Phnom Penh gets no respect.
Despite being known at various times in its history as “The Pearl of Asia” and “City of Four Faces” (situated where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers collide), Phnom Penh receives only a fraction of visitors that its neighbors get, sometimes entirely bypassed on the Bangkok – Siem Reap – Ho Chi Minh tourist trail. Even the Vietnamese (the largest tourism market) often grimace when the word “Cambodia” comes up. Apparently, tales of Khmer Rouge barbarism from the 1970s told by returning Vietnamese soldiers are hard to forget.
To add insult to injury, Phnom Penh isn’t even the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. That honor usually goes to Siem Reap, the site of the impressive Angkor Wat temples.
I’ll admit that I too was jaded to Phnom Penh’s charms (or lack thereof) despite living there for over 10 years. Sure, it was a great place to live and work ― my own backwards haven with wide orderly streets and little traffic ― but I dreaded any time friends or family would come because I’d have to rack my brain finding ways to engage visitors for a couple of days before bundling them off to their next destination. But having left the city that was my home for over a decade has totally changed my view. I miss Phnom Penh. In fact, a recent visit back actually made a (belated) believer out of me. Here, in no particular order, are 11 must-do activities which should put Phnom Penh towards the top of every visitor’s SE Asia list:
Pay your respects at the Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek museums
These museums hold the collective memory of the nation of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Ever wonder why Phnom Penh seems so underdeveloped compared to Saigon or Bangkok? Well, these sites help to shed light on a nationwide genocide that killed an estimated 2-3 million people (up to 25% of the entire country’s population) in the late 70s. Among those targeted were capitalists and intellectuals (teachers, doctors, monks, artists) in an attempt to revert the country to an agricultural Year Zero.
If you’re Gen X, Y, or Z, you might be forgiven for not knowing much about this turbulent time period. It was almost a back story after the Vietnam War ended. And despite the on-going and problematic Khmer Rouge trials, Cambodians in general are also happy to move on. But every now and then, it resurfaces in the most unexpected ways. You might be talking to an older person who out of the blue starts relating Khmer Rouge torture stories, silent tears a reminder that the wounds are yet open and deep. Once I was teaching an English class on Valentine’s Day and the topic of “Your First Kiss” came up. When we got to a woman of about 50 years old, she scoffed and said matter-of-factly, “Back then, if I kissed my husband in public, they would have killed me.”
Imagine a whole generation of educated elites being wiped out and the far-reaching repercussions of such a tragedy. While it doesn’t make for a light-hearted day out, a visit to Tuol Sleng, a former school turned torture camp right in the middle of the city, is a must. Be prepared for the rows upon rows of haunting images of victims interned there, hollow, hopeless eyes looking back at you from the past.
A visit to Cheoung Ek (aka The Killing Fields) usually follows, a mass burial site about 15 km from the city. A sobering display of 5,000 skulls and almost 9,000 bodies is difficult to process. A walk through the quiet grounds sometimes yields bits of clothing or the odd tooth underfoot, a powerful testimony to the relatively recent tragedies the Cambodian people have survived.
Have a jaunt in the countryside
Just a 20 minute ride outside of Phnom Penh the city gives way to lush countryside. Follow the Mekong River over the Chba Ompeu bridge and you’ll find pastoral scenes of fishing villages and rice fields. Children play with homemade drums made out of nothing but tin cans, a stretched rice sack and chopsticks. People cook the old-fashioned way, grinding rice flour by hand. Fishing is equal parts net and bamboo traps.
Especially if you visit during the wet months of June – October, the rice fields will be a thousand hues of green, workers bent akimbo while oxen placidly watch on. Houses are built on impossibly high stilts in preparation for the yearly flooding of Cambodia’s rivers when the only method of transportation is a precariously small boat. Floating houses, poised on empty barrels for floatation, enjoy satellite reception, powered by car batteries.
Enjoy some of the best value massages around
By now, chances are your feet are feeling like raw hamburger after all the walking you’ve been doing. Good thing that Phnom Penh has some of the best value massages in the region. Cheaper than Thailand and better than Vietnam, Phnom Penh has a surprising number of spas and massage parlors, ranging from hot stone treatments in upscale international hotels like Raffles, the InterContinental, and the Sofitel to more reasonable boutique spas with surprisingly good ambiance where an hour of aromatherapy massage will set you back around $10USD.
You might even try a no-frills seeing hands massage, all employing blind or visually impaired therapists – at $4 an hour, an absolute steal at any of the multiple locations around the city. However, my favorite place is the small Xing Fu Foot Massage (599 Monivong Blvd). For $5 an hour, you get your own respectable a/c room with TV. The massage starts out with a foot steam and a back/shoulder rub after which the therapists work on stimulating the nerve endings in your feet. Always a fine line between pleasure and pain, nothing soothes quite like a good foot massage. Don’t forget to send out for a pineapple or coconut shake, just $0.75 down the block.
