Chances are that you’re probably visiting Cambodia to see Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, but Phnom Penh isn’t without its charms too. Here’s a list of some of top Phnom Penh attractions that you should visit.
Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng Museum
A visit to this city is not complete without a visit to what is believed to be among the most popular of Phnom Penh attractions, Choeung Ek killing fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum. Yes, the visits to these two places will leave you feeling grim and heavy hearted, but beyond the immediate reactions one might have, it serves a much higher purpose. Among being an integral part of understanding more about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide it inflicted upon Cambodia, it gives you a sense of the resilience of the Cambodian people – how they have come through their recent turmoil and are rebuilding the nation from the time of the Khmer Rouge.
Though it makes little difference which location you visit first, starting with the Tuol Sleng museum will give you a better context for your visit to the Choeung Ek killing fields.
S-21 or Tuol Sleng was the Khmer Rouge’s interrogation and execution centre. Previously a school, it housed prisoners of the Khmer Rouge who were brought in for questioning, torture and execution between the regime’s rule from 1975-1979. Classrooms and playgrounds turned into prisons and execution chambers set a ghastly atmosphere in contrast to what once stood as an educational establishment for children.
The museum also houses hundreds of photos of prisoners that entered the S-21 prison. Photos of the young and old, mothers and their children, foreigners and the innocent all victims to the regime can be seen in galleries of the museum. The Khmer rouge maintained a detailed account of all the prisoners, tagged each of them and recorded their photos and confession letters all of which are on displaced at the museum.
The museum itself is located in the city. A ten minute ride on a tuk tuk should get you there from the riverside, or just about anywhere else within the main city. Admission fee is $2. Cater a few hours for the visit to fully take everything in before you head over to other Phnom Penh attractions.
Choeung Ek killing fields is one of many killing fields that dotted Cambodia during the regime’s rule. These killing fields saw trucks of people brought in from the many prisons, including S-21 (Tuol Sleng) for execution and burial. It is believed that as many as 15,000 people were executed and tortured to death here. Remains of the bones extracted from the mass graves, and clothing of the prisoners are on display around the killing fields.
The most informative way to fully understand the killing fields would be to get a guide though there are signposts in English that detail the history as you tour the sight. But that can be easily replaced without diminishing the informative value with an excellent audio tour available in several languages that is included in the admission fee of $6 per person. The killing fields is roughly 15 km from the riverside area and will cost you about $10-$15 for a round trip by tuk tuk.
If you’re in Phnom Penh, you will most certainly find yourself at the riverside of the less famous but equally spectacular Tonle Sap river, while the mighty Mekong runs parallel to it not too far off. The riverside is a magnet for all and sundry. Backpackers, honeymooners, locals, fitness buffs and vendors. Its a great place to unwind with a wide selection of bars, restaurants and cafes that line the streets facing the river. It is almost certain that the cheap beers or the comfy chairs will draw you into one of the establishments. Be sure to look around for preferred food options if you are getting a meal to go with your 75 cents beer. Brown at the northern edge of the river front is a great cafe with delicious coffee and food.
Further south there is Mekong River that manages to draw huge crowds during the evenings. The atmosphere is favoured by most and cheap beers rule the tables. The food is usually average. Drop by at Metro if you’re looking for something high end. This fine establishment offers fusion cuisine, oddly the menu is dominated by a Japanese selection, nonetheless, the food is great. Prices are naturally greater in comparison. Blue pumpkin is the natural choice if you’re out to find something cooling for your young ones. Further south for something more refined and colonial, FCC has a great balcony view of the river set in a colonial building. Cocktail selections are mighty good and the atmosphere is cosy and relaxing.
Go for the sight, not for the shopping. Central Market, a key Phnom Penh attraction, is built in the early 1930’s and the dome like structure is fascinating in its design. To appreciate the design of the building, a birds eye view would be ideal but you will really see that it has been designed carefully considering the functional elements of the structure. The ventilation of the crowded market under the dome is excellent as served by the airflow that the architecture provides. Inside the structure, you will see a wide variety of goods on sale. The central area under the dome is mainly dedicated to jewellery and watch merchants while the wings of the market houses other goods like electronics, clothes and just about anything else.
The market has lots of things to do, be it shopping, taking photos, eating or if you just people watch, you’ll be in awe of the merchants trying everything under their sleeves to get your to buy something from their shops.
Russian market is the place to go if shopping is high on your things to do list in Phnom Penh! Locally referred to as Phsar Tuol Tom Poung, the place was named the Russian market after the market became incredibly popular among tourists in the 80s, most of whom were Russians. You will find everything found anywhere else in Phnom Penh and possibly Cambodia under the thatched roofs of the Russian market. The area it covers is large comparatively to the old market located in the riverside and cleaner. It can get extremely hot inside during the afternoons so a visit in the morning or late afternoon is the best time to go.
Entering the market is like entering a maze, it is easy to get lost and you most certainly will. So enter with abandonment and enjoy the shopping experience and don’t attempt to keep track of your bearings. Its good to get lost and spend your shopping experience without worry. Once done, you can simply get out from any side of the market.
The Russian market is also famous for designer brands that are sold at ridiculously cheap prices. Most claim they are original factory rejects, but buy at your own risk! Although the quality of the items on sale are questionable, it is worth checking them out and see if you can find something. There is a more modern Factory Outlet across the street from the market at the east entrance.
Tuk tuks should take 10-15 minutes to get to the Russian market from the riverside. $5 or less is a reasonable price to pay for the tuk tuk to get you there.
Fishing on the mekong with sunset
If you’ve visited all the Phnom Penh attractions and you’re still looking for things to do in Phnom Penh then a unique alternative is to spend an afternoon/ evening discovering a charming side to Cambodian culture not readily accessible to visitors – by looking beyond the promenade of the riverside and venture out into the Mighty Mekong and the Tonle Sap river with a local fisherman to experience local fishing lifestyle at its most intact form.
Backstreet Academy host, Mr Ramorn Mean, a local fisherman and his family, provides a one of a kind experience on the Mekong and Tonle Sap river with his fishing by the Mekong experience! You will get to experience life on the water for a few hours and learn how to fish using nets before your host cooks up a traditional dish from the catch on the boat itself! The trip also provides a good view for islands and shores of the river banks and the fishing community that live on them. If you’re lucky, the heavens will be kind with the clouds and the trip will end with a spectacular sunset over Phnom Penh’s riverside as the sun dips into the capital to its west. This is definitely one of the most unique places to visit in Phnom Penh you will not find anywhere else!
Cambodian Boxing with local Champions
Are you a martial arts fan? Or perhaps just looking for a trick or 2 to fend off attackers while you travel? Or perhaps you are just looking for an interesting thing to do in Phnom Penh which allows you to know some amazing local people and learn something cool at the same time? Another highly popular course offered by maestro Chin Kvan Chai allows you to get up close to the local boxers in Phnom Penh who fight for a living with the Cambodian Boxing experience! You will be able to visit a real backstreet gym where the champions train, and learn under the tutelage of their master, Mr Chin Kvan Chai. Besides all the basic moves and techniques, you’ll be surprised at how the old master will ask you to try hitting him and in an instant send you sprawling! These self defence skills should really be equipped by anyone.