You will not run short of things to do in Phnom Penh. All it takes is a little bit of perseverance and the traveler spirit. Most of the sights, interesting places and things to do in Phnom Penh are within a relatively short drive or decent walk. A taxi ride is cheap and those that have entrance fees are very reasonably priced.
Things To Do In Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh | Places to See
Phnom Penh isn’t a big city, so it is easy to navigate. This makes it easy to visit the many places to see. Its size also makes it easy to get to places in a timely fashion. There is no shortage of markets and temples to wander about, or places to see history and art. And, there are the city’s share of pleasant surprises So, to begin with, I’ll start where most visitors to the capital begin their Cambodian experience.
Things To Do In Phnom Penh | Riverside (Sisowath Quay)
Walking along the river front is a pleasant way to begin or end your visit to Cambodia. On one side the Mekong, Tonlé Sap and Bassac rivers merge to form Chaktomuk, or four faces. This immense body of water is always busy with water traffic.
As you wander along Riverside, you will see Wat Ounalom. Go into the compound and take a step back in time. There is a very other time feel about this particular wat. While here, visit the monastery and the temple. This compound of more than forty buildings is considered Cambodia’s Buddhist headquarters. It was established in 1443 and has an interesting collection of relic-filled stupas and pagodas.
The Khmer Rouge did damage much of the complex, but the wat has been restored and continues to be visited by pilgrims.
At the southern end of Riverside is the Chaktomuk Conference Hall. Designed by renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who is also known as “The man who built Cambodia” created many of Cambodia’s best-known landmarks. His signature “VMV” can be seen in the designs of many buildings.
At the northern section of Riverside is the Night Market. A lively place to visit in the evening. And a bit further north is the Chrouy Changva bridge and the city’s port, a great place to catch the boat races during Bon Om Touk (Cambodian Water Festival).
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace is where the Cambodian King lives, and it is next to Riverside. Walk through the palace’s gardens and take in the Throne Hall, stupas and towers. Visit the Napoleon III Pavilion, a gift from a nineteenth-century French emperor.
After that, visit the Silver Pagoda, which houses many national treasures, including golden and jewel-studded Buddha statues. Take a look at the seventeenth-century crystal Buddha as well as a life-sized Maitreya Buddha decorated with over 9,500 diamonds. You can wind up your visit by going to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and take in its pristine gardens.
Things To Do In Phnom Penh | S-21 and Beyond
Of all the things to so in Phnom Penh, a visit to S21 should be top of your list. You cannot fail to be affected by this place. A remnant of Cambodia’s recent dark history is S-21, or Tuol Sleng. The former high school was transformed by the Khmer Rouge into a place of torture and death. Few who went in returned alive. Now the four-building complex houses the Genocide Museum. Inside you can see pictures of victims, torture devices and cells that people were kept in.
After visiting the museum, go to the Killing Fields. There is a convenient bus service that takes you to each location. While travelling on the bus, a documentary is screened about the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime.
If you are interested in learning more about the Khmer, you can visit the last resting place of Pol Pot by visiting Anlong Veng. A bit out of the way; however, you are on an adventure.
Things To Do In Phnom Penh | National Museum
The National Museum in Phnom Penh houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art, including sculptures, Khmer ceramics, bronzes, and ethnographic items. Its collection has more than 14,000 items, from prehistoric times to periods before, during and after the Khmer Empire, which at its height stretched from Thailand, across present-day Cambodia, to southern Vietnam. After S21 and the Silver Pagoda, this should be on your list of things to do in Phnom Penh.
The National Museum of Cambodia is located on Street 13 in central Phnom Penh, to the north of the Royal Palace and on the west side of Veal Preah Man square. The visitors’ entrance to the compound is at the corner of Streets 13 and 178. The museum’s buildings were inspired by Khmer temple architecture. It was constructed between 1917 and 1924.
Behind the museum is the Royal University of Fine Arts. At times it is possible to catch Apsara dancers practicing their craft. Along the other side of Street 13, opposite the museum, are many art shops with all manner of works for sale. A few streets over, there are many shops producing statues. Watch a person with an angle grinder carve a Buddha head from a block of concrete. It is quite amazing.
Phnom Penh Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
This is literally the centre piece of Phnom Penh. The unique Art Deco building was built in 1935. There are many ways into the market, each lined with merchants hawking everything from kramas and postcards to silver and food. Inside there are many gold and jewellery shops. Electronic goods, stationery, second hand clothes and flowers are also sold. During the Franco-Thai war the market was bombed by Thai aircraft, causing much damage, and it had to be closed. After World War II, the market was rebuilt in the modern style.
Colonial Era Buildings
Being a former French colony, Cambodia has inherited much from the French. In Phnom Penh, this is most obvious in the remaining buildings from that era. One of the most impressive structures is the main post office.
Sadly, many of these buildings are being torn down and space is made for development.
Ancient Wat Phnom is the largest religious structure in Phnom Penh. Check out the murals, paintings and statues depicting religious stories of the Reamker.
There is a legend that says a wealthy widow called Penh found a large tree in the river. Inside the tree, she found four bronze Buddha statues. The woman built a small shrine on a hill made by the people living in the village to protect the statues. Eventually, this became a sacred site and sanctuary where people would make blessings and pray.
In the year of the snake, 1437, King Ponhea Yat ordered Decho Srei to raise the mount even higher after he had completed building the Royal Palace in the new city. Then, he named the city Krong Chaktomok Mongkol or Phnom Penh. The prominent stupa contains the ashes of the king and his royal family.
Wat Phnom is the centre of celebrations during Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben, and it is easy to find as it is just behind the post office.
Another Vann Moulyvann building. The massive stadium holds regular sporting events, in particular, soccer. Join Cambodians as they support their national side.
The stadium is also popular with Cambodians who flock there in their droves in the early morning and evening. The air fills with music and aerobic classes start. Joggers and walkers use the track while others simply enjoy the ambience.
Not far from the Olympic Stadium is Orussey market. This place has just about everything you could ask for. It’s a busy and crowded market, and the surrounding area has some great restaurants.
Vann Moulyvann designed this monument as well. The Independence Monument was built in 1958 to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. Its design reflects the lotus-shaped stupa at Angkor Wat.
It is close to BKK 1 where you can enjoy good food and drink after a day of exploring the things to do in Phnom Penh.
Chrouy Changva Peninsula
Not a place a lot of visitors get to. The peninsula is across the Tonlé Sap River—Get there via the Chrouy Changva Bridge. At the confluence of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers there is a Cham community. The floating town is a lively place with fishing boats setting out for the day and floating shops busy selling to customers. You cannot fail to be surprised by the openness of the people on Chrouy Changva.
You will find many Cham shops on the peninsula. Try one of the restaurants and the delicious food offered.
Check out the view from the rooftop of the Sokha Hotel. You will see Chaktomuk, or four faces, where the Tonlé Sap, Basaac and north and south branches of the Mekong meet to form a massive body of water. Chaktomuk is a body of water filled with fishing boats, ferries and cargo boats. The Chrouy Changva Peninsula offers the visitor stunning views of a transport and trading hub that makes people understand why Phnom Penh was established here.
The Other Side of Phnom Penh
A place most visitors never get to is the other side of the Mekong. There are several ferry crossings to get you there. You can travel from Chrouy Changva Peninsula or the Kampong Chamlong Phnom Penh Areiy Ksatr ferry terminal at the southern end of the Riverside path.
You travel from bustling Phnom Penh to the countryside. A great place to take mountain bikes or a motorcycle and explore rural Cambodia, and it’s just across the Mekong.
Volunteer in Cambodia
Of all the things you could do in Phnom Penh is to reach out and volunteer for a charity. Although Cambodia continues to grow there are always ares in the country and the major towns that would benefit from your skills and experiences. Teaching English and health care volunteers are always welcome. Young Khmers have a hunger for education and the health care system would benefit from experienced health care professionals. You might be on a gap year, an active retiree or an early nester; give volunteering a go, you will change lives.
How to support Voluntouring Abroad
You can support most charities by giving a direct donation via their website. However we prefer that you give by having a holiday or viewing our 99 essential travel items. The commissions we receive go directly to our fish farming mission in Battambang.