If you’re planning your backpacking Southeast Asia route you might be wondering is Phnom Penh worth visiting.
Some say it’s best to skip Cambodia’s capital and head straight to Siem Reap or the islands.
However, I couldn’t disagree more!
I explored the city for 4 days, and I firmly believe that Phnom Penh is an absolute must-visit and a crucial stop on your backpacking itinerary in Cambodia.
Yes, Phnom Penh is a bit rough around the edges and is not exactly the most picturesque city.
However, it’s a great spot to delve into the country’s history, visit some of the most important Cambodian landmarks, and simply soak in the hustle and bustle of city life.
Let me show you why you should visit Phnom Penh!
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Is Phnom Penh Worth Visiting?
Yes, Phnom Penh is worth visiting, whether you’re a solo traveler in Cambodia, a backpacker, or on a holiday.
Sure, visiting Phnom Penh has its pros and cons. But, you should spend at least a day or two in the city to see the main tourist attractions and learn more about the country’s history and culture.
- Must-see historical landmarks
- Country’s capital and local life
- Up-and-coming city
- Not a picturesque city
- Not too many tourist attractions
- Can feel overwhelming
I spent 4 nights in Phnom Penh, but you can see all the main tourist attractions in 2 days in Phnom Penh if you’re short on time.
Cambodia is cheap to visit, so it would be a shame to skip Phom Penh!
What Is Phnom Penh Like?
As I already said, Phnom Penh is not the most picturesque city you’ll encounter when backpacking Southeast Asia.
Also, it is not as touristic as Bangkok or Hanoi. At least not yet!
However, Phnom Penh is a fascinating blend of modernity and tradition.
As you walk the streets, you’ll see plenty of luxurious cars and old tuk-tuks side by side. You can grab a drink in a fancy rooftop bar, or eat a traditional dish on the side of the street on a local market.
New skyscrapers are popping up throughout the city, blending in with the old colonial-style buildings.
Some describe Phnom Penh as chaotic, but I think it depends on where you came from. I visited right after backpacking Vietnam, and I found it quite calm compared to Ho Chi Minh City.
That is not to say that there is no traffic, because there is. Especially during the rush hour!
Phnom Phen is the biggest city you’ll visit when backpacking Cambodia. As it is the capital, most people mind their own business as they don’t directly profit from tourism.
You can observe the locals going on about their daily lives, and you’ll probably be the only foreigner taking a local bus.
There are certain parts of the city that I would recommend avoiding, particularly the notorious red-light district. I accidentally stumbled upon it, and it had very strange vibes. It is an area where you’ll want to keep your valuables close, just in case.
If you want to explore Cambodia in 2 weeks, Phnom Penh should definitely be on your itinerary!
Best Things To Do In Phnom Penh
1. Learn The History Of S-21
One of the most heartbreaking, yet important, places to visit in Phnom Penh is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, more commonly known as S-21.
Once a high school, it was converted into a torment prison under the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, it stands as a somber reminder of Cambodia’s dark history.
As you walk through the quiet corridors, and observe the rooms and photos on the walls, it’s a chilling experience. Some rooms still bear the haunting marks of their former occupants.
I highly suggest you take the audio guide and give yourself at least an hour to fully grasp the significance of what happened here.
Though the experience is undeniably intense, it provides a crucial understanding of Cambodia’s past and a necessary context for the resilience and strength of its people today.
2. Visit The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is another place that you must visit in Cambodia.
It was an orchard not far from Phnom Penh where thousands of Cambodians were executed and buried during the Khmer Rouge regime.
This is where you’ll begin to grasp the complexity and the magnitude of what happened, as this is just one of hundreds of fields like this throughout the country.
Walking through the area, you’ll see mass graves, memorial stupas, and other chilling remains of that era.
It’s a tough visit, but an important one to pay respects and learn about the atrocities that occurred.
3. See The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is probably the most impressive complex in the city and a must-visit destination.
