Sometimes referred to as the 'pearl of Asia', Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, is an incredibly important place for several political, economic and cultural reasons. Whilst retaining the hustle and bustle of many of the bigger cities in Asia (think lots of mopeds!), Phnom Penh still retains its charm through an abundance of must-see historical buildings, museums and memorials combined with a fascinating café scene, top notch foodie culture and buzzing bars, making it very popular with tourists and locals alike.
Population: 1.7 million (approx.)
Vibe: Phnom Penh has an edgy and unpredictable atmosphere unlike any other city within Southeast Asia. This may in part be due to the recent harrowing history bought to life in two of their most infamous attractions (the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison) coupled with the desire for progress and development within the city. Phnom Penh isn’t the easiest city to adjust to, but once you’re there, the energy is addictive.
Known For: Phnom Penh is known for being Cambodia's vibrant capital city, and with that accolade comes quite a bit of excitement. Whether you are exploring the many markets Phnom Penh has to offer or simply trying to cross the road, exploring Phnom Penh is a great adventure!
Must Do: You cannot come to Cambodia and get a real sense of the country without visiting two of its most disturbing attractions – the Killing Fields (just outside of the city) and S-21 Prison. It’s hard to imagine that it was only within the last 40 years that the horrific vision of the Khmer Rouge dominated the beautiful Cambodian landscape, and both of these attractions really give you a sense of the impact this had on the country as a whole.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
Tuol Sleng was a high school that had been converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Phnom Penh, when the majority of the city’s population had been exiled to the countryside. Over 14,000 prisoners were bought here, tortured and executed in 1975 under the Khmer Rouge regime, for no better reason than being educated or being a member of their family. Inmates extended from the elderly to infants. Some of the most haunting memorials come in the form of the prisoner mugshots (the Khmer Rouge, like many dictatorial military parties, kept meticulous records of their victims), which are now starkly arranged in large windows around the site. Visiting the prison (along with the Killing Fields) is important for anyone wishing to understand the darker period of Cambodia's history,
Included within your Stray pass is a visit to the Killing Fields just outside of the main city where S-21’s prisoners were later killed and buried in mass graves. The site now is a peaceful, sun-lit field. It’s one of the most recommended experiences in Phnom Penh, and there’s a beautiful memorial to the victims which you can visit. You can choose to hire the award-winning audio guide which narrates Cambodia's recent harrowing history in a clear and incredibly moving way and allows visitors to learn about the site while processing it at their own pace.
Built in the 19th century the Royal Palace serves as the residence for Cambodia's king. Visitors are able to wander around the Silver Pagoda and central compound containing the throne room, while the actual living quarters of the royal family is inaccessible to tourists.
Whether you choose to carve fruit or coconuts, learn Cambodian boxing or dance with the locals, or go fishing on the Mekong with a hospitable fishermen in his boat-house, Backstreet Academy ensures you have the most unique and authentic experience within Phnom Penh alongside the locals that know this city best!
Take a boat cruise to where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet. Some even have narrated stories of the city but be sure to get in early to secure a front seat on the rooftop for the best views.
The Russian Market (Phsar Toul Tompong) is huge! With a range of different local stalls, you won’t leave empty handed here. The Russian Market is best for gifts and souvenirs among many other things, while the Night market (Phsar Rea Try) is excellent for tourist items and tasty street food in a relaxed yet vivacious setting.
EATING AND DRINKING
Friends the Restaurant. Photo credit: Lonely Planet
Grab some delicious Asian and western style tapas from Friends the Restaurant located close to the National Museum. Friends is famous for training up former street children in hospitality – the food is just as amazing as this concept!
Need a break from the classic rice and noodles? Take a walk to the Rustic Restaurant near the Royal Palace and National Museum. The burgers are to die for, and the prices will keep your bank balance in shape!
Check out the Love Bar! A small upstairs bar in the main backpacking district has a great vibe and is popular with both locals and tourists! It serves good drinks deals and plays hip hop, RnB and house music every night until late – you’ll love it!
WHERE STRAY STAYS
The Big Easy
Freestyle Tours (Shared)
St.172 The Big Easy, No 2-4,
Daun Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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The Big Easy offers pod-style comfy hostel beds with individual lights, plug sockets and privacy curtains. Each room has a private bathroom and lockers. The common spaces are great for meeting other travellers with a pool table, happy hour deals at the bar, live music and delicious food available at the restaurant.
Freestyle Tours (Twin and Single)
No.37, St.172, Sangkat Chey Chumneas,
Daun Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Silver River is a popular Cambodian Style hotel in a perfect location for exploring the city. The front desk is open 24/7 and the friendly staff are only too happy to help. The in-house restaurant serves locally-sourced ingredients and an array of cuisine. Wifi is freely available in the public areas. Rooms are spacious and well-furnished with air-conditioning and ensuite bathrooms.