What to Do in Phnom Penh: The Best Tours and Must-See Attractions

||What to Do in Phnom Penh: The Best Tours and Must-See Attractions

Many Phnom Penh attractions are actually heritage sites that have deep significance to the history of Cambodia. For instance, there is the Royal Residence which serves as the home for the king of Cambodia. There are temples which are hugely important to the spirituality of Cambodians. Two famous historical sites in particular bring harrowing reminders of the Khmer Rouge genocide. There are many stories around the attractions in Phnom Penh that await to be discovered.

Of course, the city also offers its share of nightlife destinations, retail therapy options, and other tourist traps. There is so much to explore that you’ll be scratching your head as you try to figure out how to see it all on your vacation. Make sure you make up an itinerary of what to do in Phnom Penh!

If all that planning is stressing you out, let our YK Art House on-site travel experts help you work out all the details. We’ll do all the bookings and scheduling, so you’re free to attend to your rest and relaxation.

As there are so many worthwhile places to visit and explore, it’s best to dedicate a couple of days to Cambodia’s capital city rather than just a night or two. That way you don’t have to pick and choose and instead you can experience all of the recommended places to see and

The Most Popular Places to Visit

Killing Fields

When you do a Google search on Phnom Penh, one of the top search suggestions is “Phnom Penh killing fields”. This might not come as a surprise to most, since the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek is one of the most popular Phnom Penh attractions. It is a grim but important reminder of the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge’s reign from 1975 up until 1979, an era which is a dark and tragic chapter in the history of the Kingdom of Wonder.

Located about 17 kilometers from the capital city, this former longan orchard became the largest execution site for the ‘enemies’ of the Khmer Rouge. An estimated 17,000 men, women, and children, most of whom were prisoners from the infamous S-21 prison, were brutally murdered at the Cheung Ek killing fields.

In 1980, around 9,000 remains were exhumed from the mass graves. It was later turned into a memorial site in hopes of educating Cambodians and the rest of the world of the harsh realities of genocide. The memorial site has a stupa containing some of the dug up skulls as well as glass cases with bloodied clothes and bones. The entrance fees include an audio tour offered in several languages.

TIPS: Be respectful when visiting this memorial site. Dress appropriately, don’t smoke or drink and take a pass on the obligatory selfie. You can hire a tuk-tuk for about $20 or less to get there or sign up for a Phnom Penh tour which includes the Cheung Ek killing fields on the itinerary.

Central Market

When you’re planning what to do in Phnom Penh, shopping at one of the local markets is certainly something you want to include in your list. These places of trade play an integral part in the lives of Cambodians. Plus, they offer some of the best deals for those obligatory travel souvenirs.

When it comes to Phnom Penh’s markets, Phsar Thmei or Central Market is a must-see. You don’t have to be a retail tourist to appreciate it. Plenty of travelers go there to take a souvenir photo of the huge dome and to see its famous Art Deco architecture up close. It’s also a great place to have a glimpse of local products, food, and culture.

It has become a landmark since it was established in 1937 thanks to its size and architecture. If you plan to tour Phsar Thmei, take note that it is a massive structure. Make sure to spare several hours to explore the whole area. Be ready for the crowds and for the hustle and bustle you’d expect from this central destination of commerce.

The dome is in the middle of the complex and is where you can find a vast selection of jewelry and gems. The four wings extending from the center have huge hallways with rows of stalls selling every product imaginable—fresh produce, spices, electronics, handicrafts, and more.

TIPS: One of the most rewarding things to do in Phnom Penh markets is to try local delicacies. At the Central Market, fill up on a hot bowl of Bobor rice porridge for breakfast or snack on coconut banana tapioca pudding in between your shopping trip. Take note that goods sold in Phsar Thmei tend to be more expensive, but its well designed building allows you to enjoy haggling with vendors in a well ventilated and shaded environment.

National Museum

courtyard outside the National Museum Phnom Penh

The grand courtyard outside the National Museum in Phnom Penh

Many tourists include the National Museum of Cambodia in their top choices when deciding what to see in Phnom Penh.

It’s the place to go in the Kingdom of Wonder if you want to see one of the world’s finest collections of Khmer sculptures. You can spend all day appreciating the Buddhist and Brahmanism divinity statues as well as numerous historical Khmer art pieces. It is also the leading museum for Cambodian archaeology and history as well as the largest one for cultural history. The galleries showcase artifacts from the pre and post Angkorian periods.

