Photo: Downtown street art, Phnom Penh.

Introduction

Our rating:

A heaving crossroads of cultures, times, peoples and worlds, Phnom Penh is a city on the edge of everything. With one foot still rooted in the past, which you can find in the temples, markets and buzzing back streets, and another striding boldly into the future, which is pretty much all around you, this thriving, turbulent city brings together Cambodian, Chinese and French influences in a congested, grimy, shiny, vibrant and thrilling mash that somehow seems to work—except when it rains.


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Once known as the “Pearl of Asia”, Phnom Penh used to be one of the better-preserved French colonial towns in Southeast Asia. However, developers—occasionally driven by a need to clean up someone’s cashflow—are working tirelessly to put paid to this sobriquet, and once beautiful parts of town are yielding to the seemingly inexorable rise of some of the most artless lumps of brick and concrete you’ll ever be misfortunate enough to lay eyes on. There is a legion of architects in this city who should be taken out and shot for conspiring in this vandalism, and especially for the bewilderingly unlovely edifices that are being chucked up in place of a beautiful and wholly irreplaceable heritage. Be that as it may, this is the price you pay for being a city so eager to take its place at the table so long occupied by its neighbours to the east and west.

Yes, get up early. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Yes, get up early. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Today, once sleepy—indeed once silent—streets run thick with motor scooters, lusty motorbikes, bicycles, tuk tuks, rickshaws, Toyota Camrys, and monster gas-guzzling machines frequently belonging either to those who would profess to be “saving” Cambodia, or those who are quietly asset-stripping an entire state. They move to a rhythm defined by chance opportunities, a reflection of the city’s own vibe, which can can infuse you with wild optimism at the genuine sense of limitless possibilities, or knock you down with crushing cynicism in less than a heartbeat.

Sitting at the confluence of three rivers that stretch out to the north, west and southeast—the Mekong, the Tonle Sap, and the Tonle Bassac—Phnom Penh is the heart of Cambodia, but is arguably not strictly a Cambodian city. The majority of the population is Sino-Khmer, Cambodia’s merchant class, and it is largely they who are at the root of the city’s thriving commercial life. This and the energy and creativity of the city’s expatriate community mean that the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has a lot more to offer the visitor than a swing through the sobering Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and a run out to the Killing Fields. Although not to be missed too are the charming Royal Palace and quaint National Museum, both of which offer glimpses of Cambodia’s richer history.

Cambodia Living Arts. Look at those fingers. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Cambodia Living Arts. Look at those fingers. Photo: Stuart McDonald

But Phnom Penh is a city far more interested in the present and future than the past. A highly competitive restaurant and bar scene means that you can browse beautifully turned out international (almost global, but not quite) flavours at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere, dance the night away in pumping nightclubs, shop your heart out on the emerging local design scene, meander through the markets, or savour the city’s arts scene. It’s all there, just on a smaller, and occasionally more naif, scale than you might find in more established capitals, and that is also part of its charm.

As far as Phnom Penh’s founding history goes, legend has it that its beginnings stretch back to the late 14th century, when an old woman named Penh found a tree with a handful of Buddha images lodged in one of its nooks. She retrieved the images and had a hill (phnom) built to house them: Penh’s Hill, or Phnom Penh, was born.

Words are not minced at the Killing Fields. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Words are not minced at the Killing Fields. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Established in 1434, Phnom Penh for long remained little more than a large village and didn’t become the permanent capital until 1866 during the reign of King Norodom I. On April 17, 1864, Norodom agreed to make Cambodia a French protectorate in an attempt to keep the bellicose Vietnamese and Siamese at bay. In the years following, the construction of Phnom Penh proper began. Interestingly, 111 years to the day after King Norodom I signed his first treaty with the French, the Khmer Rouge entered, took control and totally emptied Phnom Penh.

By the time Cambodia became a part of French Indochina in 1884, Phnom Penh had developed into a sizeable, largely French-designed city, and by the 1920s it was considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia.

The skyline is changing fast. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

The skyline is changing fast. Photo: Stuart McDonald

After independence came a few decades of optimism—some overseen by then King Norodom Sihanouk, a charismatic, arts-loving playboy, whose memory is still revered despite his difficult role in subsequent events. But the bright years were finally interrupted by war, at home and abroad. Historically Cambodia had been a battleground between the Thais and the Vietnamese, but through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodian fought Cambodian as a brutal civil war engulfed the country. When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and evacuated the city, Phnom Penh became a ghost town, and it was but a shadow of itself when the communists were finally evicted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1978-79.

