Phnom Penh, Cambodia is raw, wild, and untamed.
And backpacking Phnom Penh was one of the best things I ever did. I feel in love with that city the vist time I went and have always enjoyed all my visits.
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 on my first visit and found it’s a “love it or hate it” place but never a boring one.
Each visit back only reminds me how much Cambodia is changing, how international Phnom Penh has become, and how it has never lost its edginess.
Phnom Penh has grown a lot and is now an international digital nomad hub, a city with some incredible nightlife, and one of the best and fastest growing foodie scenes in the region.
This Phnom Penh travel guide will help you navigate my favorite city in the country.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Phnom Penh
1. Royal Palace
2. The National Museum
3. Choeung Ek and Toul Sleng
4. Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue
5. The Silver Pagoda
Other Things to See and Do in Phnom Penh
1. 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 from 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.
2. 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 duper ugly), it’s a wonderful place to seek refuge from the midday sun. Save your shopping for elsewhere because even when you bargain them down, you’re still paying a hugely inflated price but wander around, stop for a drink, and watch out for pickpockets!
3. The Russian Market
Popular with expats and tourists for buying pirated DVDs, 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. If you’re looking to buy something in the city, this is the place to do it.
4. The Cambodian Performing Arts Center
This is a small traditional dance school where visitors are welcome to watch students in training or, if set up in advance, a fully costumed performance can be seen. Performances include traditional dances like the Apsara as well as the Moni Mekala ritual dance, or folk pieces with upbeat, happy music inspired by Cambodia’s daily life. Tickets start from about $20 USD. Sometimes there is a dinner show as well!
5. Phnom Chisor Temple
It may be a 26-mile (42-kilometer) drive out of the city, but this temple located atop a large hill is worth a visit both for the historical ruins and the view of the countryside. Expect to pay at least $30 USD for a tuk-tuk for the journey.
6. Wat Ounalom
If you aren’t sick of temples yet, check out Wat Ounalom which is located on the Sisowath Quay. It is considered Phnom Penh’s most important wat and is home to many monks. Large parts of it were damaged during the Khmer Rouge regime but it remains the center of the Cambodian Buddhist religion. From the third floor, there are really nice views over the Mekong River. Entry is free.
7. Take a food tour
Phnom Penh Food Tours is led by expert foodies and chefs who will take you into the city’s markets and hole-in-the-wall eateries to sample authentic Khmer food. If you’re nervous about sampling street food, this is a good way tod o safely. You’ll eat everything from breakfast noodles to barbecue! Tours start from $65 USD.
Phnom Penh Travel Costs
Note: Cambodia uses USD. There’s no real need to carry the local currency, Cambodian Riels (KHR), unless you paying for really small things on the street, but for the most part, use USD.
Hostel prices – Most hostels have beds available for about $3 USD per night for a bed in a 10-person dorm. A bed in a smaller dorm (four people) will start from around $7 USD. Private rooms start from $8 USD, but the average is about $12-25 USD per night. Free WiFi is standard in almost every hostel in the city and many hostels also include free breakfast.
Budget hotel prices – Establishments close to the city center cost around $12 USD per night and include air-con and a private bathroom. A nicer 3-star hotel usually comes with additional perks like free breakfast and a nice swimming pool will cost around $35 USD per person. The popular riverside area is more expensive. Airbnb is available in the city, though shared accommodation options are limited (and expensive). You can expect to pay at least $11 USD per night or around $20-25 per night for an entire apartment.
Average cost of food – Food is very cheap throughout the city. Street food will cost you about $2 USD per meal, especially in the markets. Restaurant food will cost between $2-5.50 USD per meal, depending on how fancy you get. Western meals at nice restaurants will cost quite a bit, starting around $4.50 USD. You can get some really world-class food in the city these days, so if you’re a foodie then go nuts when you are here! I highly recommend a bowl of morning glory sour soup at Kabbas restaurant. The soup plus rice and one large beer costs just $6 USD! If you plan on cooking your own food, expect to pay at least $12.50 USD per week on food, but most of the meals are so cheap and kitchens rare that I would say just eat out.