This Palace is beautifully adorned with golden spires and offers a deep insight into Cambodia’s royal history.
A visit to the Royal Palace is also a great opportunity to learn about Cambodia’s monarchy and its customs.
Don’t miss the Silver Pagoda, located within the palace grounds, which houses a stunning collection of gold, silver, and jewel-encrusted Buddha statues.
Remember to wear something modest that covers your knees and shoulders to visit the Royal Palace.
4. Stroll Along The River
Phnom Penh may not be brimming with numerous walking trails, but it certainly doesn’t fall short when it comes to a relaxing stroll along the river.
The Riverside, or Sisowath Quay, is a vibrant boulevard stretching 3 kilometers along the banks of the Tonle Sap River.
My hostel was right on the Quay, so I enjoyed a walk in the morning and in the evening.
It is certainly more lively for the sunset when locals and travelers alike come to enjoy the soothing vibe and the fantastic views.
The walkway is dotted with vendors, cafes, and restaurants, so you can find a place for a drink or quick meal.
5. Explore The Temples
Phnom Penh is home to several stunning temples that add to its cultural charm.
Temple hopping is one of the main reasons to visit Cambodia, as these places of worship offer a unique insight into the city’s religious history and architecture.
One of my favorite temples in Phnom Penh is Wat Phnom Daun Penh. Nestled on a small hill, this iconic temple is a symbol of the city and offers fantastic views of the surrounding areas.
Its beautiful pagoda, lush greenery, and calming ambiance create an atmosphere of serene tranquility.
Wat Ounalom Monastery is another larger complex close to the Royal Palace, with plenty of places to explore and admire.
6. Browse Local Markets
One of the must-do activities in Phnom Penh is exploring its different markets.
The Central Market, housed in a distinctive Art Deco building, is perfect for hunting antiques, jewelry, and a variety of local produce. I visited this market on a national holiday, so it was a bit quiet, but usually it is filled with people.
The Russian Market, also known as Tuol Tompoung Market, is a bit out of the way, but worth a visit if you have more time in the city.
This bustling market is known for its labyrinthine alleys and is the go-to place for souvenirs, clothing, and delicious street food.
Phnom Penh, like all Southeast Asian cities, comes alive at night with its bustling Night Market located next to the river.
I found Phnom Penh Night Market to be quite smaller than night markets in Bangkok or Hanoi, and it had fewer food options than I expected.
It definitely felt like a place for locals, as there were many browsing the clothing stalls, which is actually perfect.
7. Find Cute Bars and Cafes
Phnom Penh’s cafe scene is growing, and there are many cute spots to enjoy a coffee or refreshing drink.
I don’t really drink coffee, but I love a vegan matcha latte, and there are plenty of vegan-friendly spots to enjoy it!
Sure, you can always check out chain coffee shops like Starbucks or Brown Coffee, but I prefer finding unique small shops.
One of my favorites was Cuffeine, a plant-based coffee shop, with a small seating area inside a tailor shop.
For a fun experience, check out the Ministry of Cat cafe. It is a lovely cat cafe where you can play with cats and enjoy delicious drinks and meals.
8. Take A Sunset Cruise On The Mekong River
A sunset cruise on the Mekong River is one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh.
It offers a unique perspective of the city, especially at golden hour when the sky turns into vibrant shades of pink and orange.
As it is one of the most popular things to do in the city, several different operators offer quite a different experience.
From a luxurious, romantic sailing down to the river to a proper party boat sunset cruise, there is something for every type of traveler.
9. Try Khmer Street Food
I love how you can get delicious and cheap street food throughout Asia, and Cambodia is no exception.
You can simply stroll the markets and try everything that looks tasty.
However, if you want to go deeper and discover the local specialties, you should join the Phnom Penh food tour!
10. Experience The Nightlife
Phnom Penh may not be a nightlife hub like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, but that doesn’t mean it can’t offer some incredible evening entertainment.
