Everyone that’s been to Cambodia comes to the consensus that Siem Reap is the number one destination in the country. There are thousands of articles about what to do in Siem Reap, and recommendations came easily. What to do in Phnom Penh? That was another search entirely.
When it came time to bid my farewell to Siem Reap, I headed to Phnom Penh with a heavy heart, but a sense of curiosity around what I would experience there.
You see, I knew I had to visit the capital of Cambodia because it houses a highly important museum about the Khmer Rouge, a political group under dictator Pol Pot that committed genocide against the Cambodian population in the 1970s.
While Phnom Penh is still a regularly visited destination, many travelers skip over it in favor of only visiting Siem Reap. This is a grave mistake. In this article, you’ll see why!
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Getting to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap (and Vice-Versa)
Let’s just say that figuring out transport options from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was…challenging.
There were bus options, taxis, boats, and flights. It was overwhelming, and the reviews for most transport companies weren’t stellar…
When traveling in Southeast Asia, I prefer to search for transport options through 12GoAsia and read the reviews. They’re a gold mine of valuable info based upon visitors’ experiences with different transport companies in the region!
Once I’ve determined which company I want to book with and what type of transport I want, I book directly with the company. Now, this can be done in a number of ways: in-person at the company’s office, online, or even through your hotel’s front desk.
I chose to go with Virak Buntham on a bus with about 18 seats. It was roomy, and I got to choose my seat in advance by booking online. There are several departures from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh per day, and vice-versa.
Not only is it simple to book online, but it’s also convenient since you can do so even the day before.
My Experience with Virak Buntham
Once I arrived at the bus station in east Siem Reap, which was just a $2 Grab ride in a tuk tuk, I was able to ask a Virak Buntham agent what time my bus would arrive. We left just 10 minutes after scheduled, and made one stop. Even though I didn’t get anything to eat at the restaurant, I did enjoy their view!
Oh, and did I mention I only paid $12.50 for this ride?
Case-in-point: Traveling by bus is cheaper, easier, and goes by relatively quickly. If you do so instead of flying, Virak Buntham or Giant Ibis are the best companies. Virak Buntham is the better of the two for this route, in my opinion, because this bus didn’t stop several times along the way, and the journey was over quickly.
Caveats: However, drivers don’t always drive as safely as they could. I felt safe, but there were moments that got my heart beating faster! Also, the driver didn’t drop us off at the location on the itinerary map, but instead at a different Virak Buntham office not far from the city center. It was an easy and cheap Grab ride to my hotel, though.
Where to Stay in Phnom Penh
Finding accommodations in Phnom Penh that fit within my budget and offered enough privacy was a pickle!
I’m not one for hostel dorms, because I need alone time at night after a long day of sightseeing. But, all the private rooms at hotels, hostels, and Airbnb apartments were ranging about $20 above my nightly budget. Argh!
All of this frustration melted away when I found Casa Villa Independence for just $33 per night on Agoda (a.k.a. the godsend platform for getting amazing, well-priced accommodations in Asia!).
The Casa Villa Independence boasts an oasis-like pool area, open-air restaurant seating next to the pool, and spacious rooms. I found my bed pretty comfortable, as well. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the riverwalk and central area of Phnom Penh, but it’s easy to get delicious food and coffee nearby!
Would I stay at Casa Villa Independence again? Absolutely!
Road and Pedestrian Safety in Phnom Penh
If you’ve landed on this post out of the millions of other things you could be doing, there’s a substantial chance you’re a budget traveler. I’m all about saving money on the road and walking as much as possible for exercise and for cutting down costs.
But, you’ll want to set aside more in your budget for Grab in Phnom Penh.
While I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh very much (considering I wrote this post in the first place), I have never felt less safe as a pedestrian than I did walking there. There are areas closer to the city center with crosswalks and pedestrian traffic lights, but many streets in the city are not walkable.
I recommend using Grab tuk tuks, because they’re affordable, easy to hail in the app, and you can use a credit card to pay (hello, points!).
The front desk staff at my hotel also warned guests of using Grab motorbikes, citing their danger. I did not personally hail a Grab motorbike, but I can tell you that I saw a young man laid on his back in the middle of traffic one night, because he’d been thrown from his motorbike. I still think about him when that memory crosses my mind.