Backpacking Phnom Penh Suggested Budgets
Although it’s the country’s capital city, Phnom Penh is incredibly affordable. Your dollar really stretches here.
If you’re backpacking Phnom Penh, you’ll spend around $38 USD per day. This will get you a bed in a 10-bed dorm, food from the street stalls, a few beers, tuk-tuks everywhere, and one activity per day (the biggest being the Killing Fields, if you share a tuk-tuk there and back with two other people). This budget can be lighter if you skip the Killing Fields and stick to mostly free activities, but the Killing Fields are really a must visit.
A mid-range budget of $64 USD will get you a budget hotel room near the city center with air conditioning, or a private Airbnb room. You’ll be able to take tuk-tuks everywhere and eat at local restaurants for all your meals, enjoy more drinks, and take all the tours and excursions you want! You’ll even be able to get a private tour of the Killing Fields and the prison. This amount goes a long way in Cambodia and you really won’t have any problems doing anything you want. You still won’t be in the nicest digs or eat the fanciest meals but you’ll want for nothing.
On a “luxury” budget of $142 USD or more a day, you can pretty well do whatever you want! In fact, it’ll be hard to spend that amount. You can stay at a nice 4-star hotel, eat at good restaurants (including western ones), drink all the beer you want, hire a private taxi to take you around, or even take a private sightseeing tour to some of the city’s highlights.
Note: Cambodia uses USD. You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day).
Here’s a suggested breakdown of your daily budget:
Phnom Penh Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Cambodia is one of the cheapest countries in Southeast Asia, and Phnom Penh is no exception. There really aren’t any big money saving tips here. Food, accommodation, and transportation are all dirt cheap but. However, there are some ways you can save money in Phnom Penh:
- 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. If you’re not sure what price you should be aiming for, ask your hostel/hotel staff in advance. They can usually help you book a trusted driver, as well.
- 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.
- Minimize your drinks – Every drink is a dollar and before you know it, you’ve spent more money on beer than on food and accommodation.
- Work for your room – It’s pretty common to get a job in a hostel in order to stay longer in Phnom Penh so if you stay at a hostel and like the vibe, ask if they’ll let you work there.
- Book tours and day tours as a group – You have more negotiation power when you’re with a group of people buying multiple things. Traveling alone? Meet a friend at a hostel and see if they want to join the same tour as you.
- Use a water bottle with a purifier – It isn’t safe to drink the tap water in Phnom Penh, and although buying bottled water is cheap, it does add up — pick up a LifeStraw (it’s good for the environment too!)
Where To Stay in Phnom Penh
Accommodations in Phnom Penh are incredibly cheap, even by Southeast Asia standards. If you’re looking for some of the best places to stay, here are some of my recommended places:
How to Get Around Phnom Penh
Tuk-tuks – Tuk-tuks are cheap cabs, and really they’re all you need to use to get around the city. They’re everywhere and you’ll never have to wait long for a ride. Trips should cost between $2-5.50 USD within the city (just make sure you negotiate your price up front). A tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields and back should cost around $15 USD.
Taxis – If you’re taking a taxi around the city or to the Killing Fields, make sure or it’s metered or negotiate the fare upfront. They’re more expensive than tuk-tuks, however, and are mostly unnecessary. A 2-mile (3-kilometer) journey will cost about $3.25 USD. The only time it’s really necessary to take a taxi is to and from the airport. The airport to the Riverside area is about $12 USD.
Hire a driver – If you want to do a big day of sightseeing, you can rent a car and driver for about $32 USD per day. The driver will take you everywhere you need to go and will wait for you between stops. It’s convenient and a good way to see the city on limited time.
When to Go to Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is warm year-round, and most people prefer to visit from November to February, when the temperatures are milder and humidity isn’t very extreme. Even then, it’s warm and lovely — temperatures rarely go below 68°F (20°C). Rainfall is heaviest from September to October, but usually this just means short blasts of rainfall in the afternoons.
