A city of stark contrasts, Phnom Penh demands your attention from the moment you land. Expats relax in the waterfront bars and cafes near Sisowath Quay, while beggars and touts swarm around on crowded sidewalks elsewhere; the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is heart wrenching and saddening; while the wondrous Silver Pagoda or Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Royal Palace can lift the most muted spirits - Phnom Penh surprises you when you least expect it.
There is so much to see and do in Phnom Penh that even the most experienced of travellers will be engaged for days.
Use this Phnom Penh Destination Guide to give you ideas about what there is to see and do during you travels to Phnom Penh. More general information about what there is to see and do in the rest of Cambodia can be found in our Cambodia Destination Guide, or by checking out some of the local highlights of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, or Cambodia's neighbours Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Taking a Phnom Penh tour to one of the things listed below, or just around the city itself, is a great way of exploring Phnom Penh.
The Royal Palace complex is one of the city's most famous sights. It was constructed over a century ago as the residence of the King of Cambodia, his family and foreign dignitaries, as well as a venue for court ceremonies and rituals. The Royal Palace complex, along with the 'Silver Pagoda' compound which sits next to it, consists of several buildings, structures and gardens located along the riverfront. Apart from the actual Royal Residence, where King Norodom Sihamoni resides, most of the royal palace grounds and Silver Pagoda are open to the public. You can enter the complex from the gate on Sothearos Blvd about 100 meters north of Street 240, Phnom Penh.
The ornate Throne Hall which was once the hall of justice is in use even now as a hall for coronations and weddings in the royal family. The central spire on this building has an image of Brahma carved on it and intricate frescoes on the ceiling within. Try and time your visit so you are here in the morning - the earlier the better - when sunbeams bounce off this east facing hall.
Another must-see building within the palace area is the Chan Chhaya Pavilion where traditional Khmer dance has been performed for generations. The pavilion has more recently served as a venue for banquets.
Khemarin Palace or the main palace building is the residence of the monarch and is walled off from the other buildings that are open to the public.
Next to the Royal Palace sits the serene yet majestic Silver Pagoda, or Wat Preah Keo Morakot, which also means The Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It is seperated from the Royal Palace by a walled walkway but located within the same larger walled complex, on the northern side of the grounds.
King Sihanouk had over 5000 silver tiles laid here in his reign, giving the pagoda its name. Don't miss the main building which has some exquisite jewel and gold Buddhas, along with the Emerald Buddha which sits on a gilded dais. Depending on the source, the Emerald Buddha is said to be made of emerald or baccarat crystal.
Whilst Wat Preah Keo Morakot is the primary building, the pagoda compound as a whole contains a number of structures and gardens, including a library, various stupas, shrines, monuments, minor buildings and Ramayana frescoes (murals depicting scenes from the epic 'Reamker').
This most important of religious sites in Phnom Penh is also the city's tallest. Legend has it that in 1372 a widow named Penh found four Buddha figures inside a Koki tree floating on the Mekong and built a temple to house them on a man-made hill. The hill is now the scene of much activity, with a constant stream of Buddhist faithful, fortune tellers, vendors, visitors and motodups. Elephant rides are also available. The actual city is believed to be named after this hill as Phnom Penh means "Penh's Hill".
Wat Phnom is located on a hill at the centre of a small park close to Sisowath Quay (the Riverfront area), at the intersection of Street 96 and Norodom Blvd.
One of the oldest temples of the city, the 'Temple of the Lotus Blossoms' or Wat Botum was built in the 1400s and later renovated. Stupas containing the ashes of the royal families through the ages are scattered around the temple.
Wat Botum is located about three kilometres south of Wat Phnom, near the Royal Palace.
For a peep into the artistic side of Cambodian history dating back to before the Angkor era, the best place to start is the National Museum. Art and artefacts abound in the museum and locals throng here to picnic at the beautiful park. Located next to the Royal Palace and housed in a traditional terracotta structure completed in 1920, the National Museum displays over 5000 objects including Angkorian era statues, lingas and other artifacts and pieces from later periods.
The National Museum is located on Street 178 and Street 13, Phnom Penh, next to the Royal Palace, and is open everyday from 8:00 am - 5:00 pm.
The Independence Monument in Phneom Penh was built in 1958 to mark the fifth year of the country's independence from French Rule. It also doubles up as a monument honouring war heroes. The nearby Liberation Memorial is treated with scant respect since it was put up by the Vietnamese when they captured the city in 1979.
The Independence Monument is located at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk Streets in the centre of the Phnom Penh, whilst the Liberation Memorial sits nearby.
