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Phnom Penh – Pearl of Asia

Last Update: July 2020


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Phnom Penh


Home to more than 2 million inhabitants, yet still oozing with small town charm. Phnom Penh grows larger by the day and unfortunately the charm is fading fast. Historical French colonial and 1960s new Khmer architecture style buildings are rapidly being replaced with impersonal concrete and steel boxes. The once so famous low rise skyline seems to add a new skyscraper silhouette every day.

The air in Phnom Penh is rife with development. Much to the local governments content, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and particularly Chinese investors are practically tumbling over each other trying to secure massive construction projects.


Phnom Penh: old and new

The riverfront is most in demand, but the development extends in all directions, thereby continuously displacing the outskirts of the city. Let’s hope it’s not another bubble waiting to burst since it remains to be seen whether all the apartment blocks will actually find new owners. Cambodia’s middle class is on the rise, but judging from the many buildings left empty after conclusion, it’s clearly unable to keep up with the rampant development.

On the other hand, it’s also plain that Phnom Penh is ready for the next step in catching up with the likes of Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and even Singapore. After all, these mega cities are living proof that ancient style Buddhist temples and modern architecture can perfectly co-exist. That Chinese shop houses and ramshackle markets next to hi-tech office buildings, hotels and shopping malls aren’t necessarily a bad thing.



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History

Originally named “Krong Chaktomuk”, the city’s destiny changed when “grandmother Penh” raised a hill (phnom in Khmer) on the riverbank. On top of the hill she had a temple and a shrine built to house the Buddha and Vishnu statues that she found in the Tonle Sap river. The city was renamed into Phnom Penh and succeeded Angkor Thom as Cambodia’s capital in 1372.


Monks in Phnom Penh
Monks in the streets of Phnom Penh

Extensive development took off by the end of the 1800’s under the French colonial reign, earning the city the nickname “Pearl of Asia”.

Phnom Penh was also heavily affected during Cambodia’s darkest chapter in 1975-1979. The Khmer Rouge regime forced the then 2.5 million inhabitants and refugees out of the city to the countryside. What was left was nothing but a barren ghost town.

The 1980’s were nothing but chaotic. Remaining Khmer Rouge fighters continued their guerilla warfare against the newly formed Vietnamese/Cambodian government. Hundreds of thousands displaced Cambodians continued to reside in refugees camps amidst a humanitarian disaster of huge proportions. It wasn’t until 1991 with the signing of the “Paris peace agreements” that Cambodia was finally able to start to build on her future again.

Present

Nowadays, Phnom Penh is growing at a dazzling speed. Since the 1980’s the city area has grown fourfold and the population reached a staggering 2.1 million in 2018. On the downside, all this growth and development have turned major parts of the city into a permanent construction site.

About 50% of the present day population in Cambodia is under 24 years of age and this is especially felt in Phnom Penh. Youths from all over the country flock to the capital in search of studies, jobs and a cosmopolitan lifestyle, thereby adding to the young, vibrant and almost trendy feel of the capital reborn.


Children of Phnom Penh
Children of Phnom Penh



My take on Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh, love it or hate it?

In 2018 and 2019 we called Phnom Penh home. We were fortunate enough to work and live in this lively city and to enjoy all it has to offer.

True, Phnom Penh is not (yet) as vibrant and sophisticated as its illustrious peers in South East Asia like Bangkok, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. Although it’s catching up fast, it doesn’t have the large number of exclusive shopping malls. There isn’t a central business district with all over glitzy metallic windows, no advanced metro or sky-train system. Even the nightlife scene is more subdued rather than spectacular. For this reason, some might call Phnom Penh boring.

There are others though, that agree with the calmer beat and life at a more leisure pace. Like around the river bank where locals, tourists and expats alike will gather for exercise, picnic and evening strolls.

