Beyond the Cambodian Capital – Phnom Penh Day Trips
There are plenty of excursions around the Cambodia‘s capital that you can do by car, tuk tuk and bicycle.
These are just a few ideas for Phnom Penh day trips, including a couple of our favourites – cycling around Silk Island and playing at being a Bear Keeper for a Day.
Top Phnom Penh Day Trips
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
If visitors to Phnom Penh only do one excursion, it is generally to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, 15kms south of the city. In fact, some do it in as little as a few hours there and back or they hire a tuk tuk for the day ($10-15) to combine it with a visit to Tuol Sleng Museum, the site of Security Prison 21 or S21, and a few other city sights.
A visit to Choeung Ek is a sobering experience but is essential to understanding the late 20th century history of Cambodia and appreciating the resilience of the Cambodian people.
Visitors listen to a heart-wrenching audio tour, included in the ticket price, as they wander around the site. The main sights are a small museum, a Buddhist stupa containing 8,000 skulls and mass graves littered with bones and clothes fragments.
Expect to be deeply moved as you listen to the audio tour describing the brutality of Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge. The regime ruled Cambodia with terror from April 1975, when Phnom Penh’s residents were evacuated from the capital and forced into the countryside where they worked as slave labour until the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. It’s estimated over two million Cambodians died.
The tragic events of the late 1970s were not only part of our school history curriculum, they were news for my generation, however, I’m always struck by how little a lot of visitors to Cambodia know about the period. If this is the first you’re hearing about it, it’s definitely worth doing some additional reading before your trip to get the most out of the experience. I’ll be writing more about this in another post and recommending some compelling books.
Just 6km from the centre of Phnom Penh, Koh Dach or Silk Island, pictured above, on the Mekong River is one of the most enjoyable Phnom Penh day trips yet few travellers allow the time to do it. While it makes for a fun, laidback half-day trip, you could easily take a full day if you want to laze on the beach for a while, although this is only really possible in dry season. During monsoon much of the islands are underwater although it’s still possible to visit.
Although you can take a tuk tuk from Phnom Penh (around $10), the best way to experience the island is by bicycle, either independently or on a tour. Unless you want to bask on the beach, we recommend rising early to beat the heat and to capture the loveliest light.
The biggest appeal of the island, which is in fact two adjoining islands connected by a bridge, is the sleepy village vibe, lack of development and laidback way of life. Phnom Penh feels very far away. As you cycle around it feels as if you’re peddling around the outskirts of Battambang or Siem Reap.
There is very little infrastructure, just a few rustic restaurants, a handful of ramshackle shops scattered about the islands, a small fruit and vegetable market, a school, and a few pagodas. The houses are typical of those you see in rural Cambodia – traditional two storey teak houses on stilts that can still be found in Phnom Penh but are fast disappearing or are obscured behind modern signage and construction.
Many have vegetable and herb gardens in their front yard and, as the island’s name suggests, silk workshops on the ground level of their homes. If you hear the clackety clack of a wooden loom and see the smiling face of a silk weaver at work, don’t be shy about going to say “sousdai” and watching these artisans at their craft. We found the people on the islands to be the friendliest in Phnom Penh.
If you stay a while and take photos, do offer to buy some silk or cotton – it will be much appreciated. We paid far less here for stretches of fabric than we have in the markets, and while we felt the prices were embarrassingly low, the family we bought the material from was very happy with our purchases.
Allow an hour to get there and back and at least a few hours of leisurely cycling on the island. From Phnom Penh you need to cross the Japanese Bridge and take the NH6 for just over 4km, then take the narrow river road beside the Mekong until you come to the ferry crossing.
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
This brilliant Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is a wild animal rescue and rehabilitation centre, some 36kms south of Phnom Penh, which can be visited on its own or combined with a day trip to Tonle Bati, a pair of Angkor-era temples near a lake that’s incredibly popular with picnicking Cambodians.
You can visit Phnom Tamao independently, although it is difficult to locate (there are no signs nor maps at this point) and many travellers find it’s less of a hassle to go on a guided tour with a driver who has been before.
It’s important to note that it is not a zoo, but a rescue and rehabilitation centre. That means there are no collections of animals nor is there detailed interpretative signage. So don’t go expecting to see a catalogue of Southeast Asian species nor watch daily performances.
The 1,200 animals, including gibbons, elephants, lions, and tigers, are here because they have been rescued and are either undergoing rehabilitation or have become permanent residents because they are unsuitable or ill equipped for releasing back into the wild due to the psychological or physical damage they suffered before being rescued.
