Personally speaking, I didn’t much care for Phnom Penh. I found it dirty, chaotic, and not in the least charming. Furthermore, I usually enjoy exploring cities on foot as much as possible. That’s not very convenient in Phnom Penh because all the attractions are spread far apart from each other. There are definitely better places to visit in Cambodia.
However, it’s still absolutely crucial to visit Phnom Penh for at least a day or two. This is because it’s in close proximity to one of the most important landmarks in Cambodia. Not Angkor Wat, which is the most important architectural landmark in Siem Reap. I’m talking about the site of The Cambodian Genocide of the late 70s, the one in which one-third of the country’s population was brutally murdered.
In this list of things to do in Phnom Penh, I’ll tell you about the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. And I’ll also tell you about some of the other important or interesting things to do in Phnom Penh.
You can use Booking.com to find affordable hotels in Phnom Penh.
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In the late 1970s, Cambodia was taken over by the tyrannical Pol-Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime. His rule was marked by tyranny and paranoia about retaining power and establishing Cambodia as a self-sufficient nation.
Between 1975 and 1979, millions of people were brutally murdered in sites known as the Killing Fields. They specifically targeted just about everyone in the cities, all intellectuals, every one who so much as wore glasses, and the list goes on. Basically, the criteria was completely arbitrary. They didn’t just kill the people who fit within these categories. They also murdered all their relatives so as to break any chance of revenge fueled dissent.
The Killing Fields were sites in which people were battered and murdered with manual tools such as axes and machetes while nationalist music played in the background to drown out their screams.
Choeung Ek is one of many such Killing Fields. Approximately 9000 bodies were discovered in the mass graves here. As such, it now serves as the primary Genocidal Memorial Center. At the center of the site lies a tall Buddhist Stupa holding over 8000 human skulls.
The site is located 15 kilometers from Phnom Penh. When you enter, you’ll receive a headset with pre-loaded audio tapes, and a map. The voice in the headset belongs to a survivor of this tragedy. He’ll guide you around the entire premise, conveying the story of what happened in these fields all those years ago.
You’ll hear the stories of actual survivors, of lives lost, and you’ll even hear from the perpetrators. It’s a harrowing experience but it’s important that we know. Especially because Cambodia is still heavy with the weight of that past trauma. It happened only four decades ago after all.
Understanding this incident will help you understand Cambodia and its people in general. As such, this should be one of the first things to do in Cambodia.
You’ll have to take a tuk-tuk to Choeung Ek, which should cost you $15. Once there, entering the genocidal center will only cost you $3.
For a more detailed understanding, you can read my article on the necessity of visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum should ideally be covered in the same day as the Genocidal Center. You can go there either before exploring the Killing Fields or after. It’s located in the middle of Phnom Penh and as such getting there isn’t a problem at all.
This Genocide Museum used to be a high school which was converted into a prison called Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Regime. People would be brought here, tortured, and coerced into signing declarations of guilt. Once they “confessed”, they’d be transferred to Choeung Ek, aka, the Killing Fields.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum has been maintained as the prison. You can still find the the blood spatters, the brick cells, and the torture chambers. You get an audio guide here as well which takes you through the entire prison compound.
This museum offers a sobering context to what one finds in Choeung Ek. As such, many people prefer to wander amidst the hallways of this museum before moving on to the Killing Field. Many even scrawl messages on the walls of the museum.
These are three separate landmarks of Phnom Penh. However, I’ve clubbed them together because while exploring them constitutes things to do in Phnom Penh, I won’t call them crucial. Not in the way that the previous two were.
The Royal Palace is the King’s Residence and serves as a symbol of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The Silver Pagoda is located within the compound of the Royal Palace. It’s one of the most important temples in Phnom Penh. A prominent feature of the temple is its shining silver floors, after which it gets the name.
The National Museum of Cambodia would be of interest to you if you enjoy exploring a country’s history. It bears artifacts from as far back as the Angkorian period.
There are several great bars and restaurants by the riverside on Sisowath Quay. You can either take a long stroll along the strip or simply enjoy a meal with a great river view. You can even get a boat ride on the river.
Exploring the night markets is amongst the most popular things to do in Phnom Penh. There are several different night markets across the city. However, I personally enjoyed exploring the Jet’s Container Night Market.
The Night Market is set up on a series of shipping containers and comes alive every evening at 7pm. The space is quite compact. However, you can find everything here from clothes, souvenirs, to a range of local food items. There are also several great make shift bars you can check out.
However, every competing stall or vendor in this night market blasts their own music in loud speakers. As such, what you end up with is basically just a wall of loud noise all around you.
There are a number of great dance clubs and bars in Phnom Penh. However, my personal favorite was the Blue Chilli Bar. This is one of the most popular LGBT+ bars in Phnom Penh. If you’re looking for queer things to do in Phnom Penh, then your night should start here.
Blue Chilli is a great cocktail bar that transforms into a drag bar at 10:30 pm every day. They feature a complete set of lip sync performances across a diverse range of genres. It’s certainly different from drag shows in Bangkok, focusing on performance rather than comedic interludes.
If you want to go to a heady psychedelic dance club instead, you should check out Heart of Darkness. The party rages on all night, and the vibe is all out undiluted trance psychedelia. This is definitely one of the most fun activities in Phnom Penh when exploring the nightlife.
However, you should make sure that you stay safe while exploring Phnom Penh’s nightlife.
Well, that’s all for the important Phnom Penh activities! This list is by no means exhaustive. However, I hope you benefit from it. If you’d like to add anything else to this list of things to do in Phnom Penh, feel free to let me know down in the comments!
I can be quite socially awkward occasionally. Sometimes, during these intermittent periods of social waywardness…