Throughout the city the (crumbling) French colonial architecture is still abundant and to end up in one of the many authentic neighborhoods is as easy as just taking a left or right on one of the main thoroughfares. At night, makeshift food stalls are set up everywhere to satisfy Phnom Penh’s unrelenting crave for street food.



French-Khmer architecture in Phnom Penh
French-Khmer architecture

It’s a pity that greedy developers and corrupt officials reclaimed some of the city lakes. Dredging them for new construction projects and thereby taking away what was once so characteristic for Phnom Penh’s airy and leafy atmosphere. I guess that’s why we all cherish the riverside.

However, for me the most striking feature of Phnom Penh is the patience and friendliness of its residents, which is unrivaled by any major city in the world that I have visited so far.

So, to answer the question: Phnom Penh, I love it!

Are there only good things to report about Phnom Penh? Not quite, there are also a few things that are terribly wrong in Phnom Penh. Check out my article in the link below.


Read: “5 major downsides to Phnom Penh”



Best time to visit


Weather

It seems like it’s always hot and humid in Phnom Penh. Ever since we got here the daytime feel temperature has not been below 30C and usually it’s a lot higher. Rain comes down regularly, mostly in afternoon downpours and provides a welcome relief by clearing the air. Rainy season starts around April and lasts until November. September and October are normally the wettest months and from March to May it is usually scorching hot.

So in fact, any time of year is good for a visit, you’re going to get hot and wet anyway. Just dress light and keep an umbrella and sunscreen at the ready.

Events

The yearly water festival – “Bon Om Touk” in October/November celebrates the end of rainy season and instigates an influx of domestic and international tourists to the capital. Everyone wants to see the dragon boats race display on the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. The city is very crowded during those days, but it shouldn’t stop you from coming. On the contrary, I encourage you to come and take part in this unique Khmer folklore.


Dragon boat race on the Mekong river in Phnom Penh
Dragon boat race – Photocredit: PhnomPenhPost.com



How to get to Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh has a small, but efficient international airport servicing a large number of Asian airlines. As for now, there are no direct flights to and from Europe. I recommend using the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule and prices of incoming and outgoing flights.

International buses come to Phnom Penh from Bangkok and take 12-14h without transfer. From Ho Chi Minh City expect a 6h journey without transfer. Don’t book your bus ticket on Khaosan Road or Pham Ngu Lao! Don’t be that guy that got scammed! Book your ticket online and secure your seat through a trustworthy specialist. For bus trips to/from and in Cambodia, I always use BookmeBus.com or Bookaway.com

Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). The tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.



Getting around

Airport

Line 03 of the Phnom Penh City Bus will take you from the airport as far as the Night Market on the riverside for as low as $0.40 (KHR1500). Hop on the bus just outside the airport about 150 meters from the airport gate. First bus leaves 5.30am and the last one at 8.30pm.

Airport taxi’s should use official rates to get you into the city, which are $12 to the riverside and $15 to BKK1 or Russian market. Unfortunately a lot of taxi drivers won’t offer you the official price unless you mention that you know about it, so beware. Likewise, tuk-tuks on the airport grounds should charge a set price of $9, but they never do.

We always walk beyond the airport gate, which is not far at all, and negotiate one of the tuk-tuks there to take us into to town for $7. Best option though is to use a taxi app. Better prices, better service and no hassle. Grab and Passapp are the most popular apps in Phnom Penh.

City

Getting around in Phnom Penh can be dirt cheap. A single journey bus ride within Phnom Penh is just $0.40 (KHR1500), but you will find that public buses are rather scarce. Rikshaw, Cambodian tuk-tuk and moto taxi on the other hand are abundant. Moto taxi rides through city center will cost between $1-$2, while rikshaw do the same stretch for $1.50-$3 and tuk-tuks for $2-$4. The exact price will depend on the time of day and your negotiating skills. Metered taxi’s will be slightly higher.