The traditional architecture of the building is so impressive – tiers of spired roofs, beautifully crafted pediments and loggias, and red sandstone walls – and is one of the reasons why the museum is a tourist favorite. Its perfectly manicured gardens and inviting courtyard make it even more stunning. It is really quite a sight to behold. You might even be tempted to just spend all your time outside to appreciate and capture its beauty with your camera.

The museum is located just across the Royal Palace and nearby Sisowath Quay, two other popular Phnom Penh attractions, so you can easily peg several tourist sights even on a tight schedule. It is located on St. 13 where one of the entrances is located. The other one is on St. 178.

TIPS: You can buy booklets with information on the exhibits from the front desk. You can also arrange for a guided tour in English, French, Japanese, or Khmer. While visitors are free to photograph or film the museum’s courtyard and exterior, you are not allowed to take pictures within the galleries.

Night Markets

So, visiting a local market is an item on your Phnom Penh what to do list. However, you find the Cambodian daytime weather is too hot for your liking and drains your energy for haggling and hunting for the best deals. You’d rather lounge at the pool or stay in an air-conditioned space when the sun is out.

Don’t worry, the Phnom Penh Night Market (Phsar Reatrey) is here to supply your desire for good souvenir finds, yummy treats, and even a taste of local entertainment.

Located at the Riverside, it was originally set up to attract tourists but ended up being more popular among the locals. Although the commodities for sale here are generally more limited compared to what you’d see in other markets, you’ll find plenty of souvenirs, accessories, Cambodian silk products, jewelry, handicraft, and imitated branded apparel. It’s quite fun to see how the manufacturers play with the spelling of some famous brand names.

There is a stage in the middle of the market where you can catch live performances of a group of dancers, singers, or bands. It can get pretty loud though since the sound system uses massive speakers.

Behind the stage are food stands offering various dining options, including noodles, fried rice, grilled meat, and other local delicacies. If you need to cool down, go for the fresh juices or shakes or some coconut ice cream. There are floor mats laid out in front of the stage where you can enjoy your meal while watching the show. Or, go for the tables and chairs near the food stalls if your knees are complaining.

TIPS: The Night Market tends to be busier on weekends so visit on a weekday if you want to avoid the crowd. If you buy multiple items from a vendor, there is a bigger chance you can get a discount.

Phnom Penh Museum

One of the great things about choosing what to see in Phnom Penh is that there are so many tourist sites that offer a glimpse into the history and culture of the Kingdom of Wonder. If the National Museum hasn’t satisfied your interest in the story and people of Cambodia, you’ll easily find another educational experience waiting for you around the corner.

The Royal Palace is just across the National Museum. It is the official royal residence of the King of Cambodia. There are even some areas which are open to the public. Visitors can stroll through the well-kept gardens and tour the Throne Hall, galleries, and temples. The Silver Pagoda is adjacent to the palace and houses the Emerald Buddha and other valuable Buddhist and historical items.

TIPS: There is a lot to admire from the displays, decorations, murals, and architecture of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Don’t miss the important stuff and get useful historical and cultural information by hiring one of the guides if you don’t have one yet.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is also a must-see among historical Phnom Penh attractions. Formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School, it became the notorious S-21 prison during the Khmer Rouge reign. At that time, it was the largest detention and torture center in Cambodia.

Among the estimated 15,000 prisoners, only 7 survived. The rest were starved, executed, or tortured to death. The museum has a display of harrowing photographs of the men, women, and children imprisoned there. One of the buildings is preserved just the way it was during the Khmer Rouge era. Interrogation rooms, torture devices, and paintings are other grim reminders of the suffering and death of the prisoners.

TIPs: It’s worthwhile to hire a guide who can tell you stories about the people featured in photographs. Two of the survivors who are still alive also visit the museum to give their accounts of their experience at S-21.

Ta Prohm

Temple in Ta Prohm

The ancient structure of the temple in Ta Prohm

At the top of most travelers’ list of things to do in Phnom Penh, it isn’t common to find “visit old temples.” That activity is usually saved for Angkor. But the capital city actually has several temples that are a worthy visit for those wanting experiences filled with Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones allure.

