What To Do in Phnom Penh
Unfortunately, a lot of backpackers making their way through Cambodia don’t take full advantage of all Phnom Penh has to offer. Today the city is coming into its own. Trendy bars, an awesome food scene, and modern amenities are developing alongside the traditional markets and picturesque riverside. It’s the kind of city that may take a few days to grow on you, but you’ll be glad you gave it the time in the end.
If you’re headed to Phnom Penh soon, don’t just tour the Killing Fields as a stopover between bus rides. That’s an important site, and every visitor to Cambodia should see it. You won’t get a full feel for Phnom Penh, though, unless you compliment it with a few other experiences. This city, and the Khmer culture, are so much more than the dire periods of their past. Do you know the legend behind the city’s name? Did you know that the Khmer building style is world-famous in architectural circles?
To help you discover all this and more, we’ve put together a list of The Best Cultural Things To Do In Phnom Penh. Extend your room one more night, choose your favourites from below, and get out there to really explore the city!
#1 Independence Monument
The Independence Monument was built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia winning its independence back from its French protectorate in 1953. The monument is also dedicated to all the Cambodians who have died for their country in war. The monument is closely guarded round-the-clock by a security team. You won’t be able to get a picture with it up close, but it makes for a great sight from nearby. The monument is surrounded by a long and narrow park that is buzzing at all hours of the day with locals and tourists. If you happen to visit on a significant day, you might get swept up in a crowd. Independence Monument is the official site for all official events and celebrations in Phnom Penh. Every night of the year, the monument is lit up in Cambodia’s colours: red, white, and blue. It’s an impressive sight and a great photo opp – just be careful! The traffic in this roundabout can get a bit wild.
#2 Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is the only hill in town. At 27 metres high, it’s not mountainous by any means. The legend says that many years aog a wealthy widow named Penh found a tree floating down the Tonle Sap River after a storm. Inside, she discovered four bronze Buddha statues. In 1373 she built a pagoda on the hill to house the statues: Wat Phnom. The temple on the hill has been rebuilt many times, most recently in 1926.
The main entrance to Wat Phnom is a grand staircase on the eastern side of the hill. It’s guarded by elaborate statues of lions and naga (snakes). In a small pavilion on the southern side you’ll see a statue of the smiling, slightly plump Madame Phnom. Cambodian people come here often to pray for good luck and success in business or their studies. If their request is granted, they’ll return to make an offering to the spirits (like a wreath of flowers, or some fruit).
Wat Phnom is located in the north party of Phnom Penh, near the river. It’s a nice little escape from the hectic streets. Plus, it’s the name sake of the whole town! Well worth a visit if you’re in Phnom Penh.
#3 Wat Langka
Wat Langka is a colourful pagoda found in the heart of Phnom Penh. It gets its name from historic ties with Sir Lanka. The monks at Wat Langka are highly regarded teachers. This is a religious and cultural hub of the city. When you’re touring Southeast Asia, it’s easy to get temple fatigue after a while. The difference with Wat Langka is that you’re able to have a more interactive experience. Wat Langka offers free one-hour Vipassana meditation classes at 6pm on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. There’s also a session at 8am on Sundays for the early risers. The classes are aimed at tourists and expats. No prior experience is required. If it’s your first time trying meditation, an hour might feel very long. It’s totally acceptable to quietly excuse yourself after 20 or 30 minutes. Remember, this is a temple so you need to dress accordingly. Be sure your shoulders and legs are covered. Wat Langka is located on Street 282.
#4 The National Museum
The National Museum is Cambodia’s largest collection of cultural, historical, and archeological artifacts. The massive collection of Khmer fine art is a source of pride for the Cambodian people, which is deeply tied to their national identity. The museum also has religious significance. Cambodia’s population is 95% Buddhist. The museum houses several important Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, and serves as a place of worship.
Visiting the museum is one of the best things to do in Phnom Penh because the building and the grounds are as engaging as the stuff inside. As you browse the collections you’ll have to wander through a maze of walkways and four beautiful courtyards. The structure of the building is based on ancient Cambodian temples, enlarged to fit a museum inside. The National Museum is located on Street 13 in central Phnom Penh. It sits just north of the Royal Palace. The visitors’ entrance is at the corner of Street 178. Check out the National Museum’s official website for directions, hours, and ticketing info.
#5 Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide
Tuol Svay Pray was a high school in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. During their cruel regime, the Khmer Rouge turned the school into a torture, interrogation, and execution centre. They renamed it S-21 Prison. The Khmer Rouge kept careful records of all the prisoners kept here. Of the 14,000 that entered, only 7 survived.
