Phnom Penh Vs Siem Reap: A Battle Of Two Cambodian Cities

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap
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Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap is a decision between two of Cambodia‘s most popular cities. The choice isn’t easy because they both have a lot to offer. From rich history to Buddhist temples, from vibrant nightlife to cheap accommodation, there is plenty to see and do in these two metropolises.

On one hand, there is the capital, Phnom Penh, with its beautiful royal palace, picturesque riverside areas, and charming French architecture. Then there is Siem Reap, the gateway to one of the most impressive religious sights in the world: Angkor Wat.

This guide to Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap will talk about the ins and outs of traveling these two destinations. You’ll learn about things from the ease of travel there to the nightlife scenes, restaurants and prices. It will help you decide which Cambodian destination is better for your next adventure.

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap for the ease of travel

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

Although Phnom Penh is one of the least-developed capitals in Asia, it’s still the largest city in Cambodia. It’s slowly gaining the modern infrastructure and the high-rise buildings, but it’s nothing compared to the futuristic metropolises of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

However, if you’re visiting Cambodia from overseas, the likelihood is that you’ll arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport, which is the biggest in the country. Unfortunately, there are no long-haul connections there. That means that visitors from the US or Europe will always need a flight with a stopover. There are plenty of flights to other Southeast and East Asian destinations, though. You could also get in by bus from neighboring countries, but you should watch out for the common visa scams – especially if coming from Vietnam!

Many people decide to start their Cambodian adventure in Siem Reap, which is home to the incredible temple complex of Angkor Wat. That means it’s not too difficult to get there, either. Siem Reap International Airport is the second-largest in the country, with many connections to other Asian destinations. Unfortunately, it’s not big enough for long-haul flight arrivals, so you will need to change in cities such as Bangkok, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur if you’re coming from overseas.

You can also get to Siem Reap via bus from Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam, as well as many domestic destinations. If you’re heading south, you will often need to change buses in Phnom Penh, though.

Winner: Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap for sights and attractions

Angkor Archaeological Site
Photo by Joanna Kaczmarczyk

Many foreign visitors associate Phnom Penh with the country’s dark 1970s past. To learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime, visit the Killing Fields, where many innocent people lost their lives, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school converted into a prison.

But that’s only a minor part of Cambodia’s history that you can immerse yourself in Phnom Penh. Explore the grounds of the magnificent Royal Palace built in the 19th century and visit The National Museum of Cambodia. Walk along the Sisowath Quay, a boulevard by the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. From there, you can make your way to Wat Phnom, a beautiful Buddhist temple.

Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat, the main attraction in all of Cambodia. This large temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest religious monument in the world. You will often need more than one day to explore it all, but most people opt for the single-day pass. Visit early to enjoy the spectacular sunrise over the Temple of Angkor Wat – that’s the one pictured on Cambodia’s flag! Organized tours are the best option for those who want to learn about the history of the temples, but if you’d like to explore it at your own pace, rent a bike or hire a tuk-tuk to get aroun.

Although Angkor Archaeological Park is the number one attraction, it’s not the only place to see in Siem Reap. You can head to the lively Pub Street, a neon-lit road dotted with bars and restaurants, or take a stroll around the picturesque French Quarter. To learn more about Cambodian Buddhism, visit the Angkor National Museum.

Winner: Siem Reap for the Angkor Wat.

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap for hotels

Royal Palace Phnom Penh
Photo by Joanna Kaczmarczyk

Cambodia is one of the cheapest places in Southeast Asia when it comes to accommodation and Siem Reap is no exception. However, if you don’t mind spending a bit of cash, there’s an abundance of stylish 5-star hotels that you can often bank for under $100 a night. One of the best is Koulen Hotel ($$$) in the heart of the tranquil Old French Quarter. But if the lowest prices are your priority, look no further than Siem Reap Pub Hostel ($), where a bed can cost you as little as $3 a night! Pages Rooms Hotel ($$) is a lovely mid-range option with stylish rooms and a pool, only a stone’s throw from the Old Market.

There is no shortage of good value hotels in the capital, either. Palace Gate Hotel & Resort ($$$) is a luxury spot right by the Royal Palace. Although it’s a five-star hotel in a fantastic location, it won’t break the bank. If spending as little as possible is what you’re after, you’ll find double rooms for less than $20 in The Big Easy Phnom Penh ($), which is only a short walk from the Sisowath Quay – the lively riverfront area.

Winner: Siem Reap. There’s more choice.

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap for nightlife

Pub Street Siem Reap
Photo by Sumit Mangela on Unsplash

There are plenty of bars and clubs in the capital. However, they are spread right across Phnom Penh, so you will often have to take a tuk-tuk to get from one to another. There are a few neighborhoods where you can do some bar hopping on foot. The best one is Street 51, where the mix of young people and expats spend their weekend nights. You’ll find loads of places that stay open well into the night and sometimes even past the sunrise there.

