Most people go to Cambodia to visit the famous Angkor Wat temple or the beautiful beaches in the south west, so they just use Phnom Penh as a stopping off point for 24 hours or so before heading off to explore the rest of the country. But the Cambodian capital is absolutely a destination in itself full of lots of incredibly interesting places to visit! Luckily Phnom Penh is quite compact so you can easily see the best bits of Phnom Penh in one day. Read on to discover the best itinerary if you only have 24 hours in Phnom Penh!
Phnom Penh is exciting, chaotic and full of dusty streets. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes are everywhere. You’ll see elderly Cambodians riding scooters full of groceries and household products, and you’ll see whole families on scooters, it’s really quite fascinating! It is an absolute must-visit on any Cambodia backpacking itinerary, and the great thing is that getting a Cambodia Visa On Arrival here is super easy!
The avenues are wide and you’ll see lots of grand French Colonial buildings and mansions – a reminder of Phnom Penh’s once glorious past. The landmark 20 metre tall Independence Monument (below left) stands out in the middle of a roundabout on one of Phnom Penh’s main roads to commemorate Cambodia’s Independence from France.
24 hours in Phnom Penh itinerary:
- Royal Palace
- Choeung Ek Killing Fields
- Central Market
- Tuol Sleng
- Sunset boat ride
The Royal Palace
With only 24 hours in Phnom Penh start the day early with a trip to The Royal Palace – The King of Cambodia’s official residence. In contrast to the chaotic city outside, The Royal Palace is calm, majestic and completely pristine! It is absolutely beautiful here full of intricate Khmer architecture and ornate details on the golden roofs, with perfectly manicured lawns.
Construction of The Royal Palace began in 1866, the same year that Phnom Penh was declared the new capital of Cambodia. Over the years many additions were added to The Royal Palace. The Royal Place in Phnom Penh is very reminiscent of The Grand Palace in Bangkok – just a lot smaller thankfully!
As The Royal Palace is the King’s residence of course it means that many of the Palace buildings are not accessible to the public. However the majority of the gardens and pavilions are and you’ll still be able to access the incredibly ornate Silver Pagoda, also known as Wat Preah Keo or ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’ and the golden spired Throne Hall.
The most convenient way to get to The Royal Palace is to take a short tuk-tuk ride from your accommodation to the Southern Gate entrance. The actual Royal Palace cannot be seen from the outside as high yellow walls surround the complex. Yellow symbolises Buddhism, the main religion in Cambodia. You can easily find an available tuk-tuk on the street or you might want to use the app Pass App to book taxis and tuk-tuks.
Important things to know before visiting The Royal Palace
– Opening times are from 8am-11am and 2pm-5pm daily. Luckily it never gets too crowded here despite it being one of the most popular places to visit in Phnom Penh.
– Entrance is only permitted to visitors covering their knees and shoulders. Please dress respectfully.
– Entrance is 7 USD.
After this, head to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields on tuk-tuk. They are located a short ride out of town.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
A visit to the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre, also known as the Killing Fields is incredibly eye-opening and moving. The story behind this place is completely tragic and horrific but it is an absolute must visit when you are in Phnom Penh to understand the recent history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge regime. It is sobering, sad and disturbing but very informative and many tourists from around the world come here. If you have time before you visit, watch the 1984 movie The Killing Fields to have a good understanding of the situation before you visit.
Choeung Ek was once a former orchard and from the outside it looks beautiful and peaceful even. But as it’s name suggests, here many people were sadly killed. Infact the Choeung Ek Killing Fields are the site of mass graves for over 17,000 innocent civilian victims. They were brought here by Pol Pot’s regime the Khmer Rouge and brutally executed and buried here between 1975 and 1979.
Victims were brought here in the evening, around 8 or 9pm by the truck load so none of the locals in the nearby village of Choeung Ek would suspect anything. The victims were kept here in the dark with their hands tied behind their backs. When it was their turn to be executed they were told to kneel down at the edge of the pit, then they would suffer a blow to the head with a wooden club before being stabbed or having their throats slit and then thrown into the mass grave. Chemicals were then thrown over the mass graves to not only kill anyone that had been buried alive, but also to kill the stench of the smell of the dead bodies so none of the local residents would grow suspicious. Music was also blasted out to disguise the screams. If you didn’t know the story, you would have no idea that such a bloodied history would ever occur here. That being said, there is an evident air of sadness surrounding Choeung Ek as you walk around.
The site is almost unnervingly quiet, but to preserve this silence visitors are given an audio guide to listen to whilst they walk around the grounds. Whilst normally I am not a fan of audio guides, I was mesmerised by this one as it explained everything so well and gave you many real-life accounts of survivors. Some parts of Choeung Ek are quite graphic and it can be quite hard to listen to the heart-wrenching stories.
Pits, Killing Trees and Memorials
In one corner of the site there is a big pit surrounded by wooden poles covered in thousands of coloured friendship bracelets. The pit is where the bodies of thousands of innocent peoples were thrown. This is just one of the many pits here at Choeung Ek.
You’ll also see the giant memorial stupa in the middle of Choeung Ek which houses over 8,000 skulls in a giant glass cabinet, sorted by gender and age. These skulls were exhumed from some of the mass graves, but still many of the mass graves remain untouched. This outdoor memorial pays tribute to the lives tragically lost here.
Along some of the dirt paths you can still see some remains of human bones and bits of cloth from clothes (many of them are labelled and in boxes). Even after heavy rain some teeth or bones come to the earth’s surface. You’ll also see raised earth where the mass graves have become so swollen.
