Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s economic, cultural, and historical center, as well as its main travel hub. From this capital you can take buses to practically anywhere in the country. There’s also functioning but infrequent railway services connected to Kampot and Sihanoukville.
As a city, Phnom Penh still maintains much of the 1920s French colonial architecture and cuisine, though some of the buildings have sadly become worn down and dilapidated.
The roads, as we’ll uncover in more detail below, are excitingly chaotic and the general atmosphere flowing through the busy streets is as addictive as it is immersive.
Because of this ease of access to transportation, many travellers begin in Phnom Penh and immediately venture to other corners of the country without seeing what the city has to offer, which is something we don’t recommend at all.
Phnom Penh is a city you have to experience — warts and all.
The Hustle and the Bustle Phnom Penh Style
With Phnom Penh’s population exceeding 1.5 million, there’s no such thing as a rush hour. Expect the streets to be riddled with motorbikes, cars, buses, and tuk-tuks from sunrise to sunset.
The city’s residents are also a law unto themselves when it comes to the rules of the road. Speeding is the norm, road signs may as well just not exist, and congestion is but a mere obstacle course for motorcyclists.
Car horns, engine revving, and angry shouting will become your inharmonious travel symphony conducted by the ever-famous Phnom Penh Road Orchestra.
Therefore, if you’re thinking about visiting one of the many attractions or historical sites within the city, make sure to give yourself plenty of time — the traffic can slow your journey time by around an hour depending on how severe the roads are.
Above all else, make sure you’re safe out there. The roads can be hazardous. We don’t recommend you ever hire your own motorbike and naively brave the streets of Phnom Penh — the locals are hardened veterans, so you’re better off putting a little faith in your own tuk-tuk driver’s ability to keep you from seriously hurting yourself.
The Historical Epicentre of Cambodia’s Violent History
Fortunately, Phnom Penh isn’t just busy streets and traffic jams. What the city lacks in proper road rules, it certainly makes up for in rich culture and history.
The country has seen the 600-year rule of the Khmer Empire, the French colonisation in the 1920s, and the violent atrocities conducted by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime against the Cambodian people in the mid-to-late 1970s.
The violence of the Khmer Rouge regime is specifically chronicled in a number of historic sites across Phnom Penh, most notably the Choeng Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21 Museum).
In both these sites, you’ll learn how the Khmer Rouge took hold of the country after the Cambodian Civil War and how the subsequent death of 2 million people still affects the Cambodian people to this day.
If this sounds like something you can stomach, the cheapest and easiest way to travel between these two sites is either by tuk-tuk or an organised tour operator.
We recommend visiting the S21 Museum first. You’ll be given an audio guide that shares the story of how the prisoners were interrogated and tortured before they were brought to the Killing Fields to be executed in the vilest, most inhumane ways imaginable.
It’s an intense experience and one that showcases the resilience of the Cambodian people and how their kindness, generosity, and openness is a revolutionary act in itself.
Keeping Your Belongings Safe
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, where 14% of the country’s population lives in poverty. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a high number of incidents involving theft and pickpocketing — Westerners are often the victims.
Therefore, when you’re out and about, the best way to keep your belongings safe is to store them in your hotel room or locker. Don’t go out with expensive jewellery or accessories and certainly don’t carry more than $30 in your wallet.
As a general rule of thumb, travel by tuk-tuk or taxi as much as possible and avoid unknown areas. If you’re on a tuk-tuk, make sure your baggage is out of reach from bag snatchers who are trained to steal bags from tuk-tuks in the time of an eye blink.
Luckily, it’s generally safe to walk in the main streets of Phnom Penh and it’s fine to walk short distances to nearby restaurants and bars.
How to get to Phnom Penh?
The best way to go around the city center is to join a bike tour, but you can also explore on foot. Pay a visit to the Royal Palace or join a sunset cruise over the Mekong. When visiting the outskirts of town, tuk-tuk is the way to go.
Another great side of Phnom Penh is its cuisine. It has a large number of great restaurants with French influences. One food experience you shouldn’t miss is the handmade noodles from David’s restaurant. Seeing the chef prepare the noodles is already a complete show on its own!
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!)