A visit to the capital Phnom Penh ភ្នំពេញ is an essential part of any trip to Cambodia. Once you’ve been captivated by the flair of the city, you’ll keep coming back. Just like Rüdiger here from Visit Angkor.

Phnom Penh on the map of Cambodia
Map of Cambodia: Capital Phnom Penh

Around 2.3 million people live in Phnom Penh, which covers an area of 679 square kilometers and is one of the 25 provinces in the kingdom. In recent years, the vibrant capital of Cambodia, where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers meet in a unique natural spectacle, has increasingly changed its appearance.

Phnom Penh, balancing act between culture and modernity

A sheer nightmare for romantics because of all the Skyskraper. For others, on the other hand, the only viable path to a modern future. Because the international stage of a capital city apparently demands more than photographic delicacies in the form of historic buildings and French colonial times, along with monks, street food and the like.

Phnom Penh is hungry and wants to enter the stage of the world’s major cities. And so the skyline is increasingly changing, with towers such as the Vattanac Capital staking their claim as new landmarks in the ranks of historic buildings such as the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Central Market, the railroad station and more. More than ever, Phnom Penh presents itself to visitors from all over the world as a multifaceted and exciting capital city.

History of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh

The city was founded in 1372. A woman named “Yeah Penh” built a hill to keep 4 Buddha figures she had found in the Mekong in a revered place. Later, King Ponhea Yat founded the city and gave it the name Phnom Penh. The name means “Hill of Mrs. Penh”.

This was followed by several wars and conquests by Thailand and Vietnam. The two neighboring countries each claimed supremacy in Cambodia. Although Phnom Penh was named the capital in 1812, it was repeatedly caught between the fronts. Meanwhile, the court moved to Udong, 40 km to the northwest of Phnom Penh. King Norodom I moved the headquarters back to Phnom Penh in 1866 at the insistence of the French. In 1867, Phnom Penh became the headquarters of the French colonial administration. During the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) there were several attacks on Phnom Penh. Finally, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh. This was followed by the most terrible years in the history of Phnom Penh. At the beginning of 1979, the Khmer Rouge were driven out by Vietnamese troops. Since then, the capital and the whole of Cambodia have been slow to recover from the terrible events under the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.

Places of interest in Phnom Penh

  • Independence Monument (Independent Monument – វិមានឯករាជ្): This monument to Cambodia’s independence was built in 1958 by the occupying power, France. Surrounded by a traffic circle, it is located at the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard. If you enter “Phnom Penh” into Google Maps, you will be directed straight to the Independence Monument.
  • The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda: a must-see for every tourist. Even if tourists come here in droves – the Royal Palace with its sights is and remains a must-see. Its treasures and the many little things cannot be covered in one visit. Even years later, we still love coming back here.
  • The National Museum: Right next to the Royal Palace is the National Museum with its exhibits from the Angkor era. The eight-armed Vishnu figure from the Funan era in the 6th century and a sandstone statue of King Jayavarman VII as a meditating Buddha are among the most precious exhibits. In front of the museum is an extensive garden area, which is also accessible. In a courtyard of the museum is a beautiful small garden with fish ponds.
  • Wat Phnom: As the name “Phnom” suggests, this wat is located on a small hill. It was built according to a legend. Yeah Penh (Lady Penh) found four Buddha statues in the Mekong in 1372 and was looking for a revered place to keep the statues. She is said to have heaped up the hill and is also venerated as a statue in a shrine. At the top of the hill in the large bright white stupa are the ashes of King Ponhea Yat, the founder of Phnom Penh. Tourists pay $1 to enter, entry is free for Cambodians. Wat Phnom is open from approx. 7.00 am – 6.00 pm. Tip: There is a museum below the temple that is well worth a visit!
  • Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: The former Khmer Rouge torture prison is now a memorial to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Opening hours daily from 7.30 am – 5.30 pm. The entrance fee is $ 3.
  • Choeung Ek: Memorial to the mass murder during the Khmer Rouge 17 km south of Phnom Penh. The central memorial is a Buddhist stupa filled with 5,000 skulls.
  • Central Market: The Central Market is considered an architectural highlight in Phnom Penh. The huge ochre-colored hall with its four wings dates back to the French colonial era and looks like a monument from another world. Here, you can wander among souvenirs, grilled insects, clothing, jewelry and much more. The Central Market is open from 7 am to 5 pm.
  • Wat OunaLom: Around 200 m north of the Royal Palace on Sothearos Boulevard. The foundation stone of Wat OunaLom was laid in the first half of the 15th century. The wat is named after “ounalom”, an eyebrow of Buddha, which is said to be located behind the main hall.
  • PH Euro Park: The first Europa Park in Cambodia, 12 km south of Phnom Penh’s city center. In the park developed by the Peng Huoth Group, you can visit the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, St. Peter’s Basilica etc. in miniature as a European fast-forward.

