2016 and 2017 are turning out to be the years of revisiting countries I haven’t seen in ages. There was Korea back in August 2016, then Taiwan in December 2016, then Vietnam in March 2017, and now I find myself back in Cambodia for the third time, though I haven’t seen the country since 2012. I remember liking Cambodia – particularly Phnom Penh – a lot. I was 25 back then, and so long as a country had cheap alcohol and tropical weather, then I was bound to like it. Phnom Penh had no shortage of either of those things, hence why I went back twice in the same year.
But now I’m older and my priorities in a country have changed significantly. Alcohol doesn’t appeal to me anymore, and I lived in Bangkok for three years, so I’ve seen my fair share of tropical weather. In other words, it takes a hell of a lot more to impress me these days. Can a city I once regarded as one of my favorites in all of Asia still maintain that title five years later? What can Phnom Penh offer me these days beyond hedonism and touristy crap I don’t care about? This trip report is all about my impression of Cambodia’s small but lively capital now in 2017. Let’s get started.
The first thing I noticed after getting off the bus from Saigon is that Phnom Penh is a noticeable drop in economic prosperity. The roads seem way more broken down, bumpy, and in disrepair compared to those in Vietnam. Rubbish and filth are strewn all over every street. There are also lots of beggars in ratty clothing aggressively asking for money at the busy intersections. Extreme poverty is out in the open and in your face in Phnom Penh. You can’t avoid it.
But on the plus side, any photographer will surely notice that Phnom Penh is a city bursting with color. Vietnam may be located in tropical Southeast Asia, but it’s not nearly as colorful as neighboring Cambodia. I guess communism and vibrant colors rarely mix. Bright and vibrant colors are all around me in Phnom Penh, and that’s always a good thing when photography is on your agenda. Rich photo opportunities are plentiful.
I remember the last time I was in Phnom Penh I saw all kinds of middle-aged Western scumbags. Lots of pedophile-looking types, ex-convict types, and definite drug abusers. They usually gravitated to the riverside area, the Street 136 nightlife area, and the Street 51 nightlife area. The city was a den for creeps and weirdos. But this time around I just don’t feel like I’m seeing too many of them. Is it the low season? Did my years in Thailand numb me to seeing Western slime? Or has Phnom Penh simply changed? I’m not sure, but the city definitely feels less hedonistic than before. That’s mostly a good thing, but the city also feels like it has lost a bit of its “edge.”
And just like in Hanoi and Saigon, there really aren’t that many Asian tourists in Phnom Penh. For every one Asian tourist I see, I probably see at least 10 Western ones. I mostly saw couples and small groups of 20-something Western backpacker types. I even felt I saw way more girls than guys. There was the token middle-aged white guy all by himself here and there, but overall the tourist demographic in Phnom Penh seemed very young. I’m only 30, yet I felt older than most of the other tourists I was seeing.
After going to Cambodia for the third time, I’ve simply come to the conclusion that Khmer women just aren’t for me. I don’t think they’re ugly or bad people, but they just don’t do anything for me. Women are the last thing on my mind when I wander the streets of Phnom Penh. Apparently the feeling is mutual, as I feel invisible everywhere I go in the city. Just like in Ho Chi Minh City, the only women who showed any kind of interest in me were the bar girls and massage girls who try to lure every white man into their premises. But they do that to every guy, so of course they don’t count.
I don’t think I turned my head once in seven days in Phnom Penh. A token cute girl here or there, but there was definitely a major shortage of eye candy. The only time I even remember seeing fairly attractive women was when I entered NagaWorld, Cambodia’s largest casino. This ridiculous place is like a refuge for all the stupidly rich people to shield themselves away from the harsh realities of the real world that lie just outside the casino’s doors. The Khmer women working there had elegant clothes, makeup, and light skin, but of course they also wore the trademark bitch faces that overly good-looking women the world over tend to have. No thanks I say. They’re reserved for the elites anyways, so I doubt they’d ever go for regular white guys.
I just don’t feel like I saw that many single ladies wandering around Phnom Penh the way I would in other Asian cities. Most of the young women I saw were working at food carts, the cash registers of convenience stores, or as hostesses or waitresses at restaurants and bars. You interact with them for business purposes only. I’m sure there are plenty of ways to meet eligible bachelorettes as a Westerner living in Phnom Penh, but as a tourist in the city you’ve got your work cut out for you. I wonder what route the Western expats in Phnom Penh take when seeking a local lass. Nevertheless, unless you just have a thing for Khmer women, I personally don’t feel they’re worth the extra effort. To each his own.
