To start with, we absolutely loved Phnom Penh and were more than happy to return here for a second visit while travelling around Cambodia.
The capital of Cambodia was a prosperous city, with the modern Royal palace structure, fine colonial buildings and the grand art deco ‘Central Market’ built by the 1930’s. After independence from France in 1954, the city flourished with the state of the art ‘New Khmer Architecture’ and embraced the further development until horrific events started to take place in 1975.
During the Khmer Rouge era the city was evacuated and the whole country was isolated from the outside world for over 3 years during which time millions of Cambodians were brutally tortured and later killed. The country and it’s economy has suffered for many years afterwards.
Today the capital is chilled and welcoming, offering its visitors a tremendous amount of historical and cultural sights, restaurants, rooftop bars, spas and other simple joys.
We were extremely taken by the Cambodian people’s warmth, friendliness and the knowledge of foreign languages. It was so easy to travel around, order food or have a general chat with the locals. The genuine smiles were everywhere and it felt like people here are celebrating life every day.
Getting to Phnom Penh:
By air. Phnom Penh International Airport is located 7km west of the capital and is the largest airport in the country. It’s easy to get to the Cambodian capital via air from the major Asian cities i.e Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, HCMC (Saigon), Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
By bus. The most convenient way to get to Phnom Penh from Vietnam is to take a bus from Saigon via Bavet (Cambodia)/Moc Bai (Vietnam) crossing. The roads between the checkpoints are good, visas are available on arrival for $30.
We booked a bus via the Mekong Express bus operator in Saigon and the 6 hour journey was relatively easy and comfortable. The road between the borders is in good condition throughout and the new bridge over the Mekong river is now completed.
Our Cambodian visas were sorted for us on arrival by the bus company. It did cost us an extra $5 each, but rumour has it that occasionally you get charged an extra few dollars anyway at the border, so no hard feelings here.
If you are travelling to Phnom Penh from Thailand, the most convenient crossing is the Aranyaprathet (Thailand)/Poipet (Cambodia). Make sure you read the visa regulations as they may change during your travels.
Read our blog post The danger of complacency and make sure you have all the necessary papers before crossing the border.
Getting around Phnom Penh:
Currently (2016) the traffic is easy going and not as mad as it is in Vietnam, which makes the city fairly easy to get around. Tuk tuk’s and taxis (often unmetered) are readily available.
If you are brave, try the Motodup (motorbike taxi). It is the fastest and cheapest mode of transport, $1.50 per trip. For around $12 you can even hire it for the whole day.
Renting a motorbike can be a good option as the traffic here is still relatively light. Older bikes will set you back around $15 and newish – $20. For a cheaper option, rent a less powerful moped ($5 per day), great for whizzing around the city.
Hop on-hop off bus is available for around $15 per day. To book this touristy bus, check with your hotel.
Accommodation in Phnom Penh:
Hotels and guest houses are spread widely across the city. While Phnom Penh is a fairly cheap place to stay, mid range rooms can range from $15 for a double up to $100 for a luxury accommodation per night. Budget accommodation with a fan only costs between $5-$10 per night.
Alibi Villa Guesthouse
On our first visit to Phnom Penh we stayed at the french Alibi Villa Guesthouse, conveniently situated right behind the Royal Palace. Even with the breakfast included, it’s not the cheapest option, but we wanted to stay centrally.
It’s a small 10 room guest house, located in a beautiful old mansion. We were slightly disappointed with our room, it was a little too dark and we felt it didn’t live up to the price we were paying.
Another downside for us was the smoking neighbours. While the guests are not allowed to smoke in the rooms, they are welcome to have a ciggy in the lounging area. Since the room door has gaps, we could smell the smoke pretty well.
However, the garden/breakfast area is very nice, shaded by lots of plants with water feature in the middle. We enjoyed a couple of evenings sitting outside under umbrellas in the pouring rain.
The breakfast was nice and plentiful and the staff was very friendly, especially the cleaning ladies. You can also order lunch and dinner here, which is very nice, but quite pricey. The chicken Lok lak was very good though at around $6.
The Artist Guesthouse
We stayed here on our second visit to Phnom Penh. Again, perfectly located across the street from the National Museum, it is a very good base from which to explore the main sights of the city. It is also located minutes walk from Kristina’s favourite coffee spot run by the happiest man in the city.
Our $24 double room was clean, spacious and comfortable but there’s no breakfast included.
