6 Things to do in Phnom Penh
Dates Visited: February 2019
There are plenty of things to do in Phnom Penh and it's easy to do it all on a budget. However, beware this city has a dark history which has a tangible presence that can still be felt.
Though they're not the most pleasant things to do, touring the Phnom Penh Killing Fields and S21 Prison are absolutely worth learning about. These were not something we had learned about in school and were really an eye opening experience.
Unfortunately, a large portion of Cambodian culture was destroyed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). However, there are more pleasant things to do in Phnom Penh like visiting Wat Phnom or strolling past the Royal Palace. From there you can walk along the Tonle Sap River and watch the sunset.
1. Go to Wat Phnom
Built in the late 14th century, this Buddhist temple is actually the tallest religious structure in the city. The statues along the stairs leading up to the temple are quite impressive. You can even purchase an offering to leave inside the temple which has beautifully painted walls and ceilings.
The entrance fee is only $1 USD, which makes this one of the best budget friendly things to do in Phnom Penh. Although, we didn't realize there was even an entrance fee until we left so it really isn't strictly enforced.
2. Check out the National Museum
The National Museum covers the history of Cambodia from before and after the Khmer Empire, which at its height covered Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We heard mixed reviews of the place and decided to visit anyways. However, the cost for foreigners is $10 USD ($5 USD additional for the audio guide) while locals only need to pay 500 Riel ($0.12 USD).
Since we arrived 15 minutes before it closed we decided the pricey entrance fee was not worth it. If we had arrived earlier we might have given it a shot but we probably would have gotten the audio guide since we heard it's difficult to follow the exhibits without it.
3. Visit the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, also known as the Phnom Penh Killing Fields, is a monument to commemorate the 1 million+ lives that were lost during the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. The entrance fee is $3 USD and an audio tour is an additional $3 USD.
To be honest, if you don't get the audio tour headset then the whole experience won't make much sense. But do beware that this is a chilling place with a horrible past, so you will hear some pretty disturbing things doing the audio tour. In our opinion, it was worth learning about this important part of Cambodian history. However it's not a place we would want to go back to.
4. Tour the S21 Prison Museum
In addition to touring the Phnom Penh killing fields, the S21 Prison is another part of the dark history of Cambodia. In our opinion, this was the most intense place we visited in Phnom Penh. This was the prison where 'enemies of the state' were brought to be tortured and forced to write false confessions. The Khmer Rouge operated a network of secret prisons but this was the most prominent one.
This place was actually an old high school before it was turned into the S21 Prison. Our experience here was much more intense than the killing fields. The buildings at the killing fields were dismantled as soon as they were found whereas S21 remains almost completely intact.
The entrance fee is $4 USD and the audio tour is an additional $4 USD, which again is definitely necessary otherwise it's not possible to gain a full understanding of the place. However, be warned that it is much more intense than the audio tour of the Phnom Penh killing fields. I (Josh) had to pause it and sit outside multiple times because I was so disturbed and became nauseous. Visiting this place is definitely one of the most difficult things to do in Phnom Penh.
5. Walk by the Royal Palace
Located right near the Tonle Sap River is the Royal Palace. The entrance fee is $10 USD for foreigners and 1000 Riel ($0.25 USD) for locals. However, you don't need to pay the pricey entrance fee to enjoy the area around it.
Walking past the grand gates of the Royal Palace is free and one of the best budget friendly things to do in Phnom Penh. Across the street from the palace is the Royal Palace Park which also has free admission. From there you can enjoy the sunset by walking down the Tanle Sop river.
6. Stroll the Night Market
Located close to Wat Phnom is the Phnom Penh Night Market. It's open daily from 5:00PM-11:00PM and offers a variety stalls selling food, clothing, watches, jewelry, and tons of other trinkets. When we went there was even a live musical performance going on.
The food is quite cheap, though a bit questionable, so eat at your own risk. Some merchants cooked the food, left it out all night, then packed up leftover to be sold again the next night. Eek. However, I got a phone case for $1 USD so prices here are quite low which makes the night market one of the cheaper things to do in Phnom Penh.
How to get to Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is located in the southern part of Cambodia. It's roughly a 6-7 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam or Siem Reap, Cambodia. However, if you're coming from Bangkok, Thailand it will take 14-17 hours by bus depending how much time it takes to cross the land border. Since that is where we were traveling from, we decided to pay a little extra and take the 1hr 10min flight.
- Bangkok (Departing): $69 USD (includes 20kg checked bag) - $43 USD w/o checked bag
- Siem Reap/Ho Chi Minh (Departing)
- We wouldn't recommend flying from either of these cities because the flights are under 1 hour and are 3-4x the bus price.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
From our experience, we like to use Hostel World to check out potential hostels, then check other booking websites like Booking.com to make our reservations. Sometimes we also message hostels directly to get a better price. We also like to use Airbnb to book accommodations if its a better deal than hostels. Clicking on either of the icons will give you a deal with either of the sites, but are affiliate links so we earn a small commission.
Dorm Bed: $5.50+ USD
Private Rooms: $18+ USD
Amenities: Pool, A/C, Bar/Restaurant, WiFi, Luggage Storage, Tour Bookings, Visa Assistance
Dorms: $2.98+ USD
Private Rooms: $8.98+ USD
Amenities: A/C, WiFi, Luggage Storage, Tour Bookings, Visa Assistance, Bar/Restaurant
Dorms: $6.00+ USD
Private Rooms: $20.50+ USD
Amenities: A/C, WiFi, Luggage Storage, Tour Bookings, 24/7 reception, Bar/Restaurant, Free Coffee/Tea