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Beautiful historic architecture and lush, romantic scenery is waiting for you in a world-class showcase of history, tradition, and activity. Infamous for being made into a ghost town by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s capital is now a city of gleaming gold-roofed temples and pedal-powered rickshaws, broad river waters and busy street markets. With attractions ranging from Khmer cooking to shadow puppets and Cambodian drums, and sights from royal palaces to floating villages and ancient stone temples, the things to do in Phnom Penh show off the rich heritage that its people have brought back to life.
The heart of Phnom Penh runs along the western bank of the Tonle Sap River, where the gilded halls of the Royal Palace stand alongside Buddhist temples from the 15th century and a modern 8-story shopping mall. The district is famous for the Art Deco architecture of the Central Market and the tree-lined temple of Wat Phnom, home to the hilltop pagoda that gave the city its name.
Covering the iconic dome of the Chenla Theater and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the Tuol Kouk district has fashioned itself as a hub of civic life. Little wooden houses and rows of charming villas divide the cityscape between the technical schools, outlet stores, and NGOs that line the roads.
Stretching from the old French Quarter to the edge of the Bassac River, this roadway marks one of Phnom Penh’s central thoroughfares and the city’s main shopping street. Crowds of scooter-borne commuters ride past rows of hotels, embassies, and restaurants, on a route that leads you past some of the biggest markets in town.
You can still find plenty of the elegant Khmer designs and French colonial architecture that inspired admirers to call this the Pearl of Asia. The European-style Post Office building is just up the road from the colorful bazaar of Kandal Market, where you can find all kinds of fresh food, flowers, and whatever miscellaneous wares the shopkeepers have in store. Farther to the south, the beautiful lotus shape of the Independence Monument anchors an open plaza filled with greenery, and you’re not far from the home of Cambodian Buddhism at the temple of Wat Ounalom.
You can see another set of memorials dedicated to victims of the Khmer Rouge and the reign of terror that consumed the city for years. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that that became a makeshift prison, stands as a symbol for the infamous campaign of torture and murder that swept across Cambodia, and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center marks one of the mass graves that became known as the Killing Fields. At a park in the center of town, the towering Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument commemorates the Vietnamese forces who eventually drove the Khmer Rouge from power.
Phnom Penh today is a lively showcase of culture, and you can try out some of Cambodia’s favorite pastimes for yourself. You can learn to play classic musical instruments, craft your own souvenir in a traditional leather-carving workshop, or hang out with champion kickboxers to learn a few moves. When it’s time for dinner, get a guide to show you the best of Khmer barbecue, and you can try out a cooking class that lets you learn to bring the flavors home with you.
For an insider’s perspective on Cambodian history, you can hire a guide to explore some of the city’s most famous and infamous sights. Climb into a cycle rickshaw for a breezy ride through the French Quarter, get an expert’s take on the rich mix of architecture with a walking tour through the heart of the city, or head to Silk Island to learn all about one of Asia’s most famous crafts. You can finish the day with a river cruise that lets you watch the sunset while you float down the Mekong.
If you’ve got time to explore the countryside a bit, you can pick up some wheels for a bicycle tour through the rice paddies and grand old temples that stand along the roads, or meet the animals who’ve found a home at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. Explore one of Cambodia’s oldest temples at Phnom Chisor and be sure to take in the lush natural expanses from this hilltop vantage point.