Those after DJ-manned dance clubs will enjoy Heart of Darkness, but, if you want a bite with a few drinks, head to Howie’s. There is also no shortage of nightlife in Riverside. Enjoy cocktails with a view at one of the rooftop bars in that area, whether it’s Le Moon or stylish The Quay Boutique Hotel.

While Phnom Penh’s nightlife is more local, Siem Reap’s scene is a tad more touristy. Although there are fewer options than in the capital, they’re usually closer to each other. However, it’s probably not quite as easy to find places that will stay open as late as in the capital.

That said, the lively Pub Street is dotted with bars that sell cheap booze and offer plenty of entertainment until late hours. Those are filled with travelers from all over and are usually the busiest during the dry season. Head to Street Cocktails Tuk Tuk PUB for colorful mixed drinks or visit Picasso Bar for late-night imbibing. There’s also a pretty infamous pub crawl in this town.

Winner: Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap for day trips

Floating villages Siem Reap
Photo by Joanna Kaczmarczyk

Visiting the Buddhist temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park as a day trip from Siem Reap is probably on every visitor’s agenda. The highlights include The Angkor Wat Temple, Ta Prohm, which was used as a location in Tomb Raider the movie, Bayon Temple, and Banteay Srei.

There are lots of other places you can visit from Siem Reap in a day, too. For example, take a boat tour around the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake. It’s a great spot to watch the sunset if you’re lucky enough to get clear skies. If you’re a fan of wildlife, visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and Biosphere Reserve, which is also on the enormous Tonle Sap Lake. Oh, and Phnom Kulen National Park is only an hour’s drive from the city. Go there to see lots of waterfalls, especially after the monsoon.  

But the capital is well positioned, so there is no shortage of places you can visit in one day. The ancient city of Oudong was once the capital of Cambodia. It was also the residence of the royals in the post-Angkorian period. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is only 1.5 hours’ drive away from Phnom Penh. If you’re an animal lover, visit Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, which is home to over 100 species of wildlife. It’s a little over an hour to drive there from the capital. You can also head around two hours north to Kampong Cham, which is famous for a long bamboo bridge that connects the city with Koh Pen Island.

Winner: Draw. Both have plenty of great day trip opportunities.

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap for food

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap_2
Photo by Vanna Phon on Unsplash

Siem Reap has oodles of good restaurants scattered across the city. You will find places serving cuisines from all over the globe, along with delicious Khmer dishes. There are plenty of popular and fine-dining eateries in the French Quarter and near the Old Market. Malis Restaurant Siem Reap might be a little pricy, but it’s well worth for the quality of the food. Tevy’s Place and Madam Moch Khmer Restaurant are less fancy but cheaper alternatives, perfect if you’re looking for good local cooking. If you want to taste some international flavors, head to L’Annexe for French, Il Forno for Italian, and Wat Beast for burgers.

However, it is Phnom Penh where you’ll find the best choice of restaurants. Stylish and bustling with life, Street 240, is dotted with boutique shops, bars, and some of the best diners in the city. The capital isn’t as touristy as Siem Reap, either, so you’ll often find that the food is less expensive. However, if you’re after fine-dining eateries, you will have to pay a premium. Malis Restaurant Phnom Penh is the original place that later opened a second venue in Siem Reap. They serve high-end Cambodian dishes with a modern twist. Eleven One Kitchen is cheaper, but their food is also making waves.

Phnom Penh is home to a large international population, so there is no shortage of restaurants that serve different cuisines. Taste some lovely pizzas in Piccola Italia Da Luigi Pizzeria or head to Topaz for haute French cooking.

Winner: Phnom Penh.   

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap for prices

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap_3
Photo by Joanna Kaczmarczyk

Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are cheap for western visitors, so neither of the two will break the bank. But, with Angkor Wat being just around the corner, the smaller of the two is the more touristy, which means that some prices are inflated. That said, there is an abundance of hostels, hotels, and guesthouses, so you can get better bargains on accommodation than in many other parts of the country. The cheapest options start at only $3 per person! Other things such as food and souvenirs might cost more in Siem Reap, bringing the average daily budget to about $65 per person.

Although Phnom Penh is generally cheaper, not everything costs less in the capital. Travelers usually spend around $35-$40 a day, which is significantly less than in the gateway to Angkor. However, it’s not easy to find quality accommodation that costs less than $10 a night, so if you’re a backpacker, you might do better in Siem Reap. Food is where you can make the biggest savings because there are oodles of local eateries all over the city that can be significantly cheaper than in busy Siem Reap.

Winner: Draw. Phnom Penh is cheaper overall, but you can find better bargains on accommodation in Siem Reap.

Phnom Penh vs Siem Reap: The conclusion

If you’re having to decide between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you have a lot to think about. Both cities are very affordable and have a lot to offer in terms of sights and attractions. Siem Reap is all about Angkor Wat, the largest religious archaeological site in the world. That means it’s more touristy than the capital. Then there is Phnom Penh, with a beautiful Royal Palace and more choices of restaurants. It’s also a place, where you can learn about the country’s dark history. Our advice? Do both!

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.