It may lack the recognition of Bangkok or Singapore, but Phnom Penh has a well-deserved stake in Southeast Asia’s tourism industry. Here you will find a heady mix of colonial architecture, ancient temples and bohemian bars.
- Worth it?
- It isn’t the country’s leading attraction (Angkor Wat holds that distinction) but it has plenty to offer in the way of museums, monuments and fine French dining.
- What to Do
- Visiting the Genocide Museum, indulging on crème brulée, shopping in lively markets, boating on the Tonlé Sap River, firing a rocket launcher at Thunder Ranch, enrolling in a cooking class.
- Best Time to Go
- December and January are the coolest and most comfortable months to visit.
- How Long?
- Two or three days and you’ve seen it all.
- The remains of Kong Ponhea Yat, founder of this ancient city, are kept in a stupa at Wat Phnom.
Phnom Penh’s most memorable sites are also its most disturbing. The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum are gritty to say the least, but a visit to these sobering sites is essential to any visit. But it isn’t all gloom and despair, and conscientious visitors have ample opportunity to donate to the reputable foundations behind these tributes.
In true Cambodian fashion, visitors to the Killing Fields are hassled by touts pushing Thunder Ranch. A moment after visiting the country’s grimmest memorial to violent oppression you may find yourself swept away to a shooting range and handed a loaded AK47. It may be irreverent, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
Anyone expecting a provincial backwater will be surprised. This city shook off the oppression of the Khmer Rouge in no time and plowed headfirst into the 21st century. Exaggerated tales of lawlessness and petty crime may have had a kernel of truth in the 1980s, but today’s tourists have little to fear.
Of course, Phnom Penh’s edgy charm can easily turn against tourists. Pay a visit to the amusement park on Sihanouk Boulevard and there’s no question that these rides have seen better days. Skip the Ferris wheel but do visit the decrepit park, which is an attraction in its own right.
Travel to Phnom Penh - Getting there
Phnom Penh International Airport is a few miles out of town and offers regular connections to Siem Reap (1 hour) and Bangkok (1 hour, 10 minutes). Avoid flying with Royal Khmer Airlines and PMT Air, local carriers with dodgy safety records. Regional discount carriers like AirAsia and JetStar Asia have solid reputations. Siem Reap is 6 hours away by bus, and the road is in good condition.
Phnom Penh Attractions
- Killing Fields
- Ten miles outside of town, this monument consists of shallow graves and human remains that testify to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.
- Royal Palace
- East meets west in this royal compound with its hints of French colonial architecture and glittering pagodas.
- Genocide Museum
- Also known as Tuol Sleng S-21, this evocative complex is filled with exhibits detailing the horrific events of the late 1970s. It’s easy to get emotional here so prepare yourself.
- Wat Phnom
- The city’s foremost temple is a must-see attraction boasting several stupas and 700 years of history.
- Central Market
- This tantalizing fusion of French colonial and traditional Khmer architecture is the city’s one-stop shopping venue.
- Friendship Monument
- A politically charged tribute, the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument was built after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge. Steer clear during protests.
- National Museum
- A comprehensive collection of artifacts from the Angkor period, this museum is best visited during the Royal Ploughing Festival after the yearly harvest.
- Sisowath Quay
- This is the city’s most prestigious dining district, lined with trendy cafés serving authentic French cuisine at unbelievably low prices.
- Stung Meanchey Garbage Dump
- Not really a tourist attraction as such, this is the home of the city’s poorest inhabitants who scavenge the rubbish in search of something of value.
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