Cambodia has perhaps been squarely identified with Angkor Wat that those who have not visited are hard pressed to find a different reason to come. For someone who used to be stuck with this mindset, it took me six long years before I made my second visit to Cambodia (my first one was to see the temples of Angkor). What I discover during my subsequent visits (there have been 6 as of this writing) have always left me eager to uncover more. There are a lot of things that have kept me coming back, including the delicious food, the multifaceted architecture as well as friendly people. For folks who have yet to visit or are deciding whether to do so, I hope my suggested itinerary for Cambodia which runs through Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang will be of help!
Day 1 – Phnom Penh
Start the day’s itinerary by exploring the marvelous Royal Palace (admission 40,000 Riel). The premises open at 8AM so do come here early to beat the heat as well the crowds. Between 8AM to 9AM you’ll have the grounds almost to yourself as the tour groups only start coming in at 9AM. While here, don’t miss out on the throne hall where the kings of Cambodia have traditionally been crowned. Within the same compound is the Silver Pagoda, named as such due to the flooring which is covered in 5 tons of silver.
Within a short walk from the Royal Palace is the red-colored National Museum of Cambodia (US$10). Housing a large collection of Angkorian artifacts, the casual visitor might find the exhibits overwhelming especially if they’ve visited Angkor Wat prior to arriving in Phnom Penh. Nevertheless, the building itself has its charms, particularly the central courtyard which is the only area within the museum where photography is allowed.
Tip: When in Cambodia, there is little need to change to the local currency which is called Riel. US Dollars are widely accepted but try to bring smaller denominations such as US$1,5 and 10 bills. US$ coins are not used in Cambodia and for any change involving less than US$1, Cambodian Riel is given at a default exchange rate of 4,000 Riels to 1 US$.
If you are looking to relax a little bit, getting a massage is a great idea in Phnom Penh. Prices are affordable even if you go to higher-end venues. Near the National Museum, you can check out the Seeing Hands Massage for a cheap massage. The therapists are blind folks who have a heightened sense of touch. For something more upscale, you can also check out Bodia Spa which has all the soothing treatments including aromatherapy and facials.
After your massage, you might want to enjoy a late lunch in FCC – a bar with a lovely river view that has historically been a watering hole for journalists back in Cambodia’s frontier days. Alternatively, there is also Romdeng (74 174th Street) which is infamous for its crispy tarantulas and stir-fried red tree ants.
If you do decide to have lunch in Romdeng, you’ll find it to be an easy walk to the art-deco Central Market. Even if you don’t have any intention of shopping, the architecture here is worth checking out especially from above. You can climb to one of the rooftop terraces at the neighboring Sorya Mall for a great view of the Central Market. A less touristy market that you can check out is the Orussey Market which is a short tuktuk ride from Sorya Mall. Here, locals go about doing their daily business selling fresh produce as well as dry goods. It’s a bit chaotic but gives a good overview of local urban life.
Tip: While it’s easy to hail a tuktuk from the street, save yourself the hassle of haggling and book your tuktuk or cab through a ride sharing platform. Grab and PassApp Taxi are the most popular in Cambodia and are available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. You get to pay local prices this way.
Many visitors who come to Phnom Penh make their way to the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek . Personally, I didn’t visit any of these places until my third time in the city as I find the exhibits there quite depressing and gruesome. That being said, these places are worth checking out if you have any interest in Cambodia’s modern history, particularly that which deals with the Khmer Rouge.
By late afternoon, it won’t be too hot to take a stroll on the park area surrounding the Independence Monument. An ode to Neo-Khmer architecture, the monument is notable for its changing light colors in the evening. You can also walk from here to Sisowath Quay to check out how locals spend their evenings. You will find families bringing their kids out to play and couples holding hands and having impromptu dates here.
For dinner, I highly recommend Malis (136 Norodom Blvd). This is probably the epitome of Khmer restaurants in Phnom Penh (they also have a branch in Siem Reap). The menu is a run through of regional specialties including Kampot Pepper Crab and my favorite Spare Ribs. The food here is pricier than most restaurants in Phnom Penh. Reservations are encouraged.
Day 2 – Day Trips From Phnom Penh
Your second day in Phnom Penh can be spent checking out the outlying temples. Some nice day trip possibilities include:
- Oudong – the former capital of Cambodia has a mountain-top temple with a wonderful view of the grounds.
- Phnom Chisor – ancient Khmer temple on a hill about 40 km south of Phnom Penh.
- Tonle Bati – a lake where you can find a temple nearby called Ta Prohm (not to be confused with the one in Angkor).
Aside from these day trip destinations, you can also check out Phnom Penh’s burgeoning restaurant and cafe scene. Aside from the names suggested in Day 1, you can also take a look at the following:
- Chinese House (45 Sisowath Quay) – An elegant colonial-era building houses a bar, bistro and fine dining restaurant which has become on the chic places to be seen in Phnom Penh. For those with an interest in colonial architecture, the place is definitely worth a visit. It originates from 1905 and was constructed by a wealthy Chinese trader. Expect markedly higher prices for the food and drinks here.
