What to see and do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cambodia's capital has all the beguiling sights, smells and sounds of Southeast Asia, with a little faded colonial grandeur thrown in. From the Killing Fields to Kampot crab, check out these essential things to do in Phnom Penh.
1. Visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
An important part of Phnom Penh's brutal and bloody history under the Khmer Rouge, S-21 Prison stands as a monument to the 14,000 men, women and children who were murdered or imprisoned here, as well as the only eight survivors. The former school, converted to house those persecuted by the bloodthirsty regime in 1975, is an important place to visit to understand Phnom Penh and what happened here. A tuk-tuk driver can be hired for the day to take you to both S-21 and the Killing Fields. Be wary of touts selling fake Rolex watches inside the compound; head to the Cambodian Handicrafts Association shop across the road for more authentic souvenirs.
2. Cruise the Mekong
Located at the point where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet, Phnom Penh is a great place to go for a leisurely cruise along these famous waterways. Take a boat from Sisowath Quay to view the Royal Palace and National Museum from the water, or spend a couple of hours marvelling at the floating villages and this unique way of life. Tours will set you back £20 upwards, depending on when and with who you travel. Phocea Mekong run popular sunset cruises with all-inclusive refreshments - check out their website for the latest deals.
3. Eat Kampot pepper crab
Originating in the small riverside town of Kampot in the south-eastern province of Cambodia, this seafood delicacy has become somewhat of a national dish and you'll find excellent versions to try if you're visiting Phnom Penh. A whole fried or baked crab, smothered in a sweet yet spicy peppercorn sauce, it's enough to tempt even the most budget-conscious backpacker. Not tried a deep-fried cricket or a chicken foot on a roadside BBQ yet? Tuck into Phnom Penh's street food scene while you're here, with some of the best stalls around Tuol Tompoung ('Russian Market') to the south of the city centre.
4. Sip a mojito at the Foreign Correspondents' Club
Fancy stepping back in time to colonial Cambodia? Sip on one of the signature cocktails offered at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC), a hub for intrepid explorers, aid workers and international journalists throughout the city's colourful and chequered past. Sit and watch the sunset on the banks of the Tonle Sap River and swap tales with locals and tourists alike about the days gone by.
5. Tour the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
Once a Chinese cemetery, this area was turned into a mass grave by the Khmer Rouge during their four-year reign of terror in Cambodia. You cannot fail to be deeply moved by the scale of death and destruction represented by the Buddhist stupa that greets you as you enter the site, filled with over 8,000 human skulls, just a small fraction of the regime's victims. The audio guide is also a worthwhile inclusion in your $6 entry fee; wander through the grounds listening to first-hand accounts from survivors about life in Cambodia during this harrowing time and experience for yourself the propaganda music terrified victims were subjected to day and night here. A haunting yet powerful place to go while you're in Phnom Penh (a tuk-tuk ride out to the site should take around 40 minutes).
6. Bag a bargain at the Central Market
Looking for some Cambodian tat to take back to friends and loved ones? Experiencing the lively atmosphere and enthusiastic haggling at the city markets is one of the most fun things to do in Phnom Penh, and you can pick up everything from bargains on designer fakes to video games and even the odd original handicraft at the Central Market. It's worth it for the souvenirs and the market's impressive 1930s Art Deco architecture, plus there's plenty of opportunity to brush up on your bargaining skills. The market is a few blocks southwest of the Night Market by the riverside, which gets going around 5pm and is a good, cheap place to head once you get hungry, for both local dishes as well as some great Indian bites.
7. Spend a night at the movies
Phnom Penh is home to a range of cinemas, from big complexes showing the latest blockbusters in 4D (expect moving chairs and wind-tunnel effects!) to small indie film houses. Grab a bucket of popcorn and head down to the Empire Movie House, open until 11pm every night with daily screenings of the 1984 drama, The Killing Fields (definitely one to see in Cambodia), as well as more current films. The air-con and the huge bed-like seats make a welcome break from the hot, dusty city!
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*Published October 2016. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.