Phnom Penh Rikshaw
Phnom Penh Rikshaw

Local taxi apps Grab and PassApp also include rishaw/tuk-tuk/moto taxi transport and are a good idea to use. The waiting time is never long and the app will give you an estimate of the fare price, which is usually very reasonable. So, no need for haggling, which can be very tiresome if you need transport often.

Note that many of the rikshaw drivers are young men from the provinces attracted by the job opportunity. Some of them do not (yet) really know their way around the streets of Phnom Penh and also seem to have difficulties navigating the GPS on their phones. Through the app it’s possible to keep track of the route and adjust the driver if necessary. Also, be fair and round up the fare price when you pay him. These guys have to give up 15% to the taxi app company, as well as pay of their debt for financing the rikshaw. Big smiles will be your reward.

Motorbike rental

It’s perfectly possible to rent a motorbike or scooter in Phnom Penh. Rent prices vary, but it’s almost always very cheap. Note that proper document requirements for tourists riding a motorbike are very confusing. Not having the right documents will most likely invalidate all insurance you might have. Check out this link for some explanation on regulations.



Things to see/do in Phnom Penh


The city is not particularly big on spectacular highlights. It lends itself more for a close up look of South East Asian city culture than for racing past tourist attractions. Having said that, there still is enough to see and do to keep you engaged for a few days.


Killing Fields
Phnom Penh is heavily associated with the events that took place during the reign of Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979.  The Choeng Ek killing fields and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum are two must visit memorials. Take at least half a day to get a better understanding of the hardships and horror that took place in Cambodia only 40 years ago.


Riverside Stroll

A stroll down the riverside quay will acquaint you with the few touristic sites that Phnom Penh has to offer. As most tourists stay at or around the riverside and the area is very compact you won’t need any transport. Given the traffic and lack of sidewalks I normally don’t advise walking, but the safe walk along the riverside quay is an exception. However, keep your eyes open and stay alert in the streets and alleys away from the boulevard.

The boulevard is actually an attraction in itself. The view over the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers is a majestic sight. The area is well kept with palm trees and trimmed lawns. From late afternoon locals, tourists and expats will gather at the riverside for exercise, picnics or just to enjoy the slightly cooler temperatures.

  • Start your stroll from the Northern tip of the riverside at Wat Phnom. This park on a hill houses a small pagoda where four small holy statues are enshrined. The site might not be spectacular, but it is deeply linked to the city’s history and a sacred Khmer place. Watch out for the monkeys in the park, they like to steal any food you’re carrying. You can probably spend 30 minutes to an hour here. Wat Phnom opens daily from 8am to 6pm (7pm during weekends). Admission is $1.


Wat Phnom staircase
Wat Phnom staircase
  • In between the riverside and Wat Phnom is the 1890 old post office in street 13. Just stop by for a glance and maybe a photo, you have to pass there anyway on your way to the river front. This area is what used to be the French Quarter. If you look around you will see more old French colonial buildings. Some of them restored, but most in a deteriorating state.

  • Continue your walk going in South direction on the riverside quay. To your right is where the night market will be in the evenings. Make a mental note to go for a visit and a quick bite in the evening. This part of the riverside is lined with restaurants and the side streets are teeming with small bars. Although this area doesn’t really come alive until after dusk it’s a convenient spot for some cold refreshments and maybe a small snack if you’re hungry.

  • Next up is Wat Ounalom, the most important temple in Phnom Penh. A visit to the temple grounds is certainly worth it. Cambodians regard this temple as the center of Cambodian Buddhism with a religious educational an administrative function. The 3-storey building on the complex is said to house an original hair of Buddha’s eyebrow.

  • At the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), a legendary bar once frequented by international journalists, turn right into street 178. Proceed to the corner of street 13 to the National Museum. This beautiful red tiled building with an impressive garden is a great display of Khmer architecture. Inside is a massive collection of over 14,000 pieces and artifacts that describe the formidable Khmer history. The national museum opens daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission fee is $10 for adults, $5 for 10y-17y, free for children under 10y.

