Phnom Penh: what to see in Cambodia's capital

September 20, 2019

What to see in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, which offers a slice of Cambodian culture: on one side, the advancing modernity, on the other side, the strong attachment to ancient traditions.

National Museum's garden in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is an excellent starting point for exploring this fascinating country. Modern and at the same time linked to tradition, Phom Penh is made lively by colorful markets and cafès, but everywhere you feel the attachment to the roots of Cambodian culture. Not to be missed during your visit is undoubtedly the National Museum with its Khmer sculptures, temples and pagodas, testimony of the profound religiosity of these peoples, and the splendid golden complex of the Royal Palace.

However, the contact with the local population and its traditions will leave the strongest mark. By participating in cooking classes, you will have the opportunity to learn how to cook Cambodian dishes under the supervision of a chef. The lesson usually begins by choosing the products at the local market and ends with the tasting of the dishes prepared.

Not to be missed is the show of the Apsara dance, a form of entertainment that was used at the Khmer court: you can watch the show in the hall of the National Museum in Phnom Penh every day, or in several restaurants during dinner.

Did we intrigue you? Here are all our tips on what to see in Phnom Penh.

The itinerary

Almost every trip to Cambodia starts from Phnom Penh, the capital of the country that offers a complete cultural insight. It takes at least a couple of days to explore it thoroughly.

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace of Phnom Penh is a separate universe. Built in typical Khmer architecture with golden roofs, this complex will welcome you with a majestic entrance. Not to be missed is the Throne Hall, where coronations took place. You can recognize it from its 59 meters high tower. Beside the Throne Hall is the Silver Pagoda or Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, famous for the silver floor and for its Buddha statues decorated with precious stones.

Pavillion of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
Royal Palace

National Museum

After the Royal Palace, visit the National Museum, a Khmer-style red building surrounded by greenery. Inside, the museum houses the largest collection of Khmer sculptures in the world, with Buddhist and Hindu statues.

National Museum in Cambodia
National Museum

Tuol Seng Museum

Tuol Seng Museum tells the modern and dramatic history of Cambodia and the extermination perpetrated by Pol Pot. This building was once known as S-21 prison, a former high school where the political opponents were held and tortured to death. To complete the visit, move to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek, about 7 km away from the city center. About 17 thousand Cambodians were killed here, their bodies were found in mass graves in the 1980s.

Wat Phnom

This temple at the top of a hill is a great stop to really get in touch with the profound sense of the sacred that characterizes the Cambodians. Legend has it that on this hill stood a pagoda with four Buddha statues dragged to the bank of the Mekong river. It was a woman, known as Madame Penh, who found them. You enter the Wat Phnom climbing a staircase decorated with statues: once you reach the temple, you will find many local people praying or bringing gifts.

The markets

You cannot really understand the spirit of Phnom Penh without visiting its lively and colorful markets! You will find them while walking along the banks of the river, where street vendors show off fruits, vegetables and local handicrafts. The most famous market in Phnom Penh is the Central Market, housed in an Art Deco-style structure topped by a dome. Inside it sells everything from clothing to food.

Mekong cruise

You can not leave Phnom Penh without having taken a sunset cruise on the Tonle Sap to the confluence with the great Mekong river. Climb on one of the boats lined up on the banks near the Royal Palace and set off for an excursion lasting about an hour and a half. From the boat you can admire the profile of the city on the banks: an unforgettable experience!

Mekong river with boats
A cruise of the Mekong river

Battambang and traditional villages

From Phnom Penh it is easy to organize an excursion to the countryside, where traditional villages are visited and where time seems to have stopped. We therefore recommend that you spend a few days in the rural province of Battambang, to get to know the most authentic Cambodia. This region on the border with Thailand has recently been made accessible to tourists and is reached by traveling from Phnom Penh on a road that passes through rural villages. You will have the unique opportunity to observe the local people intent on their daily activities, as well as fields of rice paddies of a disconcerting beauty.

View of Sampeau mountains
Sampeau mountains in Phnom Penh

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