Phnom Penh is the current capital of Cambodia and it has an interesting and melancholy history that is represented by a couple of places on this list.
From a French invasion after WWII to the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime -a communist group that committed genocide for four years in the 1970s. With all that it has endured over the years, Phnom Penh has proved itself to be a resilient city.
Despite all the tragedies the people of Cambodia have faced, the people rose out of the ashes, rebuilt, and became stronger.
Today it is a common pitstop for thousands of tourists making their way toward Angkor Wat, but the city of Phnom Penh is a destination worth a visit. Below is a list of nine things you must do in Phnom Penh.
Related: When Is The Best Time To Visit Cambodia: The Ultimate Guide
1. The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace earns the number one spot because of its beautiful architecture and gold facade. It is a cluster of buildings that serve as the residence of the royal family.
The palace you see today was constructed in 1866 and has been occupied by the Kings of Cambodia ever since ( Except for during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime).
The impressive throne hall is filled with ornate furniture and intricate wall paintings that give off an air of opulence. Important ceremonies and formal receptions are still held there so it is only open to the public from 11 am – 2 pm.
Just outside the main hall, you can appreciate golden Pagodas and silver stupas (hemispherical structures that contain human remains) filled with the ashes of former Cambodian Kings.
2. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
This is also known as the S-21 prison and is just one of over 200 secret prisons scattered around Cambodia. What was once a high school in Phnom Penh was transformed into a large prison by Pol Pot – the leader of the communist group that reigned terror down on Cambodia.
Be aware that this is a somber place to visit as it was the site of mass genocides that ravaged the country during the 1970s. People were interrogated, tortured, and killed by Pol Pot and his supporters. It’s a truly disturbing part of Cambodia’s history that is displayed here.
3. The Killing Fields
After Cambodians were tortured at these horrible prisons, they would be transferred to one of the horrific places known as ” killing fields”. These fields are basically mass graves where thousands of innocent Cambodian people were taken to be executed in cold blood.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is the most visited, and as you wander around the property you can hire a tour guide or opt for an audio guide, just bear in mind that it is not easy hearing the stories of those who suffered at the hands of the khamr regime.
While it’s important to pay respects and be aware of the atrocities done to these peaceful people, it can be shocking so I suggest reading about it before deciding whether to visit or not.
4. Wat Phnom
I am going to switch gears here and mention the Wat Phnom temple. The temple sits on the only hill in the entire capital city. At 88 feet high, you can go up to the top of the grand staircase, and go inside.
This tiny Temple is usually filled with tourists and locals alike praying for good luck. Don’t be afraid to kneel down, and do the same. This is a unique cultural experience, and it doesn’t take up too much of your day. You can admire the walls and artifacts, check on the Pagoda in the back, and then walk around in the nearby french quarter.
5. The Mekong River
The Mekong River is the perfect place to relax with a cocktail after a long day of sightseeing. Watching the sun go down over the river makes for breathtaking views and you can book a sunset river cruise for just $17 USD.
6. The Night Market
The exciting night market is also located along the Mekong River Bank and this is one of the city’s highlights. Open from 5 pm to 11 pm, you can find a floor mat in the center of the room ( make sure to take off your shoes) and sit with your friends while sampling all the local cuisines.
7. Bassac Lane
Bassac Lane is where you will find the best nightlife that Phenom Penh has to offer and while technically it’s an alleyway, there are over 12 different trendy- microbars. It’s the perfect place for bar hopping.
On the weekends you will find live music so you are sure to have a fun night out on the town at Bassac Lane. It also has some of Phenom Phens best street art, so make sure to keep an eye out for that!
8. National Museum
Every big city has a National Museum and Phenom Penh is no exception.
The National Museum of Cambodia is a terracotta building that houses the world’s largest collection of Khmer-era art. It includes Buddhist sculptures, ancient ceramics, and more important pieces of Cambodian history. It’s also surrounded by a well-maintained garden with lots of greenery.
It was opened back in 1920 and shut down for a brief time when the Khmer Rouge regime took power. Unfortunately, once Cambodia was finally liberated, many of the employees who knew the most about the museum’s artifacts had been killed.
Since then, rebuilding the collections and getting the museum back on its feet so has been a collaborative effort with UNESCO and international partners.
9. Kickboxing Match
If you are looking for some action, check out a Cambodian kickboxing match. They are held every Saturday and Sunday, and the majority of the audience members are locals so you know it’s an authentic local form of entertainment.
The best part is …You can buy local beers for just 10 cents each. Ask around for more detailed information about when and where to catch a match.
To Sum Up
While Cambodia has had a tumultuous history, to say the least, it has overcome it against all odds. Today, Phnom Penh has a magical energy that you should experience for yourself. Spend some time in the capital and immerse yourself in a rich culture and learn about its moving history.