Art & (dance) culture

  • Java Creative Café: Community art space and café in Phnom Penh. Presents curated exhibitions, the Creative Generation Award program and live performances in a black box theater. Including performances by Cambodian dancer Prumsodun Ok
  • Cambodian Living Arts: Dance theater at the National Museum that takes the audience on a journey from the courtyards of Angkorian palaces to scenes from daily village life.
  • Meta House: Founded in January 2007 as a Cambodian-German cultural center under the name “Meta House Goethe-Center” in the capital Phnom Penh. What once began as a small community center in a private home has developed into an award-winning center for art and media. Several awards, from “Best Cambodian Art Space” to “South-East Asia’s Top Arts NGO”. Nicolaus Mesterharm, the founding director, was awarded the “Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany” in 2018.
  • DINArt Gallery: Art gallery of the painter Teang Borin. On 51st Street (Pasteur) near Central Market.
  • Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center: Comprehensive film, television, photo and sound archives about Cambodia. Including the first films of the Lumière brothers from the late 19th century. Documentary filmmaker and co-founder Rithy Panh is the first Cambodian director to be nominated for an Oscar in 2013 for his film “The Missing Picture”.

Tour providers

  • Photography Tour: Street photography in Phnom Penh with photographer Jeff Perigios.
  • Khmer Architecture Tours: Depending on the tour, on foot or by cyclo (Cambodian rickshaw) to architectural features in Phnom Penh. Private or public tours.
  • City tours: Half or full days. Best booked through your local accommodation.
  • Urban Forage Food Tours Phnom Penh: Various tours such as “Morning Market and Street Art”, “Phnom Penh’s ultimate Street Food Tour”, “14 Day Culinary Adventure” and more.
  • Grasshopper Adventures: Provider of day or multi-day tours by bycicle through Phnom Penh.

Hotels & Gästehäuser

It is advisable to book a hotel in advance. Especially if you are not satisfied with the first one that comes along. Hotels in Phnom Penh can be booked quickly and easily online, unless you have already found your favorite hotel. The number and variety is literally overwhelming. I would make a choice based primarily on your personal budget and the location of the hotel.

If you want to travel by train from Phnom Penh to Kampot or Siem Reap, you will benefit from a hotel near the train station. Practical: From there, various sights such as the banks of the Tonle Sap River – the Sisowath Quay -, the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Wat Ounalom etc. are within easy walking distance.

Affordable

  • Okay Boutique Hotel: Large Khmer-style rooms with beautifully ornate dark wood right next to the Royal Palace. With rooftop pool, bar and restaurant. Rooms from 35 $.
  • Birdcage Boutique Hotel: Approx. 800 meters south of the Silver Pagoda with restaurant, outdoor pool and modern rooms. The menu includes Singapore street food. Rooms from 25 dollars per night.
  • Onederz Hostel: Located in the center, with a rooftop pool and restaurant. Private room from 23 $, bed in dormitory from 6 $ per night.