This former school gained notoriety during the rule of the Khmer Rouge when it was known as S-21 and converted to a security prison. Over 17,000 people were held here before being tortured and even killed. The site now serves as a museum chronicling the horrors of the era, and has been named the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Some rooms have been kept as they were during this period to show what went on inside the prison. Also on display are implements of torture, photographs of inmates and a bone chilling map made of skulls that serve as a solemn and grim reminder of the cruelty inflicted on thousands of innocents.
The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) is located at the corner of Street 113 and Street 350. It is open every day including holidays, from 8am - 5pm, but is closed for lunch. A small admission fee is also charged here.
About 15 kilometres south of Phnom Penh is one of the most infamous and dreaded killing fields in world history. Called Choeng Ek, it was formerly an orchard where the Khmer Rouge regime executed more than 17,000 people – most of them brought here from the Toul Sleng prison – in between 1975 and 1979. This was only discovered subsequent to the fall of the Khmer Rouge when mass graves were found containing 8,895 bodies.
Today, The Killing Fields of Choueng Ek stands as a memorial, with a Buddhist stupa commemorating those who died here. The stupa with its acrylic glass sides contains nearly 500 human skulls. The lower portions are left open in the day so that the skulls can be viewed. The pits from where the remains were exhumed have also been left untouched.
If you visit in May, try and make it to the memorial service held on the 20th of the month each year to honour the spirits of the dead.
The Killing Fields are located 15 km southwest of Phnom Penh and can be reached in about 40 minutes by taxi or tuk tuk.
Phnom Penh's New Market or Psar Thmei, better known as the Central Market, is a large covered marketplace close to the riverfront Sisowath Quay. Designed by a French architect, the bustling art-deco style Central Market opened in 1937 and you can find anything from fresh flowers and watches, to sunglasses, souvenirs, jewellery, silks and electronics. It is a famous city landmark and makes for an interesting day of shopping in Phnom Penh.
The Russian Market or Psar Toul Tom Poung is popular among tourists, expats and Cambodians alike. It is located in the southern part of Phnom Penh and is so called because of its popularity among Russian expatriates during the 1980s. It is the place to head to for authentic designer and branded goods at heavily discounted prices. Since a number of brands from the west source their garments and accessories here, products that do not meet their stringent quality norms (a faulty label, a slightly lighter or darker shade of dye than the designer wanted and other such 'defects') are sold here at low prices. You will also find souvenirs at cheaper prices than the Central Market, but you may have to bargain hard.
-Public Library Phnom Penh. Constructed in the early 20th century in neo-classical Greek style. Open to the public.
- Post Office Phnom Penh/Post Office square. The post office building was constructed in the 1890s and still operating as the central post office. Many of the building on and around the square are turn of the century. Best photos in the morning hours.
-Chaktomuk Conference Hall Phnom Penh. Constructed in 1960-61. ‘Golden era’ architecture by Vann Molyvann.
-Villa Late 19th century Sino-Khmer villa, displaying a mix of western architectural styles. In very good condition. Currently the offices of UNESCO
-Old Royal Villa Phnom Penh ‘No Problem Building’. Constructed c. 1905. One of the few remaining royal villas. Good condition.
-Villa Picturesque Phnom Penh. Late 19th century villa in a dilapidated state
-Phnom Penh railway station was built on 1932.
Koh Dach is an island located about 15kms north of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River. The islands locals have preserved the rich traditions of authentic Cambodian culture and it is famous for its handicrafts. You can visit a silk weaving village, or view pottery, osier craftwork, woodcarving, painting and jewelry cutting. Whilst prices are comparable to the markets in Phnom Penh, buying here means the money goes straight to the local artisans. The island also offers a fine beach which is very popular with locals on weekends.
The trip to Koh Dach is a scenic hour long boat ride along the Mekong River, passing numerous fishing villages. Arrange a visit through a guesthouse, travel agent or through one of the riverfront cruise boats that can be found along the Sisowath Quay near Street 136.
Tours and Activities in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh offers various activities to make your holiday the one of your lifetime.
Treat yourself in a Spa and finish the day in one of the numerous restaurants Phnom Penh offers. Take a walk along the riverside or just sit down in the park and enjoy the sunset atmosphere while watching the locals doing their exercise.
But there are as well a lot of things to do in Phnom Penh for those who prefer to be active. One option is of course to join the locals at their aerobic class!
If this is nothing for you, go on a quad tour, visit the zoo or cycle through Phnom Penhs countryside!
Interested? Then check our tours and activities in Phnom Penh!
A good way to help the locals is to volunteer time to teach at one of many orphanages, or help with rebuilding projects. There are a large number of organisation who can arrange volunteer work in Cambodia, including:
- Volunteer Abroad
- Save the Children Cambodia for Development (SCD)
- Sunrise Children's Village
- ActionAid Australia
- Take me to Volunteer Travel
- World Volunteer Web
- Travel to Teach
- One World 365