- Khema (a few locations in town) – Great value-for-money brunch buffet in an impeccable French-style bistro.
Later in the day, you can get ready for the 6-hour bus/car ride to Siem Reap. Alternatively, you can also take a short domestic flight there.
Day 3 – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
If you can wake up really early, a popular spot to catch the sunrise is from Angkor Wat. The building is one of the most recognizable monuments in Southeast Asia and is the only building to be featured in a country’s flag. The Khmers have every reason to be proud of this grand edifice. It features plenty of fine art – bas reliefs that are carved from the stone surface as well as a symmetry that inspires awe especially when considering that construction dates back from the 1200s.
While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of temples and monuments within Angkor Archeological Park, you don’t really have to go through most of them. Personally, I’ve done around a dozen and to be honest, after seeing a few, I got templed out.
For the casual visitor, here are the other temples I would recommend seeing aside from Angkor Wat itself.
- Bayon – Featuring one of the most elaborate decorations among any temples in Angkor, the Bayon is not to be missed. It’s easily recognized by the multitude of smiling faces, the attribution of which is either King Jayavarman VII or Avalokiteshvara (bodhisattva of compassion).
- Ta Prohm – Probably the most photogenic of Angkor’s temples, Ta Prohm evokes the wild jungle backdrop through which the temple was found. The temple was catapulted into the spotlight when it was featured in the film Tomb Raider featuring Angelina Jolie.
- Banteay Srei – Requiring a 30 minute or so drive from the main Angkor temples, Banteay Srei is well worth the trip for its red sandstone construction and elaborate carvings, many of which are nicely preserved.
For a dose of Khmer cuisine, I would suggest the following for lunch or dinner:
- Chanrey Tree (Pokombo Avenue)- You’ll find many traditional Khmer dishes here such as spring rolls and curries but this is also the place to go to try Beef Lok Lak and Stuffed Frog. You won’t regret ordering the latter. Promise!
- Kroya (Oum Khun and 14th Street) – The inhouse restaurant of Shinta Mani Angkor serves up some truly imaginative Khmer dishes. The ever evolving chef’s recommendation menu takes you through seasonal specialties. You can check out my review of Kroya here.
- Malis (Pokombo Avenue) – Phnom Penh’s most popular Khmer restaurant has a branch in Siem Reap with many similar house specialties such as Takeo Sausages and Kampot Pepper Crab.
Day 4 – Day Trips From Siem Reap
Depending on your interest in temple ruins, you can make use of this day to explore more temples. A popular day trip destination from Siem Reap is the mountain top temple of Preah Vihear located at the Khmer-Thai border. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a 3-hour drive or so to get here. The site was the scene of some cross-border clashes between the Khmer and Thai army a couple of years ago. But it’s safe to visit now.
If you’ve had your fill of the temples, you can also spend the morning wandering around Siem Reap. By afternoon, you can prepare to head out to Battambang, which is a 3 hour drive from Siem Reap.
Day 5 – Battambang
Battambang used to be Cambodia’s second largest city, that is until the tourism trade in Siem Reap made it one of the country’s most developed urban centers. That being said, Battambang is definitely worth a visit. Think of it as a smaller version of Phnom Penh. Given its historical significance, you will find a nice assortment of colonial-era and art deco buildings. A short itinerary around the center of town will take you to the art-deco Psar Nat which functions as the city’s central market, Governor’s Residence, Battambang Museum as well as a multitude of charming shophouses along the river.
One of the most popular things to do in Battambang is to ride the bamboo train. Passengers go to one station and back on an open air carriage that can go up to 15km/h. It’s great fun and highly recommended. Prices are regulated and cost $5 per person if there’s two of you. For solo riders, it costs $10.
You can check out more suggested activities in Battambang HERE
Battambang has a number of restaurants catering to foreigners but many of them have questionable hygiene practices. I personally recommend checking out Jaan Bai (Street 2) which has a multitude of Southeast Asian dishes.
Where to Stay
Phnom Penh – You can’t go wrong with La Rose Boutique Hotel which is located not far from the Independence Monument. There are only 10 rooms here so you are assured of personalized service. Alternatively, for a resort vibe within the city, I heavily recommend the modernist/minimalist style found in The Bale Phnom Penh Resort. Rooms here start at a staggering size of 110 square meters and are fitted with the latest in creature comforts. It is safe to say that there’s no other hotel like it in Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap – The Bill Bensley-designed Shinta Mani Angkor has on numerous occasions been cited as one of the best hotels in the world. You’ll just have to check it out yourself to believe it. For an award-winning hotel, prices are surprisingly affordable.
Battambang – The French-Khmer Bambu Battambang Hotel is one of the top choices in the city. Rooms come with incredible tile work and the resort-like pool area is perfect after a day out exploring the city.