Friends planning a trip to Phnom Penh often ask me, “What’s there to see or do there?” To which I usually end up making a long list of places I think they would enjoy. And they more often than not return without looking at my list and tell me it was a boring place.
I discovered PP, as I like to refer to it, at a leisurely pace as I lived there for a short period of time. Many places on this list are obvious yet often overlooked when you’re on a tight 3 day 2 night layover.Here’s my list of the top 15 places you must see in Phnom Penh. Definitive but not exhaustive, this is my guide to seeing the city once known as “The Pearl of Asia“.
A. Wat Phnom
Legend has it that in 1372, a wealthy widow named Lady Penh found a Koki tree floating down the Tonle Sap river after a storm. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddha statues and a stone statue of Vishnu. Lady Penh ordered villagers to raise the height of the hill northeast of her house and used the Koki wood to build a temple on the hill to house the four Buddha statues, and a shrine for the Vishnu image slightly lower down. The temple became known as Wat Phnom Daun Penh, which is now known as Wat Phnom.
Local folklore or urban legend if you like has it that unmarried couples should avoid visiting Wat Phnom together. I’m told it will surely put an end to the relationship. A rather strange belief but that’s what I’ve been told by the locals in the know about these things. I didn’t make it up.
Wat Phnom is also a good place to begin a walking tour of the city as it is strategically located close to the busy and bustling riverside area. It’s very touristy and is the hub of the city where most of the action is. Tuk-tuk’s are keenly accustomed to foreigners and their rates reflect that. It’s often a lot more than what others would ask for in other parts of the city. So bargaining is encouraged. I’ve seen tourists arguing over rates. Generally the people here are friendly and trying to make a living. There’s really no need to engage in a nasty exchange of words. If you think it’s too much just walk away.
B1. Sisowath Quay
A short walk from Wat Phnom is Sisowath Quay, the main artery that runs the length of “riverside” as its affectionately known. There is a broad walk along the river and the street across is littered with bistros, restaurants, bars and clubs. It’s a hub of activity day and night. You’ll find all types of cuisines from traditional Khmer, Thai, Northern Indian, Western and even Indonesian cuisine if you venture not far off onto the side streets. There are many hotels and guesthouses as well with some boasting rooftop dining and bars where you can take in beautiful views of the riverside. Most 3 star hotels are in the $30 upward range while a clean room with air-conditioning at a guesthouse can be had priced from $15 upwards.
B2. Psar Reatrey
Not far from Wat Phnom along Sisowath Quay is the night market. “Psar” in Khmer means “market”. It’s opposite the Giant IBIS Bus Terminal. If you happen to be here after dark, it’s an interesting place to visit for hawker food and imitation branded products. Picnic mats are placed on the floor at the food court area for you to sit and have your meal. It’s quite an experience mingling with the locals. The market has clothing, shoes and lots of other stuff on sale. It even has a stage where there are dance and vocal performances during the night. If I’m not mistaken it’s only open during the weekends, Friday – Sunday.
C & D. Psar Kandal
Exit the main street onto Street 148 and you will find an old market called Psar Kandal. This is a popular place for Vietnamese and Khmer stall food. It’s also full of little salons where the ladies can get their nails done, hair washed and all the usual pampering that go with it for under $5. I personally frequented this place for breakfast and a manicure/pedicure almost every Sunday morning. The ladies at the salon were always tickled that a guy would pop by ever so often to get his nails done. Once, one even cheekily asked me what colour nail polish I would like her to apply on my nails.
A great spot to photograph the locals and the environment. It can get really hot inside as the roofing here is mostly makeshift stacked metal sheets. When it rains it leaks and in the dry season it’s an oven inside. But that’s the charm of this place in my opinion.
E. Wat Ounalom
A short distance from Kandal market is a break in the block of shop lots with a wide open space. There’s a mini roundabout with a lovely statue of Buddha here and just next to it is the Wat Ounalom pagoda which is another landmark Buddhist temple in PP. It has a few smaller shrines in its compound, one of them is the Hanuman temple. While it’s often said that Buddhism is the primary religion in Cambodia, you will see a lot of influence from Hinduism. Angkor Wat is no exception, it was after all originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire.
F. FCC Phnom Penh
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh is a public bar and restaurant along the riverside just about a block away from the Royal Palace. It’s in a three-storey colonial-style building with wonderful views over the river. Almost an institution in itself, the food is great but pricey and the ambience takes you back to colonial times. I once caught a glimpse of Cambodian Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy at FCC when he dropped by for dinner with his entourage. It’s a nice place to chill on a hot day with an ice cold beer.
G & I. Royal Palace & Park
A short walk from Wat Ounalom and approximately midway down Sisowath Quay lies the grand Royal Palace. The Palace park lies along the main street and its not uncommon to find this section of riverside crowded in the evenings and weekends. Many locals picnic here and enjoy the beautiful architecture of the Palace as seen from outside the main gates. One of the highlights of sitting on the lawn here are a flock of pigeons that call this their home. You can feed them and just sit on the lawns watching them take to the skies.
Palace visiting hours are 7:30-11:00am and 2:00-5:00pm respectively. So plan your arrival to coincide with these timings or you won’t get in. Inside there’s the Silver Pagoda, the Palace, a Museum and lush green gardens that have been painstakingly tended to.
H. Preah Ong Dong Ka
Across the Palace park along the riverside broad walk is a tiny Buddhist temple that is apparently known for it’s spiritual reverence. Locals make it a point to stop here at all times of the day to offer prayers and seek blessings. You can even pay the lady $20 to release all the birds in the cage she carries around with her and it purportedly brings good luck to you. Somehow I don’t buy into this belief as these birds are caught for the sole purpose of making money.
