As much as Phnom Penh sits on the junction of three rivers — the Mekong, the Tonle Sap, and the Tonle Bassac — so too is it a vibrant confluence of three distinct cultures, Khmer, Chinese and French, expressions of which you’ll find in the food, the architecture, art and so much more. This challenging, dynamic city is a relatively young capital, inaugurated in 1866 when the royal family moved their residence from Udong to the brand new Royal Palace on Sisowath Quay, and these days it shows all the signs of the brashness, questionable tastes and high energy of youth.
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.
Days in Phnom Penh start early as despite urbanisation rural rhythms still seem to prevail. It’s also a damn sight cooler. This is a great time to score some tasty dumplings and fried bananas, although it has to be said that Cambodian street food is a little colourless compared to its neighbours. You also might be able to glimpse saffron-robed monks carrying umbrellas, walking door-to-door, receiving alms, and if you’re passing along the riverside, Wat Botun Park, or Hun Sen Park, you’ll spot plenty of early-morning joggers, dog walkers, and "get-fitters" nonchalantly going through their aerobics paces behind their uber-energised instructor.
In the evenings, the same settings are filled with families strolling in the cooling air, more dog walkers, badminton players, and circles of guys playing "sai", or the kick-shuttlecock game where the objective is to not be the schmuck that lets it drop. Further down Sihanouk, young Cambodians congregate to admire each others’ motorbikes/boyfriends/girlfriends/iPhones (in no particular order). It’s a scene of mostly laughter, lightness and ease, a stark contrast to the darkly oppressive notes this city can strike too.
Those notes are found in the streets behind riverside or along Street 51. Rimmed with girly bars with names like Candy, Honeypot, Hello Sugar and Pussy Cat, the streets here are sombre, seedy and heavily populated with ropey, strung-out Western blokes no one wants to have sex with anymore unless there’s a clear and immediate transactional advantage to be had. And even then, there must be a lot of nose-holding going on. It’s a scene so pathetic it’s hard to muster up any real sort of judgement.
The riverside is a somewhat schizophrenic affair, divided between the breezy, family and friend-oriented promenade along the river, and the generally sleazy feel of the city side of the road, Sisowath Quay, where the roadside bars are heavy with red-faced men clutching their paid-for women as if even they might run away. There are some good bars and restaurants along here though, and it provides entertaining people-watching opportunities. It’s an impossible challenge to spend any time riverside without being approached by hawkers, beggars or tuk tuk drivers. For your own sanity, it’s good to remember that motos and tuk tuk drivers are just doing their job — even if they have heard you say “no” to the last five drivers, maybe you’ve changed your mind. A polite “no thank you” or even better “ortey awkun” will generally be rewarded with a smile and a shrug. If you want to walk, try crossing over to the promenade side of the riverfront, where you only have to dodge energetic locals engaged in dancing or determined strolling. Alternatively, head into the wider city, away from riverside, the Royal Palace and the museums. A mere three blocks from the river, you may actually need to hunt down a tuk tuk, rather than dodge the constant offers. 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. Even worse, such is the disregard for anything "old" among most in Cambodia that even unique and beautiful fixtures and fittings get trashed along with everything else.
In place of that, unbecoming apartment blocks in unpalatable shades of cake frosting are springing up like some kind of uncontrollable ugly fungus. Everywhere you turn, there’s another flare-up, and no sooner have you got over the shock of that, than you turn around and there’s another one on the corner behind you where there surely wasn’t one yesterday. However, notwithstanding the destruction, BKK1 has plenty to charm and entertain.
It’s still one of the snazzier addresses in town — despite competition from the likes of "Elite Town" on Elite Road on Koh Pich, an address aimed squarely at the chronically insecure or plain psychotic. It used to be called NGO Land because only the heads of international NGOs could afford to live here, but now it’s populated by financiers, designers, architects, engineers, restaurateurs, and the heads of international NGOs. Some of them are even Cambodian, as Phnom Penh’s rapidly emerging middle class start to take their place at the table.
