The Ultimate Guide to Travelling Phnom Penh, Cambodia on a Budget

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The Ultimate Guide to Travelling Phnom Penh, Cambodia on a Budget

Visitors to Cambodia will certainly want to include the capital on their itinerary. The city is one that surprises visitors with its charm, whether that is discovered in a conscious cafe or a bustling bazaar. The city is filled with interesting culture, delicious food, and friendly locals, and while it may not boast of a UNESCO World Heritage Site or a beautiful beach, every backpacker visiting the country needs to put this particular city on their Southeast Asian bucket list. Here is our ultimate guide to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on a budget.

Phnom Penh temple

Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson/Mad Monkey

About Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital city. Its name translates to ‘Hill of Penh.’ The currency used here is the Khmer riel, though US dollars are more widely used and accepted, too. It is the country’s busiest city, and it is estimated that close to two million people reside here.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

How to get to Phnom Penh

Once you get to Phnom Penh International Airport, it's fairly simple to get around the city from there. A tourist visa will cost you $30, and getting one on arrival is a painless process. This same visa will cost you $35 for not having passport photos, so make sure you bring those when entering the country.

Quad biking in Phnom Penh

Quad biking in Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Mad Monkey

If you are heading to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, you can take a night bus that will take around six hours. Taking an overnight bus is the best and cheapest way to travel without eliminating any excursion time during the day. Be sure to book your bus through your hostel, hotel, or other trusted businesses, and be warned: it’s a bumpy ride. For more information about how to get to and from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, check out this complete transportation guide.

Tuk tuk in Phnom Penh

Tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

Accommodation Options in Phnom Penh

If you are on a backpacker’s budget, then Mad Monkey Phnom Penh is the place to stay. This is Mad Monkey’s very first hostel of many, and it remains a favourite amongst returning customers. In addition to a large pool, lively bar, and delicious restaurant, the staff here are incredibly friendly and will welcome all backpackers as if they were family.

Mad Monkey Phnom Penh

Mad Monkey, Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Mad Monkey

It is also the perfect destination for solo travellers, as there are customer experience reps at the bar every night of the week hosting an event, from trivia to a pub crawl. They also offer a variety of cultural experiences, such as quad biking through the countryside and Khmer cooking classes. Be sure to check an entire list of the best party hostels in the capital here, as well.

Mad Monkey Phnom Penh

Mad Monkey, Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Mad Monkey

Dining in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is situated along the Tonle Sap River. Eating along the river is both a romantic and relaxing experience, even if you are traveling solo. You will find yourself dining on a variety of different cuisines while enjoying looking at the water from any one of the eateries situated along the banks. Some of the top restaurants along the river include New Dehli Indian Restaurant and Feliz Restaurant and Bar.

Meat-free diners will want to beeline for Vibe Cafe. There are two locations - one in Siem Reap and another in the capital - and both serve up some of the best vegan and vegetarian dishes a menu could offer. Other great restaurants to include on your culinary journey of the capital include Backyard Cafe, Sesame Noodle Bar, Mexicano, and Eleven One Kitchen.


Khmer noodles at Mad Monkey, Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson/Mad Monkey

If you are looking for a truly unique dining experience, be sure to eat at Dine in the Dark. It is here that visitors will get the chance to experience what it is like to eat without your sense of sight. The restaurant also employs those who are visually impaired and promotes equal opportunities for everyone who works there.

Dine in the Dark

Dine in the Dark © Courtesy of Dine in the Dark

Cafes in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh’s caffeine scene is surprisingly thriving. There are cafes sprinkled throughout the city and all visitors are sure to find one that tickles their coffee fancy. As an added bonus, many of them have social initiatives. Lot 369 Cafe and Bar, for example, provides their all Khmer staff with fair wages and financial and literacy training. 10 percent of the profits from Jars of Clay is donated to local NGOs. Other cafes worth including on your caffeine exploration of Phnom Penh include Connecting Hands, Tini, Backyard Cafe, and Justice Cafe.

