Let’s get this out in the open from the beginning: Phnom Penh is not one of Asia’s most popular capital cities. It tops few visitors’ itineraries and is frequently described as filthy, chaotic, and charmless. But this reputation is what piqued my interest and made me want to explore a little further; I love finding joy in a city that most have written off.
This two-day Phnom Penh itinerary visits some of the Cambodian capital’s must-see sights and also gives you the chance to explore and enjoy a city that’s often overlooked. It’s written with the long-term traveler in mind – someone who doesn’t necessarily want to see every temple, museum, or monument, and for whom visiting a large city is a chance to take advantage of amenities that are no longer the norm.
Ride the Rails – 8:30am
As a train travel fanatic, I chose to visit Phnom Penh less for the attractions within the city and more for the interesting journey I could take to get there. Many people would say there are no Cambodian trains – but they’d be wrong! Just a year and a half ago, the country reopened its long-shuttered railway line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
While I love most all train travel, let’s just say that Cambodia hasn’t yet worked out all the kinks in its railway system. My journey from Kampot to Phnom Penh started almost an hour late, and after just five minutes of movement, the train came to a halt and sat motionless for another two hours.
Since we never got any updates, I don’t know if there was a mechanical breakdown or if we were waiting for the train going the other way to pass (most of the rail system is single-track), but the trip certainly took longer than it would have on the bus. To be safe, plan to bring a lunch with you or pick up something along the way when the train stops at Takeo.
Delays aside, Cambodia’s only train is a unique and very comfortable way to get to Phnom Penh from the southern part of the country. It’s also woefully underutilized – I had a two-person seat to myself on the way to Phnom Penh and half of the train car (!) on the way back – despite being both cheaper and safer than the bus.
It also only operates on the weekends, which might make it harder to wedge it into your itinerary; but if you can arrange to go to or from Phnom Penh on a Saturday or Sunday, you should definitely take a ride.
Visit the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek – 2:30pm
If there’s one piece of Cambodian history you’re aware of, it’s almost certainly the horrific genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. While confronting such a brutal history isn’t exactly the thing tropical vacations are made of, I think we as travelers have a responsibility to learn about issues affecting the places we visit, and especially events as devastating as genocide. I actually think it’s a good thing that the genocide-related sites are usually considered some of the top things to do in Phnom Penh.
Just ten miles from the center of Phnom Penh is the most glaring example of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes – the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Once a cemetery where Chinese farmers buried their dead, it became the site of one of the largest mass killings of the 20th century.
During Pol Pot’s reign, the city of Phnom Penh was nearly abandoned as residents were forced to toil on collective farms in the countryside. Those who were thought to be disloyal to the Khmer Rouge were brought back to the capital and tortured viciously until they confessed to whatever “crime” they were suspected of.
Once the confessions were signed, the condemned were taken to Choeung Ek and were usually executed within a few days. Ultimately, nearly 20,000 people were killed and haphazardly buried in mass graves there.
The site is now a memorial to the victims of the genocide, and an audio tour (available for $6) takes visitors on a journey through the gravesites, explaining the horrors that occurred there. A Buddhist stupa sits at the center of Choeung Ek and contains a collection of human bones and skulls that have been cataloged according to the victim’s gender, age, and how they were killed.
It’s a difficult thing to see and a strong visual reminder of the brutality humans are capable of – build some time into your schedule to decompress after your visit.
Dinner: Get a Taste of Mexico – 6:00pm
One of the top complaints from Americans traveling through Southeast Asia is the lack of good Mexican food. Scrumptious Indian, French, and even German dishes can be found, but the region is sorely lacking in the south-of-the-border cuisine that we take for granted in the U.S.
Fortunately, Phnom Penh has a few shining examples of Mexican cuisine, all located in the area between the Central Market and Independence Monument: Cocina Cartel, Taqueria Corona, and Cam’s Burritos.
I sprung for Cam’s and their famous burritos, which can be filled with beef, chicken, or vegetables in addition to a fiery mixture of black beans, rice, and salsa. Cam’s is actually a street food stand, but it’s right in front of Sundance Inn and Saloon, so you can take your burrito inside and enjoy it with a beer.