Bottom line: Please, please, please stay safe and budget extra for transport if necessary. Walking everywhere is not ideal in Phnom Penh. The closer you get to the city center, the easier it gets to walk safely. Otherwise, please be careful.
What to Do in Phnom Penh as a Solo Female Traveler
Traveling solo in Phnom Penh was a wonderful experience! Based upon my three short days there, here are my recommendations for what to do in Phnom Penh as a solo female traveler:
Visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was the number one reason I went to Phnom Penh in the first place.
Remember those travelers I mentioned in the intro that miss out by underestimating Phnom Penh and only visiting Siem Reap? Yeah, I was almost one of them.
That being said, visiting this museum is not for everybody, Allow me to make that crystal clear now.
The genocide committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge against Cambodians was so heinous, and such a steep human rights violation that it is a heavy, deep topic.
I do recommend visiting on your trip to Cambodia, but if hearing about brutal violence and oppression will trigger painful memories from your own past, then prioritize your self-care.
And, for those of us that decide to visit, you’ll want a free afternoon. The experience extends past the museum itself; you’ll process what you saw and learned there well into the following hours, days, and even longer.
I recommend to buy your tickets when you arrive. You’ll want cash! They cost $5 for non-Cambodian adults, and it’s $3 for an audio guide in foreign languages.
Do not cheap out on the audio guide. You need it. Period.
The audio guide, narrated by the descendants of victims and survivors of the genocide, will walk you through every aspect of life under the Khmer Rouge. It covers daily life, the mandated grand exodus from Phnom Penh to the countryside, the hierarchy of society under Pol Pot, and the torture tactics of the Khmer Rouge.
The museum is housed in and colloquially known as S21, because the torture center was formerly a school named S21. There are many disturbing aspects to torturers carrying out their evil in a former house of learning and enlightenment, but I’ll leave the rest of that analysis to the audio guide.
I spent about two hours there, on a crisp morning. There were some other visitors, but I wouldn’t consider it crowded. I gave myself plenty of time to read all the exhibits I desired, listen to the entire audio guide, and take breaks to reflect.
The center of the museum is a courtyard with shaded benches, so take advantage of these rest areas if you so need. In addition, their White Lotus Room serves as an area for visitors to rest and reflect.
In total, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a highly relevant, important, and poignant experience. I definitely recommend visiting, taking your time, truly reflecting on what you learn there, and never, ever forget what happened to these immensely brave people.
Visit the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
Colloquially known as the Killing Fields, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Google Maps) is a memorial to the lives lost at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Because the regime was so secretive, they executed citizens with blunt force to the skull. Like many repressive governments, they used mass graves to bury those they murdered.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is one such place. There were many throughout the country, but this one is the most commonly known and visited by international tourists.
As a result of my deeply emotional experience at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I did not make it to this landmark.
I planned to go right afterwards, but it didn’t happen because I was physically nauseous from what I saw and learned at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
I did find many positive comments on TripAdvisor about people’s visits and their educational value. If you feel up to it, I do recommend to visit this memorial.
See the Independence Monument
Just a five-minute walk from my hotel, the Independence Monument (Google Maps) was one of my favorite landmarks to see in Phnom Penh.
Tall and regal, it stands proud against the skyline, in the center of a major roundabout intersection. The Independence Monument was built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia gaining independence in 1953 from France, the European colonial power of several Southeast Asian countries.
Tour the Royal Palace of Cambodia
The Royal Palace of Cambodia is in the center of Phnom Penh, with its regal gates and a peek of ornate roofs from the outside. If you’re in Phnom Penh and you don’t visit this palace, you’re really missing out!
It is truly gorgeous. I have no other words to describe it.
Drenched in gold that competes with the sun, gardens more luscious than most of the landscaping I’ve seen, and thousands of years of history, the Palace is a must-visit destination.
On the palace grounds is the Silver Pagoda as well, a renowned temple for its opulence. What makes its beauty even more remarkable to me is that the Silver Pagoda, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is the only temple that survived the Khmer Rouge.
