A visit to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is absolutely essential for anyone visiting this beautiful destination.
Too many travelers opt to skip visiting Phnom Penh in favour of Siem Reap, but the capital should not be overlooked. There are lots of things to do in Phnom Penh and the majority of them give you great insight into the history of the country.
There is great food in Phnom Penh as well as exciting markets that are some of the city’s biggest highlights. The famous Mekong River flows right through the center of the city, offering a great place to stroll during the afternoon, or even take a boat ride.
It’s true that Phnom Penh is not the most popular Cambodia tourist spot, but it’s a destination worth visiting, even if it’s just for a day or two.
The Best Time to Visit Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is generally hot and steamy all year-round. However, during the rainy season which lasts from May to October, you can expect more precipitation and slightly cooler temperatures. Sometimes there can also be strong winds and flooding.
During the dry season (November to May,) the weather is generally excellent. However, it is the most popular time to visit the city, so expect larger crowds and sometimes higher prices.
Best Things to do in Phnom Penh
Visit Wat Phnom
This well-loved Buddhist Temple has a special spot on a hill overlooking the city. Make your way up there to visit the temple, but also to see views across the city and its many waterways.
Visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
These two side-by-side buildings are both worth a visit. The Royal Palace has been home to many Cambodian rulers throughout the years. The Silver Pagoda is part of the Royal Palace grounds and is known locally as Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot. It is named the Silver Pagoda for its silver floor tiles.
Visit the Killing Fields & S21 Prison
The genocide is one of the darkest scars on Cambodia’s history and for us, this was the main reason for visiting Phnom Penh.
Learning about the Khmer Rouge regime might not make for a happy-go-lucky vacation activity, but it helps you to understand the country on a deep level and makes you a much more aware and conscientious traveler.
There are two excellent places to learn more about it:
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as the S21 Prison) was once a school, but during the Khmer Rouge regime, it was used as a prison and place of torture. The museum is heartbreaking but is well worth a visit.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is another one of the places to visit in Phnom Penh to learn about the genocide. It is one of the most well-known sites of the Killing Fields, where over a million Cambodians were murdered. It is worth a visit, but make sure to emotionally prepare yourself – it’s almost impossible to walk out of the Killing Fields without tears in your eyes.
You don’t need a guide to visit either destination. You can delve into the history using audio tours or signs around the museums, but if you can support a local guide – do it!
A guided tour will offer you an in-depth explanation of the history behind the regime and the tragic events that transpired some 30+ years ago.
Visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center
This zoological park is located outside of the city to the southwest. The center focuses on helping animals that have been saved from the highly illegal and immoral wildlife trade and are being rehabilitated.
Visitors can see these efforts in action and the money from your guided tour goes directly to helping the animals. This is certainly one of the best attractions in Phnom Penh for any animal lover.
Explore the Markets
The markets in this city are exciting and hectic. Visiting them is one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh to see the heart of the city. They’re packed with locals selling everything imaginable from food to textiles to live animals. Don’t miss the Central Market and the Night Market.
Delve into the Food Scene
Discovering the food scene is one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh. From street food to locally-owned restaurants, there is so much to see and eat here.
To get acquainted with Cambodian cuisine, take a food tour in the city with a knowledgeable guide. Better yet, take a cooking class in Phnom Penh for a great way to get into the food scene of the country.
Where to Stay in Phnom Penh
There is no shortage of options when it comes to Phnom Penh accommodation options. The city offers everything from cheap budget backpackers to luxury 5-star hotels. For us, sustainable hotels are always the first choice, so here are a few we recommend.
- House Boutique: House Boutique is an eco-hotel with stunning decor and a lovely pool. They are plastic-bottle-free, use upcycled materials in their decorations, use eco-friendly products in-house, and pay their employees fair wages.
- Arthur and Paul: The Arthur and Paul hotel blends a jungle oasis with modern luxury design. This adults-only hotel is the perfect place to escape to for a peaceful and relaxing trip.
- The Kabiki: Perfect for couples or families, the Kabiki is an awesome place to stay if you’re looking for a relaxing and tucked away spot. It’s a garden-style hotel that features a beautiful pool on the grounds.
Where to Eat and Drink
- Evergreen: The Evergreen Cafe is a vegetarian eatery right in the heart of town. It serves up awesome green dishes such as vegan “meat” and rice dishes.
- Surn Yi Vegetarian: This is a great place to get authentic Cambodian dishes that are vegetarian. Their mushroom dishes are the best.
- Vibe: Vibe is a 100% vegan cafe on the south side of Phnom Penh. You can order all kinds of healthy and colourful dishes and even take home their cookbook.
How Long Do You Need in Phnom Penh?
A few days will be enough to cover all the things to do in Phnom Penh.
- Spend your first day in town visiting the temples, museums, and markets.
- On your second day, take a half-day trip to the outskirts of the city.
- On your third day, take a food tour and/or cooking class.
Beyond that, you can spend more time walking through the city and getting to know the area, but you’ll likely have seen all the major sights.
While traveling through Cambodia, there is so much to see and do. You might be tempted to skip Phnom Penh and move right along to other more popular Cambodia tourist spots, but we urge you to stay for at least a couple of days and get to know the city. It’s an important cultural and historical stop that we think should not be missed!