Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh: Which Cambodian City Should You Visit First?

Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh: Which Cambodian City Should You Visit First?

A guide for travellers who are contemplating between the two!

Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are the two most popular cities in Cambodia. When planning a trip to this Southeast Asian country, one might struggle to decide which city to go to first. One is home to the largest religious structure in the world — Angkor Wat; while the other serves as the capital of Cambodia. Read on and find out which city suits you best for your upcoming trip, and resolve your Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh dilemma! 

Also read: How My Cambodia Solo Trip Taught Me to Embrace Unexpected Travel Experiences

1. Attractions

Whether it’s Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, both cities carry charms and attractions worth visiting. If you’re looking for somewhere more cultural-centric and relaxing, then Siem Reap is the place for you. Phnom Penh, on the other hand, is more suitable for travellers who enjoy spending time in the urban areas.

Siem Reap

siem reap vs phnom penh

Angkor Wat | Image credit: George Bakos

When speaking of Siem Reap, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably the world-famous temple site, Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is famous for its many Buddhist temples, with the most popular being Angkor Wat: a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also the world’s largest religious complex. While you’re here, get ready to be impressed by the majestic Khmer architecture and its harmonious design. Angkor Wat was built back in the 12th century, mainly with sandstones instead of bricks. 

This religious site is often packed with tourists, so make sure to allocate enough time here on your itinerary. In the middle of the year, the weather at Angkor Wat gets really hot and humid, so it would be wise to bring along a bottle of water too. Even so, don’t miss out on the sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat, where the sunlight paints the entire vista a bright, layered orange colour. Accompanied by the reflection at the pool right in front of the temple, witnessing the jaw-dropping scene is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

Image credit (L-R): blueorangestudio via CanvaPro; tegmen via CanvaPro

There are a lot of other temples and religious sites in Siem Reap. So, aside from visiting Angkor Wat, head to other attractions like Ta Prohm Temple and Bayon Temple. Ta Prohm is dedicated to the deity Prajnaparamita, also known as the Goddess of Wisdom. This place is easily recognisable by the large strangler fig trees that intertwine with the temple, where the skilful architecture and nature become one.

Bayon Temple is another temple built during the Khmer Empire and served as the state temple of King Jayavarman VII. Its most distinctive feature is none other than the smiling faces of the Buddha on the stones. The dynamic and sophisticatedly decorated buildings often leave visitors awestruck. 

P.S. — Did you know that one of the Tomb Raider movies took place in Ta Prohm Temple?

Wat Preah Prom Rath | Image credit: aldarinho via CanvaPro

Siem Reap is also home to a few museums worth visiting, like the Angkor National Museum and Cambodia Landmine Museum. At Angkor National Museum, there are interactive exhibits that allow visitors to understand the religions, beliefs, history, and culture of the ancient Khmer Empire. The Cambodia Landmine Museum, on the other hand, was founded by a former child soldier and houses thousands of decommissioned landmines and other explosive ordnance of war. 

Besides, head to Wat Preah Prom Rath: a temple complex with colourful pagodas, statues, and well-maintain gardens for a peaceful afternoon. This functioning Buddhist monastery dates back to the 16th century. Located at the riverside, you’ll also find many local snacks and noodle stalls around the place.

Phnom Penh

Independence Monument | Image credit: Anil Nallamotu

Similar to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is a vibrant city with several popular attractions. When you’ve arrived at the city centre, you’ll probably see the Independence Monument standing on a roundabout. This tower was built in 1958 to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France. It is open 24/7, so you can pay a visit during the day, or at night when the monument lights up in a bright yellow colour. 

siem reap phnom penh

Phnom Penh Royal Palace | Image credit: Dmitry Rukhlenko via CanvaPro

The Royal Palace of Cambodia is another stunning attraction in Phnom Penh. It consists of buildings which serve as the royal residence of the King of Cambodia. The palace is of the Khmer architectural style and looks splendid even from afar. To enter, visitors will need to purchase a ticket which costs around US$10 (~S$13). The Royal Palace also enforces a strict dress code, thus visitors will need to dress modestly and respectfully, such as wearing long pants or dress below knee length, and tops that cover the arms and shoulders.

siem reap vs phnom penh

National Museum of Cambodia | Image credit: Andrey Khrobostov via CanvaPro

Check out Wat Phnom Daun Penh, another pagoda in the city with a total height of 46 metres. There is a garden in the sanctuary that resembles a giant clock, and a lot of locals come here every day to offer their prayers. 