Join a Dance Party – 7:30pm
Every Saturday night in parks throughout Southeast Asia, you’ll find anywhere between twenty and a hundred locals grooving to hits like “Desposito” and “Shape of You.” They’ve been practicing for weeks and most have some pretty solid moves.
The dance party starts just after sundown in Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park, and while it’s perfectly acceptable to come just for the people watching, it’s much more fun (and the locals will love it) if you get in on the action. Watch how everyone else is moving, and you’ll eventually pick up some of the steps.
Catch a Movie – 9:00pm
Going to a movie might seem like a pretty mundane activity and not something to get excited about while you’re on vacation. But for long-term travelers, it’s definitely one of the top things to do in Phnom Penh. When you’re traveling for months in places without many movie theaters, it really becomes something you miss being able to do – plus, the theaters you’ll find in most Asian cities are a whole lot fancier (and cheaper) than the ones back in the States.
The Major Cineplex in Phnom Penh’s Aeon Mall is very modern, with oversized recliners that feel more like La-Z-Boy chairs than movie theater seats. The theater usually has a few Hollywood films playing (I saw Black Panther), but for a more cultural experience, you could check out one of the Khmer films, which have English subtitles.
Either way, after spending the whole day sweating through your clothes and being shouted at by touts, sometimes there’s nothing better than sitting in a dark and heavily air-conditioned cinema.
Work Out in the Park – 6:00am
One of the things I love most about Southeast Asia is the group fitness classes that happen at sunrise and sunset in most major cities (and even many smaller ones). Sometimes it’s tai chi, sometimes dance, but these classes are really a sight to see.
In Phnom Penh, you can find aerobics, yoga, and some sort of dance workout every morning at the Olympic Stadium (if you’re wondering, no, Phnom Penh has never hosted the Olympics, nor is this a training center for Olympic athletes).
If you’re like me and prefer a solo workout and/or feel too weird about being the only Westerner in class, you can still get your sweat on by running the stairs or taking some laps around the quarter-mile track.
Breakfast: Enjoy a Pastry – 7:30am
While rice and noodle soups are common breakfast fare throughout Southeast Asia, a breakfast in Cambodia might be as likely to include bread as it is a savory soup (you can thank the French colonists for that). Cambodia has some pretty amazing bakeries – better than most in the States, even. In Phnom Penh, there’s one on just about every corner, the smell of fresh baguettes emanating from within.
The South Korean chain Tous Les Jours has locations all over town, and their chocolate croissants are heavenly. However, if you’re staying near the Russian Market, Independence Monument, or Olympic Stadium, Canadian-run Joma Bakery Cafe would be my recommendation. Their coffee is superb, and the mouthwatering cinnamon rolls are huge.
Go to Tuol Sleng Prison – 8:00am
While the killing fields of Choeung Ek might be the most visceral example of the brutality inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng is the place to really educate yourself on the details of the genocide; truly, any Phnom Penh itinerary should include both.
Tuol Sleng was once a high school, but the Khmer Rouge used it as a prison (known as Security Prison 21, or S-21) and converted the classrooms to prison cells and torture chambers. Today, the site has been turned into a very informative museum.
An audio tour (available for $6) guides visitors through the prison and explains how the Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out its twisted ideology. While there are no mass graves here (most executions took place at Choeung Ek and other locations outside the city once the trumped-up “crimes” had been confessed to), the sights are no less disturbing.
Black-and-white prisoner photos line the walls of many rooms, as every victim of the brutal prison was meticulously documented. Also on display at Tuol Sleng are various implements of torture – with a particularly hard-hitting comment on the audio tour noting that the type of waterboarding platform shown has been used in a number of secret prisons around the world, most notably by the U.S. during the War on Terror.
Some visitors to Tuol Sleng say it’s better to skip the audio tour and hire one of the guides standing near the entrance, as they have personal stories to share and leading tours provides them with an income. While that’s true, I preferred to tour the prison at my own pace and take some time to absorb the more emotional exhibits.
Lunch: Grab a Slice – 12:00pm
Along with Mexican food, one of the things I miss most about the U.S. is high-quality pizza. Seemingly every other restaurant in the tourist-filled cities of Southeast Asia has it on their menu, but so few do it well.
