Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a capital city that captivates visitors with its beautiful Royal Palace, colonial French architecture, and fascinating Khmer history. With an attractive riverfront location, bustling markets, Buddhist Pagodas and barefoot monks, Phnom Penh is a vibrant, colourful city and a delight to visit.
Historically, Phnom Penh in Cambodia was the centre of the Khmer Empire and part of French Indochina. A monarchy reigned in the Kingdom of Cambodia for thousands of years and Cambodia became a French Protectorate in 1863 with Phnom Penh as the capital. Although the city gained its independence from the French in 1953, Phnom Penh still retains much of the elegant French colonial influence in its architecture alongside the traditional Khmer and modern buildings.
On the darker side, some of the worst atrocities of the Khmer Rouge Regime took place in Phnom Penh and it’s the best place in Cambodia to learn about the confronting Civil War. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and the genocide that followed left an indelible mark on Cambodia and its people.
At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and in the Killing Fields you’ll be horrified by many stories of loss and human cruelty. It is certainly one of the most powerful and moving experiences you’ll have when you’re visiting Cambodia and essential to understand the Civil War that shaped the country.
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Is Phnom Penh worth visiting?
YES! Absolutely! Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a centre for culture, transport and trade. It’s a busy capital city with a population of more than 1.5 million people.
I enjoyed visiting Phnom Penh more than I expected especially the scenic riverside location and the beautiful Royal Palace. Travelling solo in Cambodia felt easy and safe. Visiting Phnom Penh was an essential addition to my 18-day Cambodia itinerary.
More than 6 million tourists travel to Cambodia every year and the capital, Phnom Penh is high on the list for most visitors. The majestic Temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap are a big drawcard when you are visiting Cambodia and charming Battambang is a less-visited regional city that is also worth including on your itinerary.
Travel to Phnom Penh in Cambodia
Cambodia is now open for tourists in 2022 and has restarted its Visa-on-Arrival program. No COVID-19 tests are needed if you’re fully vaccinated, but you’ll have to show proof of vaccination when you arrive and quarantine for 14 days if you’re unvaccinated.
Flying to Phnom Penh in Cambodia
You can fly directly to Phnom Penh International Airport, the largest and busiest airport in Cambodia. Alternatively, there’s a second International Airport in Siem Reap for easy access to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.
TIP: Take the stress out of your arrival and book your Phnom Penh International Airport transfer to your hotel in advance.
Once you arrive in Cambodia travelling around the country is easy with many options to choose from. Domestic flights operate from several airports and there are buses, trains ferries, and taxis.
Buses and trains can be booked online with 12Go Asia.
I found getting around pretty easy & I loved riding around the cities in a tuk-tuk. For longer trips, mini-buses were cramped and uncomfortable but distances between tourist destinations are not so far. It’s a good idea to allow extra time when you’re travelling because delays and schedule changes are common.
Train routes are limited in Cambodia but you can catch a train from Phnom Penh to Kampot and Sihanoukville or from Phnom Penh to Battambang and Poipet on the Thai border.
What is Phnom Penh in Cambodia known for?
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and is the biggest and wealthiest city in the country. located at the junction of three rivers, the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers, Phnom Penh is a centre for transport, trade and culture. There are lots of things to see and do here.
These are some of the highlights of visiting vibrant Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
The Royal Palace
Seeing the magnificent Royal Palace is one of the highlights of visiting Phnom Penh and the Palace is the home of the current King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni.
The Cambodian monarchy reigned for around two thousand years and when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975, the royal family was deposed. The royal prince and his wife were taken hostage by the Khmer Rouge and never seen again. It’s believed they were murdered. Although the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979, it wasn’t until 1993 that the Cambodian Royal family was reinstated and returned to the Palace.
The current Royal Palace of Phnom Penh in Cambodia dates back to 1866 although many of the buildings have been rebuilt and renovated since then.
The Throne Hall and the Silver Pagoda are the main attractions and they are located in two separate compounds within the huge Palace Grounds. The other areas are reserved for use by the Royal Family. If you see a blue flag flying at the Palace it means that the King is in residence.
The Throne Hall
The Throne Hall or Preah Thineang Dheva Vinnichay is the first of many ornate buildings you’ll come across when you walk through the lovely manicured Palace Ground. The Throne Hall is an impressive building surrounded by white columns with a Khmer-style tiered roof and golden spires.
