Cambodia is becoming increasingly popular with backpackers travelling around South East Asia. Most people you meet will be doing the same Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia loop, just in different orders to each other. The capital city of Cambodia is Phnom Penh and many people I met warned me against going or hated it there. So naturally, I lived there for a month. I have made an itinerary to hopefully make people see the best Phnom Penh has to offer.
Is it safe?
Safety is a huge concern as a solo traveller and there are many horror stories about Cambodia. Before I went there, I had heard about tourists getting stabbed or robbed. I had also heard those things about Thailand, Paris, Prague and just about any other city in the world. There is a certain level of caution you should take whenever you travel and I don’t think Cambodia is much worse than anywhere else.
- Always use a padlock to keep your belongings safe, especially when you stay in hostels. This applies for anywhere. Just always travel with a padlock. I have worked in hostels where there have been incidents when people haven’t locked their stuff away. Again, not location specific.
- Be careful of scams. Make sure that you haggle an agreed price before you get into a tuk-tuk, so that the driver cannot pressure you into a higher price upon arrival. Also, don’t buy drugs from tuk-tuk drivers. Backpackers always seemed to be doing it. Some people don’t have any bad consequences, but I heard that people sold bad/weak/fake drugs or reported to the police. Not something that I wanted to risk.
- One thing that I would say is relevant for Cambodia is to be wary using your phone in the street. Motorbike thefts are common. This applies for a lot of South East Asia, but the only place I personally experienced it was in Phnom Penh. Once I was in a tuk-tuk and someone reached their hand inside to attempt to steal the other person’s phone. I grabbed the phone and yanked it to the centre of the backseat so that the thief couldn’t take it. It was very dramatic and I was the hero if you ignored all the screaming.
When you arrive in Cambodia, you likely either flew in or took the bus. I arrived by bus from Siem Reap which was a long 7 hour journey, directly after visiting Angkor Wat. I was exhausted. Cambodian bus journeys are unpredictable and uncomfortable. I needed food, beer and sleep to recover and prepare myself for the next day. Mad Monkey is the most popular hostel to stay at in Phnom Penh and is good if you want to party. It is especially good for meeting other backpackers. However, I used to live and work at Manor House hostel, which has a more chilled out vibe.
Your first day is gonna be a heavily emotional day where you learn about the tragic history of the country. In 1975, the dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge overtook Cambodia by emptying all cities and forcing the Cambodian people into labour camps. The genocide was so recent that every local you meet will have been affected by the tragedy in some way. In fact, the older generation is noticeably small, because Pol Pot’s regime killed millions. It is a dark and upsetting history, but I think it is important to learn about these things and be aware of how it still affects Cambodia today. First, you must visit Tuol Seong (The Genocide Museum). It was previously S21 Prison which was the largest torture camp in the country. Your audio guide will take you through the museum step-by-step and tell you some personal stories of prisoners. Then, you can go to the Killing Fields. This is where prisoners were transported for their execution. It is horrible, but the history is so important.
I would suggest arranging a tuk-tuk driver for the day. He will wait for you outside and transport you between the destinations, before returning you to the hostel. I paid $15 for this ($5 each between 3 of us). The entrance fees to the museum when I visited were $9 for S21 and $5 for The Killing Fields. These both included audio guides. Allow at least 2 hours for each, because there is a lot of content on the audio guides. Go as early as possible, so that you can have the afternoon to relax. Staying in a nice hostel with a pool is a bonus here.
Walking up the promenade at sunset is a good way to end the day. There are also some really nice restaurants around this area. My favourite is Masala Dosa Street Kitchen Restaurant, which is my favourite place to eat in the city and the reason why I started my vegan Instagram account. Yes, I know Indian food isn’t very Cambodian. Watch out for my Cambodian food recommendations post coming soon (definitely try an Amok curry though).
Today, you are going to see the nice, less depressing parts of the city. Take a walk up to the Independence Monument and towards the river. You will walk past a lot of very fancy looking buildings (most of them belong to Ambassadors or are embassies). In this area, you can browse the shops for handmade crafts, clothes and souvenirs. Many of these are sustainable and make items from recycled goods. I found some really beautiful pieces in these shops and this area also has street art. It showcases a different side to the modern part of the city and offers a good way to support local businesses.
All of this is on the way towards the riverfront area. You can visit the Royal Palace here, which is very beautiful. It costs $10 to enter and you can easily spend a couple hours wandering the multiple buildings in the complex. It is actually where the King of Cambodia lives, but only certain areas are open to tourists. Wat Phnom is also in this area and only costs $1 to enter. Fun fact: Phnom Penh is named after this temple on a hill and legend states that Lady Penh, a rich widow, built the temple to protect ancient Buddha statues.
Let’s finish the day with an insight to Phnom Penh’s nightlife. At least, that’s how I would spend my time. I would start off with some drinks at Mad Monkey hostel (they have unlimited free beer at their rooftop bar every night for 30 minutes). Head down there to meet some backpackers and grab some beers at 7.30pm. It is also a good way to find people who are heading out to a club. The clubs aren’t as good compared to Siem Reap, but I had some really good nights in Phnom Penh.
For my last day, I would start at the Russian Market. It is named that, because it was most frequently visited by Russian expats in the 1980s. The area around this market is filled with great restaurants, so this would be a good area to grab brunch. I liked Sacred Lotus cafe, but if you want to head slightly further afield I went to a really cute cat cafe. Ministry of Cat runs an adoption programme and works with a local shelter. I loved taking my journal there for some peace and quiet outside the hostel. It can be hard to get privacy while living in a hostel and I loved getting away from it all. Also, cats.
You could probably squeeze the Central Market into Day 2, depending on how much time you have. I just allocated this day as a market day, because that’s how I spent my time. It is so useful to visit markets. I bought a new backpack from Central Market in Phnom Penh, because mine had a hole in it and I only spent $15. You do get what you pay for. My backpack from the market ended up with a broken buckle, but I was still able to use it for 6 months. Not bad for $15.
Of course, you have other options for things to do. You can take a day trip to Koh Dach, the Silk Island. The main thing to do is go on a cycling trip around the island and you can do guided tours. I met a few people who really enjoyed this! Another thing that I researched, but didn’t actually do myself, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue. It has a bear sanctuary called Free The Bears, which is the largest sanctuary in the world for sun bears. The only reason I didn’t go is because it was $90 per person. I went to a sun bear sanctuary in Sepilok, Borneo and it was a really amazing experience. I would love to do some volunteering with animals someday.
I had a really amazing time in Cambodia! My month in Phnom Penh was a nice break from constantly moving. Working at Manor House Hostel mostly involved showing tourists around the city and drinking cocktails by the pool. I was advertising the happy hour drinks, of course. It was also the city where I decided to go vegan. I spent a lot of time exploring the vegan scene, which you can read about in my post about being Vegan in Asia. I hope this guide was helpful and I have many more cities to write about, so see ya next time!