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Cambodia : Phnom Penh

Discovering the remnants of a
war-torn country

what to do in Phnom Penh Cambodia

When Cambodia is mentioned, it’s hard not to think of the war, Khmer Rouge, and refugees. But that was a long time ago, and things have changed for the better now. On our last trip, we started our exploration in the capital city of Phnom Penh, and here are some things we did that might interest you or inspire your trip planning.

Our journey around Asia lasted two months in Autumn 2017, and from Malaysia, we went to Vietnam before crossing the border to Cambodia, which is right next door. Crossing the Vietnam-Cambodia border by bus was a thrilling adventure.

When we arrived at the Cambodia border post, the bus driver asked for our passports and USD$30 per tourist visa (VOA – Visa on Arrival) for non-ASEAN region passport holders. Harris didn’t need a visa, but I had to get one that was valid for up to 15 days.

“Yes, no, passport, 30 dolla…”

The bus driver then asked everyone to get off the bus, go through the Police Border Control building (which was like a ticket office), and wait for him to return with our passports and visas. From where we sat, we could see fierce-looking camo-uniformed Border Patrol officers with their massive machine guns patrolling the gates, which was quite intimidating.

We felt uncomfortable since we didn’t trust any strangers to hold our passports in a foreign land, and it was even worse when the Cambodians didn’t speak much English except for a few words like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘passport’, or ’30 dollar’. We were the only ‘tourists’ on the bus; the other passengers were Vietnamese or Cambodian.

Trying to enjoy the bus ride

Harris has a rule of thumb when traveling; passports must stay with you at all times. We were not amused by the border-crossing part because we were not informed about the procedures. We even thought that the driver could have ran away with the money and passports! Luckily, he came back with everything in order. We returned to the bus and continued our journey to Phnom Penh. Phew, we survived!

Ten minutes drive from the border, we began to notice that Cambodia was probably one of the poorest and least developed countries we’ve ever visited so far. But we were excited about everything we were about to discover there.

We broke our rule-of-thumb. Bad idea!

Usually, we’re adept at meticulously planning our travels. However, this time, we overlooked a crucial detail regarding one leg of our trip. The bus ride we took to cross from Vietnam into Cambodia turned out to be much longer than we had anticipated – by a whopping two hours – owing to a host of factors such as slow-moving, people-packed modified-tractors, overloaded lorries, and our bus driver’s apparent thrill of dodging potholes.

We were supposed to arrive at the Phnom Penh bus station at 5.30pm (planned), instead we arrived close to 7.30pm! The sun was setting fast and we still have a long way to walk from the Phnom Penh Bus Station to our booked hotel stay. We broke our rule of thumb, do NOT be outdoors in a new city after dark.

I flipped out my mobile phone to use GoogleMaps to find our way. Guess what? There were no maps by Google or BingMaps in Cambodia! We had to find out which way to walk as we do have a paper map but it was hard to read street names as they were in Cambodian. Oh my, what have we done?! Panic starts setting in as we walked along a very busy & dusty street.

We had 2 options..

So, we had 2 options : First, hail one of the dodgy looking tuk-tuks that we’ve read many horror stories about people getting robbed or worse especially after dark. Or the Second, we walk all the way to the hotel be it dark, dusty, humid or whatever it may be as long as we arrive in one piece.

I came out with a survival plan, we had to find a KFC, McDonalds or some major establishment in order to use their WiFi to get directions. At this point, we cannot trust anyone in this city, especially the tuk-tuk drivers that occassionally slows down next to us as we walked the streets.

Honestly, I’ve never been this scared in my life as Cambodia is really foreign to me (even as an Asian-born) and I have a good reason, Malaysia don’t even have an embassy here! If anything goes horribly wrong, we are totally screwed, our families wouldn’t know where we were.

