For most travelers, Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh isn’t even a competition: They come to Cambodia for Angkor Wat, which is just a stone’s throw from the former.
It doesn’t help even out the debate that Phnom Penh, in spite of once being among the many cities known as the “Paris of the East,” is associated primarily with the war crimes of Pol Pot, or that the city has done little in recent memory to market or differentiate itself.
Yet I don’t think the competition between these two cities is an even as it appears to be on the surface, or that one is necessarily better than the other. Please allow me to explain in greater detail.
How Most Cambodia Trips Go Down
I’ll be honest: Most visitors to Cambodia end up visiting both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh during their trips. After flying from Bangkok to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh for 2-3 days, they end up traveling overland to the other. While some continue onward to another country (usually Laos via Don Det/4,000 Islands, or Vietnam via the Mekong Delta), others fly down to Sihanoukville and take a ferry over to Koh Rong island.
Of course, this requires having a week or even two in Cambodia. If you’ve only got time for a few-day jaunt from Saigon, Hanoi, Bangkok or Chiang Mai, you might not be able to visit both of Cambodia’s cities. With this in mind, I’ll do my best to differentiate them so you can make the best choice. The last thing I want you to do is finish your trip with a sense of regret!
Ways to Compare Phnom Penh and Siem Reap
Siem Reap is all about Angkor Wat, although there are some other nearby temples to visit—and, within town, Pub Street and its many dining and drinking establishments. Within Phnom Penh, meanwhile, you have a wide variety of options. After you finish exploring traditional tourist attractions like the Royal Palace and S-23 Prison, you can enjoy an evening stroll or dinner along the Mekong.
To me, this is the place where the Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap really ceases being a competition. Angkor Wat is essentially in Siem Reap’s city center; you don’t need to go there on a day trip so much as doing so needs to be your day. With Phnom Penh, meanwhile, you can make bonafide excursions to the Killing Fields or even to Ta Phrom, the city’s own Angkor-era ruins.
Siem Reap is a dusty, nondescript town that would be utterly forgettable were it not for the fact that Angkor Wat is nearby. Phnom Penh is comparatively eclectic. If you aren’t impressed by structured such as the Art Deco Central Market or 19th-century Royal Palace, the skyscrapers rising behind both provide a striking contrast you simply can’t find in Siem Reap.
While both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap sit along rivers, the Mekong as it passes by Phnom Penh is much more dramatic and therefore a much more integral part of the surrounding geography. Indeed, Siem Reap is defined more by the lush jungles you might associate with the Tomb Raider film franchise, which was filmed at Ta Phrom temple near Angkor Wat.
The good news, no matter which place you end up preferring, is that both of Cambodia’s cities are very affordable. With that being said, I do think Phnom Penh is slightly cheaper. Siem Reap accommodation, resorts and higher-end hotels in particular, tends to be slightly more expensive due to the sheer amount of people who come to the city in order to be able to visit Angkor Wat.
How Many Days Do You Need in Cambodia?
I briefly alluded to how many days in Cambodia most people spend earlier in this post, but I’d like to revisit that question in earnest now. Obviously, if you’re just taking a city trip to Cambodia from a neighboring country, this is an irrelevant question. If, on the other hand, you really want to get to know Cambodia, there are a few suitable answers.
If you plan to visit both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and nowhere else, I’d say 5-7 days in Cambodia is a fair amount of time to spend. Adding Koh Rong island to that, meanwhile, would mean you need to spend a minimum of a week—maybe 10 days, if you travel all or most of the way by land. You could spend two weeks in Cambodia, meanwhile, if you want to visit secondary cities like Battambang, or off-the-beaten path destinations like Preah Vihear temple, across the Mekong from Thailand’s Isaan region.
Which is better, Siem Reap or Phnom Penh?
Most travelers prefer Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, primarily owing to Siem Reap’s proximity to Angkor Wat. On the other hand, if you look at these two cities for what’s within their centers, Phnom Penh is doubtlessly more interesting. It’s also a great deal larger, with a glut of Chinese-funded development to make sure that continues into the future.
Is it worth visiting Phnom Penh?
Phnom Penh is absolutely worth visiting—and not just for Khmer Rouge-related attractions like the Killing Fields and S-23 prison. The city center is a wonderland of architecture, from French-colonial residential buildings to the Art Deco Central Market. The Mekong Riverfront is also charming, particularly at night when it comes alive.
Is Phnom Penh a modern city?
Phnom Penh is an increasingly modern city, with Chinese-built skyscrapers quickly outnumbering the traditional palaces and turn-of-last-century architecture that dominated the cityscape before about 10-20 years ago. Importantly, Phnom Penh is also a relatively cosmopolitan city, being Cambodia’s capital and all.
The Bottom Line
Most travelers take a pretty unequivocal side of the Siem Reap vs Phnom Penh debate, but it’s never been that clear cut to me. While I love the sleepy vibe of Siem Reap and its convenience to Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh is a more than worthwhile destination all on its own. If I were taking my first trip to Cambodia, even if it was a short one, I’d do my best to fit both these cities in to my itinerary. Need help doing just that? Consider hiring me as your Travel Coach. Let me sweat the details of your travel in Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia!