PHNOM PENH: A CITY FOR ALL THE SENSES.
In Phnom Penh, street market vendors shout from their stalls, and the growl of motorbikes fills the balmy air. High-rise buildings populate the skyline, and at night tourists sip cocktails under the neon lights of waterfront bars. This is a modern city in its very element.
It’s all the more amazing because just 40 years ago, thanks to four years of ruthless Khmer Rouge rule, the Cambodian capital was left desolate and in ruins. It would have been hard back then to have imagined Phnom Penh returning to its former greatness, let alone go on to be one of the most exciting cities in Asia. Yet it has, and here’s how to experience it.
A complex and compelling past
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. Four years of famine, torture and genocide followed, with the brutal regime seeking to execute its political opponents, the educated and the wealthy. Since its downfall, the city has remained committed to remembering this dark past, and Phnom Penh has plenty by way of memorial and education. But that’s not all. You can also explore Cambodia’s rich ancient history, as well as the golden years of its royal family.
If you’re seeking a somewhat complete record of Cambodia’s history – traced back to 5,000 BCE – you’ll struggle to beat The National Museum. This plays home to the ‘Treasures of Cambodia Collection’, featuring objects left behind by the ancient Khmers and other long-gone civilisations. Explore Buddhist and Hindu history, or learn about the noteworthy Angkor era.
The official residence of King Sihamoni, Phnom Penh's golden Royal Palace can be found just off the banks of the Mekong River. Visit the stunning Throne Hall, which is usually used for official celebrations, as well as the Silver Pagoda, an astonishing tower decorated in the precious metal. Elsewhere, the Moonlight Pavillion is one of the most iconic buildings within the palace complex, and tends to be used for traditional dance performances. Look out for the Khemarin Palace - where the king officially lives.
The entrance to the Royal Palace complex.
To gain an understanding of one of Cambodia's most harrowing eras, visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formarely a prison where enemies of the regime were held. Visit the cells where people were executed in the run up to liberation, see black and white photos of victims, and talk to survivors. At the haunting Choeung Ek Killing Fields you'll now find a peaceful memorial at the site of the former massa grave.
Phnom Penh tours: by rickshaw, on foot or boat
If you'd like to explore Phnom Penh with an exper close to hand, consider booking onto a tour. Seing the Cambodian capital this way will help you to make the most of your time in this colourful city; provide you with local insight into your surroudings; and revel hidden gems you would otherwise have missed.
Hop in a rickshaw to explore Phnom Penh like a local. Wind through the bustling streets and glimpse unique architectural attractions such as the Royal Palace and Independence Monument, and breathtaking temples like Wat Phnom and Wat Ounalom. Alternatively, ask for a tour of specific attractions you want to see.
On a walking tour of Phnom Penh, you’ll be able to truly get under the skin of the city, experiencing the sights, sounds and scents it has to offer. Explore amazing food markets, where you can sample fried bugs or fresh fish, or pick up souvenirs at the Russian Market. Your guide will also likely take you for a strong Cambodian coffee, and reveal some of the city’s secrets – the kind only residents known.
On the banks of the Mekong River you’ll find all manner of vessels, from tiny fishing boats to houseboats and catamarans. Take to the water to see Phnom Penh’s skyline from a different perspective. At sundown the sky is painted with dramatic reds and oranges, providing a breathtaking backdrop to the city from the water. Venture further along the Mekong to explore other famous Cambodian destinations such as Siem Reap, or follow the gargantuan river all the way to Vietnam.
As compelling as Phnom Penh is, it’s worth getting out of the city to see what else this fascinating country has to offer. Choose from countless day trips to nearby locations for a novel experience that will give you a deeper understanding of Cambodian history and culture.
Koh Dach: Silk Island
Koh Dach - often referred to as Silk Island - gives you the opportunity to escape the fast-paced streets of Phnom Penh and enjoy a more relaxed side to Cambodia. Wanter the rustic streets and purchase handicraft souvernirs, get lost amid the lush greenery, or releax on the beach. The whole trip typically takes just half a day, so it's a quick yet rewarding way to experience another side of the country
Phnom Chisor is a temple with a view. Dating back to the Angkorian era (9th–14th century), the ancient temple is set upon a hill in Takeo Province, around 55 km south of Phnom Penh. Arrive first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon to ensure a comfortable climb that avoids the midday heat.
The former royal capital of Cambodia, Oudong - literally translated as 'victorious' - offers a tantalising insight into Cambodian history. Between 1618 and 1866, several sovereigns tuled from this seat, and you can explore the remnants of these kingdoms today. Climb the mountain to discover a handful of stupas containing the remains of the kingdom today. Climb the mountain to discover a hanfdul of stupas containing the remains of Cambodia's former kings. But that's not all. This vantage point is dotted with sugal palm trees, and offers idylic views of the surrouding countryside.
Beyond Phnom Penh: stopover beach breaks
Pnhom Penh is a feast of the senses, from the bright lights of its bars and the bustle of its streets to the alluring scent of its sizzling food stalls. But when on holiday you need to spend some time relaxing too. After a few days of sightseeing in the capital, a mini break at one of Cambodia's beautiful beach destinations is the perfect way to unwind.
Sihanoukville is a jump off point for some of Cambodia’s most idyllic, white sandy beaches, which are found on islands nearby. The coastal city is 227 km from Phnom Penh, so you’ll want to stay for more than just the day. It boasts a party atmosphere, especially around the Serendipity Beach area. Hop on a boat to the islands of Koh Rong or Koh Rong Samloem to explore dense jungle terrain, white sandy coves and coral reefs. The former has cultivated a vibrant nightlife scene, while the latter remains more tranquil.
For a higher-end experience, consider heading to Kep, which was established in 1908 as a retreat for the French elite, and has been attracting affluent globetrotters ever since. These days you’ll find a handful of boutique hotels and the Buddhist temple of Wat Kiri Sela. As well as Kep Beach, you can explore the National Park, which boasts an abundance of butterflies. For a rustic experience, sail to the nearby island of Koh Tonsay and relax on its tranquil beachfront. From here, there are further beach options like Rabbit Island and Snake Island.
Fly with THAI from London to Phnom Penh for flexible and convenient travel both there and back. There are two daily flights from London to the Cambodian capital, both of which require a change at Bangkok. This last leg ot the journey is operated in partnership with THAI Smile, the regional and domestic wing of THAI. Layover times vary, from one hour and 55 minutes to three hours and 45 minutes. If you want, you can extend your layover for a short break in the Thai capital to experience another of Southeast Asia’s most colourful cities.
Alternatively, fly straight to Siem Reap and navigate your way to Phnom Penh from there, exploring more of what Cambodia has to offer along the way. Either way, by flying with THAI you’ll enjoy a comfortable journey and award-winning service.