Cambodia’s tourism industry is closely tied to the world-renowned Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh is often seen as an afterthought, tacked on as a stopover, or sometimes skipped altogether.
However, there is so much more to Cambodia than Angkor Wat! The events of Cambodia’s recent history still cause pain for everyone in the country. The communist Khmer Rouge, led by the dictator, Pol Pot, carried out possibly the most vicious genocide in world history against the people of Cambodia. 1 in 4 Cambodians were murdered over just 4 years.
Merely five years prior, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were killed and injured by bombs dropped by America during the Vietnam War.
While in Phnom Penh, it’s important to take the time to learn about Cambodia’s dark history. However, you’ll also get the opportunity to enjoy countless adventurous activities, cultural landmarks, great shopping, and delicious food!
Whether you’re making a destination out of Phnom Penh, or treating it as a stepping-stone as you travel to/from Angkor Wat, here is our list of amazing things to do in Phnom Penh.
Also, don’t forget to read our comprehensive Cambodia travel guide with everything you need to know for your trip to Cambodia.
1. Visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Over 300 killing fields existed throughout Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign in the 1970s. As their name suggests, these fields served the purpose of killing Cambodians who were seen as opponents of the communist regime.
According to the Khmer Rouge, these opponents included people who were educated (lawyers, doctors, and teachers), spoke multiple languages, wore glasses, were Buddhist, or of ethnic minority groups. Eventually, this grew to the point where innocent people were murdered for fabricated reasons.
On top of this, the Khmer Rouge believed that it was important to also kill the victims’ children to prevent them from seeking revenge later in life.
When you visit the Killing Fields, you will find a tree called the Killing Tree. It was here where many of these children, infants, and babies were ‘smashed’ by the Khmer Rouge soldiers. These soldiers were often other children who had been brainwashed by the regime.
Your visit to the Killing Fields will be an emotional and unpleasant experience, however, it is one that you will never forget. You’ll learn about one of the darkest parts of our world’s history.
We highly recommend either booking a tour or borrowing one of the audio-tour devices on your visit. The audio device allows you to have a more personal experience while allowing you to learn all about the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
Cost: $6 USD including audio tour.
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2. Experience Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at S-21 Prison
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former secondary school in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Although it still looks like any other high school, it is far from ordinary.
In 1976, the secondary school was renamed S-21 Prison, when it became one of Cambodia’s countless torture camps and detention centres.
No one really knows how many inmates were held at S-21, but estimates put the figure between 12,000 and 20,000. Only 12 survived.
Innocent prisoners were brutally tortured numerous times each day until they eventually confessed to things they never did. Once they confessed, they were shipped off to the Killing Fields to be executed.
During your time at S-21, you will get to see photos of many of the prisoners and guards. A large number of each were still children.
As with the Killing Fields, we recommend listening to the audio tour as you walk around the compound. It includes both information on the museum and its exhibits, as well as stories from survivors who recount their horrific experiences.
Cost: $8 USD including audio tour.
3. Tour the National Museum
The national museum of Cambodia is a must-visit place in Cambodia to learn about the history and culture of the country.
The Khmer empire used to be one of the strongest empires in Southeast Asia, if not the entire world. Based in Cambodia, this empire sprawled into Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam during its most powerful years.
The National Museum in Phnom Penh houses the most extensive collection of Khmer artworks and artefacts dating back to prehistoric and Angkor periods. You will get the opportunity to see bronze and wood sculptures, ethnographic items, ancient ceramic-wares, and religious artefacts (both Hindu & Buddhist).
The most memorable exhibit at the museum is a 6th Century statue of Lord Vishnu.
Make sure you book a guide or take the audio tour of the National Museum. Without one, you will find yourself relatively lost. There are booklets that you can take with you, but having someone walk you through the exhibits is crucial to make the most of this attraction.
Cost: $10 USD
4. Eat & Shop at the Phnom Penh Night Market
The Phnom Penh Night Market is one of our favourite markets in Cambodia. It’s great as it still caters to both a local crowd, as well as it’s growing tourist clientele.
You’ll find plenty of souvenirs to take back home, including shoes, clothes, jewellery, and more. The highlight is definitely the food stalls located at the back (when entering from the riverside).
Definitely make sure to try the sugarcane juice and fried noodles. The best thing, however, is the ice cream. You can choose the flavours you want and they are served in small cups. Strangely, our favourites were tutti-frutti and coconut!
Getting to the Phnom Penh Night Market is easy – it’s located right on the riverside. From most accommodations, you will find it easy enough to walk here by following the river north. Otherwise, there will be plenty of tuk-tuk drivers willing to take you here for about $1 USD.