  • Next to the national museum are the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, which can both be visited from the same complex. The palace has a lavish interior and the exterior is adorned with a beautiful well maintained garden. The Silver Pagoda houses, besides the silver tiled floor, an emerald Buddha (made of jade) and a solid golden Buddha. The dress code is covered shoulders and knees for both men and women. Opening hours are from 8am to 11am and from 2pm to 5pm. Admission $10.


The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh


Markets

A visit to Phnom Penh would not be complete without the markets.

Phsar Thmei (Central Market)

This is the most important market in Phnom Penh. Famous and revered Khmer architect Vann Molyvann designed this art-deco building, which is now a famous landmark in Phnom Penh. The market targets tourists with vendors asking outrageous prices for (imitation) watches, electronics and clothing. So, my advise is not to shop here, there are other markets for that. Just visit to take in the sight of this remarkably designed dome and four winged structure.

Russian Market (Toul Tom Poung)

Unlike to what the name implies, it’s not possible to buy a Russian here. It used to be a market frequented by Russians, who were practically the only foreigners visiting Phnom Penh in the 1980’s. Cheap clothing is the main product, but there are also vendors selling electronics, trinkets, pottery, hardware and there’s a small wet market in the center.

To bargain hard is key here. Since a few years the surroundings of the Russian market have become a favorite area for expat NGO workers and a lot of small restaurants and coffee shops have sprung up. Consider sticking around in the area for dinner or drinks after a sweaty day of shopping and bargaining.

Night Market (Phsar Reatrey)

Situated at the riverside near Wat Phnom and opens around 5pm. Not really geared towards tourists, but not an authentic Khmer market either. 90% clothes and a few trinket stalls. In the center of the market is a small stage with a band playing happy tunes and where local, self proclaimed, talent can try out their karaoke skills You have been warned).

Behind the stage in the back of the market are about a dozen food stalls surrounding a square of bamboo woven mats. The idea is to order your food from the stalls and eat while sitting on the mats picnic style. And it works! Unfortunately, practically all the stalls sell the same food, but there’s a great atmosphere.


Foodcourt at the Phnom Penh Nightmarket
Foodcourt at the Phnom Penh Nightmarket

Orussey Market

This is where the locals shop. Housed in a two-story building and of course extended to the surrounding streets. It’s huge! Downstairs has a lot of food, but we also saw bicycles and even refrigerators. Upstairs is mainly clothing and lot’s and lot’s of fabric. The place upstairs is packed and pretty narrow to walk. We somehow had the idea that Orussey is also a wholesale market, because we saw multiple buyers leaving with boxes full of the same stuff.

Phsar Chas (Old Market)

Not too big and right behind the night market near the riverside. For fruits, vegetables and other fresh products you should probably get here early in the morning. That’s also when the market is at it’s most lively when locals come to do their grocery shopping. Like any other market in Cambodia there are a lot of clothes for sale too, but the most interesting part is to the South of the market. Numerous street food vendors make up shop every morning to serve breakfast to the Phnom Penh work force. Popular breakfasts are Nom Banh Chok (rice noodles in broth) and Bai Sach Chrouk (caramelized pork over rice). No other market offers a more close up look into the every day Phnom Penh market life as Phsar Chas.


Bicycle to Silk Island
If you’re spending more than a few days in Phnom Penh and want to escape the hot and dusty city if only for a few hours a bicycle trip to nearby Silk Island might do the trick.


Olympic Stadium

I’ll let you in on one of my favorite past times here in Phnom Penh, hoping you won’t think I’m too weird. In the middle of the city is the Olympic Stadium. The area around the stadium, within the stadium grounds, is where the local population gathers in the evenings for some leisure time. There are people exercising or taking dance classes in large goups. We even saw a belly dance group working out. There’s also a kind of food court with a dozen or so food stalls serving snacks and delicious Nom Banh Chok.


