3 days in Siem Reap & Phnom Penh

Trip Planner: 3 days in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

With just 3 days in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, this itinerary is nothing if not action packed. Explore ancient temples hidden in tropical jungles, check out a floating market, eat Khmer street food and reflect on contemporary historical sites with a dark past. This itinerary ticks off the best highlights of Cambodia and serves as a primer into this fascinating country.

Wat Phnom, Phom Penh

Day 1: Phnom Penh

City explorations | 10:00am

Arriving in the capital city on the first of your 3 days in Cambodia, you may be disappointed. Not quite as crazy as Bangkok, with none of the glamour of Singapore, Phnom Penh at first glance may seem a little lacklustre, but the easy laidback vibe of this city makes a nice break from the intense hustle and bustle typical of other South East Asian countries.

After checking into your hotel, start your Phnom Penh city tour with Wat Phnom, the tallest temple in Phnom Penh. After paying your respects, explore the area’s colonial structures, like the 19th century Central Post Office. Nearby you can pick up hand carved sculptures and silk scarves from Artisans d’Angkor. Once you’ve finished shopping, have lunch at Van’s Restaurant, which services fusion French cuisine.

The Silver Pagoda, Royal Palace

Palaces and temples | 2:00pm

From here, take the time to explore the Royal Palace, topped with ornate golden spires. The Palace is actually a collection of buildings within a compound, the most breathtaking of which is the Silver Pagoda. The floor was laid with 5 tonnes of silver tiles. There is also a trio of Buddhas, crystal, gold and bronze. Appropriate dress is required for entry into the Royal Palace, which entails covering your shoulders and knees.

Like its neighbour across the border, the majority of Cambodians are Buddhist. Many young men serve a year or two in a temple, shaving their heads and wrapping themselves in a saffron robe to devote themselves to Buddhism. On the grounds of Wat Botum, next to the Royal Palace, you’ll find an oasis of serenity and calm. The monks are very friendly and most would love to practice their English with you.

3 days in Siem Reap traditional dance plae pakaa cambodia takingtotheopenroad peggytee
Traditional dance

Dance under the stars | 6:00pm

North of the Palace is the National Museum, a warm red terracotta building housing artifacts dating from the Angkor Empire. There are beautiful Khmer sculptures on display, and depending on the day you visit, Plae Pakaa, or dance performances by Cambodian Living Arts, a non profit organisation dedicated to preserving traditional Khmer culture. Performers dressed in elaborate costumes recreate traditional Khmer folk tales, dancing to music provided by musicians playing traditional instruments.

Bars of Bassac Lane | 9:00pm

Tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, Bassac Lane offers a selection of small bars like The Library, Hangar 44 and Cicada, with more to come. The bars are a great spot for a quiet drink and to decompress after a long day. Nearby on Street 308 are rows of restaurants, perfect for a late dinner to finish your first day in Phnom Penh.


Day 2: Leaving Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng & Choeung Ek| 10:00am

During the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh was a deserted, derelict city. Professionals and skilled workers were systematically targeted and murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. Tuol Sleng, a school turned prison, is a stark reminder of the horrors of that time. Known as S-21 in the regime’s records, more than 14,000 people passed through its doors. Only 8 prisoners survived. The building is now a museum and still houses some of the original instruments and furniture used by the prison guards, as well disturbing images of the people who lost their lives here.

Nearby is the Choeung Ek killing fields, where the victims of Pol Pot were led to be executed. There were so many mass killings that until today, the rags and bones of the victims still protrude from the ground. A seven level pagoda has been built to remember those who lost their lives here. Now the earth is reclaiming the graves; flowers have started to grow over them and there are butterflies everywhere. It is now peaceful there, which is only a more dramatic contrast to what it must have been like 25-30 years ago. You can visit the sites by hiring a tuk-tuk from Phnom Penh, or alternatively, arranging a half day tour to Tuol Sleng and the killing fields.


Siem Reap bound | 4:00pm

Angkor Air offers afternoon flights to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh – the last flight is at around 8:00pm. Within the hour, you’ll land in Siem Reap. Head for your hotel to check in then go straight to the Old Market, or Psar Chaa. There’s plenty of food stalls, so take your pick and graze to your hearts content. This side of the market is usually thronged with locals – there’s fresh tropical fruits, spices and nuts. On the other side of the market is a maze of stalls selling tourist trinkets, souvenirs and clothing.

Spa time | 6:00pm

End your 2nd day in Cambodia with a pamper session at one of the many spas in Siem Reap. Bodia Spa offers a tranquil, stylish space with mid-ranged prices – the aromatherapy massage is highly recommended! If you want to kick on, check out the bars at Pub Alley, where most of the nightlife in Siem Reap congregates, but you’ll have an early start tomorrow morning, so don’t stay out too late!


Day 3: Siem Reap temples

Sunrise | 4:00am

Angkor Wat is the stuff of legends, and it’s at its most beautiful at sunrise. Remember to bring your torch as it’s pitch black before the sun rises. You can organize a driver to pick you up and drop you off at Angkor in the enveloping dark. The moments before the sun comes up are magical – there’s the sound of crickets and the air is cool and humid and heavy with a thousand years and lives. Above, away from light pollution is a night sky drowned in brilliant hot-white stars. Pick a post away from the madding crowds and wait for the light to slowly fill in the detail of the temple in front of you.


Temples and other delights | 7:00am

After the sunrise show, start your temple day with a temple tour. Angkor Wat is the jewel in the crown, but the other highlights of Ta Prohm, which is overrun with tree roots, and Bayon Thom, a temple with 216 serene, smiling faces, are also worth a visit. Starting early in the morning lets you beat the heat and the crowds. The best way of getting around is to either hire a guide and go on a day trip or if you just want transportation, arrange for a driver for the day – that way you can stay at a site for as long as you like, and take breaks if you choose.


A last hurrah | 12:00pm

End your 4 days in Siem Reap with a celebratory degustation lunch at Siem Reap’s best restaurant, Wat Damnak, offering a fusion of Khmer and French cuisine made from local product. The restaurant is housed in a traditional Cambodian wooden house with two separate dining areas. Bookings are essential – this is one of Asia’s 50 best restaurants, after all.

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