Phnom Penh Itinerary: 3 days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This three-day Phnom Penh Cambodia itinerary will take you to cultural attractions, historical sites, and the city's best museums.

Phnom Penh is one of the most interesting cities in Southeast Asia. It’s the seat of Cambodian government and the center of Khmer culture. At the same time, it’s full of reminders of the horrifying rule of the Khmer Rouge. The ideal Phnom Penh itinerary includes an exploration of the city’s history — but also leaves plenty of time to enjoy its more modern side.

 

Hip, exotic, friendly, busy, tragic, and forward-looking — Cambodia’s capital has a little bit of everything. Spend at least 3 days in Phnom Penh and you’ll come away with a much better understanding of the Khmer national psyche.

 

Day 1: The Riverside and surrounding attractions

 

Start your Phnom Penh itinerary in the city’s most pleasant area — along the Mekong River. This is where you’ll find most of the post-Khmer Rouge attractions.

 

Coffee/breakfast: Coffee Today Royal Palace

 

Coffee Today Royal Palace is one of the top Phnom Penh breakfast spots.
Real coffee is a treat in South East Asia. Start your Phnom Penh Cambodia tour off right with a French press.

 

If you’ve been backpacking around Cambodia for awhile now, getting by on terrible instant coffee and noodle-soup breakfasts, come here for a respite. The coffee at this top Phnom Penh cafe is real French press — $1 buys you a whole press’ worth — and comes with real milk (not sweetened condensed). The pastries are good too.

 

The Royal Palace

 

Don't miss the Royal Palace -- one of the top Phnom Penh attractions -- during your Phnom Penh itinerary 3 days.
One of the top Phnom Penh attractions is the Royal Palace, right in the city center.

 

The natural place to begin any exploration of the Phnom Penh city center is at the Royal Palace, the home of Cambodia’s king and a stunning building. Much of it is closed to the public, but you can still explore a few sections, including the gorgeous Silver Pagoda.

 

You’ll first come to the Chan Chaya Pavilion. This is where dancers performed in the past. Now, it’s main use is for ceremonial gatherings. When it’s not in use it’s rather unremarkable.

 

Next you’ll come to the Throne Hall. Today its main use is for diplomatic ceremonies, but you’ll see decorations from throughout Cambodian history — mostly sculptures and Buddhist relics.

 

Finally, you’ll visit the Silver Pagoda, the biggest highlight of the Royal Palace complex. The pagoda contains Buddhist relics, including countless gold Buddhas and masks. The floor is entirely made from silver tile. These are some of the few — and the most spectacular — remaining works of art that survived the Khmer Rouge’s rule.

 

Admission to the Royal Palace complex (including the Silver Pagoda) is a steep $10, but it’s worth it for one of the top Phnom Penh attractions. You must cover your elbows and knees or rent a sarong at the entrance. Additionally, the palace closes between 11 am and 2 pm for lunch, and sometimes closes at seemingly random times for official business.

 

The National Museum of Cambodia

 

The National Museum is one of the best Phnom Penh activities. Allow 90 minutes to visit.
Don’t miss the amazing National Museum on your Phnom Penh city tour.

 

The next stop on this 3 day Phnom Penh itinerary is Cambodia’s best museum. The National Museum of Cambodia contains most of the artifacts found at Angkor and other Khmer ruins sites. It’s an essential visit, either before or after you visit Angkor Wat.

 

Enter the pretty early-20th-century building and head clockwise. You’ll discover a chronological collection of Khmer sculpture, pottery, and more. Vishnu and Siva statues feature prominently. Items in the museum date as far back as the 5th century. The highlights have English labels and explanations, but much of it is unlabeled entirely.

 

Plan to spend at least 90 minutes visiting the museum as part of your Phnom Penh city tour. You can’t take pictures inside — only in the central courtyard. You can grab a coffee or snack at the on-site cafe if you need to recharge midway. Admission is $10 and the museum is open from 8 am to 5 pm.

 

Lunch: Daughters Cafe

 

It’s definitely not the cheapest choice along the river, but you can’t miss a meal at Daughters Cafe during your Phnom Penh itinerary. Your money goes to support survivors of human trafficking (huge problem in Cambodia), who the cafe employs as well.

