Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital of 2.3 million people, feels a lot more manageable than the other big capitals in Southeast Asia. Although the roads are oftentimes chaotic, distances are short and the sites are walkable. Cheap drinks and great food fuel a lively waterfront where locals, expats, and travelers mingle. Converted mansions, wide boulevards, and other remnants of French colonization linger. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat get a lot of attention from travelers, but Phnom Penh is certainly the cultural center of Cambodia.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: The best best time to visit Cambodia is between November and February when weather is drier and cooler. March and April are dry but also the hottest months before rainy season begins in May.
- Language: Khmer is the official language in Cambodia. Many residents of Phnom Penh speak some English and French.
- Currency: Cambodian riel (KHR) is the official currency. U.S. dollars are widely used and accepted.
- Getting Around: Options for getting around in Phnom Penh include public bus, taxi, tuk-tuk, and motorcycle taxi (moto). Taxis are usually arranged in advanced or with an app such as Grab or Passap. Tuk-tuks (the most common option) are fun, but you’ll prefer an air-conditioned vehicle when stuck in one of the frequent traffic jams.
- Travel Tip: Unfortunately, bag and smartphone snatching is a pervasive problem in Phnom Penh. The thieves, usually on motorbike, speed by to snatch smartphones from tables, pockets, or hands in broad daylight. Be careful with your bag while riding in tuk-tuks and sitting at outdoor tables and keep your smartphone off the table.
Things to Do
A pleasant day in Phnom Penh can involve exploring a historic site or two then wandering aimlessly through one of the many markets. A lovely meal and sunset drink by the riverside make for a perfect finale. For some local entertainment, check out the stage in the Night Market on your way to stroll the riverside promenade.
- Cry in the Killing Fields: The gruesome Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and “Killing Fields” are among Phnom Penh’s top tourist attractions. Although somber, both are essential for trying to grasp what Cambodians suffered in the 1970s.
- Visit a 14th Century Temple: Wat Phnom, first completed in 1373, is a peaceful place to get your mind off the dark events that transpired during the Khmer Rouge’s misrule. Sure, the “Hill Temple” has been reconstructed several times throughout the centuries and isn’t as old as Angkor Wat, but it’s still quite impressive. A little south along the river is the Royal Palace, home of the elected King of Cambodia. The palace is especially mesmerizing when lit up at night.
- Wander the Markets: For inexpensive souvenirs and a hodgepodge of goods, the Russian Market (Phsar Toul Tumpong) is a good choice, but get ready to hone your haggling skills. Orussey Market and Central Market are two more popular places for goods of varying quality at tourist-oriented prices. For a slightly more authentic experience, wander through the cramped Old Market (Phsar Chas), and later, the nearby Night Market close to the riverfront.
One thing not to do in Phnom Penh is visit—or worse, volunteer at—an orphanage. Sadly, Cambodia is home to a tourist-driven, for-profit “volunteerism” industry. Family members sell children to orphanages which then charge tourists for an opportunity to live and volunteer with them.
For more inspiration, read our full guide on the best things to do in Phnom Penh.
What to Eat and Drink
You may not be as familiar with Cambodian food, but you’ll certainly enjoy sampling the curries, noodle soups, and other staples of Khmer cuisine. Fermented flavors and freshwater fish turn up often; so do fried spiders, but trying those is optional.
International food, especially French-inspired cuisine, is never hard to find in Phnom Penh. When afternoons feel too hot to eat something warm, countless cafes offer salads, juices, and fruit in open-air settings. ARTillery is one such place serving up healthy foods presented artistically. Feline fans can enjoy a memorable lunch and support a good cause by visiting Ministry of Cat near the Russian Market area.
Whether drinking bottled water, fresh coconuts, or a glass of beer (sometimes served with ice), you’ll always be battling with the heat and humidity in Phnom Penh. Alcohol is shockingly cheap in Kampot, Phnom Penh, and even in island settings. Anchor, Beer Lao, and Tiger are three of the most popular choices for beer. Having a drink doesn’t always involve a plastic chair in a beer garden along the waterfront. Hotels host rooftop sky bars, and the expat-heavy BKK1 neighborhood is home to lounges, sports bars, and speakeasies.
