If you are limited to one day in Phnom Penh, you have plenty of things to see within a short period of time. Phnom Penh was once known as “The Pearl of Asia” with its beautiful French architecture and was one of the most modern cities in Southeast Asia from the 1920s to the 1950s. Unfortunately the recent history has taken its toll on the city but you can still see the beauty beneath the surface.
To get the most out of one day in Phnom Penh you will have to start early and rent a Tuk-tuk for the whole day to get around (Approximately $15- $20). Phnom Penh is not a big city but it is too hot to walk and the city is not always walking friendly since most of the sidewalks are either used as parking space or outdoor seating area for restaurants.
If you do not have breakfast at your hotel a recommendation is to have breakfast at ‘The Shop’ on Street 240 just behind Royal Palace. It is a small western café with a lot of breakfast options and they also have a selection of bread and sandwiches if you want to buy some snacks to have during the day.
When you are finished with your breakfast you should take the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace and look at the King’s residence, the beautiful garden and the Silver Pagoda. The Royal Palace is only open until 11AM and then the closes for lunch and opens again at 2 PM. It takes about an hour to see Royal Palace and remember that if you what to go into the pagoda you should wear shorts that cover your knees and a shirt that covers your shoulders. Next to the Royal Palace is the National Museum and if you are interested in sculptures and art from the Angkor era this can be worth a quick visit.
After the Royal Palace take your tuk-tuk to Wat Phnom, the oldest pagoda in Phnom Penh, built in 1373. Wat Phnom means ‘Mountain Temple’ and is a Buddhist temple where the Cambodians go to pray for good luck. Wat Phnom is located in the north part of Phnom Penh close to the old French part of the city. On your way to lunch you can ask your tuk-tuk driver to make a quick stop at the post office just to see some of the old French architecture.
Time for lunch! A perfect place to eat delicious authentic Khmer cuisine and enjoy the view of the river is at Bopha Restaurant by the riverside, just 2 minutes ride from Wat Phnom. This restaurant often has live khmer music and dance performances during lunchtime.
After lunch, it is time to go to the south part of the city and visit the tragic past of the Khmer Rouge era, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng is a former high-school that was transformed into one of the most notorious prisons, Security Prison 21 (S-21), during the Khmer Rouge era. This museum is heartbreaking but definitely worth a visit, it will give you a glimpse of the suffering the Cambodian people have gone though during the Khmer Rouge.
Not far from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum you will find the Russian Market, which is the most popular market among tourists and expats. This is the best place in town to pick up souvenirs; you will find everything from beautifully hand carved statues, colorful lanterns and handmade silk scarves to fake bags, printed T-shirts and DVDs.
After a busy day like this it can be nice to take a break for some relaxation so why not take a massage before you have dinner? One of the popular Spas in Phnom Penh is U and Me Spa at Boeung Keng Kang 1.
For dinner we highly recommend supporting the local community and dining at the NGO restaurant Lotus Blanc, which provides a great selection of western and Khmer cuisine.
Finish off the evening with a drink at Le Moon, a rooftop bar with a beautiful view near the riverside.