Things to do in Phnom Penh?
Phnom Penh is like all Asian capitals, a bit confusing when you arrive. The noise, the crowd and the heat can sometimes give a feeling of suffocation and thus the desire to run away from Phnom Penh as soon as possible. I have some small advice to give you to reduce all this. Take a hotel with a swimming pool! You will see that everything is much more sustainable when you can come back to your hotel and relax. But above all, take the time to stop and visit Phnom Penh for a couple of days because this city abounds with points of interest and is a good starting point to understand Cambodian culture.
Phnom Penh : the essential
The royal palace
The royal palace is, of course, the major monument of Phnom Penh. Its typical architecture conveys at once the Khmer culture. Ideally located in front of the river, the view it offers is just as significant as its sophisticated decorations. The royal palace complex includes gardens, palaces and golden roof pagodas but the highlight of the tour is certainly the Silver Pagoda.
The S21 prison
Much less fun, but absolutely essential to understand well the history of Cambodia. Personally, I visited it seven years ago, when I first came to Cambodia and I never went back. One visit is enough to understand the atrocity what was the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. This former old prison reflects very well that terrible atmosphere during that time in the seventies.
The National Cambodian Museum
The National Cambodian Museum is worth seeing if nothing else for its architecture. The numerous sculptures, paintings and art objects it contains trace the Cambodian’s history throughout centuries. One can discover various typical handicrafts from Cambodia as well as the evolution of the style since the pre-Angkor time until the mid 20th century.
Apsara’s dance show
The Phnom Penh National Museum offers an Apsara dance show every night. I deeply advise you to discover this traditional dance. The movements are magnificent and the woman dancers are unbelievable beauties. If you want more information about it, please read my article on Cambodia's Apsara dancers.
Have a Cambodian coffee
Go and have a Cambodian traditional coffee. It's the best in the world for me! Its taste is really particular. You will recognize an aftertaste of chocolate-vanilla… Well, said like that, it may seem a bit weird but it really tastes so good! You absolutely must try it!
Wandering in the markets
You definitively have to do it in Phnom Penh. The markets are a journey on its own and there are plenty in this city. To get lost in these markets full floor to ceiling, digging up a really cool thing to bring back from your trip and mostly spend half an hour negotiating the price, is really awesome. See my article on the Cambodian markets
To drive around in Tuk-Tuk
Taking a drive in a Tuk-Tuk (auto-rickshaw) and soaking up the atmosphere of this country. And with a bit of luck, you will see these famous loads that are a part of the Cambodian folklore.
Phnom Penh off the beaten track
The French Institute of Cambodia
If, like me, you like art and culture, I strongly encourage you to consult the French Institute of Cambodia’s programme when you are visiting Phnom Penh. The Institute presents regularly Cambodian emerging artists, whether it is in the plastic arts field or in visual arts. The quality of the exhibitions is worth looking at. Art is often a way to question our culture or at least to bring a different look to it and I always find it very interesting to see a country through the eyes of the country’s artists. To watch the French Institute of Cambodia programme, click here
The Java Creative Café
Here's a place that is worth a visit. First of all, it's a well-decorated and pleasant café with a breathtaking view of the Independence Monument. But above all, it is a place where you can watch contemporary art as in a gallery. The purpose of the gallery is to promote modern Cambodian artists and it is a very beautiful initiative. For more information please click here
Wat Botum Park
I know, I know all the travel guides will recommend you to go for a walk on Lakeside… For me, I hate this ultra crowded place, it’s a concentration of the horror that tourism can bring to a country… I ran into some solo travellers, limiting themselves to these districts and they only had one desire, to flee Cambodia or at least to not stay long in Phnom Penh. Honestly, Phnom Penh is worth getting a tougher look at for a few days but don't drag on in these neighbourhoods. To get a Cambodia's nightlife vision, go instead for a stroll to the Wat Botum Park esplanade. At nightfall, you will find the Cambodian youth dancing in unison. Music blaring in crackling loudspeakers, that’s all it takes to turn this esplanade into a real dance floor! Believe me, it's worth seeing! And if you are up for a dance, feel free to dance!
Go get a manicure
And, hey yes! I’m not particularly girly but I must admit that whenever I’m passing by in Cambodia, it’s my little habit. I love the exuberant designs of their manicure. It’s kitschy, but here that’s class so I take this opportunity to assume something that I, maybe, can’t assume in France!