Under an hour drive from Phnom Penh lies Lake Tonle Bati. Near the lake is Ta Prohm, a laterite temple built on a Khmer shrine from the 6th Century. No, this is isn’t the famous jungle temple where Angelina Jolie shot scenes from one of her Lara Croft movies. That one is in Angkor in Siem Reap. This one in Tonle Bati is the smaller version built in the same Bayon style. It may be smaller but it is just as magnificent and totally worth exploring.

King Jayavarman VII had it built around the year 1200. The walls of the inner enclosure are covered with bas-relief sculptures. Tah Prohm has five chambers and each room has a lingam, a phallic symbol indicating worship of the Hindu deity Shiva.

TIPS: Hike up north for about 500 feet to see the remains of Yeay Peau Temple, named after King Ta Prohm’s mother. After exploring the temples, cool down by the lake at Tonle Bati. Sample a local delicacy (frog, anyone?) as you rest at the picnic area which are bamboo shacks built over water. Take note that the lake is a popular destination on weekends and holidays.

Wat Langka

Among the many Phnom Penh attractions, Wat Langka is one of the more popular ones when it comes to spiritual and historical significance. It is recognized as one of the oldest pagodas in the capital city dating back to 1442.

The wat was initially established as a sanctuary for the Holy Writings and to serve as a meeting spot for monks from Cambodia and Sri Lanka (thus, the name Wat Langka). It wasn’t totally destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime since it was used as a storehouse.

The fully restored wat still plays a significant role in Cambodia today. Many visit Wat Langka to see the golden Buddha. Some of the monks in Wat Langka are also regarded as being great teachers due to their religious knowledge and dedication. The monks are also very welcoming and even provide free meditation classes for visitors lead by an English speaking monk. Just make sure to check the schedule if you’re interested in joining. If you prefer to have some quiet time alone, you can find a comfortable spot among the alcoves on the property.

The wat is located in the BKK1 district, a popular expat spot filled with restaurants, hotels, and guesthouses. It is just about a five-minute walk away from the Independence Monument.

TIPs: Entrance and meditation classes are free, but it is somewhat expected to give a donation for the monks during your visit (as traditionally done in Cambodia). Even if they are very friendly, don’t just snap pictures of the monks without asking first. Remember that Wat Langka is a place of worship, so be respectful and avoid being loud or noisy. Check guides on temple etiquette before visiting.

Bophana Center

The Bophana Center is one more reason why you will never run out of ideas on what to do in Phnom Penh. This center provides a more digital experience of discovering the history and culture of Cambodia. It was established as a resource and research center for audio and visual archives on Cambodian heritage. There are archivists who can assist you in locating the material you need and guides who can give you a tour of the place.

Here you will find sound recordings, photographs, film, and television archives related to Cambodia that were gathered from all over the country and the world. These documents were restored when needed, providing high-quality audio-visual files for anyone who wishes to access these materials. The available footage or movies are in Khmer, French, or English.

The center is open to students, NGOs, journalists, filmmakers, or any group or individual who wishes to access audio-visual documents on the heritage of Cambodia. The archives cover a wide range of subjects, including cinema, political propaganda, documentaries, and traditional songs. You can view one of the first movies from the Lumière brothers, fictional work from Norodom Sihanouk, and features from Rithy Pahn who is one of the co-founders of the center.

Aside from providing access to rich archives, the Bophana Center also hosts exhibits, film screenings, conferences, and workshops or training on audio-visual production or preservation.

TIPS: The center holds a free screening every Saturday at their comfortable movie theater. A visit to Bophana after going to the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a great way to learn more about the Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh Cinemas

Still don’t have enough options for what to see in Phnom Penh? Then how about adding a movie to your list?

Films buffs or anyone wanting to just sit back, relax, and enjoy some on-screen entertainment will be happy with what Phnom Penh cinemas have to offer. From big, modern theaters equipped with the latest AV tech to smaller yet comfy independent or community movie houses, here are the top places to catch a film.