The very first thing any foreigner is going to notice when they first step foot into Phnom Penh is just how many tuk-tuk and motorcycle touts are everywhere. “Sir, where you go? Tuk-tuk?” Get used to hearing this a lot because the tuk-tuk touts are relentless. And they’re waiting on every street, outside every restaurant, and outside every hotel. You can’t escape them – they will find you! I quite literally got propositioned for unwanted tuk-tuk rides about 50 to 100 times a day. That’s no exaggeration! They’re like flies that you endlessly have to swat away from your face. If you walk with your head up, they’ll always try to make eye contact with you to start a proposition. I never walk with my head facing down, but I had no choice but to in Phnom Penh.
Whereas in the day most tuk-tuk drivers simply hassled me for a ride or to take me on some guided tour, at night things got really creepy and dodgy. Shady figures would emerge from the darkness, get right in my face, and aggressively try to sell me any kind of narcotic you could imagine. “Hey man, what do you want? Marijuana? Cocaine? LSD?” A simple “no thanks” wouldn’t make them go away either, as they always followed me for quite a while. I’m not the least bit interested in drugs, and even if I was I don’t think I’d wanna buy it from these shady ass people. Their body language made me feel like they were only a hair trigger away from mugging me. That said, Phnom Penh is one of the only cities in Asia where I genuinely felt unsafe walking home at night, even on the main streets. Manila also fits that bill. You really gotta take precautions and watch your back.
So now that I’ve covered the endless sea of touts and drug dealers, let’s talk about what I actually like about the Khmer people. First off, the average level of English in central Phnom Penh was probably the highest of any city in the region. It wasn’t amazing, but it was certainly better than that of neighboring cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Vientiane, Kunming, etc. Having a normal every day conversation with the locals was very doable. It was much harder once I started getting in the villagey, rundown parts of town, but that was to be expected. The people of Phnom Penh really deserve a pat on the back for their English conversation skills.
In regards to cultural expectations, the Khmer people are pretty laid back. Cambodia is very similar to Thailand culturally, but the Thais are WAY more uptight about their cultural rules and mannerisms than the Khmers. Yet no one in Cambodia is ever gonna expect a Western tourist to follow the intricacies of their culture. They expect you to be naïve, and they don’t hold it against you for not knowing everything. But you can bet your ass that many Thais will look down on you as a cultureless buffoon if you don’t follow their culture to the T.
The Khmers are also pretty carefree in regards to photography. If people caught me taking their photo, they would usually just smile and continue going about their business. Some people would even give me a dramatic pose, making my photos all the more interesting. It’s nice when I don’t have to be so sneaky with my photography for a change.
The Khmers are also pretty welcoming too. Many people said hello to me for no other reason than to acknowledge my presence and to be welcoming. Kids also really loved engaging with me, which was kinda cute. Parents were especially proud and ecstatic when I took a picture of their children. Yet in many other countries people would just look at you like you’re a creep if you tried to take a photo of their children.
Phnom Penh was a rather peculiar city in regards to local food. It seemed like no matter where I went in the city, I saw more foreign food than local cuisine. This reminded me a lot of Laos, where the people also didn’t seem to take much pride in their own food. And when I did actually manage to find some local food, it seemed like the place was always geared more towards tourists than locals. Cambodia is a relatively poor place, so I know for a fact that most of the locals aren’t getting their food from the same places tourists do. Yet I couldn’t crack the code as to where to get local food at local prices. Where do all the locals eat? There was the token street cart here and there, but the food they were serving was never enough for a solid meal.
80% of the Khmer cuisine in Phnom Penh consisted of variants of instant noodles, num pang (Cambodian-style baguette sandwiches), mystery meat barbecue sausages, and hand snacks like popcorn, dried squid, and ice cream. Other than perhaps the num pang, not much of the local food impressed me. Everything was pretty underwhelming and forgettable. Nothing was terrible, yet everything was like a less satisfying version of what I could find in neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam. The local food – both its difficulty to find, its cost (more on this later), and how unimpressive it was overall – was surely one of the lower points of my time in Phnom Penh. I just wasn’t impressed at all.
