Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, is a place re-coming into its own after the Khmer Rouge’s takeover in the 1970s. Often overshadowed by the backpacker haven of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is worth a visit in its own right. Phnom Penh lacks the ‘city on acid’ feel that the other Asian capitals such as Bangkok and Tokyo are so famous for – the city possesses a much more laid back quality that allows travelers to experience several different aspects of Cambodian culture and history.
Here are my top 5 Phnom Penh experiences:
Ride a tuk tuk
You can’t go more than a couple of feet in Phnom Penh without being offered a ride on a Tuk Tuk. A two wheeled buggy attached to a motorcyle, Tuk Tuks are THE method of transportation. A trip across town shouldn’t cost more than a few dollars – keep in mind that all prices are open to negotiation.
Eat the Local Food
Diverse and cheap, Cambodia’s food shouldn’t be missed. Although a lot of the menu’s are borrowed from neighboring Thailand, several of Cambodia’s own dishes are also worth trying. The most famous dish is Amok, which can be prepared with both fish or chicken.
Cambodia’s many markets are also filled with food for sale. Everything from fresh vegetables and exotic fruit to fried crickets (which are eaten like potato chips) can be found for sale in the stalls and in the carts lining the streets.
Learn about the Past
During the rule of the Khmer Rouge millions of Cambodians were oppressed and killed. All the citizens of Phnom Penh were exiled from the city and sent to work back breaking hours in the rice fields. Anyone who opposed the regime was arrested and forced to confess their “crimes.” Afterwards most of these prisoners were killed and buried in mass graves.
Visiting the Killing Fields, which are just outside the city, and the S21 prison provides great insight into this very recent tragedy. No visit to Phnom Penh is complete without the perspective gained from these experiences.
Cross the Mekong
Phnom Penh is located on the banks of the Mekong River. Situated in the middle of the river are the Mekong Islands. A short ferry ride will bring you feeling like your miles away from the city. Renting a bike and exploring the area is a great way to see day to day Cambodian life up close.
Experience the Religion
In a country where a majority of the population is Buddhist, religion can easily be seen in everyday life. Wake up early enough and you will see monks making their daily alm collecting trips. Stroll through the market and you will see hundred of Buddha statues for sale. Visit the Royal Palace and you can enter the Silver Pagoda, home of the jade Buddha. It’s a wonderful insight into everyday life that isn’t always easily accessible to tourists.
One thing to remember, if you want to take photos of monks or other religious items you should always ask permission. Most monks are happy to oblige. One young monk was so eager to practice his English that he struck up a conversation about American Universities with us and then asked to see my pictures from my trip to Angkor Wat.