As far as Southeast Asian cities go, Cambodia’s capital can easily err on the expensive side. Thankfully there are dozens of free activities and events on throughout the year to keep travellers on a tight budget occupied. While some of these things might cost you a few dollars, all are open to the public and most are completely free. Music, art, workshops, culture, architecture, exercise, networking, eating and drinking – this list has something for everyone.
1. See the monks in the morning. Saffron robes and bare feet are a common sight in Phnom Penh. Starting at around 6am each morning, the city’s monks begin to emerge from their wats to collect morning alms and food offerings, stopping at shop doorways to chant blessings as they make their daily procession through the streets.
2. Visit a farmers’ market. I was surprised to learn recently that a lot of Phnom Penh’s market produce is imported. Spotlighting locally grown and organic ingredients, Farm to Table’s Mindful Market is held on Street 360 every Saturday. Fresh fruit and veg and artisan small goods (including La Pops natural ice cream) is on offer, plus live music and $5 seasonal cocktails. Entry is free.
3. Get schooled on a random topic. Inspired by Pecha Kucha, Nerd Night is a rapid-fire public speaking event where expats and locals make short presentations on any topic of their choosing. From marine conservation to a brief history of memes, you’d be surprised how much you can learn in six minutes. Nerd Night is a roving event; check their Facebook page for dates and locations (or to sign up for your own speaking slot!).
4. Take a crash course in meditation. Centrally located Wat Langka offers free meditation classes four days a week. Each session lasts for an hour; be prepared to spend most of that time sitting cross-legged on the floor in complete silence. Wear loose, comfortable clothing (being sure to cover your knees and shoulders), and remember to remove your shoes before entering the wat.
5. Go on a self-guided walking tour of central Phnom Penh. It might not seem obvious at first, but Cambodia’s capital is full of architectural gems. Many of the city’s most significant buildings, including examples of New Khmer modernism, are covered in this free PDF walking map. If you’d rather have a guide, Khmer Architecture Tours employ local students to run their seven walking itineraries. Tickets cost $15 and can be reserved online.
6. Brush up on your Khmer. While learning the language isn’t every traveller’s priority, some basic vocabulary will get you a long way in Cambodia, especially if you’re heading out to the provinces. Cloud run free Street Language Classes at their Tonle Bassac venue, or you can try listening-based alternative learning at LINK, where the first class is free.
7. Refresh your travel wardrobe at Swap & Shop. Got something in your suitcase you’re dying to get rid of? Bee Vintage & Craft on Street 93 offer store vouchers in exchange for donations of used garments (provided what you’re swapping is clean and in good condition). Anything that can’t be re-sold is donated to the Boeung Kak community.
8. Watch a documentary film at Meta House. Phnom Penh’s German cultural centre shows docos, subtitled Khmer movies and international films almost every night of the year. All screenings are completely free – see their website for up-to-date listings.
9. Exercise at Olympic Stadium. The name might be a misnomer (Phnom Penh never actually hosted a major international sporting event), and the 1964-built Olympic Stadium is definitely showing its age, but the asphalt track and central field are both still in good use today. If you don’t feel like exercising, perch yourself on the concrete bleachers and people watch instead.
10. Eat free pizza at Italian Afterwork. Hosted by the much-loved Italian trattoria Il Forno on Street 302, Italian Afterwork offers the expat crowd free tapas, free pizza and free entertainment courtesy of a rota of local DJs every Wednesday night.
11. Tour Kingdom Breweries. Beer is big business Cambodia, and Kingdom Breweries offers some of the country’s finest ales. Unscheduled guided tours of the facility (which is located on the riverside just north of the city) leave from the onsite Taproom bar between 1pm and 5pm, Monday to Friday. A spot on the tour will set you back $6, but it includes free samples of Kingdom’s many beer and cider varieties.
12. Visit a temple or two. Entry to Wat Phnom will set you back $1, while the Silver Pagoda on the city’s waterfront carries a $3 fee (plus $2 extra if you intend to take photos). However, many of Phnom Penh’s smaller Buddhist wats don’t change any entry fee, even for foreigners. (UPDATE: Be sure to put Wat Moha Montrei, Phnom Penh’s pastel temple, at the top of your list!).
