Phnom Penh Day Trips Beyond the Cambodian Capital
Phnom Penh day trips include everything from a sobering visit to the Killing Fields and an easy bicycle ride around tranquil Silk Island to a tour of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre and the chance to care for beautiful sun bears for a day.
While a weekend in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, provides a wonderful taste of the city for first-timers, five days is even better. Take some extra time and you can do some terrific 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 caring for bears for a day.
Scroll down to the end of the post for transport and tour details.
Phnom Penh Day Trips
Choeung Ek Killing Fields and S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
If visitors to Phnom Penh only do one excursion, it is generally to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. An excursion here is a sobering experience, especially when combined with a visit to Tuol Sleng Museum, the site of Security Prison 21 or S21. 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 as they wander around the site, featuring tragic stories by survivors along with a horrifying account from a former executioner. The main sights are a small museum, a memorial stupa containing some 8,000 skulls arranged by gender and age, and mass graves littered with even more skulls, bones and clothes fragments. Allow a minimum of an hour and a half at the site, longer if you’d like to sit and reflect for a while.
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 that some two million Cambodians died.
Choeung Ek was essentially an extermination camp for around 17,000 men, women and children who were detained, interrogated and and tortured at S-21. In 1980, the remains of almost 9,000 people, most bound and blindfolded, were exhumed from mass graves although 43 of the 129 graves remain untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988.
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 visitors to Cambodia know about the period. If this is the first you’re hearing about it, it’s definitely worth doing some background reading before your trip to get the most out of the experience. We recommend: Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison by David Chandler; Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor; Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors by Dith Pran; The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts his Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields by Rithy Panh; and The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge by Nic Dunlop.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are located almost 10kms south of Phnom Penh or a 20-minute tuk tuk ride from the city centre. Some do it in as little as a couple of hours there and back or they hire a tuk tuk for half a day ($15) and combine it with a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the site of Security Prison 21 or S21. The price (US$6) includes the audio tour, available in several languages. Open 7.30am-5.30pm.
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 and Bear Care Tour
The 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 (we saw no road signs when we visited) and many travellers find it’s less of a hassle to go on a guided tour or hire a driver who has been before.
It’s important to note that this 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.
While the rescue centre might at times feels more like a safari park with its vast open spaces and sprawling natural enclosures, but at other times feel like a zoo with cages and smaller enclosures, understand that this is because these are animals that are being nursed back to health. Some 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, full-day, behind-the-scenes Bear Care Tour operated by the NGO Free the Bears. We did it and it was a very memorable experience. We still got to tour the entire centre and see a variety of animals, but 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.
The fee (1 person $70; two people $130/$65pp; 3 people $180/$60pp; 4 people $220/$55pp; 5+ people/$50pp) include return transport from Phnom Penh to the rescue centre, entrance to the rescue centre, lunch, the guided tour and experience, and an official t-shirt. Call +855 (0)92 434 597 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tonle Bati and the Temples of Ta Prohm and Phnom Chisor
If you’re not doing the full day Bear Care tour, above, and are travelling by private car to visit Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre independently, then it’s worth making a day of it by stopping at the petite Angkor Empire temples near Tonle Bati, on the way there or back.
Tonle Bati is a small lake some 30km south of Phnom Penh. 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. Locals also love to go fishing here.
Closest to the lake, just off the road to Takeo, is the dilapidated late 12th-early 13th century temple of Ta Prohm of Bati, built by King Jayavarman VII to house the Jayabuddhamahanatha statues. The flowering shrubs and trees, maintained by the elderly caretaker-gardeners (who will ask for a tip so have some small notes handy) make for pretty photos.
Yeay Peau temple, 150m north, isn’t as picturesque, as it strangely enough has a modern pagoda built around it, however, you can easily drop in on your way to the lake.
Some 20 minutes south or around 12kms from the lake is the more impressive Phnom Chisor, an 11th century Khmer Empire temple located on a 133m high hill above Dok Por village, which requires a sweaty huff-and-puff hike up 461 steps. Commissioned by the Brahman king Suryavarman I, it was originally called Sri Suryaparvata or ‘the mountain of Surya‘, and was dedicated to Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu.
Built from bricks and laterite, the temple has carved sandstone lintels which are worth a look that feature Indra, king of the gods, who is usually depicted on the three-headed white elephant, Airavata. Here Indra interestingly rides three individual elephants. Above Indra is the head of Kala, the lion-like monster with bulging eyes and fangs. There are also sweeping views across the countryside that are gob-smacking during the wet monsoonal months from June to October when they are a luminous green.
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 love to stretch it out to a day, lingering over a long lunch, playing cards with friends, and snoozing in hammocks 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 that’s often referred to as Cambodia’s dark ages. Yet it 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 the halls are 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 from Phnom Penh above can be done independently using tuk tuks and drivers with cars and good hotels can assist you with arrangements. The easiest to arrange is to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.
If you’d like to hire your own driver with comfortable car, we highly recommend Mr Lucky, who speaks English with an Australian accent and has a clean vehicle and provides cold water. Email him at email@example.com or phone 093 373 707 or 077 373 707.
For a private guided tour, we like Asian-based Backyard Travel, which can organise a bespoke tour covering all or a combination of the above experiences.
For a day trip by bicycle 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: 17 June 2017