Why visit Phnom Penh?
Phnom Penh is the most populated city of Cambodia. Expect busy streets with a lots traffic jam around business hours. The main reason why you should visit this capital is to dive in the history of the Khmer regime.
During this regime, the country experienced a terrible genocide in which 1/4th of the population was killed over a period of less than 5 years (1975 to 1979). A visit to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – also known as the S-21 prison – will give you a deep insight into this dramatic history.
You can ask a tuk-tuk driver or join a tour to visit these two places in one day. We recommend to visit the S-21 prison first, because the audio guide will tell you the story of how people were interrogated and tortured in the prison before they were brought to the killing fields.
After hearing these stories, you will understand why we should do everything to prevent that something like this can happen again.
Although it is a very intense experience, it gives you a really good understanding of these tragics that happened only 40 years ago. Every local you will meet, will be affected by it in some way. If they didn’t experience the cruel themselves, they will have brother or sisters, fathers and mothers or grandparents that became victims in this terrible war.
After learning about this shocking history of Cambodia, you will pay more attention to the positive mindset in this country.
Cambodians want to leave the past behind and rebuild the country from one of the poorest in the world to a one in which all Cambodians can live a good and healthy life. Their English language skills are a good example of this. Tourists are an important source of income and that’s why they do their maximum effort to treat you with respect and welcome you with open arms.
One of the poorest countries in the world
As Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, you should always be alert on your valuables in this capital. Don’t take your valuable belongings outside and be extra careful when walking over the street at night. There are many reports of bag snatchers. Scooter drivers pass by and rip your bag from your body or Tuk-tuk if they see an opportunity.
This doesn’t mean you cannot walk over the streets, but just be careful.
How to explore Phnom Penh
Luckily the city also offers a few lighter sights. The best way to explore the city is to join a bike tour, but you can also explore the center by foot and pay a visit to the Royal Palace or join a boat tour over the Mekong.
Another great side of Phnom Penh is its cuisine. It has a large number of great restaurants with French influences. One of the food experiences not to miss is the handmade noodles from David’s restaurant. Seeing the chef preparing the noodles is already a complete show on its own!
How to get there
Shuttle bus: 30min – 1 hour, $5
Public bus: 30min – 1 hour, $0,40
30min – 1 hour, $12 – $18
30min – 1 hour, $6 – $9
6 – 7 hours, $9 – $15
5 – 6 hours, $65 – $130
45min, $45 – $75
8 hours, $38
4 – 4,5 hours, $7 – $13
4 hours, $45 – $85
7 hours, $8
1 hour, $45 – $100
4 hours, $8 – $10
3 – 4 hours, $40 – $85
5 – 6 hours, $7 – $12
5 – 6 hours, $60 – $75
3 hours, $8
2,5 – 3 hours, $50
4h 40min, $7
What to do in Phnom Penh
#1 S-21 prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum)
If you’d like to dive into Cambodia’s history, we’d recommend a visit to Security Prison 21 (S-21), now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. You can find S-21 Prison on a dusty road on the outskirts of Phonm 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.
S-21 Prison was renamed the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. 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 at what it was like for the prisoners as the rooms are still the same as they were since 1977.
It can be 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 of the stops. You can also ask for a local guide, but the 1,5-2 hour audio guide is already of very high quality.
If things get too overwhelming, you can rest in a quiet, air-conditioned room set aside for guests.
There is also a small museum where you also find a 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 the 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 had not committed, 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 tells 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 Prison, 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 8:00 to 17:00, 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.
#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 won’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 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 what it’s really like. 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 to rent a bike on your own as you won’t find all the places to go and it’s less safe as you could end up in more criminal area’s.
Islands of Mekong Tour by Grasshopper Adventures Day Tours
Explore the islands of the Mekong in this half-day bike tour. Located 5 kilometers fro Phnom Penh’s center, you’ll discover rural Cambodia away from the bustling city. It’s quite different from what the average tourist experiences because these back roads show you a more traditional way of life.
The tour will take you through farmlands, villages and local communities. It’s a peaceful ride with relatively no traffic, unlike in the city’s center. 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.
The tour takes a maximum of 10 people, so check with them in advance to see if there is still space.
Since the tour only lasts half a day, you can extend it by taking the afternoon guided walking tour to explore the busy city.
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 over 60 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 and starts at 7:00. We recommend booking this tour a few days in advance as it fills up fast.
Get more info or book your tour online at: https://www.tripadvisor.com/AttractionProductReview-g293940-d11467508-Bike_the_Oudong_Trail-Phnom_Penh.html
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 from 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 PhoceaMekong 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.
The tour costs $20 and starts at 17:30. It lasts 1.5 to 2.5 hours. You’ll board at the Titanic tourism port.
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!
For more info and to read reviews on Tripadvisor.
Udong Day Cruise by PhoceaMekong Cruises
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.
The riverside landscape is enchanting with its pagodas, stupas, rice fields and villages. It’s a more immersive experience than the tour mentioned above.
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 $52 per person, but you’ll have to pay $164 per person if it’s just two of you.
The tour departs at 8:00 from the Titanic tourism port, and you’ll return around 16:15 to Phnom Penh.
Find more info on their website:
#6 Phnom Penh market
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 the morning at the bear sanctuary, and the ticket also includes 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, you’ll be able to feed, play and interact with them.
The tour starts 8:00 and ends around 17:00, with lunch included. Instead of charging an entrance fee, they ask for a minimum donation of $150 for adults.
There’s no need to worry about transportation to the center. They will pick you up from a central location in Phnom Penh.
We’d 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’d 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.
You can find more info on their website: www.wildlifealliance.org/wildlife-phnom-tamao/
Bear Care Tour by Free the Bears
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 16:00. 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’d 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!
You can find more info on their website: www.freethebears.org/pages/bear-care-tour-cambodia
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