That is a pure miracle considering Phnom Penh was reduced to rubble by the regime, and decades of fervent rebuilding made the city what it is today.
If you want to learn more about the sociopolitical and historical context of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, you can do so in this article!
Here’s the DL for your visit:
- Opening hours are 8:00am-10:30am and 2:00pm-4:30pm.
- It costs $10 to enter, including a fee to bring a camera.
- If you want to hire a guide, you can do so at the entrance. I had an enjoyable visit without one, though.
- You can see into the throne room, but you cannot enter or take photos of it.
- You must dress for the palace as you would to enter a temple. If you’re deemed to be inappropriately dressed, you may be denied entry. I recommend long, flowy pants with room to breathe, a thin top that covers the shoulders, and some comfortable sandals for walking.
Stroll Along the Sisowath Quay Riverwalk
Sometimes, the best aspect of a trip is taking a stroll and stumbling unexpectedly across your new favorite place in a destination. For me, the Sisowath Quay Riverwalk is that place in Phnom Penh.
Curling with the Tonle Sap River, which stretches up to Siem Reap, the riverwalk is wide, pedestrian-friendly, and full of life.
And at night, this place really comes alive with night market vendors, families running and playing together, travelers soaking in the atmosphere. I can feel myself back there now.
When I was there, an exhibit was on display about Phnom Penh before, during, and after the dictatorship and how the city has developed into the thriving metropolis it is today. It was almost completely destroyed around fifty years ago, but you wouldn’t know seeing it now.
I loved my time on the riverwalk so much that I went back on my last night. It’s the last thing I wanted to do before I left, and I didn’t fully feel ready to leave until I took one last meander through the magic.
Go Window Shopping at Naga World Shopping Center
In line with the serendipity of my time at the Sisowath Quay Riverwalk, I had no plans to go shopping or end up at Naga World. But, I saw a crossing guard stop traffic for guests, and gosh-darn-it I wanted an escort to cross this rush hour traffic!
So, into the mall I went.
I already knew Southeast Asia as a region took shopping malls to the next level. And by that, I mean everything is shiny, covered in silver and gold, stores look luxurious regardless of what they’re selling, and it’s so clean you could eat off the floor.
This mall, however, took the cake. It’s housed in the basement of Naga World hotel and casino, so I did an impromptu self-guided tour out of sheer curiosity. I didn’t buy anything, but that wasn’t the point.
In life and in travel, it’s all about the journey. You’ll have an interesting one at Naga World!
Here’s its location on Google Maps.
Experience the Russian Market
I’d heard about the Russian Market (Google Maps) through my own online research, but I didn’t necessarily have plans to go. I also happened upon it by accident (see the trend here? The best travel experiences happen unexpectedly.) and the magic of the night market completely took over.
There were people everywhere — vendors selling produce, strong-smelling fish, people weaving in and out, motorbikes riding through. The beauty and the chaos intermingled so much I couldn’t determine which was more prevalent in any given moment.
And even in the crowds, when I caught an elderly seller’s eye, she smiled from ear to ear. We were strangers, but not fully. This is what travel’s all about.
The reason I was near the market in the first place is because I was on my way to Sundown Social, which brings me to…
Vegan Restaurants to Try in Phnom Penh
After having a vegan’s dream experience in Siem Reap, let’s just say I had sky-high expectations for Phnom Penh. Even though I only got to visit four out of the many restaurants I want to try there, I can say that Phnom Penh has no shortage of mouthwatering vegan finds!
Masala Dosa Street Kitchen
Masala Dosa Street Kitchen is the #1 spot on Happycow’s listings for vegan restaurants in Phnom Penh. Needless to say, I was intrigued and headed straight there after arriving from Siem Reap.
Mind you, I had just come from a true plant-based gem of a city. But, Masala Dosa Street Kitchen offers Indian fare that can compete with and even surpass the vegan dishes I had in Siem Reap!
On my first visit, I ordered my first-ever masala dosa, which included turmeric mashed potatoes, a delicious curry, mustard seeds, and a garnish of green onion ($4). Yum.
It was so good that I went back for lunch, where I ordered the special of chickpea channa masala, basmati rice, and a cooling cucumber salad ($6).
