Earn that foot massage
At first glance Phnom Penh might not appear to be much of a walking city, but it is actually an excellent place for a walking tour— as long as you pace yourself, drink plenty of water and are sure to look in all directions—including up!
This walking tour starts in the north of the city, in front of Raffles Hotel Le Royal and finishes at the Independence Monument down in the centre of the city. If you follow our route exactly, you’re looking at around 6.5km all up, which is why we have broken it up into three sections, each of a little over 2km in length. You could do the whole thing in one long day and we’ve outlined it in that manner, but you could just as easily split it over three days, or not do all of it.
Remember this is a guide not a gospel, and as Phnom Penh is such a great walking city, don’t be concerned about wandering off piste along the way should something else grab your attention—you can always rejoin the route later. We’ve given suggestions for stops, should you feel like a coffee, a snack or an iced cold beer (or all three) and have linked out to other, more detailed pages when appropriate.
You don’t need a guide for any of this and while you could do it by bicycle, the best way is on foot. Pace yourself, wear a hat, and remember to drink lots of water. If you’d like something more ordered, with a guide to answer your questions, we strongly recommend you consider a tour with Khmer Architecture Tours—they are excellent.
OK, lets get started.
Part One: The French Quarter
Sitting on the north side of Street 92 sits the grandiose Art Deco Raffles Hotel Le Royal (1). Originally opened in 1929, the official event was attended by the king of the time, King Sisowath Monivong and the orchestra was brought over from Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon)! Looking at it from the street today, only the central building is original—the wings were added at a latter date. Over the years, Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham and (more notoriously) André Malraux were guests who stayed here.
The hotel was also a refuge for journalists covering the Cambodian civil war and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. If you are doing the walking tour backwards, this is a lovely spot for afternoon tea or happy hour cocktails in the Elephant Bar. The Femme Fatale signature cocktail is named after a drink enjoyed by Jacqueline Kennedy when she visited—her lipstick-stained glass in on display.
Immediately to the east of Le Royal you’ll see the the National Library (2)—off the radar for most visitors to Phnom Penh, but worth a look as you’re in the area. Built in 1924, walk up to the entrance and look up to your right. The sign reads “La force lie un temps lidee enchaine pour toujours”—roughly translated as “Force binds for a time, ideas join forever”—on the opposite wall the same is displayed in Khmer. The Khmer Rouge were not impressed—they threw books out onto the street and used them as fuel for fire—only 20% of the collection survived. The ground floor of the National Archives (which sits behind the library) was used by the Khmer Rouge as a piggery.
For a word nerd, the thrill of the library is the evocation of former splendour. As you walk in, the smell of old books is unmistakable. Under tall ceilings with hanging fans, wide wooden tables are occupied by a few students frowning with concentration. Natural history prints line the walls. The big wooden library desk is carved with laurel wreaths, echoed in the beautiful index card filing cabinets, complete with brass handles.
Cross Street 92, then the park, then Street 96, leaving you standing outside the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes (3), one of the most exclusive French schools in the city. Established in 1951, this is the oldest international school in Phnom Penh. In 1974 as the Khmer Rouge were advancing on Phnom Penh, they shelled the school, killing ten children. According to Steven Boswell’s excellent King Norodom’s Head, once the Khmer Rouge had occupied the city, the school was given the code name K-33 and it was used as a base for their security police. They planted banana trees in the courtyard and raised pigs and chickens. Moving on, turn left and walk along Street 96, past the imposing (and newish) US Embassy—no photography allowed here please.
Continue to the end of the block and you’ll see rising above you to your left, Wat Phnom (4). Allow at least 30 minutes to an hour here to wander the grounds, climbing to the summit. While there isn’t much of an urbane view (it is mostly obscured by the trees) as you wander up, consider that this artificial hill, just 27 metres tall, was once the tallest point in the city.
Once you are done, return to the southwest corner and walk over to the Statue of Daun Penh (5). As legend tells it, a Khmer woman, (you guessed it, Daun Penh), was dawdling by the riverbank one day when she noticed four Buddha statues inside a tree. She rooted the statues out and the first pagoda was built here in 1373 in order to house them. From this a city grew. Street 92’s proper name is Daun Penh Avenue.
