Most travellers gravitate towards Siem Reap for a holiday in Cambodia. That is where the grand Angkor Wat is located and it is the second largest city in Cambodia, after all. Yet, despite being the country’s capital, Phnom Penh does not seem to get the attention it deserves.
Phnom Penh does not hide anything: the country’s complex past is on full display wherever you look, alongside all the charming and eclectic French-influenced architecture, bustling food scene and vibrant culture.
On top of that, Cambodia Airways has just launched business-class seats for those flying between Singapore and Cambodia!
Whether you plan on island-hopping to Koh Dach, exploring the various ancient temples, or simply spending your holiday sinking your teeth into popular Cambodian foods at the food stalls in Phnom Penh's many night markets, there is just so much to see and do. Here are our top picks for things to do in Phnom Penh.
1. Royal Palace
It is safe to say that the city’s biggest attraction is the Royal Palace. This is where the royal family still resides today. Because of that, only half of the premises are open to visitors.
The traditional Cambodian-style architecture is downright gorgeous, and the throne room is elaborately ornate. And, of course, who could forget the Silver Pagoda—which got its name from its silver tile-covered floor, which is covered with 5 tonnes of gleaming silver.
Standing in formidable competition with the silver floor of this Buddhist temple, the Emerald Buddha takes centre stage, a remarkable Baccarat-crystal masterpiece perched atop a grandiose gilded pedestal. Enhancing this opulent ensemble is a life-sized solid-gold Buddha adorned with 2086 diamonds. Forged within the palace's workshops in the 1900s, this golden Buddha boasts a weight of 90kg. Right before it, enclosed in a Formica case, rests a mini stupa of silver and gold, cradling a sacred relic from Sri Lanka. On its left is an 80kg bronze Buddha, while a silver Buddha graces the right. And to the far right, solid gold figurines weave the tale of Buddha's journey.
The view outside is just as stunning too, with the carefully manicured gardens framing the iconic Chan Chaya Pavilion. Many locals enjoy their picnics within the palace gardens, which sits on the riverside of the landmark, allowing them to watch motorboats and paddle boats cruise on by while enjoying the weather.
The entry fee for foreigners costs USD10 (S$13.30) before factoring in the cost of guides (optional). There is also a strict dress code to follow: women must have their knees covered, so no shorts or skirts, while men are required to wear sleeved tops.
Address: Samdach Sothearos Blvd (3), Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 9:00am to 5:00pm
2. Central Market
Impossible to miss is the giant golden dome designed by Louis Chauchon and Jean Desbois right smack in the centre of Phnom Penh. The Central Market, or the Psar Thmei as known by locals, is where you can buy pretty much anything: flowers, spices, clothes, jewellery, and everything in between.
We’re not kidding when we say there are hundreds (or even thousands) of vendors lined up along the entirety of this iconic Art Deco building. It is probably best to leave the Central Market till the last day of the trip–we cannot guarantee your budget will survive the rest of your trip otherwise.
In case you get peckish, there is no shortage of Khmer food stands offering local street food. Num Korng (traditional Cambodian doughnuts) and whole fried fishes are probably the most popular of the lot. If you’re daring enough though, why not try a regional delicacy—fried tarantula?
Address: Kamet St. (53), Phnom Penh
Opening hours: 7:00am to 6:00pm
3. Sisowath Quay
If we had to give a recommendation on accommodation, it’d probably be finding one near Sisowath Quay. Not only is it the most happening district in Phnom Penh, there is always something different going on depending on the time of the day. Rather than revisit Sisowath Quay several times during your trip, consider a day-long stay.
The boardwalk stretches 3km along the Mekong River waterfront. In the morning, you’ll find locals taking in the morning breeze–with the elderly working out some tai chi and joggers getting a workout before a day of work.
Sisowath Quay continues to bustle with activities throughout the day, as locals and tourists alike head to one of the many shops, cafes and restaurants located along the boulevard. There are also plenty of street vendors selling snacks like peanuts, popcorn, beer and coconuts too.
Come late afternoon, head on over to the Kanika Cruise Boats for a sunset cruise down the river. Tickets cost USD8 (S$10.82) per person, or USD18 (S$24.34) if you’d like to add free-flow beer. Alternatively, you could also go for the dinner cruise at 7:00pm, which includes a four-course meal starting from USD25 (S$33.81).
Or, if you’d prefer something more affordable, nothing beats sitting by the riverbank with some street food and takeaways.