Check out their Facebook page or the Wildlife Alliance website and you will see what we mean. Good news stories abound, such as that of Lucky the baby elephant who was rescued in a terrible state after her mother had been killed by poachers looking to sell her on the illegal wildlife market. She is now doing wonderfully.
In another horrible case, 108 wild animals, including 15 hedgehogs, 40 sugar gliders, 18 water dragons, 12 squirrels, and eight pythons, were confiscated from a trader who had bought them at Bangkok’s JJ Market and was transporting them through Cambodia to Vietnam.
What this means is that while the rescue centre feels more like a wildlife sanctuary or safari park with its vast open spaces and sprawling natural enclosures, there are animals that are being nursed back to health which are kept in more confined spaces so they can be protected, cared for, and closely observed.
If time and budget allows it’s worth doing the excellent behind-the-scenes Bear Keeper for a Day experience operated by the NGO Free the Bears. We did it and while we still got to tour the entire centre and see a variety of animals, we spent more time with the Asiatic black bears and Malaysian sun bears, learning about how they are cared for, and preparing and hiding enrichment toys and food for them to keep them active and engaged. We’ll tell you more about that experience in another post.
If you’re in a private car, it’s worth stopping at the petite Tonle Bati temples on the way there or back, as they don’t take long to visit. At the dilapidated late 12th-early 13th century temple of Ta Prohm, flowering shrubs and trees, maintained by the elderly caretaker-gardeners (who will ask for a tip so have some small notes handy), will make your photos pretty.
Yeay Peau, 150m north, isn’t as picturesque, however, you can easily drop in on your way to the lake. On weekends and holidays the floating bamboo pavilions fill with picnicking locals here for the cool breezes and kids splash about at the edge of the water and fool around in inner tubes.
A trip to Udong (also spelt Oudong), around 44kms from Phnom Penh, can take as little as a few hours – it’s a one-hour drive each way by taxi, longer by tuk tuk – although Cambodians can easily stretch it out to a day, lingering over a long lunch, playing cards with friends, and snoozing afterwards in the purpose built bamboo huts.
Udong, which means ‘the Victorious’, is a rather ironic title – it was Cambodia’s capital between 1618 and 1866, a period of decline – yet remains a special, spiritual place for Cambodians. Udong was the site of both the crowning and burial of a number of Cambodian kings.
The main sights are on Phnom Udong or Mount Udong, which is dotted with small temples and stupas containing the ashes of several kings. Built by King Chey Chetha II (who ruled from 1618-26), the stupa Damrei Sam Poan contains the ashes of King Soriyopor, who ruled before him.
Decorated with colourful tiles, Ang Doung was built by King Norodom in 1891 and houses his father King Ang Duong’s ashes (although some say these are actually in the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace. Mak Proum is decorated with garudas and elephants and hold the ashes of King Monivong.
There are also three smaller viharas holding seated Buddha statues and a larger one, Vihear Preah Ath Roes, dedicated by King Sisowath in 1911, which has been rebuilt after being blown up by the Khmer Rouge. At the bottom of the hill there is a memorial to Khmer Rouge victims containing bones, and not far from here a pavilion with murals depicting atrocities by Pol Pot’s regime.
For foreign visitors, a trip to Udong is primarily about taking in the panoramic views of the pancake-flat plains surrounding the hill. For locals, after paying respects on top of the mountain it’s about feasting on the array of street food sold from the many stalls at the base that line the road. The dishes to try are the grilled catfish and bamboo shoot salad which locals like to picnic on in the bamboo huts set up across the road.
It’s also worth dropping into the nearby Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Centre to see the massive gleaming pagodas. It’s quite a special experience when they’re full of monks and nuns chanting. There is also accommodation for those wanting to do a meditation retreat.
How to do Day Trips from Phnom Penh
All of the day trips above can be done independently using tuk tuks and taxi drivers and good hotels can assist you with arrangements. The easiest to arrange is to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.
For a private guided tour, we recommend Asian-based Backyard Travel, which can organise a bespoke tour covering all or a combination of the above experiences. We first tested out some of these on a brilliant trip from Siem Reap via Battambang to Phnom Penh with Backyard Travel. More on that in another post.
For a day trip by bike to Silk Island, try Grasshopper Adventures, which runs a half-day 25km Mekong Islands cycling tour for US$39, while Spice Roads has a full-day 23km Koh Dach tour (price on request).
Spice Roads also offers a 40km day-long bike tour to Oudong for US$98 for adults and $68 for children.
UPDATED: December 2015