From the statue, continue around the south side of Wat Phnom and exit onto Street 98, following it through till it meets the north-south running Street 13. This will deliver you to what is known as Post Office Square, and is home to the largest collection of French colonial period building in the city ... for now—developers have their eyes on some of these. See it while it still all stands!
Immediately to your left is the seriously dilapidated Police Commissariat (6), or former police station, a previously impressive building now slowly rotting. While it was long inhabited by squatters, more recently it was apparently purchased by a developer who is intent on seeing it collapse as soon as possible, so that something (not doubt awful) can be built in its place. What a shame. Scenes from City of Ghosts were shot here.
Opposite sits what remains of the Grand Hotel Manolis (7). In its glory days the hotel encompassed the entire city block, but today it is a hodge podge with apparently dozens of families squatting in much of it, Australian expats living on the top left hand floor, and a ghastly renovation first undertook by KFC (now thankfully gone) destroyed what charm the river-facing part of the block had. It was here in the 1920s that French citizens Andre and Clara Malraux were held under a kind of house of arrest after being caught brazenly looting masses of Angkorian antiquities including sawing off delicate carvings from Banteay Srei. He was later to become France's first Minister of Cultural Affairs during de Gaulle's presidency.
To your immediate right is the Post Office (8) which dates back to 1895. Refurbished and still a functioning post office, walk around to the front of it and look for the details above the windows to the left and right reading “PT”—Postes et Telegraph. When you’re facing the post office to your far left (on the south side of Street 102) is what used to be Banque de l’Indochine (9). Far more recently it was Van’s Restaurant (when it was easy to go inside to look at the bank vaults) but it recently rebranded to Palais La Poste (and they would very very much prefer you bought a drink or a meal if you would like to see the vaults!).
Continue down Street 13 and you’ll reach a grassy promenade known as Freedom Park (10). Back in the day the French dug this up both as an irrigation canal but also to separate the “French Quarter” of the city from everyone else. Later, when it got too festy, they filled it back in again and today most of it is a grassy escape from the city, with Phnom Penh Night Market (11) anchored to the eastern and of it.
Immediately to the south is Phsar Chas (Old Market) (12). This used to be the city’s central market until Phsar Thmai was built, at which time it became the Old Market. Pop inside for an iced-coffee (or a facial), or if you’re feeling more peckish after all the walking so far, walk through to the southern side of the market and on the eastern corner of Streets 110 and Street 13 there are two options.
First, there is an open air nom banh chok stall (13) (thank you Phnom Penh Food Tours for turning us on to this one), then, just after it, a large and super-popular noodle place. So take a pause in the walking and fill your belly here. Both are on the left as you are walking down Street 13.
Sated, head south on Street 13 for two more blocks, till you reach the junction with Street 130. Pause at the intersection and look up at the southwest corner and upstairs you’ll see the remnants of the Hotel International (14) (sadly partly hidden by a large Samsung billboard). Built in 1910, it was Phnom Penh’s first proper hotel. Sadly it isn’t looking so sharp now.
Turn right and start walking along Street 130 for three blocks till you reach Norodom Blvd. This stretch is a particularly good example of shady tamarind trees. A popular choice of the French colonialists, tamarind was chosen for three reasons—firstly, when mature it casts plentiful shade, secondly, the leaves are so tiny they do not block up the drains, and thirdly because tamarind are a yummy snack.
By the time you reach Norodom Blvd you should be able to see Phsar Thmei (15) in the distance. Built in 1937, aside from the Olympic Stadium it is arguably the most impressive historic construction in the city. Delve into here for some photos and perhaps some shopping, but if you shop, be prepared to bargain hard. In our opinion the range is better and the prices lower, at the Russian Market in the southern reaches of town.
This is the end of the first leg of the walk, so put your feet up and rest those feet, we’ll meet again at the southern side of Phsar Thmai.
Part Two: The Riverfront
Standing at the southern flank of Phsar Thmei, with your back to it, turn left and start walking along Street 136, leave the market behind you, cross Pasteur (Street 51) and then look to your right and you’ll see a row of stuffed sandwich shops. At 5,000 riel a pop these are a great way to get a bit more energy for the walking.