Medium price range

  • Aquarius Hotel and Urban Resort: Modern industrial-style hotel near the Independence Monument with an inviting lobby, glass infinity pool with salt water and open-air sky bar and restaurant. From 60 $ per night.
  • Amanjaya Pancam Suites Hotel: In the center of Phnom Penh with a fantastic view of the Mekong River. For a very special view, head up to Lo Moon, the hotel’s rooftop bar and restaurant. From 80 $ per night.
  • Arthur & Paul (Men Only Hotel): The first gay hotel in Phnom Penh on Street 71, highlights include the tropical pool garden and a wellness center. From 90 $ per night.
  • Sun & Moon: In the center of Phnom Penh with a restaurant and rooftop bar. The colorful and modern rooms are dominated by orange, white and gray. From 80 $ per night.

Upscale price range

  • Raffles Hotel Le Royal: This 5* hotel steeped in history is located near Wat Phnom. Designed by architect and urbanist Ernest Hébrard, the hotel celebrated its debut in 1929 under the name “Le Royal”. The guest of honor at the opening was the reigning Cambodian King Siesowath Monivong. Today, the hotel impresses with its tastefully furnished rooms and suites as well as several restaurants and bars. From 370 $ per night.
  • Roosewood Phnom Penh: At a lofty height of 188 metres, the local 5* Roosewood resides on the top 14 floors of the Vattanac Capital Tower, whose striking silhouette symbolizes the new Cambodia. One of the highlights is the cantilevered terrace with a view of the city.

Essen & Trinken

As everywhere in Cambodia, you can find street food on almost every corner in Phnom Penh. Directly in front of the Royal Palace – on the right-hand side with the Mekong River behind us – we discovered a stall selling insects. It all looked very fresh and even appetizing. From there, heading north, there is Eric Kayser’s stylish French café. Here you can enjoy delicious croissants, café & co.

  • Chef Nak Homme Dining: In two beautiful antique wooden houses, Cambodia’s first female top chef serves her guests authentic Cambodian cuisine to perfection.
  • 306 Waguye Steakhouse: The best steaks in town are served here. These include Wagyue Dry Aged, Tomahawk, Strip Loin, Black Angus & more.
  • Malis: Long-standing institution in Phnom Penh, combines the boundaries of fusion cuisine with traditional and new Cambodian cuisine.
  • Bong Bonlai: 100% vegan restaurant in Phnom Penh in the YK Art House. Serves a selection of fusion dishes with Mediterranean and Asian flavors every day.
  • Sacred Lotus: Among other things, vegan cuisine with both Western and Cambodian dishes. 1 dollar plant-based coffee every Tuesday. If you like, you can also stay overnight in the hostel.
  • 126 Noodle Factory: Original kambodschanisch und Rüdigers absoluter Geheimtipp in Sachen Suppe in der gesamten Hauptstadt und anschließend frisch aufgebrühtem kambodschanischem Kaffee.
  • Cuisine Wat Damnak: Near the Independence Monument in a quiet side street and the second temple of pleasure to the Michelin-crowned original in Siem Reap.
  • Iza: Sushi lovers’ mouths will melt here. Can be perfectly combined with a visit to the nearby Wat Phnom.

Bars & Nightlife in Phnom Penh

Especially in the evening, the so-called “Riverside” is an experience in itself. This is where the nightlife in Phnom Penh takes place. Sky bars are becoming increasingly popular in Phnom Penh. The top floors of high-rise buildings offer bars, restaurants and dancing. Mostly in the open air with a view of the capital’s skyline.