So now it has become an area fuelled by pure Arabica and delusions of grandeur, judging by the number of upmarket coffee shops and international schools with names like Harrods. But the wide, tree-lined streets are supremely civil compared to the tight, shady clamour of central Phnom Penh and, thanks to that plethora of ungainly apartments, there are now plenty of seriously good restaurants, bars and cafes to serve the growing population. The eternally popular Street 278 still continues to survive its general mediocrity thanks to a lack of imagination on everyone’s parts, but once you start to head for the streets south of there, great things wait to be found. There is also a growing number of guesthouses here and, given the scale and ease of movement within this city even at rush hour, we feel BKK1 is one of the best spots for making your base for exploring the city.
You’ll also be not far from very happening Bassac Lane, a lively little enclave of ultra-hip bars and busy restaurants on the other side of Norodom Boulevard, and though it’s small, it’s all the better for it. This is where Phnom Penh’s hipsters go to die, but being such an egalitarian city — provided you’re sufficiently an outsider — that’s not really important when you can get your hands on some magical potstickers or lushly filled crepes. The people-watching potential is unparalleled too.
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. It’s pretty much where the NGO crowd go to console themselves, so it feels kind of cleaner than the rest of Phnom Penh and going there is like going for a psychic bath which you may have earned after a couple of days here. Thus refreshed, you’re all clear to tuck into a healthy/organic/locally sourced (you know the drill) sandwich at The Shop before picking up that gorgeous dress from Bliss. And if you drive up there at 18:00, it can feel a little like a rodeo as you dodge traffic coming at you from all points on the map.
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.
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 that makes us hold on to our gear a little bit tighter.
Where should I stay in Phnom Penh?
The city centre is a great spot from which to get to everything else but, given that Phnom Penh is not a big city, you’re not really constrained by time and distance as in, for example, Bangkok. If you go south to BKK1 and the Tonle Bassac areas, you’ll find great accommodation that is rather less seedy than the offerings further uptown. Heading north, to the area around Wat Phnom, you’ll find yourself in a very lively area which is pretty quiet at night, but within easy reach of the city centre as well.
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. One good map is the Phnom Penh Pocket Tourist Map. The best map by far is the one on the inside cover of the phone book.
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.
Pocket Guide also puts out four other books. "Drinking and Dining" is published (about) six times a year and is available at most restaurants and guesthouses. It includes restaurant and bar listings as well as a series of accurate small maps amid plenty of advertising. "Out and About" includes shopping, leisure, travel, health, fitness and accommodation information. It includes tips about local markets, bargaining, and a glossary of common Khmer words that will help you as you shop. "After Dark" is a listing of local bars and pubs around the city, with information on drinks specials and theme nights and events. "Door2Door" is a listing of restaurants that deliver, complete with full menus and a map of restaurant locations. More guesthouses are springing up that don’t have restaurant facilities, so this could be extremely useful.
Tourist Information Centre
You might be tempted to drop into this place on Sisowath Quay to find out more about where you are. Seriously though, don’t bother. They will look at you blankly for some while, before handing you an out-of-date copy of the Canby Phnom Penh Visitors Guide. Then it will rain.
Phnom Penh newspapers
The Cambodia Daily is an English-language newspaper that takes liberally from wire services. They do however have a four-page local section written by a team of Phnom Penh-based foreign and Cambodian reporters. The newspaper is published every day except Sunday. There is a classifieds section on Tuesday and Thursdays containing restaurant and bar listings, as well as accommodation and jobs classifieds. The newspaper is chiefly in print, but they post the most popular and relevant stories on their website to which limited access is available.
The Phnom Penh Post is published six days a week and includes primarily local news. The Post Weekend, published on Saturdays, has an events listing as well as reviews of newly opened restaurants, bars, exhibitions and other events.
The police in Phnom Penh can be very helpful. They can also be a royal pain and 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 from $5 to $10. The police hotline is 117, while tourist police can be reached at (023) 724 793 or (012) 942 484.
HospitalsSee our medical care page.
