Explore Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Travel Guide

Legend has it that the city of Phnom Penh, the exotic 'Pearl of the Orient', was founded in 1372 by a local widow named Penh. It is said that she discovered four Buddha statues that had been washed up by the waters from the Mekong River and erected a temple on the hill to house them, believing that their arrival was a sign of great luck and prosperity to come. And so the city grew around this structure, becoming known as the Hill of Penh (Phnom Penh).<br /><br /> Considered to be the loveliest of Indochina's French-built cities in its heyday, this rather untidy capital sprawls at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonlé Sap Rivers. Now, the colonial charm has been somewhat drowned out by modern concrete buildings and heavy traffic, but upon investigation intriguing traces of the Khmer and French eras can still be found in the details. The heart of the city, where old French villas and street-side cafes perch along tree-lined boulevards and the occasional majestic Khmer building catches the eye, is very appealing.<br /><br /> Phnom Penh boasts a number of Wats (temple-monasteries), museums and other places of interest for tourists, as well as sunset cruises on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, and a bustling market place. The city is known for having a fun nightlife, with a proliferation of cheap and cheerful bars. The cafe culture and tasty Cambodian cuisine also ensure that foodies are well-catered for. There has been a recent boom in development, with new hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs springing up to cater for Cambodia's growing popularity with travellers, and the city is increasingly seen as a worthy travel destination in itself rather than just the most convenient entry point for a Cambodian holiday.<br /><br />

The Royal Palace

Address: 63, Street 348, Sangkat Toul Svay Prey II, Khan Chamkamorn, Phnom Penh Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace is one of the principal attractions of Phnom Penh and contains the best examples of 20th-century Khmer architecture in the city. The palace is the official residence of the king. Set among the perfectly maintained gardens you can find the exquisite Throne Hall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's elephants were kept, the Royal Treasury, and the Chan Chaya Pavilion which was made especially for performances of classical Cambodian dance.<br /><br /> Although much of the palace complex is off-limits to the public, the Silver Pagoda can be visited. This remarkable building is the highlight of the compound and takes its name from the floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silver tiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists. It is also called the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, in tribute to the magnificent baccarat crystal image of the Emerald Buddha that sits in the centre on a gilt pedestal. There are other intricately carved Buddha images on display, notably the life-size solid gold statue that stands in front of the pedestal, decorated with 9,584 diamonds.<br /><br /> Remember to dress conservatively and respectfully when visiting the Royal Palace; bare shoulders or legs are frowned upon within the complex.<br /><br />

National Museum

Address: Next to the Royal Palace, on Streets 178 and 13 Phnom Penh

The National Museum is a striking and famous example of the Khmer architectural tradition and houses the country's most important collection of ancient Cambodian cultural material and Khmer art. It is made up of four galleries containing relics, sculpture, art and crafts covering history from the prehistoric, the pre-Angkorian, the Angkorian, and the post-Angkorian periods of Cambodian culture. The pieces are arranged in chronological order and the already impressive collection continues to grow as new treasures previously hidden from the Khmer Rouge are discovered. The museum houses original relics and sculptures from the temples of Angkor and visiting the museum is a good accompaniment to exploring the temples.<br /><br /> There is a gift shop which sells books, souvenirs and replica sculptures. The museum was built in 1917 (and extended in 1924) and today it has a beautiful central garden with lots of water and greenery which is a lovely serene place to rest and relax after touring the exhibitions. Guided tours in English and French cost a bit extra but they are worthwhile because, although the artefacts are impressive, the printed information in the museum is minimal. Photography is not allowed inside the building.<br /><br />

Tuol Sleng Museum

Address: Corner of Street 113 and Street 350, Boeng Keng Kang Phnom Penh

When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeered and converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where they detained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary behaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims were imprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. The building appears almost exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it, and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of the organisation. It is a tremendously depressing experience, and the photographs, instruments of torture and bloodstained walls give a thorough idea of the extent of the pain and horror borne by the Cambodian people. Thousands of victims were transported from here to the extermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), to be executed. There are some first person accounts on display at the museum, despite the fact that of the estimated 20,000 prisoners incarcerated in S21 there are only 12 known survivors.<br /><br />

Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

Address: Just over nine miles (15km) southwest of Phnom Penh Phnom Penh

The Cambodian genocide during the late 1970s ranks as one of the great horrors of modern history. Under Pol Pot's rule an estimated 1.7 million people (21 percent of the Cambodian population) were either ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, or died of starvation. Choeung Ek was the extermination camp where the prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) were executed. Also known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of the same name, this football-field-sized area contains the mass graves of about 20,000 people, many of whom were tortured before being executed.<br /><br /> A tall Memorial Stupa has been constructed to commemorate the dead and more than 8,000 human skulls are displayed behind the glass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and English summarises the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. As a reminder of the reality of this great tragedy human bones are still frequently unearthed by heavy rains in the area, and many of the tour guides have personal stories to tell about their experiences during Pol Pot's reign. A visit to the Killing Fields is harrowing - and not suitable for young children - but it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia.<br /><br />

Rantanakiri

Address: Phnom Penh

Rantanakiri Province is Cambodia's version of the Wild West. Situated in the northeast of the country, along the border with Vietnam, it is rather inaccessible but definitely worth the extra effort as it is an area of stunning natural beauty. Visitors travelling to Rantanakiri will discover lush tropical rainforests, volcanic lakes, pristine waterfalls and abundant wildlife including Asian elephants, monkeys, guar and many endangered bird species. The province also boasts slightly cooler weather than most of the country. Close to half of Rantanakiri province is a protected area in the form of the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary. One of the key tourist attractions is Yak Loum, a perfectly round crater lake with crystal-clear waters, surrounded by dense jungle foliage. The lake is great to swim in and a relatively short distance from the town of Banlung. There are interesting villages to visit which allow for authentic cultural experiences.<br /><br /> Be aware that the roads in this region are not great; they are very muddy when it is wet and covered in thick red dust that makes everyone appear orange in the dry season. Boats are a popular mode of transport for scenic trips. As a destination for the eco-tourist or adventure seeker Rantanakiri is a paradise.<br /><br />

Sihanoukville

Address: 115 miles (185km) southwest of Phnom Penh Phnom Penh

While this beach town isn't nearly as famous as those found along Thailand's pristine coast, it does make a great tourist getaway. Sihanoukville is the country's only deep water port, making much of the town industrial and unattractive to tourists, but Sihanoukville is surrounded on three sides by the Bay of Thailand and there are several secluded tourist beaches with all the requisite trappings: dishevelled beach bars, guesthouses and smiling hawkers. As there isn't much to do in town, it is worth the extra money to stay in the quaint beachside accommodation.<br /><br /> Daytime activities include swimming, fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and boat trips to the nearby islands. There are also several Buddhist temples to be explored in the area and the Ream National Park is only 11 miles (18km) away. Most hotels and guest houses offer transport and day passes for visiting the National Park. Nightly beach barbecues prepare great food and offer cheap beer. The government is said to have plans to develop the area for larger resorts which may well ruin its laid-back beach charm in years to come. Regular daily buses provide a three- to four-hour journey to and from Phnom Penh, along Cambodia's best road. There is also a ferry connecting to Koh Kong, the Cambodian/Thailand border.<br /><br />

Krong Kep

Address: Phnom Penh

From Phnom Penh, a great excursion is the formerly lavish resort town of Krong Kep. Although once a famous high-society destination, called The Pearl of the Orient, Kep is now more of a rustic fishing village; a peaceful and charming destination for those who like to travel off the beaten track. The Khmer Rouge did a number on this town, but the ruined villas of the rich now add to Kep's crumbling mystique. A beautiful coastal road, slivers of beaches, jungled mountains, and the nearby Rabbit Island provide present day visitors with a beautiful setting.<br /><br /> For the best restaurants in town, and arguably the best seafood in Cambodia, try the shack-like buildings near the water and order the crab. The Crab Market, made up of a number of these shack-like restaurants, is delightfully relaxed and friendly. For an authentic experience it is best to avoid the more expensive places and dine where the locals do. There are also wonderful, rustic picnic platforms at Kep Beach where you can settle down and be served freshly caught seafood from vendors, most of whom speak at least a little English. Kep is around a three-hour taxi ride from Sihanoukville, or a four-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh.<br /><br />