  • Leng Pleng: Online magazine for live and DJ performances in Phnom Penh, the Weeky wraps.
  • Juniper Gin Bar: Stylish rooftop bar, 12 floors high above the Riverside with a view of the Tonle Sap. Offers a variety of international gins. A must-try: Seekers, the Cambodian gin. For rum lovers, we recommend Samai, which comes from the only Cambodian distillery. From 16.00 hrs.
  • Eclipse Sky Bar: trendy location with restaurant on the 23rd floor of the Phnom Penh Tower with probably the best view of the surrounding capital. Listed among the “Worldsbestbars” . Happy hour between 17:00 and 19:00. A live band often plays or young artists perform.
  • Blue Chilli Bar: The oldest gay bar in Cambodia. Drag queen shows on Fridays from 23.00.
  • Love Lounge: Mixed crowd from backpackers to expats. Live music 2 times a week, specials at the weekends.
  • Heart of Darkness: One of the hippest clubs in Phnom Penh. Large and pompous, a world of its own in the middle of the capital with drag shows and guests from all over the world. From Wednesday to Sunday from 21:00.
  • Red Bar: Small bar with a large selection of cocktails. From Tuesday to Sunday from 18.00 hrs.

Special: Tonle Sap, Mekong & riverside promenade

A wide promenade lines the river in the extensive surroundings of the Royal Palace. Here you can stroll, enjoy the breeze, and watch the hustle and bustle. If you stand opposite the Sokha Hotel on a spit of land in the middle of the river, you can see the Mekong beyond the hotel. This is where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet. Twice a year, the Tonle Sap changes its direction of flow when it is pushed back by the Mekong with its masses of water. A worldwide unique natural phenomenon.

A fitness trail invites you to take part in sporting activities and is very popular. And the closer you get to the Royal Palace, the more small market stalls there are.

Tip: Walk along the river in the afternoon if you are not staying long in Phnom Penh. This way you can experience the atmosphere during the day and in the evening hours. At just after six it is already pitch dark. Many things, such as the trees along the promenade, are illuminated with colorful lights and immerse the surroundings in a unique atmosphere.

Boat trip across the Tonle Sap River

Around the Sokha Hotel and a little way up the Mekong. A boat trip on the Tonle Sap River is a special experience. The landing stage is opposite Wat Phnom, right next to the large Titanic restaurant, which is popular with tourists.

Seeing Sisowath Quay, the Royal Palace, from the river side is a completely new and unusual perspective. Only now do many people realize just how big Phnom Penh is. After all, more than 2 million people live here! The excursion boats meet the Mekong around the Sokha Hotel. From here, the width of this lifeline, which is so important for Asia, triples.

Another option is to cross to the other side of the Tonle Sap River – behind the Sokha Hotel. The trip costs just 500 riel and takes around 20 minutes. A completely different world awaits you on the other side. Most of the roads are gravel and it is generally rural. Many Cambodians use the crossing for an excursion to get away from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh.

Healthcare

Phnom Penh is considered malaria-free. Nevertheless, it is an advantage if you make sure you have sufficient mosquito protection. Cambodia Travel has compiled a list of hospitals in the capital with further information.

Security

There are many bars on 136th Street. If you are out alone here in the evening, you should exercise a certain amount of caution. Crime is high and people are poor. Those looking for a quick buck are looking for careless tourists!

At the Riverside, you will also be approached again and again in the evening. A joint is easy to get, as are easy girls. But be careful – some people wanted their pleasure and got a nasty surprise!

Bags should always be kept in sight. It is best to carry them to the front rather than on your back. If possible, not towards the street. Pay particular attention to your cell phone and camera. Especially in busy places.

Arrival in Phnom Penh

Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh is international. All major airlines fly to Phnom Penh, but so far not directly. You always have to change planes at the airlines’ home airports. The most popular short-haul routes are from Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

If you first fly to the international airport in Siem Reap to start with Angkor and then want to travel to Phnom Penh, there are various ways of getting there.

It takes just under an hour by plane from Siem Reap to get to Phnom Penh. Certainly the fastest, but also the most expensive option. And perhaps not the most recommendable for environmental reasons. A cab takes around 6 hours to cover the 400 km distance.

The bus is a little longer, but also more comfortable. Express buses cover the route in just 4.5 hours. The ticket price – depending on the bus company and comfort – is between 8 and 15 dollars one way. You can book the ticket on site or in advance via various websites. If you have a guide, they will also be happy to arrange the tickets for you.

Article about the capital Phnom Penh

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