The Cambodian capital Phnom Pehn is typical buzzing city in asia, with a lot to do and experience. The city is centered around the intersection of the 3 rivers Mekong, Bassac and Tonlé Sap.
In my opinion you can easily spend 3-4 days in the city, experiencing both traditional Khmer culture, the horrible history and contemporary city life.
The National Museum provides a view into the historic Khmer culture through its exhibition of items from pre-Angkor periode til late 1800. The exhibition is presented in a old fashion way with a lot of small signs providing information on the items shown, it works but a little boring. But you can enjoy a relaxing pause in the small quiet garden within.
On the museum ground you’ll find the ticket booth for Cambodian Living Arts. I recommend you to buy a ticket for the show. When choosing the seating category you’ll get the following, in 3rd class you get a seat on the edge of the theater, 2nd class moves you to the middle of the theater and provides a cushion to sit on and a bottle of water. 1st class option provides 2nd class plus a seat in the 3 front rows and a cushion for the back. The show is quite beautiful with a series of short dances from around the country. The presentation of the show is provided in both French and English.
The Royal Palace is situated at the river front, it looks something like the Grand Palace in Bangkok – the Thais claim that the Phnom Pehn palace is a poor copy. It is definitively smaller and has fewer sculptures and less leaf gold. But even though it could be a small copy of the Grand Palace it’s worth while to spend an hour or two visiting.
If you have visited pagodas in Thailand or Myanmar you might be a little disappointed when you visit pagodas in Cambodia. They are smaller and not near as spectacular as the Thai or Burmese. Cambodians we talked to said it was merely because the Cambodians are not that religious. Some said they would go to the pagoda once a week, month or year. Not like in Myanmar where many visits the pagoda on a daily basis. But anyhow you should visit some of the pagodas, try the Wat Phnom situated on a small hill, it should be one of the more important pagodas. In the square just south of the pagoda you find the memorial statue for widow Pehn that is said to have founded the city.
When you are in this part of town you should spent a moment to have a look at the National Library which during the Khmer Rouge time were converted into stables for cows.
As always I recommend visiting the markets in a city, and Phnom Pehn is not going to be different. While you in small towns and villages find markets selling food, clothe and utilities between each other you find more specialized markets in Phnom Pehn.
When you have visited the National Library your are less than 1 km from the Central Market. As I remember the market it provides clothe, jewelery, hardware and a few food stalls. For this market you should not only go for the shopping, of course cheap clothes, hardware, electronics etc. can be found. But do also spend some time to look at the amazing building.
The Russian market is another good place to find cheap clothes, spices (not all of good quality) and groceries. It is more crammed with very narrow aisles, it can be hard to find you way around, but it’s not as large as the central market.
A market with almost just food is the Kandal Market. It is a small local market with narrow aisles small stalls placed under a colorful canopy of tarpaulins. Great place to buy some fruit.
Tired of the crowded markets you can take to the river. Several companies offers trips on the rivers especially is sunset tours offered, not that many sails through the day. But we hired a boat to take us for an hour around the rivers. A curios experience as the boat was a standard 50-80 person tour boat, going with just the two of us. I believe that they charged USD 7-12 per person for a sunset cruise with drinks for a 2-3 hours cruise. We paid USD 25 for the whole boat, but didn’t get drinks. You’ll find most of the tour companies around this pier.
Another place to relax is the river front promenade, just find yourself a bench lean back and look at the Cambodians and the tourist on the pier and the river. People trading, playing, fishing etc. everything in the middle of this large city.
At five o’clock in the afternoon you can see a crowd turning the pier into a training center. An instructor shows up with a transportable PA system, on which music accompany the exercises.
The cruel history of Cambodia in the 1970’s did also take place in Phnom Pehn and the city has 2 major sights that represents the time of the genocide. The Killing Field Choung Ek on the outskirts of Phnom Pehn and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum also known as S-21 in the center of the city.
My wife and I jumped a tuk-tuk on a Sunday morning and drove to The Killing Field and when returning to the city got to S-21 to see that. This was not our best idea, the 2 memorial sites are overwhelming and too much cruelty for one day. Please allow yourself to split it over 2 days, preferably with a day in between.
Choung Ek is situated approximately 13 km from the city center, the easiest way to get there is to get a tuk-tuk. They probably try to charge you USD 15-20, but we paid USD 10 for the trip and return. When you buy the entrance ticket remember to get the audio guide, as the written signs on the area do not provide that much information.
The Toul Sleng museum was a high school before Khmer Rouge transformed it into a torture center and it’s located within the city. Like on Choung Ek it is crucial that you get the audio guide, as the signs on the premise offers almost no information. If you play all the tracks on the guide it will run for more than 2,5 hours, to be honest it requires strong nerves as the history told by victims and witnesses is cruel and terrifying.