 

The soups are good, the coffee is fantastic, you can get a fresh fruit juice or smoothie, and the mains are solid. After you eat, check out the visitor’s center on the first floor to learn more about this organization.

See also  Six weeks late: Traveling India, a recap

 

The Central Market

 

No Phnom Penh guide would be complete without mentioning the Central Market.
The Central Market is a great place to window-show for souvenirs — but don’t buy here. You can find the same things cheaper on the street.

 

After you’ve filled up, take a short walk north to reach Phnom Penh’s Central Market (formally known as Psar Thmei). Even if you’re not a shopper, this is one of the most fun Phnom Penh activities.

 

The building itself is beautiful, with a huge dome that locals claim is one of the highest in the world (doubtful…). This is also the best place in town for window-shopping. You can get a good sense of what the variations in quality of typical souvenirs look like. Once you know what you want, don’t buy here — just make a note of the price. The vendors rampantly overcharge and you can get a better deal elsewhere once you know what to look for.

 

Wat Phnom

 

Wat Phnom, in central Phnom Penh, is an essential stop in any Phnom Penh city guide.
Wat Phnom is a classic example of Phnom Penh architecture.

 

The city’s namesake pagoda is on the only hill in town. Wat Phnom is the place to come if you’re in need of a little good luck. You’ll see locals coming to present offerings after their wishes have been granted. Be forewarned — this is a local temple well before it’s a tourist attraction, and it can be crowded and kind of a zoo.

 

The temple evokes a more-typically-Chinese architectural style. Look out for dragons among the nagas. You could also visit the small museum here, but it doesn’t contain anything special and is completely skippable.

 

Admission to the temple is $1. It’s open from 7 am until 6:30 pm.

 

Dinner: Night market

 

One of the best options for cheap food in Phnom Penh is the night market near the waterfront.
Skip the fancy (and pricey) restaurants — the best Phnom Penh food can be found on the street.

 

A small night market sets up by the river just east of Wat Phnom. It’s the best spot in town to grab a cheap bite from a street stall.

 

Street food in Phnom Penh is more expensive than they are elsewhere in the country. Expect to pay $1.25 or more for a plate of fried rice. Amok will run you about $2. The food’s good though, and it’s one of the less touristic dining experiences you can have on this Phnom Penh itinerary.

 

Day 2: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Russian Market

 

Want to learn about Phnom Penh during Khmer Rouge rule? Visit the devastating Genocide Museum.
The Genocide Museum is a bit outside the Phnom Penh city center, in an old school building

 

If the first day of this Phnom Penh itinerary was all about ancient Khmer culture, today is about modern Phnom Penh. Start out with the city’s most authentic and busiest market. Then, learn about the horrific events that happened here under the Khmer Rouge, just a few decades ago.

 

Breakfast: Brown Coffee and Bakery

 

Phnom Penh cafe culture is on vivid display at Brown Coffee and Bakery.
You can’t miss a visit to Brown Coffee and Bakery — it’s the most popular Phnom Penh cafe.

 

Start the second day of your Phnom Penh itinerary off right with a good coffee and delicious pastry from Phnom Penh’s favorite third-wave coffee shop. Prices are reasonable considering how bougie the setting is, and the coffee is excellent.

 

You can find locations all around town but the most convenient for today’s schedule is right near Mad Monkey Hostel.

 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

 

After you visit the genocide museum, you may wonder, is Phnom Penh safe today? The answer -- it's remarkable how far this country has come since the 1970's.
The Phnom Penh genocide museum is a heartbreaking reminder of how political ideology can go horribly wrong in practice.

 

The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, rose in the late 1960s. It attempted to establish a classless society by forcing people out of the cities and into communes. Tragically, it all went horribly wrong. As rural communities succumbed to starvation, the regime began to lose its grip on power. So in a desperate attempt to clamp down on opposition, it orchestrated a large-scale genocide. It targeted urbanites, educated people, and later on, its own ranks. There is no firm estimate of the number of people killed, but it could be as high as 2.2 million.

 

Phnom Penh was at the center of this violence. The Khmer Rouge took over Tuol Svay Prey High School and transformed it into the S-21 Prison. This became one of the biggest prisons where the regime housed political prisoners, where they extracted “confessions” before executing them. When the Vietnamese found S-21 after the Khmer Rouge fled, only seven prisoners were alive.