If temple-hopping is not really your thing, head to the National Museum of Cambodia, the country’s largest museum of cultural history. Here, you can learn more about the art and culture of Cambodia, as well as witness the archaeological finds of Khmer art. The museum is open daily from 8am to 5pm, and the admission fee for foreigners aged 18 and above is US$10 (~S$13).

2. Food and dining

When it comes to Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh, both are awesome places to go for delicious local food. However, the latter offers more varied dining options. Keep reading for our side-by-side comparison. 

Siem Reap

siem reap vs phnom penh

Fish amok | Image credit: urf via CanvaPro

Siem Reap is home to a lot of street food stalls and restaurants worth trying. They usually serve local cuisines like fish amok (steamed fish curry), lok lak (stir-fried beef), and nom banh chok (Khmer noodles). Pou Restaurant Siem Reap, The Christa Restaurant & Bar, Sambo Khmer & Thai Restaurant, and JOMNO – Modern Khmer Cuisine are amongst the most famous restaurants in the area that serve mouth-watering Khmer delicacies. 

Aside from local food, you can also indulge in cafe-hopping. The best cafes in Siem Reap include The Little Red Fox Espresso Cafe, Sister Srey Cafe, Brother Bong Cafe, and Footprint Cafes. Other than delicious Western dishes, these places also serve good coffee.

Phnom Penh

siem reap vs phnom penh

Image credit: epixx via CanvaPro

Compared to the food scene in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh’s gastronomic choices are more varied. For French cuisine, check out La Croisette Phnom Penh and Le Langka; for Muslim-friendly food, head to Wau Halal Restaurant Phnom Penh

Of course, if you’re looking for scrumptious Khmer cuisines, there are many good choices in Phnom Penh. Khmer Surin Restaurant, Malis Restaurant (Phnom Penh), Eleven One Kitchen – BKK1, and David’s Restaurant Homemade Noodles are the places to go to experience the local food scene. Don’t miss out on dishes like bai sach chrouk (coconut-marinated pork and rice), Cambodian spring roll, and papaya salad. If you have some time to spare, visit the local markets to try out the dried fish, too.

3. Shopping

Siem Reap

Image credit (L-R): Humphrey Muleba; Chetan Hireholi

In Siem Reap, Siem Reap Art Center Night Market, Old Market Siem Reap, Made in Cambodia Market, and Phsar Leu Thom Tmey are amongst the top markets to shop for affordable goods. From local delicacies to handmade crafts and jewellery, these places have almost everything, which makes them good shopping destinations for cheap food and souvenirs. 

If you’re searching for an upscaled indoor shopping mall with tons of shops, eateries, and a movie theatre, then The Heritage Walk is the place for you.

Phnom Penh

siem reap vs phnom penh

Image credit (L-R): Amy Em; Alexandre Brondino

Unlike Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is home to many shopping malls. Tk Avenue Mall, Midtown Community Mall, Sorya Shopping Centre, ÆON Mall Phnom Penh, and ÆON Mall Sen Sok are the most prominent shopping havens. From fashion items and eateries to indoor entertainment, both locals and tourists enjoy visiting these spots.

Moreover, markets like Central Market and Russian Tuol Tompoung Market are your best bet for a more local shopping experience in the capital. The former is also an Art Deco landmark featuring a massive bright yellow dome. 

In the Central Market, you’ll find things like spices, vegetables, seafood, clothing, jewellery, and souvenirs. Likewise, the Russian Tuol Tompoung Market, more affectionately known as Tuol Tom Poung, is another bustling marketplace with vendors selling fabrics, jewellery, carved handicrafts and ceramics, and local food and drinks.

4. Public and private transport

Siem Reap

Image credit: Humphrey Muleba

In Siem Reap, the most popular way of getting around is via remork: a type of motorcycle with seats at the back which resembles Thailand’s tuk-tuk. This can usually fit up to four people. You can also take a motorcycle taxi, a normal taxi, or a car rental to move around the city. Walking is another alternative if you prefer to explore the historical town leisurely. 


Phnom Penh

siem reap phnom penh

Image credit: Sovannkiry Sim

Like in Siem Reap, people usually get around Phnom Penh by taking a remork or a motorcycle taxi. While these are the best ways to get around Phnom Penh, you can also call a taxi cab or other e-hailing services like GrabCar. There are also city buses available for an extremely cheap price (approximately US$0.4 or S$0.54), but you may want to avoid taking the bus during peak hours, as it gets quite busy. 


