One day in Phnom Penh obviously isn’t enough time in the Cambodian capital. However, 24 hours in Phnom Penh is all many travellers allocate, treating it simply as a stopover, especially after a long haul flight, and especially if they’re en route to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

It’s a shame that one day in Phnom Penh is all that most visitors can schedule as there’s enough to do in Cambodia’s capital to fill a week, or at the very least a few days. But not everyone has the luxury of time. We already have a weekend in Phnom Penh itinerary on Grantourismo, so we thought it time to share our one day in Phnom Penh itinerary.

With only one day in Phnom Penh, you want to focus on the most compelling must-do sights and museums, which offer some of the most enriching albeit sobering experiences, because they will well-prepare you for your time in Siem Reap and Angkor Archaeological Park.

We’re not cramming as much as we usually do into our 24-hour itineraries, such as breakfast and coffee stops and a spot of shopping, as some of these activities can easily take 2-3 hours, so this is really more than enough for one day in Phnom Penh.

To experience all of this in one day, you’ll have to leave your hotel by 6.30am at the latest for the Killing Fields and keep up a fairly brisk pace throughout the day. If you can’t get away that early then you’ll have to sacrifice something below and our recommendation would be to skip the Killing Fields and make a beeline for Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

One Day in Phnom Penh Itinerary for an Enriching Day in Cambodia’s Capital

WHERE TO STAY IN PHNOM PENH

With only one day in Phnom Penh, you want to stay somewhere special. For a swimming pool, check into urban resort, The Plantation or stylish new Penh House, which has a stunning rooftop pool. Maison d’Ambre offers some of the most fashionable accommodation in town – a chic boutique hotel by one of Cambodia’s finest designers, Romyda Keth of Ambre. Raffles has history, grandeur and another heavenly pool. Arunreas offers five-star amenities in a compact boutique hotel above a French restaurant. Rambutan is gorgeous and gay-friendly. Of the many retro-styled lodgings in renovated modernist villas, we recommend The Sangkum and Villa Langka. See our guide to Phnom Penh’s best boutique hotels for more suggestions.

A MORNING IN PHNOM PENH

A visit to Choeung Ek Killing Fields (Roluos Village, 15kms south of Phnom Penh; 7.30am-5.30pm daily; US$6) and the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (below) are essential to understanding Cambodia’s late 20th century history and contemporary society and will give you an appreciation of the resilience of Cambodians. Expect to be moved as you wander around listening to the audio guide which describes the horror of life under Pol Pot. The dictator’s communist Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) ruled with terror from April 1975 when the capital’s residents were forced from their homes into the countryside to work as slave labour until 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded. Millions of Cambodians were executed or died from torture, starvation, illness, and diseases, such as malaria.

The Choeung Ek site was an extermination camp for some 17,000 men, women and children who had been interrogated and tortured at S-21. The main sights are a compact museum, a stupa containing some 8,000 skulls, and the mass graves. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are located around 15kms south of Phnom Penh and are about 30-50 minutes by car, depending on traffic, and a minimum of one hour by tuk tuk from the city centre. You’ll need at least 90 minutes at the site. Some people do the excursion in as little as three hours there and back, others, who prefer to take their time can take four hours. A tuk tuk there and back will cost you US$15. We recommend you leave your hotel at 6.30am so you arrive soon after opening.

To learn more, read Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor; Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors by Dith Pran; and The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts his Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields by Rithy Panh.

From the Killing Fields, have your tuk tuk driver take you to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Corner Street 113 and 350; 7am-5.30pm daily; US$8) the site of Security Prison 21 or S-21. For many people, a visit to both the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum can be hard-going and even harrowing. You may wish to skip the Killing Fields and focus only on the Genocide Museum, especially if you arrive late the previous night and don’t like the idea of an early start. The price includes the audio guide, available in several languages, and it’s an absolute must. You’ll get far more out of the experience with it than you will without it.

