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Phnom Penh highlights and travel guide

Phnom Penh overview

Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh was once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ for a good reason. Wide boulevards, a smattering of French colonial buildings and a cultural and historical centre all rolled into one, Phnom Penh is a delight for all the senses.

Phnom Penh highlights
Wat Unalom – Phnom Penh

Home to 1.5 million people, Phnom Penh is a buzzing place. Take in the architecture, go on tuk-tuk (remorque moto) tours and soak up the café culture and food scene. Visit bustling markets, gain insights into history in the many museums and pay a visit to the sparkling Royal Palace. City life carries on to the back of the mighty Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River – which run right by the city – providing opportunities aplenty to enjoy the best of waterside living too.

Offering urban thrills and quiet corners for reflection, visiting Phnom Penh is an unmissable Cambodian experience.

See and Do

The Royal Palace is one of the most popular places to visit in Phnom Penh. The official residence of Cambodia’s King Sihamoni, the palace compound near the banks of the river arouses much curiosity. Given the fact it is the King’s residence, visitors are only allowed into a few rooms, but it is still well worth the visit. One of these rooms is the Throne Hall, where coronations and special ceremonies take place. Tip: Wear clothes that cover your knees and shoulders, otherwise you’ll have to buy a sarong at the ticket booth.

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
Silver Pagoda – Phnom Penh

Next door to the Royal Palace but still within the royal grounds is the impressive Silver Pagoda, also called Wat Preah Keo or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The ‘silver’ in the name comes from the fact five tonnes of silver covers the pagoda’s floor. The extravagance doesn’t stop there either, as the pagoda’s staircase is made from gleaming Italian marble, while a 90kg solid-gold Buddha is adorned with more than 2,000 diamonds. Surrounding this Buddha is an almost-as-heavy bronze Buddha, plus a silver Buddha too. The pagoda is also home to some original Khmer artworks.

It wouldn’t be right to visit Cambodia nor its capital city without acknowledging the country’s relatively recent tragic history. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a place to understand more about what happened. In 1975, a school in Phnom Penh was taken over by Khmer Rouge security forces and turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21) – the largest site of imprisonment and torture in Cambodia. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum now occupies this site and tells the stories of some of the many people who were held here.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng genocide museum – Phnom Penh

At the edge of Phnom Penh is Choeung Ek – also known as The Killing Fields – where 17,000 prisoners from S-21 were killed. The Khmer Rouge are said to have executed more than a million people here between 1975 and 1979. Nowadays, the outdoor green space is a tranquil spot and it’s an important place to learn about this tragic time in history. A memorial made up of more than 8,000 skulls was added to the site in the 1980s.

Wat Phnom is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Phnom Penh, and its location is said to be where the name of the city originates from. In 1372, the wealthy widow called Lady Penh found a tree floating down the river containing four bronze Buddha statues and a stone statue of Vishnu. She subsequently raised the height of a hill near her house and built a temple on it to house the Buddhas and Vishnu statues. The temple became known as Wat Phnom, while Phnom Penh literally means ‘Penh’s Hill’. Nowadays, the 27-metre high hill is the only hill in the city. The temple is regularly visited by locals, who come to pay their respects and pray for good luck. Impressive artworks, monuments and artefacts are all on display too.

Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom – Phnom Penh

The Independence Monument is also worth visiting. It celebrates Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953 and is designed as a 57-metre high stupa in a lotus design. When any national celebrations and festivals are taking place, this is a spot in the city many people flock to in order to celebrate.

To see the city from a different perspective, head down to Sisowath Quay and go on a boat trip along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers.

It’s even possible to experience a little of Cambodia’s wildlife from the city. Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is outside the city, but it’s possible to get there and back in a day trip and have an invaluable wildlife experience in the meantime. This is a place where it’s possible to see and interact with wildlife that has been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, including elephants, tigers and macaque monkeys.

Culture and Arts

The National Museum of Cambodia is home to some of the rarest and best examples of Khmer art and sculpture that have been recovered from across Cambodia. The traditional terracotta architecture of the museum – built in the 1910s – is impressive from the outset and is fitting for the quality of craftmanship to be found inside. The museum is home to everything from impressive Vishnu sculptures to pre-Angkorian potteries and bronzes.

National Museum of Cambodia
National Museum – Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has numerous markets ideal for craft-shopping and soaking up Cambodian culture. Head to Psar Thmei (‘New Market’) – also called Central Market – for jewellery, antiques, clothing and food stands. It’s also a place to be wowed by the Art Deco architecture and huge gold domed roof. The Russian Market is an even more popular market. Cheaper than Psar Thmei and more thrumming, this is a place to find plenty of crafts, souvenirs and yet more food stands.

Outside of the markets, there are plenty of shops to find art and Cambodian craftmanship. Street 178 is known as Artists’ Street, so this is a great place to start for both art galleries and art shopping. Nearby, visit the Happy Painting Gallery for vibrant paintings of modern day Cambodian life. For handicrafts, visit Colours of Cambodia, and for silk products, Kravan House is the place to go.

