There is so much to see and do in Phnom Penh that most people are surprised as they make a stop in the Cambodian capital heading to or from Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat. But those who don’t make a stop off in Phnom Penh miss out on so many interesting historical, cultural and environmental attractions on offer.
It’s not all about the Khmer Rouge or Cambodia’s tragic past either. Islands, Khmer era temples, wildlife sanctuaries, performances and museums are all easily accessible and tours are reasonably priced. See our personally researched guide to 5 best attractions in Phnom Penh below.
1. The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial are the most visited tourist spots in Phnom Penh. Visits to both sites can be very emotional, but it is an essential stop while visiting Phnom Penh to understand the recent tragic Cambodian history. Given the connection between the two sites, take in both sites on the same day to fully appreciate the history.
Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21prison, was a high school that the Khmer Rouge regime used as an interrogation and torture centre. Most rooms have been left in the state they were found in January 1979, including classrooms divided into tiny cells. The haunting identity photos of the prisoners who suffered here are exhibited throughout the museum.
Choeung Ek Memorial (best known as the Killing Fields),17km south of Phnom Penh, is one of the many killing fields or execution and burial grounds used by the Khmer Rouge throughout Cambodia. Mass graves were discovered there after the Khmer Rouge fled the city, and estimates say up to 15,000 people were executed there. The visit, with informative audio guides in many languages, is very detailed and includes testimony from both survivors and guards of the regime.
2. Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace covers an area of 174,870 square metres and is open to visitors, even though the king of Cambodia still lives there occasionally (if the blue royal flag is flying, the king is in residence).Different buildings have been added and restored over time, even up until the mid-1960s, but some date back to the 19th century. You can visit the Throne Hall with ceiling murals depicting the story of the Ramayana, the Moonlight Pavilion where classical Khmer dances have been performed for decades, and the Silver Pagoda, named after the five tonnes of tiles covering its floor. The Silver Pagoda also houses the famous Emerald Buddha.
3. National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia has one of the largest collections of Khmer art, with more than 1,800 works on display. There are numerous sculptures, ceramics, and ethnographic objects such as theatrical costumes or marriage boxes, dating from the prehistoric to post-Angkorian periods. The building dates from the early 20th century but reflects “traditional Khmer” architecture. The garden and ponds feature statues of different types and divinities. Note that taking photos inside the museum is not allowed. This is a must-see visit while in Phnom Penh.
4. River Cruises
River cruises start at Sisowath Quay, Riverside, between Street 178 and Street 130. Expect to be asked many times to choose a boat and cruise company as you walk past. There are daytime and evening sunset cruises, which are the most popular. This is a great way to see the city from a different perspective and enjoy beautiful views of the Royal Palace and Riverside. The usual route goes down the Tonle Sap, onto the Mekong and up the shore of Kandal Province on the other side, to view floating fishing villages before returning, or ask for other options.
5. Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati
You don’t have to go to Angkor Wat to see Angkor period temples. Just one hour south of Phnom Penh is the beautifully preserved laterite temple of Ta Prohm. Like the temple of the same name near Siem Reap, this temple dates back to the late 12th century. The carvings on the outside of the structure are in very good condition and bas-reliefs illustrating Hindu mythology are all around. The smaller Yey Peo temple is 200 metres to the north, and the small lake Tonle Bati is a popular picnic spot with locals. Huts and hammocks are available to rent at the lake.