See our picks from among the best restaurants in Phnom Penh.
Where to Stay
Like so many big cities in Southeast Asia, Phnom Penh has many distinct neighborhoods. Accommodation in Phnom Penh can be surprisingly inexpensive but location matters. If you want to explore on foot, be willing to pay a little more for a better location. The less time sat waiting in gridlock traffic, the better! Thankfully, most neighborhoods in Phnom Penh are fairly compact and easy enough to stroll.
Sisowath Quay along the riverfront is home to guesthouses and hotels for all budgets. Although many of the hotels with a view lean upscale, some streets in the nearby Daun Penh area are known for their collection of “girly bars.” Read reviews carefully or take a virtual stroll down the street using Google Maps before booking from afar. You’ll be able to spot the signs and advertisements.
For staying near nightlife and businesses catering to Westerners, BKK1 (Boeung Keng Kang) is a lively expat neighborhood. Further south along the river is Tonle Basak, home to a sophisticated mall and posh hotels.
The fastest way of getting to Phnom Penh is to fly into Cambodia’s largest airport, Phnom Penh International Airport (PNH). Although the airport was renovated in 2014 and is comfortably functional, plans for a new international airport are in the works.
If you already flew into Siem Reap to explore Angkor Wat, buses to Phnom Penh take 5 to 6 hours; they vary widely in comfort and timeliness. Giant Ibis tends to be one of the more reliable local bus companies.
Culture and Customs
Cambodia is still healing from years of war and genocide. Landmines and unexploded ordinance are daily problems for many people. Bringing up the Khmer Rouge (and America’s subsequent involvement) is a sensitive subject—don’t do it. Refrain from making negative generalizations such as “the roads here are terrible” or “of course the bus is late” aloud as it can upset residents if overheard. Reading Loung Ung’s heartrending book "First They Killed My Father" provides valuable insight, and perhaps some patience, when traveling in Cambodia.
As is common throughout Southeast Asia, haggling is a part of the local culture in Cambodia. Of course, vendors won’t be mad if you pay the first price asked, but most prices already have a little wiggle room for negotiating to ensue. When paying the asking price, you not only miss a chance for interaction, you may be contributing to local inflation and cultural mutation.
Tipping isn’t expected in Cambodia, especially when eating in local restaurants or from street-food carts. Some hotels and restaurants add a service charge onto the bill. If inclined, you can discreetly give up to 10 percent gratuity directly to the server for outstanding service. Assuming they did a good job, tip your guide or masseuse. Tipping tuk-tuk and taxi drivers isn’t expected, but you can round up the fare for convenience. Your driver will probably say he doesn’t have change anyway!
Avoid taking photos of children while traveling in Cambodia, this includes the persistent, English-speaking street sellers. Ask permission before taking photos of Cambodian people and monks.
Money Saving Tips
- Many menus and boards list prices in U.S. dollars. Paying with Cambodian riel is best whenever you can; however, if prices are listed in dollars, pay attention to the exchange rate offered on the spot. You should use up all of your Cambodian riel before leaving the country.
- Before doing any haggling on the street, clarify the expected currency. If a vendor ambiguously shows you four fingers, that could mean 4,000 riel (around $1) or four dollars.
- Some of the branded goods seen in markets are counterfeit, but a lot are actually excess stock from legitimate factories around Southeast Asia. A few of the items get dumped due to overproduction or small imperfections. Check clothing carefully before purchasing; returns and refunds aren’t possible when buying from local markets.
- Hotels are relatively inexpensive in Phnom Penh, but prices predictably skyrocket during public holidays. The traditional Cambodian New Year celebration (April 13 to 16) and the Water Festival (not to be confused with Thai Songkran) in November are especially busy times. The Lunar New Year isn’t an official holiday, but like many places in Southeast Asia, Phnom Penh becomes busy with Chinese travelers.