Planning a solo trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia? Here’s everything you need to know for your visit:
- The capital and largest city of Cambodia, with a population of 2.2 million.
- Considered one of the most beautiful French-built cities of Indochina.
- First settled in 1372, it is the political, economic, and cultural capital of Cambodia.
- Literally means “Penh’s Hill,” referring to the woman whose monastery was used as grounds for the capital.
- Nickname: City of Four Faces; once known as the “Pearl of Asia.”
- Currency: Cambodian riel (KHR). U.S. Dollars are widely used for anything over a few dollars. There are no coins, however, and small change will be given in riel. Thai Baht (THB) is also recognized as a currency.
- Spoken languages: Khmer and French. English is also widely used, especially in tourist areas.
- Best time to visit: from December to May (dry season).
- Arriving via airport: the airport is located approximately 7 km west of Phnom Penh, and transportation options to the city center include official airport taxis ($9), tuk-tuks ($7), or motorcycle taxis ($2-4). Alternatively, you can walk out to the main road and bargain for a cheaper price (about $5 for a tuk-tuk).
- Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) is available at many hotels and cafes (especially in the tourist areas), though it’s not always reliable.
WHERE TO STAY
- Best hostel for solo travelers: Mad Monkey Phnom Penh. Great locations, big rooms, big beds, and a powerful air conditioning system (important in these parts!) Very friendly staff, and lots of tours & activities organized for guests. Great central location. Staff can also help you organize onward transport to other cities (e.g. Saigon). Book ahead!
- Riverfront runs from Street 104 to the Royal Palace on Street 178 and is lined with the city’s best mid-range dining, entertainment and accommodation options.
- Chamkar Mon, at the southernmost end of the city, has risen to become the city’s prime stretch of upmarket hotels and restaurants.
- For the most central location, stay along Monivong Boulevard.
- Tuk-tuks, one of southeast Asia’s quintessential vehicles, are plentiful in Phnom Penh, and trips around town typically cost $2-3, depending on distance and time of day (expect to pay a bit more at night). Many drivers do not know their way around very well, so try to verify that the driver knows where you’re going or expect him to stop and ask for directions. You can rent one for the whole day for $12-15.
- Motorcycle taxis (called Moto) are also common in Phnom Penh, and cheaper (though less safe) than tuk-tuks, with trips around town costing $0.50-$1. Agree on the price before the ride.
- Regular taxis are becoming more common in the city, though most are unmetered. Taxis can usually be found in the Riverfront and Street 51 areas, as well as other busy areas, and you can call one of the companies for a pick-up. For unmetered taxis, be sure to settle on the price in advance. Call to book: 011-311888. A taxi can be hired for the whole day for $25-35.
PHNOM PENH NIGHTLIFE
- No official drinking age, and last call is 5 AM.
- Most of Phnom Penh’s nightlife options are concentrated in the Riverfront and Street 51 areas. The Riverfront offers numerous good bars and restaurants, while Street 51 hosts the most popular clubs, most of which get going around midnight. Be aware that many are hostess bars, staffed by attractive young Cambodian women who are paid to flirt with customers and sometimes willing to go home with them.
- Street 104 and Street 136 are packed with cosy bars that stay open till the early hours.
- Great bars to start your night: Embargo Craft Beer Bar, Bassac Lane, BattBong, Elephant Bar, and Score Sports Bar (to catch the game).
UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT
- Phnom Penh’s most important sites are its two genocide memorials. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located on the site of S-21, the Khmer Rouge’s most important prison. The prison’s four buildings have been preserved, and visitors can view the small cells, as well as instruments of torture and displays of photographs.
- The other genocide memorial is at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, about 17 km south of Phnom Penh. The site, now a mass grave, offers extensive historical information through an audio-tour that takes visitors to key locations in the fields.
- Phnom Penh’s other well-known monuments are the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, built in the 19th century. Today, much of the palace grounds (including the room housing the famed Emerald Buddha) are open to public, and visitors can wander through at their own pace. Note: your knees and shoulders must be covered in order to enter the palace.
- Wat Ounalom is one of the most sacred temples in the city and the epicentre of Cambodian Buddhism.
- The National Museum of Cambodia contains an extensive collection of the country’s cultural history. The museum is a leader in archaeological exhibits, with the statue of King Jayavarman VI being a main attraction.
- The nicest walk in Phnom Penh is undoubtedly down Sisowath Quay, a 3 km long promenade running along the Tonlé Sap River. Filled with sights, shops, bars, and restaurants, including many pleasant places to stop for an outdoor drink or cup of coffee, a stroll down Sisowath Quay can easily take half a day or more. If you start early enough, you’ll get a peek at the droves of Cambodians who pour onto the Quay to start their day with a workout on the public exercise equipment or in large outdoor aerobics classes.
- The area around Independence Monument, at the intersection of Sihanouk and Norodo Boulevards, offers another nice walk. Though not far from the Sisowath Quay, this area offers a very different feel. Strolling down the streets parallel to Sihanouk Boulevard will take you past trendy cafés, stylish boutiques, and several embassies.
- Wat BotomVatey is a playground for the young and younger.
- Phsar Reatrey, a night market on the riverfront, features handicrafts, silks and novelty items.
- The boulevards overlooking Tonle Sap River are known for their 19th century villas.
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre adopts animals rescued from traffickers and poachers including the largest collection of rarities such as Siamese crocodiles and Malayan sun bears.
- Rural Phnom Penh is an astounding collection of colors and smells just a bridge crossing over the river. Perfect to escape the dust and noise of the capital, even for a day.
- Krama is the ubiquitous accessory to the Cambodian lifestyle, used as a scarf, towel, bandanna, obi, belt and more.
- Great restaurants to try: Chez Gaston, Namaste India Restaurant, Eleven One Kitchen, Chez Tonton, Cousin’s Burger & Coffee, Khema Restaurant Pasteur ($$$).
- Where to find good cheap eats: Central Market has a selection of stalls selling local dishes for a fraction of the price of what you’d expect to pay in a restaurant. Sisowath Quay is lined with inexpensive cafés open all day.
- Cambodian dishes belie the influence of past conquerors. The national dish is Amok, a simple meal made of meat or fish stewed in coconut milk and served either wrapped in banana leaves or in a coconut shell.
- As in most large cities, pickpocketing is always a risk, especially in crowded areas. Be aware of what you keep in your pockets, and keep a tight hold on purses or bags.
- Dangerous areas: Phnom Penh is generally very safe. Be aware that beggars and touts (including child vendors) often congregate in the tourist-heavy areas, especially along the Riverfront, and can be quite aggressive. They do not usually pose a safety concern, and are best handled with a smile and a firm, “No thanks” or, “Sorry.” Street 19 and Street 178/13 junction (next to the National Museum) are frequented by pickpockets and thieves.
Recommended trip duration: 3-4 days