4. Sambor Prei Kuk
If you’ve got time for a day trip, head on out to Sambor Prei Kuk, the archaeological site of the Pre-Angkorian period, aka before Angkor Wat was even built. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sambor Prei Kuk is made up of 293 octagonal-shaped temples, and it’s split into three main clusters each with a brick wall around it. The entire site might be smaller than Angkor Wat, but thanks to its (comparatively) low tourist volume, it kind of feels like you’re on the set of a real adventure movie.
There is definitely lots to see: from the Hindu temples meant to worship Shiva to the stone carvings of Prasat Sambor, to the remains of the main temple Prasat Tao. For that, it is highly recommended to hire a local guide, or join a tour group to bring you through the entire place.
Getting there from Phnom Penh requires you to first take a bus to Kampong Thom, and from there, there are cars and tuk-tuks for hire.
Address: V2CV+C8G, Prasat Sambour District, Cambodia
Opening hours: 7:00am to 5:00pm
5. Silk Island
Another day trip idea is to Silk Island, a little island in the middle of the city (between two branches of the Mekong River). Here, you get to experience the quiet rural countryside vibes without actually leaving the city.
True to its name, Silk Island is where you’ll find everything related to silk. Oftentimes there will be women under their homes (traditional Cambodian teak wood houses) spinning silk to make accessories like silk scarves. In fact, most of the silk products around Cambodia and all its markets come from here!
If you’re not squeamish about worms, caterpillars and other similarly shaped creepy crawlies, there are tours to silk factories available! These tours show you where the magic starts (with the silkworm farm), to the harvesting stage, and to how silk is then made from the cocoons. You can also buy silk at wholesale prices too!
Address: JWRQ+38H, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
6. Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
For those who would like to do something meaningful with their holiday, why not check out the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre and sign up for their Bear Care Tour?
The Cambodian Bear Care Sanctuary is dedicated to the, you guessed it, care of endangered bears such as the Sun Bears and the Moon Bears. The funds raised from the tour go directly into the resources poured into the conservation of all the animals at the Rescue Centre.
It is not just a regular tour where you just see the animals in the enclosure, but you also get to take part in preparing enrichment toys and treats for the bears as well as hiding them in their enclosures for them to find. You will not, however, be allowed to interact with the bears directly, though you’ll find it’s more than enough to just watch the bears frolic around living their best lives.
The minimum donation for the tour is USD120 (S$162.24) from May to October and USD150 (S$202.80) from January to April per person (kids below three can join for free). And while it’s pricey, it does include transportation, the park entry fee, a meal, a guided tour, as well as a t-shirt and a reusable water bottle. All in all, it is definitely money well spent.
Address: Street 21, House 9AB, Tonle Bassac Precinct Chamkarmon District Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Opening hours: 9:00am to 5:00pm
Phnom Penh is undoubtedly a capital city that has so much more to offer than you might have ever imagined. Fly direct to Phnom Penh on Cambodia Airways' five weekly flights between Singapore and Phnom Penh. For the latest flight information, check the Cambodia Airways website.
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Best time to visit
The ideal time to visit Cambodia is between November and May. For an exceptional escapade in Phnom Penh, consider scheduling your journey in March. This month offers an excellent opportunity for immersive experiences. Despite the slight increase in humidity, March remains a charming time to venture through Cambodia's multifaceted landscapes.
Getting around Phnom Penh reveals its unique charm for anyone new to Cambodia's bustling ambience. Sidewalks are often used for parking, and crosswalks are few and far between, making the city less pedestrian-friendly. Locals, expats, and tourists usually choose bicycles, motos, tuk-tuks, or taxis for transportation. Tuk-tuks are often the most comfortable choice. Whether you're staying in Phnom Penh for a short period or an extended stay, establishing a connection with a few tuk-tuk drivers can offer advantages like lower prices and less hassle in explaining your destination. Another option is renting motorcycles for a day, week, or month. Additionally, Phnom Penh has a basic bus network, providing affordable fares and air-conditioned rides, which is particularly useful for reaching the airport.
The official currency of Cambodia is the Cambodian riel. You can exchange your currency at Changi Recommends and collect it conveniently before checking in at Changi Airport Terminal 1 or 3.
A direct flight from Singapore to Vietnam takes less than three hours. Starting from mid-August 2023, Cambodia Airways is set to enhance its offerings on the Phnom Penh – Singapore route. The airline will be introducing a fifth weekly flight, specifically scheduled for Saturdays.