J. National Museum
Behind the Royal Palace is the museum. It’s possibly one of the finest museums I’ve ever visited. The architecture of the building is classic traditional Khmer. Many exhibits here are from Angkor Wat. These statues and artefacts were removed from Angkor for safe keeping in this museum because there was pilferage and theft back in the day by visitors in Angkor. Many statues you see at Angkor are actually replicas of the originals that are on display here.
As you can see, just along Sisowath Quay, there’s a lot to see and do. This walking tour in itself can take up the better part of a day. For those into photography, the sun rises across the Tonle Sap/Mekong river and sets behind the Royal Palace.
Part 2: Food & Shopping, Monuments & Historical Sites
The following places are not within walking distances. The map here is a guide of the distances between each location.
A short tuk-tuk or motodop ride from the riverside area should set you back anywhere from $2-$4 depending on how well you bargain for the ride. A motodop is basically riding pillion on the back of a motorbike and are cheaper than tuk-tuk’s that usually seat 4 persons.
A. The Grand Central Market
Perhaps the main attraction in Phnom Penh, Psar Thom Thmei as it’s called in Khmer is an architecturally amazing structure. Built by the French in 1937, it’s recently been cleaned up and given a new coat of paint. It has a central dome with four extension galleries that extend outward from it. There are so many entry and exit points at this market that I almost always get lost when I’m here as I’m never able to figure out where I got in from and how to get out again.
Shopaholics will love this market, it’s got everything from tee-shirts, Khmer and Thai brocade, precious and semi-precious gem stones, watches, electronic and household items and much more. Do be cautious when purchasing gems and watches as a lot of this stuff could be fake. Anything and everything you could want can be had here. The only problem I have with this market is that because it’s such a tourist attraction, expect prices to be much higher than at other similar markets in the city.
B. Street 51
Also known as Rue Pasteur, Street 51 is a short walk from Central Market. This street is a hive of activity after hours with bars, clubs and restaurants which are open mostly all night long but dead during the day. The Golden Sorya Mall is full of pubs and restaurants mostly for western and some local dining treats. Great variety of food at reasonable prices and beers for as little as 2 bucks a pitcher. At the far end of the mall is a club called Pontoon which is a favourite among locals and tourists alike. If you like to party it’s open until the wee hours of the morning. It can get really packed so be alert and keep an eye on your wallet or purse.
Side note: The clubbing scene in Phnom Penh is varied. The most popular ones being Epic, Nova and Darlin Darlin in Nagaworld all of which are somewhat more up market, trendy and attract a more sophisticated crowd than say Pontoon or St. Tropez which are in 51. Ask any tuk-tuk and they will get you to any one of these clubs easily.
Street food: There are many many street vendors everywhere in Phnom Penh. Mostly peddling food that most tourists would not be able to easily digest. Anything from fried bugs, spiders, snakes and stuff I can’t begin to describe. If you’re so inclined and adventurous, the locals snack on it daily so you should be fine if you have a strong stomach. I personally like more familiar cuisine and of special mention here is a 2 man operated wood fire oven cart that makes it’s way to the corner of Street 51 and Street 172. They make the best pizzas you’ll ever find. A must try in my books. They only open after 10pm and make a variety of pizzas priced for as little as $3.50.
C. Independence Monument
At the end of Street 51 where it intersects with Sihanouk Boulevard is the Independence Monument. The monument was built in 1958 for Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It is in the form of a lotus-shaped stupa, of the style seen at the great Khmer temple at Angkor Wat and other Khmer historical sites. There is also a park that runs through the middle of Sihanouk Boulevard where a recently erected statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk is located in his honour and memory. In the evenings, this is a popular park where people exercise and are seen jogging.
D & E. NagaWorld & Diamond Island
A short distance from the Independence Monument is the Nagaworld Hotel and Casino complex. Compulsive gamblers will surely enjoy this facility. The hotel is 5 star so expect prices to be in tandem with this rating. Just across the bridge is Diamond Island or Koh Pich as it is known locally. It is a land reclamation project with a theme park, convention centre and other function room facilities commonly used for weddings, concerts and large outdoor events.
F. Toul Sleng Genocide Museum
A short bike or tuk-tuk ride from the Independence Monument is the S21 Genocide Museum. I’ve covered this in depth in a previous blog of mine and is a must see for those interested in the history of the Khmer Rouge and their tyrannical rule in the late 70’s.
For more read my blog: S21 Toul Sleng
The Killing Fields are located some 30kms out of Phnom Penh. Personally, after visiting S21, I never had the courage to make the trip to the fields. For those interested to head out there, it’s a day trip by tuk-tuk or private cab.
G. Psar Toul Tom Poung
Last but not least, yet another market for the shopper. Located quite a distance from downtown PP, the Russian Market is loaded with cheap clothing, footwear, house hold stuff, hardware and even bike and car parts. It’s sectionalised by products with each area specialising in a particular type of item. What I was drawn to at this market were the many little trinkets and souvenir items such as Buddha statues, figurines and other antiques on sale. You can easily lose track of time just looking at all the beautiful local handicraft, wood and stone carvings here. Prices are a tad cheaper than Central Market but bargaining for items is expected.
Phnom Penh is a special city. I’ve seen it evolve from a dusty old war torn city on my first trip in 1997 to the fast paced modern city it has become today. Progress is good for any city and it’s people but when it’s at the expense of it’s culture and heritage then it’s not a good sign. The proliferation of modern shopping complexes and glass towers are slowly eroding the rustic charm of this old world city and there is perhaps no way of stopping this from happening.
My best memories of Phnom Penh will always be it’s elegant Khmer and French colonial architecture and rich cultural heritage steeped in religion that appears to diminish and disappear with every trip I make.
The Roving Photographer
Feb 4, 2016