Psar Thmei
Phsar Thmey – the Central market, Phnom Penh

Traditional Cambodian dance and music shows abound in Phnom Penh, so be sure to enjoy one while you’re in the city. There’s a particularly diverse programme of events like this at the National Museum of Cambodia, with a dance show taking place at 7pm Monday to Saturday. If you prefer other art forms, pay a visit to The Empire Movie House for arthouse cinema showings. The Flicks Community Movie Theaters are also popular, as is the Tarantino Movie Theater and Restaurant.

Festivals and Events

The Khmer New Year is one of the biggest annual festivals in Cambodia’s calendar, occurring over three days in April each year. Many people visit temples and pagodas at this time of year to offer and receive blessings. As well as the religious aspect, the occasion is cause for much celebration in Phnom Penh, when a carnival atmosphere hits the streets.

The Water Festival (Bon Oum Touk) every November is another of Phnom Penh’s biggest festivals. The celebrations centre on the Tonle Sap River and riverbank, where there are vibrant boat races, fireworks, live concerts, food stands and partying into the small hours of the morning.

Pchum Ben
Candle Lighting Festival

Pchum Ben (‘Soul Day’ or ‘Ancestors Day’) is a 15-day Buddhist festival in Cambodia, which usually falls in September or October each year. It’s a time when Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives and people bring food offerings to temples and pagodas across the country. Pchum Ben is more of a family affair than a public celebration, but visitors will notice the flurry of activity and offerings happening in religious locations throughout the city, with people wearing their best brightly coloured clothes. Tip: cover your knees and shoulders when visiting temples and pagodas to show the proper respect.

Visak Bochea Day is the celebration of Buddha’s birthday in Cambodia, held on the full moon during the sixth month of the Buddhist calendar, which is usually sometime in May. This is a day when Cambodian Buddhists visit temples and pagodas with food, candles and flowers to give to the monks. In turn, monks chant, teach and lead meditation sessions. In Phnom Penh on Visak Bochea Day, expect a lot of activity around the temples and pagodas and processions of monks wearing saffron robes walking down the streets. There’s also a large ceremony that takes place at Preah Reach Mount every year, just outside of Phnom Penh.

Visak Bochea Day
Dhamayatra – the Buddhist walk

The Kathen Festival is festival celebrated across Cambodia every October. A Buddhist festival, this is a time when saffron robes are offered to Buddhist monks at pagodas and temples. Visit any temple in Phnom Penh during this time which has a working population of monks and you’ll be able to spot the celebrations.

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony is a strange sight to see in the city, but a ceremony happens in front of the National Museum of Cambodia to mark the occasion each May. Celebrating the start of the sowing and planting season, the event is all about recognising how important the land is to Cambodians – it’s said to positively influence the outcome of the annual agricultural harvest too.

 Royal Ploughing Ceremony
Royal Ploughing Ceremony

For those who want to pay their respects to those who died during the Khmer Rouge campaign, it’s possible to visit The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek for a memorial ceremony on 9 May every year.

Phnom Penh also hosts an International Music Festival every year, of mostly classical music hosted at various concerts in November.

Food and Drink

In Phnom Penh, it is possible to try every variation of Khmer cuisine, as well as an international cacophony of cuisines and fusion flavours. One food that Phnom Penh is known for is kuy teav Phnom Penh – the city’s interpretation of a rice-noodle soup. It can be found everywhere from street vendors to sit-down restaurants.

Khmer cuisine
Phnom Penh’s food

Sisowath Quay is a strip in front of the Royal Palace by the Tonle Sap River that is filled with restaurants, bars, cafés and shops. Popular with visitors to Phnom Penh as well as local city-dwellers, this is a great place for an evening out. The high-end Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) is a popular spot for a cocktail and it’s where famous people tend to hang out when they’re in town. For a meal out on the water, the Chenla Floating Restaurant sets sail from Sisowath Quay.

Floating Restaurant
Chaktomuk Riverside

For street food in the city, head to any of the markets, or track down some famous streets in the evening that come to life with street food stands in the evening. Try Sihanouk Boulevard and the corner of Street 19 for a variety of street food stands.

Cheap but popular eateries include Psar Kapko Café on Street 9 – especially good for Khmer curries and fish amok.

Also head to 54 Langeach Sros or Sovanna Restaurant for Cambodian barbecue style food. Romdeng is a higher-end restaurant found inside a restored colonial building. As well as traditional Khmer dishes, this is also a place to be daring by trying dishes such as deep fried tarantula.

fried tarantula
Apeeng – The deep-fried tarantula

For some European flavours, try The Providore, The Lost Room or Quitapenas.

Cambodia is also a big fan of fusion food, and one place to try this in Phnom Penh is Friends the Restaurant. Serving an original mixture of Cambodian and European flavours, this restaurant also has a social conscience, as they help train homeless people and vulnerable young people to get jobs in the hospitality industry.

Coffee lovers should pay a visit to Feel Good – who roast all their own coffee – or the Cambodian chain, Brown Coffee.
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