  • Major Cineplex (Aeon Mall) – Has a VIP cinema as well as 3D and 4D theaters (complete with moving chairs with wind and smoke effects). Catch the latest English blockbusters or a Chinese or Khmer production.
  • Legend Cinema – The first movie house in Phnom Penh licensed to screen Hollywood blockbusters. Also offers 3D experience as well as family and VIP seating.
  • Platinum Cineplex (Sora Mall) – Provides a mix of local films and international blockbusters. One of the three cinemas is 3D.
  • The Flicks Community Movie House – For $3.50 (adults) or $2.50 (kids), you can enjoy on-screen entertainment for the whole day. The air-conditioned movie rooms go with sofas and futons and you can order food and drinks. The lineup includes foreign films, festival winners, documentaries, latest releases, and children’s movies. They have two locations. Flicks 1 (with reclining chairs) is on St. 95 and Flicks 2 is on St. 136.
  • Tarantino Movie House – No latest blockbusters here. Just good old flicks from the 80s and 90s. Quentin Tarantino would approve. Pay $3.50 for a whole-day ticket or grab the movie meal deal (dinner, a film, and a tub of popcorn).
  • Meta House – Located at the German Cambodian Cultural Center where there is also a bar, gallery, and restaurant. It’s common to have a DJ or musician performing after a movie. Screenings of English documentaries and independent films happen every 7 PM (except Mondays) and are done on the rooftop (spray on your mosquito repellent).
  • The Empire – An arthouse, bar, cinema, and restaurant rolled into one cool venue. Catch indies, latest hits, or classics.

TIPS: In the bigger movie theaters, tickets usually range from $2-$18, depending on the screening time and seating option you pick. Students, children, and old customers get in for just $2.

Animal Sanctuaries

The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, also called the Phnom Penh Zoo, is a sanctuary for rescued animals. The center saves the animals from poachers, traffickers, abusive owners, or private zoos. Some are also taken in because they have lost their natural habitats. They are cared for by wildlife experts and veterinarians until they are well enough to return to the wild.

Phnom Tamao is located about 40 kilometers from Phnom Penh. The center is on a protected forest stretching over 6,000 acres so it’s best to rent a scooter, motorbike, or car to explore the large area and meet as many animals as you can. You pay a $5 entrance fee for each person and a corresponding charge for each vehicle you bring with you.

Guided tours are also a good option as they include transportation to and from Phnom Penh and around the sanctuary, an English-speaking guide, and lunch.

There are more than 1,000 animals and about 100 species, and many of them belong to the threatened or endangered categories. White Sambar deer, Cookie the Yellow Giant squirrel, Chhouk the elephant with a prosthetic foot, and the Malaysian Sun bears are some of the interesting creatures you’ll meet. Take extra caution as you drive around the sanctuary as there are a lot of Macaque monkeys and wild pigs roaming freely.

You can buy fruits from local vendors and feed the animals if you want to. Just make sure to protect the food you’re carrying from the sneaky monkeys.

TIPS: It is highly recommended to visit Phnom Tamao with a guide who is familiar with the animals and their stories. Plus, there are certain areas (tiger and leopard enclosures) and activities (watching the changing of Chhouk the elephant’s prosthetic foot) which are accessible only for guided tours.


Boat Trips Around Phnom Penh

No matter where your tour of Phnom Penh attractions leads you, you will eventually find yourself at the river. This is because the capital city is situated where the Bassac, Mekong, and Tonle Sap rivers meet. Even if you’re staying somewhere more inland, you won’t leave Phnom Penh without dropping by the Riverside, a popular hangout spot for locals, expats, and tourists.

Several of the major attractions are connected to the river. Therefore, a boat cruise is a popular activity, especially one scheduled in time for the sunset. Sitting on a lounge chair with a cool drink in hand as you drift on the water seems like an amazing way to end a jam-packed day of sightseeing.

You can go on a romantic cruise for two or hire a party boat for your travel group. There are operators who provide tour packages which include beer or wine and a barbecue or buffet dinner. They can also provide an English speaking guide.

A Phnom Penh boat cruise is also a great way to see the city from another viewpoint. You get to see the changing skyline of the metropolis as it hustles to keep up with the demands of development. You can watch the urban nightscape come alive as life on the river starts to slow down.

TIPS: During peak season, it’s best to pre-book with a reliable river tour company. Booking beforehand is also recommended when you’re traveling with a big group or want to include food and drinks on your cruise. Also, inquire if they include transportation to and from your hotel in their package services and rates.

