For newbie backpackers, Phnom Penh is not the easiest of Asian cities to adjust to. It's hot, congested, and the dusty streets portray an Asia that is struggling to come to terms with a difficult past whilst hurtling towards an uncertain future.
Saffron-robed monks catch a ride on the back of motorbikes, kids play in the streets in front of beautiful French colonial buildings, and colourful market stalls sell everything from mangosteens to knock-off Levis.
Although you may find the craziness of the city hard to swallow at first, the buzz and atmosphere of the city are undeniable, seducing many travellers and indeed expats to linger around once the main 'sights' are ticked off. For many, exploring the hidden wonders of Cambodia's capital, once dubbed 'Paris of the East,' can be somewhat irresistible.
Those who do stick around for a while will find charming cafes, beautiful French-colonial architecture, tree-lined boulevards, and, as the sun goes down, buzzing bars and pumping clubs! For some calm respite from the madness of the city, head to the riverfront, where sophisticated cafes and restaurants line the river. Relax, watch the street life go by and absorb one of the most intoxicating and exciting of Asian cities.
Places to Stay in Phnom Penh
- Around what used to be the 'lake': The majority of budget backpacker 'digs' can be found around the area of what used to be 'Boeng Kak Lake.' (Backpackers visiting the capital just a few years ago will be sad to hear that the lake was recently filled with sand!) Rooms around $5 overlooking the lake are very basic and a bit grubby, but the lively backpacker vibe more than makes up for it.
- On the River Front: The more 'flashpacker' area to stay is along the Tonle Sap River where guesthouses and hotels start from around $10 ($20 for a room with a view) The river is lined with restaurants, cafes and bars and is a lively place for a night out where locals, expats and tourists meet and mingle. The 3km strip is also known as Sisowath Quay.
Things to Do in Phnom Penh
Visit The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek:
In an attempt to understand the Cambodia of today, every visitor to the kingdom should be aware of the recent history and the terrifying, four-year reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, in which one-third of Cambodia's population was senselessly murdered. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is the site of mass graves where thousands of victims, (men, women and children) were killed for absurd reasons. Scraps of clothing and bits of bones can still be found on the ground, bringing the events even closer, and sending shivers down your spine as you try to contemplate how on earth human beings could do such a thing to others. A Buddhist Stupa made of real human skulls has been erected at the site to commemorate the horrific loss. The site is located about a 40-minute taxi ride South of the city. Many travellers group together and hire a tuk-tuk driver for the whole day, (costing around $15), and combining a visit to the Killing Fields with the S-21 Museum - which, all in all, makes for a hard-hitting lesson in human atrocity.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21):
Once a high school, the building was converted to a prison from 1975-1979 during the Khmer Rouge period to house so-called 'enemies of the state' and their entire families including babies not even old enough to talk. An estimated 17,000 prisoners were kept here under the direst conditions, many tortured before almost certainly ending up in one of the mass grave sites such as Choeung Ek. Thousands of faces of victims stare back at you from black and white photographs - stories of stolen lives and unthinkable anguish. First they Killed my Father is an incredible novel written by Luong Ung, who was just a child during the reign of terror. Her story is an honest and heartbreaking account of the horror endured by herself and her family and a must-read for those interested in finding out more about Cambodia's recent history.
The Royal Palace:
Built in 1886, the Royal Palace and encompassing Silver Pagoda and Temple of the Emerald Buddha are a must visit sight in Phnom Penh. Situated on the Western Bank of the Tonle Sap River, it's an impressive example of Khmer design architecture by French technology. The actual site has been used by Khmer Royalty as early as the fifteenth century and is now the current residence of King Sihamoni. The Palace Gardens are an oasis from the frantic city streets.
The National Museum:
Delve into the ancient past of Cambodia and the golden era of Angkor at Cambodia's Museum of history and archaeology. The Khmer Empire stretched across Thailand and Vietnam its height and was productive in art and sculpture. Ancient Khmer Art, Hindu sculptures, statues, engravings can be seen.
With Phnom Penh's abundance of bustling markets selling pretty much everything you can imagine, backpackers interested in getting their hands on a few bargains will be in heaven! The Russian Market - a 'hagglers paradise' - is where you can pick up genuine knock-off designer goods at massive discounts. Many top brands such as Levi, Ralph Lauren and CK have factories in Phnom Penh, and the goods are 'seconds' with slight faults that make them unworthy for overseas shipping. The Central Market is another 'hagglers paradise,' located in a unique art deco building filled with boutique stalls, art galleries, silk shops and souvenirs - oh, and a huge collection of cheap CDs and DVDs.