Over the 1980s, people trickled back to Phnom Penh and the city slowly returned to life under the control of the Vietnamese. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s when UN-sponsored elections took place (accompanied by a slew of aid) that the city really began to develop anew. The new century has seen considerable financial investment from China and South Korea and an onslaught of new construction projects have resulted in many of Phnom Penh’s French relics as well as its unique 1950s and 1960s architecture falling to the wrecking ball, only to be replaced by characterless glass and brass affairs. The result is a hodge-podge of stunning French colonial buildings, quirky modernist buildings of the New Khmer movement and concrete egg-carton eyesores.

While other things have barely changed at all. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

While other things have barely changed at all. Photo: Stuart McDonald

And as the money has flowed, so have the people. Urban migration continues apace and poverty is endemic—a crisis not well addressed by the country’s largely dysfunctional government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.


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Orientation

The city centre sits on west bank of the Tonle Sap, just at the point where it meets the Mekong. Here, the rivers converge, fuelling a cycle that sustains the whole country as each June to November the Mekong, swollen with melted Himalayan snows, surges down with enough momentum to force the Tonle Sap back on itself. That annual rhythm of rising and receding waters creates a unique ecosystem which sustains the largest inland fishery in the world, and thereby 75% of Cambodia’s protein intake. It seems beyond wilfully perverse then that this vital source of food, and life, risks being catastrophically impaired by hydro-electric dams back up along the Mekong.

Get out on the water for another angle on the city. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Get out on the water for another angle on the city. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The riverside is a somewhat schizophrenic affair, divided between the breezy, family and friend-oriented promenade along the river, and the not so always family-orientated city side of the road, Sisowath Quay. There are some good bars and restaurants along here though, and it provides entertaining people-watching opportunities. If you’re staying in one place, enjoying a cheap beer or a cocktail, it’s likely that your conversation will be interrupted by a steady stream of cute kids selling books, bracelets and scarves. It’s worth understanding the reasons why it may not be a good idea to buy.

For a somewhat lighter approach to life, head down to BKK1, a chiefly residential district that was once populated with gorgeous French-built villas and splendid 1960s and 70s Khmer architecture. Alas. These are all rapidly falling to legions of lump hammers as “developers”, land owners and anyone with cash they need to hide, seek to leverage every ounce of real estate they can lay their hands on. Unbecoming apartment blocks in unpalatable shades of cake frosting are springing up like some kind of uncontrollable ugly fungus. Nevertheless, BKK1 has plenty to charm and entertain—the wide, tree-lined streets are supremely civil compared to the tight, shady clamour of central Phnom Penh (which do, it must be said, have their own appeal) and, thanks to that plethora of ungainly apartments, there are now plenty of seriously good restaurants, bars and cafes to serve the growing population.

Penh House: One of the new crop of excellent places to stay in the city. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Penh House: One of the new crop of excellent places to stay in the city. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Further south again, you’ll find the Russian Market, plonked into the middle of an area undergoing a very rapid gentrification. While the market itself is well worth a look, take a while to check out some of the bars and restaurants popping up around here too.

In between BKK1 and the city centre, you’ll find swish Street 240; Phnom Penh’s very own Rodeo Drive, albeit without the stars, cars, fancy bars, and other esoteric stuff like unbroken pavements. It does have some nice shops though. The area around the palace and museum is also dotted with some excellent places to stay. Parallel to here, and on the other side of Norodom, is a residential area seeing more development, with more hotels, bars and restaurants popping up. This area is a little like how BKK1 used to look, so get there quick before the developers realise their oversight.

Old and the new. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Old and the new. Photo: Stuart McDonald

To the north of the city centre, you find yourself in the areas surrounding Wat Phnom. These include the rarified roads around Raffles then veer wildly off into the raucous with streetside markets, and plenty of earthy, noisy, lively life on the streets behind there. There’s a weird niggle we get when we head up here at night that makes us hold on to our gear a little bit tighter, but in the daytime, this is one of the best parts of the city for exploring on foot—without a map.

Safety and security

Security issues come in many forms all over the world, and Phnom Penh is no different. There are a couple of issues in particular that tend to arise more than others in the Cambodian capital. It’s easier to protect yourself against them if you are aware of them—so read on.

Getting around in Phnom Penh has never been easier. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Getting around in Phnom Penh has never been easier. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The chances of a streetside theft are always good, but in the run-up to big festivals, the risk increases as Cambodians come under pressure to buy new clothes and give money as offerings. The main festivals that prompt spikes in theft are Pchum Ben (in September or October each year), and Khmer New Year (April), however the risk is perpetual. Be vigilant (though don’t be freaked out). Tourists make for easy targets for some. Keep your belongings in a backpack, and wear it with both straps on your shoulders, especially when travelling by moto. Be careful when using a phone (on the pavement, in a tuk tuk or on a moto), as thieves may try to snatch it straight out of your hand—hang on tight!

Here are some tips to bear in mind:

* Be alert. Hold onto your bag with both arms around it when in a tuk tuk, or across your chest when walking. On a moto, wear your bag nestled in front between you and your driver and hold on to it.

