Once considered the “Pearl of Asia”, Phnom Penh (ភ្នំ ពេញ) fell victim to war and upheaval. But today, the city has revived itself with intriguing markets, a charming café culture, and a delicious food scene. If you’re travelling to Cambodia’s capital, this guide will give you everything you need to know about getting to and from the airport, what to do in the city, and the best books on Cambodia to read before you go.
Getting to and from PNH
Taxis are the best way to get to and from the airport in Phnom Penh. Taxis are not metered but there is an official booth at the domestic and international terminals with set prices. Cost is typically USD 10 one-way to the city centre and centrally located hotels.
A remork (Cambodian tuk tuk) is also available to and from the airport to the city centre. Official airport remorks are organised at the taxi stand next to airport terminal. Cost is usually about USD 5 one-way from to the city centre or centrally located hotels.
Public transit to and from the airport is not available; however, some hotels or guesthouses will offer free pick-up and drop-off to the airport by taxi or remork.
Getting around Phnom Penh
Taxi: There are a few metered taxis available around town, mainly on the route between the airport and the waterfront area. Taxis cost USD 75 cents per kilometre. Two taxi services are Global Meter Taxis and Taxi Vantha. Branded taxis with signs are generally reliable.
Remork: Most locals travel by remork. Short journeys around the city cost approximately USD 2-3 (remorks seat up to four people). A remork can also be hired for USD 15-20 per day, spending on the duration and distance. It’s easy to hail a remork down outside hotels, tourist sites, and other places around Phnom Penh. Be sure to negotiate the price before you start the journey.
Cyclo: Cyclos (bicycle rickshaw) are are great way to see the sights of the city at a slower pace. The Cycle Centre is a local NGO providing support for the cycle drivers who are some of the poorest members of Cambodian society.
Walking: Walking around during the day is a great way to see the city. However, as with other big cities, bag snatching and pickpocketing does occur. It’s wise not to carry your passport or other valuable items with you, including expensive cameras and phones. Keep your bag strapped across your body. If you’re walking at night, walk in a group.
Things to do in Phnom Penh
Start your day like the locals do with an aerobics class. There are a number of places around the city where locals gather to exercise, including public gardens and the Olympic Stadium. You’ll likely be the only foreigner in sight working up a sweat with a combination of dance and aerobics. Part of the fun is playing “recognise that song” — popular Western songs are often sung with Khmer lyrics. Aerobics takes place in the mornings usually around 6am to 7am and again in the evening from 5pm to 6:30pm. Cost is only 2,000 riel (or USD 0.50) per person.
A great way to make new friends is to play sai, a local version of hacky sack. The sai (a rattan ball) costs roughly USD 3 or a cheaper shuttlecock-like version will also work and costs less than USD 1. Pull out your toy any time after 3pm and make instant friends with the locals.
Experience the rich, vibrant culture of Cambodia at Cambodian Living Arts. This not-for-profit organisation provides opportunities for students and graduates of national performing arts institutions. Shows feature a range of traditional dances, puppet shows, and country folk dances performed in the garden of the National Museum each weekend. Shows are priced USD 15 for adults.
If you’re travelling to Phnom Penh in October or early November, don’t miss Bonn Om Touk (Water and Moon Festival). It’s the biggest festival in Cambodia and celebrates the beginning of the dry season. Up to a million spectators flock to the capital to support their local boat crew and to celebrate the reversal of the flow of the Bassac River. The three-day festival includes longboat races, music, dancing, fireworks, and food stalls. The festival finishes with candles floating down the river into the darkness.
Phnom Penh Day Tours
Looking for more things to do? Urban Adventures offers day tours in Phnom Penh and beyond, all led by local experts that will give you a taste for local life:
Phnom Penh’s Past
Spend some time delving into Phnom Penh’s past. It’s dark but essential to understanding the Cambodia of today. Join this Phnom Penh tour to visit the sombre spots made infamous by the Khmer Rouge and learn about the politics that continue to shape this country.
Phnom Penh Secrets
Spend the day learning about Phnom Penh’s past and present. Delve into the region’s history; it’s dark but essential to understanding the Cambodia of today. Visit sombre spots made infamous by the Khmer Rouge and learn about the current politics that continue to shape this country. Then, get out of the capital to visit an island on the Mekong, where you’ll experience the local way of life along the river.
Sunset boat cruises aren’t just for perfect Pacific Island paradises. Cambodia can also do a mean sunset cruise, so join this Phnom Penh tour to spend a lazy afternoon among the agriculture of Mekong Island, followed by a cruise past wats, pagodas, and palaces.
Siem Reap Angkor Adventure
Like a good blockbuster, this bestselling Siem Reap tour is entertaining, enthralling, and hard to pass up. See Angkor’s most famed temples from the serene smiling faces of Bayon to the tomb-raiding Ta Prohm, before devouring a Khmer feast fit for a king.
Siem Reap Street Food by Night
Siem Reap’s street food has also been influenced by Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French techniques to form a style and flavour profile that is uniquely Cambodian. On this night-time food tour, we’ll hop on local transport and travel away from the tourist trail to sample authentic Siem Reap snacks, desserts, and Khmer cuisine staples.
Phnom Penh on the big screen
Before visiting Cambodia, get excited about your trip by watching Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. City of Ghosts with Matt Dillion and Gerard Depardieu follows a con artist who goes to Cambodia to collect his share of money from an insurance scam. If you’re looking to understand more about Cambodia’s recent past and the Khmer Rouge, watch the gritty and moving film The Killing Fields.
Phnom Penh on record
For music that paints a picture of the Vietnam/American War and Khmer Rouge era, listen to punk song Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys. Or listen to Whisky Cambodia by The Cambodian Space Project. The band is fronted by the feisty female Cambodian singer Srey Channthy and their music is heavily influenced by 1960s Cambodian pop that was lost in the Khmer Rouge regime. For popular local music, listen to Khmer New Year Song by local singer Khmearak Sereymon.
Cambodia in books
Looking for some literary inspiration before you arrive? A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis is a good read. Published in 1951, the book chronicles the grandeur of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos before the devastation of the Vietnam/American war.
For stories that tells of the hardship Cambodians experienced, read First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Lung Ung. Ung, once a child of a high-ranking government official living a privileged life, writes a heart-wrenching account of the lead-up to the Khmer Rouge seizing power of Cambodia, the labour camps, and finally the journey to freedom.
The Gate tells the true story of Francois Bizot, a French scholar who arrived in Cambodia in 1965, and his experiences imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and escaping Cambodia after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.
See Cambodia through the eyes of other writers in To Cambodia With Love. Not your traditional travel guide, it features 65 contributors sharing timeless stories and unique insights into the country and people.
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