Things to do in Phnom Penh
The hottest travel itinerary of weird things to do and wonderful local experiences in Phnom Penh for both independent travellers and backpackers
Phnom Penh has been previously heralded as ‘The Pearl of Asia’.
A very bold statement given some of the other gems on this continent.
The climate certainly is clammy. However, when you allow it to come out of it’s shell, there are undoubtedly a whole host of experiential pearls awaiting the backpackers that are lucky enough to pass through the city.
For all you backpackers that manage to pass through Cambodia without visiting Phnom Penh…
You have left me flabbergasted. That’s right, flabbergasted.
The city is not only heaving with backpacker action, it’s also home to some of the weirdest and most wonderful things that you can do during your backpacking adventure through Asia.
Having recently returned from Cambodia, turning over every stone and exploring every nook and cranny. I am going to tour you through the best backpacking things to do while you’re in Phnom Penh. It’s time to make sure you squeeze the most out of this journey.
To wet your appetite, in this piece I’m going to direct you to the most raucous go-karting track in Cambodia and show you how you can get your grubby mitts all over an AK-47 or a bazooka.
But first, the most important cultural experience that you must do while in Phnom Penh…
Visit The Killing Fields Of Cheoung Ek
As with many of us, Phnom Penh has many skeletons in it’s closet. Many backpackers are quick to cast the city in a depressing light, which is far from surprising given the recent events the country has had to endure.
Over 3,000,000 Cambodian people murdered in 5 years. Genocide. Horrific scenes at the hands of evil dictator and certified dickhead, Pol Pot.
During the 1970s, Pol Pot had a vision of turning the whole of Cambodia into a peasant-run agrarian state. A nationwide slave camp. His army, the Khmer Rouge, killed all that stood in his way.
There are a number of sites that both remain as a scar of these atrocities. The most important of which is the Killing Fields, which is were thousands of people were killed and buried.
As depressing as it is you must try and visit this site during your stay in Phnom Penh.
Because, any Cambodian over the age of 40 experienced this horror. To all backpackers, they are an incredibly humble and welcoming culture, who have been to hell and back.
If you want to truly understand and respect how these Cambodians suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime, this is a trip you must make.
There’s no two ways about it…
This is dark tourism, but tourism has been the savior of Cambodia and has provided them with the means to rebuild.
Entry to the Killing Fields is $3, I would highly recommend doing the audio tour and if you’re lucky, there will be one of the survivors at the site who can share their real life revelations with you.
A truly humbling experience.
With regards to looking into the dark past of Phnom Penh, there is one more site that all backpackers should visit…
Unlock The Secrets Of S-21 Prison
The S-21 Prison was the Killing Field’s partner in crime, and 1 of over 150 execution centres that were set up during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The now, spine chilling building, was a former school building located just outside the centre of Phnom Penh. It’s said that over 15,000 Khmers were incarcerated, starved and tortured at this site.
Only 7 of those are known to have survived.
Next level darkness. The building has decayed both physically and spiritually over time, there are even remnants of the school gym equipment that was used to hang people.
Needless to say, this is a very sobering experience. The site is now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum and makes sure that those who were lost are never forgotten.
The entry fee to this site is also $3.
I would advise doing both S-21 and the Killing Fields tours in one day.
Many tuk-tuk drivers will be vying for your business as always. $20 for an afternoon touring you to both these sites is more than a fair price, and is more than some drivers make in a week.
Fair play to all you backpackers to take the time to both respect and support the local community by embarking on this dark adventure.
It’s not all doom and gloom in Phnom Penh though.
How about we unwind with a massage, but not just any massage…
Experience The Ultimate Massage
Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re all thinking…
Massage in Asia = Happy Ending.
No need, I’m sure there are plenty of other backpackers ready and willing to dish you some afternoon delight if that’s what you’re looking for.
This massage parlour has none of that, but has an intriguing ingredient that makes it the perfect way to unwind after a hot and humid day exploring the sights…
The masseuses are all blind. They see you with their hands.