Another option for looking human again is the mani/pedi, Cambodian style. Forget the expensive Korean/Vietnamese treatments back home and spring for a complete hands/feet makeover from one of the city’s many itinerant nail ladies. For just $2.50 for hands or feet, find a shady spot to get your nails done. French manicure, painted designs, a sprinkle of glitter? These ladies do it all.
While Cambodian cuisine has yet to achieve the international status of Thai or Vietnamese food, you can definitely eat well and cheaply in Phnom Penh. Food carts line the streets, and you could spend all day simply snacking on buttery corn on the cob, fried noodles, or fresh fruit. Feeling more adventurous? Try the fried tarantulas or the boiled cocoons and grasshoppers at one of the larger markets.
While there are a few dishes that are distinctly Cambodian like amok (coconut-based fish curry steamed in a banana leaf), the large immigrant Chinese and Vietnamese populations have left their mark on Phnom Penh’s food scene. You can find Chinese noodles and Vietnamese spring rolls almost anywhere along with the requisite sweet and sour stir-fry or crispy fried fish with mango dipping sauce.
My favorites are Malis for an upscale Cambodian meal in an elegant setting (mains start at $8USD), Khmer Surin for authentic Cambodian food at only $3-6 per main and a tiny, unassuming noodle shop that’s only open in the morning but has the best yellow noodles with wonton in the business (corner of Streets 51 and 208). Get there at around 10 am as it’s starting to wind down for the grittiest, most flavorful bowl of noodles you’ve ever had.
Go to where it all started
Phnom Penh literally means Hill/Mountain of Penh. According to legend, a woman named Daun Penh found statues of the Buddha inside a tree floating in the Tonle Sap River. She promptly set up a stupa (a bell-shaped building to house Buddhist relics) on top of a small grassy hill, now known as Wat Phnom.
A small park smack in the middle of the city, Wat Phnom is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. You can climb to the top to view the temple complete with its colorful murals and naga snakes decorating the roof (admission $1USD). Look out for devout Buddhists who pay for the privilege of releasing small birds at the temple, a belief tied in to the Buddhist vow of saving all beings from suffering while gaining personal merits. Hang around to see little boys with a bit of glue on a long stick running to retrieve the just-released hapless creatures for resale to the next pilgrim.
While there, check out the huge working clock made from greenery as well as Sam Bo, the elephant that has for decades been giving tourists a ride around the hill. (If you don’t fancy a ride, you can still buy a bunch of bananas or a few stalks of sugar cane to feed the gentle giant.) Or get your nails done under the shade of a bodhi tree. But whatever you do, hold on to your drinks and snacks as there’s a troupe of very bold monkeys just waiting for a moment of distraction.
Night cap like a celebrity on a backpacker’s budget
Now that you’re full, it’s time to head out into the night. After all, man does not live on bread alone, am I right? Head on over to the gorgeously stylish Raffles Le Royal. Established in 1929, it regularly hosted the likes of W. Somerset Maugham, Charles de Gaulle, and Charlie Chaplin. More flashpacker than business mogul? No worries. Bypass the bellboys dressed in their French colonial finery and the opulent reception and head straight for the Elephant Bar, a cozy lounge with lots of comfy seating. While the evening hours away trying to find all of the reportedly more than 80 elephants in the room while sipping on a half-priced Femme Fatale, a drink commemorating Jackie O’s 1967 visit. Throw in a martini glass filled with complimentary mixed nuts or homemade taro chips and salsa, and it is one of the absolute best deals in Phnom Penh. (Visit during Happy Hour when most drinks are 50% off, 4 – 9 pm daily, and don’t forget to snag a pastry on your way out, 40% off after 6 pm).
Vestiges of Indochina
In 1863, Cambodia came under French rule, and along with Vietnam and Laos, formed what was known as Indochina. The French administration restored parts of Angkor Wat, built roads and other public works, and planned to make Phnom Penh look like a provincial French town. So successful were they that in the 1920’s, Phnom Penh was known as “the Pearl of Asia.” While Cambodia regained its independence in 1953, vestiges of French colonization are still evident. As you stroll around town, notice the brightly colored French-styled Post Office at Wat Phnom, the fading yellow facades of grey shutters and ornate balconies of some of the older buildings and of course, the ever present French baguette sold on nearly every street corner as the receptacle for a sandwich with an Asian flair. If you really want to get your French on, stop by the French Cultural Center which houses an extensive French library, puts on unique French films, and arranges showings and performances by artists from around the world.
Stay another day, have another tapas (all for charity)
With approximately 3,000 NGOs and aid organizations registered with the Ministry of Interior, Cambodia has received and is receiving a lot of help, both foreign and domestic, in righting the wrongs of the past. All together, the financial assistance accorded to Cambodia by the international community can be counted in the billions, ever since the U.N.-organized elections were held in 1993. Seeing the country today, though, has many wondering where all that money actually went.
