As the permanent seat of power for the region since the late 1860s, you’ll find a rich history and many things to do in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Despite the dark and tragic history that haunts this country, the Cambodian capital has seen a revitalization of not only its spirit but also its economy. In the forty years since the Khmer Rouge regime was driven from the country, there has been a resurgence of culture and pride, proving the resilience of the Cambodian people and resulting in a flourishing tourist economy that has helped to improve the economic status of this city as well as the country as a whole. For this reason, travelers will find a wealth of things to do in Phnom Penh and take comfort in the fact that their dollars will go toward improving and revitalizing this country with such a storied history.
Located in the southern central portion of the country, the city of Phnom Penh is located at the intersection of three major rivers in the wet, tropical climate of southeast Asian. The monsoon season brings massive rains to the area, but the dry season is a perfect time to visit, from around December to April, when temperatures reach the lowest average of about 70 degrees at night. Regardless of when you visit, you will find a plethora of things to do in Phnom Penh, making it one of the up and coming tourist destinations in the area.
Things to do in Phnom Penh: Steal This Guide!!
Marvel at the opulence of the Royal Palace
Sitting along the banks of the river is the sprawling complex of the Royal Palace. Built in the 1860s for the Royal Family, it contains paved walkways overlooking the river, lush gardens and landscaping all clustered around multiple golden pagodas and structures in various sizes, each seeming more ornate and opulent than the last. The entire site is considered a religious site, with Buddhist statues found at every turn amid the vivid garden backdrop and the ornate gilt pagodas. Travelers are encouraged to dress in a manner respectful of the religious significance and culture of the area when visiting the Royal Palace. The views alone make it one of the top things to do in Phnom Penh, but you will also find a number of informational plaques as well as guides to explain the history, culture and significance of the sites held on the grounds. The ornate historic architecture of the Royal Palace as well as the sprawling palatial gardens seem almost out of place amid the hustle and bustle of the modern city, making a visit to this location a special and memorable experience.
Read More: Things To Do In Phu Quoc
Explore the cultural history at the National Museum
Despite the dark and sordid recent history of the Khmer Rouge, the full history of Cambodia is so much more than that. At the National Museum, you can experience this history first-hand through displays of artifacts and relics from ancient history, particularly the 1600s, as well as models of historic homes, traditional Khmer dance and song performances and examples of clothing from the distant past straight through to modern times. In addition to the wealth of items and knowledge, the National Museum is also a destination worth visiting to marvel at the traditional architecture of the building itself as well as the lush grounds of the establishment. One of the top things to do in Phnom Penh is to stroll through the shaded gardens and meander past the meditating Buddha statues housed under ornate pagodas seen throughout.
Catch a stunning sunrise at the river
Stroll the alleys of the Russian Market
With the newfound influence of tourism and travelers, markets can be found all over the city and are one of the top things to do in Phnom Penh. In particular, the Russian Market is one of the largest such markets and a perfect place to visit for those seeking an authentic Cambodian market experience. Though named the Russian Market, you will find that traditional Cambodian items are found in higher numbers here. Silk scarves and spices make some of the best Cambodia souvenirs, as well as hand crafted items and clothing.
Practice Voluntourism at the Animal Alliance
One of the most unique and rewarding things to do in Phnom Penh is visit the Animal Alliance. One of the major problems facing the country is habitat loss and animal trafficking, which the Animal Alliance works to reduce through education programs, animal rehabilitation programs and funding for additional programs that help to reduce the troublesome issues facing the rare and protected species of this country. A visit to the Animal Alliance starts with transportation to and from your hotel and includes a visit to a traditional fruit market, where you select and purchase fruits to be fed to the elephants houses in the Alliance. While at the establishment, you will also be able to see tigers, monkeys and a number of other species of animals native to the jungles of Cambodia and also a number rescued from animal traffickers. An additional perk to your visit is a traditional Cambodia lunch served on the grounds of the rehabilitation center amid the animals!
Try ALL the foods!
From street food to restaurant dining, Cambodia has a thriving food scene that should not be missed. Come hungry and be prepared to try everything – from food being cooked in stalls, markets and restaurants – you are going to be hard pressed to find better food. Make sure and try amok at least once!
If you are not from Asia, make sure and eat ALL the passion fruit and pomelo that you can as it is hard to find in the states.
Find even more opulence at the Silver Pagoda
If you thought the Royal Palace was opulent, you will be blown away by the Silver Pagoda. The name is accurate; of all the things to do in Phnom Penh, a visit to this place exemplifies Southeast Asian Buddhist culture and the riches that it holds. The floors are covered in delicate silver tiles numbering in the thousands and at the top of the grand staircase, you’ll find even more riches gifted in the name of the Buddha. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the namesake statue dripping in over 2,000 diamonds and flanked on either side by statues of equally impressive heft. A massive bronze Buddha, a silver-gold Buddha and a Buddha crafted from pure gold all sit together, lustrous and gleaming amid the ornate and mysterious confines of the Silver Pagoda.
