Planning a trip to Phnom Penh? Here’s what you should include in your itinerary plus the best hotels to stay in.
Thinking of a short getaway from Singapore? We recommend packing your bags for Phnom Penh. Only a two-hour flight away, Cambodia’s capital is the perfect mix of history, nightlife, and cuisine. The city’s known as the “Pearl of Asia” due to its 20th-century colonial French architecture. Curious now? Here are the top things to do and the best hotels to stay in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh guide: Top things to do
1. Swing by the Royal Palace
As the city’s main attraction, the Royal Palace is one place you shouldn’t miss out on. Cambodia’s royal family still resides there; because of that, you can only visit select areas, such as the throne hall. This shouldn’t stop you from marvelling at the building, even when you’re standing outside. Keep an eye out for the Silver Pagoda. The monument got its name from the five tonnes of silver covering its floor. You can also do it like the locals and picnic in the palace gardens.
Don’t forget to visit the National Museum near the Royal Palace. It houses artefacts, art pieces, and sculptures dating back to the Angkor period. There’s a mythical sandstone bird that stands over two metres!
2. Go for a walk along the Tonle Sap River
When you’re done with the palace grounds, cross over to Sisowath Quay, which stretches three kilometres along the riverfront. Get into activities that break a sweat, or take it easy with a stroll and enjoy the panoramic view. Don’t forget to drop by Wat Ounalom, one of Phnom Penh’s oldest pagodas. If you’re not the sort to get seasick, we recommend going on a sunset cruise. Remember to take care of your valuables when you’re here – we’ve heard reports of pickpocketing in this part of town.
3. Explore the Central Market
Skip shopping at the malls and pop down to the Central Market instead. Known as Psar Thmei, the market is housed in a huge art dome with four wings. You can find practically anything here, from fresh flowers, fragrant local spices, secondhand clothes, and intricate silver and gold jewellery. We spotted many colourful dresses and scarves here! Pro tip: be prepared to bargain with the vendors for your purchases, as the prices can be steep. When you’ve shopped till you dropped, refuel with a quick drink or get snacks such as num korng (traditional Cambodian donuts). If you’re the adventurous sort, try the creepy crawlies on display. Tarantula, anyone?
4. Be awed by the architecture and culture
Discover the city’s character and heritage by taking in Phnom Penh’s architectural styles. Besides the Royal Palace and various temples, pay attention to the General Post Office and the colonial buildings, the lotus-shaped Independent Monument, and the National Library. Sign up for an architectural tour, where you’ll find out more about Cambodia’s modern architecture.
While you’re out and about, bask in the country’s culture too. Stop by the Cambodian Living Arts Center, where you can catch students in training or watch a costumed performance if you’re lucky. Sovanna Phum also puts up performances that include folk dance, mask theatre, and shadow puppetry. Walk down to Street 240, where you can take many photos with the street murals.
5. Eat your way through Phnom Penh
Set aside your diet for this trip and enjoy all the Cambodian cuisine you can scarf down. Get up close to street stalls and sample noodle dishes such as num banh chok (fermented rice noodles) and Khmer fried noodles, fruit smoothies, and even barbecued items like yakitori chicken skewers. Unsure where to start? Sign up for a three-hour street food tour. Remember to come with an empty stomach! Otherwise, hit up cafes such as Feel Good for top-notch coffee or Connecting Hands Training Cafe, which is run by a non-profit organisation. There are also restaurants like Romdeng Restaurant and Eleven One Kitchen for local delicacies.
6. Check out the bar scene
For those seeking a tipple (or a few), you’ll be delighted to know the city is teeming with nightlife! Bassac Lane is an excellent place to start your night of debauchery. The daily happy hours allow you to enjoy classy cocktails and upmarket craft beers. Our recommendation? Well, we have two: Mawsim, which truly personifies “hidden speakeasy”, and Samai Distillery, which operates as a bar on Thursday nights. A special shoutout to the rooftop bar Sundown Social Club and its cheery tropicana cocktails.
7. Take a ride on the tuk-tuk
What better way to explore the capital than by taking the tuk-tuk? It’s an inexpensive way to get around, and you can easily flag one down wherever you are. Make sure to negotiate the price before climbing in. If you plan to ride the tuk-tuk during the day, have a portable fan and drinking water with you. The hot weather is no joke!
8. Learn more about the country’s history
No trip to Phnom Penh is complete without visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Yes, we know they sound grim – and they are. But it’s a significant opportunity to learn more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian civil war. Choeung Ek is a former fruit orchard where the regime committed brutal mass killings. While here, visitors will go on an audio guided tour narrated by massacre survivors. The site is located around 30 minutes away from the city.
The other memorial is more notoriously known as Security Prison 21 (S21). Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former secondary school where many victims – estimated to be around 20,000 – were detained and tortured. We won’t go into detail, but gruesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. After visiting these two places, you’ll need the rest of the day to recover.
9. Venture out of the city
If you have time to spare, consider taking a day trip out of the capital. Explore places such as Silk Island, where you can learn more about Cambodia’s golden silk. Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is a protected sanctuary that houses refuge animals rescued from wildlife trafficking. Or head to Oudongk, Cambodia’s former capital city, for a slice of history. You can walk around the temples and hike up Oudong Mountain.
Phnom Penh guide: Best hotels and resorts
10. Raffles Hotel Le Royal
No hotel in Phnom Penh is as iconic as Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Boasting a snowy white facade and classic colonial architecture, the grand hotel offers a luxurious stay in the city centre. The rooms have been respectfully restored to be brighter and more airy while retaining the vintage charms. There are two swimming pools to dip your toes in, after which you can head to the famous Elephant Bar for a drink or two.
11. Plantation Urban Resort & Spa
Plantation Urban Resort & Spa is directly behind the Royal Palace and National Museum, giving you easier access to tourist attractions, waterfront, and riverside entertainment. Despite its central location, you won’t feel like you’re in the city once you enter the hotel. You have the lush garden setting to thank for that! On top of the standard amenities, Plantation also features a boutique shop that stocks locally-made postcards, apparel, and jewellery.
12. Rosewood Phnom Penh
The best way to describe this five-star hotel? Rosewood is Phnom Penh’s equivalent of Marina Bay Sands. Occupying the top 14 floors of Vattanac Capital Tower, the luxury hotel offers stunning views of the city and Mekong River. Rosewood features excellent amenities such as a 22-metre indoor swimming pool, a spa offering Khmer therapies, and over six restaurants and lounges. See that thing jutting out of the building? That’s Sora, the rooftop bar that overlooks the city.
13. The Balé
If you’re looking for accommodation away from the hustle and bustle of the city, we highly recommend this hotel. The Balé is a resort with 18 large, private suites that stand on the banks of the Mekong River. Imagine waking up to views of the dazzling water! The moment you step into the hotel, you’re greeted with a sense of serenity – the lone Buddha statue probably has something to do with this. The Balé is equipped with facilities, including a riverside infinity pool. Book a stay here if your budget allows it.
So what are you waiting for? Pack your bag and take a trip to Phnom Penh, stat!