This backpacker experience is not only physically healing, but also spiritually cleansing as well.
The Seeing Hands Massage organisiation was set up to help local blind members of the Phnom Penh community benefit from independent life.
There are various massage art forms to choose from…
The ‘shiatsu’ massage focuses on specific pressure points, whereas the ‘anma’ helps to fully relax both the body and the mind.
I’m all about the shiatsu, gets all those knots right out of the neck, shoulders and back.
The best things…
It’s incredibly good value for money, with a massage costing just $7 per hour (depending on the treatment).
This isn’t the only way you can help the Phnom Penh visually disabled community thrive…
Go Dining In The Dark
Even before coming to Phnom Penh, this was something I really wanted to sample. However, this experience tends to be extortionate in most corners of the world.
Dine in the Dark is a social organization that provides opportunities for the visually disabled, of which there are over 140,000 in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh saves the day once again…
If you’re a backpacker that feels like jazzing up your evening with something completely different, this 3 course pitch black dining experience only costs $18.
And when I say pitch black, I mean PITCH BLACK. I couldn’t even see my fingers. Watch out for the rogue gropers, and if you are one, cop a good feel (easy now).
All your other senses are really heightened and it makes you not only taste other dimensions in the food, but appreciate the simplicity of sight.
You will have your own host that will guide you through the courses and towards your dishes. I had no idea what I was eating, but it tasted damn good.
The host will show you pictures of everything you’ve eaten after you’ve emerged from the darkness.
I know it’s a slightly more expensive dining option, but if you have enough in your backpacking budget, I highly recommend trying Dine in the Dark while you’re in Phnom Penh.
Right, after cleansing your muscles and those taste buds…
I’d say it’s bazooka o’clock.
Get A Couple Tickets For The Gun Show At Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range
We’re calling in the heavy artillery here backpackers.
I’m sure many of you have heard stories and rumours of being able to fire off a couple rounds on the AK-47 or ping off a rocket launcher…
These are all true, and there’s no better place to make this dream a reality than at the Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range.
These guys are sheer professionals and place the utmost importance on backpacker satisfaction and safety.
All packaged together with a sprinkle of that Cambodian free-spirited lawlessness of course.
The Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range certainly makes for a very explosive backpacker day trip. The range is located about 60km outside of the city amongst the mountain range. So you can pop off some serious weaponry.
The only downside…
For a backpacker travelling on a budget, this can be a big hit on the bank account. So if you’re planning on slotting this into your itinerary, make sure you save up.
There is a minimum cost of $350 per group, and this price will increase depending on the weapons you’re using and what you want to shoot at. The range will provide you with transport to and from your hostel as well.
Top of the price pile is blowing up a whole wooden shack with a bazooka. I couldn’t quite stretch my budget that far but did have one trigger happy American backpacker with me who stepped up to the plate.
Steven who runs the show is an absolute legend and is happy to piece together custom edited video for you to show the grandkids (fit with your own personal Rambo wig).
It all comes at a price though. So, as I mentioned, if you’re feeling like an aggressive backpacker spending spree. Cambodia Extreme Outdoor Shooting Range has got you covered.
While that adrenaline is still pumping through your veins, why not take on Cambodia’s best go-karting track.
Go For The Chequered Flag At Kambol Kart Raceway
Red, Amber, Green…
This is the closest thing to real life Mario Kart you will experience on your backpacking adventures.
The Kambol Kart Raceway is located about 8km past the airport outside of the city. The track beautifully weaves its way through the rice paddies and palm trees.
The go-kart is about 900 metres long and has around 11 turns if my mind doesn’t deceive me. Every race is 10 laps, lasting about 15 minutes, and costs $12 per driver.
They certainly give you the opportunity to make sure your tank is well oiled before the race…
Beers are provided at the bar that overlooks the track and this is a great place hangout between races and mingle with your backpacking race rivals.
Helmets and jumpsuits are provided by Kambol Kart Raceway. Mario Kart fanatics will have to provide their own banana skins though.