River Dolphins

Address: Kratie, about five or six hours from Phnom Penh Phnom Penh

The Irrawaddy river dolphins inhabit a 118-mile (190km) stretch of the Mekong River. These odd and delightful creatures are in danger of extinction and the Cambodian population was recently estimated to consist of a mere 85 animals. For years the dolphins were killed in now illegal fishing practices, and hunted by the Khmer Rouge for sport, but they are now fully protected under Cambodian Fishery Law and their appeal to tourists is bringing in welcome foreign dollars to the region. The dolphins have become a symbol of hope for the sleepy northeastern town of Kratie and the money paid to view them supports the local community as well as the conservation of the dolphins.<br /><br /> The animals themselves are shy and intelligent and their perpetual grins make them very endearing. They are sometimes easily spotted from the riverbank but many tourists opt to rent small boats to get closer to them. The local oarsmen retain a healthy distance from surfacing animals but viewers can get close enough to recognise individual characteristics and see the famous dolphin smiles. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice of cheap guesthouses and small hotels. All of these offer motorbike drivers for the scenic nine-mile (15km) drive to the dolphins' river home, a tiny fishing village called Kampi where the houses are raised up on stilts to prevent annual flooding.<br /><br />

Central Market (Psah Thmay)

Address: Neayok Souk, Phnom Penh Phnom Penh

A trip to Phnom Penh would be incomplete without a visit to Central Market. Phnom Penh's most obvious landmark looks like a Star Wars trading post and its quirky architecture is part of the appeal for tourists. This famous Art Deco building consists of a huge central dome with four wings opening out into large halls. Psah Thmay contains countless stalls run by more than 3,000 merchants. When the market was first opened, in 1937, it was said to be the biggest market in Asia. It has recently undergone years of serious renovation with the newly improved Central Market reopening in 2011.<br /><br /> Merchandise comprises almost everything imaginable including souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, books, flowers, postcards, antiques and a lot of jewellery. As many stalls stock the same merchandise it is useful to compare prices to find the real value of goods. One should bargain hard but good-naturedly. Surrounding the structure is a ring of tightly packed vendors selling similar wares. Its central location is walkable from almost anywhere and it is visible from many of Phnom Penh's main roads but, if necessary, all taxis know Central Market.<br /><br />

Foreign Correspondents Club

Address: 363 Sisowath Quay Phnom Penh

A pleasant way to spend the evening in Phnom Penh is on the wide balcony of the Foreign Correspondent's Club. This well-located bar, restaurant and boutique hotel sits on the banks of the riverside overlooking the converging Mekong and Tonle Sap. The spectacular view is best appreciated at sunset, which luckily coincides with the FCC's happy hour. The FCC can be more expensive than its neighbours, but the colonial-chic style and atmosphere of the place gives an invaluable French flair to the night. The FCC sits in the heart of the bustling waterfront district, close to various popular nightlife venues. The club was renovated from a colonial-era French villa and is one of Southeast Asia's most legendary watering holes, famous for being the spot where the numerous journalists covering the last days of Pol Pot's regime converged. Unlike most Foreign Correspondent's Clubs it is not private but members from other clubs do get a discount.<br /><br />

Shooting Ranges

Address: Phnom Penh

Amuse your inner warrior with one of Phnom Penh's best carnal pleasures: shooting big guns. Whatever one's taste, be it automatic rifles, rocket launchers, or grenades, they are usually on offer. There are about four well-known shooting ranges in Phnom Penh, and the city is known to be a good destination for those who enjoy exploding things and handling weapons that are probably unavailable to them at home. The ranges are generally run by the military and there are safety measures in place but it is still a remarkably casual and free environment. It does all come at a cost though and at more than a dollar a bullet, make sure Rambo instincts are kept in check.<br /><br /> Upon arrival you should be able to see all the weapons on display and read a 'menu' detailing what is available and how much handling each weapon costs. Guides generally recommend that you visit the shooting range first if you plan to also see sites like the Killing Fields because thinking too deeply about Cambodia's violent past has been known to dampen the excitement and fun to be had at the range. Most guesthouses and taxi drivers can recommend a good shooting range but it is best to check online reviews to make sure you are going to a respected establishment. The Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range is a favourite with travellers and has been awarded certificates of excellence by review sites like TripAdvisor in recent years.<br /><br />