The city houses several cool places and quiet alleyways where you can unwind after a day of sightseeing.
From trendy rooftop bars offering splendid views of the city skyline to bustling night markets, there’s something for every kind of night owl out here.
I really liked strolling Street 308, also known as Bassac Street, with its endless quirky bars and restaurants.
The streets come alive with lights, music, and energy, promising a vibrant night out that is sure to add an unexpected charm to your Cambodian adventure.
Even if you’re not staying in a party hostel, you can join a pub crawl and safely enjoy the nightlife in Phnom Penh as a solo traveler!
Things To Know Before Visiting Phnom Penh
Is Phnom Penh Safe For Tourists?
Yes, Phnom Penh is as safe as any other major city in Southeast Asia.
Despite its somewhat bad reputation, Phnom Penh is by no means a city to avoid due to safety concerns.
As with any major metropolis, exercising common sense measures such as not flashing expensive belongings in public, staying in tourist areas, and avoiding dark, abandoned areas at night considerably reduces your risk.
One piece of advice I got from the locals is to hold my bag when I’m in a tuk-tuk, as somebody can grab it when the vehicle stops.
Just like in any tourist hub worldwide, pickpocketing happens. So be aware of your surroundings, particularly in crowded places like markets or popular tourist attractions.
In fact, I feel like many people come with negative expectations and then ruin their own experience.
I met a girl who refused to use her phone outside of the hostel, as she heard that it would get snatched up immediately.
It’s important to stay alert, but Phnom Penh is really not the most dangerous place in Southeast Asia.
Currency In Phnom Penh
If it’s your first time in the country, you should be aware of the unique dual currency situation in Cambodia.
Cambodia uses both Cambodian Riels (KHR) and US Dollars, and it’s completely normal to make transactions using either.
While most establishments accept both currencies, it is more probable that you will receive change in Riels.
Remember that your dollar bills must be in good condition to use them in Cambodia. Most places will refuse to take worn-out or torn notes, even if the tear is small.
Where To Stay In Phnom Penh
While I was backpacking around Cambodia, I visited Phnom Penh on two separate occasions.
Each time, I chose to stay in a different hostel to get a diverse experience and compare the Cambodian hostel options available for backpackers in the city.
I liked and recommend both hostels I stayed in!
Mad Monkey Phnom Penh: This is a fantastic social hostel for backpackers who want to join activities and make friends.
Onederz Phnom Penh: Great hostel for solo female travelers with a fantastic rooftop pool!
If hostels are not your thing, there is a wide array of boutique hotels for a fraction of the price of hotels in Europe.
How To Get Around Phnom Penh
You can get around Phom Penh by walking, taking a tuk-tuk, or a public bus.
If you stay in the city center, you can visit the tourist attractions nearby on foot. Phnom Penh has sidewalks, which is a luxury in many Southeast Asian cities.
I wouldn’t really walk around at night alone as a solo female traveler, but there is absolutely no problem during the day.
If you don’t want to walk, one of the most common and inexpensive ways to get around is by tuk-tuk.
These traditional Cambodian rickshaws are available throughout the city and you can just use Grab to order a tuk tuk.
If you’re on a tight budget, Phnom Penh also has an efficient public transport system. It is a budget-friendly way to get around Cambodia.
The city buses are a reliable alternative for navigating through the bustling streets. I took a bus to and from the airport and it was less than $1!
You can also download a mobile application that tracks bus routes and schedules, so you know exactly where your bus is.
Summary: Is Phnom Penh Wort It
Phnom Penh is worth visiting as a backpacker or as a traveler on a vacation to Cambodia.
It’s a bustling and vibrant city with a lot of history, culture, and delicious food to offer.
There are activities in Phnom Penh at any time of the year, whether you visit Cambodia in winter or summer.
The city has something for everyone, exploring temples, shopping at local markets, or trying out different cuisines.
Phnom Penh is a great budget-friendly destination to spend a couple of days, and it should definitely be on your Cambodia itinerary!