about the city
A dichotomy of run-down homes next to gold-rimmed palaces, the disconnect of the ruling elite from the Cambodian people is painfully present here. Only 40 years after the terror of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the city that was once completely abandoned has now been totally brought back to life with tuk-tuks, markets, and restaurants at every turn. Don't go to Phnom Penh to relax, as there are very few escapes from the buzz. However, go to experience some of the kindest people who have ever come across who are eager to share their Khmer (what Cambodians call themselves and their culture) traditions with you and hear more about where you live. Cambodia, nestled between the more prosperous and developed Thailand and Vietnam, is still gripped by poverty. Very few people are ever able to travel elsewhere and thus welcome foreigners as a way to understand more about the world.
Before you go
Take time to learn more about the recent history of Cambodia and the U.S.'s role in bringing on one of the world's worst genocides. It is painful, yes, but incredibly important. Then, appreciate how generous and determined the Khmer people are despite, or maybe because of, how much they have gone through. Here are some resources:
where to stay
I found the best way to find hotels in Phnom Penh was Hotels.com. You will find TONS of options that are all cheap and seem similar, so sort by a 4 or 5 star rating and a 4+ guest review to cut the sketchy ones out. Here are a couple I specifically recommend (you can search for them on Hotels.com to ensure the best deal and earn free nights), or find others that are in similar locations:
Le Mont Hotel- I stayed here in the trendy BKK1 area, walkable to the Genocide Museum and lots of the hippest bars and restaurants. With a full breakfast buffet and a gorgeous rooftop pool complete with bar service, you won't be disappointed with the amenities and views. Stay in this neighborhood if you want to be closer to where locals and expats actually live.
Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel- If I were coming again, I'd stay somewhere near the Royal Palace in the Riverside neighborhood. This area is a lot more touristy, which is why I avoided it when I went, but after walking around here, I realized being on the water provides it with a lot more fresh air, and it's walkable to most of the attractions you'll want to be exploring. Do your research. Some of the places in this area looked a bit run down, but there are plenty of (cheap) boutique hotels like this one that I walked passed and immediately starred on Google Maps. It was stunning!
what to do
History and temples will be the main focus of your time in Phnom Penh. I also enjoyed just wandering the streets. Because Khmer people strongly believe in karma, you will find very little crime. Of course, like any big city, watch your things, but for the most part, you will feel it very safe to walk around as a tourist without being the prey of thieves.
If you cannot walk to these places, you can easily hire a tuk-tuk. They are very widely available on pretty much every street corner. You will constantly have people say to you "tuk-tuk?!" They're always a little confused if you just want to walk, as most Cambodians do not walk much but instead ride motorbikes. Make sure to ask the price of the journey before you get in the tuk-tuk. Occasionally, at the end of the trip, they'll up the price on you. Just politely say "no, you told me it would be $5," and hand them the amount decided on ahead of time. They will not push back if you are firm on that.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum- This should be one of your very first stops, as it's absolutely essential to understand what happened in this city to understand the people and the resiliency of the city. Take the guided audio tour located at an old prison where tens of thousands were captured and tortured to learn about the brutality of Pol Pot as a dictator and his Khmer Rouge regime. It is hard to take in but beautifully honors those lost during the time. Expect to spend about 1.5 hrs here.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields- The killing fields are one of the harder things you will ever witness, but this is the #1 thing you must do. Here, you will be guided around the fields where almost 10,000 bodies were discovered in mass graves after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The audio tour makes the brutality painfully real. You will want to spend about 2 hours here to ensure time to pause and reflect. Do not miss this.
Old Market- Browse the colorful market full of small souvenirs and colorful Asian fruits. Buy some dragonfruit and rambutan for just a few cents. You might have to ask the shopkeepers how to cut them open though; I was perplexed!
