After enjoying the beauty of Siem Reap, we knew a visit to Cambodia would not be complete without heading over to Phnom Penh, the city with a beautiful blend of old and new. We took a 6 hour bus ride down south (this company was great) arriving in the capital city.
While Siem Rep is mainly a little town surrounded by ancient ruins Phnom Penh is a true living city. Don’t let it’s size fool you. Around every turn is something unique waiting to be explored. Jump in a tuk tuk with us and explore this city’s old Buddhist architecture, french influence, extraordinary animals, and the terrifyingly unforgettable history of genocide by the Khmer Rouge.
Here locals go to picnic on the weekend and animal lovers learn the ins and outs of wildlife rescue and release to educate Cambodian children on social responsibility and protecting animals from poaching. David and I spent a wonderfully full day with Emma, our guide from Wildlife Alliance. We kicked off our time together by picking up fruit from the local market for the various animals we would be interacting with that day.
As we pulled into the Wildlife Center, David and I saw an elephant running towards us sounding her trumpet! We were taken back but Emma was laughing telling us Lucky (the elephant) was excited for her morning treat of watermelons that we had brought for her. The interactions with each animal was authentic. Emma and her support team knew each animal, often making sure to pay a visit even when they have a busy day of educating or office work. Their love and knowledge for the mission of Wildlife Alliance just oozed out. David and I fell in love with each animal we got to interact with (and there were many) but also the team that tirelessly works hard to make sure each animal is safe, protected, and, if possible, released back into the wild to live a full life as they were intended to. The day also included transportation to and from our hotel and lunch for $150USD/person. Book your tour ahead of time or learn how you can support an animal from afar.
For the next two I would recommend hiring a tuk-tuk for the day (about $15USD +$5 tip).
The Filling Fields are located in the country side along a bumpy and dusty road not far from residential housing. Here is where many Cambodians were killed at the hand of their own people. During the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) 9,000 people were brutally killed and placed in massive graves at this site. Hear the story told by the people who were there by picking up an audio guide when you purchase your ticket ($6 for ticket and audio guide).
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
This museum was a high school converted into a prison and torture chamber. Pick up the audio guide when you purchase your ticket (about $8 for both). The audio guide will set the scene just before the takeover of the Khmer Rouge and what S21 (high school) looked like while they were in power. This museum shares in great detail the horrific events that took place. Please be advised that although this is important for us to understand as citizens of the world, children should not be exposed to the crimes that were committed here or at the killing fields. With graphic details and photos displayed, children may be left with more than an upset stomach.
The after math of this genocide has been astonishing with nearly one quarter of the population killed after the four year reign. The country is now very young with the median age around 24.
This area is filled with several micro-bars with each offering more allure than the previous one. Each bar has a specialty drink so take your pick and bar hop the night away. No need for a tuk-tuk here with doors just steps away from each other. If you are a night owl, have your first couple of drinks here. Bars close around 11pm since they are in a residential area.
This city features a chaotic domed market place with four wings extending from the center. Since being built in 1937 by the French, the Cambodians have added on a bit expanding the outside in every which direction. Some say it is the biggest market in Asia. Take a peek into the dome structure where jewelry is sold and enjoy a few aisles on the outside, but don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed. They sell a bit of everything, but this is not the place to go on a treasure hunt, unless that sounds good to you.
Open each night from 5-11pm, like many night markets in Southeast Asia this is where you will find a huge pack of tourist like yourself. Take a walk around the food stalls and sit in the middle on a provided carpet (really!). Even if you don’t have a full meal here enjoy some time to people watch and head to the surrounding streets to find additional food options.
Located just outside of the night market is the Riverfront. This area is crowded but a nice place to take a short walk with a drink in hand. Head down to the Royal Palace and see many popular dining and sports bars along the way. Stop to enjoy the Royal Palace lit up at night before jumping in a tuk-tuk to head home for the evening.
National Museum of Cambodia
We would recommend skipping this stop with a $10 entrance fee plus $5 for the audio guide you are better off saving this money and using it for a second day of touring at Angkor Wat. Although the building itself is pretty (inspired by Khmer temples) we found the audio guide overwhelming and without much helpful information. The museum has a bizarre layout and left us scratching our heads as we tried to make sense of it.
This is located right next door to the National Museum of Cambodia. We, unfortunately, were not able to go in due to a national holiday but have heard it is lovely inside. You can hire a guide for $10USD for a 45 min tour. Just make sure your knees and shoulders are covered (sleeves need to be attached…i.e. no scarves).
There are many wonderfully affordable options to consider when booking your stay in Phnom Penh. Our top considerations were finding a place with a pool to cool off in after days of exploring in mid-March and a great breakfast included. We found this and much more at the TeaHouse Asia Urban Hotel for around $40USD/night. With their friendly staff and a beautiful lobby and pool area we could have lounged our days away.
With a city rich in offerings, your time will be well spent in Phnom Penh.