Is it Worth Visiting Phnom Penh?
Created by Colleen Sims * 8 March 2023 * Updated 15 August 2023
Is it worth visiting Phnom Penh? Yes! And it’s a question that we asked ourselves when planning our own Cambodian itinerary.
We nearly skipped Phnom Penh but our kids told us that it was a cool place. Is Phnom Penh is worth visiting? Oh yes! Looking back, I wish we’d stayed another day or two.
What is Phnom Penh Like?
On the drive from the airport, we were surprised at how unremarkable the city looked; it could have been any of the big cities that we’ve visited. I don’t know what I was expecting but busy roads, skyscrapers and lots of shiny Lexus cars weren’t part of that image.
It was only as we grew closer to our hotel, in the heart of downtown Phnom Penh, that the reality of Phnom Penh unfolded.
Phnom Penh is noisy and dirty and chaotic and crazy and yet, in spite of this, there is something about the soul of Phnom Penh that will envelop you and make you fall in love with it.
Is Phnom Penh Safe for Tourists?
Yes. However, it would be foolhardy to say that there is no crime. We had read that ‘bag-snatching’ was becoming a problem in some areas. We never experienced this but nonetheless, we took precautions.
- When travelling on tuk-tuks, as a precaution, put your bag in the middle and hold on to it, and put suitcases or larger bags under your feet.
- As with any city, take care of pick-pockets; Gerry wears a money belt for added security and I have an over-the-body/shoulder handbag. I have my phone on a wrist strap (this is mainly because I am clumsy but it works well in cities too.)
- Also, do not leave a mobile phone sitting on a tabletop in a café or restaurant, you shouldn’t do this anywhere as it’s so easy for your phone to be stolen.
In short, take the same measures that you would in any busy city and don’t let it ruin your experience. We never felt any more at risk in Phnom Penh than at home in the Dordogne in France.
Road Safety and Trip Hazards
Apart from the obvious city risks, I would say that the biggest hazard we faced was on the pavements and the roads. The pavements are uneven, the roads have pot-holes and pedestrian crossings and traffic lights can be advisory.
Traffic is crazy and cars, tuk-tuks and bikes jostle for their place on the road. Cars park in pedestrian areas which means that at times you are walking in the road. You have to be alert.
We love to walk around cities and Phnom Penh is no exception, we felt safe at all times but keep an eye on where you’re walking and be alert when crossing the road.
Food Safety and Street Food
We didn’t eat street food when walking around Phnom Penh (we did take a food tour though). We met a couple at the bus station who did; they were clearly sick and in need of Imodium. Enough Said.
Near our hotel we saw trays of raw meat drying in the sun, serving as a tasty snack for the birds, bees and flies. Later we saw it roasting on the BBQ and that was enough to put me off.
What to See and Do in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a city of contrast. You can visit temples (like Wat Phnom) or beautiful palaces and gardens. There are a couple of markets that really are worth a visit and several tours worth taking.
Here are our top picks for things to do. For more great ideas hop over to How Many Days do I Need in Phnom Penh? We had three days but I regret not having a fourth.
Killing fields and S21
I’m not going to say I enjoyed this trip. It’s the wrong adjective to use. I am however very glad we took the tour; 100%. Do I recommend the tour; absolutely. It is harrowing but helps you to understand modern Cambodia and her resilient and wonderful people.
Sunset on the Mekong
This was a last minute choice and a really inexpensive yet fabulous sunset tour. We loved every minute and watched the most glorious sunset.
We met other travellers, sailed across the Mekong and made memories; what more do you need. If you have a Friday, Saturday or Sunday then you can visit the Night Market as the tour ends; the two work well together.
The Daughters of Cambodia
This isn’t a tour but the Daughters if Cambodia is is a great organisation and well worth a visit. Browse and shop in their boutique or book a relaxing Hands ‘n Feet Spa (for women only). They also have a coffee shop. Do drop in and support this fabulous charity
Escape the noise of the city and sail out to Silk Island for the day.
I’d read the reviews of this trip and it seemed like a great alternative to visiting the city. It was fascinating, educational, so so relaxing and I now own a silk scarf as a reminder of this wonderful day.