The audio guide not only tells the tragic stories of those detained, tortured and executed here, and includes first-hand accounts from survivors, it also provides history and context to explain the conditions that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, such as eight years of American bombing of Cambodia and a civil war being fought in the countryside that those living the good life in the capital were oblivious to. It’s very professionally produced and extremely moving in parts, so much so that at times you will want to take a break and step outside to sit in the garden. It’s structured in such a way that you can be selective if you’re on a tight schedule, or you can listen to additional commentaries for a more immersive experience. Allow at least 2-2.5 hours here, although it’s possible to take longer.

We recommend reading Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison by David Chandler and The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge by Nic Dunlop.

LUNCH IN PHNOM PENH

With only one day in Phnom Penh, you’re going to want to sample Cambodian food, one of Southeast Asia’s most misunderstood and under-appreciated cuisines. After this morning, you will probably need a stiff drink with your lunch so order a glass of something as soon as you sit down in the lovely courtyard of Cambodian restaurant Romdeng (Street 174), a hospitality training restaurant for disadvantaged youths located in a yellow colonial-style building.

AFTERNOON IN PHNOM PENH

Take a tuk tuk to the outstanding National Museum of Cambodia (Cnr Streets 178 and 13; 8am-5pm daily; US$8 adults, US$6 children, including audio guide) for your introduction to Cambodia’s ancient history and what is a breathtaking collection of archaeological finds, including the world’s finest collection of Khmer Empire sculptures. This is the best preparation for your time at Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap that you will get and the beauty of this exquisite art collection offers welcome relief from the morning’s excursions. Again, the audio guide is an absolute must and it offers a lot of flexibility, allowing you to hone in on information and specific pieces that appeal to you. You won’t get through it all in a couple of hours, so be selective about what you listen to and when you need a break step out into the gorgeous courtyard with its leafy trees and tranquil ponds and sit to admire the handsome red building.

A one day in Phnom Penh itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the nearby 19th-century Royal Palace (Sothearos Boulevard; 7.30am-11am & 2-5pm daily; US$10), to take in the gob-smacking complex of splendid buildings, including the Silver Pagoda with its diamond-encrusted Buddha and an exquisite mural of the Reamker (based on the Hindu epic Ramayana) and 5,000 silver tiles. Stroll around until closing time then wander down to the lively waterfront of Sisowath Quay for some people watching. The attractive promenade has been spruced up in recent years and is really a very pleasant place to spend some time, particularly before sunset when locals are out exercising and enjoying a late afternoon cum early evening walk. Watch out for pickpockets.

SUNDOWNERS IN PHNOM PENH

Make sure to make your way to the Amanjaya Pancam Hotel (#1 Street 154, Sisowath Quay) and head up to the alfresco rooftop Le Moon Bar before sunset. The cocktails won’t win awards, but they’ll quench your thirst and enable you to take in sweeping views of the river and Phnom Penh’s rapidly growing skyline. There are few better spots for sundowners for first-timers to Phnom Penh.

DINNER IN PHNOM PENH

For the final meal of your one day in Phnom Penh itinerary, you could continue to feast on home-style Cambodian food at Sugar Palm, where the dishes are made from Cambodian chef-owner Kethana Dunnett’s mother and grandmother’s recipes (don’t miss the fish amok (amok trei), a steamed fish curry, but note that it can take up to 40 minutes. For more refined Cambodian cuisine in an elegant dining space, make a beeline for Malis, the Phnom Penh flagship restaurant of Cambodian chef Luu Meng. You must try the Saraman curry. Alternatively, sample one of Phnom Penh’s best French restaurants. Cambodia was once a French protectorate and the French culinary influence is still felt in the country, making a French meal a must at some stage during your trip. Book Topaz ahead of your stay, if you fancy fine dining; Khema, for fine quality at an affordable price; or Bistro Langka, for a buzzy French vibe.

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