15 things to do in Phnom Penh
It is sometimes hard to imagine there was a history in Cambodia before the devastating genocide. It is important to know and learn about what happened, but also to realize that Phnom Penh is more than this gruesome part of their history. Phnom Penh is actually also noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and attractions. In the 1920’s it was even known as the “pearl of Asia” because of the French colonial buildings and grand boulevards.
Looking for things to do in Phnom Penh? Backstreet Academy recommends the best Phnom Penh activities! Not only the regular must sees, but we also give a glimpse of things that are only available through Cambodia’s charming little backstreets. So, whether you choose to carve coconuts, fish with a hospitable fishermen in his boat-house or cook and eat insects, all of these 15 things to do in Phnom Penh will give you an experience you will never forget!
Cambodia’s dark and recent history
Before we get into talking about the backstreets there are some things you need to know about Cambodia to better understand the people. Between 1975 and 1979 (during the Cambodian Genocide) an estimated 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians died or were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. That is around 25 percent of the entire Cambodian population! The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former or foreign governments. The genocide ended in 1979 after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Since 2009, they have discovered thousands of mass graves. You can learn more about it at the following two sites.
1. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)
Once a highschool, Tuol Sleng was later used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21), a torture camp, prison and execution center. Now it has been converted into a museum dedicated to the victims of Khmer Rouge.
The museum is well organized and gives a clear and devastating picture of a gruesome time not long ago. If you go here we suggest to do the audio-tour. Step by step this tour will take you through the history and the grounds featuring commentary from not only survivors but also from perpetrators. The audio tour takes about 1.5 hours but you can easily spend longer here. Since this experience is very graphic and disturbing we suggest to not bring small children.
If you are also planning to also go to the killing fields of Choeung Ek we suggest you first go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It will give you a more in-depth understanding while you are at Choeung Ek.
2. Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields)
The Cambodian Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried. The most well known one is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.
Today Choeung EK Genocidal Center, is the site of a memorial to the victims. The park has been built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims, most of whom were executed after they had been transported from the S-21 Prison. You can walk through the park while an audio tour tells you more about what you are seeing. If you choose to not do the audio tour there are also signs and tribute sections throughout the park. Again, this is a haunting experience! A large number of bodies are still underground and sometimes, after heavy rains, bones and teeth are still found on the premises.
It is possible to visit both Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (the killing fields) in one day. You can also book guided tours. Whether you choose to go by yourself or take a guide, we advise that after this you plan some downtime to gather yourself because this experience will stay with you. Allowing yourself this time will give you the strength to actually enjoy the wonders Cambodia has to offer.
3. Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is an enormous compound containing spectacular buildings! The palace was built in 1866 by His Majesty Preah Bat Norodom, great grandfather to the current King. It is considered one of Phnom Penh’s biggest architectural achievements. If you have been to Thailand it will remind you of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. The palace is still the official residence of King Sihamoni, therefore, parts of this striking structure are closed to the public. You can, however, walk through the 59-meter tall, throne hall and some of the buildings surrounding it. All the golden coloured tiles have a mesmerising effect!
Extra tip: Dress modestly when visiting the Royal Palace (no shorts above the knee, sleeveless tops or crop tops). Although they don’t seem very consistent in enforcing the dress code we suggest to play it safe. Since it can get warm in the afternoon we suggest to go in the early morning.
4. Silver Pagoda
While you are visiting the royal palace make sure to stop by the adjacent silver pagoda! You can probably use the ticket you bought for the Royal palace. In 1892 this pagoda was originally constructed of wood and not of silver, like the name will make you think. The name actually comes from its floor, which is covered with five tons of (not so shiny) silver. You can have a look at some of the 5000 tiles near the entrance, but most are covered to protect them. However there is much more to see in this pagoda than just silver; like the 80kg bronze buddha and the 90kg gold buddha adorned with 2086 diamonds. And these are just a few of them!
5. Fishing on the Mekong with a local fisherman
This is one of our most popular experiences in Phnom Penh and we understand why! Born on a fishing boat himself, our host Ramorn Mean knows this river like no other! He throws the net like an Olympic athlete and can even teach you how to throw it (sort of)! It’s much harder than it looks so be prepared to feel inadequate the first few times. But it makes it even more rewarding if you do catch a catfish or a giant freshwater Mekong prawn! But don’t worry if you don’t catch anything! Ramon’s wife will still cook you some fish, because Cambodian hospitality demands no less! It is a highlight in itself as it is probably the first time you see a meal being cooked from right underneath the floorboards of a little Fishing boat! And not just simple cooking but complete with frying fish and steaming rice!
Click here to book fishing on the Mekong with a local fisherman.
If you first want to see more of what this incredible tour is like, as well as our impact on Ramorn, you can also check out this documentary by Channel newsAsia Singapore.
Extra tip: If you take the last timing you may even get to see the epic sunset across Phnom Penh!