The owner/manager was very friendly and gave us a discount on arrival. We didn’t have a booking and walked into the first hotel once we stepped out of the Tuk tuk. It turned out to be a great place to stay.
We were exhausted from our journey to the capital from Otres beach in Sihanouk Ville and decided to have dinner in the guesthouse. The food here is pretty good so if you are stuck for food in the city, pop in, the restaurant is open to the general public.
Things to see and do in Phnom Penh:
The Royal Palace. Opposite the riverfront sits the King’s residence, surrounded by tall walls and adorned with beautiful gardens. Perhaps slightly less elaborate than the Grand palace in Bangkok, nonetheless impressive complex, the Royal palace is notable for the ‘Silver Pagoda.’ The monument is home to the Emerald Buddha as well as 90 kg golden Buddha Maitreya, encrusted with over 2000 diamonds.
The National Museum is a sight worth visiting not only for its fabulous content, but also for it’s remarkable exterior. It’s advisable to visit the Angkor Architectural Park in Siem Reap first to understand the large collection of the Angkorian artefacts displayed in the museum.
The Independence Monument. There is no admission to this rather impressive masterpiece by the Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, you can just admire it from the street. The monument sits right in the middle of the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk Boulevards. It looks especially impressive in the dark.
Wat Phnom – the legendary temple on the hill is a beautiful site to visit. Dress modestly when visiting as the temple, surrounded by the greenery, is popular amongst the devotees, trekking to the pagoda and shrines atop the hill.
It’s from this temple that the city gets its name as in Khmer language Phnom means Hill, so the city name translates to ‘the hill of the lady Penh’.
The Killing Fields & the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. A heart breaking experience but absolutely must-see sights in Phnom Penh. Visit at least one of them to help understand what happened during the dark years of the Khmer Rouge regime.
At the Killing Fields the excellent audio guide provided during the visit explains the not so distant, hard to imagine horrific events that took place on site during the 1975-1979. As you walk around the trail, story after story unfolds the horrid past of the now peaceful field.
As you walk through the field, look out for human bones sticking out of the soil. Human remains and pieces of clothing are still being dug out of the ground as the soil is still pushing the remains up during the rainy season. It’s a shocking sight and feels as if tortured ghosts from the past are still crying out in fear and pain.
The Central Market. While exploring Phnom Penh, you must visit at least one phsar (market) in the capital city. We recommend popping into the Phsar Thmey (Central Market). The shopping here is great as well as the building itself. The market will be of interest to those who are on a lookout for precious gems. Be extra careful though, fake stones happen to circulate in this particular spot. Pay attention to the magnificent dome and symmetrical constructions adorning the interior of this fascinating Art Deco piece of architecture.
Walk along the Promenade. One of the best experiences anyone can have when travelling is mixing with the locals. The riverfront peppered with colourful international flags in the city is a perfect spot for doing so.
While it might be too hot to sit by the Promenade in the day time, it comes to life later in the cool of the evening. The local families bring picnics, vendors sell ice cold beer and snacks, the vibe is great.
Try a ‘Seeing hands’ massage. If you are in the town for a couple of days, book yourself into a ‘seeing hands’ massage. Massage rooms run by the blind and partially sighted can be found across the capital. For the small amount of $7 you can get a dry (no oil) back & shoulder massage. We found it pretty good and were happy to be able to contribute to the local community.
Watch the Traditional Dance Show. To see the performances, head to the back garden of the National Museum. Shows take place Monday – Saturday from 7pm.
Food and drink in Phnom Penh
Local street food. There are a few food stalls along the Preah Ang Eng street. Try the traditional Lok Lak, it’s great. The famous Khmer BBQ is served in many places as it is a local speciality. Markets can be good for sampling some local cuisine, try the Russian and Central markets.
Western food can be found in the backpacker area along Jayavarman and a couple of streets near it. Also cafes and restaurants serving all sorts of cuisines run along the riverfront.
Davy’s Shake Shack – best coffee and smoothies in town. The coffee culture is increasing in Phnom Penh, but it seems to be slightly overpriced in places and sometimes (devastatingly for Kristina) not so good. But there is a man who might save your morning coffee run. Look out for a tiny booth attached to a bike and a smiley man (Davy) sitting inside.
Seriously, Davy makes great iced coffee and smoothies for a dollar. If the Davy’s Shake Shack hasn’t moved since we discovered him last time, you should find him on the Street 178 / Street 13.
Sugar cane juice – don’t forget to try some fresh cane juice, it’s seriously good, refreshing, cheap and available everywhere.