13. Wind down with an art therapy class. If you fancy a bit of stress relief, Sketch Circle host fortnightly creative therapy sessions where participants of all ages are encouraged to ‘channel their inner artist’. Gatherings are free and all styles of creative expression are welcome. BYO art materials (sketchbook, coloured pencils, etc.).
14. Indulge in a movie marathon. When one free film just isn’t enough, for a measly $3.50 you can hire your own couchette and pillow at The Flicks and enjoy unlimited movies all day. The Flicks is a volunteer-run enterprise that reinvests all its profits into community projects, so it might not technically be free, but it is money well spent. Three air-conditioned locations in different city neighbourhoods screen new releases and classics. Perfect for steamy summer days in Phnom Penh.
15. Get lost in a market. Whether you’re scouting for something specific or just window shopping, Phnom Penh’s wet and dry markets (called phsar in Khmer) are a must-visit. Try Tuol Tom Poung (the Russian Market), Central Market, Olympic Market and the Night Market for starters, and be sure to venture to some of the city’s lesser-known markets for a more local experience.
16. Lend a hand to clean up the city. An easy way to leave a positive mark on Phnom Penh’s landscape is by participating in a pop-up city cleanup. Hundreds of volunteers usually attend these privately organised cleanups, collecting more than 1,000 litres of garbage from the riverbank at a time. Search on Facebook for dates and rendezvous points.
17. Join a group hike. The Phnom Penh Hike Group lead semi-regular day trips out of the city, taking groups of up to 30 people on hikes around Oudong Hill. Participants are generally expected to make a contribution of around $15 to cover transport and the cost of a local guide.
18. Check out Phnom Penh’s street art. Street murals have been known to mysteriously disappear before the paint is even dry in Phnom Penh, but there are ‘protected’ pockets of the city that are famous for their vibrant street art. Street 93 and the laneway off Street 240 are both good spots.
19. Do aerobics on the waterfront. Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh’s riverfront, is pumping in the evenings, and outdoor aerobics classes are often held along the promenade. Join in or watch from afar – the unabashed enthusiasm of the mainly older female participants is hugely admirable (and slightly hilarious).
20. See Shakespeare in Cambodia. Amrita Performing Arts is a world-class theatre and contemporary dance troupe based in Phnom Penh. Public performances range from dance routines inspired by traditional Khmer boxing to theatre pieces that draw on Khmer and Hindi legends. Last year Amrita hosted Shakespeare’s Globe for a special recital of Hamlet; incredibly, tickets for all events cost just $5.
21. Get snap happy at an OPC photo walk. The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia hold regular meet ups for journalists living in Phnom Penh. Every now and then the group also advertises ‘photo walks’, free weekend get-togethers where participants can wander the city’s streets accompanied by a qualified photojournalist. Photo walks are designed to offer a new perspective on Phnom Penh and a chance to improve your photography skills. Don’t forget your camera.
22. Eat breakfast with an expert. Ok, so you’re on holiday, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping the mind active – even when you are in relax mode. Impact Hub Phnom Penh, a think-tank and co-working space on Street 306, holds regular Breakfast with the Expert events that aim to link entrepreneurs with seasoned professionals in social enterprise, the not-for-profit sector and start-up businesses. Come along to chew the fat or sit back and absorb the conversation. (UPDATE: Check out Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s full program of free events – including Mindful Monday meditation sessions, Happy Hour presentations and Impact Talks – here.)
23. Try a conditioning class at a Khmer boxing gym. If you’ve ever wanted to try kickboxing, Phnom Penh is a great place to do it. Prokout Fitness Centre is an impressively outfitted fighter’s gym located near Aeon Mall. Conditioning classes (similar to Crossfit or circuit training) are led by Khmer trainers every weeknight; you can drop in unannounced and try your first class for free.
24. Uncover a vintage treasure. Expat Amanda Bloom has an eye for vintage and hosts pop-up sales every month or so under the name The History of Things to Come. While it’s free to browse, I can’t guarantee you won’t leave without spending at least a few dollars on a new frock.
25. Catch a live gig. For better or for worse (karaoke, I’m looking at you), there is music to be heard on the streets of Phnom Penh every night of the week. Acoustic performances at Farm to Table, jazz at Bouchon Wine Bar and many, many more free events are all listed on the website Leng Pleng (Khmer for ‘play music’). They also have a handy app.
