Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s Lively Capital
History of Phnom Penh
Though there is little to no history of Phnom Penh during the height of the Khmer Empire, legend has it that at the end of the 14th century, a woman named Old Lady Penh was wandering along the riverbank when she came across a Koki tree floating in the water. Inside the tree she found three statues of Buddha and one of Vishnu. She took this as sign from of a blessing from the gods that the place would be the capital one day, and she set up a shrine atop a hill now known as Wat Phnom.
By the 19th century, King Norodom was being pushed from both sides by the Vietnamese and Siamese (Thais), and sought protection from French colonizers, signing a protectorate agreement with France. The French controlled Cambodia until the mid-1900s, when King Norodom Sihanouk successfully negotiated Cambodia’s independence. By this time, Phnom Penh was known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was said to be the finest city in all of French Indochina.
Sadly, in April 1975 the city fell to Communist forces named the Khmer Rouge; the city was evacuated and the entire country devastated. After the eventual overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime almost four years later, people returned to find Phnom Penh in disarray though widely undamaged.
Since that time, the city has gradually pieced itself back together and with the help of foreign aid and investors, is rapidly becoming more and more developed. Though there is much to be improved about the overall infrastructure, Phnom Penh is a fascinating city, rich in its own unique culture.
How to Get There
Coming from abroad, you can fly straight into Phnom Penh International airport.
All tourists must obtain a visa upon entry. You can choose a tourist (T) visa or a business (E) visa, both of which are valid for 30 days. Tourist visas can be extended for one extra month.
If you’re thinking of spending more than a month in the country, consider a business visa, which can be extended for one, three or six months, or one year.
Once you have obtained your visa, you can take a tuk-tuk, taxi or motorbike taxi (“moto-dup”) to your accommodation.
You can also travel to Phnom Penh by bus, from anywhere in Cambodia. Most major cities have travel agent offices where bus tickets can be purchased, and most hotels will be able to book tickets for you upon request. Some well-known bus companies in Cambodia include Capital, Virak Buntham, Giant Ibis and Sorya.
Travellers entering Cambodia over land can obtain visas from most main border crossings.
Phnom Penh is dotted with hotels and guesthouses, from basic rooms to five-star elegance.
Backpackers and budget travellers should try:
- SLA Boutique Hostel
- The Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh
- Eighty8 Backpackers
Some great mid-range hotels include:
- The Plantation- an oasis in a busy city
- The Frangipani Living Arts Hotel- complete with gorgeous swimming pool and rooftop Jacuzzi, spa, and rooftop bar
- Nane Villa- huge, spacious rooms and a beautiful pool
Phnom Penh’s high-class accommodation includes:
- Raffles Hotel Le Royal- absolute luxury, colonial style
- Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra- with huge pool and utterly delightful breakfasts
Depending on where you’re staying, some areas may be within walking distance. Both the Royal Palace and the National Museum can be reached on foot from the riverside area. If you get lost on your way, it should be easy enough to flag down a passing tuk-tuk and either ask for directions or hop in and take a ride. Many tuk-tuk drivers around the riverside will know some English, but don’t expect it from all of them. If you spot a map hanging in their vehicle, they won’t mind if you take a look.
Tuk-tuks are the favorite mode of transportation for most visitors to Cambodia. Their open sides make it easy to see the sights of the bustling city life and many drivers are friendly and talkative. Most can’t speak very much English but it’s usually enough to get you where you want to go, and they love to practice their speaking skills.
Moto-dups are another option for getting from point A to point B. If you’re travelling solo or as a pair, moto-dups are the cheaper choice and can be an exciting (sometimes hair-raising) way to experience Cambodian traffic. Keep in mind that, while moto-dups can make for a fun ride, most drivers speak very little English and sometimes get confused even if they seem to understand where you’re trying to go.
Many hotels and travel agents have bicycles available for rent. These are good for travelling around small areas such as the Russian Market area and the riverside, but be aware that Cambodian traffic is chaotic compared to most countries and riding a bicycle on the big main roads can be dangerous. Always wear a helmet and make sure to pack your sunscreen. We highly recommend taking an early morning (6.00-7.00AM) bike ride along the river front; it’s worth the early start.
You can also rent motorbikes in Phnom Penh, but again beware of the hectic traffic and respect Cambodian traffic laws. Though you might see nationals riding around without helmets and running red lights, this is against Cambodian law and will get you pulled over by police.
Nightlife in Phnom Penh
There is lots of nightlife in Phnom Penh, especially in certain areas such as Street 51 and the riverside.
For a great night out at the riverside check out these venues:
- FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) has a wide upstairs bar and lounge area and is a perfect place to meet new people and chat with expats about what it’s like to live in Phnom Penh.
- River House sometimes features live bands and DJs if you’re in the mood for dancing.
