8 Things Every First-Time Visitor Needs to Do in Phnom Penh

Are you excited about your holiday in Cambodia? The Kingdom of Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s best places to visit. In 2018, over 6.2 million tourists arrived to visit the country.

While it doesn’t hold the famous Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh offers many pleasures too. It’s worth touring for at least two and a half days. For all first-time visitors, read below to find out what to do in Phnom Penh for a memorable time.

1. Visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

If this is your first time visiting Cambodia, there’s no better destination than visiting the King’s official home in Phnom Penh. Check out Cambodia’s architectural styles in person.

Note that only some sections are open to the public. These include manicured gardens, temples, libraries, and galleries. You can also see the marvelous Silver Pagoda by the riverside.

If you plan to visit the palace, dress with appropriation to Buddhist culture. For women wear clothes that cover their knees and shoulders. For men, wear shirts that have sleeves.

2. Immerse Yourself in the Performing Arts

There are fewer places in Phnom Penh to watch the traditional Cambodian dance than in Siem Reap. However, the capital city offers only top performances. One of the most popular places to watch the history of Cambodia interpreted through dance is the National Museum.

If you want to learn the traditional art of Cambodian ballet, it’s possible with private classes. However, be warned that it might branch out into the classic martial art at some point. If you want a viewing experience, you can also watch a performance of it.

You’ll see more variety if you go to Sovanna Phum Arts Association. The artists hold puppet theatre, folklore, mask dances, and traditional music shows. In addition, private workshops let you experience the art for yourself.

3. Attune with Wildlife

If you’re traveling with your kids, they’re sure to enjoy Phnom Penh’s Wildlife Alliance. Note that it’s not a zoo but an animal sanctuary and conservation center. The tour lets you hand-feed rescued elephants, visit tigers, play with monkeys, and more.

To see indigenous animals in Asia, visit the Free the Bears sanctuary. There, the sanctuary takes care of baby sun bears and moon bears. You can watch them and prepare snacks for them to forage.

4. Explore the Dirt Roads on ATV

If you want to know what to do in Phnom Penh, the land of dirt roads, get on an ATV Tour. It’ll show you both the rural and urban areas of Phnom Penh. Plus, you can visit the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison on quad bikes.

Once you get into the rural areas, the ride offers a calmer, more peaceful drive. Take photos of the rice paddies and traditional Cambodian houses on the way. Some villages have shops where you can get goodies before you ride back to the city.

The best time to go on the tour is during the morning. So you avoid the hot sun in the dry season. In the rainy season, the days in Phnom Penh often start dry. Remember that the tour lasts around 4 hours. If you choose to go, bring a handkerchief to cover your face. Bring water and protect your camera and other equipment.

5. Sample Unique Food Experiences Only in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has some of the best restaurants that offer a unique dining experience. For example, the Hard Rock Café provides burgers and live bands. It’s also great to meet with other tourists and locals alike.

Have you ever wondered how it would feel to eat blinded? Dine in the Dark offers a 4-course meal you won’t ever get to see. You’ll only taste the gourmet dishes here.

If you want to get a taste of something closer to the modern pleasure of Cambodian life, go to the Night Market. It’s the perfect place for a Phnom Penh food trip. In addition, the shopping section offers excellent souvenirs of your time here when you’re full.

6. See the Killing Fields and S21 Prison

Often, we look to experience a good time on our holidays. But, if you go to the Killing Fields, prepare for an intense emotional tour. It’s not for everyone, but it depicts a reality to which nobody should turn a blind eye.

The Killing Fields is where hundreds of thousands of people got killed. If you visit, you’ll get a headset that will guide you through the fields and narrate the stories of the survivors. When visiting the Killing Fields, remember to walk in silence and respect.

The S21 prison is another place that isn’t for everyone. It was once a high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture prison. Only 7 of the 14,000 people who entered the prison survived.

Both these somber places reflect a dark spot in Cambodian history. However, the survivors continue to share their stories in hopes that the awareness of another’s suffering grows. They’re not happy places to visit, yet they will be memorable ones.

7. Meet the Locals in Silk Island

If you’ve been to the markets around Cambodia, you’ve seen silk scarves and cotton tops. These silk linens come from Silk Island or Koh Dach. Going to Silk Island will show you a rural side of Phnom Penh without having to leave the capital city.

Almost all the houses on Silk Island have silk-spinning machines. Here, the women create beautiful silk linens by hand. The silk comes from caterpillars in the silk factory.

On the island is a riverside restaurant for whenever you feel hungry from touring Phnom Penh. When you’ve digested your food, you can go for a swim in the river, too. If you want to explore more of the island, bring a bicycle.

8. Take the River Cruises 

Take a cruise if you want to take a break from traveling around Phnom Penh. The place offers many rivers and cruises to choose from. It’s a great way to breathe from one place to another.

Plus, these cruises offer a great view of the sunset on the river. Take the time to romance your partner. This is the best time to snap your sunset selfies if you’re with a group.

Some cruises offer food and drink like barbeque, wine, and cocktails. The cruises can take you to Silk Island or Udong, the former capital of Cambodia. If you want to make your way to Siem Reap or Angkor Watt, multi-day cruises from Phnom Penh are available too.

Learn What to Do in Phnom Penh!

Now that you know what to do in Phnom Penh prepare for an unforgettable first-time visit. While you prepare for your visit, take the time to learn some essential words. A good place to start is to master ‘suostei’ and ‘saum arkoun.’

When you travel, secure and keep track of all your belongings. Learn and practice travel safety precautions, especially when you’re going solo. If you enjoyed this article on things to do in Phnom Penh and you’re looking for more tips to discover, check out our other content.

Diana Muniz
Diana Muniz

With over 20+ years of experience in a variety of corporate and entrepreneurial environments, Diana has developed a great understanding of Marketing Strategy, Brand Development, Customer Success, Public Relations and Management. Her internal drive for developing others and external brands, has allowed her to work in some of the largest cities in the world including Milan, Paris, NY, Mexico, and the Middle East. This experience has been fundamental to Diana’s success and ability to communicate cross-culturally.