5. Peruse the Royal Palace Phnom Penh
The Phnom Penh Royal Palace is home to the royal family of Cambodia. King Sihamoni lives in the palace to this day, and as a result, half of the palace is off grounds to tourists.
Despite this, the Royal Palace is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Phnom Penh and one of the best places to visit in Phnom Penh. Architecturally, the structures and their design are spectacular – closely resembling Thai palaces, in particular the Royal Palace in Bangkok.
As you walk around the complex, you will find numerous remarkable buildings and monuments with beautiful, ornate detailing.
One thing to bear in mind is the cost. At $10 USD for foreigners, there are certainly better attractions to spend your money on in Cambodia. If you’re on a strict budget, consider viewing the Royal Palace from outside and putting your money towards Angkor Wat.
Cost: 10 USD
6. Admire the Silver Pagoda Phnom Penh
Technically, the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh is located within the grounds of the Royal Palace, but it is certainly deserving of its own spot on this list of things to do in Phnom Penh.
The present-day pagoda is built with over 5,000 tiles and five tonnes of silver (which all made its way into the floor), the structure is truly incredible. Its lavish and ornate decoration is a result of it being entirely rebuilt in 1962.
The Silver Pagoda has maintained its original purpose – to house national treasures! These treasures are typically precious gifts given to the monarchs of Cambodia.
The most impressive treasure here is certainly the small emerald green, crystal Buddha. Next to this, you’ll find a lifesized, gold Buddha adorned over 2,000 diamonds. I can’t even imagine how much this would be worth, but I’m sure it would feed a lot of impoverished people.
Regardless, it’s still well worth visiting! Your Royal Palace ticket will include entry to the Silver Pagoda so make sure you check out the rest of the grounds while you’re here.
Cost: $10 USD, this is included in the ticket to the Royal Palace.
7. Visit Wat Phnom Temple
The Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom is nestled amongst the trees atop Phnom Penh’s only hill. It looks out over the city. The temple contains 4 statues of Buddha and is said to have been erected in 1372.
In 1434, the city was founded to succeed Angkor Thom as the capital of Cambodia. It is this hill (and the lady, Penh, who founded the temple) that the city was named after, with Phnom Penh literally translating to Penh’s Hill.
With the city being named after this site, it only makes sense to include it on a list of things to do in Phnom Penh! When you arrive, you will find lions and naga (serpents) guarding the steps up to the temple.
The temple itself is adorned with beautiful carvings and paintings. Many people visit to pray for good luck – gamblers and students are amongst the most common. You could consider giving it a shot yourself – a little extra luck is always welcome when travelling.
Cost: $1 USD
8. Get adventurous on an ATV Tour
Looking for adventurous activities in Phnom Penh to satiate your desire for action? Then an ATV tour is the thing for you!
There’s a few to choose from in Phnom Penh. Typically you’ll explore the neighbouring villages via the dirt roads that are everywhere in Cambodia. This is a great way to see the local villages, without being carted around in the back of a tuk-tuk.
You can also take a tour that begins by visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, however, we’re not sure the vibe of an ATV tour quite matches the vibe of the Killing Fields. Either way, a bit of light-hearted fun between the two could be a great coping mechanism for many.
Cost: About $30 USD, depending on the tour.
Cost: Starting from $30 USD per person.
9. Browse The Russian Market
If you visit just one market in Cambodia, make sure it is the Russian Market in Phnom Penh. Just don’t expect many Russians – the market earned its name due to the large number who once lived in the area.
This bustling market, also called Phsar Tuol Tom Poung, is jam-packed with food, souvenirs, clothing, and much more. As you are shopping, you’ll need to weave in and out of closely packed stalls as both locals and foreigners browse the wares.
Truthfully, our main interest here was the food. Although you can find almost anything if you dive in far enough, our hearts were truly stolen by a good coffee cart and a Nom Pang (sandwich).
The Russian Market is possibly home to the best of both, so seek out the ‘Best Khmer Coffee’ stand and the famous Nom Pang cart. Truthfully, they’re both hard to find, and you won’t go wrong with any that you find.
10. Have Fun at Preah Sisowath Quay Waterfront
Sisowath Quay is the most happening part of Phnom Penh. In the evenings, take a stroll along the boardwalks and do some people watching. Relax on the benches to watch the orange glow of the sun setting across the Mekong River.
Locals and tourists alike enjoy numerous activities along the waterfront, ranging from exercise and games to walking their pets and selling their wares.
As you wander, vendors of all ages will come to you with food, drinks, and trinkets.
