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 things to do in Phnom Penh.
The Royal Palace serves as the King’s official residence, a venue for court ceremony and a symbol of the Kingdom. However, some sections are open to the public and visitors can stroll through the manicured gardens and discover the ornate temples, libraries and galleries inside the palace grounds. The palace compound is also home to the Silver Pagoda, a prominent temple that takes up a key place on the riverside and is named for its gleaming silver floor. Guests are reminded to dress respectfully by keeping shoulders and knees covered.
Located next to the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is home to more than 5,000 artefacts dating back to the ancient Angkorian period. Various rooms display a range of rare statues, lingas and other items, including the Leper King from Siem Reap and a giant 11th century bronze Vishnu. It equips visitors with some great knowledge ahead of a trip to Angkor Wat Archaeological Park.
This former high school in central Phnom Penh makes for a sobering visit, due to the horrific role it played during the Khmer Rouge regime. Back then, the former school was transformed into a political prisoners’ camp known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). Only seven prisoners survived, while many others were tortured and killed there, or sent to their deaths at Choeung Ek. Much of the site has been left as it was discovered in 1979 when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh. The blood-splattered walls, tiny brick cells and abandoned torture tools offer an important insight into the brutal regime.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, with an estimated two million people killed or dying from starvation and exhaustion. Almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at the mass graves of Choeung Ek, more commonly known as the Killing Fields. Now serving as a memorial, the site features a Buddhist stupa filled with human skulls retrieved from the fields. Visitors can walk around the exhumed graves and learn more through a headset-guided walking tour.
As the main organisation tasked with bringing traditional arts back to life and steering them in a new, modern direction, Cambodian Living Arts trains musicians, dancers, singers, and other performers, providing them with the props to make a living from their art. One arm of their efforts is the daily shows at the capital’s National Museum, which run from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. The Traditional Dance Show takes audiences on a journey from Angkor’s palaces to the villages of today through song, music, and theatre.
Standing as the capital’s only hill, this well-manicured park, which doubles up as a roundabout and marks the official centre of the capital, offers welcome respite from Phnom Penh’s heat. Wat Phnom pagoda and its intricately detailed temple sits atop and welcomes visitors, with foreigners paying a $1 fee. Steer clear of the mischievous, and often vicious, monkeys.
Also known as Silk Island, Koh Dach is approximately an hour’s journey from the capital, including a short ferry ride to the island that sits in the middle of the Mekong River. Guests can learn about Cambodian silk weaving by visiting the weaving villages dotted across the islands, where they can watch workers use handlooms to spin silk while others dye materials to create stunning designs. The quiet island is also home to pristine countryside and a great way to escape the city for the day without going too far.
NGO Wildlife Alliance works tirelessly to rescue, rehabilitate and conserve the country’s swathe of endangered and rare wildlife from the clutches of illegal traffickers and poachers. Rescued animals are taken to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, where they are nursed back to health before being released back into the wild. The centre’s day in the life of a zookeeper programme gives guests the chance to get up close and personal to the wildlife, with all funds being pumped back into the project. Guests can hand-feed elephants, enter the tigers’ private den, feed baby macaques and get within a whisker of leopards, gibbons and otters.
The recently-launched sister tour of the successful Siem Reap Food Tours gives visitors the chance to feast on food cooked fresh on the streets. The two tour options – morning and evening – both take guests off-the-beaten-track to sample authentic Cambodian flavours at markets, street food stalls and hole-in-the-wall eateries, all led by an informative guide. This is a great way to sample the diversity of Cambodian food in a fun and safe way.
There is no better way to start the evening than with a relaxing jaunt along the Mekong or Tonle Sap rivers as the sun melts into the horizon to mark the end of another day. There are plenty of options, which vary in price and quality. Tara Boats and Kanika come recommended and offer a range of boat trips, including buffet dinner and entertainment.