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.
Some of our favourite places include:
Khmer and Buddhist architecture in Phnom Penh
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.