 

Today, you can visit the site of these crimes against humanity. You can read the “confessions” of the inmates, including such absurd stories as working for the KGB to spy on the CIA in Thailand. Obviously none of it was real. But the prisoners confessed to whatever the guards told them to, eventually. Many of the original mug shots of the prisoners taken when they first arrived at the prison are also on display — including whole families who were captured together.

See also  Lost City Trek in Colombia: What to expect

 

This is an absolutely essential stop on any trip through Cambodia, but a word of warning: It’s not for the faint-hearted. The displays are graphic and heartbreaking. Allow yourself three hours to visit.

 

Admission to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum costs $5. An audio guide (which is well worth it) is an additional $3. The museum is open from 8 am to 5 pm.

 

The Russian Market

 

Surprisingly, some of the best Phnom Penh restaurants are in and around the Russian Market.
No Phnom Penh guide would be complete without mentioning the Russian Market — the best place to shop in the city.

 

After a depressing morning, the next stop on this Phnom Penh itinerary is the Russian Market — the city’s best shopping place and a cultural experience in and of itself. Nothing could be a bigger contrast from the horrors of authoritarianism than the rampant capitalism on display here.

 

You can walk here from the Genocide Museum in about 20 minutes. You’ll arrive around lunch time — and you’re in luck, because the Russian Market has some of Phnom Penh’s best food stalls. Choose from stir fries with rice, noodle soup, friend noodles, and other typical hawker food. A few stalls sell decent iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk as well.

 

After you eat, spend a couple hours browsing and haggling for souvenirs. This is one market where taking your time pays off — it has a lot of junk, but nestled among the cheapie stuff are some real gems and authentic handicrafts. Vendors’ initial prices are usually double what you should pay — bargain hard and walk away if they won’t come down.

 

After you finish shopping, spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the neighborhood. This is one of the most vibrant areas of the city and the center of Phnom Penh cafe culture — look out for the swanky restaurants, bars and cafes among the traditional street life.

 

Dinner: Pho Hua Sen

 

Phnom Penh street food is good, but if you need a break, try some Vietnamese food instead.
One of the great aspects of food in Phnom Penh is the variety of international restaurants, including Vietnamese places.

Whether you’re continuing to Vietnam on your trip or just tired of the weird animal parts that make their way into Khmer food, Pho Hua Sen is a welcome respite from the usual. Get a big bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup for about $2. It’s unpretentious, it’s delicious, and it’s cheap — what could be better than that?

 

If you’re looking for a place to get a drink afterward, head over to Hops Brewery — a craft beer joint. The beer is German-influenced and surprisingly good. You can even get an IPA here! It’s also one of the few Phnom Penh bars where you won’t encounter in-your-face, disgusting sex tourism.

 

Day 3: The Killing Fields

 

Are you wondering, Is Phnom Penh worth visiting? Yes it is -- if only to understand Cambodia's tragic history a little better.
One of the most essential Phnom Penh activities is visiting this innocent-looking orchard where over 20,000 people were executed during the Khmer Rouge.

 

Spend the final day of your Phnom Penh itinerary revisiting the Khmer Rouge history. Yesterday you saw the prison where political dissidents were held. Today, it’s time to visit the place where they were executed. Like yesterday’s experience, this is also a pretty devastating visit, but it’s still essential to go as part of your Phnom Penh city tour.

 

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is today a lovely little orchard. But in the late ’70’s, it was a mass grave site where over 20,000 men, women and children were killed.

 

Admission includes an audioguide narrated by a survivor of the prison. As you walk through the orchard, you’ll pass glass containers holding bloody clothes. The ground is littered with bone fragments, and many of the rocks and trees are spattered with blood. At the center of the site is a large statue made of human skulls exhumed from the mass graves. If the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is educational in presenting its horrors, this site is fully dedicated to prompting an emotional reaction. And at that, it’s extremely effective.

 

You can also visit a small museum at the site, which walks you through the bigger picture of Khmer Rouge rule. While much of the violence centered around Phnom Penh, the starvation and disease in rural areas was equally awful. The museum paints a chronological picture of the events that ultimately led to the deaths of roughly a quarter of the Cambodian population.

