Many consider Phnom Penh to be a city that’s best to skip through rather than stop in. While it’s not crowded with tourist attractions, there’s certainly enough to see and do to keep you in the Cambodian capital for a while.

To listen, hit play below or find episode 202 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:

Some of our favourite places include:

Khmer and Buddhist architecture in Phnom Penh

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is open to visitors for a few hours each morning and afternoon. Pagodas, temples and some courtyards are open to the public with a few small museums crammed in older buildings.

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Statues in the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh

My highlight, amongst the piles of Buddhas, stupas and pagodas has to be the mural depicting mythical battles and other stories that covers one of the courtyard’s inner walls. The entire painting has to be close to half-a-kilometre long and is quite well-preserved, although some parts show significant damage.

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Beautiful art fills four walls of the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom

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Wat Phnom sits in the north of central Phnom Penh

Near the northern end of the modern inner city, Wat Phnom rises a short distance, giving views of all the city from its peak. Baboons feast on the lotus flowers left as offerings in the shrines and an elephant makes slow circuits with its mahmout and a cargo of tourist couples.

The wat was built in 1373 on the top of an artificial hill. It was commissioned by a wealthy woman called Penh, after whom the the city of Phnom Penh is named.

Modern history and culture in Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng / S21 and the killing fields

Sadly, one of Phnom Penh’s top attractions is the remnants of an ultra-communist regime which killed around two million people in under four years. Tuol Sleng, or S21, was a primary school before the Khmer Rouge transformed it into a prison and interrogation centre. Today, it is a stark reminder of a dark era, with the original buildings housing a museum, document centre and several photo exhibitions.

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An empty bed in a Tuol Sleng torture chamber
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Barred windows overlook the city

After walking through the four buildings, find a tuk-tuk to take you to the killing fields outside of the city. Prisoners who survived torture in Tuol Sleng were taken here along with the bodies of those who didn’t. Executions were summary, and bodies were left in the field without proper Buddhist burial — an issue for survivors and the families of victims to this day.

Although grim, these sites are an important part of modern Cambodian history; understanding the effects of the Khmer Rouge is integral to forming an understanding of life now.

Audio-visual centre, puppet show

The Bophana audio-visual centre is the best place to be on a rainy afternoon; and there’s lots of those between August and October. Film clips from as long ago as the 1890s have been digitised and made freely available to view, with browsing available in Khmer, French and English. A shadow-puppet show was running at 6pm when we were there, but check Bophana for up-to-date information.

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Exterior of the Bophana Gallery. It was hard to spot!

Metahouse documentaries

The German cultural centre runs a café and outdoor theatre called Metahouse. We were able to catch three short documentaries in one night and talk briefly with some of the filmmakers afterwards. Sitting on the roof with a cool breeze and glass of wine seemed to contrast with the harsh reality of Cambodian AIDS sufferers we were seeing on screen.

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Catching a documentary at Metahouse. An illuminated Wat in the background.

Grab an up-to-date list in English of what events and screenings are being run from the Metahouse.

An end to the day

Cruise on the river, sunset over city

Although we didn’t manage it, a sunset cruise on the Tonle Sap River that runs along the riverside is recommended. A look at the view is enough to prove this one!

Drink at the FCC

Follow up your cruise with a drink in the Foreign Correspondents’ Centre, known to everyone as the FCC. With riverside views, it’s a popular expat stop and has a very acceptable house wine (making a nice contrast with almost everywhere in Southeast Asia).

Dine in a Khmer kitchen

There are several great Khmer restaurants in Phnom Penh which are tourist-friendly. Those on the riverside are not, perhaps, the best options. Look around side-streets close to the independence monument for a tastier experience.

Fish Amok was our dish of choice when hitting the Khmer kitchens; a lightly spiced curry served in small packets of coconut leaf along with steamed rice. Most Khmers would only eat amok for special occasions, but it’s cooked daily in the capital; each district has its own variation of amok, so make sure you try it in each area you visit.

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Fish amok; our favourite Cambodian dish

Is it safe to visit Phnom Penh, Cambodia?

One of the major issues faced by Cambodia, and many Southeast Asian countries, is child prostitution. Don’t be surprised to see “sexpats” lining the dark roads looking to pick up partners or young people. You can learn more about the fight against child sex tourism and trafficking in Cambodia, and learn what to do if you witness it, at ECPAT-Cambodia or call the Department of Anti-Human Trafficking, Ministry of Interior, at (855-23) 997 919.

You shouldn’t let this put you off visiting though: in general Cambodia is currently a safe place for tourists with little violent crime reported and a very hard line on punishment drawn by community members. You will probably want a sober friend spotting you if you intend to roll out of a bar a 4am, but that kind of advice applies to any city you don’t know.

Phnom Penh is a faded capital, but one that’s on the up once more. It’s well worth a visit to wander the French colonial street-fronts, bask in the disappearing luxury of the Khmer Empire, and see a city and a people rising from the damage of a deadly totalitarian regime.

More on Cambodia

Read more about travelling the capital and the country on our Cambodia travel planning page.

To listen, hit play above or check in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud.

Your thoughts on "Cheap things to do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia podcast"

  • Great list of things to do, thanks for sharing! Might come in handy when we go there in a few months.

    on January 3, 2011 at 9:48 pm Reply
  • Enjoyed the podcast. How were the people? I heard reports saying they were unhappy. Also I too have a kindle. You will like it.

    on July 16, 2011 at 11:34 am Reply
  • Hi Steve -- Yes, they've been poorly treated, and are struggling to find a way forward, but -- like everyone -- they want tomorrow to be better than yesterday. We met all sorts of people, both happy and sad ... I fear rebuilding the country is going to be a long road for the Cambodians, but it's one that many are starting with courage.

    on July 17, 2011 at 6:57 pm Reply
  • Poverty and the lack of law enforcement both contribute the prevalence of sex tourism in Cambodia. I would like to applaud international aid organizations like World Vision for helping to combat sex slavery in the country.

    on May 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm Reply

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