26. Participate in one of Cambodia’s Buddhist festivals. Visaka Bochea Day, Meak Bochea Day and Bonn Pchum Ben Day are among the most revered holidays on the Buddhist calendar, while Bonn Om Touk (the water and boat race festival, November) is cause for city wide celebration. During Khmer New Year (March/April), Phnom Penh tends to empty out (and shut down) as people return home to their villages to mark the occasion with their families.
27. Eat a picnic lunch at a public park. Sometimes the focus of protests and political demonstrations, the 1.2-hectare Freedom Park, which reaches from the train station all the way to the Night Market, is usually a peaceful spot to sit. Smaller parks around the Royal Palace and National Museum are usually abuzz with local families on Sunday afternoons.
28. Sip a free beer and belt out a tune at Show Box. Wednesday open mic nights at Show Box on Street 330 are something of an institution among Phnom Penh expats. The bar also offers free beer every night between 6.30 and 7pm – a winning combination if ever there was one.
29. Get high with an intro course to bouldering. Never heard of bouldering? Me neither. Phnom Climb Community Gym will show you the ropes for just $5, which is ironic, because bouldering doesn’t actually involve any ropes (it’s ‘rock climbing stripped down to its bare essentials’). The fee includes shoe hire.
30. Visit the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center. An incredibly important cultural resource for young Cambodians, the Bophana Center acquires film, television, photography and sound archives from around the world and restores free public access to these important sources of Khmer heritage. On Cine Saturdays the Center airs movies from its growing library, and oftentimes you’ll get to meet the director, too. The event is free, but I strongly encourage you to make a donation to support Bophana’s work.
31. Explore the White Building. While you shouldn’t really venture inside alone (mainly because it would be impolite), Khmer Architecture Tours can organise to accompany you inside Cambodia’s most famous housing commune. There’s a lot to see from street level too, with barbers, market vendors and all manner of industry set up along the White Building’s periphery. The Vann Molyvann-designed commune is also home to a thriving community of artists who regularly participate in guerilla street art projects and community events.
32. Practice your salsa. Doors on Street 84 is a wildly popular restaurant that serves Basque-style tapas and award-winning cocktails. Set to the tune of live Latin music, their monthly salsa nights have been known to run into the wee hours of the morning.
33. Get your nails done for a good cause. As if managing two of the best restaurants in town wasn’t enough, Friends International also runs a Nail Bar that offers vocational training to young, disadvantaged Cambodians. Nails & Cocktails events are on most Sundays at Romdeng; you can use the pool for free and get an express mani and pedi for just $8.50.
34. See a photography exhibition at Java Cafe. Both branches of this Phnom Penh coffee house host photography and painting exhibitions by French and Khmer artists. Look out for free opening night events if you want to brush shoulders with the city’s creative set.
35. Stroll along Sisowath Quay at dusk. A Mekong River cruise is a popular choice for travellers wanting to see Phnom Penh’s riverfront at dusk, but in the dry season the water is low, making it difficult to see anything over the high river banks. It’s just as nice (and a lot cheaper) to stick to dry land and explore Sisowath Quay by foot instead. This way, you get to sample all the delicious local snacks you stumble on along the way.
36. See sericulture and silk weaving on Koh Dach. A narrow island in the middle of the Mekong, Koh Dach (or ‘Silk Island’, sometimes called ‘Mekong Island’) can be easily reached by tuk-tuk, moto or bicycle from Phnom Penh. Technically located outside the city limits in Kandal province, the island is home to a vibrant sericulture (silkworm-raising) industry. Visitors are free to wander between marked stilted houses where women weave silk and cotton on handlooms.
37. Send a postcard from the Central Post Office. Surrounded by the romantic, crumbling colonial architecture of Post Office Square, Phnom Penh’s main post office is located in the heart of the old French Quarter. The building itself was restored in 2004 and is now a fully operational mail centre. There’s no guarantee your postcard will arrive at its final destination, but if you’re in the mood, you can purchase everything required to send a note home from the post office’s main counter, including gorgeous commemorative stamps that depict Apsara dancers.
38. Learn something new at Mini Maker Faire. The concept of the Mini Maker Faire originated in San Francisco, and the kooky event made its way to Phnom Penh in 2016. Described by organisers as “an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors,” the Faire involves demonstrations, DIY and workshops and is free for both makers and punters.
