The capital city of Cambodia is a great mix of modern and historical places. Before visiting I read about “Phnom Penh attractions” and “things to do in Phnom Penh”. I mainly came across the genocide museum, killing fields, Grand Palace and some other places in the city. Indeed these are the main attractions of Phnom Penh for the first time visitor.
When I reached Phnom Penh, I was surprised to see the modern city and multistory buildings. It is like any other capital city of any country and not a small town as I got the impression after reading some post on the internet regarding the experience of travelers.
People are generally happy to help but I have to bargain at many places like hiring a tuk-tuk or while doing shopping. I saw these in India so it was not unusual for me but in some places, it was more difficult.
Food is not expensive and I easily got a meal in 5 to 6 USD. Generally, people understand English but not able to speak properly but I was able to manage well. There were safety issues as I was alerted by hostel people pertaining valuable items in certain areas of the city at night otherwise I didn’t come across anything unusual.
My first timer’s guide for Phnom Penh Cambodia
One thing I didn’t like during my visit was the destruction of the landscape due to the construction of highrise buildings. The construction work was in progress and I saw the cranes behind the monuments. Once these building will be ready they will dominate the background of old places like the Royal Palace, which is a spoiler for me.
I was in Phnom Penh for a short duration and I think one should keep at least 3 to 5 days. Here is my list of some of the must-visit places for a first-time traveler to Phnom Penh Cambodia.
Also, read about Sihanoukville’s Serenpidity and Otres Beach.
Royal Palace Phnom Penh
One of the grandest structure in Phnom Penh. Royal Palace is a relatively new structural complex in the history of Khmer and Cambodia. The King Norodom shifted the royal place and his court to Phenom Penh in 1866. He constructed many structures in this compound, which is on the western banks of the Chaktomuk river (Mekong river).
Most of the buildings built by King Norodom have been demolished over the years by different kings. They built new & better structures in place of those and modified the Royal Palace compound.
The main attractions of the Royal Palace compound are Throne Hall and Moonlight Pavilion.
The Throne Hall was earlier used by the royal official to carry out the duties related to the kingdom. Now it is only used for royal ceremonies or sometimes king receive international dignitaries here, otherwise, it remains open for public. This place is regarded as a sacred and religious place. Photography is not allowed inside this hall.
Moonlight Pavilion is an open air place and served as a stage for Khmer dance performances on special occasions. In recent times, it was used in 2004 for the new king’s banquet after the coronation.
The garden areas in this beautiful complex are tastefully manicured and maintained well.
It is the most popular place in Phnom Penh but still not crowded as the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.
Tips for visiting the Royal Palace –
* There is one ticket for Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, it cost 10 USD.
** There is a strict dress code for visiting. Cover your shoulders, biceps, and calves. If you are wearing a sleeveless T-shirt then covering yourself with stole won’t work but a shrug will work fine.
** Maintain peace inside. Photography is not allowed inside the buildings.
* Half of the palace complex is used by the king as the living area and is not open to the public.
Also check tips for Temples of Siem Reap in Angkor Archeological Park and Best time to visit and tips for visiting Angkor Wat
Silver Pagoda or Temple of Emerald Buddha
The Silver Pagoda is on the south side of the Royal Palace. It is connected with the Royal Palace compound with a small gate. The existing Silver Pagoda was rebuilt in 1960’s and 5000 silver tiles were was inlaid on its floor.
The walls of Pagoda has beautiful paintings from epics stories of Cambodia but due to bad maintenance, these paintings erased & faded in some parts.
There are many golden and ornated statues of Buddha kept in the Silver Pagoda. But the most sacred and important statues housed in the Silver Pagoda are a small statue of “Emerald Buddha” and a life-size statue of “Maitreya Buddha”. It is one of the most religious places and photography is not allowed inside the Pagoda.
The Silver Pagoda is also known as “Vihear” in the local language. There are few other structures around the Silver Pagoda, the prominent ones are a statue of King Norodom on a white horse, a library, a bell tower and a model of Angkor Wat in this compound.
A trip to Cambodia is incomplete without visiting Angkor Wat. Here are some practical tips for visiting Angkor Wat temples and if you are traveling with children then these check this detailed guide for visiting Angkor Wat with Kids.
Other then these there are stupas (Chedi) of King Suramarit and Queen Kossamak, a stupa of Princess Kantha Bupha, Phnom Mondop and Dharmasala.
