Phnom Penh might just look like another city in Southeast Asia, but it is actually full of secret attractions, hidden highlights and historical attractions that will fill up your day before you know it. While Phnom Penh is most well-known for it’s traumatic past, and history of wars and killing fields, but you will also find islands, beautiful temples, wildlife sanctuaries, performances and museums all over this capital city.
If you’re a little overwhelmed by all the options, here’s 5 places that should be at the top of your list to visit in Phnom Penh.
Visit the Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda
Sitting right next to each other in the heart of the city, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda might just be the top highlight and most beautiful building in the city. While the Royal Palace is no longer the permanent residence of the King of Cambodia, he does still stay there from time to time, which you will be able to tell if the blue royal flag is flying.
Visitors to the Royal Palace are able to explore several buildings around the palace grounds, including the Throne Hall, Elephant Dock, Banquet Hall and Moonlight Pavilion. In the Silver Pagoda you can find the Emerald Buddha, which is made out of Baccarat Crystals and dates back to the 17th century.
You will need to dress conservatively for your visit to the Royal Palace, including keeping shoulders and knees covered. The palace does not offer garments to borrow to throw over your shoulders or wear as a skirt, so prepare to be turned away if you’re not dressed appropriately.
Address: Riverside, Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh
Admission: $6.50USD or $10USD for a guided tour.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The building that houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum used to be home to Tuol Svay Pray High School, before it was turned into an interrogation, torture and execution centre by the Khmer Rouge regime. It is estimated that about 17,000 Cambodians entered this infamous prison, but only seven survived.
Most of the rooms have been left in the same state that they were found in January 1979, including the classrooms that were divided into tiny cells. It is an incredibly intense experience, but offers you a unique insight into this tragic time in Cambodia’s history.
Address: Street 113, Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh
Admission: $2USD for entry, or $6USD for a guided tour.
Take a sunset cruise on the river
To experience the best views of both the river and the city skyline, you need to hop on a cruise boat and actually experience the river from the water. Local boat operators offer sunset cruises all along the riverfront for between $15 and $25USD per person, which take you past traditional fishing villages and offer you stunning views of the ever-changing Phnom Penh skyline, as well as the sun setting over the Mekong.
If you’re nervous about just jumping onto a local boat, your hotel should be able to organize a cruise for you, with many of them having either their own cruise company or a partnership with one that they can recommend.
Take a trip out to the Killing Fields
For a deeper look into Cambodia’s war torn history, take a day trip out to the infamous Killing Fields – also known as Choeung Ek Memorial. At the execution and burial grounds at Choeung Ek you will find thousands of exhumed skulls on display, as well as an intimate look into what happened during the horrific years of the Khmer Rouge regime.
While some prisoners were killed and buried at Tuol Sleng, most were driven out to Choeung Ek by truck during the night. They were then made to dig their own graves, before being clubbed to death with whatever heavy object was around. Over 40 pits at the killing fields have been left the way the were, so the final total of people that were executed during this time can only be estimated.
Address: Sangkat Cheung Aek, Phnom Penh (about 17km south of the city centre).
Admission: $6USD per person.
Go Shopping at the Central Market
Phnom Penh might be lacking a little in traditional modern shopping malls, but it has no shortage of traditional markets and unique malls, just like the Central Market (also known as Phsar Thmey). Even if you’re not interested in shopping, you should still visit the Central Market to check out the beautiful art deco architecture and epic dome in the jewellery hall.
You can find some of the best deals for precious stones and jewellery at the Central Market, as well as all sorts of clothes and shoes, souvenirs, gifts and cosmetics, and even flowers and fresh produce. I actually re-stocked up on shampoo and conditioner at the Central Market!
Address: Street 130, Phnom Penh
A few other highlights for your visit to Phnom Penh
- The iconic Independence Monument in the heart of the city signifying Cambodia’s liberation from the French
- Wat Ounalom offering visitors an in-depth look into spiritual teachings, philosophies and the history of Buddhism in Cambodia
- Explore Wat Phnom – the oldest area of Cambodia
- Check out a traditional Khmer Dance Performance at the National Museum of Cambodia, by the Cambodia Living Arts group
- Wat Langka is a colourful shrine which was originally a library of Buddhist scriptures and a meeting place for Cambodian and Sri Lankan monks
- Visit the National Museum of Cambodia – the largest archaeological and cultural history museum offering you a glimpse into the cultural side of Cambodian history
- Explore the Phsar Reathrey Night Market or Phsar Chas Old Market, to shop up a storm and try some of Cambodia’s local street food
- If you’re looking for more traditional shopping malls, try Sorya Shopping Mall, Aeon Shopping Mall or the City Mall