Any visit to South East Asia should include a stop in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. During the 1920s, the city was one of the most fantastic of the French colonial period. You can still see signs of that era today, in both architecture and culture. But even with its French colonial history Phnom Penh offers a great glimpse into the people, life, and culture of ancient Cambodia. And, of course, there are lots of exciting things to do in Phnom Penh.
Western history says that Phnom Penh was originally established in 1434 along the Mekong River in southern Cambodia. But that date only applies to French colonisation. Local history indicates there was an organised community there perhaps as early as the 1370s. At any rate, legend has it that Phnom Penh owes its existence to the worship of Buddha and a wealthy widow who found four statues of the god inside a tree that had been felled by a storm. She enlisted locals to build a temple, and the city was born.
The Phnom Penh of the 21st century is a fairly modern city consisting of 12 municipal districts covering a total area of just under 262 square miles. The city’s population of 3 million cover just about every demographic. Locals are very friendly to tourists as well, being more than willing to share the many things to do in Phnom Penh.
My Recommendations for Things to Do in Phnom Penh
If you are like me, you relish finding exciting and unusual things to do when you travel. Whether that is enjoying everything Anchorage in Alaska has to offer, or visiting the wonderful city of Osaka in Japan, that’s great. Travel should be about getting to know what daily life is like in a given area rather than limiting yourself to the tourist traps, polished hotels, and perfectly manicured gardens. Those things are great, but real life goes further than that. Below are my recommendations. I hope you enjoy them!
Go Fishing on the Mekong
Fishing is an important part of the local economy. It is also one of the great things to do in Phnom Penh thanks to the many locals that have taken advantage of the tourist trade by offering fishing excursions. For about £25 per person, you can travel down the Mekong River in a Cham fisherman’s boat, learn how to cast the nets, and enjoy the thrill of bringing in your catch. At the end of the day, you’ll have fresh fish for dinner.
Check out a Local Coffee Roaster
Local farmers have been growing coffee in and around Phnom Penh for hundreds of years. In fact, Cambodia is well-known for speciality coffees that you cannot find anywhere else. If you want to learn all about the coffee growing, processing and roasting industry in Phnom Penh, the Feel-Good Café and Coffee Roasters should be on your itinerary. Company CEO Jen Green hosts daily tours that include hotel pickup and free coffee and snacks. The cost is roughly £15 for a 2.5-hour outing.
Go on a ‘Total Adventure’
Travellers looking for things to do in Phnom Penh that get them out of the city and into the countryside can book with Total Adventure for a 10.5-hour excursion that combines sightseeing with ATVs. Join your guide as you motor across the countryside where you will explore winding back roads, small local villages, ancient temples, and the like. The adventure includes lunch and runs roughly £135 per person.
Explore Cambodia’s Killing Fields
The killing fields of Cambodia offer a grim insight into one of Cambodia’s darkest periods, when over a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime during the Cambodian Civil War of 1970-75. For about £30, you can take an ATV ride out to the country followed by a tuk tuk journey right to the killing fields. Along the way, your guide will offer plenty of insightful information about what happened during the war. This is one of the more sobering things to do in Phnom Penh.
Eat Some Insects
For Cambodians, eating insects is not all that unusual. The locals in Phnom Penh have developed something they call the ‘Fear Factor Challenge’ just for visitors. If you are daring and willing to spend about £15, you can answer the challenge at one of the many local restaurants serving an interesting dish consisting of crickets, grasshoppers, worms and frogs. As an added bonus, you get to cook your bugs yourself!
Learn to Make Cambodian Masks
Traditional masks are an important part of Cambodian culture and live theatre. Interestingly enough, the beautiful and intricate creations are made completely of recycled paper. You never know unless you look at one up close. At any rate, another of the unusual things to do in Phnom Penh is learning to make a genuine mask at the Paper Masks Workshop. The cost is under £15 per person.
Enjoy Khmer Massage
Almost every ancient culture has a form of massage. Cambodia is no different. In Phnom Penh, the speciality is the Khmer massage that is said to be one of the most soothing and comfortable in the world. You can enjoy your massage with or without oil – it’s up to you. Local purveyors charge about £15 for a 1.5-hour massage.
Take an Evening Bicycle Tour
There are things to do in Phnom Penh at all hours. The late afternoon and evening hours offer an exquisite transition from day to night that is best enjoyed on bicycle. Daily tours embark from Smallworld Villa in the heart of town, then move through some of the city’s back streets as you make your way to the Mekong River. Riders then cross the river to see the other side of the city and learn about Phnom Penh’s silk trade. The entire ride lasts just under five hours and costs about £23. It runs from 3-8pm daily.
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- Bhuddist Stupa: By Timgray200 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23011802
- Insects: By Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Bicycle Tour: http://www.sinhbalo.com/trips/mekong-delta-cycling-tours/mekong-delta-cycling-tour-phnompenh-to-saigon-4-days.html