Things to Do in Phnom Penh
Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government killed and/or starved around 1.7 million of their citizens, roughly 20% of the population. Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), a former high school that served as a torture and detention center, documents their atrocities through films, photos, and artifacts.
The official home of Cambodian royals is located in the heart of Phnom Penh, where the gilded rooflines of the Royal Palace preside over manicured grounds. It’s a gem of Khmer architecture and one of the city’s most popular sites. Follow in royal footsteps as you explore the intricate Throne Hall, visit the Silver Pagoda, and more.
A 60-foot (20-meter) tall Angkor-style monument built in 1958, the Phnom Penh Independence Monument was constructed to commemorate the Cambodians winning back their independence from the French in 1953. Renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann designed the monument; the architecture is patterned after a lotus flower and adorned with five levels of Naga heads, which gives it a very distinctive look. Located in the heart of busy Phnom Penh, the Independence Monument attracts many visitors, not only for its unique architecture, but also for its location: it’s in the middle of a busy intersection and the eastern side features a large, open park that is a popular spot for locals to gather and jog or practice tai chi and aerobics.
More than just a monument commemorating Cambodia’s independence, it also serves as a memorial to Cambodia’s war casualties and is a symbol of the end of Cambodia’s war. In remembrance, families place large wreaths at the foot of the monument for war veterans. At night, the monument is illuminated by red, blue and white floodlights, the colors of the Cambodian flag. It’s also the site of celebrations and services on holidays such as Independence (January 7) and Constitution Day (September 24).
With its distinctive art-deco dome, Phnom Penh Central Market (Phsar Thmey) attracts visitors with hundreds of traditional Khmer stalls, selling everything from antique coins and brightly colored fabrics to traditional crafts and medicinal products. No first-time visit to Phnom Penh is complete without stopping, and shopping, here.
The best known of the “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge executed over a million innocent Cambodians, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center sit just outside Phnom Penh. A memorial stupa contains the skulls of around 8,000 victims; bracelets decorate killing sites; and a museum documents the atrocities.
Boasting a hilltop location overlooking the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom is one of Cambodia’s most-visited temples. Originally built in 1373, the sanctuary was reconstructed in 1998 and now provides a place for locals to celebrate Khmer festivals and make sacred offerings.
Discover a shrine encrusted with precious metals and stones at the Silver Pagoda, a Buddhist landmark on the grounds of the Royal Palace. Also called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Silver Pagoda houses an image of the Buddha in pure Baccarat crystal that sits on a golden pedestal—it’s a Phnom Penh treasure.
Whether you’re looking for antique jewelry, freshly-caught fish, or factory-fresh designer brands, its likely that Phnom Penh Russian Market (Toul Tom Poung Market has a stall selling the goods. So-called because of the Russian tourists that used to frequent it, the market today offers a glimpse into local life in Cambodia’s capital.
The sounds of prayers and chanting Buddhist monks fills 15th-century Wat Ounalom, a religious complex near Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap River. It’s considered the center of Cambodian Buddhism, but the temple’s not just for religious pilgrims. Here, visitors can find beautiful images of the Buddha, explore historic architecture, and more.
Home to one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world, the National Museum of Cambodia focuses on the country’s ancient history and distinctive architecture. Galleries are categorized by material—stone, metal, wood, and ceramics—and feature artifacts that date back as far as the Neolithic period.
More Things to Do in Phnom Penh
With its golden sands and clear water, Nang Yuan Island (Koh Nang Yuan) is the poster child of southern Thailand. Hike the rocky, forested landscape; swim and snorkel in crystalline water; or just relax in relative quiet. Nang Yuan sees only a fraction of the crowds that flock to its neighbors.
Kandal Market, or Phsar Kandal in Khmer, is the “market in the middle,” or “central market” (not to be confused with the other, major Central Market in Phnom Penh). Though Kandal Market does sell goods such as clothes, shoes, bags and jewelry, it’s primarily known as the food market for locals.
There’s no better way to get a real sense of place than by visiting a local market; take a trip to Kandal and immerse yourself in the colors, textures, smells and tastes of Cambodia. From fresh veggies stacked high to jewel-like displays of local fruits (many of which are unrecognizable to westerners) to the large selection of fresh seafood, fish and meat—some of which is still moving—the market can be almost overwhelming to the senses. Fight the slightly claustrophobic feeling and slowly wander the stalls. The men and women who wait patiently for customers will often let you sample fruits and veggies; taste something that looks unfamiliar. You may be rewarded by the sweet flesh of the lychee, but it’s advisable to avoid the big, green spiny fruits—both jackfruit and durian have a smell that’s hard for visitors to stomach.
A waterfront strip of tourist sites, shops, bars, and restaurants, Sisowath Quay is among the top areas in Phnom Penh for visitors. The street runs 1.9 miles (3 kilometers along the Tonle Sap River, passing the ferry terminal, markets, Riverside Park, Royal Palace, and more. For many travelers, it’s a good starting point for exploring the city.
Meet sun bears, pythons, and other rescued wildlife at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, which helps animals hurt by poachers and other mistreatment. Animals are released into the wild when possible, so there are no guarantees about the species you’ll see in the rehabilitation center, but it’s a fascinating stop for wildlife lovers.
Built in the late 1970s, the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument is a statue located in a large reflecting pool that stands in honor of the former alliance between Cambodia and Vietnam. Located at the Botum Park near the center of Phnom Penh, not far from the Royal Palace, the monument is an interesting piece of history as it was built by the Communist regime that took power after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and overthrew the leadership of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the ruling party that caused the atrocities that can be witnessed at Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields.
Featuring statues of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers, along with a woman and baby representing Cambodian civilians, in the "Socialist realist" style developed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the monument is situated in a popular park in the middle of the city. More than its artistic value or architecture, the monument has occasionally become a political focal point for protesters, damaged by hammers, gasoline, fire and even a bomb. The damage has been repaired and the memorial remains an interesting piece of architecture that marks a definitive time in Cambodia’s history.