Phnom Penh best attractions
Phnom Penh is a large chaotic city that stretches along the banks of the Mekong River, where modern shopping malls and new buildings are slowly multiplying and replacing the lack of infrastructure. Despite this, Cambodia’s capital is absolutely worth a visit to discover the sad testimonies of one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century that indelibly marked the recent history of this country. Towards the end of the 1970s, at the hands of the violent and bloodthirsty Communist dictator Pol Pot, 1/4 of the Cambodian population was killed. Nearly 2 million people died in killing fields or in cultivated fields where they were forced to work as farmers. Historical places aside, Phnom Penh also boasts interesting attractions such as the Royal Palace and offers a beautiful slice of local life with many bustling markets where you will meet its hospitable inhabitants.
Our Top 10
1 – Choeung Ek killing fields: about 15 km from Phnom Penh centre, it is a site where many people were killed and buried by the violent Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Walking along the path, you’ll see a series of mass graves containing the victims’ body and glass cases with items of clothing, skulls and bones. Close to the entrance, there is a big memorial Stupa filled with the skulls of hundreds of people. Entrance fees: 6 USD. The Choeung Ek killing field is open every day from 7 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
2 – Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (known as S-21): it is also known as S-21, and it was a high school that Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and torture centre where over 17.000 people were prepared for death. The interesting visit consists of 4 buildings where you can see the interrogation chambers with their original torture items, single cells, mass detention cells and a series of touching pictures of all those imprisoned inside the S.21. The Museum is open every day from 7 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Entrance fee: 3 USD.
3 – Independence Monument: Situated in the heart of the city between Norodom and Sihanouk boulevard (Sangkat Boeng Keng Kang Ti Muoy), it was inaugurated in 1962 after taking back their independence from the French protectorate. The monument is the site of celebrations and services on important public holidays such as Independence Day and Constitution Day. To the east of the Monument along Sihanouk Blv, towards the river, there is one of Phnom Penh’s most popular public parks that, with its fountains, it is a favourite spot for wedding photos.
4 – Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda: Located in Sothearos Blvd. between Streets 240 & 184, the beautiful Royal Palace complex is a must for the traveller and it worth the visit. The Royal Palace was built over a century ago to serve as the residence of the King of Cambodia, his family and foreign dignitaries, as a venue for the performance of court ceremony and ritual and as a symbol of the Kingdom. In the southern area of the Royal Palace complex, there is also the beautiful Wat Preah Keo Morakot, known as the Silver Pagoda, which takes its name for the covered floor with more than 5000 silver tiles. Entrance fees for the whole complex: 25.000 R (around 6.5 USD). It is open every day, from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
5 – National Museum: The National Museum is located in the city centre on 13th Street, next to the Royal Palace and houses thousands of artefacts of Cambodian history. The Museum is open every day from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. The entrance fee is 5 USD. Guided tours can be arranged for 3 USD (usually group tour).
6 – Wat Phnom: It is a Buddhist temple located along Preah Norodom Blvd, on the top of a small hill covered with trees and about 27 meters high. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four Buddha statues deposited here by the waters of the Mekong and discovered by a wealthy widow named Penh. It thus became a sacred site where people went to be blessed and to pray. The main entrance to Wat Phnom is through the large eastern staircase, which is guarded by lions and balustrades with naga snakes. At the bottom of the hill, on the northwest side of the complex, it is also possible to visit a museum with some statues and ancient artefacts. Entrance fees: 1 USD, Hours: 7 a.m. – 6.30 p.m.
7 – Wat Ounalom: located near the Royal Palace, Wat Ounalom is one of the most significant pagodas in the country and, above all, the centre of Cambodian Buddhism. The pagoda is spread over three floors and has a fascinating collection of beautiful paintings and cultural relics that shed light on the life of the Buddha. The Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism and other important monks live within this complex. It also housed the Bouddhique Institute and the library destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during their dictatorship. The temple is open every day from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm and is free.
8 – Cambodian Living Arts – Apsara and Traditional Khmer Dance: it is a non-profit organization where you can admire an interesting show with dances typical of the different regions of the country, representations of battles, mythological characters and much more. It is located on the corner of 178 street and 13 street. Entrance fees: 15 USD. Opening time: Mondays, Wednesdays and weekends from 7:00 p.m. (anyways, they can change the showtime).
9 – Phsar Thmey (Central Market): If you want to live a real slice of local daily life, this is the right place. Phsar Thmey is an indoor market designated by French architects and one of the largest in Asia. The central market (street 130) is open every day from 6.00 until 18.00. Without a doubt, for those who love photography and the daily life of local people is a place not to be missed. Here you can find stalls of any kind: street food, meat, fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, flowers, clothes, jewellery and much more. The best time to visit the market is early in the morning when it is really crowded and quaint.
10 – Phsar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market): it is a very popular market located along street 155 (between Monivong and Mao Tse Tung Boulevard), not far from the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. As the central market is full of all kinds of stalls, you can find original brand clothes made in local factories and sold for a few dollars. The market is open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Useful information and advice
Some of the attractions can be visited on foot, and others are easily reachable with a tuk-tuk that you will find at every corner. Starting early in the morning (around 7.30 am), you will be able to visit the major attractions, but it would be better to take the tour calmly and divide the visit into a day and a half as we did. Phnom Penh is chaotic, and getting around by tuk-tuk (or taxi) takes time due to the heavy traffic. If you want to book a private tour or specific guided tours, we recommend using the web platforms Viator.com, GetYourGuide.com or Klook.com, where local operators advertise their Phnom Penh activities and tours.
Our itinerary in Phnom Penh: On the first day, we reached Phnom Penh arriving from Kratie around 1 pm. We spent the afternoon visiting the killing fields, and in the evening, we have a nice walk along the riverside, stopping there for dinner. The next day, we woke up at 6 am to visit the central market. Around 8.30, we reached the Independence Monument on foot, crossed the beautiful park, then again the Botum Pagoda park until we got to the Royal Palace. After the interesting tour inside the Palace, we did a short stop at the National Museum and then, with a tuk-tuk, we went to Wat Phnom, from here, again with a tuk-tuk we went to the Genocide Museum and ended the day with the Russian Market.
Recommended 1-day itinerary: if you only have one day available, focus exclusively on the main attractions, which are places related to the country’s sad recent history. If you feel fit and are inclined to wake up early in the morning, we suggest a quick visit to the Central Market. Otherwise, around 8 am, take a tuk-tuk and go directly to the Killing Fields. Go back to downtown Phnom Penh and reach the Genocide Museum. After visiting these two attractions, which are the most important in the city, take a tuk-tuk and go to the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom. Depending on the time you’ll still have, you can visit the other interesting attractions and take a nice walk in the parks of Phnom Penh.