Dancing at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium
Dancing at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium

The atmosphere is lively, but yet very laidback and friendly. I like to sit down at one of the food stalls with a hearty bowl of Nom Banh Chok and just watch the world go by. I never knew I could have such fun looking at young and old dancing or enjoying a mutual game of shuttle cock. Get there around 5pm and bring your trainers, because you might wanna join in on an exercise or dance class. Just pass the teacher a couple 1000riel and you’re in.




Where to stay in Phnom Penh


Most travelers end up near the riverside, which seems the logical place to stay from the outside looking in. Some of the attractions are near and this area provides more or less everything a visitor needs. Be forewarned though that parts of the riverside area can become a bit seedy at night and the quality of the restaurants just doesn’t keep up with rising price levels.

For longer term periods I recommend the Russian market area (Tuol Tom Poung), because of the more local neighborhood feel without completely giving up on Western amenities. However, if you’re just here for a few days, I favor the BKK1 district just South of the Independence Monument. This part of town is increasingly popular with the flashpacker crowds and offers some wonderful dining and entertainment options.

Since transport is cheap and easy to come by you won’t have any trouble to visit the riverside attractions.

My hotel recommendations

These are my recommendations and most of them are in BKK1.


Mad Monkey Hostel
Dirt Cheap = up to $10
Budget = from $10 to $30

Dorm beds and private rooms with shared or private bathroom. If you’re young, wild and free than this might be for you. Lot’s of backpackers on their gapyear find their way to the hostels from the Mad Monkey brand. A bit more expensive than other hostels, but reasonably clean and they always create opportunities for their guests to meet new people and party.


YK Art House
Budget = from $10 to $30
Cosy little hotel near BKK1 where we felt right at home. Close to many bars and restaurants. The swimming pool is a nice added feature, but it’s actually the atmosphere and the staff that really define this place. Would stay here again in a heartbeat.


Anise Hotel
Budget = from $10 to $30
Excellent hotel in a wonderful French colonial style building. The location within BKK1 district is perfect. Staff was very friendly and provided adequate service. The complementary breakfast was of good quality and the restaurant serves great food in a nice ambiance. Can’t go wrong with this hotel.


Double Leaf Boutique Hotel
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
Steps away from the Russian market (Tuol Tom Poung). The area offers small scale restaurants and a few bars that are popular with the NGO expat and local middle class crowd. The hotel is a real gem set in a quiet street, but close to all the action. There’s a pool, good breakfast and friendly, welcoming staff. Worth the few extra bucks.



Villa Langka
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
Some of the well known cliches apply to this hotel. A green and tranquil oasis in the middle of the booming BKK1 district. Refreshing pool to cool down after a day in the scorching heat. I could go on, but you get the gist. Do yourself a favor and stay here if you can afford it.


Palace Gate Hotel & Resort
Luxury = from $75 to $200
Beautiful high end boutique hotel near the riverside next to the Grand Palace. I didn’t actually stay here myself, since I travel on a budget, but some of my relatives raved about this hotel.



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Where to eat in Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh has always been a good place to eat. Influences from all Cambodian regions and international cuisine all come together in the capital city. No, Khmer food is not a mere imitation of Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, but yes there are a lot of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in Cambodia and Phnom Penh.

Khmer cuisine definitely has its own identity and remains the preferred choice for locals. However, there is no denying that the local palate is extended with food from neighboring countries and even Western (junk)food. As a result there are a lot of restaurants serving a bit of everything.

Looking at tripadvisor reviews, only 3 out of the “20 best Phnom Penh restaurants” offer some kind of Khmer food. The rest are either Italian, French, Indian or burger restaurants! Moreover, I have visited those 3 restaurants and sad to say, it’s not real Khmer food.


Phnom Penh's creative food scene
Phnom Penh’s creative food scene

Of course there are plenty of restaurants and eateries that offer authentic Khmer food, but more than not it requires an adventurous spirit. Don’t let yourself be intimidated and step out of your comfort zone, enter eateries that might not look appealing at first glance. You will have to choose dishes, sometimes by simply pointing, without having the faintest idea what it is.