- Key West has a more high-class feel about it and is a bit more Western-style than many other places on the riverfront
- North of the night market is California 2, which is open 24 hours and serves food all night long. You can also enjoy a couple of games of pool while you’re there.
If you’re looking for something a bit more upscale, try out some of these locations:
- Frangipani Living Arts Hotel’s rooftop bar and restaurant provides amazing views of the city at night and has a tasty selection of cocktails and food.
- The Exchange, near Wat Phnom, is a stylish bar and restaurant that combines a beautiful French-colonial exterior with modern exposed brick interior. It also features a peaceful outdoor seating area and a great menu.
- Eclipse, the rooftop restaurant of Mekong Tower, commands even more stunning views of the city, including the Independence Monument. The menu is a little pricey but the pork ribs are utterly mouthwatering and cocktails come by the jug.
Late Night Shopping
Located opposite the Titanic restaurant is the Phnom Penh Night Market. Open only on the weekends, the market offers t-shirts, flip-flops, a few souvenirs and sometimes some fun Cambodian-style live music. Thought the market offers similar things to a lot of other markets, it’s worth taking a look around as you can occasionally find a new seller hawking something unusual or unique. On the way back to your hotel, pick up a bag of crispy crickets or snake-on-a-stick.
Evening Boat Rides
In the late afternoon and early evening, walking down past the night market, Mao and Titanic, you will eventually see party boats of all sizes lined up at the riverbank. These can be rented for a large group or you can grab some drinks, take out a smaller one and enjoy an hour or two on the river.
Activities in Phnom Penh
One of the most popular things to see in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Located right on the riverfront, the Palace in a compound filled with magnificent traditional Khmer-style buildings. Tour guides are available and offer a fascinating history of the place. Take note that if the blue flag is hanging outside the King’s personal quarters, it means the King is present within. Do not miss a look inside the incredible Silver Pagoda with its floor made of 500 tons of silver, Baccarat-crystal Buddha, stunning diamond-studded relics and life-size solid-gold statue of Buddha.
Note: Wear a top that covers your shoulders and preferably pants that cover your knees. Many of the buildings inside the Royal Palace complex are considered holy, so in keeping with the Cambodian culture and religion, midriff, shoulders and upper legs should be covered.
Another of Phnom Penh’s most popular attractions is Wat Phnom. A short tuk-tuk ride away from the Palace, Wat Phnom is a pleasant place for a stroll. Once complete with an elephant to ride and a crowd of monkeys, the site has now lost some of its former appeal; however the pagoda atop the hill is still an impressive place and the surrounding gardens are refreshing. Keep an eye out for Wat Phnom’s unique clock; it’s hard to miss, though not where you might expect it to be.
Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng
Phnom Penh’s dark past may be difficult to learn about, but it is essential to understanding the modern-day culture of the city, and the many issues its residents face.
Tuol Sleng, or S21, is an old high school which was transformed into a prison by the Khmer Rouge leaders. Many of the rooms remain in the same state as they were over 35 years ago, and each one tells a chilling story. One building houses photographs of all the prisoners of S21, including tiny children and old grandparents. A former prisoner and one of Tuol Sleng’s few survivors paints pictures of the scenes he remembers from that terrible time and gives us insight into the hearts of the Cambodian people after all that they have been through.
Despite being the site of more horrific events, Cheung Ek (also known as the Killing Fields) is a sharp contrast to the dark rooms and stained floor of S21; covered in neatly trimmed hedges, bright flowers and tall trees, an audio-tour takes you through the park area describing what went on in those now flower-covered fields.
Russian and Central Markets
The Russian Market has long been one of Phnom Penh’s most popular markets among visitors. The Market is roughly separated into different areas selling different things. The South-facing side offers an array of souvenirs, apparel and pirated DVDs. Keep an eye out for the Cambodian silk, hand-carved wooden animal puzzles, recycled rice-sack bags and attractive jewelry made from old silverware.
The market has come a long way from is former grubby stalls and sweltering heat; some stalls have been transformed into glass-sided shops offering organic hand-made soaps and designer bags. None of this takes away from the exotic feel of the place though; you can easily get lost amongst the baskets of peppers and spices or refresh yourself with an iced coffee in the central café section. Don’t be afraid to dig into a plate of fried rice with pork or noodle soup. We recommend trying an avocado and strawberry smoothie.
Due to the many foreign NGO workers living in the area, there are plenty of Western-style eateries and coffee shops to choose from around the Russian market area. These include Jars of Clay, Yejj, Coffee Korner and Joma. For some truly authentic Mexican food, head down to ALMA two blocks down from Coffee Korner.
Central Market has very little in common with the Russian Market, but is another interesting place to visit. Far from being a mishmash of tin-covered stalls, the four-armed art-deco market building was constructed in the late 1930’s and features a vast central hall where diamonds and jewelry are on offer.
Check out more of our travel guides to learn how to make the most of your time in the Kingdom of Wonder.