The Royal Palace is a fortress surrounded by high walls and there are 4 gates with the most impressive, the Victory Gate, reserved for royalty. It faces the riverfront and leads directly to the Throne Hall. The entry for tourists is located on the southern side of the grounds.
The Silver Pagoda
Also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Silver Pagoda is a Buddhist Temple with thousands of silver tiles on the floor. It’s the home of a small crystal Buddha Statue and a much larger Buddha statue covered with diamonds. Next to the Silver Pagoda is a library that contains ancient texts and a series of stupas that hold the ashes of previous members of the royal family. Also worth seeing in the temple complex, is a covered pathway with a large painted mural that dates back to the early 20th century.
The Phnom Penh Royal Palace is a pleasure to visit and is sure to impress. Wear comfortable shoes and arrive early to beat the heat and the tourist crowds.
The National Museum of Cambodia
Visiting the National Museum is another highlight of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The building itself is remarkable with striking Khmer architecture and the museum is built around a lovely open courtyard. In the centre of the courtyard, there’s a shrine with a beautiful Buddha statue surrounded by lily ponds and a lush, green garden.
There’s a café in the courtyard and it’s the perfect place to stop for lunch. Relax and enjoy the elegant surroundings after exploring the museum and discovering its many treasures.
The National Museum holds ancient artifacts and statues and is one of Cambodia’s largest collections of Khmer Art.
The National Museum of Cambodia is easy to find as it’s located in central Phnom Penh on the riverfront next door to the Royal Palace.
The War Memorials of Phnom Penh in Cambodia
A sobering part of visiting Cambodia is seeing the memorials of the Civil War. It’s a necessary and somewhat depressing way to honour Cambodia’s history and learn about the tragic events of the 20th century that shaped the country. Cambodia is slowly recovering from the legacy of genocide. And it was a personal tragedy for many Cambodian people who lost family and friends at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime.
The extent of the mass violence that took place is truly shocking. From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge executed more than 2 million Cambodian people.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum tells the story of the massacre in Cambodia. The museum is located in Phnom Penh at a site that was once a secondary school and was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge Regime. An estimated 20,000 prisoners were held in prison S-21 and it was a place of torture, coercion, and death.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is open from 8 AM – 5 PM
The Killing Fields
Outside Phnom Penh, in The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, mass executions took place. Once an orchard, the site is now a mass grave and a memorial to the victims of Pol Pot and the ruthless Khmer Rouge. Located at the execution site, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre displays the skulls of the many victims in a macabre exhibit that is confronting to view.
TIP: To gain depth and perspective on the tragic events take a guided tour or use an audio guide when you visit.
The Killing Fields are located 17 kilometres south of the city centre and the easiest way to get there is on a Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields half-day tour.
Phnom Penh’s attractive riverside location
Phnom Penh in Cambodia has an attractive riverside location and lies at the intersection of the Tonle Sap, the Bassac, and the Mekong Rivers. The riverfront park area is one of the most pleasant parts of the city to visit with a selection of hotels, bars, and restaurants overlooking the water. When you’re visiting Phnom Penh, the riverfront area is a great place to stay and hang out.
There’s a promenade beside the Tonle Sap River that extends for several kilometres. In the evening it’s fun to stroll along the riverside pathway and enjoy the water views and the night market.
The lawn area in front of the Royal Palace faces the river and is popular with locals, especially for early morning exercise and weekend socializing. There’s a shrine on the riverfront that gets very crowded with local people paying their respects to the Buddha. Nearby there are stalls selling beautiful fresh flowers that are left as offerings to the Buddha. The riverfront park beside the Tonle Sap is a busy, vibrant, and atmospheric part of the city especially on weekends and in the evenings.
TIP: After a busy day of sightseeing, stop for a sundowner and a meal at one of the many bars and restaurants on the riverfront and watch the sunset over the water as you sip a Khmer Cocktail. I enjoyed an evening at the legendary Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh but unfortunately, the club has since closed.
Another lovely way to enjoy Phnom Penh in Cambodia is to book a sunset river cruise and relax out on the water with a glass of champagne in your hand.
French Colonial Architecture
French Colonial Architecture adds interest and charm to the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Before the Khmer Rouge Regime overtook the country, Phnom Penh was thought to be one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia. Although Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1953, the French influence is still easy to see.
Near the Royal Palace and the National Museum are several elegant French Colonial buildings that are landmarks in Phnom Penh, the Colonial Post Office designed in 1895, the former Central Police Station on Post Office Square, and The Mansion on Preah Sisowath Quay near the river.
