With two weeks off for my inter-semester break, I decided to book a trip to Cambodia. I can tell you now, two weeks is not enough! There’s so much to do and see here, and it’s easy to feel rushed when most of the backpackers you meet are traveling on open-ended trips with unlimited time. In short, the food is amazing, the people are friendly and the weather is awesome. While two weeks in Cambodia definitely isn’t enough for me, 48 hours in Phnom Penh felt just about right. Here’s a little sample of what I’ve seen and how you can plan your stay in Phnom Penh!
I arrived in Phnom Penh around 11:40, about a half an hour after my flight was supposed to land. The visa process took forever, of course, and I forgot my passport photo so I had to pay the $5 bribe. Usually you can find a tuk tuk at the airport, but it was so late there were only taxis. I managed to convince a taxi driver to take me and another random guy to a different hostel for $15, so in hindsight I probably should have rented the $7 tuk tuk ride to my hostel, rather than winging it. At least I got to split the $15 with a random dude!
Your 48 Hour Phnom Penh Itinerary!
Day 1: Central Market, Grand Palace and Museum
My first full day was spent exploring the city. With a young, hip, Singaporean gastronomy chef (it’s like food science!) as my partner in crime, the two of us set out to explore the Central Market, Museum, Grand Palace and Silver Pagoda.
Eating a Very Local Lunch
We first had lunch as a very local market. As in, we were the only non-Cambodians there. They sold everything from housewares and clothes to fish and vegetables. Since it was about noon at this point, all of the locals were finishing up lunch. Since absolutely no one spoke English, we just awkwardly pointed to stuff, and to our amazement it was great! We ended up getting eggplant, fish with ginger and peanuts, and a wintermellon soup. Everything was great, but the eggplant was my favorite. It was a cool experience to be able to eat with a real chef, and he didn’t even mind awkwardly sharing soup out of the same bowl. The best part? It was only $1.50 USD each!
After our delicious local lunch, we headed to the Central Market, which is a beautiful, vibrant yellow color. Inside the market holds everything from jewelry and dresses, to raw meat and vegetables. While the entrance of the market seemed a bit touristy with all of the jewelry stalls, a lot of locals were shopping at the market as well.
After the market we headed back to the hostel because my Singaporean friend was robbed by a motorbike… twice… less than an hour apart. Let’s just say that Phnom Penh is not the safest city in the world, and I spent the remainder of my 48 hours clutching my purse to my body for dear life… but I’ll save the whole story for my next post, since it is quite an epic tale.
Because of this whole debacle, we didn’t have time to see both the Palace and museum before they closed at 5pm, so we chose the palace. Buying entrance into the palace also grants you entry into the Silver Pagoda, since they are in two connecting complexes. This was an awesome surprise for us, because we didn’t think we’d have time to see both.
The Palace and Silver Pagoda
The palace is absolutely spectacular, and very well taken care of. The colors are beautiful and the design is very intricate. It was refreshing to see such a bright and clean historic site after years of living in China (the Forbidden City needs a few touch ups).
Fun Fact: the King’s private residence is behind the main throne room building. If the blue flag is raised it means he’s home! It was kind of cool to know the king was home while we were visiting. Can you spot the blue flag?
After the main throne room complex and courtyard, you wander into another large square with the Silver Pagoda. I couldn’t figure out why they call it the Silver Pagoda because it’s not silver and it doesn’t look like a pagoda. Apparently the entire floor of the building is made of silver! Unfortunately, they cover it up with carpets so that you can walk around the pagoda which has been turned into a mini museum. Personally, I would have preferred they uncover the floor and let you look in from the outside.
Nevertheless, the Grand Palace and Silver Pagoda are beautiful and well-worth the visit.
Evening 1: The Night Market
On the weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) there’s a night market near the river with shops, food and live music. Luckily, my first night was a Sunday and the market was still running! My favorite part of the market was the food, not just because there were so many options, but also because the market covers the ground with mats so that you can sit on the ground to eat. It was so much more fun and comfortable than eating at a rickety table! I had an amazing dinner of curry and naan bread. Then I washed it down with some sugarcane juice. Yum!
