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Phnom Penh (pronounced nom-pen) is the bustling capital and largest city of Cambodia. It sits on the shores of the mighty Mekong River, just south of Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Like most Asian cities, it’s loud, busy and an amazing place to visit.
Phnom Penh International Airport is small, but has connections from all over Asia including Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, making it an easy destination for Kiwi’s. The journey from the airport to your hotel can be an experience. An air conditioned taxi is easily the most comfortable way, or if you’re game this early on, try taking a tuk tuk. Brave tuk tuk drivers dart and weave their way through the chaotic streets seemingly oblivious to other traffic, and certainly not interested in obeying anything resembling a road rule. The roads in Cambodia are so manic that it’s actually illegal for tourists to rent cars, so get used to tuk tuks.
Downtown Phnom Penh is definitely where you want to base yourself. Cambodia was once a colony of France and the lack of development during the war years has meant that many fine examples of French colonial architecture survive today. Since Cambodia won independence though, newer buildings have a distinct Khmer flair which gives a fantastic twist to the city’s architecture. The impressive Silver Pagoda and National Museum is located here and holds many national treasures such as Buddha statues encrusted with diamonds and other precious jewels. Its most famous attractions is the Silver Pagoda which contains more than 5000 pure silver tiles, although only a small amount is open to viewing at any one time thanks to the amount of cleaning they require!
A short tuk tuk ride from downtown will take you to Phsar Toul Tum Poung, a large market more commonly known as Russian Market. Although the market has nothing to do with Russia, it’s thought it acquired this name due to the large expat Russian population who lived here, and that it’s much easier to say. The massive market is under cover which is great when it rains, but means it’s incredibly hot and humid inside. You’ll need a map to navigate your way around the market as it has organised sections for clothing, jewellery, trinkets, rugs, and even car parts. There’s also a night market in downtown Phnom Penh which is a much nicer (cooler) time to shop, but it only opens on the weekends.
The most famous attractions in Phnom Penh are Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng, more commonly known as the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum. Most of you will know of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot, but what you may not know is that this notorious group were in power somewhat recently, from 1975 to 1978. The Khmer Rouge were a communist movement who overthrew the monarchy based government at the end of the Vietnam War which had spilled over the border to Cambodia. The story is long, but the basics are the same. If you were in any way affiliated with the previous government, if you were educated, if you were wealthy, or simply perceived as any kind of threat to the Khmer Rouge, then you were in trouble. In the three short years they were in power, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for up to three million deaths, a quarter of the population at the time.
Eerily similar to the concentration camps of Europe, the Killing Fields were located all over Cambodia and originally started off as labour camps. As Pol Pot and his regime became more paranoid they started executing the prisoners and burying them in mass graves. Most of the camps were destroyed when the country was liberated by the Vietnamese, but Choeung Ek was a secret camp and few knew of its existence. The site contains the remains of some 9000 people and while walking through the barren field you’ll no doubt come across bones pushed up from the shallow graves. A large stupa has been constructed on the site and contains more than 5000 skulls, many of which show chilling evidence of how that person came to die. Continue the gruesome history next at the Genocide Museum, a former high school turned prison and torture chamber. The Khmer Rouge kept stringent photographic and written evidence of nearly everyone who ended up at Tuol Sleng, and today those harrowing photos and reports tell of the horrors of what happened here. There is a decent audio tour at Choeung Ek, and lots to read at Tuol Seng but for both locations we strongly recommended you take a private guide who can answer the many questions you will undoubtedly have.
After seeing Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng, you’ll most probably be in need of a drink or two (or at least because it’s so hot!). The Mekong River runs through downtown Phnom Penh and this is where the most of the restaurants and bars are to be found. An old favourite is Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC for short) which has an excellent restaurant (bookings advisable). A cocktail on the rooftop bar to watch the sun go down is akin to having Singapore Sling at Raffles in Singapore. Take your pick of restaurant and settle in to reflect on the day and watch the city go by. A visit to Phnom Penh is never going to be the happiest of holidays, but it is heartening to see how things are changing today (albeit slowly). Talk to local hawkers who will flock to your table, their happy and smiling faces will no doubt cheer you up. Click here for HOT Cambodia deals.