As the day turns to night, you’ll find numerous restaurants and bars along the riverfront to find a bite to eat or a drink. Alternatively, for the budget-conscious travellers, sit by the river and enjoy the street food.
11. Shop & Dine at the Daughters of Cambodia Visitor Centre
Sex trafficking remains a major global issue, all across the world. For many women in Cambodia, this was once their life.
The Daughters of Cambodia organisation was set up to support the victims of this cruel, criminal activity.
As tourists, we buy souvenirs to take back home and eat at restaurants all across the world. During your time in Cambodia, you have the opportunity to support people in need by simply shopping or eating – things that you will need to do in Phnom Penh regardless.
Take the time to visit the Daughters of Cambodia Visitor Centre, learn a bit about the organisation, eat a meal, and consider purchasing some gifts to take back home. Money spent here will go directly to helping free girls from sex trafficking, providing medical support, counselling, and coaching. This is one of the most rewarding things to do in Phnom Penh, both for yourself and for others.
12. Sample the Street Food
Street food can be found all around Asia and it has earned a somewhat notorious reputation for causing harm to tourists stomachs.
Regardless, we consider it an important part of visiting Cambodia and some of the street food in Phnom Penh is both delicious and cheap! Whether you’re on a budget or not, make sure to venture out of your comfort zone and eat a meal sold to you from a cart or street vendor.
There’s plenty of vendors to choose from, and even more dishes to decide between. You will want to ensure you try the staples – typically stirfried noodles and fried rice.
Amok is a delicious Khmer curry that is possibly the most famous dish in Cambodia – you’ll certainly want to try it. Also try Lok Lak, which seems to combine a sweet and sour sauce, with salt, pepper, lime, meat, and fresh vegetables.
13. Take a Boat Ride to Silk Island, aka Koh Dach
Koh Dach, or Silk Island, makes for the perfect half-day or full-day excursion out of the busy city of Phnom Penh. Technically, it’s located within the city making it easy to get to, but far enough away to feel like you escaped the hustle and bustle.
You have a few options when it comes to getting to Silk Island. The easiest, and our recommendation, is to book a tour. This will arrange the entire experience making it more enjoyable and efficient for you. We recommend this even more for those restricted by time.
The other option is the DIY approach. You can get a tuk-tuk to one of the two ferry terminals, take a ferry across to the island, then book another tuk-tuk on the other side.
Alternatively, you can book a tuk-tuk for the day and pay for him or her to come across the ferry with you.
You’ll get to learn how silk is made in Cambodia and experience local life. You’ll see the silkworms (or caterpillars), and watch locals harvest them.
Again, booking a tour will provide you with a guide to teach you about the entire process – you’ll get a lot more out of the experience this way.
During the day, make your way to the local riverside restaurant for a delicious and affordable meal. The locals jump in the river for a swim – if you’re up for it, join them, but we’re really not sure how clean the river is.
Cost: About $30 USD per person for a tour. DIY will cost about $25 USD for a tuk-tuk for the day + boat + entry fees.
14. Go Shopping at Orussey Market
Smelly, cramped, hot, and crowded are just a few words that describe the Orussey Market. I suppose this is to be expected of a local, indoor market.
Hundreds of vendors sprawl across numerous floors. Amongst the clutter, you probably won’t find a lot of souvenirs. You also won’t see as many tourists as you would at the Russian Market.
This is why we chose to include Orussey Market on our list of what to do in Phnom Penh.
Getting off the tourist track from time to time is great, and we love to watch the locals go about their lives. The things on sale at this market are things that locals actually need and use.
This contrasts the mass-manufactured fakes you’ll find at markets catering to tourists – such as the impressive Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City.
15. Cruise Down the Mekong River
Perhaps the public ferry crossing to Silk Island wasn’t quite the romantic attraction you had envisaged.
Fortunately, for a much higher price, you can book a river cruise along the Mekong River that will fulfil all your desires.
We recommend booking a sunset cruise where you can watch the sunset along the Mekong River as you enjoy a traditional Khmer BBQ.
A more efficient use of time might be to consider a multi-day cruise along the river to Siem Reap. This is a bit slower than flying or busing, but you’ll see so much more and relax as you do it.
Cost: $16 USD per person.
16. Visit the Independence Monument
Visiting the Independence Monument is a 100% free thing to do in Phnom Penh. All you need to do is take a walk down to the intersection around sunset (or sunrise, if you’re crazy).
There’s not a whole lot to do here, but the monument is grand and impressive, dropped right in the middle of an intersection.
It also holds historical significance. The lotus-shaped monument was constructed in 1958 to symbolize Cambodia’s independence from France following the separation in 1953.