Find handmade silk items on Silk Island
Located on a small island at the center of the capital is the village of Koh Dach. Visiting this island is like stepping back in time and is one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh if you want a true and authentic taste of local Cambodian life. This anomalous pocket of rural life is surrounded by the modernity of the capital city but seems frozen in time; traditional Cambodian teak houses on stilts line the dirt roads and a silk factory in the middle gives the island its name. Workers harvest the caterpillar cocoons by hand and all around the island, women and men spin the fine threads into yarn by hand with traditional spinning wheels. In addition to factory tours and strolling the streets to watch the tradespeople at work, you can also purchase handmade silk garments for unbelievably low prices direct from the source, making it a memorable and special experience to be had at the center of the city.
Enjoy an Angkor Beer
There is nothing better than an ice cold Angkor beer after a day of exploring Phnom Penh. Don’t be alarmed if ice comes in your beer, this seemed to be a common theme, and honestly, it just made the beer colder and better. Just go with the flow if ice is put in it – just don’t forget to try it!
Bask in the sunset on a Mekong River Cruise
The sites and sounds of the city are unique and breathtaking and there is no better way to bask in the views than on a sunset river cruise. Because the city stands at the intersection of three major rivers, one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh is enjoy the view from the river and sunset makes for the most magical views of them all. The Mekong River Cruises are some of the best of the sunset cruises offered. With views of the stunning Royal Palace at sunset, the river cruise offers dinner and cocktails while you travel the leisurely flow of the river and watch the sun dipping low on the horizon. Pagodas, palaces, temples and views of the vibrant city line either side of the river, but the serenity of the water makes it feel like you are removed from the hustle and bustle, enjoying the sweeping views of the capital without having to navigate the streets and alleys. There’s nothing quite as romantic as a sunset cruise and the mysterious beauty of this Cambodian city makes for an even more magical experience.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
A great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city is the seclusion at Palace Gate Resort and Spa. Directly around the block is the Royal Palace and you can walk out to the Mekong River down the road about a block in the other direction. The hotel is a French Colonial Villa that has been restored. Main focal points for the hotel are the stunning pool that make you feel like you are in an entirely different world and the gorgeous restaurant/bar in the back.
The rooms are aptly equipped with comfortable beds, flat screen TV’s, AC, beautifully decorated bathrooms, and some rooms have sitting areas. If you can, get a room with a balcony overlooking the pool – it is beautiful!
Things to pack for Phnom Penh
- Get a strong insect repellent to protect yourself from possible malaria and dengue fever. You can get pills for malaria but there is no preventative or cure for degue fever at the current time.
- Wear socks and shoes when possible, long pants – protect your skin with deet as often as possible to help prevent this
- A disposable poncho or umbrella for the unforeseen rain. Ponchos work best because you can keep them folded up small in your bag.
- Reusable straws to drink from as to not use plastic
- Sunscreen – the last thing you want to do is burn your skin while traveling
- A drone for all those amazing aerial shots! I have found this one is compact and takes high quality shots.
- A camera to document your amazing adventure
- You will need a power adapter and voltage converter – I like this one because you can charge multiple things at once – which is easy to do at night when you get in from a day from adventures.
- Currency – the official currency is the Cambodian riel.
- Make sure and exchange cash at the airport to be safe as cash is king for most things.
- Hotels are good about taking credit cards and there were some ATM’s – but word of the wise, plan to have cash on you. Things are not very expensive – I believe with the conversion from USD a beer was about .70 cents.
- Language – the primary language in Cambodia is Khmer. However, there were many people met in Phnom Penh that spoke English.
- Getting there – Phnom Penh has an International airport for those wishing to visit.
- If you want to get into the city from the airport without a shuttle or taxi, there is a train at the airport that takes about 30 minutes to get into the city center from. You will need to catch the shuttle at the airport that takes you to the train. This is the most cost effective way to get into Phnom Penh.
- Getting around – you could walk but most people use tuk tuk, bikes, taxis, or moto’s. It has been said that Phnom Penh is not very pedestrian friendly (I did not have that experience but I was not there a very long time).
Phnom Penh is a vibrant and modern city, rising up in a refreshed and revitalized fashion despite the troubled past that colors its recent history. In the last forty years, this capital city has seen an influx of people and a renewed tourism sector that has aided in the rebuilding and renewal of this unique cultural location and resulting in a large number of interesting and unique things to do in Phnom Penh. Surrounded by lush jungles and filled with ornate architecture and robust culture unique to this area, Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a place you will have to see to believe. With so many magical moments and breathtaking experiences to be had, you will be sure to enjoy your time in this southeast Asian country, so be sure to research ahead of time so you won’t miss any of the interesting things to do in Phnom Penh!
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Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Insider Thailand partner program. As always, opinions are entirely my own.
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