That’s why I was especially thankful to come upon Brooklyn Pizza and Bistro in Phnom Penh. Their Eastside calzone (filled with spinach, roasted garlic, mushrooms, mozzarella, feta, and tomato sauce) is honestly one of the best Western meals I’ve had anywhere in Southeast Asia. To make a great meal even better, they have locally-brewed Riel beers on tap, and the IPA is fantastic.
So, you may have noticed that my food picks in Phnom Penh were decidedly non-local. It’s not that I don’t love Southeast Asian food, and I do definitely enjoy a good amok. But after traveling for over a year now, it’s nice to get a taste of home every once in a while, and a capital city is usually the best place to do it.
Drink the Best Beer in Cambodia – 1:00pm
Checking out the local craft beers was one of my favorite things to do in Phnom Penh, and I had a really hard time deciding who the award of best Cambodian beer should go to: Botanico, Riel, or Kingdom. Riel’s IPA is great, but they don’t have a tasting room, and there’s nothing like drinking your favorite brew from the source. Botanico has a phenomenal beer garden and a full menu, but it’s still more bar than brewery.
If you put just one brewery on your Phnom Penh itinerary, it’s got to be Kingdom, the only one to offer a tour. A visit to Kingdom is an educational journey through the beer-making process, with guides explaining even the most minute details. At the end of the tour, you’ll have the chance to sample all of their beers – as many times as you want (yes, really!).
The tasting room’s taps are free-flowing from the end of the tour until they close up at 5pm, and the unlimited beer easily justifies the tour’s $15 price tag. Get there early and sample to your heart’s content.
Take a Stroll on the Quay – 2:30pm
There’s no nice way to say this, but much of Phnom Penh has an industrial look to it. It certainly lacks the charm of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya riverfront or Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Additionally, most of the city is noticeably unfriendly to pedestrians, with narrow sidewalks frequently blocked by clusters of parked motorbikes.
However, there’s one place in the city that’s suitable for a relaxing stroll (or a jog, if you can stand the heat and humidity), and that’s Sisowath Quay. Starting behind the Royal Palace, a wide walking path and park extends for almost a mile north to Wat Phnom. Beautiful French colonial buildings flank the left side of the footpath, and on the right are views of the (admittedly less-than-idyllic) Tonlé Sap Lake.
It’s a relaxing place to spend an hour or two, and tons of food vendors come out on the weekends to serve up heaping portions of delicious street food.
Browse a Market – 3:00pm
But let’s be honest, what am I going to get such a great deal on at the Russian Market that I will just have to buy it? A pair of fake Nikes? A full dining set for less than $5? Some jewelry that is “very good price, just for you?”
Unless I’m specifically looking for something or needing to buy gifts, I usually go to local markets just to see the chaos of commerce – and Phnom Penh’s Central Market does that just about as well as any other.
It occupies this really interesting French colonial building that’s shaped like an X and has ridiculously high ceilings in the middle. Being that it’s only a few blocks from the train station, it’s also a convenient place to pop into if you have just a little time before your ride heads out.
Head Out – 4:00pm
The train station is just a ten-minute walk from the Central Market, and the train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville (via Kampot) departs at 4:00pm. If you’re heading north, you’ll have to go by road instead, but dozens of buses connect Phnom Penh with Siem Reap, so you won’t have any trouble finding one.
A Note on Getting Around Phnom Penh
Like many places in Southeast Asia, the most popular way for tourists to get around Phnom Penh is in the ubiquitous tuk-tuks. But unless you’re staying at one of the more popular hotels or visiting the major attractions, tuk-tuk drivers often have no idea where you’re going and will quote you a ridiculous price.
Recently, however, ride-sharing apps Grab and Pass have started operating in Phnom Penh, and now that’s generally the easiest, cheapest, and safest way to get around. (That said, a package tour that visits the prison, the killing fields, and the Russian Market by tuk-tuk will usually be cheaper than using a ride-sharing app to go to each one separately.) The map below includes all the spots mentioned in this post.
Is there anything else you’d add to this Phnom Penh itinerary?