* Don’t pull out your phone while you are walking around or in a tuk tuk. If you do, grip it firmly or with both hands. Someone holding an iPhone with two fingers can be a big temptation to some.

* Purses are an easy target, so use your pockets.

* Don’t carry stuff you can’t afford to lose.

* Do not put up a fight—the thief has far more to lose than you.

* Before you decide to leave everything back at your hotel or hostel, remember that thefts can occur there as well. If you are not in a room with a safety deposit box, try to leave your valuables locked in your bag and don’t leave anything near windows—thieves can use sticks with tape on the end (or fishing rods) to grab mobile phones and so on through barred windows.

Like barbecue? You’re in the right town. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Like barbecue? You’re in the right town. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Another risk that affects everyone, but can really throw a spanner in a travellers’ works, is having their rented motorbike stolen. Your rental contract will stipulate that the liability is all yours in case the bike is stolen. One thing is certain: once the bike is gone, it’s not coming back again, so if you don’t have the $1,000 or so it’s going to cost to replace it, then it may be as well to stick to tuk tuks and motos. If you do decide to rent notwithstanding all that, don’t put your hotel or apartment address on the rental sheet, and, most importantly, get your own lock to put on it. We’d also recommend taking photographs of the bike before you drive it away, in order to avoid claims that you damaged anything.

One that we thought might have gone away, but still appears to be going strong, is a card scam operated by gangs of Filipinos. It starts off nicely enough when a smiling, non-threatening member of the gang approaches you with compliments on something about you, or wants to practise their English. Conversation starts, and boom you suddenly have all kinds of things in common, and an opportunity to assist this lovely person soon comes up. Travellers, punch drunk on exotica, for some reason lose their ability to detect the degrees in between outright fiends and glorious angels and take the woman for one of the latter. Here now, a chance to connect with a local and do some good. Dreams come true. Or not. The next level is a confusing tuk tuk ride to another location, where the now slightly destabilised traveller is invited to join a friendly game of cards, for money. The tricks vary, but the result is always the same. The traveller loses, and loses big and is then frog-marched to the nearest ATM in order to pay up. The friendliness is gone, and the mood is now far more menacing. As above, we don’t recommend trying to fight your way out of this one.

Do visit the palace. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Do visit the palace. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Police

The police in Phnom Penh can be very helpful. They can also be a royal pain and may require bribes for almost any service. If you have something stolen, you can file a report—just don’t expect much to happen. In the case of a lost passport, contact your embassy immediately. You will be required to file two police reports; each will cost you around $10. The police hotline is 117, while tourist police can be reached at (023) 724 793 or (012) 942 484.

Hospitals and medical care

Medical care in Cambodia is generally pretty awful—and locals who can afford it head directly to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City when they need treatment. Likewise emergencies see patients promptly evacuated over the border-emergency evacuations are not cheap and as such travelling in Cambodia without medical insurance isn’t recommended. A number of clinics in Phnom Penh are aimed at the tourist and expatriate crowd but they are just clinics. Clinics and hospitals include:

Calmette Hospital: 3 Monivong Rd, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 426 948 https://www.calmette.gov.kh/
International SOS Medical Clinic: 161 Street 51, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 216 911; (012) 816 911 Mo–Fr: 08:00–17:30 Sa: 08:00–12:00 https://www.internationalsos.com/locations/asia-pacific/cambodia
NAGA Clinic: 11 Street 254, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 211 300; (011) 811 175 (emergency) http://www.nagaclinic.com/
Tropical and Travellers Medical Clinic: 88 Street 108, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 306 802; (012) 898 981 travellersmedicalclinic.com Mo–Sa: 09:30-11:30, Mo–Fr: 14:30-17:00

Pharmacies
Phnom Penh is flooded with pharmacies—look for the green cross that marks their location. The better pharmacies are air-con and will have staff who speak English. U-Care Pharmacy on the corner of Sothearos Boulevard and Street 178 is a good spot to start. There are other U-Cares throughout the city, and their pharmacists offer the most helpful medical advice and speak English well.

Learn about weaving on Silk Island. Photo taken in or around Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Learn about weaving on Silk Island. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The risk of buying fake medications in Cambodia persists. Always buy medication in branded, blister-packed packages, check the company of manufacture and check the expiry date. Some chemists dispense unmarked tablets dispensed in bags—avoid!

Sexual health

The country’s 2010 HIV prevalence rate was estimated at 0.7% among adults, compared with a high of around 2% in 1997, according to government data. The prevalence of HIV increases among female entertainment workers and men who have sex with men. You should be able to buy your preferred brand of birth control in Cambodia. Condoms are available at supermarkets and pharmacies. Do note too that condoms in Cambodia may be more likely to break due to exposure to light and tropical heat, so do make sure to purchase them from air-con shops, check the expiry date and don’t use it if the condom feels dry, sticky or brittle.