Where to Eat in Phnom Penh
Phnom Phen has a great selection of good, affordable restaurants. We ate a few times in our hotel which was very good but we also really enjoyed these restaurants.
David’s Noodle : We stopped by chance for lunch here and enjoyed it so much we returned another evening for dinner. They recognised us and treated us like locals on the second visit. You can watch the noodles being made and cooked fresh and if you like spicy chicken curry you’ll be in for a treat! And they understood gluten free, no noodles for me but Gerry said they were marvellous.
Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC): Everyone we knew who’d been to Phnom Penh told us to go here but sadly it was undergoing a major renovation when we arrived; another reason for us to return perhaps? You can treat yourself to a meal or a bed or you can just drop in for a glass of something cool and people watch.
Sacred Lotus Vegan Café : This café was near our hotel and it was a great stop for a coffee and cold drink or lunch and it’s vegan!
Khema Restaurant : Our hotel recommended this but in the end we returned to David’s Noodles. However, other guest at the hotel told us they had a wonderful meal here.
Namaste India : If you’re craving Indian food then this place is fabulous, we don’t get much Indian food in France so it was a real treat.
Elia Greek Kitchen : We stumbled upon this restaurant and it was a real find. If you’re looking for some European food then this is definitely your place, it can get busy so reservations are recommended.
Street Food : I know I said that you should be careful of eating street food but I am going to contradict myself and say try the street food, but with one caveat! Take a Street Food tour! This is a great way of trying local cuisine (and crickets and bugs) without the risk. And for me it’s a great way of ensuring that I eat gluten free.
I researched popular restaurants before I left home but in the end we didn’t visit them, apart from the FCC which was closed. You will be spoilt for choice in Phnom Penh and there are many great places to eat for all budgets and cuisine’s. We asked all of our guides and fellow travellers where they would recommend and this informed our choices. I thoroughly recommend all the places on my list if you’re in the area.
What to do in Phnom Penh at Night
We took a couple of evening tours (Mekong Sunset Cruise and the Night Street Food Tour) and I’d recommend both of these if you’re looking for something to do at night. Use GRAB to book a tuk tuk and take a tour of Phnom Penh by night, just ask the driver to take you to a few sights. It cost us just a few dollars for an hour of whizzing around.
Also visit one of the cities many Sky Bars or take a trip to Bassac Lane which is considered Phnom Penh’s trendy Boho area. At the weekend the Night Market is also a must, just head down to the river front or GRAB a tuk-tuk.
When to Visit Phnom Penh
Cambodia has two seasons; wet and dry. The most popular time to visit Phnom Penh is between November and April, during the dry season. We were there in January and February and had no rain. We had blue skies, hot sun and a few clouds that never promised rain. It was humid though which is something to consider.
If you don’t mind the daily downpour, then we are reliably informed that April through to September tends to be quieter with less tourists.
If you arrive at the end of the rainy season you have the advantage of seeing the Tonle Sap (the worlds largest freshwater lake) at its fullest. The other advantage is that you could find yourself some great travel deals as it’s the low season.
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Where to stay in Phnom Penh
I did so much research before we left home about where to stay in Phnom Penh and I changed my mind several times; I couldn’t decide between Pavilion or Plantation. In the end, I booked Pavilion and we LOVED it.
It was the right mix of small and personal and if you’re heading to Phnom Penh for a few days this is a great place to stay.
There is a huge array of accommodation, I’ve made a fabulous list of the resorts and hotels that made my short list; it will save you a ton of research!
I would recommend staying within a reasonable walking distance of the river and downtown. But if you aren’t don’t worry, just use GRAB and let tuk-tuks take you around.
Our top picks for hotels in Phnom Penh are :
If you’re looking for a lively hostel in a great location : Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh
Getting Around Phnom Penh
We found travelling around Phnom Penh (and Cambodia) very easy and there are transport choices for every budget. Gerry’s written a fabulous post about Getting Around Phnom Penh which offers a more detail and explains the options for a first time visitor.
