How Many Days Do You Need in Phnom Penh?
Created by Colleen Sims * 11 March 2023 * Updated 15 August 2023
How many days do you need in Phnom Penh? My advice would be longer than you think. If you can spare the time add an extra day as it’s a great city to visit.
When we first decided to visit Cambodia, Phnom Penh wasn’t on our agenda but after a little research, it quickly became evident that we should include the nation’s capital. We added three days but with hindsight, I might have added more.
Two, Three or Four | How many Days are Enough?
Phnom Penh isn’t an expensive city, it’s definitely worth visiting and there are options to fit every budget. How many days in Phnom Penh to add to your itinerary will ultimately depend on how much time you can spare. To do justice to the city I would recommend at least three days but if you have more time then add one or two extra days, you won’t be bored. On the other hand, don’t worry if you only have a couple of days, you can still squeeze in a great deal.
We prefer slow travel so an ideal day for us is one main excursion (alone or with a tour), a nice meal and a little ‘mooching’. If you have more energy then you might prefer to do a little more each day but time is on our side and I like time to reflect on what we’ve been doing.
What Should a First-time Visitor see in Phnom Penh?
It would be impossible to visit Phnom Penh without recognising the awful atrocities that took place under the Khmer Rouge. It is said that up to 3 million Cambodians were murdered across the country. Those atrocities are recognised and documented at Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng (S-21) Memorials and Museum. To really understand modern Cambodia, you should join a half-day tour of The Killing Fields and S-21.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center | The Killing Fields
This is a very sobering trip. Cheoung Ek, more commonly known as The Killing Fields, was originally an orchard, south of Phnom Penh. In the 1970’s it became a place of execution and burial for thousands of Khmer Rouge victims.
129 mass graves have been excavated on the site and today, Choeung Ek is a memorial to those victims. At its centre is a Buddhist stupa with windows on each side; it is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Boardwalks have been created across the site to prevent the desecration of the mass graves and our guide told us that every year in the rainy season more bones and teeth come to the surface across the site.
You don’t need a guide to visit the Killing Fields but I would recommend one. Our guide talked about how members of his own family had been taken and the reality of his stories really brought home how recent these events are and their impact on Cambodia’s modern history. Our trip also encompassed a visit to Tuol Sleng which I would also recommend.
Take the same Killing Fields and S-21 Tour that we took
Tuol Sleng | S-21
Tuol Sleng is also known as S-21. I would say in advance that this visit reduced me to tears. It’s a difficult place to visit but I do not regret going. S-21 was once a high school but was turned into a prison used for interrogation and torture. Today it is a museum and remains largely untouched. The barbed wire and shackles are a stark reminder of what this building was. 17,000 people were brought to S-21 and only a handful of people survived. Like many regimes, the Khmer Rouge kept records and photographs and those photographs are on display here.
I couldn’t go into the interrogation rooms; that was just too much for me, indeed there are graphic and heartbreaking photos on the walls of how the rooms were left when the Khmer Rouges withdrew from Phnom Penh. If you don’t wish to visit the interrogation rooms you can choose to sit in the garden; many people did. In the gardens when we visited were two men who had survived and had written books and continue to sit each day in the prison to talk to visitors and tell their stories.
You can save money and visit alone but our guide really helped us to make sense of what we were seeing and helped us to process what we’d seen after. We spend the afternoon downtown people-watching and reading more about the Khmer Rouge. I’m glad we kept our afternoon free as this is a thought-provoking tour, made more so by our excellent guide.
We highly recommend this tour if you wish to Visit the Killing Fields and S-21 in Phnom Penh. Our Guide really helped us process all that we were seeing
The Royal Palace
Spend some time visiting The Royal Palace. We visited the palace as part of a walking tour, if you have time I’d recommend that you take the Royal Palace tour and then allow yourself time to return and wander the grounds alone. The gardens are beautiful and there are many corners to explore. You can also visit alone without a guide, my only caveat would be that there is a great deal to see and the guide helps you to make the most of your visit.
This is the Palace Tour we took
It’s really worth having a guide but if you have time go back and explore alone.
Some noteworthy sights are the Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda and a spectacular 17th century Buddha made of solid gold, weighing 90 kilograms and adorned with 9,584 diamonds.
National Museum of Cambodia
We stumbled across the National Museum almost by accident. The building and gardens were impressive and at first we thought it might be a private residence. Within its walls you’ll find the world’s largest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world. It’s a beautiful site and well worth a visit.
Phsa Thmei or Central Market
There are a couple of markets that merit a visit in Phnom Penh. For a morning visit we’d recommend Phsa Thmei or Central Market (also sometimes called New Market). It was established in 1937 and we were attracted to it because we’d read about it’s Art Deco building but also because we love a good market! Inside the giant central dome you’ll find jewellery, watches and glasses. At this central dome you can head off in any direction and find every kind of item you could ever wish to find; food, clothes, household goods, flowers, hair dressers, dress makers or nail bars. There is really is no end to what you can discover in these narrow alleyways.
Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Poung)
The Russian market is so named because it was Phnom Penh’s foreigner’s market in the 1980s’ and at that time the foreigners were mostly Russian. It doesn’t have the Art Deco architectural value of the Central Market but it makes up for that with is huge array of souvenirs, arts and crafts as well as everything else you could want!
Tourists flock here and stall holders are friendly and happy to invite you in and show you around their stall. Like the Central Market, there are several jewellers and gold-sellers, and this is also one of the best markets to buy fabric. You can also buy food and drink and just as in Central Market, the meat stalls might be a little challenging for some.
What’s the difference between Russian Market and Central Market? The Russian Market was maybe a little more chilled but we never found that we were hassled at either place. We didn’t buy but we did window shop and perhaps the Russian Market is a little more geared towards tourism. Prices for tourists are quoted in USD and you will need to haggle to bring the price down by at least 50% or go with a guide on a morning market food tour and get to taste a few free samples too!
Phnom Penh Night Market
The night market at Phnom Penh is nothing like the night markets were used to in France; it’s more like an Asian version of Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh. Head to the riverfront on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday between 5pm and 11pm; you can’t miss it!
Just like any market you’ll find an array of goods (including a lot of ‘fake’ designer goods). You’ll find food and street food vendors and clothes and souvenirs. The Night Market is popular for locals and tourists alike so try to make sure you find time to go. It’s a great opportunity to try a little street food, listen to local live Cambodian music and just soak up the atmosphere. We took the Mekong River Sunset Cruise first and it was a perfect combination with a visit afterwards.
Take a Food Tour
One of the best ways to explore Khmer cuisine and soak up the crazy atmosphere of the markets is with a local. There are some really excellent guides offering food tours. If you’re nervous about trying the street food this tour is perfect for you! Alternatively, you can also take a cooking class and learn how to make the most famous Khmer dishes.
Mekong River Sunset Tour
I really like a boat trip. I also don’t like to spend a fortune on tours because I’m not looking for razzmataz so this Mekong River Sunset Tour was perfect for us.
A tuk-tuk collected us from our hotel to the dock; dont wear heels as you walk along planks to get to the boats. The boat sailed out from the Tonle Sap river into the mighty Mekong and our on board guide kept us topped up with drinks and fresh fruit, whilst telling us about the river and the people who live on the banks and still fished her waters.
We watched the sun slowly sink behind the sky scrapers of modern Cambodia and chatted with fellow travellers. I loved this tour; if you only have one night then it’s a great way to spend a few hours and still have time to explore after. (if you’re visiting over a weekend you can visit the Night Market).
I LOVED this MEKONG RIVER SUNSET TOUR
The views were amazing and the cost included hotel pickup, drinks and fresh fruit. Fabulous Evening and Excellent Value
Hands ‘n Feet Spa for women
The Daughters of Cambodia is a charity created to “empower those trapped in the sex industry to walk free and start a new life, with healing, dignity, and the means to prosper.” Their visitors centre in Phnom Penh offers a boutique a spa and a café (although this was closed when we visited)
I’m usually not a fan of massage but I love this charity and it felt good to go and support them. The offer manicures and pedicures, along with massage treatments for hands, feet, head and shoulders. This service is a woman only service, so if you’re a couple your other half will need to go and enjoy a coffee whilst waiting for you. Make sure you ask for the ‘gentle’ massage as Cambodian massage can be quite hard!
Eclipse Sky Bar
If you wish to experience Phnom Penh at night then maybe take a visit to the Eclipse Sky Bar and view the city from above. It’s on the 23rd floor of Phnom Penh Tower and offers award winning alfresco dining as well as a fabulous centre bar. There are a few Sky Bars in the city but this was our choice. It’s a really popular destination so if you’d like to visit and eat then we recommend booking in advance.
Foreign Correspondant’s Club
I love visiting places with a sense of history. A friend told us that we had to visit the FCC whilst in town but sadly it was closed for major renovations when we were there. In 1991, journalists were finally allowed into Cambodia and many were based in Phnom Penh. A small group decided to create their own club, where reporters and photographers could meet and in 1993 the Foreign Correspondents Club opened it’s doors. Today it’s very much an iconic landmark and as well as a bar you can eat or even stay the night here.
The FCC is no longer a place exclusive to journalists, visitors come to admire the interios and view the photos taken by war correspondants; it’s a great place to people watch too.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal
Everyone knows about the Singapore Sling in Raffles but did you know that there is a Femme Fatale in Phnom Penh, created in 1967 in honour of Jaqui Kennedy’s visit. If you don’t have the budget to stay a night at the Raffles Hotel, you can still drop in to the Elephant Bar and have their signature cocktail or perhaps opt for an indulgent Afternoon Tea.
The city took it’s name from the temple Wat Phnom. Sited on the only small hill in the city, history tells us that the first pagoda was erected here in 1373. According to legend, four Bhudda statues were washed up along the shore of the Mekong and discovered by a woman called Penh. Other accounts suggest a different original but they agree the site is ancient. The temple has been rebuilt many times, the most recent was rebuilt a hundred years ago.