Temperatures are also hottest from May to October, ranging from 71°F (22°C) to as high as 100°F (38°C), especially in April and May. The humidity during this time is also incredibly high, and the days can be very uncomfortable. Tourism traffic is lower during this time, however, and the heat isn’t unbearable as long as you’re prepared. Along the coast you’ll at least catch the ocean breeze.
How to Stay Safe in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a safe place to backpack and travel. Violent attacks are super rare. Petty theft is the most common type of crime here. Keep an eye out for pick-pocketing, especially at night around the markets. If you are carrying a purse make sure it’s secure around your body. Drive-by snatching happens. For real!
Be careful when renting a motorbike in Phnom Penh. They’re cheap, but Phnom Penh’s traffic is madness even compared to other Asian cities, and the roads are in rough shape. Accidents are not uncommon.
A common scam in Phnom Penh (and Cambodia in general) is the tuk-tuk scam. You might occasionally meet a driver who works under commission for a particular restaurant, hotel, etc. You’ll end up miles from your destination, or you’ll be pressured to stay/spend money. Another common scam: you might be approached by shady police officers, or fake police officers who will demand to see your passport. Chances are, you’ll be asked to pay a fine to get it back. Deny the request and tell them the passport is back at your hotel in a safety deposit box.
Read about these 14 major travel scams to avoid in Cambodia and be in the know!
But, really, people are nice and helpful and you’re unlikely to get into trouble. Cambodians are really wonderful folks!
The people who do tend to get into trouble to bed involved with drinking or drugs or sex tourism. So avoid doing the illegal stuff and you’re going to be fine!
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Phnom Penh. Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Phnom Penh Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel Phnom Penh. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are always my starting point when I need to book a flight, hotel, tour, train, or meeting people!
- Momondo – This is my favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings!
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Agoda – Other than Hostelworld an Airbnb, Agoda is the best hotel accommodation site for Asia as it has the largest inventory and offers the best rates. If you want a guesthouse or hotel, book it via this website!
- 12Go.asia – 12Go.asia is the best website for booking transportation around Southeast Asia. You will be able to research your journey ahead of time and figure out the best schedule and prices.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Southern Asia, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Grassroots Volunteering – For volunteering, Grassroots Volunteering compiles a list of good local volunteer organizations that keep the money within the community.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Phnom Penh Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Phnom Penh Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
First They Killed my Father, by Loung Ung
This is the real life story of Loung Ung, one of seven children of a high-ranking government official living in Phnom Penh until the age of 5. When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army invaded the city in 1975, Ung’s family had to flee and eventually separate. Loung became a child soldier while her siblings were sent to work camps, and this book recounts the devastating horrors she encountered along the way. The documentary of the same name (directed by Angelina Jolie!) is also amazing.
In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner
Raami is just seven years old when her father comes home early one evening, bringing news of the civil war in the streets of Phnom Penh. Not long after, Raami’s world of guarded royal privilege is turned on its head, as the Khmer Rouge moves in to attempt to strip the entire population of its individual identity. As a method of survival, Raami turns inwards and clings to her childhood stories and poems as told to her by her father. This book has tons of international acclaim. It’s a heartbreaking read, but well worth it.
Survival in the Killing Fields, by Haing Ngor
It’s true that so many of these books are about the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, but some of these reads just can’t be overlooked. This one is the true-life story of Haing Ngor, a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. Ngor was a doctor, and so he witnessed firsthand his country’s descent into brutality, slavery, squalor, and starvation – all of which are recounted in his book. It can be difficult to read at times. Since having first published this memoir, Ngor’s life ended with his murder. The perpetrator was never found.
A Woman of Angkor, by John Burgess
Here’s one that takes place during the 12th century, right in the middle of the Angkor civilization. Sray is a young woman who lives behind Behind a stone temple in a little village. Sray has a dangerous secret, and so she lives a quiet life away from the spotlight – until she is summoned to the royal court, where her loyalties are tested by king Suryavarman II. In the background is her husband Nol, struggling to keep her devotion. This is a fun, imaginative piece of historical fiction that will transport you right into the ancient civilization!
Phnom Penh Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more information on Phnom Penh and Cambodia? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Camodia travel and continue planning your trip: