WHAT TO DO IN PHNOM PENH and HOW MUCH TIME YOU NEED
As it is the case with many a capital, they are not the best reflection of the spirit and culture of a country. They can feel impersonal, crowded or overrun by tourist touts if you’ve just arrived from the languid country- or beach-side. And although some capitals in South-East Asia can be scratched from your itinerary altogether (I’m looking at you Jakarta and Manilla), I do believe Phnom Penh deserves more credit than that. There is a very lively bar- and restaurant-scene, the cultural and architectural highlight of the Royal Palace and history buffs can explore Tuol Sleng (AKA S-21 prison) in combination with the nearby the Killing Fields or (on the not-so-grim side of the spectrum) the National Museum.
That’s a lot of ground to cover if you are the ‘Jack Bauer’ kind of traveler and have to get the job done in 24 hours. Solution? Buffet-style traveling: pick & plan. And I’m going to help you do it!
In the follow segments, I’ve divided possible activities into building blocks including the time you’ll need to run through them. Neat right? Start building!
(These are of course guidelines and some of you will choose to spend more or less time at each stop.)
N°1 – ROYAL PALACE & SURROUNDING SIGHTS – 3-4 HOURS
I’d suggest starting this walk after breakfast, so you don’t walk around in mid-day heat. The starting point for this little walking tour is the Independence Monument. From there, make your way east through the little park along the statue of King Sihanouk. At the end, make a left (north-bound) in Wat Botum park until you get to the south-east corner of the confinements of the Royal Palace.
Let’s start off by saying that The Royal Palace is a must-see (even though I don’t like using that word). The entrance is along the eastern wall. Be aware: there will be some tuk-tuk drivers ‘addressing’ you along the way to take you to the Killing fields for example, or posing that the Palace is closed. Although the Palace is closed during mid-day and on certain days for ceremonies (check the website or ask your hostel/hotel); don’t immediately buy into the drivers’ ‘concerns’. Do your homework, kids. You can choose to enter the Royal Palace by yourself, or take a guide. The official guides are waiting just passed the ticket office. I took a guide and it was definitely worth its 10 bucks. The architecture is beautiful, wall stuccos galore, the small museums showcase many royal artifacts and the different uses for the buildings within the grounds is staggering. Reserve about one to two hours for the visit, depending on your selfie-habit and/or level of history geekiness.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: along the eastern wall of the Royal Palace are some remarkable forged see-through gates that are worth checking out.
After your royalty fix, you can make your way further north along the eastern wall towards the National Museum (see N°2 below). So if you are going to add the National Museum to this walk, add another 1 to 2 hours.
Make your way back the same way you came, but now instead of walking on the eastern side of Wat Botum Park, check out the western side. You’ll encounter the Cambodian-Vietnamese ‘friendship’ memorial in the middle of the park, and more importantly, a very ornate temple complex to your right. At the end of the park, take a right and walk back towards the Independence Monument and roundabout. Walk past the roundabout, and make a left for Wat Langka. Like many temples, these are also the living quarters for young monks and the community feel is especially palpable in this wat. When you exit Wat Langka towards its western end, you’ll end up on alive and kicking Pasteur (51 St). You can reward yourself with anything from street food to Burger King and from 3 liter pitchers to fancy cocktails. The choice is yours.
N°2 – NATIONAL MUSEUM – 1 to 2 HOURS
Every time I travel, I always end up once in a ‘you can’t miss this when you are in location X’ kind of place that I’m not too fond of. The National Museum in PP is this trip’s winner. The building by itself with the inner courtyard is beautiful and even only for a quick glimpse of the outside it’s worth the extra walk. I do suggest, if you are into history/museums, take an audio-tour. The museums, to my taste, houses too much choice (first world problems, I know). There are some magnificent pieces of Khmer art throughout the ages, but it felt quite cluttered. So: take an audio-guide or join a guided tour and learn a bit more than this guy did. At any rate, the National Museum warrants a visit of about one to two hours. If you’re crazy about legacy and artifacts, calculate one or even two additional hours.
N°3 – TUOL SLENG & KILLING FIELDS – 1-2 HOURS + 3 HOURS
Not for the faint-hearted. Tuol Sleng (or S-21) is the infamous prison/torture facility of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Depending on where you’re starting from in PP, I’d take a cheap 2-3 dollar tuk-tuk ride there. At the entrance, you can once again choose to go with a guide or not. The guides work for ‘free’, meaning you can choose what you pay them at the end of their tour. There are also audio guides available. I was a bit unlucky because our guide cut his explanations short due to another group arriving. I wandered on by myself since most exhibitions have (albeit succinct) English background info. The scenes and photographs at Tuol Sleng are sometimes hard to grasp, and although it is historically very incorrect of me, S-21 reminds me of my visit to the camps at Auschwitz.
Outside of Tuol Sleng, there is a slew of drivers ready to take you to the Killing Fields. In all honesty, I didn’t have the time to visit the Fields, but heard first-hand from fellow travelers that you can easily spend a couple of hours there, and makes a ‘nice’ addition to the S-21 experience. Prepare for actual human remains laying bare on the ground. In any case, the Khmer Rouge terror doesn’t feel more ‘real’ anywhere else, so make sure to visit either of them to get a handle on what the impact was on the Cambodian people.
N°4 – PRE-FLIGHT POOL-SIDE RELAXATION – X HOURS
More an ‘in-activity’ than an actual activity, but if you have a flight late at night it might be a good idea to jump in the pool at your hotel (or pay a couple of bucks to get into a pool at another hotel) to rest up before you get on the plane. It takes anywhere between 30 minutes and one hour to reach the airport from downtown PP. Just make sure you don’t fall asleep in the Cambodian afternoon sun and miss your flight, okay?
WHERE TO STAY & EAT IN PHNOM PENH
Very quickly: I found the area around the Independence monument/Wat Langka ideal if you are on one of the smaller connecting streets between Pasteur and the busier roads leading up to the Independence roundabout. There are some pretty and affordable hotels with pool, and food/drinks are only a step away on Pasteur and the adjacent streets.
If you’ve had enough of Cambodian food and want to prep your system for your return to western cuisine, try out IL FORNO (Italian, obviously. The capriciossa pizza is to die for) or more French-styled cuisine at BISTROT LANGKA. On the pricier side for Cambodian standards, both of them, but well worth it.
Pssst! Next to BISTROT LANGKA is what looks like a very large retro vending machine built into the wall. This is actually the entrance to a ‘hidden’ speak-easy bar! But don’t tell anyone I said that.
And if you get confused how to write ‘Phnom Penh’, just remember: first word, H goes in the beginning – second word, H comes at the end. Or just write PP.