See also  Kuala Lumpur Backpacking: Things to see in KL on a budget

 

The Killing Fields are about 8 km outside Phnom Penh. You can get here by tuk tuk ($10), tour ($15), or by bicycle ($3-ish). Follow the signs from the city center — it’s impossible to get lost. Admission is $6 and you’ll need at least half a day to visit, including travel time. You can stop at one of the many local cafes on the road along the way for food and coffee.

 

If you get back to central Phnom Penh early, spend the afternoon walking along the river or lounging in a cafe. Then, have dinner at the famous Pork and Rice Man’s food stall — it’s exactly what it sounds like. Dishes start at $1. You’ll find the Pork and Rice Man at the corner of Street 19 and Sihanouk Boulevard. It’s the perfect way to end your Phnom Penh itinerary.

 

Practicalities for your Phnom Penh itinerary

 

Getting to and around Phnom Penh

 

The best way to get to your Phnom Penh bus terminal is by tuk tuk.
Rickshaws are a popular mode of transport — you can even use them to get to and from the Phnom Penh airport.

 

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s main transport hub. You can easily get here from anywhere else in Cambodia, and from many international destinations as well.

 

If you fly into Phnom Penh, the best-value way into town is tuk-tuk ($9). You can also take a very cheap local bus, but it takes forever.

 

There is no single Phnom Penh bus terminal — buses leave from the bus company’s ticket offices, which you’ll mostly find near the Central Market. You can get to virtually any town in Cambodia from here. Capital Tour is the most popular company among backpackers, and runs a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. International options include Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City — the buses go straight through, with a stop at the border, and mostly travel overnight.

 

One note of caution: Tuk tuk and moto drivers swarm arriving buses in Phnom Penh and make arrivals pretty chaotic. Your best bet is to confidently walk off the bus, brush off all the drivers who surround you, and walk a few streets away to a quieter spot before haggling for a tuk tuk ride. Alternatively, just walk to your guesthouse.

 

Phnom Penh is an extremely walkable capital city. You can get to almost any of the attractions in the Phnom Penh city center within about 20 minutes. If you’re feeling lazy or are out late at night, tuk tuks and motos are affordable — figure $3 for a short trip around town. You can call or use apps to find taxis, but with the insane traffic, you’re better off with a tuk tuk.

 

Where to stay in Phnom Penh

 

You can find a good Phnom Penh hostel in the area around the Royal Palace.
One big cluster of Phnom Penh accommodation is on the riverfront — the ideal location.

 

While prices have risen steadily in recent years, you can still find a cheap room in Cambodia’s capital.

 

Phnom Penh budget hotels are in two main clusters. One is between Orussey Market and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where cheap hostels are mixed in with business hotels. I stayed at Tattoo Guesthouse (an annex of the nearby Tat Guesthouse). It was clean and affordable, at $7 a night for my own fan-cooled room with a private bathroom. The WiFi worked well and I even had a TV in my room.

 

The other cheap part of town to stay in is along the riverfront. The guesthouses here are nicer, but significantly pricier. If you’re on a budget it probably means you’re staying in a dorm. However, you can’t beat the location for atmosphere and convenience. Onederz Hostel is a top choice, and it has a range of dorm and private rooms.

 

In sum, Phnom Penh Cambodia is a vibrant city with many things to do, good food, and places to shop. I hope this Phnom Penh guide has inspired you to visit. If you’ve been roughing it through remote parts of Southeast Asia for awhile, consider taking a break with this Phnom Penh itinerary. You won’t regret it!

 

Any questions about traveling in Phnom Penh? Drop them in the comments below!

 

Like this post? Pin it!

 

Are you going on a trip to Cambodia? Don't miss the capital! Phnom Penh Cambodia is a vibrant, dynamic city with many interesting things to do. This three day Phnom Penh itinerary will take you through the best attractions. #cambodia #southeastasia #travel

 

Read more about Cambodia here

votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

2 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
trackback

[…] second floor of the museum puts the Rwandan genocide in context by talking about other genocides around the world. This is also where you’ll find the Children’s Room — a room lined with […]

Josy A
2 years ago

Gorgeous post as always Carrie! The temples in Phnom Penh are ridiculously beautiful!! Your photos of the food are making me peckish too!

2
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x