Phnom Penh

Backpacking through Phnom Phen, the capital of Cambodia
Phnom Penh can be whatever you want it to be. It can be a gracious host, showing off its historic and cultural sites, or more typically, a wild and crazy adventure. Like the rest of Cambodia, there is a very “frontier” attitude in the city. It seems like anything goes here because it usually does. It’s a city of controlled chaos and that excitement is what sucks you in. I ended up here for two weeks and found it’s a “love it or hate it” place but never a boring one.

Typical Costs

  • Hostel prices – Most guesthouses have dorm room for about $5 USD per night. Single and double private rooms range from $5-9 USD per night.
  • Budget hotel prices – Better establishments cost around $15 USD per night and include air con and a private bathroom. The popular riverside area is more expensive.
  • Average cost of food – Food is very cheap throughout the city. Street food will cost you about $1-2 USD per meal, and restaurant food will cost between $3-5 USD per meal. Western meals at nice restaurants cost more, from $5 USD. You can get some really world class food in the city these days so go nuts when you are here. It’s an up and coming foodie place to check out.
  • Transportation costs – Tuk-tuk (cheap cabs) trips should cost $2-4 USD within the city. A tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields and back should cost $10 USD and for a few dollars more can include more city sightseeing. You can rent a car and driver for around $30 USD per day.

Money Saving Tips

  • Negotiate with Tuk Tuk Drivers — Make sure you negotiate the price ahead of time. Moreover, don’t take the first number they give you- it’s inflated.
  • Stay away from the river — The most expensive accommodation is by the river. If you want cheaper accommodation, head towards the southern and central parts of the city.

Top Things to See and Do

  • Choeung Ek and Toul Sleng – These are the infamous killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Choeung Ek is a series of exhumed mass graves, with a stupa at its center filled with the skulls of hundreds of men, women, and children. Toul Sleng is the former high school the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture center, where around 14,000 people were prepared for their deaths with electric shocks and other atrocities such as having their heads locked inside boxes of scorpions. Both sites now seek to teach people about the past horror so it is not repeated.
  • The National Museum – The magnificent National Museum houses thousands of artifacts and works of art from the more glorious periods of Cambodian history. There are more than 5,000 pieces on display with the vast majority from the Angkor period. The building itself, with its chambers linked by a central courtyard, is an architectural masterpiece.
  • Independence Monument – Every Cambodian capital has one, but the monument in Phnom Penh is the finest. Designed by famed architect Vann Molyvann, it was inaugurated in 1958 to mark Cambodia’s independence of French rule and now also serves as a defacto war memorial. Located at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards, it is a major city landmark and is lit up at night.
  • Royal Palace – You can see the old royal palace in the heart of the city. The Royal family doesn’t live here anymore, but there are some good temples and architecture around. You’ll find information about the history of the royal family, interesting temples, and an amazing courtyard.
  • The Silver Pagoda – The Silver Pagoda has murals running around its outer wall which tell the story of the Ramayana. Within the grounds are five stupas, with the two largest to the east containing the ashes of King Norodom and King Udung (the two most famous kings of modern Cambodia), while between them stands a statue of King Norodom on horseback.
  • The Central Market – Built in 1937, this art-deco ziggurat seems very out of place in Phnom Penh. A huge dome with four wings, it’s a good place to seek refuge from the midday sun and is also a fascinating market to wander through. Save your shopping for elsewhere because even when you bargain them down, you’re still paying a hugely inflated price.
  • The Russian Market – Popular with expats and tourists for buying pirated DVDs and CDs, fake designer clothing, handicrafts, and anything else you could ever think of, this place got its name from the Russians who shopped here in the 1980s.
  • The Cambodian Performing Arts Center – This is a small traditional dance school were visitors are welcome to watch students in training or, if set up in advance, a fully costumed performance can be seen.
  • Shoot a gun – This is an odd ball attraction, but for those that are into shooting guns, you can fire any weapon you want here. There are about 50 different kinds of weapons that you can fire, set off, and throw—many of which require licenses everywhere else in the world or are entirely illegal. If you want, you can even blow up a cow. But I don’t recommend that, simply because that’s just cruel and twisted.
  • Phnom Chisor Temple — It may be a 42-km drive out of the city, but this temple located atop a large hill is worth a visit both for the ruins and the view. The temple was originally named for the sun, which serves as a reminder to tourists—the climb up the base of the hill is steep, so plan your visit outside the hottest hours of the afternoon.
  • Wat Ounalom — If you aren’t sick of temples yet, check out this one which is located on the Sisowath Quay. It is considered Phnom Penh’s most important wat. It took a hit during the Khmer Rouge, but still serves as the centre of Cambodian Buddhist religion.

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