13 Best Things to do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Last Updated on November 8, 2023
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Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s busy capital which is full of incredible and horrific history. Many skip Phnom Penh and head straight to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat.
But this is a mistake as there are so many amazing and worthwhile things to do in Phnom Penh, from learning about the country’s history to enjoying local delicacies.
Phnom Penh is a wonderful place to start your Cambodian adventure and learn more about the Cambodian genocide before the rest of your travels around the country.
There is a thriving street-food scene along with many iconic monuments to see. I loved my time in this capital city, and here’s my pick of the best things to do in Phnom Penh.
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Table of Contents
Best things to do in Phnom Penh
1. Pay your respects at Choeung Ek (The killing fields)
The number one place to visit in Phnom Penh is Choeung Ek, or, the Killing Fields. Here you will learn about the recent tragic history of Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole.
I would highly recommend starting your visit to Phnom Penh by hiring a rickshaw driver for the day and visiting Choeung Ek.
This was the mass grave of the victims who were killed during the Khmer Rouge, which happened between 1975 and 1979.
Over 17,000 men, women, and children who were kept and tortured at the S-21 prison were brought here to their death.
It’s not an easy place to be but it is important to visit to learn more about the horrific history of Cambodia.
It was estimated that 1/3rd of the population was murdered during the genocide.
While walking around Choeung Ek you will still see bone fragments and cloth from during that time so always keep to the paths.
You will also see a memorial with over 600 skulls of the victims displayed. The skulls are colour coded by sex and cause of death.
You will also see the weapons that the Khmer Rouge used to commit the mass murders. Visiting the killing fields is one of the must-see places to visit in Cambodia.
*Please be respectful when coming here. During my visit about 6 young guys came in drinking, smoking and overall being incredibly disrespectful to all Cambodians, it was so embarrassing.
2. Learn about Cambodia’s history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
If you hire a driver for the day to see Choeung Ek, they will likely also take you to the S-21 prison, or also known as Tuol Sleng.
Here you will see how the victims were kept captured and tortured. You will hear stories via an audio guide of the experiences that these people had to go through.
When visiting the rooms, you will still see blood stained walls and floors. You should take your time to hear all the stories.
I would even recommend doing this the day after Choeung Ek as it can become a long day and its best to come here fresh to really take it all in.
Although it will be a very emotionally draining day, both Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng are some of the most important things to see in Phnom Penh and should not be skipped.
3. Marvel at The Royal Palace
One of the top places to visit in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace – and for good reason! The Royal Palace is a beautiful piece of architecture.
There are several buildings to explore and see for yourself but the main palace you cannot enter so you have to marvel from the outside.
You get to go close and look through the windows to get a sneak peek into the luxurious palace. If you visit on a Sunday, you will see the locals from the countryside coming to pay their respects.
In addition to the palace, don’t miss the Silver Pagoda, which is also within the complex and easily one of the most beautiful places in Phnom Penh.
This is one of the best things to see in Cambodia as a whole, not just Phnom Penh, so make sure to add it to your Phnom Penh itinerary.
4. Check out Wat Phnom
Cambodia is a predominantly Buddhist country. So if you’re wondering what to see in Phnom Penh to engage with this part of the culture, pay a visit to Wat Phnom.
Located near the Mekong river, Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple that was built in 1372. This is the tallest religious building in Phnom Penh as it stands over 27 meters above the ground.
Many of the locals come here to pray for good luck and to give their offering of usually jasmine flowers or bananas.
5. Visit the night markets
Since many of these are daytime activities, you might be wondering about the best things to do in Phnom Penh at night.
Well, Phnom Penh has a thriving market scene – and the night markets are especially great. You can grab some great deals on clothing and knickknacks too.
You will also see many delicious food stands all surrounding mats to eat on. I can highly recommend the coconut ice cream! You can grab dinner here for super cheap.
There are also performances on sometimes, so I highly recommend coming here and checking it out.