"Happiness Programs" at the Art of Living Centre
The Art of Living Centre is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1981 in Southern India by world-famous spiritual guru and philanthropist, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Originally set up in Bangalore, Karnataka, their programs have developed a cult following in many parts of Asia. In Southeast Asia, they have a centre in Vientiane in Laos and here in Phnom Penh. Anyone is eligible to take part in their unique self-development retreats which take place over 3-days and cost just $100 USD, meals included. Their programs offer a mix of breathing techniques, meditation, yoga and wisdom for living a happy life. Find out more here about their ‘Art of Living Happiness Retreat’ at their centre in Phnom Penh.
Take "Time Out" on a Yoga Retreat
Perhaps you wouldn't think of Phnom Penh as a place to relax, recharge your batteries and do some yoga, but there's one resort, called Bohemiaz Resort & Spa, on the outskirts of the capital that offers amazing value for money packages for weary travellers... (We couldn't believe the prices at first and thought they'd made a mistake!) For example, their 3-day, 2-night "Time Out" Yoga and Meditation Retreat includes a morning yoga & meditation class, one-hour aromatherapy massage, free usage of their lovely swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna and gym, luxury breakfast and a cocktail (served in the jacuzzi if you like) all for $59 USD! (For one person in dorm accommodation). Check out all of their Yoga Retreats and other trips in Phnom Penh below...
Volunteer your Time:
We don't want to advertise volunteering as just another 'thing to do' in Cambodia as it should be something that you think about seriously, want to dedicate your time (as much as possible) and research which organisation you want to volunteer with carefully. Very often, it is something that you should plan ahead before your trip to Cambodia. However, if, like many others, you are touched by the beautiful country and want to volunteer while you are here, there are many NGOs in Cambodia that could do with your help. Many travellers teach English, work in health centres or volunteer in orphanages.
Shoot an AK-47:
It's sad but true that in Cambodia you can pretty much do anything you want if you're willing to pay for it. It's a strange thing to do, but curiosity gets the better of some backpackers as they choose to visit the AK-47 Shooting Range in Phnom Penh, just to see what it feels like to shoot a real AK-47! We've even heard reports of a traveller getting asked by a tuk-tuk driver if he fancied the chance to blow up a cow with a grenade! Whether this was a joke or not we're not sure, but we certainly don't recommend it!
Getting to Phnom Penh
From Siem Reap:
- Bus: Most travellers arrive in Phnom Penh from Siem Reap by bus which is a 6-hour journey. Buses can be booked at any travel agent in Siem Reap and the main bus company is called the Mekong Express. (Price $9)
- Speed boat: A 6-hour speed-boat journey down the Tonle Sap River from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is a hair-raising, exhilarating way to get to the capital. You'll blast over the massive expanse of water glimpsing floating villages. (Price $25)
- Bus: It is possible to go directly to Phnom Penh from Bangkok, taking around 15 hours to get there. You will have to swap buses at the border. Travel Agents in Bangkok can arrange this.
- Fly: Low-cost airlines have some great deals at certain times of the year. Try low-cost airlines such as Air Asia or Bangkok Airways.
Where to go next?
- Siem Reap: Home to UNESCO World Heritage site and largest religious building in the world, you must have heard of Angkor Wat!? Also a buzzing little city with great Khmer restaurants, markets and a surprisingly vibrant nightlife.
- Sihanoukville: (5 hours by bus From Phnom Penh) Sihanoukville is the main backpacker magnet, where cheap accommodation and a lively party vibe have drawn travellers who end up chilling here longer than they had planned. Oh, and digs are dirt cheap! Buses from Phnom Penh take about 5 hours.
- Elsewhere on the Cambodian Coast: From Kampot to Kep, you can explore quaint fishing villages, gorge on delicious seafood barbeques or just laze on deserted beaches. And just off shore, you can take a boat ride to any one of the pristine tropical islands sprinkled in the surrounding seas.
- Battambang: (4 hours by bus from Phnom Penh) With tree-lined streets and some beautiful colonial French architecture the city is a charming place to visit and a relaxing escape from the more touristy towns like Siem Reap. There are plenty of trips that can be taken from the city including the Khmer ruins of Ek Phnom and Phnom Banan.
Header Photo by Dylan Goldby.