If you do manage to squeeze some time into your itinerary for a couple races, try and come in the afternoon so you can catch the glorious sunset from the bar.
After collecting your race winnings, it’s time to go bargain hunting…
Get Your Haggle On At The Phnom Penh Markets
For all you shopaholic backpackers out there, rest assured, the city is full to the brim with loads of lively markets waiting to be hustled and bustled.
There’s endless opportunities to bag in on some great souvenirs and presents for the friends and familia eagerly anticipating your arrival back on home soil.
But which are the best markets to hit up…
CENTRAL MARKET is one of the longest standing shopping hotspots in Phnom Penh. The art deco style complex was built in 1937. Having been tragically destroyed by Thai aircraft bombings, it has been gloriously renovated in 2011 and is the epitome of having everything under one roof (and is also a welcomed escape from the beaming sun and heat of the Cambodian capital).
At Central Market you will find electronic goods, watches, bags, local foods, beautiful jewellery, authentic Khmer scarves and some lovely old antiques.
Phnom Penh’s Central Market is open from 7am to 5pm everyday.
RUSSIAN MARKET (known locally as Phsar Toul Tom Poung) picked up it’s new name thanks to the flocks of Russian expats and backpackers that tend to flutter towards the stalls in search of a good deal.
The Russian Market is the place to come if you’re looking to find authentic handicrafts; such as local silks, musical instruments, woodcarvings and mini Buddha statues.
Phnom Penh’s Russian Market is also open from 7am to 5pm everyday.
OLD MARKET is where to head if you want to truly embed yourself into the local market scene. You won’t come across many souvenir opportunities here, but you will be met with a stream of locals who come here to pick up their day to day essentials.
This is one of the busiest markets in town and is also one of the most beautiful. Old Market is located right alongside the river in the Old French Quarter.
Phnom Penh’s Old Market is open from 5am to 10pm everyday.
Start the bidding low and haggle your way to a bargain!
With all of these, you’re Phnom Penh itinerary will be starting to get packed out already. I’ve got just two more things that you could check out if you’ve got the time and can be bothered outside of the backpacker mayhem.
Let’s get ready to ruuuuuumble…
Watch Some Vintage ‘Khun Khmer’ At The CTN Arena
Thailand is famous for it’s ‘Muay Thai’ martial arts. The Cambodians have fought back with their own ‘Khun Khmer’ kickboxing techniques. There are regular fights staged at the CTN Angkor Arena.
Tickets usually cost around $15 and you should get to see 4 or 5 fights. The atmosphere is electric and the stadium is partially open-air which is awesome. Fights tend to start around 3:30pm, so make sure you’re not late for the action.
If you’re lucky…
You’ll be in town during a rare Cambodian v Thai event, this is when the passion and the ferocity really comes out to play.
Hole in one?
Spray Some Golf Balls At The Local Driving Range
This isn’t necessarily an activity that I imagine is high priority on many backpackers Phnom Penh hit-lists. However, if you feel like smashing some balls, there’s a very picturesque driving range located right by the river. City Golf Cambodia!
1 big basket of balls here costs only $5 and there is an extra charge for club rental.
See you in the clubhouse for a beer hopefully.
Into the witching hour we go…
With this bountiful list of things to do in Phnom Penh, I’m sure you’ll be kept on your toes. Otherwise, no doubt you are mingling over a few beers at your hostel. Make sure you choose the right bed to sleep in at ‘Where to stay in Phnom Penh’.
As day turns to night and you mix the vodka with the Sprite – it’s about time you found out about the best bars, nightclubs and general nightlife mischief you can get up to in the Cambodian capital. Be sure to have a tour through my ‘Phnom Penh Nightlife’.
I hope you have a wondrous time backpacking through Phnom Penh, it’s an amazing city and I’m sure you’ll make the most of it.
As always; stay safe, stay classy and share this love!
Other articles that’ll more than tickle your fancy…
The backpacker’s guide to the messiest drinking spots and experiences in the capital…