Turn right onto Street 49 then left onto Street 144—as you turn, look to the southwest corner—we love the old building here (16). Done building-gazing, continue along Street 144 till you reach Norodom Blvd. Look up the road to your left and you’ll see Wat Phnom in the distance.
Cross Norodom and continue for a couple more blocks along Street 144 till you reach Street 13 and on your right you’ll see Phsar Kandal (17). Much like Phsar Chas to the north, this is a traditional wet market which is well worth a walk though. Eventually you’ll find yourself on the eastern side of it and continue east on Street 148.
Street 148, like many of downtown Phnom Penh’s roughly east-west running streets eventually hits the riverfront boulevard of Sisowath Quay (18). As touristy as it is, it is touristy for a reason and a walk along the riverfront is a damn fine way to lose a few hours. If you have the time try it in the early morning, when you get the brunt of the morning rising sun, then again in the afternoon when the sun is setting behind the city, bringing out the softer colours and the evening walkers. Many first time visitors never get far beyond the riverfront and it is easy to see why.
We’re just sticking with it for a block though, walking south a single block to where Sisowath Quay splits at narrow diagonals, with Sothearos Blvd running inland, passing by Wat Ounalom (19) in the process. This is our next stop, so leave the river behind and take a wander through this sprawling and quite attractive temple. Thanks to some cut sandstone blocks on site it is believed to have been a religious site of some description since the mid 12th century.
Leave the wat the same way you entered, and, facing the river, turn right. Continue along Sothearos Blvd for a block, passing by the outdoor barbers, till you reach Street 184. Turn left, walking back towards the river and, as you hit the riverfront, look up to your right.
The FCC (20) is one of the best situated riverside bars in the city, with a broad, crowd-pleasing bar and outlook. Drinks are moderately priced and while it is a hit with tourists, everyone should wander through at least once. While the riverfront outlook is magnificent, do be sure to look out the rear too, overlooking the National Museum and the skyline beyond—this is a great spot for sunset.
The FCC marks the end of the second part of the walk, so if those feet are aching, perhaps linger for an extra cold drink before pushing on.
Part Three: The Royal Quarter
Once you’re revived, return to ground level of FCC and turn right again for a single block. This delivers you to Royal Palace area. You should be standing at the edge of Royal Palace Park (21), an area locals use for picnicking and nighttime relaxing in front of the beautifully lit palace. With your back to the river, the National Museum (22) is behind the palace to the right and the Silver Pagoda is beside the Royal Palace to the left. In practise the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (23) are seen together, the National Museum separately. You’ll need at least a couple of hours to take both in.
That’s ok, we’ll wait.
Once you’re done, make your way to the southern wall of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (which face on to Street 240). Cross the road and walk west along Street 240. You’ll first come to the impressive British Ambassador’s Residence (on your left) (24), then, a little after that, look for the graffiti strewn wall and turn down the alley (if you reach Penh House you’ve gone too far). The alley is littered with little cafes and boutiques and we’re big fans of Artillery Cafe (25). So stop by here for a smoothie—or if you’d prefer something more local, hang on for five more minutes.
Follow the laneway through to the end and turn left onto Street 244. This will lead you onto Street 7 which forms the western border of Wat Botum Park (26). Turn right, and continue along, and just after the junction with Street 264 you’ll see two Khmer open air restaurants doing a humming trade. Hit the second one, Sophath (27), for an excellent bowl of nom banh chok (thank you Lost Plate Food Tours for this one!).
Leave the restaurant, continuing south on Street 19 and you’ll his the largest boulevard in the city. Suramarit Blvd forms the northern side and Sihanouk the south. Almost right in front of you should be King Norodom Sihanouk Memorial (28) and, to the west of it, the especially impressive at night Independence Monument (29).
From these monuments you’re all done! Head south into the northern reaches of BKK1 for plenty of bars and cafes (hipsters across to Bassac Lane please) of just go grab a tuk tuk and head off for a foot massage—you’ve earned it.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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