5. Day Trips

Siem Reap

Tonle Sap Lake | Image credit: Singhatho

There are a few places to go for day trips from Siem Reap, including Tonle Sap Lake and its floating villages, as well as Kulen Waterfall. Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Aside from being known as one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, its floating villages are another attraction loved by tourists. Other than homes, some of these floating houses act as restaurants and markets. 

Kulen Waterfall is another destination worthy of day trips from Siem Reap. Located about 50 kilometres away from the city, this waterfall is an excellent place for those who want to admire the gorgeous scenery or spend a splashing fun day to escape the heat.

Phnom Penh

Kirirom National Park | Image credit: Khim Peterson Rattanak

The best day trips from Phnom Penh are Kirirom National Park and Koh Dach. Kirirom National Park, aka the Preah Suramarit-Kossamak Kirirom National Park, stands 675 metres above sea level. The word kirirom translates to “happy mountain” in Khmer. Here, you can spend a relaxing day together with the beautiful small lakes and waterfalls.

Koh Dach, or Phnom Penh’s Silk Island, is a small island on the Mekong River. It is one of the country’s most prominent places for silk weaving, pottery, woodcarving, and other handicrafts — hence its name. While you’re here, take time to enjoy the peacefulness, ride a boat, or relish in water activities.

6. Nightlife

Forget your Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh dilemma when it comes to activities at night, because both cities’ vibrant nightlife scenes will not disappoint! It’s mostly a matter of preference in terms of what type of night out you wish to have.

Siem Reap

Pub Street | Image credit: Sumit Mangela

Siem Reap has a literal “Pub Street” that caters to partygoers. You would enjoy the nightlife scene on Pub Street, aka Street 08, as there are tons of bars, pubs, clubs, and restaurants to choose from. The neon lights and colourful banners add a hint of liveliness to this 100-metre-long street. The Angkor What? Bar, The Red Piano, Temple Club, and Barcode Bar Siem Reap are some of the coolest places you have to visit for a unique nightlife experience.  

Phnom Penh

Epic Club | Image credit: Epic Club Official Website

Likewise, Phnom Penh is a paradise for night owls and travellers looking to spend a splendid evening. The Pontoon Club, Heart of Darkness, Epic Club, and Darlin’ Darlin’ Music Lounge are amongst the best clubs for partying and great live music. If you’re up for some nice alcoholic drinks, check out Metro Hassakan, Bouchon Wine Bar, and BattBong Restaurant & Bar.

7. Budget

Siem Reap 

siem reap vs phnom penh

Image credit: huad262 via CanvaPro

While both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are budget-friendly cities to visit, the cost of travelling in Siem Reap is slightly more expensive. This could be due to the fact that it is more touristy, but it really depends on your own spending style and accommodation choice. The average daily budget for a person should be around S$120, including transportation, food, entertainment and activities, as well as a decent comfortable stay. But of course, you can expect to spend even less if you’re staying in a cheaper hotel and limiting your activities.

Phnom Penh

Image credit: LordRunar via CanvaPro

Compared to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is relatively more affordable. Depending on your accommodation and spending habits, the daily budget should cost you around S$100. That price includes a cosy and quality stay, food, local transportation, and other potential activity costs. 

The TZ Verdict on Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh

siem reap vs phnom penh

Image credit (L-R): Anne Nicole; SCREEN POST

So, Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, which is better? At the end of the day, there is no right answer for which city in Cambodia is better for first-timers. It really depends on what you want out of your trip. 

Siem Reap is perfect for travellers who love to explore historical landmarks and breathtaking natural scenery. Oftentimes, people visit Siem Reap to experience ancient sites and glance at world-renowned temples. It is an ideal place to go if you want to get the most out of a short trip.

Phnom Penh is great for those who prefer travelling around big cities. As Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh is more urban while still retaining its beauty from the Khmer Empire. It is also perfect for travellers who have a longer time to explore a destination inexhaustibly.

Both cities are budget-friendly, and they cater to all types of travellers, from solo backpackers to families. Regardless, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are equally wonderful destinations and undoubtedly worth a visit at least once in a lifetime!

Also read: 12 Tropical Airbnbs in Asia to Experience the Best of Island Life

So there you have it, a list of information that hopefully can resolve your Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh dilemma. If you haven’t been to either destination, which city in Cambodia do you think is better suited for you? If you have been to both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page!

Featured image credit (L-R): tawatchaiprakobkit via CanvaPro; urf via CanvaPro

About Author

Cecelia Chang
Cecelia Chang

Born in a new village in Selangor, Malaysia, Cecelia loves three things in life: Good food, good views, and good deals. She also enjoys exploring new places and experiencing new things on her travels.