Internet cafes used to be everywhere in Phnom Penh, but have become relatively obsolete as so many hotels now offer the use of free computers and WiFi. If you’re in one that doesn’t, there’s a decent internet cafe on Sisowath Quay just north of the junction with Street 178. No matter where you go, you generally get what you pay for — expect charges of 3000 to 4000 riel an hour, though away from the riverside or other tourist hubs, internet rarely costs more than 2000 riel an hour — it rarely works very well either. Many internet cafes also offer international phone calls, with rates, for instance, around 2000 riel per minute to North America. If you have a laptop or other device, use it instead. WiFi connections are usually much faster than those at internet cafes and almost everywhere now has them. Speeds are mid-level.
The international roaming rates in Cambodia are extortionate.This is a good place to give your mobile a rest or just use email. If you’re in town for a while and your phone is unlocked, buy a local SIM card for as little as $7. For international calls, make sure to speak to the provider about the code that opens up cheap rates across VOIP, otherwise you’ll be paying a dollar a minute, or more. For example, with Cellcard, if you preface the number with 177, it costs buttons to call much of the rest of the world, e.g. 4.5c a minute to France, or 15c a minute to the UK. You will need your passport in order to purchase a SIM, and can most easily pick one up at the airport as you arrive. We recommend Cellcard as the most reliable provider. If you have a smart phone, you’ll be able to make international calls anyway, as one month’s data costs from $5. If your phone is not unlocked, you can pick up a $15 Nokia 1280 at one of the markets — the phone of choice for many expats as it has that all important torch at the top. Stick in your SIM and you’re good to go. There are loads of mobile phone shops that will sell you both the phone and the SIM on Street 13 behind Phsar Kandal just behind the riverfront.
Most banks have ATMs that accept international cards, and you’ll find them everywhere. Most of them charge $4 or $5 per withdrawal, though Canadia Bank does not charge fees for withdrawals on Visa cards issued in Europe.
Central Post Office
The central post office is walking distance from Wat Phnom, just east of the pagoda. The lovely, large yellow building is one of the few remaining 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.
Almost all guesthouses and hotels offer a laundry service but if you’re balancing the bucks, you may save a little by going elsewhere. Laundries charge either by the kilo or per item. Usual prices are $1 to $2 per kilo, which is a much better deal if you have underwear and socks in your load. It’s worth checking which charging system is used before committing the entire contents of your backpack. Clue — if they get scales out, it’s per kilo. If they start to count, it’s per item. Generally, your clothes will be fresh air dried, so for the quickest turn around go early in the morning -- during the rainy season, drying will take longer. Do hang onto your laundry ticket and take it when you go to collect. Fresh clothes are usually served up ironed and folded in a clear plastic bag. It’s worth doing a quick visual check to see if anything obvious is missing; mistakes are usually easily resolved. For clothes that need special attention, Hotel Cambodiana‘s laundry service is the expat staple. The service kiosk is outside the front gate and operates a same-day service if you drop off before 10:00.
East West Travel
#16bis, Street 57, BKK1
T: (023) 216 065, (012) 818 118 F: (023) 216 067
This reliable agent handles in and outbound flights along with domestic touring. We’ve used them for flights and found them very good.
#65 Street 240
T: (023) 219 251; F: (023) 219 150
This agent is on Street 240 between Monivong and Norodom. They handle domestic and international flights, as well as organised tours. 5 Oceans Co Ltd
33 Street 178
T: (023) 221 537, (023) 986 920, (023) 221 869
This experienced agent is located between the National Museum and the riverside area. They have a large staff, so there is never any wait to see an agent. They are helpful at finding cheap airfares and will renew your visa for a fair $10 service charge, which is about what you’d pay for transportation to go yourself to the visa office located across the street from the airport.
#16B National Assembly Street, Sangkat Tonle Bassac
T: (023) 213 470; F: (023) 213 413
Mon-Thurs 08:00-12:00, 13:30-17:00
Fri: 08:00-12:00, 13:30-16:15
#404D Monivong Boulevard, BKK1
T: (023) 214 024; F: (023) 214 024
There is no embassy as such, but an Honorary Consul. Hours are from 16:00 to 18:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call (012) 840 056 for emergencies outside of those hours.