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to personally see the good that is being done by some very dedicated NGOs. And the good thing is, you can still feel like you’re on holiday while helping. For instance, have some delicious tapas or a traditional dish of red tree ants stir-fried with beef and basil at one of the restaurant outlets of Friends-International, an organization which provides training opportunities for former street youth and employment for their parents. Or pick up a well-crafted souvenir from Nyemo Cambodia, a non-profit organization which helps vulnerable women (affected or infected by HIV/AIDS, abandoned by their husbands or families, trafficked, or abused) and their children. Download the Stay Another Day booklet to find out how you can contribute to the welfare of local Cambodians by supporting sustainable Cambodian organizations.
Go to market
While Phnom Penh isn’t (by a long shot) a shopping mecca like Bangkok or Singapore, going to market still makes for an interesting morning with lots of photographic possibilities. The most architecturally interesting market is the Central Market, also called the New Market or in Khmer, Phsar Thmey. Built in 1937, this art deco, ziggurat-looking building, just got a complete $4.2USD million facelift last year. There’s an entire section for souvenirs (read: “I survived Cambodia” t-shirts), but the interior is much more interesting, from the unrefrigerated fresh meat on display to the many gold and jewelry shops to the stalls laden with bolts of silk. However, my pick of markets when I want to snag unique souvenirs is the Russian Market (known in Khmer as Phsar Toul Tom Pong). Its warren of stalls isn’t as pretty to look at, but you’ll find amazing bargains like good-quality “Polo” dress shirts for under $5USD, hand carved, ornate wooden plaques (great as a trivet) for $5, and inexpensive silver and turquoise jewelry. If gem stones are your thing, Cambodia has sapphire and ruby mines, but take a local along to make sure you’re getting the real thing. (They’ll inevitably return after you leave to collect their cut of the profit, but that’s still better than getting duped into buying an inferior product.)
Culture, Schmulture. Kick back and watch a movie.
Man does not live on culture alone. You’ve released birds on top of a temple, been shaken to the core by a trip to the killing fields, and did your good deed for the day by supporting a local NGO. By now, you’re probably desperate for something homey and Western. Head over to Legend Cinemas, the very first big theater showing Western movies to open in Phnom Penh (and that was just in July of last year!) When was the last time you saw a new release movie for $2USD or a 3-D movie for $3? On your way up to the theater, check out the quirky only-in-Cambodia features in the same mall: a row of relaxing massage chairs placed directly in front of the screaming kids indoor playground, the karaoke by the hour rooms, and the kids showing off their best moves on the Dance Dance Revolution video game like it was 1999.
“I enjoy long walks by the river”
You don’t need a date to have a great time at the Phnom Penh waterfront. Come early in the morning to watch groups of tai chi practitioners going through their movements with fans or plastic swords, all seemingly in slow motion. While you’re there, tour the nearby Royal Palace with its Silver Pagoda and 9,584 diamond encrusted Buddha statue. Come back in the evening when a microcosm of Phnom Penh shows up on the riverbanks – old folks out for a walk, young couples watching the sun go down, groups of kids playing a pick-up football game, and the smell of sugared popcorn and fried noodles in the air. The riverside has a very friendly, relaxed vibe, and smiles are easily doled out. For the best view, head over to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (locally known by its acronym, “the FCC”), a three story building with a stunning view of the river. In a previous life, the FCC was a hangout spot for diplomats, UN officials, and reporters during the tumultuous 70’s. Now it’s a trendy open-air space with live music, nostalgic ceiling fans, and one of the best spots to watch the sun go down on the Tonle Sap.
So whether Cambodia is your primary destination or just a side trip, consider a few days in Phnom Penh, always and forever, the “Pearl of Asia”.
Getting there: From Bangkok, there are buses that go to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. After going through the infuriatingly long lines at customs, take another bus on the Cambodian side to get to Phnom Penh. (Trip time, approximately 12 hours. One-way ticket is $16-17USD. Purchase tickets a few days in advance at any travel agency for a number of different bus companies). For a better option, though, plan ahead and catch a sale on Air Asia where the barely one-hour flight can be as little as $50USD.
From Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh is an easy 6 hour bus ride $12USD) away. If you are in the Mekong area of Vietnam, consider taking a boat across the border.
Visas at all international border points available for $25USD. (The Cambodian border point via Bangkok is called Poipet and via Ho Chi Minh is Bavet.)
Where to stay: For a clean, well-located air-conditioned room for $20USD, check out the Townview Hotel. It’s within walking distance to the Toul Sleng Museum and the main street of Monivong Boulevard. For a more upscale experience, try Circa 51, a small boutique hotel with a much welcome swimming pool for those sweltering Phnom Penh days. A casual walk along nearby Street 240 with its trendy boutiques leads you to the riverside.
For more on traveling in Cambodia, check out the following articles and resources:
- Read Indie Travel in Cambodia for $25 Per Day
- Check out our Cambodia Indie Travel Guide
- Catch a flight to Phnom Penh
- Book a hostel in Phnom Penh
- Check out our adventure trips in Cambodia
To read more about author James Pham, check out his author bio page.