Today, S-21 Prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. The site has been left largely as it was found by the Vietnamese photojournalists who discovered it in January 1979. Visitors are able to wander the halls while they contemplate the horrors that took place within. Some rooms, like the interrogation and torture chambers and the cramped holding cells, have been left intact. Other classrooms have been lined with haunting portraits of the victims detained here. These photographs were taken by the Khmer Rouge to prove that their orders had been carried out.
The atmosphere at Tuol Sleng is somber. Count on being in a subdued mood for a while after you leave. Don’t let this deter you from visiting, though. Experiencing this tangible piece of Cambodia’s past will help you put the country’s present in context. We travel to learn more about the world, and sometimes what we find isn’t pretty. It is important though. You can hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you to S-21 and wait while you’re inside. Many travelers choose to visit here and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (see below) all in one day.
#6 The Choeung Ek Killing Fields
The Cambodian Killing Fields are a number of mass grave sites across Cambodia. Collectively, over one million people were killed and buried in these graves by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1779. Choeung Ek was one of these extermination camps. It’s located just outside Phnom Penh. About 17,000 men, women, children, and infants who had been detailed at Tuol Sleng/S-21 were brought here and killed barbarically.
Today, Choeung Ek is a deceptively peaceful space. The atmosphere is very solemn. You’ll be given a headset when you enter. As you make your way through the site you can listen to a very informative and moving audio guide. The guide is available in several languages. Many of the communal graves at Choeung Ek have been left untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth can be seen in the earth. The most iconic part of the centre is the tall Memorial Stupa. Inside, more than 8000 skulls of victims killed on site are displayed. The display is both a tribute to the victims and a visual representation of the scale of the tragedy.
Choeung Ek is about 7.5 kilometres outside Phnom Penh. Any tuk-tuk driver in the city will be able to take you there and wait while you’re inside. Your driver will probably offer to take you to S-21 and the Killing Fields in one trip. Many visitors choose this option. Each site gives you perspective on the other. All in all, this is not an uplifting tour, but it is moving and informative.
#7 Wat Ounalom
Wat Ounalom is the most important temple in Phnom Penh, and the centre of Cambodian Buddhism. It was established in 1443. It’s one of Phnom Penh’s five original monasteries. There are 44 structures inside. The head figure of Cambodia’s Buddhist brotherhood lives here, along with many monks. Many things make this temple unique and interesting to tour. For example, behind the main building you’ll find a stupa containing one of the eyebrow hairs of the Buddha. “Ounalom” is the term for that hair.
Wat Ounalom was heavily scarred during the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge extensively damaged this and many other wats, to show that Buddhism was no longer the driving force of Cambodia. The library of the Buddhist Institute, with more than 30,000 titles, was destroyed. Important statues and relics were smashed and thrown in the river, but many have been retrieved and reassembled. Like the rest of the country, Wat Ounalom has rebuilt and is focused on the future. Today, the temple is a thriving community. Visiting is one of the most worthwhile things to do in Phnom Penh.
#8 The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is one of the most splendid pieces of architecture in Phnom Penh, and Cambodia. This is the official residence of the King of Cambodia and his family. Foreign dignitaries are hosted here when they visit. The palace was built in 1866, on the site of old town Phnom Penh. It has a direct view of the riverfront and the sweeping lawns out front are always full of people.
The Royal Palace is found between Street 184 and Street 240, on Samdach Sothearos Boulevard via a pedestrians-only pavilion. Foreign visitors need to pay a fee to enter the palace. Inside, the complex is much bigger than it may have initially appeared. You’ll be able to explore and photograph several spectacular buildings. The Throne Hall, to the left of the main entrance, boasts a 59-metre high tower with an ornate roof. The Silver Pagoda is crafted from Italian marble, and inside the main floor is made of more than 500 solid silver blocks. This is where presents from foreign dignitaries are displayed. This building is also called The Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, because of a magnificent statue housed inside.
Take care that you’re properly dressed when you visit The Royal Palace. You won’t be allowed to enter unless your shoulders and knees are covered.
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More Ideas for Cultural Things to Do In Phnom Penh
We only recommend blogs and sources that we trust and read often ourselves. Here are some great resources if you’re looking for more things to do in Phnom Penh:
- 21 Things To Do In Cambodia by Asha & Ryan
- 7 Things To Do In Phnom Penh That Will Not Bore You! by Travel with Liya
- Things To Do In Phnom Penh, The Underrated Capital by Rough Guides