Last Update: December 2019
“So, are you saying that there are no downsides to Phnom Penh whatsoever?”, someone asked me after I gave my speech about why I like living in Phnom Penh. “Uhhh, of course there are”, I replied, and without any effort, 5 downsides to Phnom Penh came to mind instantly.
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Living in Phnom Penh
20 months ago we moved to Phnom Penh. I love this city for many reasons and most of all I love the people. Yes it’s a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. People here are genuinely friendly and welcoming, humble without being submissive, curious and cheerful.
Also, being a major city, Phnom Penh provides most necessities that a Westerner like myself needs to get by in everyday life.
Compared to other South East Asian cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore, it is evident that Phnom Penh is not yet developed to its full potential. For me this is not a downside. If anything, it’s a major upside.
How to get to Phnom Penh
You can use the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule and prices of incoming and outgoing flights.
For international busses from Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as domestic routes the Bookmebus.com tool is the way to go. Skip the lines at the bus station and book instantly.
Of course Phnom Penh is changing fast. From my apartment in the Russian market district I can see almost a dozen high rise construction cranes working incessantly on new mega office buildings and hotels. And that’s just the view from one side of my apartment.
Phnom Penh diligently works on closing the gap with it’s South East Asian peers, but fortunately it still feels more like an oversized provincial town with a lot of charm and authenticity.
Oops, this article is supposed to be about the downsides of Phnom Penh. Ok, here we go.
5 Downsides to Phnom Penh
Let me just say it like it is, Phnom Penh is downright filthy. Garbage is everywhere! Actually, this goes for large parts of Cambodia, but in a place with so many people in a relatively small area it’s so much more evident. Many South East Asian cities suffer from filth and while Phnom Penh might not be the dirtiest around it’s plain to see that this is a real problem.
It’s not just the slums, but all over the city. Somehow there seems to be a complete lack of pride and interest in preserving ones own environment. Just throw your stuff anywhere you like, “someone else” should clean it up, but “someone else” is thinking exactly the same thing.
People clean and sweep their yards tidy while just beyond their yard the garbage is piled up 2 feet high. Residencies, shops and market stalls bring out their garbage bags in the public streets while the garbage collectors aren’t due for days to come. Stray dogs tear the bags open spreading the contents out onto the streets and rats have a feast every night.
Often, the stench of spoil and rot in some of the streets is absolutely unbearable. This is truly the nr. 1 downside of Phnom Penh.
Traffic in Phnom Penh is nasty. There are just a few major thoroughfares and they are always jam packed. Especially the Russian Federation Boulevard along the airport is true horror. You can easily spend an hour either way over a stretch less than 2,5 kilometers.
It’s dangerous too, because Cambodians aren’t the best drivers and have serious issues with abiding by the rules. Nowhere else in the world have I seen so many drivers texting on their phones while driving. Not just in cars, but also on the million or so motorbikes.
And then there are the drunk drivers and also the Cambodians that think they are above the law. The latter (and often the former as well) are usually the offspring of high ranking military leaders and government nobs. They can literally get away with anything. So they drive drunk, ignore red lights and speed through the city streets.
Furthermore, sidewalks are either absent or cluttered by tuk-tuks, advertising, shop articles, garbage and whatever, forcing pedestrians to walk on the road amidst the raging traffic.
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3. Hot, humid and stuffy
We often joke about the climate in Cambodia having 3 seasons, hot, super hot and hotter than hell! The hot season with 30C average during daytime is from December through February and officially dubbed the “cool” season.
March starts the super hot season with 34C on average and lasts through May. June through November sees slightly more moderate temperatures of 31C-33C, but since this is the rainy season the increased humidity pushes the feel temperature to hellish levels.
Ok, ok, part of our motivation to move to South East Asia was because we wanted tropical temperatures so we really shouldn’t complain. It’s just that the numerous construction sites and air pollution makes Phnom Penh very dusty and stuffy. Combined with the high temperatures and humidity it can really wear you out.
It’s no secret that Cambodia is a sex tourism destination and Phnom Penh definitely has its share in this. Luckily it’s just a few streets where all the seedy stuff goes on so it’s somewhat avoidable. I have no problem with prostitution as such, who am I to judge? It’s just that the entire Cambodian sex industry is built on exploitation of women and often even children.
The stereotype of course is the older pot bellied and ugly Westerner, sweat marks all over his shirt and a horny gaze holding hands with barely legal local girls. The stereotype is real, I’ve seen it and I can’t help but cringe at the sight. Another travel blog calls them “crusty sexpats”. I think it’s spot on!
5. Petty crime
Phnom Penh is a very safe city. Violence against foreigners is very rare. I never felt unsafe in Phnom Penh at any time. Of course crime does exist with pick pocketing and bag snatching as two of the main worries here. Not only for tourists, but locals are just as likely to become a victim of petty crime. It’s easy to prevent by crossing your bag over your shoulder in front of you and by not keeping your wallet or phone in your back pockets.
But there’s more. At night it’s very rare to find any cars parked by the side of the road. Cars are either in guarded parking garages or locked behind residence’s gates. Leaving your car out on the public road overnight will almost certainly end up in the car being stripped and/or broken into if you’re lucky. Worst case is that your whole car is gone.
The same goes for motorbikes, none of them are left on the public road overnight, no matter how many locks they have. Even during daytime, anyone that needs to leave his/her motorbike for more than a few minutes will take their bike to one of the paid and guarded areas. I have neither a car, nor a motorbike so I have nothing to worry. It just pains me to realize that I am living in a city of thieves.
Always travel with the right insurance. One that covers theft, but also your medical costs abroad, evacuation and repatriation. You should realize that health care in Cambodia is hopelessly underdeveloped. Any serious injuries or ailments will almost certainly result in costly medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore, to be paid upfront.
Read more about travel insurance here, or get an instant (non-committal) quote here.
So, there you go!, 5 downsides to Phnom Penh. I could probably think of a few more if I really tried, but I guess I got the main ones covered. Now don’t think that all of this puts me off, because it doesn’t. I am well aware that every place, however at home you might feel, will always have some downsides. For me, the downsides of Phnom Penh do not outweigh the upsides. Not by far.
Do you know of any major downside to a city or town that otherwise you think is fantastic? Let’s us know in the comments below, that should make some interesting reading.