Artillery Arts Cafe

Artillery Arts Cafe © Courtesy of Kirsten Muolic

Sightseeing in Phnom Penh

There is so much to see and do in Cambodia, so plan your day in Phnom Penh accordingly so that you can make the most out of your time in the city.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson/Mad Monkey

Toul Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes

One thing you cannot miss out on is educating yourself about the mass genocide that took place here just a mere 40 years ago, and one of the most informational places to do so is at the Toul Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes. The museum used to be Tuol Svay Pray High School before the Khmer Rouge took it over and turned it into an execution and torture centre. Some 14,000 Khmer prisoners were taken here — only seven survived.

Toul Sleng Museum

Toul Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

Let’s back up a minute. Phnom Penh fell under the control of the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. The communist group was led by Pol Pot, who forced residents out of the capital. They were being led to labor camps in the countryside, and it is estimated that two million people died during the Cambodian genocide.

Toul Sleng Museum

Toul Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

The museum is $6 for foreigners and free for those with a student ID card. There are also guided audio tours or tour guides available for an additional cost. You should be sure to use at least one of these resources when visiting. With a guide, you will hear experiences of what prisoners went through and hear from victims themselves, as almost every Cambodian lost a loved one under the Khmer Rouge. The museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Killing Fields

Another way to learn about the Cambodian genocide is at the Killing Fields, or Choeung Ek, found just outside of Phnom Penh. This is the site where thousands were buried who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

The Killing Fields, Cambodia

Killing Fields © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

For more information about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, be sure to read First They Killed My Father. Angelina Jolie later made this tragic novel into a movie, and it does a good job of showing what happened.

The Killing Fields, Cambodia

Killing Fields © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

The Royal Palace

One of Phnom Penh’s most miraculous buildings is the Royal Palace. It is situated near the riverfront and sits just adjacent the Silver Pagoda, so be sure to add both to your itinerary of the city. It is the official home of the royal family and is revered by the locals. Be sure to cover your knees and shoulders before entering the palace grounds as to not be disrespectful. The Royal Palace is open daily from 7:30-11 a.m. and again from 2-5 p.m. Entrance is $10.

Central Market

Central Market is easily Phnom Penh’s most popular bazaar. The building itself is pretty wondrous to look at, though the real treat is inside of the dome-like structure. In here you will find Khmer-inspired souvenirs amongst your usual inauthentic junk that makes for epic gifts back home. Expect to also find second-hand goods, local food, home goods, and much more. Central Market is open daily from about 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Central Market, Phnom Penh

Central Market © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson

Wat Phnom

Towering nearly 30 meters above the city is the temple of Wat Phnom. The Buddhist temple is also home to a museum, and while visitors come here to learn more about the city, locals come here to pray in hopes for good luck. Wat Phnom is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and entrance is $1.

Best Nightlife in Phnom Penh

Unlike Siem Reap, Phnom Penh lacks a seriously lively pub street. With that being said, there are still plenty of venues that feature great after-hours aspects including live music, live DJs, great cocktail concoctions, and more.

If you love a good nightclub, look no further than Club Love. The staff is friendly and at the ready to make you a powerful spirit before taking to the dance floor. The nightclub is small but has plenty of room for visitors to go and bust a move. Live DJs take over the venue every night and entrance is free, as well.

Club Love

Club Love © Courtesy of Club Love

If nightclubs aren’t your scene, instead head across the street to Top Banana. This bar welcomes live bands often and is a great place to mingle with both locals and expats in the capital. Other top nightlife venues in the city include Sundown Social Club, Eclipse Sky Bar, Chinese House, and Le Moon. If you want to get a feel for multiple bars in one evening, be sure to go on Mad Monkey’s pub crawl in Phnom Penh. The evening kick-starts with plenty of free shots at the hostel before one of the customer experience reps take backpackers to three different nightlife venues. For more information about the best nightlife in the city, check out Mad Monkey’s complete guide.

Article by Kelly Iverson
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