Other logistics

Banks
Most banks have ATMs that accept international cards, and you’ll find them everywhere. There will be a charge for withdrawals—be sure to check with your own bank to find out what they will charge you as well.

Post office
The central post office is on Street 13, walking distance from Wat Phnom, just east of the pagoda. The lovely, large yellow building is one of the better relics from French-occupied Cambodia. The EMS service is increasingly reliable, though be sure to stick the stamps on yourself to avoid mail going astray. If it’s really irreplaceable though, wait until you are out of the country to mail it.

What are some good Phnom Penh resources?
A variety of good free maps of Phnom Penh are available at most guesthouses, hotels and restaurants. When navigating the city, it’s helpful to remember that the river is always on the east.

Move to Cambodia is run by an ex-Travelfish writer (so obviously the site is excellent!) and, while expat-focussed, has loads of very useful information for travellers as well.

Cambodia Pocket Guide is published regularly and carries accommodation, bar and restaurant listings along with other handy information.

Canby Publications Phnom Penh Visitors Guide is published regularly and carries lengthy listings, although they are all paid for.

Recommended reading

King Norodom’s Head Phnom Penh Sights beyond the Guidebooks
An eclectic collection of fascinating (and sometimes very amusing) factoids about the capital. Essential reading for the interested traveller. We have reviewed it here.

Dogs at the Perimeter
This is a book about the legacy of war, of memory, of grief and of migration, too. Thien’s writing is spare and beautiful. It’s a worth addition to a reading list for those interested in how the Khmer Rouge affected lives even for decades after they were swept from power in Cambodia. We have reviewed it here.

Phnom Penh A Cultural and Literary History
An easy to read historical primer by Milton Osborne which traces the history of Phnom Penh from its beginnings through to the late 2000s.

Getting foreign visas in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh can be a handy spot for picking up visas for onward travel. When applying it pays to dress decently—the Indonesian Embassy for example will not let you in if you’re wearing flip flops and/or shorts. The following requirements are what were displayed at each embassy in January 2019, specifically for a general tourist visa. Please check with the embassy directly for the requirements for other visas.

Burma (Myanmar)

Address: 181 Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 223 761 http://mephnompenh.org/
Visa application: Mo–Fr: 09:00–12:00
Visa collection: Mo–Fr: 14:00–16:00
Requirements: Original passport with six months validity; Two 4cm x 6cm recent photos; Fully completed application form.
Processing time: Three working days.
Cost: US$40 (on their website it says $20!)
Duration: 28 days (non extendable) valid for three months from the date of issue.

Indonesia

Address: 1 Street 466, Just off Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 217 934 https://www.kemlu.go.id/phnompenh/id/default.aspx
Visa application: Mo–Fr: 09:00–12:00
Visa collection: Mo–Fr: 14:00–16:00
Requirements: Original passport with six months validity; One 4cm x 6cm recent photo; Fully completed application form; Proof of onward travel; Proof of a hotel reservation; Copy of bank statement for the last three months.
Processing time: Three to five working days “depending on the individual circumstances and the complexity of the case”.
Cost: US$55
Duration: Two months (extendable).

Laos

Address: 15-17 Mao Tse Toung Blvd, Phnom Penh.
Visa application: Mo–Fr: 08:30–11:30
Visa collection: Mo–Fr: 14:00–16:30
Requirements: Original passport; One recent photo; Fully completed application form.
Processing time: 48 hours. Express service costs $10 and visa ready in an hour.
Cost: US$20-50 depending on nationality.
Duration: 30 days valid for two months from the date of issue.

Thailand

Address: 196 Preah Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 726 306 http://www.thaiembassy.org/phnompenh/
Visa application: Mo–Fr: 08:30–11:00
Visa collection: Mo–Fr: 15:00–16:30
Requirements: Original passport; A copy of your passport; One recent photo; Fully completed application form; Proof of onward travel; Evidence of adequate finance (US$1,000 per person).
Processing time: Three working days (drop off in morning, pick up in the afternoon)
Cost: US$40
Duration: 60 days (extendable) valid for three months from the date of issue.

Vietnam

Address: 436 Monivong Blvd, Phnom Penh. T: (097) 749 2430 http://visa2vietnam.net/
Visa application and collection: Same day service: Submit before 09:00 ready at 11:15. Submit between 09:00 and 11:30 ready at 16:00.
Submit between 13:00 and 15:15, ready at 17:30 (at the gate).
Requirements: Original passport; One recent photo; Fully completed application form.
Processing time: Same day, 24 hour and 48 hour service available
Cost: For one month single entry: US$60 (same day), US$50 (24 hours), US$40 (48 hours). Add $10 for one month multiple entry, add $20 for three month single entry.
Address: 60 days (extendable) valid for three months from the date of issue.


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