Note that the mats are assigned to the different stalls so don’t do what we did and cluelessly sit down on a random mat and get kicked off instantly. We had to move serval times before figuring that out.
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6. Spend the evening trying all the street food sweets
One of my favourite things to do in Phnom Penh was try out all the amazing food – especially the sweets!
Aligning the streets are many little street food stalls. I had the most delicious chocolate-filled pancake doughnut along with crepes filled with orange peel and a sort of marshmallow paste.
If you have a sweet tooth, then don’t be scared to get out there and try some of the delicious little desserts from the street sellers.
7. Enjoy Ancient Khmer Art at the National Museum of Cambodia
Those who love art will have no shortage of where to go in Phnom Penh, but the National Museum of Cambodia should be top of their list!
For art lovers, this is undoubtedly one of the must-do things to do in Phnom Phen.
The museum houses one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world with over 14,000 items dating from prehistoric times to after the Angkorian Empire.
All of the collection can be divided into four categories: bronze, ceramics, wood and stone.
Enjoy statues of Jayavarman VII, ancient household objects, and various items related to Buddhism and Hinduism – including statues of gods, and things used for religious ceremonies.
The museum is located just 5 minutes walk away from the Royal Palace, so there’s no reason not to pop in and see one of the other best Phnom Penh attractions.
8. Attend a shadow puppet show
Shadow puppetry is one of the oldest traditions in Cambodia, dating all the way back to pre-Angkorian times. It even managed to survive the Khmer Rouge despite the best efforts to eradicate the art.
There are three forms of shadow puppetry in Cambodia: Sbek Thom (translates to “large leather hide”) and Sbek Toch (“small leather hide”) and Sbek Por (“colored leather hide”)
But Sbek Thom is the most popular and is acted out with large leather puppets that are 2-meters high.
The most popular stories in shadow theatre are based on the Reamker, which is the Khmer version of the Ramayana.
In Sbek Thom, only the stories of the Reamker are retold. However, in other forms, sometimes stories from other Hindu myths and legends are also used.
In 2008 Sbek Thom made the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Today, one of the best things to see and do in Cambodia is attending a shadow puppet show. If you’re looking for fun places in Phnom Penh to take kids, this a great option!
So make sure to fit in a puppet show into your itinerary as it’s definitely one of the most unique tourist attractions in Phnom Penh.
You can even get your own shadow puppets! Many of the shadow puppet theatres sell small ones, though the quality varies. You’ll also find various market stalls that offer a range of puppets.
9. Learn all about silk weaving on Koh Dach (Silk Island)
One of the most unique and fun things to do in Phnom Penh is to visit Koh Dach, located on the outskirts of the city along the Mekong.
Known as Silk Island in English, as the name suggests, you can learn all about silk on Koh Dach, including how it is made, the dyeing and weaving process and more.
Silk weaving has a long and rich history in Cambodia that dates back to the Angkorian era, though sadly it is becoming less practised.
You can visit Koh Dach with a tour, or go on your own. Big tours of the island are very popular as they allow you to get around easier and see more villages.
If you go on your own, as soon as you arrive, you’ll be approached and ushered into someone’s home to see how the magic happens!
Within these homes you can see weavers in action and buy silk goods and souvenirs at reduced rates from what they go for in central Phnom Penh.
If you are able to find the main silk weaving centre, you can get a free tour (donations for the guide much appreciated).
Koh Dach is very quiet and peaceful and one of the most beautiful places in Phnom Penh for a day excursion.
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10. Take a Khmer Cooking Class
One of the best things to do in Phnom Penh when you visit is take a Khmer cooking class. There are lots of options, but I recommend doing it with La Table Khmère.
In this class you’ll get to learn how to make some Khmer classics, such as mango salad and sticky rice and amok. You can even opt for a vegetarian version with tofu.
There are options to take the classes in the morning or evening, as well as an all day class.
If you can, I recommend the all day or morning classes as these include a trip to the market to pick out your own ingredients!