This is my first stop when I revisit Phnom Penh!
Sundown Social Club
Sundown Social Club is the veg-friendly spot I was en route to when I found the Russian Market. It’s a little difficult to find; there’s a row of buildings right behind the market, and Sundown Social is accessible through a staircase that will lead you to the rooftop restaurant. There are signs once you get close!
I went because I read on HappyCow they offer a veggie dog, and it didn’t disappoint! This place was teeming with Westerners–the most I’d seen in one place since I got to Cambodia–and is more of a rooftop bar than solely a restaurant.
Make sure you have cash! If you need to run to the ATM, there are a couple not far from the Russian market. Google Maps has your back on that one.
And one caveat about heading to this place: Do NOT walk here from central Phnom Penh. One, it’s far, and two, there are no sidewalks, so it’s not safe for pedestrians. Just get a Grab! I wish I had.
Al’s Tacos is an adorable amalgamation of L.A. cool and Phnom Penh’s modernity amidst ancient remnants. Aside from an Insta-worthy aesthetic, Al’s Tacos boasts a menu of delicious fusion cuisine — Mexican street-style tacos with Southeast Asian ingredients. Yum.
I went with the Satay Tofu tacos with soft shell tortillas and, in true American fashion, a Coca-Cola to drink. The tacos come with a satay tofu topped with pickled veggies, peanut sauce, and cilantro. I must say, the flavors blended perfectly. Al’s is at the top of my list for whenever I revisit Phnom Penh!
I opted for takeaway (even though they have limited seating — see below in the photo) because I actually chose Al’s to take on my bus ride to Saigon, Vietnam the next day. Lord only knows what my options would have been at the border bus stop…
A cardinal rule of veganism is this: Always get your food in advance when traveling. Preparation is key, darlings.
Bong Bonlai (at YK Art House)
The last stop of our virtual vegan food tour is Bong Bonlai, an outdoor restaurant located in YK Art House, an accommodation for short and long-term rentals.
You’ll eat next to the restaurant’s pool, with a shadow of trees and surrounded by luscious green shrubbery.
I went because I read on HappyCow that they offer a vegan burger with “calamari.” Now this, I had to try. I mean, how could I resist?
As it turns out, the vegan calamari is made of rings of fried oyster mushrooms. Firm and bursting with flavor, oyster mushrooms are some of my favorite vegetables!
This spin on a veggie burger was a 10/10 on creativity, flavors, presentation, and execution. I’ll definitely be back!
Read/Watch/Listen Before You Visit Phnom Penh
Keeping in mind what I’ve written about visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, please exercise the same self-care and precautions before reading, watching, and listening to the media I’ve recommended below. This topic is heavy, and the content should be to accompany it and give it proper justice.
Please keep in mind that this list is in no way comprehensive, but rather a collection of works I know about and within which I have found educational value. I will add more to this post as I find more!
Likewise, if you know of any others, please email me! I would love to hear about them.
Books I Recommend
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Loung Ung
Amazon | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Books A Million
Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, Loung Ung
Amazon | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Books A Million
Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness, Loung Ung
Amazon | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble
Stay Alive, My Son, Pin Yathay
Amazon | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Books a Million
Alive in the Killing Fields: Surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide, Nawuth Keat
Amazon | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Books a Million
Films I Recommend
First They Killed My Father
Stream on Netflix
The Killing Fields
Rent on Amazon Prime Video
Podcast I Recommend
“In the Shadows of Utopia: The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Nightmare”
Listen on Spotify
• • •
After catching this glimpse of Phnom Penh, I hope you see now that the city has no shortage of fun, affordable, and unforgettable things to see and do.
From the remnants of an ancient past within the Palace, to the modernity of its cafés and coffee shops, there is so much to explore there. Just be safe while walking, and hail a Grab if you need one.
And above all these, don’t forget that it’s all about the journey. The uncertainty of travel can place you in the most unexpected of places, at the most unexpected times. And when all of that works together to push you out of your comfort zone, the magic of life, away from the comfort of familiarity, shows its true, potent colors.
Phnom Penh is technicolor, my friends. Captivating technicolor.