Cambodia Cooking Class

Address: Phnom Penh

It is always wonderful to return from your time abroad with a skill you didn't have when you left home, and Cambodian cooking classes are one of Phnom Penh's most popular tourist attractions. Khmer cuisine distinguishes itself from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine with its delicate use of spices and aromatic herbs, used to create finely-balanced flavours that run the gamut from sweetness, to saltiness, sourness and spiciness.<br /><br /> Favourites include the Cambodia Cooking Class operated from Frizz Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh, which prides itself on 'small classes, maximum attention' (space is limited to 16 participants per day). During the full day lesson visitors will learn to prepare a full-course Khmer meal, as well as getting some useful tips about the blending of spices and the decorative aspects of Cambodian cuisine. Included in the price is transportation to and from the restaurant, a visit to the market to buy ingredients, and a full-colour recipe booklet, so you can try your new culinary skills on your friends and family once you return home. You also get to eat the delicious meal you produce in a beautiful riverside setting.<br /><br />

Russian Market

Address: Corner of Street 163 and Street 444, Phnom Penh Phnom Penh

Not to be confused with the Central Market (Psah Thmay), the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) is best reached via tuk-tuk or car. It is located south of Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard, and offers tourists a great range of bargains. The array of silk scarves is impressive and they are dirt cheap; the silk hammocks are also justified in their fame. Apart from these treasures, which make wonderful gifts for people back home, it is easy to find curios, souvenirs, jewellery and almost anything else you might want. There are some very good tailors who can fit you for custom-made suits and shirts for very reasonable prices (although you will have to wait about three days to collect them). There is also wonderful local food on offer and the fish soup is particularly tasty.<br /><br /> Like all sizeable markets in Cambodia it can get very crowded and a little overwhelming so it's best to go early or later in the evening. The market is undercover so it is ideal to miss the midday heat which makes it almost unbearably hot inside. If you get tired or need a break head to one of the nearby cafés lining the market for a delicious fruit cocktail. The market got its name from the plentiful Russian tourists who shopped there when visiting Cambodia just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it remains the city's most popular market for tourists.<br /><br />

Chat Preah Nengkal

Where: In front of the National Museum, near the Royal Palace.,Phnom Penh

When: 1 - 10 May 2017

Chat Preah Nengkal, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, is an ancient Cambodian agricultural rite that takes place in front of the National Museum, near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The ceremony is held in early May each year and all banks, ministries and embassies are closed during the event. Cambodians have a number of traditional rituals for forecasting the weather and determining whether harvests will be fruitful. Chat Preah Nengkal is the ancient royal rite marking the start of the rice-growing season. In the ritual sacred oxen plough a patch of ceremonial ground so that Brahmins can sow some rice seed. Once the job is done the sacred animals are offered a selection of food, including rice, beans, grass and rice whisky, and the royal soothsayers make predictions for the harvest based on the appetites and food selection of the oxen. Although the Royal Ploughing Ceremony may not be as festive or exciting as some other Cambodian festivals it is interesting to see this ancient ritual practiced and if you are in Phnom Penh at the time it takes place it is well worth taking part in the event and celebrations. Before the ritual is performed there is an impressive ceremonial procession.<br /><br />

Water and Moon Festival

Where: ,Phnom Penh

When: 16 - 18 November 2017

This traditional festival is Cambodia's Mardi Gras and Carnival rolled into one, an exuberant celebration marked by three days of boat races and partying on the southern end of the Tonle Sap, and indeed all over Cambodia. The three-day festival is the biggest and most spectacular event on the Cambodian calendar and locals and tourists flock from far and wide to the capital, Phnom Penh, and other hot spots to enjoy the pageantry, partying, fireworks and boat races. Although smaller than the mammoth celebrations in the capital, festivities and races are also held in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat. The festival heralds the start of the fishing season and coincides with the reversal of the current in the Tonle Sap River, which flows uphill for half the year. There are illuminated floats, celebrations of the full moon, and various feasts to support the boat races. Rowing has a rich history in Cambodia as it was a vital component of the ancient Khmer civilization's military prowess. Hundreds of boats compete in this annual festival, decorated with the traditional dragon heads and each bearing up to 40 rowers. The racing of the pirogue boats is fast, loud and energetic and the atmosphere at the event is jubilant and celebratory, making the Water and Moon festival one of the most popular times to visit Cambodia.<br /><br /> Travellers should note that in recent years this event has sometimes been cancelled due to low water levels or political tension.<br /><br />

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