Arts, Culture & Good Eats in Phnom Penh
Arts & Culture
As someone who lived in Phnom Penh for many years while working for a humanitarian organization, I can tell you that Cambodia’s charming capital city is well worth a visit. Often overshadowed by the beautiful city of Siem Reap (home of the Angkor temples), Phnom Penh is a unique and unforgettable city rich with history, art and culture. Take a stroll along the riverside promenade, soak up the lively atmosphere at the night market, hobnob with expats while enjoying the local art scene, and contribute to social enterprise efforts designed to support local sustainable businesses. I continue to visit whenever I can and it never disappoints!
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Where to stay in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Raffles Hotel Le Royal
Landmark property from 1929 in the heart of Phnom Penh with posh, Cambodian-style rooms and suites.
Complimentary 50 minute massage.
Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.
Rosewood Phnom Penh
Ultra-luxurious hotel located in Phnom Penh's Vattanac Capital Tower with plush rooms, four restaurants and a rooftop terrace.
$100 hotel / resort credit.
Complimentary one-category upgrade at booking or upon arrival.
The Balé Phnom Penh
Luxe collection of 18 design-forward suites with elevated dining and an outdoor pool in Phnom Penh.
$25 hotel credit per room, per day.
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Guaranteed 2pm late check-out.
20% food and beverage discount.
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Things to do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Arts, Culture & History in Phnom Penh
Tour the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Built in 1866, the Royal Palace is the official residence of the King and is one of the city’s greatest architectural achievements. The Silver Pagoda, located on the palace grounds, has an ornate floor made up of over 5,000 silver tiles that weigh over five tons. Be sure to dress conservatively during your visit, including covering your knees and shoulders. There will be some areas where you are required to remove your shoes and photography is not allowed inside most of the buildings. You can purchase a ticket on your own (cash only) or join a guided tour.
Visit the National Museum. Located next to the Royal Palace and in front of the Royal University of Fine Arts, the National Museum houses more than 14,000 historical, cultural and religious artifacts. With architecture inspired by the Khmer temples, this national gem has the world’s finest and largest collection of Khmer arts, including sculptures, bronzes and ceramics dating back to the 4th century, through the Angkor Empire period and beyond. For more of the arts, be sure to visit local art galleries such as Meta House and KBach Arts.
Explore Wat Phnom. According to legend, this historical and religious site was first erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha and one of Vishnu. Located on what was traditionally the highest hill in the city, is made up of a pagoda and several stupas, statues and murals. During your visit, you are likely to see a few local monkeys living in the nearby trees.
Visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21). This UNESCO site and museum, often referred to as S-21, is a former detention center where Cambodians were imprisoned, tortured and killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Visiting the museum provides insight into a dark period of Cambodian history and can be profoundly depressing. If you plan to go I advise allotting time to process and unwind afterward.
Enjoy a Khmer Apsara performance. Reserved for royalty during the Angkor empire, Apsara is a traditional artistic dance now recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World. Dressed in gold, silver and pearls, Apsara dancers delight audiences with their unique movements and curved hand movements. When they’re in town, I highly recommend seeing Apsara by the Royal Cambodian Ballet. I also recommend dinner performances by the Cambodia Living Arts, located at the National Museum.
Spa & Wellness in Phnom Penh
Walk the Riverside Promenade. Take a stroll or arrange a Cyclo ride (bicycle with a small cab attached to the front) along Sisowath Quay - the park-lined riverfront of the Tonle Sap River. Do this early in the morning and enjoy a beautiful sunrise over the Royal Palace and the river in the background.
Take a local cooking class. As a growing culinary destination, Phnom Penh has plentiful opportunities for those who want to cook local cuisine and enjoy being in the kitchen. Some offerings will even take you to explore the local market to buy your ingredients! I especially recommend doing a class with a social enterprise that benefits local business owners or charitable organizations.
Pamper yourself with a spa treatment. Phnom Penh is an excellent destination for a luxurious spa experience, with lots of well-priced options across the city. My personal favorites are Bodia Spa and Bliss Spa on Street 240.
Shopping in Phnom Penh
Wander a local market. Shop to your heart’s content at one of Phnom Penh’s many outdoor bazaars and markets. Housed in an enchanting dark yellow art-deco style dome, Central Market (known locally as “Phsar Thmei”) has everything from food items to souvenirs, clothing and jewelry. Located in an expat area of the city, the Russian Market ("Tuol Tompoung Market") sells similar items, but due to its smaller size is a bit easier to navigate. If you’re looking to shop at night, visit the riverfront Night Market, where you’ll find Cambodian street food, live music, souvenirs and knock-off designer clothes.
Street 240. My favorite shopping spot in the city is none other than Street 240, located behind the Royal Palace. A longtime favorite among expats, this quaint street is lined with artsy boutiques, eateries and leafy French colonial buildings. Here you’ll find tailored gowns and dresses in handwoven silks at Jasmine Boutique, crafted quilts at social enterprise Mekong Quilts and unique fashions made from all-natural fabrics at Elsewhere.
Day Trips from Phnom Penh
Visit the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Located about five miles south of the city, Choeung Ek (also known as the “Killing Fields” monument) is a mass grave and memorial center for political prisoners and others who died under the Khmer Rouge regime. I recommend devoting a full morning to visiting this site as it can be a distressing experience and may require time afterward to decompress.
Places to eat & drink in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Brown Coffee Roasters - This local cafe chain founded by young Cambodian entrepreneurs has beautiful, well-designed spaces throughout the city. Popular among local students, expats and visitors alike, Brown serves a large variety of single-origin coffees, espresso drinks, pastries and light food items. Be sure to visit their roastery location in the expat neighborhood of Boeng Keng Kang on Street 57.
The Shop - This garden-themed cafe founded in 2009 is the perfect spot for all-day breakfast, lunch or to pick up delicious bakery items to go. Next door to their Street 240 location they run a Belgian chocolate shop with everything from almond truffles to locally inspired options such as chocolates made with Mondolkiri honey. And if you don’t have time to make it over in person, don’t worry! They’ll deliver to your hotel!
Java Creative Cafe - This well-established favorite is part-restaurant, part-art gallery and offers everything from full breakfasts to fresh salads, sandwiches and pasta. Its two locations boast delicious food, good drinks and local art. This is my preferred spot to work on my laptop while sipping a latte or to grab a meal with old friends whenever I’m in town (often multiple times in one trip!). If you’re looking for a twist on local fare, try the Lok Lak Beef. Their burger is my favorite in town.
Malis - Home to Cambodian celebrity chef Luu Meng, Malis is a high-end Cambodian restaurant offering fine dining in an elegant fengshui setting. If desired, guests can choose to dine in their beautiful outdoor courtyard, surrounded by a tropical garden and flowering frangipanis. Be sure to try the Fish Amok, a traditional Cambodian dish steamed in a banana leaf basket.
Friends. Friends is a social enterprise run by Mith Samlanh, a nongovernment organization dedicated to working with former street children and marginalized young people. The menu here is all about tapas and creative small plates. This restaurant is a great hang out spot due to its bright ambiance, delicious food and friendly staff. While you’re there, be sure to check out Friends ’N’ Stuff, a small shop connected to the restaurant that sells bags, clothing and jewelry made with recycled materials by families the organization works with.
Romdeng. Also run by the Mith Samlanh organization and sister restaurant to Friends, Romdeng serves up an eccentric twist on traditional Khmer cuisine. Located in a beautifully restored colonial building and surrounded by a lush garden, this restaurant offers unique dishes such as river fish with tamarind sauce. Daring eaters will enjoy plates such as crunchy rice-paddy crickets, spicy red tree ants and deep fried tarantulas served with pepper lime dipping sauce.
Elephant Bar at Hotel Le Royal. Located at Raffles Le Royal Hotel, the Elephant Bar has earned its spot as a city institution and is widely known for "Femme Fatale," its signature cocktail first concocted for Jackie Kennedy during her visit in 1967. Serving a wide range of wine, beer and spirits - including over 130 different gin labels - this is a great spot for a drink or evening bite with friends.
Sora Sky Bar at the Rosewood Hotel. As one of the tallest buildings in the city, Rosewood’s sky bar provides visitors with the best view of the city. Offering indoor and outdoor seating, live musical performances, a whisky “library” with the widest selection of single-malt whiskeys around and specially curated cocktails, Sora is definitely worth a visit for a round of drinks.
Bloom Cafe and Cakes. If you have a sweet tooth or want to pick up a cake for a special occasion, Bloom Cafe offers delicious and artistic cakes, unmatched across the city. If you choose to dine in, pair your gourmet cupcake with a handcrafted latte. Even better, Bloom is a social enterprise, offering training and employment to survivors of abuse and exploitation.
Need to Know
As an advocate for responsible tourism, I strongly recommend travelers educate themselves about sustainability and how to ethically engage with vulnerable communities they may encounter on their trip. For example, see ChildSafe Alliance’s resource on how to protect children from labor exploitation in the tourism industry. Use tour operators that highlight sustainable travel practices, and look for businesses across Cambodia that sport a “heritage friendly” certification, showing they meet certain criteria for economic sustainability and preserving Cambodia’s cultural heritage. Find more information here.
Looking for more sustainable travel tips? Check out this guide by Fora Advisor Karen Hart: A Sustainable Guide to Sumba, Indonesia.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Cambodia and our continuing series on sustainable travel.