After a lovely dinner, we wandered through the market and I purchased two pairs of elephant pants… which happened to be too small! Keep in mind, while the waists are huge and stretch a lot, the thighs aren’t stretchy at all, so be sure to try them on if you can. Even the tiny British girl in my hostel didn’t want my pants because they were too tight on her. I guess I’ll have to gift them to one of my Chinese friends with no butt and toothpick legs. Also, the elephant pants are much cheaper in Thailand and Siem Reap. Whoopsies!
After the night market, we went to an area full of bars just to make the walk back more entertaining. After happening on a bar called “Spiderman Bar” (no, I’m not kidding), we decided to check it out. Long story short, we played multiple rounds of Connect Four against a lively 30-something hostess who creamed all of us. It turns out that Spiderman Bar is the go-to bar for African expats. Who knew? I guess that explains why the bar was only playing African hip hop.
Day 2: The Killing Fields and S-21
The Killing Fields and S-21 are both places where atrocities from the rule of the Khmer Rouge took place not too long ago. The Killing Fields, like the name implies, are mass graves, and S-21 is an old torture prison. Even if these more macabre subjects aren’t your cup of tea, I highly suggest making a visit because it sheds a lot of light on the very recent genocide that took place in Cambodia.
While I plan on writing a more in-depth post on these places later, the Killing Fields and S-21 take up an entire afternoon, and can be done together. My Singaporean friend and I were able to get a tuk tuk for the day from our hostel for $15, but you may be able to find one cheaper by bargaining the day before. Definitely make time for both of these locations, and consider getting a tour for S-21.
Evening 2: Dinner on the River
If there’s one thing my Singaporean friend and I had in common, it’s our love of food! When our tuk tuk driver from the Killing Fields offered to take us to a great (cheap) restaurant on the riverfront for $1, we couldn’t turn him down. We climbed up the steps to the rooftop bar, and had a great view of the river. It would have been very romantic, except for the fact that all my friend and I wanted to do was stuff our faces with incredible food. The food was great and cheap, the atmosphere was amazing and it was a nice way to end my stay in Phnom Penh.
What to Wear
If you’re visiting the Palace and Silver Pagoda, be sure to cover your shoulders and wear long pants. A tank top and scarf are not good enough ladies, you have to wear an actual shirt with actual sleeves. The thin elephant pants are great for this kind of excursion because it’s very hot outside and you won’t want to be wearing anything too heavy.
As for the Killing Fields and S-21, you can wear whatever you want but for the ladies, I would recommend covering your legs to be respectful. I constantly wore pants in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap because I felt more comfortable dressing modestly. While it may be annoying, I always find it better to err on the side of caution and cover up.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of cheap hostels all over Phnom Penh, but I stayed at Me Mate’s Hostel, which was pretty luxurious considering the pice tag. This hostel is in a great area, walking distance from literally everything. However, Hostelworld does have a lot of other great options for backpackers, while Booking.com has the best affordable hotels and guesthouses.
Overall I really enjoyed my stay in Phnom Penh, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite place in Cambodia. While I think Phnom Penh has the best traditional Cambodian food out of everywhere I visited, it may just be that my friend and I had good luck with restaurants.
While the palace was amazing and the killing fields made a huge impact on my trip, I felt on-edge the entire time I was there after my friend’s robbery. While I’m going to write a full post on this later, the motorbike crime in Phnom Penh is OUT OF CONTROL. I met multiple people who were mugged in the capital, and my friend was robbed twice in the span of an hour. Another one of my friends had his backpack stolen minutes after stepping off the bus.
I’m not trying to scare anyone off or anything, you are safe, your bag is not.
It’s really unfortunate, but the motorbike robberies gave me mixed feelings about the city. The locals hate the robberies just as much as the foreigners, and suffer from them as well (although I think foreigners are more of a target because we have nice cameras and carry more money). The city is beautiful, the sites are amazing, the people are very kind and the food is fantastic, but I couldn’t relax because I was constantly clutching my bag in fear whenever a motorbike drove too close to me.
UPDATE April 2016:
I actually bought this Pacsafe Slingsafe bag in the Cypress color before my most recent trip to Vietnam and I love it! Although my dream Pacsafe bag is the Cranberry Pacsafe Citysafe bag. I just couldn’t justify it being twice the price!
Do you have mixed feelings about a city or country? Has crime ever colored your perception of a place you’ve traveled to?