Capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, was one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia. Sadly within my tight itinerary we only had one day to cram in everything we wanted to see, and this is how we did it. This itinerary could easily be split across two or even three days for a more relaxed pace!
We opted to hire a private tuk tuk driver for the day – I highly recommend asking your hotel to organise this for you so you have a trusted, reliable driver to show you the sights. You can also hire a car complete with driver however a tuk tuk is way more authentic, can squeeze through much tighter gaps in traffic (maybe close your eyes for these parts) and its way more fun!
Starting off bright and early, head first to the harrowing sights of Choeung Ek Genocide Centre. The ‘killing fields’ as they are more commonly known are located a fair way from the centre of Phnom Penh although the journey through the local villages is rather interesting as you navigate alongside cattle and vehicles carrying goods of inappropriate sizes, and pass by Cambodian petrol stations – basically a stand of plastic bottles full of fuel available for purchase! Amongst peaceful green fields sits the horrendous site where thousands of people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Follow the audio tour around the site to learn more of the dreadful events that took place here, and observe hundreds of colourful friendship bracelets tied to trees contrasting the dark times that once took place.
Carrying on your tour of the ghastly events that took place in Cambodia in the 1970s ask your driver to take you to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, one of the genocide centres where prisoners were tortured and killed. The prison has been kept more or less in its original condition with artefacts distributed around the old high school.
We had some time to spare so went for a wander around the central market. If you’re feeling peckish there are some street vendors on the outskirts of the market, with the serious shopping taking place in the small, densely packed stalls in the centre of the art deco building. Take note to remember where you left your tuk tuk driver as that place is an absolute maze – we definitely walked past our driver twice before finding him!
Next on your whistle-stop tour of Phnom Penh should be the temple complex that is the capital’s namesake. Many people visit the Phnom pagoda to pray for good luck and success. You’ll be able spot various offerings around the grounds (I would be interested to learn a bit more about the significance of some of these, especially steak and eggs?!) and Thai notes are slotted between carved Buddha statues. There are some great views across the city at the top of the hill and inside the pagoda you can enjoy traditional Thai music.
Dependent on when you’re hungry you may want lunch before Wat Phnom, but as we snacked at the central market we weren’t hungry until after. Ask your Tuk Tuk driver to take you somewhere traditional for lunch, chances are he will take you to his mate’s/family friend’s but the food will be local, tasty and very cheap! I’m
a massive fan of Khmer curries especially ones that are served within a coconut, this one didn’t disappoint.
Our final cultural stop of the day was the Royal Palace (a similar but much smaller and less ornate version of the Grand Palace in Bangkok with thousands less tourists!). Take your time meandering around the grounds and you can explore some of the pagodas, remember to remove your shoes first! Some treasures to look out for: the mini clay replica of Angkor Wat, the peaceful green spaces, and always look up so you don’t miss the intricately decorated roofs.
For a different view of Phnom Penh take to the Tonle Sap/Mekong river for a sunset cruise. Unfortunately during our cruise there was little sunset to be had due to the clouds, however seeing local life along the riverbanks is very interesting, and the free-flowing beers meant our disappointment was short lived! As you head towards the Mekong confluence you will see a drastic change in the landscape and heading back the temples are lit up prettily along the river.
Ask your driver to quickly stop by Wat Phnom on your way to dinner as it looks stunning lit up at night. To finish your very busy day off in style visit some of the trendy bars dotted around Phnom Penh. I recommend a glass of wine in a boat (alongside a game of chess if you are inclined…) at the bar opposite One Up Banana Hotel, followed by a trip inside a Coca Cola vending machine for some delicious cocktails and live music in a speakeasy type bar called Batt Bong.