Best Things To Do In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
There are no shortage of activities to fill your stay in the Cambodian capital, from dipping into Khmer culture and exploring the city’s heritage, to sampling the delights of the array of local food available. Here are the top 10 best things to do in Phnom Penh.
Visit the royal palace
Where London has Buckingham Palace, Phnom Penh has the Royal Palace.
Spread across a vast, manicured site which feels miles away from the cramped urbanity elsewhere in Phnom Penh, the elegant opulence of the various temples and buildings which compose the King’s residence are quite breathtaking. The design is also so quintessentially of the south-east Asian style too. It’s not as old as you may think though, with construction beginning only in 1865 at the behest of the then-King Norodom who had decided to make Phnom Penh his capital.
Although its restricted opening hours can make it busy and it really could do with a few more signs about its history, it’s still a joy to walk around and appreciate the details for yourself. The Silver Pagoda is a highlight for many, but we’d recommend to take your time at the wonderfully sprawling murals within the courtyard.
Many of the sections and buildings across the site closed to the public, so you have to make do with peering through the windows sometimes. For example, the throne room is open for visits when there is no official event on, although you cannot take photos of the inside.
Savour the street scenes
This Cambodia trip marked the first time we had travelled together in south-east Asia. Andrew lived in the region for a year (though it was a lifetime ago), whilst Emily had only dipped her toe into Indonesia.
Unsurprisingly, it was the street scenes of Phnom Penh which we were instantly drawn toward. A dervish of colour, movement, and fragments of managed confusion with fading French quarters or stacked iron balconies as a backdrop – it simply felt so like the urban south-east Asia we had pictured when planning our trip.
Visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Over 300 killing fields existed throughout Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign in the 1970s. As their name suggests, these fields served the purpose of killing Cambodians who were seen as opponents of the communist regime.
According to the Khmer Rouge, these opponents included people who were educated (lawyers, doctors, and teachers), spoke multiple languages, wore glasses, were Buddhist, or of ethnic minority groups. Eventually, this grew to the point where innocent people were murdered for fabricated reasons.
On top of this, the Khmer Rouge believed that it was important to also kill the victims’ children to prevent them from seeking revenge later in life.
When you visit the Killing Fields, you will find a tree called the Killing Tree. It was here where many of these children, infants, and babies were ‘smashed’ by the Khmer Rouge soldiers. These soldiers were often other children who had been brainwashed by the regime.
Your visit to the Killing Fields will be an emotional and unpleasant experience, however, it is one that you will never forget. You’ll learn about one of the darkest parts of our world’s history.
Eat & Shop at the Phnom Penh Night Market
The Phnom Penh Night Market is one of our favourite markets in Cambodia. It’s great as it still caters to both a local crowd, as well as it’s growing tourist clientele.
You’ll find plenty of souvenirs to take back home, including shoes, clothes, jewellery, and more. The highlight is definitely the food stalls located at the back (when entering from the riverside).
Definitely make sure to try the sugarcane juice and fried noodles. The best thing, however, is the ice cream. You can choose the flavours you want and they are served in small cups. Strangely, our favourites were tutti-frutti and coconut!
Getting to the Phnom Penh Night Market is easy – it’s located right on the riverside. From most accommodations, you will find it easy enough to walk here by following the river north. Otherwise, there will be plenty of tuk-tuk drivers willing to take you here for about $1 USD.
Admire the Silver Pagoda Phnom Penh
Technically, the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh is located within the grounds of the Royal Palace, but it is certainly deserving of its own spot on this list of things to do in Phnom Penh.
The present-day pagoda is built with over 5,000 tiles and five tonnes of silver (which all made its way into the floor), the structure is truly incredible. Its lavish and ornate decoration is a result of it being entirely rebuilt in 1962.
The Silver Pagoda has maintained its original purpose – to house national treasures! These treasures are typically precious gifts given to the monarchs of Cambodia.
The most impressive treasure here is certainly the small emerald green, crystal Buddha. Next to this, you’ll find a lifesized, gold Buddha adorned over 2,000 diamonds. I can’t even imagine how much this would be worth, but I’m sure it would feed a lot of impoverished people.
Regardless, it’s still well worth visiting! Your Royal Palace ticket will include entry to the Silver Pagoda so make sure you check out the rest of the grounds while you’re here.
Visit Wat Phnom Temple
The Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom is nestled amongst the trees atop Phnom Penh’s only hill. It looks out over the city. The temple contains 4 statues of Buddha and is said to have been erected in 1372.
In 1434, the city was founded to succeed Angkor Thom as the capital of Cambodia. It is this hill (and the lady, Penh, who founded the temple) that the city was named after, with Phnom Penh literally translating to Penh’s Hill.
With the city being named after this site, it only makes sense to include it on a list of things to do in Phnom Penh! When you arrive, you will find lions and naga (serpents) guarding the steps up to the temple.
The temple itself is adorned with beautiful carvings and paintings. Many people visit to pray for good luck – gamblers and students are amongst the most common. You could consider giving it a shot yourself – a little extra luck is always welcome when travelling.
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