Wat Phnom- How fun this place is! Sitting on top of a hill, there's a winding path that circles around the temple. Take that instead of going straight up the stairs 1) because ramps > steps any day and 2) it's calmer and serene with the trees surrounding you and fewer tourists. The actual worship space is very tiny, but it's full of dozens of golden Buddhas. I didn't spend very long here, as it's pretty darn crowded, but it's worth the stop to see the beautiful architecture.
Wat Ounalom- I don't know why this temple isn't normally on the shortlist, but make sure to swing by. Located between Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace, you're already walking right past it, and I found it to be the grandest temple I saw in Phnom Penh. A giant gold buddha sits directly in front of the tall steps that lead up to the temple, and the grounds are gorgeous and interesting. With fewer tourists, you'll be able to actually get a little bit of calm amongst its gates while and some really stunning photos. ;) I spent about 30 minutes here to rest and take photos.
Royal Palace- My favorite stop in Phnom Penh for people watching! There's a huge lawn right in front with kids chasing birds, men selling colorful balloons, women selling street food, and monks passing in front of the palace by the dozen. Stop here to take in the sights and smile widely as you look around at everyone enjoying themselves. The monks are friendly too- you might be able to talk to one (or at least get some really fun pictures).
where to eat
Expect to eat lots of rice while in Cambodia. They serve it at every single meal and look at you totally perplexed when you say that you don't want a side order. I was asked three times at one place if I wanted rice with my dish! They thought I was the one confused - ha! Most places serve very similar menus, so I think it's hard to really go wrong. Also, don't expect U.S. quality service anywhere except the first place below. They do not check up on you, and you have to flag them down for the check. Be patient, and you'll get what you want - eventually! Here were some places I went and really enjoyed:
Friends- You must go here. It was my favorite place in Cambodia and has a mission that I strongly want to support. Run by an organization called Friends, the non-profit runs a school for marginalized and disadvantaged youth. Additionally, this restaurant serves as a job training program. Professional "teachers" teach the "students" cooking and serving skills so that they are prepared to take on jobs after the program. With such high unemployment rates, especially amongst the uneducated, this organization is doing big things to help those who previously never had a chance at living a life outside of poverty. You definitely will not sacrifice quality. The service is outstanding and the tapas-style food is creative and delicious. I had pork stuffed frog and scotch eggs, both of which I highly recommend. Stop by the gift shop and/or nail salon right next door that is also owned and operated by the same organization.
Huat Huat BBQ Chicken Wings- A local women I was interviewing for my job took us to this place for some traditional khmer food with a beautiful atmosphere. Don't let the name and front awning trick you. They need a serious rebranding of their name and front facade because they serve way more than chicken wings, and the generic red awning makes it look like a hole-in-the-wall. However, when you step inside, the interior design is beautiful with tiles to die for! Try the fish amok. This is where I fell in love with the traditional yellow curry w/ fish dish that you'll see on almost every menu- theirs was the best.
Spider- Located right across from the entrance to the Genocide Museum, this is a good stop before or after. Family owned and operated, they serve great traditional food, and their name comes from their fried tarantula dish that they are known for. I didn't try it so cannot comment. ;)
St 63- This is the restaurant of a hostel, which sounds a bit suspect, but they have a great vibe with outstanding food. You will be surrounded by a lot of other tourists since it is a hostel, but don't let that stop you. We really loved this place, and there's a reason it's so popular. They are in the middle of moving locations, so soon I think the restaurant will be separate from the hostel. They also do have some Western food options on the menu if you're totally tired of Khmer food (it can happen! Don't feel bad!).
Mok Mony- Get the betal leef stuffed with beef! Wow! I've never had anything like that before, and it was so nice to eat something other than curry. All the other food looked really good too. This place was packed and for good reason. The food was some of the best I had in Cambodia.
Boat Noodle- We stumbled upon this gem of a restaurant that is tucked away amongst some trees on a street corner. The ambiance is very typical Cambodian with lots of Vishnu and Buddha statues and colorful floral table cloths. Yet another place for Khmer cuisine. We ate at the one on bustling St 63, but apparently there are several around town.