But on the flip side, Phnom Penh is surely one the best cities of its size for good foreign and Western cuisine. I had a much easier time finding Italian, Indian, and Mexican food than I ever did finding Khmer. Even many “Khmer” restaurants were serving things like hamburgers, sandwiches, and hot dogs. For this reason, I ate far more foreign food than local, which is rare for me when I travel. Ulaanbaatar is the only other city in Asia I can think of with a similar food situation.
Most of the restaurants in the Riverside area serve Western cuisine, and I didn’t have a single disappointing meal at any of the ones I tried. My favorite restaurant was ¡Viva! Mexican Café, which serves semi-authentic Mexican food. My favorite items on the menu were the pollo asado and the Mexican chicken sub. I also found myself eating lots of Indian, with my favorite restaurant being Sher-E-Punjab II on Street 258. Considering how unnoteworthy the local food scene is in Phnom Penh, I instead suggest just gorging on foreign food while you’re there. Sometimes that’s a welcome change.
Being late March, there’s not a whole lot to say about the weather in Phnom Penh other than it was extremely hot and sunny every day. Daytime temperatures hovered around 90 – 100° Fahrenheit. The city is in Southeast Asia proper, so the heat and sunshine came as no surprise. Beyond the restaurants and shops, there’s really nowhere to hide in the shade either, so get your sunblock ready or simply stay indoors. If you go outside in the middle of the day, you will see very few people walking or sitting around (except the tuk-tuk drivers of course). But go out around sunset time and there will be lots of families at the parks, vendors selling snacks, and groups of friends having picnics. This is especially true in front of the Royal Palace and in the Riverside area.
There were even some sudden tropical downpours in the evenings. One minute everything was calm and quiet, then the next an intense rain soaked everything in sight for 30 minutes. I got caught in the rain without an umbrella on multiple occasions. The rainy season usually starts in late spring, but the nightly flash thunderstorms made it seem like it had arrived early. Except for the getting wet part, I actually kinda like tropical thunderstorms. I experienced plenty of them during my three years in Bangkok, and I was starting to miss them, so it was nice to see them again all these years later in Phnom Penh.
Things to Do
For a capital city with a relatively small size, Phnom Penh actually has quite a lot to do. There’s all the usual touristy stuff – the Killing Fields, the Tuol Slung Genocide Museum, the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, etc. – but there’s also some nicer things to do if you’re willing to dig deeper and get off the beaten track. I did all the touristy stuff on my last two trips to Phnom Penh, so I didn’t bother with them this time around.
If you want to see a disgusting level of income disparity, then a trip to the aforementioned NagaWorld is a sight to behold. Outside of the casino you can see countless poor people begging for money and sleeping in the streets, yet as soon as you enter the casino you enter a tiny bubble of great wealth. The décor is elegant and top notch, suddenly everyone you see is way more beautiful, people gamble away more money in one game than the people outside make in an entire year, and so forth. Inside are the “haves” and outside are the “have nots.” It’s truly absurd. It’s almost surreal going in and out of the casino.
Probably the most memorable thing I did during the entire trip was ride a bicycle through the suburbs of the city. The process of renting a bicycle was a true test of patience, but once I finally got one I had fun riding it around. It became very clear to me that most tourists don’t venture beyond the Riverside and the tourists sites, as I didn’t see a single other Westerner throughout my entire ride (unless you count all the Westerners I saw being chauffeured to the next tourist site via tuk-tuk). I got to see lots of shanty houses, hidden temples, wet markets, and kids just playing around. It was great seeing the city from a totally different angle. It also became even clearer to me just how poor Cambodia is.
Another day I rented a motorcycle and drove it to Koh Dach (Silk Island), which is just as the name implies – an island known for its production of silk. It’s located only a few kilometers from the famous Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, so it’s actually not that far from the city center at all. Normally people go there with tour groups, but I went with my European friend, and we just explored the island and everything leading up to it on our motorcycle. It was fun seeing a much quieter side of the city.
Though my days of binge drinking are well behind me, I also have to admit that Phnom Penh has a pretty decent nightlife scene. A lot of it is oriented around hostess bars, but there are also lots of nice places to just chill out, relax, and drink for very cheap, particularly on top of the rooftop bars. Street 151 and Street 136 are the main nightlife areas, but bars and clubs are scattered all over central Phnom Penh. Definitely do check them out if drinking is your thing.
