4 Days in Phnom Penh

4 days in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Many travellers forego Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital in favour of Siem Reap. However, if you can spare some time on your travels, I would recommend that you do spend at least 3 or 4 days in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian capital has a lot to offer, particularly in terms of history and culture. Highlights of Phnom Penh are the Royal Palace and the National Museum of Cambodia.

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How long should I spend in Phnom Penh?

I spent a total of five days in Phnom Penh doing the below itinerary plus a rest and swimming day. This was the perfect amount of time for me. I didn’t feel rushed and felt that this itinerary allowed me to have a good understanding of the culture and history of Cambodia, including the harrowing era of Pol Pot. I visited Phnom Penh first, rather than Siem Reap first. I felt that this was a good way around to do it because Phnom Penh was a good introduction to Cambodia and I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday worrying about visiting the killing fields.

If you had less time and want to spend just 2 days in Phnom Penh then I would recommend prioritising the days for S21 and the killing fields and the Royal Palace and Cambodia Museum.

How to get to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has an airport and you can get from the airport to downtown hotels easily in a tuk-tuk. I would recommend using and downloading the GRAB app for ordering taxis and tuk-tuks in Cambodia. This way it is safer and you know how much you should be paying.

There are buses to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, but it takes a long time and the condition of the buses is not great. Often they burn things in the fields in the countryside which can make the air full of smoke (this was terrible for my asthma). Also the standard of safety for vehicles in Cambodia is not always up to scratch. So if you can afford to fly I would recommend this option.

I took the plane from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh with Lanmei airlines. It was good value, quick and comfortable. You can read my Lanmei Airlines review here.

Things to know before you go to Phnom Penh

There are a few things to know before travelling to Phnom Penh. Health and safety isn’t always their top priority! Expect to see cars without seatbelts, workmen on building sites without protective head gear and sometimes people dangerously crossing roads.

You might also find that you don’t always get what you ordered in bars or restaurants. They made a few mistakes with our orders in Phnom Penh – this never happened to me in Thailand!

The last thing to be aware of is the money situation. They work on a dual currency system here in Cambodia – with Cambodian Rials and USD being used side by side. One dollar is actually 4000 Rials! This means that if they might give you change in dollars but then 1000 Rials for a quarter! It is very confusing at first, but you do eventually get used to it!

The roads in Phnom Penh were much better than roads to and around Siem Reap, which is a plus.

How to spend 4 days in Phnom Penh

Here’s a brief summary of the perfect 4 day Phnom Penh itinerary.

  • Day 1 – S21 Prison and Killing Fields
  • Day 2 – Royal palace and National Museum of Cambodia
  • Day 3 – river front, Mekong river cruise with Koh Dach Island
  • Day 4 – Wat Phnom and Markets

Day 1 Killing Fields and S21 Prison

This is a tough day, but very important to understand this part of modern Cambodian history. Remember that pol Pots regime was on in the 1970s and so most Cambodians alive today will have been affected by it or will have family members affected by it.

Dark Tourism Destinations

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I would definitely recommend booking this as a tour so that you can fit in both S21 Prison and the Killing Fields in the same day. I would also recommend getting it done and out of the way on day 1 so that you can understand h t is part of history first and get the dark bit of Cambodia out of the way so that after that you can relax and enjoy your holiday a bit more without that hanging over you. It is doable for you to see both S21 prison and the killing fields in one day especially if you book the tour. You can book it in advance online here.

The S21 is particularly harrowing as you will see instruments of torture and cells for solitary confinement along with photographs of people who were imprisoned there. Hardly any came out alive. It is possible to meet survivors of S21 (there were only 7 of them) and you can buy their autobiographies for just $10. This helps you to understand the history and also helps the survivors to make a living as for many it is their only source of income.

The killing fields are a very eerie and unsettling experience. You will explore independently with an audio guide. Signs warn you to be aware not to tread on any bones and teeth that have made their way to the surface. The most harrowing part of all was the ‘killing tree’ where the Khmer Rouge would literally smash babies beads against to kill them. This is was one of the most sickening things I’ve heard in my whole life. There is a temple at the end with human skulls on display representing the lives lost. Here you can pay your respects before getting back on your tour bus.

Phnom Penh Killing fields tour

I wouldn’t recommend doing anything else on this day. It’s a lot to do already and quite emotionally intense. If you want to read my full blog on the killing fields and S21 you can find it here.

Day 2 Grand Palace and National Museum of Cambodia

The grand palace of Phnom Penh was one of my favourite things to do in Asia. It is on a similar scale to the Bangkok grand palace but less overrun with tourists. It’s important that you dress respectfully and wear tops with arms (no vest tops or spaghetti straps) and skirts or trousers that cover the full leg. Or you may be refused entry. Some highlights of the grand palace include Chaya Hall, Golden Temple and Silver Temple. You can also see a mural of the Reamker, which is the Cambodian version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana.

Phnom Penh Royal Palace

Next, have lunch nearby and then for the afternoon on your second day head to the National Museum of Cambodia to learn more about the culture and history. It contains over 14,000 stunning examples of Khmer Pottery, art, bronzes and religious sculptures. Don’t miss this!

What to do in Phnom Penh

Day 3 river front and Koh Dach Island

on your third day head down to the river front which has a beautiful promenade and is lined with stalls. I would highly recommend a Mekong cruise so that you can have a good view of peoples lives along the river. Take one that includes Koh Dach island because there you can see the traditional silk weaving community, one of the only places left in the world where you can witness this being done by hand. Some of the river cruises include a Cambodian meal on board and some do not, so check for which of these options you want and if you want a meal onboard, make sure that your cruise has this included in the price.

Koh Dach island

Day 4 – Wat Phnom temple and markets

one thing that I really enjoyed in Phnom Penh was visiting Wat Phnom – head there on the morning of your fourth day. You can take an Uber or a tuk tuk and you only need to spend around an hour and a half exploring there. There are a few interesting things including a small Chinese temple and a sun dial.

Wat Phnom

In the afternoon of your last day you have several options of other temples and markets to explore. I’d recommend visiti Central Market (Phsar Thmei) and Old Market (Phsar Chas) for a genuine Cambodian experience. You might find this Phnom Penh shopping guide helpful.

Where to stay in Phnom Penh

I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriot Phnom Penh, which was a lovely comfortable hotel with rooftop views and swimming pool. Breakfast was included and it was accessible to most places that we wanted to see by Tuk-Tuk.

Many backpackers stay at the Mad Monkey hostel, but you should be aware that this is a major party hostel with a lot of drunk teenagers and college students. So don’t book there is this is not your thing.

Is Phnom Penh worth visiting?

Phnom Penh is absolutely worth visiting. The S21 and Killing Fields is essential to any Cambodia trip, so that you can understand the history of the Pol Pot regime (1976-1979). The Royal Palace and the National Museum of Cambodia are amazing. If you can spare 3-4 days to stop off in Phnom Penh, please do. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Further reading on Cambodia

I hope that you enjoyed this blog on how to spend 4 days in Phnom Penh. if you would like to find out more about Cambodia, you might enjoy reading…

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