6. Cambodian Cooking
There are a lot of cooking classes that you could book in Phnom Penh however none of them are quite like this one! It is a lot of fun; you get to go to a local market, learn about all the ingredients! Choose from a whole variety of Cambodian favorites! From Amok to mango salads, get ready to delight your senses and find out the simple truth in making these delicious local foods.
However, it is our host that makes this our favorite cooking class in Phnom Penh! He has a great sense of humor and really makes people feel at home (just look at the picture to know that we are not making this up). However what you (usually) don’t see is that being the big brother, with 7 younger sisters, his duty is exceptionally heavy without his parents. It is people like Nara Thuon who are the reason why we started Backstreet Academy.
If you are in Phnom Penh don’t wait and book this Cambodian Cooking with local market tour.
7. Evening Street Food Tour
Don’t feel like cooking yourself? Don’t worry, Nara can still be part of your things to do in Phnom Penh and you have to eat right?!
With the evening street food tour you get to go to (very good) little street food stalls that you would not be able to find on your own. Try fried meatballs, Khmer desserts, grilled chicken and other street foods. You can maybe even surprise yourself at how adventurous your taste can be. We promise you, this night will make a fond memory to look back on.
8. Fruit Carving
The only bad thing about this fruit carving experience is that you do not get to keep your intricate work of art forever. However, luckily you can try it again at home with the benefit of delighting your guests at your next house party! Whether they’re apples or watermelons, nothing stands in the way.
So wait no more and elevate yourself into the masterchef of garnishing and slice fruits to your delight in this entertaining course with friendly host Mittapheap.
9. Central Market
Asia is known for its many markets, so, of course this is also one of the things to do in Phnom Penh. This diverse market is inside a beautiful old building! Constructed in 1937, it is the shape of a dome with four arms branching out into vast hallways. The architecture is dazzling and with countless stalls of goods, it will give you the chance to work on your haggling skills while buying whatever you need at that moment. They have just about anything from fresh fruit (because you might want to try your hand on your newly found fruit carving skills!) to cosmetics, including a range of cheap souvenirs you can take back home. The Cambodian Krawma scarf and locally made cement bags are some of the top purchases here.
10. Coconut Carving with NGO
Being able to provide this experience changed the life of our host! How and why is also featured in the (short) documentary by Channel news Asia Singapore. During the experience you get to make keychains and decorative pieces, but you can also make your own cutlery and little saucers if you like. You’ll be surprised how nice it turns out! Book coconut carving with NGO here. We are curious to see your end result so feel free to let us know on Facebook, Instagram or tripadvisor with the hashtag #backstreetacademy
11. Fear Factor Challenge
Looking for more things to do in Phnom Penh? How about another practical cooking class? Choose the insects you want to devour and not only taste them but also marinate and cook them. With juicy water beetles, springy crickets, crunchy grasshoppers and melt-in-your-mouth worms on the menu there is plenty to choose from. Reviews about the taste have ranged from “surprisingly, the insects taste really good” and “I’m gonna have to figure out how to catch them” to “they were not at all tasty but the cooking was good fun”. We are curious to hear your opinion! Be brave, complete the challenge! Book fear factor challenge in Phnom Penh!
12. Cambodian Drums
If you love music this Cambodian drums tour is for you! Used in all the big occasions in Cambodia, these quintessential drums are a staple in Cambodians’ lives. You can choose from a variety of drums to learn! From the pair of big war-drum sounding set to the elegant long and slender standing drums there will always be one to fit your taste.
Extra tip: The music school that provided the lessons also has a dance show on Friday and Saturday nights! This could be a good complement to the lessons.
13. Oil Painting
One of the things to do in Phnom Penh that you might not have thought of before is oil painting. If you want to have a nice relaxing day this is the place to be. You’ll have a chance to learn how to paint by using oil, essential techniques, and step-by-step demonstrations on using oil paints. Emphasis is placed on choice of materials, depiction of light and shadow, painting techniques, basic color mixing and composition. You will feel like a pro when you finish and you will have a nice souvenir to take home!
14. Cambodian Fine arts experience
Feeling even more creative after seeing all the beauty Phnom Penh has to offer? Book the Cambodian Fine arts experience and treat yourself (and your family) to a day of art classes. You will learn a variety of basic techniques that will enable you to sketch most images you want to at the pencil sketching workshop. But you can also try your hand at other types of art craft that you usually would not do, like spoon painting and candle carving! At the end of the day you will certainly have some nice souvenirs you are proud to take home.
Extra tip: if you do not have a whole day you can also book the pencil sketching workshop separate.
15. Apsara dance
In the Angkor empire, apsara dancing was performed frequently for the royalty many years ago. Sadly enough, few people know the true original techniques of Apsara dancing today. However, in Phnom Penh, it is possible for you to learn! One of the masters who obtained their skills through generations of passing it down, is kind enough to share her art with us, and you can take an Apsara dancing class!
Join us for a short introductory course and we’ll get you up and prancing in no time! And not just prance, but prance to impress!
That’s it for our list of 15 things to do in Phnom Penh! Please let us know if you have any other recommendations and we’ll gladly put it up!