Us being us, we walked a great deal; it’s a great way to see the city and it’s free. We also used the GRAB app to book tuk-tuks. We found that many of our tours also included a hotel pickup. Alternatively ask your hotel to book you a taxi or a tuk-tuk, this will ensure you a reliable driver.
For airport transfers we pre-booked a taxi to collect us. We tend to do this with Booking.com, experience has taught is that they are often cheaper than booking direct with the hotel.
Frequently Asked Questions
We have been asked lots of questions about our stay in Phnom Penh, so here are some answers :
Is Phnom Penh Expensive?
Phnom Penh can be as cheap and inexpensive as you want it to be; equally you can spend a lot of money here.
There is accommodation for all budgets, low cost simple homestays and cafes sitting alongside world class hotels and restaurants. Overall as a destination we would rank Phnom Penh as a really great value destination.
- Eating out at lunch time is very good value often paying less that 5$
- Walk to places such as the Central Market (which was free)
- Tours we took offered excellent value and less expensive than places like Phuket
- A 4 kilometre tuk-tuk journey at night cost us less than a dollar.
Is Phnom Penh a Dirty City?
Yes. But the people, the hotels, the bars and the restaurants are not and even the tuk-tuk’s we travelled in were sparkly clean. Streets are busy, but pavements were brushed and cleaned frequently by store owners.
We did notice that the air quality was poor and inevitably the streets can be grimy with plenty of litter.
Is Phnom Penh Better than Siem Reap?
No. It’s different. Siem Reap is a tourist destination and people go to see Angor Wat (as we did) but if you scratch the surface of Siem Reap you’ll find it’s way more than temples.
We enjoyed both cities for different reasons and I wish we had allowed more time in both places. It’s hard to choose a favourite; my advice would be to visit both.
Top Tip : Planning a trip to Cambodia? Take a look at our Itinerary Planner.
How can I travel to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap?
There are numerous ways to travel between Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. There are regular flights between the two and you can use buses and express minibus (there are different standards of bus so be careful).
We used Virak Buntham to reach Mondulkiri and Siem Reap and they were excellent but there is also the Ibis coach service that operates.
One of the guys we met had taken a boat via the Tonle Sap; although he said it’s not a trip for the feint hearted and it does depend on the time of year. Check 12GO for transport options.
Take a look at Gerry’s fabulous in depth post about Travelling Around Phnom Pehn and transport in and out of the city.
Can you drink the Water?
We didn’t. I did have ice in my drinks though. It is recommended that you do not drink the water.
I am loath to buy bottled water (in plastic bottles) but this was the safest option. In the Pavilion they leave you with a jug of purified water each day. Also I always take my life straw, so if I’m in doubt I can use this too.
If you go on a long tour your tuk-tuk driver or boat guide they will often keep you topped up with water too.
Does Phnom Penh have a Chinatown?
We didn’t find a Chinatown in the same way that we have in other cities like Singapore, but there is a very strong Chinese influence in Cambodia and plenty of Chinese restaurants.
Is it safe to walk around at night as a tourist in Phnom Penh?
Yes but as with any city you should be careful.
There have been reports of petty theft. Take care on a tuk-tuk, hold on to your bag or purse and always use the Grab App.
We walked a great deal across the ‘tourist’ areas of the city and we did not experience any problems. We didn’t spend much time in busy nightlife areas so we can’t really comment but our children had no issues and we never met anyone who’d experienced any problems either.
When is the Monsoon season
75% of Cambodia’s rainfall arrives between May and October. One of our guides told us that it doesn’t rain all day like it might in Europe, it’s more of a huge torrential (windy) down pour and then it clears and apparently the rain also brings relief from the hot temperatures.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Whenever you travel overseas it’s imperative to travel with a good travel and medical insurance policy. None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.
I’ve had the mis-fortune to end up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal and Ireland; every time my insurance took care of everything.
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 very 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.
So, Is It Worth Visiting Phnom Penh?
Yes. A visit to Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the nation’s capital. I would also say go with an open mind. Look beyond the chaos and embrace the friendliness of the local people and just enjoy the moment.
Take a look at our other posts on Cambodia :