Other notable colonial buildings to look out for are the Royal Villa, now part of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the former Grand Hotel Manolis, and the famous Raffles Hotel located directly behind the Foreign Correspondents Club.
This Phnom Penh day trip includes a city tour and a Mekong River boat trip.
When you’re exploring the riverfront area you’ll come across Wat Ounalom, the most important Temple in Phnom Penh and a centre of Cambodian Buddhism. There’s a Pagoda and a Monastery within the temple complex and it’s common to see Cambodian monks in the area barefoot and wearing saffron robes. They walk the streets daily collecting alms or donations of food and money. The Buddhist monks rely completely on the generosity of the local community to survive.
Many of the Buddhist monks are well-educated and speak English. They are often very approachable and will take the time to talk to tourists as they see it as an opportunity to practice their English. I’ve had many interesting conversations with monks and, at Wat Ounalom, I met a young monk who was happy to show me around the temple and monastery. I offered a small donation for his trouble and he posed for a photo.
Standing at the top of the only hill in Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom is an important temple that dates back to 1372. The city of Phnom Penh is named after Wat Phnom and the temple’s traditional Khmer architecture is very impressive.
The ornate temple has a history of more than 600 years and is well worth visiting. Wat Phnom has been renovated and rebuilt many times over the years and today the temple is a combination of styles with shrines in the Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, and Confucian traditions.
Lions and serpents guard the entrance and there are more shrines and statues outside the temple. The lovely temple grounds include a large flower clock donated by the French in the 1960s.
Shopping at the Markets
Phnom Penh Central Market
A significant landmark of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the Central Market is the largest marketplace in the city. Built in the art-deco style, the large market dates back to 1937 and has a distinctive art-deco dome. Also known locally as Phsar Thmey or New Market, the Central Market is huge with vast hallways and hundreds of stalls selling, fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, jewelry, antiquities, souvenirs, and much more. Enjoy the bustling atmosphere and the many traditional Khmer stalls.
The Russian Market
Known locally as Phsar Tou Poung, the Russian market is the place to shop for souvenirs and clothing and there are many bargains on offer. Located in the south of Phnom Penh, the Russian Market is so-called because it was popular among ex-pats from Russia in the 1980s. You can expect to find discounted name brands like Calvin Klein but watch out for fakes and copies.
You’ll also find a large range of local handicrafts, Buddha statues, wood carvings, boxes, jewelry, Cambodian silk and fresh fruit and vegetables. The Russian Market is popular with tourists and you’ll need to bargain hard to get the best price. It takes about 20 minutes to get there in a tuk-tuk from the Royal Palace.
The Phnom Penh Night Market
Like many cities in Southeast Asia, Phnom Penh in Cambodia has a bustling night market located on the riverfront. Loved by Cambodians and tourists, Phnom Penh’s night market sells local street food and beer, clothing, souvenirs and jewellery. Visiting the night market is a great way to experience the Cambodian way of life and sample the local food.
Take a tuk-tuk or enjoy a walk along the riverfront to get there. Phnom Penh’s night market is open from 4 pm on weekends.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
Budget: Onederz Hostel has a good central location on the riverfront near the night market and gets excellent reviews.
Mid-Range: I enjoyed my stay at the Red Hibiscus Hotel. I loved the location on the riverfront and my room was clean and spacious. The Red Hibiscus Hotel is just a short walk from the main attractions, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the National Museum.
The Vacation Boutique Hotel is a modern hotel in Phnom Penh that gets excellent reviews. Guests love the location just a stone’s throw from the Royal Palace and the river.
When you’re visiting Phnom Penh, don’t forget your trusted Lonely Planet Guide. I rarely travel without one and can recommend the Cambodia guide. It will help you plan an amazing trip and always comes in handy when you’re away.
Travel insurance is another travel essential. I use and recommend Travel Insurance for my overseas travel, especially if I’m travelling solo. I can relax knowing I’m covered if something unexpected happens while I’m away.
Final Thoughts on visiting Phnom Penh
I enjoyed visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia and found the city easy to navigate. The riverside area in the city’s centre is an ideal place to stay near the main attractions, the Royal Palace and the National Museum. And there’s also a good selection of hotels, restaurants, and bars nearby on the riverfront. The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museums were depressing and upsetting places to visit but they are essential to understanding Cambodia’s difficult history.
Allow at least 2 days for visiting Phnom Penh to see all the main attractions. And more time if you want to uncover all this fascinating city has to offer.