Most of these places don’t have an English menu or any at all, so that’s not going to help you either. Don’t worry, it’s really not all creepy crawlies or intestines. Just dare to be curious and the reward is (usually) a delicious, wholesome meal and a great new experience.

My restaurant recommendations

If you follow my recommendations you’ll be ok, I promise (sort of). Of course they’re not all true Khmer options, as I crave a good pizza every now and then just like anyone else:

Riverside area

Kabbas: Preah Ang Eng St. (13). Always a safe bet to get some decent Asian food with constant quality and cheap beers. The place is frequented by a backpacker crowd, which gives it a lively atmosphere.

126 The Noodle House Factory: Street 13 corner Street 136. Excellent local hangout for breakfast noodle soup or pork over rice. Prices are just slightly higher than on the street.

Bassac district

Botanico wine & beer garden#9B Street 29. Craft beer in Phnom Penh! This is where the local Cerevisia brewery sells their excellent craft beer in a beer garden setting. The IPA’s are accompanied by quality pub grub and live music on most weekends.

Samai Distillery#9b, Street 830. No food here, but instead the only rum distillery in Cambodia. On Thursday evening, and only then, they open the atmospheric bar in the distillery and serve up some top notch cocktails. Makes for a great night out before hitting the bars at Bassac Lane in Street 308.

BKK1 district

Khmer Surin: #9 Street 57. If you would like to try an Asian breakfast, but are still reluctant to sit down at a road side food stall then try this restaurant. They offer Khmer and Thai breakfast in a beautiful Khmer old style building from 7am. – Update July 2020: We received word that Khmer Surin restaurant is closed for renovations until tbd.

The vegetarian: #158, Street 19 off Sihanouk Blvd. This is of course a vegetarian restaurant (what’s in a name). The surprise is that the food is mainly Khmer and not just mixed salads or (badly) copied Western dishes.

Mok Mony: #63c, Street 294. Offers good Khmer and Asian options and even a fair amount of excellent vegetarian dishes. Situated in the hart of BKK1, Mok Mony is a local expat favorite.


Khmer dish in Cambodia
I remember eating this so well

Russian Market (Tuol Tom Poung)

Intégrité Restaurant Café & Bar#67 street 450. Bruneian chef, cooking up Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. Beautifully decorated, good service and food made with love. I’m a fan of Beef Rendang and this one is really exceptional.

Eleven One Kitchen: Street 123 corner street 460. Not exactly authentic Khmer, but close enough. Cozy garden setting with an excellent young and friendly staff. We used to come here a lot as we lived next door. Always had a good meal for a reasonable price. They also have a branch in the BKK1 district.

123 Pig#26, St 123. Authentic Cambodian food and drinks like roselle and sugar cane. As of recently they also have an English menu so now there’s no excuse anymore to miss out on the real thing.


Read: “Phnom Penh Foodcrawl”


Street Food

Still the best choice to get a taste of Phnom Penh. In the evenings the food stalls spring up literally everywhere. The areas around the markets usually see the largest clusters of stalls. Be vigilant about food hygiene though. A good thing about food stalls is that they are very transparent. You can see every step of the food handling so use your eyes. Is the raw food kept separate from the prepared food, does the vendor keep his/her hands clean or use gloves, for example.




No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this section even if you think travel insurance is boring. While Phnom Penh may offer the best healthcare available in Cambodia, it’s nothing compared to international standards. Any serious injury or ailment will almost certainly involve medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore, payable upfront if you lack proper insurance.

Always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that also covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. I guess it’s best to opt for a specialist that also covers adventurous activities like hiking, trekking and even your motor bike rental adventures without breaking the bank.

Buy reliable coverage online, even if your trip already started! Read more about travel insurance here, or get a non-committal instant quote here!



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