Things to do at Phnom Penh & Siem Reap for first-timers

After watching the movie, No More Bets, depicting Cambodia to be a place where Chinese people can potentially be kidnapped to work as scammers at a call centre, I couldn’t help but feel paranoid when I was told that I needed to visit Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

phnom penh cambodia - golden pagoda

Since it was my first time in the country, a part of me was also excited and curious about experiencing their food, culture, and sights. Will this trip change my perception of Cambodia? We’ll see; here’s what I did on my trip.

Psst! Do you know that Emirates now flies to Phnom Penh daily via Singapore?

What to do in Phnom Penh

phnom penh cambodia - genocide musuem

To witness what the prisoners had gone through during the Cambodian genocide, a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem (5 USD) is a must. Formerly a secondary school, it was converted into Security Prison 21 (or S21), just one out of the 196 prisons operated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

phnom penh cambodia - prisoner faces

phnom penh cambodia - torture rooms

A total of 1.7 million people were executed, with another 1.2 million still missing. Exploring the grounds was both insightful and heart-wrenching, as I experienced the cramped prison cell conditions and witnessed the kinds of torture the prisoners had to endure.

phnom penh cambodia - mekong river cruise

The Mekong River is Asia’s third-longest and has a total of 6 million people living along its banks. To soak in all of its beauty, hop onto a tranquil River Cruise ride.

phnom penh cambodia - ship

Enjoy a private 2-hour boat ride (20 USD each, minimum 5 pax) with sandwiches, fried spring rolls, fresh fruits and soft drinks included. If you’re travelling in a group of 2 to 4, it will cost you 25 USD each instead.

phnom penh cambodia - catching sunset

To catch the magnificent sunset, it’s recommended that you board the boat at 5pm during the dry season and at 5.30pm during the rainy season.

phnom penh cambodia - night lights

After the sun sets, you can admire the picturesque city night lights. To make an advanced booking for this experience, simply WhatsApp Mekong Sunset at +855 70 900 022— I highly recommend them.

phnom penh cambodia - kravanh

While travelling around Phnom Penh, Kravanh which specialises in classic Cambodian cuisine stood out to me. The restaurant utilises local and organic produce for its dishes.

phnom penh cambodia - fish amok

Fish Amok (10 USD) is considered one of Cambodia’s national dishes. And the version served here was the best I had. It was creamy and custardy with pieces of river fish steamed in coconut milk, Khmer herbs and noni leaves.

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What to do in Siem Reap

One of the highlights was a visit to the charming Preah Dak Village, a 45-minute drive away from the airport.

phnom penh cambodia - lady making incense

You can go for the Unique Day Tour (40 USD each) which includes activities like Witnessing The Villagers Farming Rice, Incense Making, Receiving Monk’s Blessing, Cycling and much more.

phnom penh cambodia - preah dak village

You’ll also be introduced to a family who specialises in making Khmer rice noodles. We had front row seats for the entire noodle-making process.

phnom penh cambodia - noodle rinsing

phnom penh cambodia - noodle making

Served with a gravy made from local snakehead fish, garlic, lemongrass and turmeric, the taste reminded me of a Thai green curry but boasted its own unique flavour. The noodles, slightly chewy and silky smooth, were a cut above the rest.

phnom penh cambodia - noodle closeup

If I had 1 word to describe the dish, it would be ‘heavenly’— simple yet unforgettable. You can also top it up with various herbs, similar to Vietnamese pho. Adding the palm sugar and peanut sauce mixture is a must, which significantly transforms it into a dish akin to satay bee hoon.

phnom penh cambodia - brown sugar cake

After witnessing the villagers making palm sugar, we also had the chance to savour the delicious Sugar Palm Cake, a sourish, fluffy cake filled with custardy coconut.

To make a booking, you can contact the village chief, Thoeng Thorn on WhatsApp at +855 92 297 333.

phnom penh cambodia - sunrise at angkor wat

One of the highlights in Siem Reap was definitely forcing myself out of bed at 4am to catch the incredible sunrise at Angkor Wat.

phnom penh cambodia - angkor wat carvings

phnom penh cambodia - angkor wat

I took my time (3 hours, to be exact) admiring the various intricate carvings on the walls and exploring the massive temple grounds which provided fantastic photo opportunities at every angle. This place is truly majestic and breathtaking!

phnom penh cambodia - riverside night market

phnom penh cambodia - riverside night market shops

Riverside Night Market is the perfect shopping spot for souvenirs, t-shirts, art pieces and various knick-knacks. Unless a shop has fixed prices, its also an ideal spot to hone your bargaining skills and score a good deal.

phnom penh cambodia - ice cream rolls

The food offerings at the night market are somewhat monotonous, though, with multiple stalls selling ice cream rolls and prata pancakes.

phnom penh cambodia - buffet restaurant

Enjoy a mouthwatering buffet spread at Morakot Angkor Restaurant (22 USD), spanning over 50 dishes including local Khmer cuisine, barbequed meats and desserts.

phnom penh cambodia - cultural shows

That’s not all, you’ll be able to catch a series of 6 cultural dances as you enjoy your feast— what a good combo! To make a booking, WhatsApp +855 98 776 777.

phnom penh cambodia - Phnom Bakheng temple

phnom penh cambodia - sunset

Burn the calories as you trek your way up Phnom Bakheng Temple, where most go to catch the sunset. Be warned that it can get quite crowded at times, so be there early to secure yourself a good spot.

phnom penh cambodia - club street

If you’re looking to party at a club, or simply have a meal, Pub Street offers all of that, and more. To get cheap beer for around 1 USD, be sure to arrive during Happy Hour (5pm – 7pm).

Final thoughts

phnom penh cambodia - tomb raider temple

After exploring Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for 5 days, I finally had a better understanding of Cambodia’s rich history, culture, food and lifestyle. I was blown away by the sincerity of its people as well as the complex and multi-layered flavours of its cuisine.

phnom penh cambodia - tour guide

If you need a guide to those places, you may WhatsApp my nice and knowlegeable guide, Martine John, at +855 96 999 9755.

He also organises an interesting Walking Tour (25 USD) from 4pm to 8pm, where you’ll get to explore the hidden gems of Phnom Penh. Some of the Walking Tour highlights   includes:

  • sampling exotic snacks/drinks
  • heading to a hidden local temple at the back of an alley
  • having a traditional glass of beer at a hidden microbrewery frequented by the locals
  • visiting Wat Phnom Temple
  • a trip to a secret viewpoint

If you have never visited Cambodia, you should start making plans. It definitely deserves more recognition compared to its more popular neighbour, Ho Chi Minh City.

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