Cost of Traveling
If you’re coming straight from developed countries like the USA or Japan, then you will probably simply declare Phnom Penh a “cheap” city to travel in. But those who have spent time in the region will surely realize that Phnom Penh is actually a more expensive place than some of its neighbors. Let’s crunch the numbers. (And since American dollars are used widely in place of Cambodian riel throughout Cambodia, the numbers will actually be in American dollars for a change.)
As an American traveling to Cambodia, I of course had to get a tourist visa upon my arrival at the Vietnam-Cambodia border crossing. That cost me $30. I stayed at a fairly nice 3-star hotel located only a short walk from the Royal Palace which was $19.51 per night all in. I bought a 4G SIM card loaded with 4GB of data with a 7-day validity for only $2. So far so good, right? Well now things are about to get more expensive.
Just like everywhere in Vietnam, public transportation is practically nonexistent in Phnom Penh. Unless you have your own set of wheels, the only practical way to get around is via tuk-tuk or motorcycle taxi. Of course these tuk-tuk and motorcycle taxi drivers are fully aware of this, and as I mentioned before they’re lurking around just about every street corner. You don’t find them, rather they obnoxiously find you. So depending upon where you’re going, they’ll usually charge anywhere from $2 – 10 per ride. They’ll also charge you more if you have multiple people, a practice I find ridiculous. So when you consider most of the time you’re just going a couple of kilometers or so, paying $2 – 3 per ride is actually pretty costly, especially in such a downtrodden country like Cambodia. It adds up fast. Yet ironically I pay the same price or less in far bigger and more developed cities across Asia.
This is the reason I recommend renting a bicycle or motorcycle. It gets the annoying tuk-tuk touts off your back, and they pay for themselves in a hurry. It also allows you more freedom to explore and get off the beaten track a bit. I rented my bicycle for a whopping $6 a day, and the motorcycle was only $1 more at $7 a day. Obviously the motorcycle is a much better deal, though I think I actually had more fun riding the bicycle around. Other than these two instances, I just got around on foot most of the time – central Phnom Penh is really not that big after all. Just be prepared to get hassled nonstop by the touts if you walk, though.
And finally let’s talk about food prices. I already said local food is strangely hard to come by in Phnom Penh. But not only that, it also seems overpriced. I was almost always paying $3 – 5 for my Khmer meals, and they weren’t even that good or filling. That’s two to three times what I would generally pay for a much better Thai meal in Bangkok. Yet I was usually only paying $5 – 7 for most of my Western meals, so more often than not I just opted for Western food. It was better tasting, very good quality, easier to find, and only marginally more expensive, so can you blame me?
Hotels, 4G data, and foreign food are about the only things I considered good value in Phnom Penh. Everything else – particularly transportation and local food – seemed overpriced considering Phnom Penh’s smaller and poorer dynamics. All in all the prices are a mixed bag, so I guess they kinda balance out in the end.
I wouldn’t call Phnom Penh one of my favorite cities anymore, as I feel like I’ve outgrown it. The pros don’t appeal to me nearly as much anymore, and the cons annoy me more now that I’m older. Khmer women just don’t do much for me visually or mentally. There are all kinds of hustlers and touts who constantly get in your face in Phnom Penh, but if you can manage to see past them, the locals in the city are actually fairly nice and chilled out.
With perhaps the exception of num pang, Khmer cuisine was totally unnoteworthy to me, and I can’t believe how difficult it is to find decent and affordable local cuisine in central Phnom Penh. Yet surprisingly, the foreign food scene in Phnom Penh is amazing.
There’s actually lots to do in Phnom Penh, both on and off the tourist trail. Exploring the city and its suburbs with your own ride is a must. The city is also vibrant, colorful, and cultural, which always makes for good travel and street photography. And finally, the city feels like a bargain in some aspects, yet like a total rip-off in others.
I’ve seen Phnom Penh three times at this point in my life, and I think that’s plenty. I appreciate the good things that the city has to offer, but I also have to admit that the city is starting to bore me. I think the city more appeals to the younger and middle-aged crowd. I do feel the city has changed in some ways over the last five years, particularly in the amount of Western scum bags and debauchery I was seeing, but overall the city feels mostly the same. I’m glad I came back for a visit all these years later, but I can’t imagine I’ll be going back again anytime in the near future. Though do check Phnom Penh out if you’ve never seen it before. I think it’s well worth at least one look.