48 Hours in Phnom Penh

On May 13, 2014 by Oren and Cassie

When visiting Cambodia, everyone always thinks of Siem Reap. But the capital city of Phnom Penh has so much to offer as well. It doesn’t have the massive temples of Angkor. It features a different type of history. One that’s brutal and sad and still feels a bit raw. Don’t think you’ll be depressed the entire time. There are many fun things to do as well if you only have 48 hours in Phnom Penh!

48 Hours in Phnom Penh – Day 1

Cheong Ek Killing Fields: During the Khmer Rouge regime, under the leadership of Pol Pot, more than 17,000 people were killed here and put into mass graves. Although there’s not much to “see” here in terms of buildings (most were destroyed), there is a fantastic audio tour that really helps give you an idea of what happened in this location.

It’s a very moving experience as you will see bone fragments beginning to stick up from the ground. It also has a beautiful memorial pagoda. Cost is $5. This site is about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh and it can be reached by a tuk-tuk. Budget travelers can find lunch outside the site for a great price. Just check the menu first for prices.

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Royal Palace: It’s time to lighten things up after a very heavy morning. Back in Phenom Penh, the Royal Palace is a fantastic attraction to visit. The entrance fee is $6.50 and includes the Silver Pagoda. There are also guides offering a paid tour. The tour only costs $10 for a group. So, we just tagged on with some other travelers and split the price. Instead of aimlessly walking around, the tour really helps you understand royal life in Cambodia. Plus, there are some great photo opportunities.

Make sure you visit the Silver Pagoda, where each floor tile is made of more than a kilogram of silver! We were lucky because our accommodation in Phenom Penh, Alibi Guest House, is almost across the street from the Royal Palace. After we were finished at the palace, we were able to head back there to cool down a bit before heading out for the evening.

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Drinks at the FCC: In terms of dining in Phenom Penh, you will find something for every budget. There is also a good mix of Cambodian and Western food options. One place along the water you cannot miss is the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. We both come from journalist backgrounds, so we geek out at a place like this. Even if you hate current events, the top floor has a fantastic view of Phenom Penh. It also has happy hour deals (buy one, get one free) for budget travelers. We waited until it got dark and then hung out up there for a few hours.

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48 Hours in Phnom Penh – Day 2

Wat Phnom Hill: Start off the morning in the northern part of the city, climbing the only hill in Phnom Penh! On top of this 27 meter-high hill sits Wat Phnom, a Buddhist pagoda. It was first built in 1373 and has been restored many times since then. Today, many people come to the pagoda to pray for good luck and success in their lives. While you probably won’t spend too much time here, the eastern staircase featuring lions and snakes is definitely worth a photo or two.

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Central Market: Phnom Penh has several markets, so you should check out at least one. Central Market was our favorite. The building that houses the market is designed in a cross-shape with a dome in the center. That makes it pretty easy to find your way around, even though it’s usually packed with people. Here you can find jewelry, clothing, accessories, food, home goods, and the list goes on. We didn’t even buy that much. But, it’s definitely an interesting atmosphere.

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Independence Monument: The lotus-style structure of this monument is just as interesting as the Naga (snake) heads extending off the tower. It was built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France. The Independence Monument is the centerpiece of several of Phnom Penh’s celebrations. We originally planned to visit it at night because we were told that it looks amazing lit up. But, we soon found out that the lights are only turned on for special occasions. Check with your accommodation to see if the monument will be lit at night. Otherwise, a day visit is totally acceptable.

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Toul Sleng Genocide Museum: This former high school became the largest prison and torture center in the country during the Khmer Rouge regime. It is known as S-21. Thousands of prisoners were tortured here and sent to Cheong Ek to be killed. Only 7 prisoners were found alive when S-21 was liberated. For $2, visitors can walk room-to-room through the prison complex. A very eerie experience. Most of the visuals added to the exhibit are photographs of the prisoners, including torture photos. It may be worth doing some research before going so you go in with a good understanding of the site.

We actually did the Killing Fields and Tuol Seng Museum on the same day. We’ve split them up over two days on this itinerary because they are extremely heavy and depressing. That being said, they are an unforgettable part of Cambodia’s history and worth seeing.

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Preah Sisowath Quay – The Riverfront: Phew, now it’s finally time to relax and enjoy the beauty of modern Phnom Penh. Spend your final evening or night in the city dining and walking along the riverfront. There is plenty of space to walk along the paved area next to the river. It gets very busy at night, but it’s still very peaceful.

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-C.K.

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