We walked and walked, it feels like an eternity, not literally, but more like 2-3 hours on an empty belly and heavy backpack on our backs. Finally, I spotted a bright red signboard from afar! It was a KFC! We rushed into the restaurant, ordered a generous meal and asked for the WiFi password to find a map.

phnom penh map

We finally arrived at our hotel, it was close to 12 midnight. I had to hand in my passport to the front-desk for check-in and got the keys to our room. That shower after a long day was probably the best we’ve had in our lives.

Yes, it even had a pool and a cute little bar.

Snacks Tip!

During our trip to Cambodia, we encountered some difficulties when trying to find WiFi or Internet connections. While it was possible to access WiFi in places like KFC, major restaurants, and hotels, some connections were unreliable and would not work. To avoid getting lost or stranded without navigation, we highly recommend downloading or saving offline maps on your mobile phone before your visit. This will ensure that you can easily navigate the city even without a reliable Internet connection.

The next morning we woke up, had a good breakfast and headed out. The streets looks totally different in the daytime. It’s time to explore this city!

The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda

Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, offers a plethora of historical and cultural landmarks that are definitely worth exploring. Among them is the Royal Palace, a must-visit attraction in the city. While the palace itself is closed to the public as it serves as the residence of the Cambodian Royal family, other parts of the complex are open to visitors, offering a unique experience that cannot be found in Western countries.

Royal Palace Phnom Penh
Outside The Royal Palace

Preah Sisowath Avenue

One of our favorite experiences in Phnom Penh was taking a stroll along Preah Sisowath Avenue, which is a must-do activity in the city. This avenue is the most important in Phnom Penh and runs along the massive Tonle Sap River. The avenue is lined with a variety of restaurants and shops, making it a bustling and lively spot for locals and tourists alike. This street, is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city and offers a glimpse into the local lifestyle and culture.

Next to the great Tonle Sap

Honestly, there’s not much to see here. The river was busy with boats big and small, but regardless it was nice to just grab a drink and go people-watching.

what to do in Phnom Penh Central Market
The Central Market

Visit the Central Market (Phsar Thmey)

This Central Market is definitely worth a visit when you’re in the area. The Market was located at the intersection between Kampuchea Krom and 63 streets in the Daun Penh district. You could find it on GoogleMaps.

It was an interesting place, more like an antique store meets wet market. We went there to get our daily supply of fresh tropical fruits (bananas and papayas), some souvenirs and the authentic Kompot Pepper (Cambodian black peppercorns).

Russian Market. Cambodia

The Russian Market is huge and you will find all kinds of stalls. From clothes, sculptures, silks, antiques to fresh products such as eggs, meats, fish and fruits.

We have to mention that the fresh produce sold here are not in the most hygienic conditions. Its something we had also found in other Asian countries. That’s why we were not overwhelmed, but we thought that the conditions here was somewhat worse than in Vietnam.

Oh, by the way, some of the fish were alive in the buckets. If you’re squeamish, steer clear of the wet market, haha.

Dinner at the Night Market (the equivalent to a Pasar Malam in Malaysia)

The night market was popular for shopping and dining. But it’s small if were to compare it with other night markets in Asia.

Here you could find stalls selling clothes, crafts and hot foods where you can enjoy Cambodian food for dinner. There is a special area to buy food in which you can eat on the floor on some bamboo mats. Yes, very ethnically authentic! Food prices were okay, not too bad.

The market opens at 5.00pm and closes at midnight.

There you go, Phnom Penh has a lot to offer, loads of things to do and see to enjoy the city. The capital of Cambodia is not as great as the other Asian capitals, it’s a good to visit at least once if you are travelling to Cambodia.

Fish Amok.. so good!

When in Cambodia, don’t miss trying the Fish Amok or Amok Trei. It was a Khmer steamed fish curry with a mousse-like consistency, considered one of Cambodia’s national dishes. Fish amok is believed to have been a royal Khmer dish dating back to the Khmer Empire, although others question it originating in Cambodia. Source : WikiPedia

Amok Trei with White Rice and Cool Tea

Next stop… Unforgettable Siem Reap – Cambodia!