It’s a simple but beautiful temple and perhaps best visited at night when it’s illuminated. Alternatively, take a tour of the city and your guide can provide more details on the history of the site.
Silk Island | Koh Dach
If you’d like to see a different, more traditional side to Phnom Penh then take a trip to Koh Dach, or Silk Island. This little island on the Mekong River has modern Phnom Penh on it’s skyline but offers a perfect contrast to the city and a glimpse of rural Cambodian life. Silk island is so named because of the silk-weaving communities that live here; The art of silk weaving is an ancient art and the silks were wonven for the rich and powerful.
You can travel to the island independently, short ferry crossings offer one-way trips for just a few dollars. We decided to take a tour because we love the stories and the history that we learn from our local guides.
After a short relaxing cruise we landed at Koh Dach and wandered into the main village square. Our guide talked about village life, took us to visit the primary school where we could talk to the teachers and students and then we met a young family who had created their own silk weaving business. Onwards across the island in a tuk-tuk to visit the main silk community where we learned about the life cycle of the silk worm and how the women harness the worms and their silk to their advantage.
It’s a charming, quiet place and after our visit we sat in the shade of a tree and chatted with a young Tibetan monk who had also made the journey. This is a beautiful day and in total contrast to the bustle of Phnom Penh; I’d highly recommend this trip.
Vattanac Capital Tower is a modern skyscraper, complete with shopping mall and glass-walled sky bar. It’s considered one of the best addresses in town and maybe perhaps the face of Modern Phnom Penh. Inside you’ll find the most exclusive shopping brands, which is great for window shopping! You’ll also find a bar and restaurant which is perfect for viewing the city below.
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you’re wanting to see a very different view of Phnom Penh then it’s worth making the trip.
What was once a leafy residential area has become home to many trendy bars and restaurants. If you’re looking for night life in Phnom Penh this is the place to come. The narrow street is lined with bars and restaurants, and the sound of music from each bar clashes as you walk along. Choose your spot and take a table and people watch or if you prefer move from bar to bar, trying to find a favourite.
This is definitely the domain of the young and trendy and pay attention to your purse but it’s a good place to discover Phnom Penh at night. It’s easy to get around Phnom Penh; use your GRAB app to have a tuk-tuk take you safely to and from your hotel!
Festivals in Phnom Pehn
How many days do you need in Phnom Penh? If your visit corresponds with a local festival it can be a blessing or a hindrance depending on where you are in your travel and you might want to adjust your schedule. If you’ve arrived and you wish to join in the fun and the local culture then it’s perfect, if you’re trying to travel check the dates as everything closes. Here are a few huge celebrations, just like Easter, these dates change every year so check the calendar to see if it impacts on your travel plans.
Khmer New Year – April
This is not the best time to travel; imagine travelling on Christmas Day. Phnom Penh closes as people celebrate with the nearest and dearest.
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony – May
This is an ancient celebration at the start of the rice growing season, where local priests foretell the outcome of the coming harvests. This festival is considered one of the most important in Cambodia and even the King still participates.
Pchum Ben – September
Another ancient and significant festival, spread over 15 days. It’s purpose is to remind Cambodians of their ancestors and lost loved ones, they honour the dead by bringing food and money to the local monks and pagodas. It’s a little like All Hallows but lasts longer and has a greater personal significance to Cambodians.
Bon Om Touk (Water Festival) – November
This festival corresponds with the end of the Monsoon season. The water festival is a huge celebration and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. You’ll find traditional boat races, overcrowded streets, food markets, street vendors, fireworks, illuminated boat parades and general jollity and making merry.
If you’re in Phnom Penh during this festival I really recommend finding a guide to help you navigate the streets and the celebrations.
How to Spend a Day in Phnom Penh
If you only have one day in the city and you are keen to see as much as you can then I would recommend taking a few tours. A visit to the Killing Fields should be on every itinerary, take a food market tour to get a glimpse of the markets and Cambodian Cuisine, and take a Mekong River sunset cruise and after take a tuk-tuk ride around the city, ending up at one of the city Skyline bars to toast the end of a very busy day in Phnom Penh.
The Last Word : How Many Days Do You Need?
I believe that you need more time in Phnom Penh than you imagine; three days at a minimum if you can spare the time. The city is noisy and dirty and chaotic for sure but it is also so much more that this. Don’t judge this book by it’s cover, spend a few days here and discover the beating heart of this incredibly underrated destination.
Top Tip : If you have time, don’t just jump to Siem Reap but add a visit Mondilkuri to your itinerary too; we had the best time walking with elephants in this glorious region.
Never leave home without travel and medical insurance. Accidents happen so make sure you have full travel insurance before leaving home.
Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.
TrueTraveller : We have this policy now for an extended global trip and we are happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions
Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me. although we’ve not used them personally.