39. Foster your inner Francophile at Institut Francais du Cambodge. Events aren’t as regular as at Meta House, but if you’re after something a little different, Cambodia’s French institute on Street 184 has a predilection for classic continental and silent films. Screenings are enjoyed plein air and sometimes hosted in partnership with Khmer NGOs.
40. Walk yourself down Street 13. Not all of Phnom Penh’s streets warrant a walking tour, but Street 13 which links the National Museum and Chinese House is a popular route if you want to take in colonial architecture and bustling markets in equal measure. This guide written by Travel Fish is a helpful resource.
41. Immerse yourself in street culture at the Cambodian Urban Art Festival. Celebrating the aforementioned street art scene, the annual Urban Art Festival program features live mural paintings, music performances and other special events around Phnom Penh and beyond. You can even join a Tuk Tuk Tour to see the city’s best street art in style!
42. Hone your creative skills with a craft workshop. If freestyle expression isn’t your bag and you’d prefer to learn a new skill instead, Drink and Draw offer free life-drawing classes at venues around the city (search for the Facebook group for details). Easels in the Alley workshops at ARTillery cost around $25 and are run by local artists. Nowhere on Street 312 also offer lessons in brush lettering, rubber stamping and lotus leaf oil painting and cost between $20 and $60.
43. Network at CoLAB. Set in an airy cafe on Street 163, CoLAB meet-ups are the place to connect with developers, techies, designers and other professionals working in Phnom Penh. Especially useful if you’re new to the city.
44. Test your knowledge on trivia. Quiz night at The Willow is Phnom Penh’s longest-running trivia event. Entry costs $2 per person but if you’re on your game, you could come out on top, because The Willow offers the biggest cash prize of any trivia night in town (the grand sum of the night’s entrance fees).
45. Watch a performance by the Phnom Penh Players. This local amateur troupe presents regular stage shows, including a popular rendition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (crowd participation is mandatory). If you like what you see, the Players are constantly on the look-out for new actors, musicians and set-builders to join the team.
46. Eat an old-fashioned sausage sizzle at the Akubra Bar (Australians only!). All you need is a valid Australian passport to visit the Akubra Bar, a pop-up venue located inside the Australian Embassy. The bar opens on the first Friday of every month, serving up a sausage sizzle and cold beer. Special guests sometimes make an appearance (in 2015, Paul Kelly played a surprise set), but mostly it’s just a chance to mingle with your fellow countrywomen and men.
47. Get acquainted with Cambodia’s most prolific architect. It’s worth reading up on the incredible life and history of Cambodia’s greatest living architect, Vann Molyvann, before you arrive in Phnom Penh. If you’re interested in the flamboyant style he pioneered (known as New Khmer Architecture), you can take a self-guided walking tour to see some of his greatest works up close. The Vann Molyvann Project is an excellent information resource, and the public is even free to attend closing night celebrations for their Summer School program. Tag along to hear presentations about the students’ research and geek-out on all things Molyvann.
48. Swim in a resort pool. Phnom Penh is home to some rather swanky resorts and many have pools that are open to non-guests. It’s free to swim and lounge in the shade at Villa Langka when you spend $10 on food or drink.
49. Name that tropical fruit? There are two events currently running in Phnom Penh that are both designed to teach visitors about the area’s produce through a healthy amount of taste testing. The monthly Fruit for Thought at Farm to Table costs $5 and includes some amazing cocktails. Discovery Farms‘ Fruitology Night Tours lead guests through a local organic farm and a local night food market, teaching you how to spot different varieties of fruit and the cultural value behind them.
50. Go dancing in the street at a Phnom Penh block party. As well as their usual program of live music events, Phnom Penh Underground throw rowdy street parties every now and then. Follow their Facebook page to stay in the loop.
51. Meet a local artist. If you’re keen to make some creative connections in Phnom Penh (or just strike up an interesting conversation), Sa Sa Art Projects hold open studios with local artists while Sa Sa Bassac offer artist-in-conversation sessions to complement their exhibition program.
To the best of my knowledge, all information printed here is correct as of the post publishing date. Please check the individual websites and Facebook pages linked in this article for updated information. Do you have a favourite free activity to do in Phnom Penh? Please share it in the comments below!