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What to see and do in Phnom Penh?

Our suggestions for, and descriptions of, some of the sights of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh

While we have compiled an itemised list of things to see and do in Phnom Penh we would begin by saying that one of our favourite things to do in Cambodia’s vibrant capital city is simply to wander around the downtown area, soak up the sights and sounds of the bustling street life and meet a few of its residents. Yes, it can be hectic, grubby, noisy, but this is the real, unadulterated, Southeast Asia and we’d say it’s equally fascinating, exciting and photogenic and – for a large city – its inhabitants are extraordinarily friendly.

Wat Phnom

We’ll begin our Phnom Penh sites, or sights, with the small, hilltop temple that gives the city its name – Wat Phnom. Phnom means hill and Penh was the name of a noblewoman who, according to legend, originally commissioned the construction of the artificial hill and wat. (We won’t give you the entire legend now as it’d take up the whole post so you’ll have to wait until you visit.) The temple is pretty enough and affords good views but our favourite part is the small, surrounding park which is home to a flock of spectacular hornbills. Rumour has it that they were originally kept in the gardens of the former prime minister’s nephew’s house but are now free and residing in the large trees at the foot of the small hill. The intelligent birds – a mixture of wreathed and great hornbills – can be seen all over the city although the best time to catch them is late afternoon when locals bring fruit to Wat Phnom. (Oh – and there’s a colony – apparently cauldron is a valid collective known too – of several hundred giant fruit bats too!)

Hornbills of Phnom Penh
Left to right; female wreathed, male wreathed, male great and male wreathed
The French Quarter

While remaining French period buildings can be found dotted around the city centre, the largest concentration – known logically as the French Quarter – lies just across the road from Wat Phnom. This was the town square when the French first established the city in the 1860s and houses the well-restored post office and Bank of Indochine, (now an upmarket restaurant), the unrestored hotel and the abandoned old gendarmerie. (The sadly crumbling, sprawling structure played the role of Gerard Depardieu’s seedy guesthouse in the 2002 movie City of Ghosts.)

The Central Market or Phsa Thmei

Phsa Thmei – meaning New Market in Khmer – is often erroneously translated as Central Market. The real Central Market – Phsa Kandal in Khmer – is a less-visited market situated a short walk away between Street 126 and the bar area of Street 136. The yellow-painted art-deco building dating to 1937 is a Phnom Penh icon and while several city markets are well worth a wander, in this case, the building itself, rather than its contents, is the star of the show.

Phsa Thmei, the Central Market or - more correctly - New Market
Phsa Thmei, the Central Market or – more correctly – New Market

The busy boulevard and wide promenade along the Tonle Sap River is colloquially known as ‘Riverside’. (Officially Preak Sisowath Quay.) Stretching over 2 kilometres from the French Quarter to the Cambodiana Hotel the west side is lined with bars, restaurants and cafes while the eastern, Tonle Sap side is hugely popular with strolling locals, picnicking families, aerobics classes and snack and drink vendors – particularly come late afternoon when the temperatures cool. In addition to their pavement terraces, many of the eateries and bars also have upstairs or even roof seating affording great, happy hour views over the Tonle Sap and Mekong beyond. (At the time of writing the famous FCC remains closed.)

Royal Palace

The Phnom Penh Royal Palace sits just one block back from the riverside with a central position in the city’s downtown area. The grounds and various buildings date to the mid-19th century when the capital was relocated from Udong and include the Silver Pagoda, coronation hall and Napoleon Pavilion. This French-style structure was a gift to King Norodorm from the French emperor Napoleon III. Get there early before it warms up and the crowds arrive.

National Museum of Cambodia

Located next door to and immediately north of the Royal Palace the beautiful National Museum building was opened in 1920 as a gift to the Khmer people from their French rulers. The exhibits consist of, not surprisingly, predominantly Angkorian and pre-Angkorian artefacts and include some spectacularly carved and well-preserved lintels, reliefs, statues etcetera. We’d say it’s better to visit the museum, (and indeed the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap), after you’ve visited the Angkor temples which means you’re more familiar with the context and architecture, but either way the conveniently placed and fascinating museum is recommended.

National Museum of Cambodia
The magnificent National Museum of Cambodia building
Tuol Sleng

A very different style of museum, the site’s various names; Tuol Sleng, S21, the Genocide Museum correspond to its incarnations as a high school, Khmer Rouge Prison and – since liberation in 1978 – a rather macabre museum. It is grim – there’s no way to disguise that – and we’ve seen visitors come out in tears and several more refuse to enter but it explains Cambodia’s recent history and many aspects of the country you see today and, distressing as it is, we feel Tuol Sleng is impossible to leave omit from our see and do in Phnom Penh list.

The Russian Market

Conveniently placed close to Tuol Sleng, the Russian Market or Phsa Tuol Tompong to give it the local name provides some much-needed light relief and retail therapy after the Genocide Museum as well as offering opportunities for a juice or coffee break and excellent local-style lunch. The name derives from the market’s popularity amongst Soviet and Eastern European advisors and expats during the 70s and 80s post-Khmer Rouge Communist period. (This is where they’d stock up on jeans and pineapples before heading back to Moscow.)

The famous FCC - Foreign Correspondents; Club - is currently closed but there's plenty more riverside cafes to choose from
The famous FCC – Foreign Correspondents; Club – is currently closed but there’s plenty more riverside cafes to choose from
The Killing Fields – Choeung Ek

The notorious Killing Fields of Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh’s western suburbs need no introduction. As with Tuol Sleng, the history is shocking, especially since it is so recent. We did for a while skip it on our Phnom Penh day tour itinerary as the ticket concession was granted to a private company and we considered it just wasn’t the sort of place to be making money from. However, for better or for worse, it is probably the city’s most famous, or infamous, site and at the end of the day the last thing that should happen is for it to slip into obscurity. It is again informative and, in our opinion, does need to be seen before moving on to the picturesque countryside and jungle-clad temples since it is as much a part of Cambodian history as Angkor.

Note, this see and do in Phnom Penh list is limited to sites in the city itself and there are several, excellent, nearby destinations which can be accessed on day tours or even half-day tours. These include Koh Dach, (The ‘Silk Island’), Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, Phnom Chisor and Tonle Bati but we’ll have to cover these in a separate post.

Most of the above see and do in Phnom Penh list could be just about squeezed into a day tour although two days is ideal and would offer a more relaxed pace. However, visitors are perhaps on their way to or from Saigon, (Ho Chi Minh City), or passing through on their way to the beach or the Angkor temples so a couple of days is often as much as visitors allow. As we said we could spend a while just roaming the bustling streets and local markets or chatting to locals on a coffee shop terrace and there are plenty of decent restaurants and hotel options too so, if connections or flight times make another night more convenient, then so much the better.