more sights.
The most popular guide is a woman named Miss Nasy, famed for her stories about life in Cambodia. Ask if she can be your guide!
This cruise takes you through the Tonle Sap river to Udong, the ancient capital of Cambodia. At Udong, you’ll ride a tuk-tuk to Udong Hills, where Buddhist stupas dot the beautiful landscape. The tour lasts an entire day and includes breakfast, lunch and unlimited drinks.
It’s a more immersive experience than the sunset tour. The riverside landscape is enchanting with its pagodas, stupas, rice fields and villages.
The tour receives 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor and is a great way to explore Phnom Penh. However, a larger group of people is more cost-effective. With 10 people it costs $50 per person, but you’ll have to pay $130 per person if it’s just the two of you.
The tour departs at 8:00 from the Titanic tourism port, and you’ll return around 16:15 to Phnom Penh.
Fancy 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 frequent it looking for cheap evening haunts. Its highlight is definitely the street food. You will be stunned by the wide variety of barbequed meat, fish, veggies, rice dishes and sauces. 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.
#7 Wildlife Tour
Animal lovers, rejoice! Cambodia’s wildlife tours celebrate its biodiversity and offer visitors the chance to see hundreds of animal species, including elephants, bears and gaur. These incredible animals are currently being protected through the efforts of both the government and non-governmental organizations.
We’ve selected two tours with the best reviews and which take good care of the animals. The tours are quite expensive ($150 and $90, respectively), but for good reason: they use the money to rehabilitate and care for the animals. The welfare of the animals is what’s most important; they don’t want the center to become a large zoo with thousands of daily visitors.
Below are details of the two tours. The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center’s experience is a full day. The Bear Care Tour offers a morning at the bear sanctuary, and a short visit to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in the afternoon.
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center by Wildlife Alliance
The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is affiliated with a preservation group called Wildlife Alliance, which cares for and rehabilitates rescued animals.
During your tour, you’ll roam the forest, elephant areas and nursery stations with the tour guide. This is not your typical zoo experience. Not only do you get to see monkeys and elephants up close, but you’ll also be able to feed, play and interact with them.
The tour runs from 8:00 to 17:00, lunch included. Instead of charging an entrance fee, they ask for a minimum donation of $150 for adults. There is a 50% to 80% discount for kids, depending on their age, while infants aged 0 to 2 years old can enter for free.
There’s no need to worry about transportation to and from the center. They will pick you up from a central location in Phnom Penh and take you back there in the afternoon.
We suggest you bring snacks with you since they only provide lunch. It’s also a good idea to bring a water bottle, as you can refill it there for free.
We recommend boots instead of flip-flops to avoid insect bites. Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty. Remember, you’ll be going inside enclosures.
This tour is by Free the Bears, an organization which has rescued over 900 bears in Cambodia. Get ready for an exciting behind-the-scenes tour that shows you how they care for more than 100 moon bears (Asiatic black bears) and sun bears (also called honey bears).
Their world-class facilities are both fun and educational. Your tour through the bear sanctuary will allow you to see the bears up close and personal. You won’t interact directly with the rescued bears, but you’ll get to prepare their food. After lunch, you’ll visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, where you can see more fascinating wildlife.
The tour starts at 8:00 and ends around 17:30. It costs $90 per person, which includes transportation, park entrance, a traditional Khmer lunch, and an official sports bottle and t-shirt. The proceeds go towards the cost of caring for the bears.
Just like with the wildlife center tour, Free the Bears guides will pick you up from a central location in Phnom Penh. In this case the pick-up location is Joma Café. Make sure you get clear instructions on which Joma Café this is, because there are two in Phnom Penh.
We suggest you bring snacks with you, since they only provide lunch. It’s also a good idea to bring a water bottle, as you can refill it there for free.
If the tour has stirred in you a passion for this kind of work, you can even volunteer for longer periods of time!
Sla Boutique hostel is located just around the corner from the Royal Palace and there are many street food stalls nearby. The staff are very helpful and willing to arrange joint rides for guests to S21 or the Killing Fields. In the dorms, curtains and lockers are provided for extra privacy.
Located along the lively riverside area, you’ll ﬁnd plenty of restaurants, bars, and street food options around Onederz Hostel. The clean and comfortable rooms are perfect to get a rest, while the rooftop bar invites you to enjoy a cold beer and socialize with other guests!
As the name reveals, TAO Riverside Residence is located along the river and sits just 500m away from the Royal Palace. The Residence offers modern, riverfront accommodations. These spacious apartments include kitchenettes, super comfortable beds and excellent Wiﬁ connection. (Hint: Perfect time to upload all the pictures from your trip!)