How to Do Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 3 Days

I never imagined taking a last minute trip with a baby.

My parents had planned a trip to Hong Kong in February, 2019 and in-between, added a week long trip to Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, Cambodia. K and I had talked about joining them but I was worried about my work schedule so we decided not to go. But, when my parents arrived in Hong Kong and told us what they had planned for their Cambodia trip, we decided to see if we could join them for the weekend.

K hopped online and quickly found an affordable round trip thanks to points. I put my anxiety aside and took it as a sign. And just like that we booked a super last minute, three-day trip to the super hot and sweaty Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Getting around:

Travel around Cambodia is really affordable as a tourist. However, there’s no public transportation so your main modes of transit end up being some combination of a car, van/shuttle, or tuk tuk.

  • Getting to/from the airport: If you’re staying at a hotel, ask your hotel if they can get a shuttle for you, or you can use Grab (see below) and call a car. The round-trip cost from the airport into city is ~$10 USD.
  • Grab Taxis: I used to think that Grab was the Uber/Lyft of Thailand, but I’m beginning to believe that it’s the Uber/Lyft of SE Asia as a whole. Grab is amazing because while it does basically the same thing as those other services, it goes one step further in that it doesn’t require you to use a credit card to pay. You can get to your destination and pay with cash which is a nice option if you’re worried about international credit card fees.
  • Shuttles/Vans:  If you need to rent a van of some sort, ask your hotel. But, if you’re looking to venture outside of the city, I suggest booking a tour and will explain why below. Your tour company will book the required van for you.
  • Tuk Tuks: Aside from the vans we took for our tours, our main mode of transportation was the tuk tuk. Some tuk tuk drivers are super accommodating and will even let you rent them out for a day. We randomly told a tuk tuk driver on our first day that we would like to use him again on our last day and thankfully he remembered and was waiting right outside for us! We were so thankful we had him because we could WhatsApp him whenever we wanted and he let us keep E’s stroller in the tuk tuk when we didn’t need it.

Where we stayed:

We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Phnom Penh, so we could use our points. It was modern and clean, with all of your typical Marriott amenities. It had just opened in 2018 so most locals, including tuk tuk drivers, still weren’t familiar with it, but it’s relatively easy to find if you show someone the location.

The best part is the pool area and the rooftop lounge. It was so nice to be up there at night that I’d highly recommend going up there even if you’re not staying at the hotel.

Now while we loved our stay at the Courtyard, we really wanted to stay where my parents were, the Palace Gate Hotel & Resort, but it was booked up already. We didn’t get to experience much of it, but just from stopping by, you could see how stunning the French Colonial style architecture is. My parents loved it. This would definitely be our preference if we go back.

What we saw:

My parents had booked the following all-day tours:

We’re normally not into these group tours, but for Cambodia I’m so glad we did them.

I highly recommend either getting a personal tour guide or booking small group tours as you won’t have to worry about transit and getting everywhere efficiently. Plus a lot of the tour guides are well versed in Cambodian history and are willing to tell you how their families were affected by the Khmer Rouge.

Day 1 Tour – Full Day Tour Pre-Angkorian Temples of Phenom Penh: It was a really long day, but our amazing tour guide Cham Pheou was extremely well versed in the history of Cambodia and made the entire trip super interesting and easy going despite all of the steps we climbed in the crazy heat. Also, it’s not specified in the description, but it is private tour which was really great. And my favorite part, was the 1.5 hour round trip ride on a small fisherman boat on a man made canal built in the Khmer Rouge years. We sat there covered in our hats and scarves to prevent from baking in the sun, but the wind from the ride took away the heat and we were able to easily relax and enjoy.

Takeo Province
Solutions for last minute packing…
One of the caves where Cambodians were buried during the Khmer Rouge…
You can see bullet holes on certain parts of this temple.
These bricks were all just laid on top of each other – there’s no mortar or anything holding them together…hence this structure.
They still leave offerings to a Lingam that used to be in the center
Hello Vietnam!
The structure of Pre-Angkorian temples is that the blocks jut outward. In Angkor Wat, they started building inward.
A Reclining Buddha on top of another hill, at a Monk’s school
Ruins of older temples – Pre-Pre-Angkorian?
The Sun Temple
Our amazing tour guide and friend, Cham!