Khmer cuisine is sure to delight your taste buds with its rich flavours and spices. So if you love the food, it’s a no brainer that learning to cook it is one of the top things to do in Cambodia!
11. Admire the architecture while shopping at the Central Market
One of the top things to do in Phnom Penh is to spend some time shopping at the Central Market.
The market is one of the biggest Phnom Penh tourist attractions, but it’s also popular with locals and is likely to be quite busy when you visit.
Unlike the night markets, Central Market is only open during the day, and offers a totally different experience.
Although, like the night markets, you can still try out the local delicacy of fried insects and spiders at Central Market.
Inside, you can also find some souvenir shops, but mostly this is where locals shop for electronics, clothes and many other everyday items.
That’s because, for tourists, the real draw is the unique art deco design of the building, It’s one of the most unique places to see Phnom Penh.
Many of the other most iconic and famous places in Phnom Penh also have distinct French colonial style architecture.
If you are interested in seeing more of this style, visit the Cambodia Post and the Sai Gon Central Post Office, Cambodia Railway, National Library and the Foreign Correspondents Club.
12. Relax with a Khmer Massage
One of the best things to do in Phnom Penh is get a relaxing Khmer massage. Whether it’s after a long day of Phnom Penh sightseeing, or just a special treat, your body will thank you.
Traditional Khmer massage is very similar to a traditional Thai massage. Both are non-oil based and stimulate pressure points.
The main differences are the techniques used and that Khmer massage uses less pressure on the body, even often sending you to sleep.
If you’ve ever had a Thai massage (or any massage) and felt beaten up afterwards, you might prefer the lighter touch of a Khmer massage.
There are tons of places that offer traditional Khmer massages at a reasonable price without pre-booking.
13. See the Independence Monument lit up at night
One of the most iconic Phnom Penh tourist attractions is the Independence Monument.
This lotus-shaped stupa was built to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953.
While it’s worth visiting in the daytime to explore the nearby sites, the Independence Monument is especially striking at night when it is lit up.
During national celebrations, the monument is often front and center and is adorned with flags and lights, as well as a ceremonial flame in the interior pedestal.
Just behind the Independence Monument is the beautiful Wat Botum Park, where you’ll find Wat Botum and a statue of Sihanouk Norodom.
The monument is also conveniently located near to other top places to go in Phnom Penh like the Royal Palace and the National Museum of Cambodia.
Although it’s a bit difficult to get through traffic up to the monument, the Independence monument one of the most important local and tourist places in Phnom Penh.
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Where to stay in Phnom Penh
Base Villa – This is where I stayed in Phnom Penh. The staff was friendly, the food was good, and they also offered tours for the killing fields and the museum for an affordable price.
There is also a swimming pool here so it’s great if you want to cool off and escape the city chaos.
Before you head to Cambodia
If you’re planning your trip and are about to visit, then make sure you check out the visa requirements.
For example, there’s a visa to Cambodia from Canada if you’re a Canadian national, while some countries can get a visa on arrival. So it’s best to research beforehand!
Frequently Asked Questions
Definitely. Phnom Penh has a rich and tragic history that should not be overlooked. There are also lots of fun things to do in Phnom Penh, such as a visit to Koh Dach (Silk Island) or a night at a shadow puppet show.
Although the city is large, many of the best things to do in Phnom Penh are very conveniently located near to each other. This means you can see most of top places to visit in Phnom Penh in 2-3 days, including spending a day at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. Of course, if you have more time to stay and explore, Phnom Penh is worth a deeper look.
Yes, there are a wide variety of things to do in Phnom Penh for any type of visitor, including a range of important historical sites, beautiful pagodas, museums, and markets. It’s also a great destination for foodies!
Visiting this city is one of the most fun things to do in Cambodia. Did I miss any of the best things to do in Phnom Penh? Let me know in the comments if you have any other recommendations on what to do in Phnom Penh.
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