17. Photograph the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk
Even more striking than the Independence Monument is the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk. This monument is located right next door to the Independence Monument so you’ll visit both at the same time.
The monument itself is beautiful, especially at sunset where you can line up the sun right above the statue for photos.
Locals enjoy the park for both exercise and leisure, so it’s also a great spot for people-watching.
18. Eat Noodle Soup for Breakfast
Most Cambodians eat noodle soup for breakfast, so we recommend skipping your hotel’s free Western breakfast in favour of hitting the streets. Find a corner shop, pull up a plastic chair, and eat what you’re given – don’t worry about communicating. This is one of our favourite things to do in Phnom Penh.
If it helps, you’ll be looking for either noodle soup or pho – the latter of which is what the Vietnamese call it.
Make sure you break up the herbs and drop them in your soup, pour in a concoction of sauces from the caddy on the table, and finally squeeze in your lime. We recommend a generous helping of hoisin sauce, a squirt of fish sauce, and chilli from the jar to taste.
Cost: $2 USD.
19. Browse The Old Market, aka Phsar Chas
As with Orussey Market, Phnom Penh’s Old Market is designed to serve local needs before tourists. As a result, you could easily visit the market and not see a single tourist there.
You won’t be taking anything back home – unless you’re one of those people you see on TV trying to bring live animals through airport security. If you are, then you’ll love the Old Market.
Even if you aren’t, this is one of our favourite markets in Phnom Penh. You’ll be greeted with the familiar odour of raw meat as you walk around – okay, this is not our favourite part of any market, but at least it’s authentic!
Fresh fruit and veges can be easily found, as well as countless knick-knacks and pretty much anything the locals frequently require.
If you’ve booked a cooking class, a lot of them take you here to collect your ingredients – which we think is an amazing experience and far better than visiting by yourself. You’ll get far more out of it when you’re actually shopping like a local.
20. Dine at Friends the Restaurant
Friends the Restaurant is the best restaurant in Phnom Penh to sit down and enjoy exquisitely crafted Western cuisine – everyone needs some home comforts from time to time.
On top of this, you get to experience some warm and fuzzies, as the restaurant acts as a training facility for youths, many of which come from rough backgrounds. The organisation helps to teach these kids what they need to know to earn their own living and live a life devoid of crime and poverty.
21. Try David’s Handmade Noodles
Across the road from Friends the Restaurant, you can find David’s Handmade Noodles. These noodles aren’t made by children plucked off the street, but they are lovingly crafted by hand.
You can see this from the street as their chefs (David? I’m not sure) throw and twirl the dough for their noodles and dumplings, before beating it into shape.
The dishes we tried here were without a doubt the best we ate in Cambodia, and they were ridiculously cheap as well. We missed out on the dumplings – you can’t try it all, unfortunately. So make sure to try some and let us know what they’re like!
22. Take a Khmer Cooking Class
Cambodian food is unbelievably delicious – take our word for it. Or if you’re already there, then you already know how good it is. Similar to Thailand, their curries are made with fresh spices and coconut milk – these are called amok.
It’s easy to find Vietnamese food, with pho and spring rolls sold in shops or stalls on every corner. Chinese-inspired noodle and rice dishes are equally common. On top of all this, the French occupation of Cambodia brought with it snails, pate, and most importantly baguettes – used to make nom pangs!
We highly recommend eating all this food during your stay, but what are you supposed to do when you get home? I don’t know about where you live, but I don’t think there’s a single Cambodian restaurant in New Zealand.
The best way to take some of this cuisine back home with you is to book a traditional Khmer cooking class. Talented chefs will teach you about the spices and ingredients used. They’ll often take you down to the market to learn how to choose the best ones, then they’ll show you how to put it all together to make popular Khmer dishes.
Cost: $25 USD per person.
23. Find Your Souvenirs at Central Market Phnom Penh
Although not originally built with tourists in mind back in 1937, Central Market, or Phsar Thmei, in Phnom Penh is a popular spot for tourists.
Central Market is particularly cool due to its unique art deco twist on the traditional Khmer marketplaces.
Architecturally, the old building is impressive, standing tall with a huge, golden dome towering over the market. It is a colourful centrepiece in the otherwise less attractive city, starkly contrasting the other buildings.
Central Market is a great place in Phnom Penh to find all your souvenirs and gifts to take back home. You’ll find everything at the stalls here, including jewellery, bags, food, trinkets, and much more.
Make sure you set aside a few hours for exploring and remember to try the local food – but if you’re squeamish, avoid the insects. I’d be lying if I said we tried them.