Day 2 Tour – Phnom Penh Full-Day Small Group City Tour: We met our driver in front of the National Museum of Cambodia at 8am and climbed into a van with another couple to head to our first stop – one of the ~300 killing fields. The itinerary for the day was to see the killing field, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, lunch, an afternoon tuk tuk ride to the Mekong Island/Prek Bongkong to check out a silk farm and a temple, and then an early evening ride on a private ferry back to the main part of Phnom Penh. The tour overall was well structured. I needed something like a leisurely tuk tuk ride to get my mind off of everything we had learned that morning.

Good morning Phnom Penh
One of the killing fields…
And one of the areas where they would dump the bodies…
Shown in the Genocide Museum. They created 2×5 sq feet cells to store prisoners in, often naked or with only underwear…
Waiting for our tuk tuk to hop on the commuter ferry to Mekong Island
Another massive Reclining Buddha
The lovely Phnom Penh sunset

Day 3: My parents left for Siam Reap so we decided to see the following places that we missed in the first two days.

If you have time and it’s not too hot consider a walk along the riverside and/or check out their Night Market after dinner. Both were on our to-do list but we were too tired from the previous days so just took it easy.

Doors at the Royal Palace
Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace
Wat Phnom
National Museum of Camboda
Hindu deities from all over Cambodia
Trinkets from the Russian Market
Goodnight Phnom Penh

Where to eat:

This trip was more about checking out the city and learning about the history. But here are the places I think are worth trying:

Overall, Khmer cuisine is heavily based on rice, seafood, coconut milk, and herbs such as basil, lemongrass, etc. The famous preparation of fish that is a must try is fish amok. You can get it anywhere, but the place I really liked it at was Malis.

Also, insects such as tarantulas and ants are available at some of these spots! Romdeng offers both. So if you’re interested in having that kind of a bragging right, it won’t be hard to find.

Currency:

Khmer currency is called the Riel, but they take USD everywhere as well.

Other stuff:

  • When to go: Definitely go to Cambodia during their winter months because it is HOT. During February it was ~90 degrees F/~32 degrees C so I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like during the summer!
  • What to pack for travel to Cambodia in the winter months:
    • Hats and sunnies – We forgot E’s hat because we packed in a hurry, but ended up using hankies and scarves to cover her head
    • Lightweight clothing – The sun is so intense that lightweight long-sleeve tops and trousers are great because they provide another barrier. And if you’re worried about the sweat, trust me, you will sweat just as much in shorts so might as well use that added coverage.
    • Sunblock – Duh
    • Bug spray – Mosquitos are everywhere. I doused myself in bug spray every morning and evening so didn’t realize how bad the mosquitos were until the few hours that I decided to skip it. I ended up with 5 bites in under 5 minutes <insert face palm emoji>.
    • Shoes that you don’t mind getting dusty – It’s flat there so you’re more than welcome to wear heels, but because it’s dry this time of year you will inevitably kick up a lot of dust and return with your shoes looking a bit more yellow then when you left.

The trip wasn’t so much a vacation as a history lesson. Before going, I was nervous about what we would see and experience related to the history of Cambodia. More specifically everything that happened during the Khmer Rouge regime. There were parts that were, indeed, very emotionally heavy.

Before leaving, one of our friends told us to watch First They Killed My Father. It’s not my type of movie and it was hard to watch. The crazier part was how much of it was confirmed by what we saw in person.

Seeing the killing field and genocide museum was one of those situations where you knew something unbelievably terrible had happened right where you’re standing but it’s still so hard to digest no matter how much you could imagine each detail. The best way I can describe how I felt is to say that my mind kept asking “Why?” How could so many people just be brought to one place and killed, especially in such brutal ways, and how could it happen over and over again, multiple times in history? How screwed up must the executioners be to continue doing this, yet probably afraid of losing their own lives if they stopped? Just so many questions.

And now when I reflect back on being there, I realize that none of us actually spoke about how crazy it all was while we were there or even as soon as we left. I personally didn’t even talk about it until much later in the day.

Overall, despite it’s terrible history, it seems like Cambodia is managing to pick itself back up slowly… We will definitely be heading back, but next time, to Siam Reap!


Blog edited by: Betty Ho