Then there is the killing tree. This is the part that most people find the most disturbing. This giant tree is where babies were smashed to death by banging their heads against this tree.
Important information about Choeung Ek
- Most people will find 1 – 1.5 hours sufficient at Choeung Ek.
- The Killing Fields are located around 15km south of Phnom Penh but can easily be accessed by tuk-tuk in about 20 minutes.
- Choeung Ek is open daily from 8am to 5pm and entrance is 6 USD including the audio guide.
- It is not really advised to bring children here as they might find it too upsetting. If you do decide to bring them please inform them beforehand what to expect.
Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for killing over 1 million innocent Cambodians either through starvation of execution between 1975 and 1979. A staggering third of Cambodia’s population was killed due to the regime. There are over 300 other Killing Fields across Cambodia but Choeung Ek is the biggest and most well-known one.
After visiting Choeung Ek you’ll definitely need some food so head to Central Market. You’ll find plenty food stalls here to get some lunch at a reasonable price. The Central Market is open daily from 7am to 6pm.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre
Once you have filled up on some delicious street food head to Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre to learn more about the horrific actions of Pol Pot’s Communist Khmer Rouge regime. Unlike Choeung Ek however, Tuol Sleng is located within central Phnom Penh.
Tuol Sleng also tells a deeply sad and disturbing story. Tuol Sleng was originally a school but the notorious Khmer Rouge took over it and turned it into the secret prison S-21. Between 1975 and 1978 thousands of prisoners (men, women and children) were detained and tortured here before being sent in trucks to their death at Choeung Ek.
Tuol Sleng remains almost unchanged since the days of the regime. As you walk amongst the old classrooms you’ll find harrowing torture instruments and blood spots on the walls. You’ll see the pictures on the walls of every victim as they entered Tuol Sleng and you can even go inside the incredibly small cells.
You’ll also see the graves and memorials to the victims who lost their lives. Just a handful of prisoners survived, and you will find two of them here in the grounds selling their books describing their time here at Tuol Sleng.
Entrance to Tuol Sleng is from 7am – 5.30pm and the entrance fee is 3 USD (and an extra 3 USD for an audio guide or extra 6 USD for a regular guide). Like Choeung Ek, you may find this place sad and disturbing. But I believe it is important to visit these places to learn about the brutal history this country has been subjected to.
A 1 hour evening river cruise is the perfect way to relax after an intense day and enjoy the sun set over Phnom Penh. The boat ride starts on the Tonle Sap River and will take you onto the Mekong River before heading past the Muslim fishing villages run by chams.
Chams are ethnic Cambodian Muslims who mostly work as fishermen and live on the fishing boats on the banks of the river. Roughly 250 families inhabit this community.
The sunsets from the river are incredible beautiful and you also get a good view of the skyline of Phnom Penh. Click here to reserve your spot on the 1 hour boat ride that also includes unlimited drinks!
The boat ride starts from Sisowath Quay but make sure to arrive here at the riverfront boulevard beforehand to enjoy the lively atmosphere, music and streets food stalls. It is a beautiful wide Colonial style promenade and it is a great place for people watching early in the evening as many locals like to come down here and relax!
Evenings/nightlife in Phnom Penh
After the boat ride you should also spend some time around Sisowath Quay: there are plenty of restaurants and bars here and even the nearby Phnom Penh Night Market is worth having a look in.
For the swankiest bar in Phnom Penh make your way to Eclipse Sky Bar in Phnom Penh Tower. Eclipse sits on the rooftop (24th floor), making it the highest bar in Cambodia with 360 degree views looking out over the city!
To finish the night head to Bassac Lane and Street 308. These small backstreets are full of bustling restaurants and bars. There are lots of young people here and a really lively atmosphere with live music often playing on the weekends. The bars here tend to close around 1 am.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh:
Budget/backpackers: Mad Monkey Hostel. Mad Monkey Hostel features a sandy rooftop bar and a swimming pool! There are several Mad Monkey hostels throughout Cambodia and are a great choice for backpackers.
Mid-range: Nou’s Boutique Hotel.
Luxury: Raffles le Royal, Rosewood, Floatation.
If you have more than 24 hours in Phnom Penh:
You can check out a 2 day itinerary to Phnom Penh here!
If you want to do a little shopping head to the Russian Market. There are many garment factories close to the sprawling indoor Russian Market which is full of clothes stalls, food, household goods and souvenirs. As with all markets in South East Asia, remember to barter.
National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia is worth a visit if you have time. There is a beautiful courtyard and lots of Cambodian artefacts here. Opening times are from 8am – 5pm and the entrance fee is 10 USD.
Currency in Cambodia
Cambodian Riels is the Cambodian currency but note that the US dollar is the main currency used in Cambodia. Restaurants, shops and hotel will list prices in USD. Small change will always be given back in Cambodian Riels, where 4000 Riels equals 1 USD. Be careful to only bring crisp USD notes as if the notes are crumpled they won’t be accepted.
Getting to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh
Siem Reap is the nearest town to Angkor Wat and is often the next stop on the South East Asia Bucket List for visitors to Cambodia. To reach Siem Reap you can take a 5 hour taxi from Phnom Penh for around $75. Alternatively you can take the bus for a cheaper option.
Where to after Cambodia?
Often backpackers tend to visit several south East Asian countries at once, with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand often being the most popular ones to backpack across on the same trip. It depends on the route you want to take but usually people will head from Phnom Penh to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam as it is just a 6 hour bus ride.
Vientiane to Luang Prabang via Vang Vieng.
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