Phnom Penh: The Capital City With A Provincial Charm

After an awesome experience in Vietnam, I am now crossing borders to Cambodia. First stop is Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. It is situated at the confluence of 3 rivers; Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap. Phnom Penh is the busiest and wealthiest city in Cambodia. Phnom Penh still exudes provincial charm compared to other modern Asian capitals.

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The city takes its name from the re-known Wat Phnom Daun Penh (nowadays: Wat Phnom or Hill Temple), which was built in 1373 to house five statues of Buddha on a man made hill 27 meters high. These five statues were floating down the Mekong in a Koki tree and an old wealthy widow named Daun Penh (Grandma Penh) saved them and set them up on this very hill for worshiping. Phnom Penh was also previously known as Krong Chaktomuk (Chaturmukha) meaning “City of Four Faces”. This name refers to the confluence where the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonle Sap rivers cross to form an “X” where the capital is situated. (Source)

Going to Phnom Penh

Coming from Ho Chi Minh City, I booked a bus going to Phnom Penh for 189,000 VND. The trip took us around 6 hours including passing through immigration. You can refer to this post regarding my experience crossing borders from Vietnam to Cambodia.

There are also flights everyday from Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh, vice versa. The flight is only 50 minutes however it is pretty expensive compared to riding a bus. For a more detailed information about going to Cambodia from Vietnam, check this post by How To Go To Cambodia.

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Getting lost in Phnom Penh

We were dropped of in the middle of the city, and after getting off the bus I was pretty lost. I decided not to get a local sim, just like what I did in Vietnam, for the reason that I can disconnect myself from the internet. I did not book any hostel prior to going to Cambodia, but I have a list of options. I rode a tuktuk and asked to be dropped of to the first hostel.

The Water Festival and Hostel Hunting

Apparently, on the date that I was visiting Phnom Penh, it was one of the biggest public holiday in Cambodia. For the people of Cambodia, the Water Festival and Bon Om Touk (The Pirogue Racing Festival) in Phnom Penh is the most magnificent traditional festival. For three days Phnom Penh citizens, foreign tourists and peasants from various provinces gather in the capital to celebrate festival night day. The festival marks the end of the rainy season and the reversal of flow of the Tonle Sap river.

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Boat racing along the Sisowath Quay part of the Water Festival

So my tuktuk driver dropped me somewhere in the middle of the city because roads were closed because of the festival. He told me that it is near and I can just walk. So instead of paying him $3, I bargained to just pay $2 because he is not dropping me off in my hostel. I got into an argument with him, but eventually he agreed to accept it. Iba talaga kapag kuripot! Lol

Note: USD is widely used in Cambodia but the local currency, Riels, is still being used. Took me a while to get used to it because it gets confusing especially if the change to your dollars is in riels, so be careful and always count your money. The rate of riels vs USD during my stay was 4000 riels to 1 USD. 

Just like a lost kid, I walked around the area near the river where most of the budget hostels were located. The first option was already booked, I got worried because the next 2 hostels are also fully booked and it’s starting to get dark. I don’t want to sleep on the streets on my first night! I chanced upon 11 Happy Backpacker and luckily they had an available bed. I did not mind anymore that I am staying in 15 bed dorm and that my bed is beside the main door and the bathroom. Aside from my bed situation, the hostel is not that bad. They have a rooftop bar with an awesome view and a common area in the lobby. Downside though, there’s no wifi in the room and you have to either go to the bar upstairs or chill in the common area.


Sight-seeing in Phnom Penh

After settling down in my hostel, I decided to go around and go to the river. I was surprised by the number of people! Watch the video here. After going around for a while I got fed up with the number of people and how busy it was. I just decided to stay in the hostel, chill in the bar and plan on what places to visit the next day. I met another Filipino traveler who wanted to go out and see the nightlife. Shout out to Toni! Knowing me and how much I love to drink and party, I obliged. Checked out some bars and we ended our night in a club called, Heart of Darkness.


The following day, I was up early to start my day. First stop was Wat Phnom! Set on top of a 27m-high tree-covered knoll, Wat Phnom is on the only ‘hill’ in town. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong River and discovered by Lady Penh. Hence the city name Phnom Penh or ‘hill of Penh’. (Source)

While walking along the riverside, I saw this pagoda while making my way to the Royal Palace and the National Museum. Decided to take a look, the pagoda was Wat Ounalom. This wat is the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism. It was founded in 1443 and comprises 44 structures. It received a battering during the Pol Pot era, but today the wat has come back to life. The head of the country’s Buddhist brotherhood lives here, along with a large number of monks. (Source)

After checking out Wat Ounalom, I went straight to the National Museum of Cambodia. A tuktuk driver tried to confuse me and rip me off by saying that the museum and the Royal Palace were closed because of the holiday therefore he can bring me to the Killing Fields and other sites instead. Apparently, it is only the Royal Palace was closed on that day.

Located just north of the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is housed in a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design (built from 1917 to 1920), with an inviting courtyard garden. The museum is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture: a millennium’s worth and more of masterful Khmer design. The museum includes a beautiful courtyard garden. (Source) Admission costs are $5 for foreign visitors.

After checking out the museum, decided to take a quick lunch before I continue moving around. To be honest, I don’t find Cambodian food as interesting as Vietnamese or Thai dishes. I stopped on this place that sells this interesting looking food. Decided to try it out, and apparently it is a vegetable cake.

Because of the holiday, unfortunately the Royal Palace was closed to visitors. I was only able to see the outside of this beautiful palace. With its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, the Royal Palace dominates the diminutive skyline of Phnom Penh. It’s a striking structure near the riverfront, bearing a remarkable likeness to its counterpart in Bangkok. Being the official residence of King Sihamoni, parts of the massive palace compound are closed to the public. The adjacent Silver Pagoda is open to visitors. (Source)

After checking out the Royal Palace, I decided to go back to the hostel because the heat made me sweat like a pig and I wanted to take another shower. However, I got lost going back. Tuktuk and taxi is not an option! I ended up seeing other sights like the Wat Botum and Independence Monument while walking.

There are still other places to check out like the the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, the Choeng Ek Killing Fields and some markets around the city which I didn’t go. After getting back to the hostel, I already booked a bus the next day going to Sihanoukville, the jump off point going to Koh Rong. (FINALLY SOME SUN, SAND & SEA!!!)

It’s great that I was able to see Phnom Penh now, because just like other Asian city tourist destinations, it is in the midst of rapid change. I am pretty sure, Phnom Penh won’t be the city with a provincial charm in a few years.


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2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh: The Capital City With A Provincial Charm”

  1. Oh you’re so lucky to be in Phnom Penh! It’s my favourite place in SE Asia, I had such an amazing time there. Enjoy every minute, if you’re anything like me, you’ll miss it once you leave!


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