15th Floor, Abdulrahim Place, 990 Rama IV, Bangrak, Bangkok, 10500, Thailand
Postal Address: P.O. Box 2090, Bangkok, Thailand, 10501
T: +66 (0)2 646 4300; F: +66 (0)2 646 4345
For any emergencies, Canadian citizens should contact the Australian embassy. The Australian Embassy does not provide visa, immigration or notarial services for Canadian citizens.
#156 Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, Phnom Penh
T: (012) 810 928 (visa section)
Opens at 08:00.
10 Sathorn Soi 1, South Sathorn Road, Bangkok 10120, Thailand
T: +66 (0) 2343 1100; F +66(0) 2213 1752
For emergencies, Danish citizens can seek support at the British, French, German or Swedish Embassies in Phnom Penh.
1 Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 430 020, (012) 951 401 (for emergencies); F: (023) 430 037
#76-78 Street 214 (Rue Yugoslavie), Phnom Penh
T: (023) 216 193, (023) 216 381, (010) 990 002 (for emergencies) ; F: (023) 217 016
Open Mon-Fri 08:30-11:30
#5 Street 466, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 210 912-3; F: (023) 213 640
Open Mon-Fri, 09:00-11:00.
#1 Street 466, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 216 148, (023) 217 934; F: (023) 217 566
Open Mon-Fri 08:00-12:00
#194 Norodom Boulevard, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 217 161-4; F: (023) 216 162
Open Mon-Fri 08:00-12:00, 13:30-17:15
#50-52 Street 214, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 211 900-3; F: (023) 219 200
Open Mon-Fri 08:30-12:00, 13:30-17:00
#15-17 Mao Tse Tung Boulevard
T: (023) 997 931, F: (023) 720 907
Open Mon-Fri 08:30-17:30
#220-222 Norodom Boulevard, Sangkat Tonle Bassac
T: (023) 216 176-7; F: (023) 726 101
Open Mon-Fri 08:00-12:00, 13:30-16:30
#15, Street 422, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 215 145, (023) 223 303-4, (098) 888 771 F: (023) 215 143
firstname.lastname@example.org phnompenhpe.dfa.gov.ph/ Open Mon-Fri 09:00-17:00
Polish citizens requiring emergency assistance may make a request to the French Embassy otherwise they need to get to Bangkok.
100/81-82, Vongvanijj Building B, 25th Floor, Rama 9 Road, Bangkok, Thailand
T: +66 2 645 0367-9; F: +66 2 645 0365
#213 Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 210 931, (023) 217 694 (consular section); F: (023) 216 776
Open Mon, Thurs 08:00-12:00 (Consular section)
Open Mon-Thurs 08:00 to 16:30 (Embassy)
#129 Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 221 875; F: (023) 210 862
Open Mon-Fri 08:00-12:00 (application)
Open Mon-Fri 14:30-16:30 (collection)
10th Floor, Phnom Penh Tower, #445 Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 861 700; F: (023) 861 701
www.swedenabroad.com/en-GB/Embassies/Phnom-Penh/ Open Mon-Fri 09:00-12:00
#50D Street 334, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 218 305, (023) 218 209; F: (023) 218 063
Open Mon-Fri 09:00-11:00
#196 Norodom Boulevard, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 726 306-8; F: (023) 993 954
Open Mon-Fri 08:30-11:00 (application)
Open Mon—Fri 14:00-16:00 (collection)
#27-29 Street 75, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 427 124, (023) 428 153; F: (023) 427 125
Open Mon-Thurs 08:15-16:45
United States of America
#1 Street 96 (corner 51), Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 728 000; F: (023) 728 600
email@example.com (non-immigrant visas), firstname.lastname@example.org (consular)
Open Mon-Thurs 07:00-08:30 (consular services, by appointment only)
#436 Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 726 274; F: (023) 726 495
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 4th February, 2016.