Tips for visiting Silver Pagoda –
* It is connected with Royal Palace through a small door and there is no separate entry or entry ticket.
** Remove shoes before entering the main structure with statues of Buddhas.
* Silver Pagoda is not in silver color (As I thought initially). It is known as Silver Pagoda because of the 5,000 silver tiles inlaid on the floor. Most of the floor is covered with carpet, only a small portion of it is kept open for public display.
** Photography is prohibited inside the Silver Pagoda building.
* The exit gate for Royal Palace complex is from Silver Pagoda.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
This museum is situated in the middle of the city on a small busy road. From outside this building doesn’t look like a grand historical museum. In this museum, they have kept the record of the Cambodian genocide carried out by Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot’s rule between 1975 – 1979.
The building of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was initially a high school but during Khmer Rouge regime they converted it into infamous S-21 prison. People were tortured in this prison and then sent to the killing field for execution. Now, this building is turned into a memorial site and museum for visitors to learn about the genocide and atrocities Cambodian people faced during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Tips for visiting The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum –
* Rent an audio guide for in-depth information about the museum’s display.
** A visit here can be very disturbing due to the history and events listed in the chronicles of the museum.
* The Tuol Sleng give more information and things are better preserved here as compared to Killing fields.
Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields
Khmer Rouge had set up killing fields all over Cambodia but this site is best known and most infamous. It is located about 17 km from the city center of Phnom Penh and can be easily visited by hiring a tuk-tuk. In this area, mass executions were carried out.
They executed doctors, teachers, monks, journalists, artists, anyone with good education or money, religious or ethnic minorities, people who can no longer work including old & children and those perceived to be in opposition to the ruling party. Khmer Rouge was brutal and people were executed in mass at this site.
There are mass graves of the victims killed between 1975 and 1979. Around 1.7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge regime in these killing fields all over Cambodia, which was approximately 21% of the total population.
There are glass-walled stupas full of skulls of the victims. Tourist and visitors have attached the prayer ribbons to the trunks of trees and there are boards next the trees indicating the brutalities people faced there.
One of the most disturbing sign is “Killing tree against which executioner beat the children” or “Mass graves of 8985 people”. It is a disturbing place but at the same time, it gives us insight into the sad history of Cambodia.
Tips for visiting Choeung Ek –
* It is on the outskirts of the city and requires at least half a day to visit.
** It is a sad and disturbing part of Cambodian history, be prepared.
* Wear comfortable shoes so that you can explore the area because most places are in open.
This Buddhist temple complex is situated on a hilltop. The 27 meters tall Pagoda is the tallest religious structure in the Phnom Penh and was built on the site of the 14th-century pagoda.
In the local language, this pagoda is known as Wat Preah Chedey Borapaut. There are beautiful gardens and many trees around the Pagoda.
The Independence Monument
This monument was built on the busy intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Phen. It was built in 1958 to mark the independence of Cambodia from France.
Watching a Cambodian Performing Arts show
A Cambodian dance performance at “Cambodian Living Art” is a must-see when in Phnom Penh. The show last for more than one hour and dancers performed Apsara & other traditional dance forms in traditional costumes with live music. The performances were fluid and graceful, costumes were beautifully designed and the music was soul-soothing.
Tips for watching a Cambodian Performing Art show –
* There is no seat numbering and you get the seat on first come first serve basis. Reach early to get the seat of your choice.
* There were lots of mosquitos so bring your mosquito repellant.
Shopping in Phnom Penh
Tuol Tom Poung Market – Russian Market
It is a bustling market with vendors selling a wide variety of clothing, shoes, bags, souvenirs, and many other items. It is an open market with many small stalls. Here I saw the hard bargain among buyers and sellers. Other than stalls for shopping there are many food stalls in this market. The Russian market is very popular among locals as well as tourists.
Tips for shopping in Tuol Tom Poung Market –
* This market comes to life after sunset and it’s more of a night market.
** I have been strongly advised by our hostel not to carry any valuable items because many bag snatching incidents happened in this market.
* Bargain, bargain, and bargain hard.
The Central Market
This market was constructed in 1937 before the independence of Cambodia. The dome shape building with four arms branching out has vast hallways with countless stalls of goods. This is also a good place for shopping but bargain hard.
Also, read How to cross Thailand Cambodia Border.
These are some of the must-visit places and things to do in Phnom Penh for a first time visitor.