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How To Spend A Day In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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How To Spend A Day In Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Picture of Kelly Iverson
Updated: 18 November 2016
When you think of the capitals of various countries and states, you usually picture a bustling, thriving city. While Phnom Penh in Cambodia is certainly lively, thriving is not the adjective that best describes the city. What the country lacks in wealth, however, it makes up for in culture, delicious food and a flourishing nightlife. Here, a one-day itinerary for one of the most interesting cities in Southeast Asia: Phnom Penh.

Getting Around

One easy solution to getting around Phnom Penh would be to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day. This should cost you around $30. The more people you find willing to share a tuk-tuk with, the cheaper your ride will be.

8 a.m.

Kick off the busy day with a large helping of Cambodian street food. Be sure to try Cambodia’s delicious fried noodles with eggs concoction. What it lacks in nutritional value, it makes up for in taste. A tea in addition to a large meal on the streets of Phnom Penh will cost visitors about $1 in total.

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Fried egg noodles | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

9 a.m.

Visitors who are feeling super ambitious should spend about an hour or two exploring the somewhat decrepit temples in the area before making their way to the next stop on our itinerary.

Many tourists leave these temples off their to-do lists for the day, however, the temples, even in their diminishing states, are certainly a sight to see. Oftentimes, visitors will run into monks who reside at these temples, in addition to monkeys and other creatures that call these grounds home.

11 a.m.

Cambodia is a country in recovery. The mass genocide that took place just a mere 40 years ago still affects all aspects of life there. Visitors will be fighting back tears as they meander through the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes. It is here where museum-goers will learn about the communist party, the Khmer Rouge and what they did to the thousands of innocent prisoners who were once here. The Tuol Svay Prey High School, which is now the museum, was turned into a prison in 1975. This became the largest and deadliest detection center in the area, and on some days, up to 100 prisoners were killed.

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Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

The Khmer Rouge hoped to make Cambodia a society without competition, as they believed that Cambodians had been poisoned by wealth and Western ideas. Almost everyone was persecuted, from those with educational backgrounds to those who wore glasses. The prison, otherwise known as Security Prison 21, is where these people were taken. The Khmer Rouge documented each and every prisoner that came through, and haunting photographs of the victims are found throughout the hallways of the prison.

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Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

The museum is $6 for foreigners, but is free of charge for those with a student ID card. There are also guided audio tours or tour guides available for an extra $3. Use at least one of these resources, as wandering about the prison with no knowledge of what it is you are looking at will severely and negatively affect your experience. Because the genocide took place not long ago, many of the guides will have been personally affected by and have lost family members to the Khmer Rouge in the very place they work. There are oftentimes survivors of the prison onsite, signing books that are filled with the horrific details of what they endured there.

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Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

2 p.m.

There are many ways visitors can educate themselves on this genocide, including visiting the Killing Fields, or Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh. This is the site where thousands of Cambodians were buried who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The entrance fee is $6.

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The Killing Fields | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

Many of the victims who died at the killing fields were first prisoners at S-21 prison. Prisoners were executed in the most horrific of ways, including being bludgeoned to death, as the Khmer Rouge did not want to ‘waste bullets’ on the prisoners. The skulls located in the memorial stupa on the grounds of the killings fields are a testament to these gruesome deaths, as many of them are cracked, scarred and broken. It is hard to imagine the horrific events that occurred here while walking around the seemingly peaceful orchard.

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Victims of the Khmer Rouge | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

6 p.m.

Phnom Penh is situated along the Mekong, the Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers. Eating at a restaurant along the river is both a romantic and relaxing experience, even if you are traveling solo. Eating along the peaceful river is a good way to unwind after having a long, emotionally draining day. Visitors will find that there are a variety of dining options, including Khmer, Western and vegetarian cuisine.

9 p.m.

To top off your day in Phnom Penh, head to some of the best bars and nightclubs in town. Many of the best bars are located along the riverfront. For backpackers, a great nightlife option is Top Banana, a guesthouse that is seemingly packed almost any night of the week. There are also three sky bars in the area; though they might not compare to those in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, it is certainly a sight to see Phnom Penh lit up at night from such great heights.