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An explorer's guide for a one-day tour of Phnom Penh

Harya Danniswara
Harya Danniswara

World explorer and writer for

Phnom Penh  /  Wed, April 24, 2019  /  01:11 pm
An explorer's guide for a one-day tour of Phnom Penh

An ancient Khmer structure is built into the roots of a giant tree at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Shutterstock/Jose Ignacio Soto)

For Westerners, Cambodia is included by default on their must-visit list for touring Southeast Asia. This might not be the case among Asian travelers, who tend to visit more renowned and modern countries such as Japan and South Korea, or even Hong Kong – at least at the time of writing.

Over the past few years I've been traveling widely, I never thought about setting foot in Cambodia – let alone exploring it on my own. Now that I have visited the country, I can say with confidence that it is an experience I will always cherish.

Cambodia is truly one of a kind. The country seems to scream uniqueness in its every aspect, from its unusual currency system that combines US dollars and Cambodian riel, to prehistoric temples standing in the middle of the French-influenced metropolis of Phnom Penh, and to the amusing sound of its language. Experiencing this was a little overwhelming at first, even for an Asian guy like me.

The top cities to visit in Cambodia are Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. For starters, I recommend visiting Phnom Penh first, before making your way through the rest of the country, since it is a perfect gateway for adjusting to Cambodia's ambiance.

However, Phnom Penh is said to have fewer tourist destinations compared to other Southeast Asian capitals like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh. This is why I decided to take a one-day tour around Phnom Penh in an attempt to visit some of its most famous sites.

If you're interested in a day trip exploring the Cambodian capital, here are some things you might need to know before setting out, based on the experiences I had during my visit to the city.

Best transportation modes

I researched the cheapest way to get around Phnom Penh and came across some great recommendations for taking the city bus. In reality, though, I had a hard time finding the right buses and bus stations.

Taking the tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) might also be somewhat difficult for foreigners, since the fare is habitually determined by relationship and tuk-tuk drivers tend to set a higher baseline fare for foreigners – not to mention the greater risk of snatching on public transportation.

In the end, I decided to order through Grab instead. Grab is a widely popular ride-hailing app in Cambodia, and my experience showed it's relatively easy to make a booking and get a driver in Phnom Penh. Even better, you can still experience the joy of riding a tuk-tuk by ordering Grab Tuk-Tuk, which I tried once with excitement during my one day in Phnom Penh.

Read also: Cambodia and Thailand reconnected by rail after 45 years

Places worth visiting

Despite the limited options, taking a one-day tour in Phnom Penh can be hectic if you don't sort out the places you want to visit beforehand. Most destinations are temples and landmarks, and most are very pretty so choosing between them could be harder than you might think. I suggest taking into account the travel time between destinations and plan a relatively linear route to avoid going back and forth to save valuable time.

Wat Phnom is a beautiful temple in the center of the city and a perfect choice. Getting there isn't hard, since it is practically the focal point of Phnom Penh.

The first pagoda in Wat Phnom was built in 1372. Enter the temple to experience the mesmerizing golden statue – something you won't find anywhere else.

Another place worth visiting is Royal Palace Park. Here, you will see the rare temple-shaped palace that stands in a modern, Western-like area. Lay down on the lawn and have a moment of relaxation while enjoying the chirping birds and the stunning view.

Stay safe

Phnom Penh in particular is known for being occasionally unsafe for foreigners, which is unfortunate. The most common street crimes are snatching bags  and stealing bicycles. It is always advisable to take only one small bag and keep it on your body at all times.

When taking public transportation like tuk-tuk, sit in the middle of the vehicle. Another thing I found useful was to look alert and like you know where you're going. Walk straight and fast, even when you're not entirely sure of your direction, and avoid looking at Google Maps for too long. That way, you'll avoid looking like a lost tourist and avoid becoming a target.

If you are Caucasian, take extra safety measures and avoid talking to suspicious people that might try and scam you.

What to wear

Planning your journey is good, but be sure to go the extra mile and plan ahead on what you'll wear during your trip.

As it sits near the equator, Cambodia has its own share of direct sunlight, and sunburn can spoil your entire day. So, wear lightweight and sweat-absorbing clothes that will keep you cool while protecting your skin.

Also, do note that most Asian cultures prefer more proper attire, which means it's best to stay away from tank tops and shorts. Heading out in a pair of loose jeans and a light-colored T-shirt is advisable, as this will help you to blend in well yet is still practical to keep your body from retaining excessive heat.

What to eat

Finally, treat yourself to some great dishes you won’t find anywhere else. The streets of Phnom Penh has a lot to offer, both day and night. Treat your taste buds to the myriad street food you will find easily in the city, and be sure to give traditional dishes a try.

I personally loved Fish Amok, one of Cambodia's national dishes. The full-bodied dish's creamy coconut texture stole my heart. I remember coming across a recommendations online to try red tree ants, which literally has red ants in it. Lots of ants. If you enjoy the Fear Factor, go ahead and try it. Don’t forget to let us know how it tastes.

All in all, Phnom Penh is a must-visit when exploring Cambodia. While the country is famous for its many temples and ancient structures, including the glorious Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is more than the usual fare. Coming here will give you a sense of what it feels like to live in a country rich in history and tradition, yet also contemporary in its own way. (kes)

Harya Danniswara is an avid traveler and writer for Life For Experts, a website for travelers to share their experiences, insights and tips on travel, food and life values. Find him on Instagram and Twitter.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.