Cruises On the Mekong River

Sunset On the Mekong River In Cambodia

A sunset over the Mekong River in Cambodia

Measuring about 2,700 miles in length, the Mekong River is the longest one in Southeast Asia. It flows through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, making Mekong boat trips popular among travelers who want to visit all or several of these four countries.

Coming from Phnom Penh, you can take a boat to Siem Reap or all the way to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Travel time is usually half a day or several days, depending on the type of tour you choose. There are also Mekong River cruises in Phnom Penh which include visits to nearby villages or islands.

Some of the popular itineraries are boat tours around Phnom Penh, Silk Island, Mekong Island, a floating village, and deep water pools which are home to the Irrawaddy dolphins. You can also choose to visit the Mekong flooded forests or go for an early morning boat ride with a local fisherman and learn traditional fish catching methods firsthand.

Traversing the Mekong by boat is an amazing opportunity to observe the local culture and way of life along the waters of Cambodia. You’ll see the beautiful countryside and lush rice paddies, witness fishermen reeling in their catch for the day, and watch villages come to life. When it comes to what to see in Phnom Penh, the rural landscape is one scene many recommend. It provides a rich and slower travel option which allows you to immerse yourself better in the surroundings, the people, and the whole experience.

TIPS: Mekong boat trips are most popular from September to March when the water levels are high. Not all the vessels have adequate roofing to provide enough shade so make sure to bring sun protection. Rainy season is between May and August so bring a poncho and waterproof your gear when traveling during these months.

City Tours

As far as Phnom Penh city tours come, there are no fixed rules. How you explore the city and your choices of what to do in Phnom Penh are entirely up to you.

Plenty of tour operators offer themed experiences, such as half a day dedicated to learning about the Cambodian genocide and Khmer Rouge rule at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng museum.

If you prefer to discover the more spiritual side of Cambodia, you can go on a one-day temple tour and visit Wat Ounalom, Wat Phnom, Wat Langka, and Ta Prohm.

Or you can experience it all and book a full-packed itinerary covering all the most important historical and cultural Phnom Penh attractions.

To experience the more flavorful side of Phnom Penh, walk around the local markets or streets filled with food stalls and sign up for a tour around local breweries. Stop by a traditional coffee shop to have your daily caffeine fix the Cambodian way (iced with sweetened condensed milk).

As for getting around, walking is always a good option. But if you’d rather ride, you can rent a bike or scooter or hire a tuk-tuk or taxi. Many tour operators already provide transportation so that’s one less thing to think about if you opt for that.

Another thing to decide is whether you should go with hiring a guide or not. Again, this is totally up to you. There are plenty of Cambodian guides who speak good English and charge very affordable rates.

TIPS: What matters most when planning your Phnom Penh city tour is making sure you are able to cover the experiences you want to have. Our helpful travel experts at YK Art House are happy to assist you in making an itinerary customized to your personal preferences.

Enjoy The Many Attractions in Phnom Penh!

While you are a foreigner who may not be familiar with the customs and traditions of Cambodia, remember that you are a visitor in this country. Please try to be respectful to the local ways and do some research on etiquette when touring Phnom Penh attractions.

Generally, you must cover your knees and shoulders/arms when visiting commemorative and religious places. Bring a shawl so you have a backup in case a place requires more coverage.

Please read the posted rules at the venues or listens to the guides and follow them.

Cambodia offers experiences like nowhere else in the world. Sites in nearby Thailand and Vietnam are becoming more modern and westernized every year, sadly at the expense of the rich historical value. Phnom Penh is one of the few places in the world where you can really experience natural and cultural attractions together in the same place. The temples around Cambodia have been meticulously preserved, and retain the original state of the architecture they have had since their conception.

Should you decide to have your adventure here in Cambodia, you will be welcomed into a land with vast charm and artistic aesthetic that simply does not exist in the same way anywhere else in the world. The memories that you make here and the stories you will share are the experiences that everyone dreams about when watching travel shows or clicking through social media. Easy to say, everyone back home will be envious and wish they had decided to come along when you first offered.

Most importantly, remember the best way to enjoy Phnom Penh and the rest of Cambodia is to be open to the new and exotic experiences which are waiting for you in the Kingdom of Wonder. And if you are looking for a Hotel in Phnom Penh, you can always visit YK Arthouse!

2018-12-07T11:57:39+00:00October 22nd, 2018|Blog|