Many travelers will tell you to skip Phnom Penh, but it was one of my favorite places to stay while in Cambodia and a place I can easily imagine living for a few years. While backpackers decry the city as dirty and hectic, I found the city to be much less chaotic than other Asian metropolises. With a population of 2.2 million people, Phnom Penh is a small and manageable city; it has far fewer residents than Bangkok (14.6 million), Ho Chi Minh (9 million), and even Washington D.C. (6 million). I enjoyed wandering around town, going on self-guided food tours of the city, exercising along the riverside, and unwinding at the cinema.
What to See
Travelers interested in the history of Cambodia can pay a visit to the National Museum of Cambodia which houses the country’s largest collection of Khmer art and artifacts, including countless statues of Hindu and Buddhist divinities which survived the ransacking of temples by tomb raiders. You can learn about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and bear witness to victims’ sufferings by seeing Choueng Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly the S-21 Prison) and hiring a guide or an audio guide.
Disturbing images from the Killing Fields
Architecture buffs and the spiritually-minded should check out Phnom Penh’s many wats, or temples, in addition to the Royal Palace. While Wat Phnom is the most famous pagoda, I was taken with the vast temple complex of Wat Botum Vatey and the sun setting over Wat Ounalom.
Images of Wat Botum Vatey and Wat Ounalom
The Royal Palace, the residence of King Norodom Sihamoni, resembles the Grand Palace in Bangkok but with a tenth of the tourists.
Images of the Royal Palace
For prime people watching, take a stroll down the historic riverside of Sisowath Quay at dusk or stop by Royal Palace Park or Wat Bottom Park at night. Cambodian families, monks, and tourists alike often gather in parks during the weekends and evenings to converse and picnic, while vendors sell food, toys, and balloons, resulting in a carnival-like atmosphere wonderful to observe. Active travelers can utilize the free outdoor exercise equipment, join a game of soccer or doeurt sai, or participate in an aerobics class.
Monks chatting and a vendor selling food in Royal Palace Park
Lest I forget, make sure to take advantage of the green spaces (a rarity in Southeast Asia!) surrounding the Independence Monument and Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Images of the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, Golden Bird Statue, and Independence Monument
Where to Stay
I almost chose to stay at the party hostel behemoth, Mad Monkey, but I opted to stay at the much more peaceful Envoy Hostel instead. Although the hostel was on the quieter side, I found it easy to meet other travelers. The dorm beds were comfortable, the air conditioning was a godsend, and the communal kitchen was an unexpected treat in Southeast Asia.
Where to Eat
St 63 Restaurant & Hostel has an extensive selection of appetizing Cambodian and Western dishes, as well as cocktails and mocktails. I liked the vegetarian pumpkin curry and vegetarian spring rolls so much that I ate at St 63 two nights in a row! Brunch enthusiasts can dine at Java Café while gazing at the current exhibition by Marine Ky. I happily devoured the monthly special, an Avocado and Smoked Salmon Stack, along with a Café Freddo there one Sunday morning. Offering a choice of burritos, quesadillas, bowls, and soft tacos with a selection of toppings, and sides of chips and guacamole and rice and beans, Cocina Cartel is, for all intents and purposes, a Cambodian version of Chipotle. Its glass noodle salad with tofu, sesame sauce, and lettuce and spicy watermelon smoothie make Sesame Noodle Bar a great lunch option for vegetarians. Lined with rows of fresh vegetables, freshly caught fish flopping on blocks, and dried foodstuffs, Kandal Market is my go-to spot for fresh fruit and fruit shakes. Lastly, ice cream lovers should check out Toto Ice Cream & Dessert Café. Try the soursop and mango-passion fruit flavors.
Images clockwise from left to right: Sesame Noodle Bar and Cocina Cartel
Where to Relax
Due to lenient copyright restrictions, Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities have small movie houses which screen the newest films, host daily movie marathons, and rent private movie rooms for a much cheaper price than official movie theaters. You can even download movies to your phone or hard drive! I visited The Flicks Community Movie Houses multiple times while in Phnom Penh to catch the 2016 Oscar-nominated films. If you’re looking for the big box movie experience combined with the thrill of a theme-park ride, check out the 4D movies (3D movie + wind + water + movement) playing at Aeon Mall.
Image of Cambodia Supreme Court