Phnom Penh: I Couldn’t Leave Fast Enough

Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited! 

I traveled to Cambodia with high hopes. Of all of the countries I was visiting in Southeast Asia, I was most looking forward to Cambodia. In retrospect, I’m not really sure why. But there was just something that was pulling me there. Though I would only spend about 10 days in Cambodia, I was already thinking about how I could plan a return visit (in combination with Laos).

And then I arrived in Phnom Penh.

Hands down, this was my least favorite city I visited in SE Asia in 3 months. Pretty immediately I noticed that it felt a little seedier and sleazier than the other places I’d visited. It’s common to see kids begging on the street, asking for money or for you to buy them food. It’s terribly sad and annoying all at the same time. You will also see a lot of older white men with Cambodian women (usually very young women). The whole place just felt kinda gross. I wouldn’t recommend more than 2 nights here, you can see most of the sights in just a day and a half (focus on the Khmer Rouge genocide sights if that is of interest). I never really felt unsafe in Asia, but PP was probably the closest I felt to being creeped out walking around at night.

My last night in PP there was a car accident in front of my hostel – this felt like a sign that it was time to GET OUT OF THERE!

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In general, a few things to consider before going to Cambodia:

  • One of the first things I noticed about Cambodia is that it is very, very poor (not unlike Laos). Avoid giving the begging children money (or buying them food) – this just continues the cycle of them skipping school to be on the street making money for their family.
  • Take some time to learn about the Cambodian genocide before you arrive, especially if you are planning to visit the Killing Fields or any of the other sites related to Khmer Rouge. The genocide ended in 1979 and its’ effects are still felt today (most notably by the ‘missing generation’ of people – 25% of the population was killed during the genocide). While I didn’t love PP, I am glad I came here to learn more about the genocide.
  • Cambodia has its own currency – the Riel – but they primarily use US Dollars. Riel is used for change (in place of coins) and doesn’t hold much value.
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so much currency

Getting There and Around: I arrived in PP by boat from Vietnam, though it’s also easy to take a bus from Vietnam or elsewhere in Cambodia. The road between PP and Siem Reap is nice; apparently, the bus ride from Kampot to PP was not so nice, I heard. You can also fly directly to PP from Siem Reap, Thailand (Bangkok), Laos, or Vietnam (HCMC). I really enjoyed taking the boat – I ended up meeting a woman from Chicago that I chatted with the entire time. I’d suggest sitting outside if you can grab a seat – the inside of the boat is a bit stuffy and you can’t really see much from the small windows. The boat leaves around 7:30 from Chau Doc (the only reason to go to Chau Doc is to take this boat) and arrives in PP around 1 pm. This includes stopping at immigration in both Vietnam and Cambodia (you can buy some snacks/drinks at the Vietnamese office). There is also a little snack bag included with the boat ticket.

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less than exciting views from our speedboat

PP is walkable and it is also easy to grab a tuk-tuk if you want a ride somewhere. Just make sure you sort out prices ahead of time – some of these drivers will ask a lot more than they should.

Where to Stay: I stayed in a hostel (One Stop Hostel) just across from where the boat docked which was super convenient when I arrived. However, I quickly learned that it was also quite near the Red Light district (not a problem, just something to be aware of). This area is a bit north of the main area of town – there were some restaurants and bars nearby, but it was a bit of a walk to some of the sights in town. I heard that the area near the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a decent area to stay – not close to other sights, however, but not really as seedy.

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the Red Light district in PP

Things to Do:

  • Take a walk along the riverfront – this is actually quite a nice area to walk around, especially toward the evening when it gets a little cooler.
  • Meta House – Cultural center that has nightly movie screenings and other events (free!). I came here one night to see some films re: the Khmer Rouge – really cool space. They have a bar as well. Check out their website to see what is happening while you are in town
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The stupa at the Killing Fields
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the audio tour is heavy, but it provides a lot of information about what went on here

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  • Killing Fields – Though it’s quite sad, I would highly recommend visiting the Killing Fields along with the genocide museum. It makes for a heavy morning, but it really brings the realities of Cambodia’s dark history to life. 
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the hallways at S21

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rules posted at S21
  • S21 / Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Along with the Killing Fields, you must come here if that is all you do in PP. While I really didn’t like this city, I was glad I was able to come here and learn more about the genocide as I knew next to nothing before I arrived.
  • Check out Wat Phnom either in the evening for sunset or early in the day.
  • The night market was a bit disappointing (or maybe I’ve seen too many night markets).
  • National Museum – Skip it. I felt swindled out of $10. The museum has some interesting things (and it’s a beautiful space), but it’s pretty small and hot and not worth the cost.
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staying cool in the shade at the National Museum
  • Palace – You must be dressed appropriately to visit the palace. Wearing a scarf over your shoulders is not allowed – you must have sleeves covering your shoulders. I was not dressed right because I only had a scarf so I skipped it. Also $10.

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Eating/Drinking:

  • I wasn’t totally blown away by Cambodian food, especially after being in Vietnam. If you like fish, definitely try Amok which is fish cooked in a coconut milk sauce, served in a banana leaf with rice. Lok Lok (beef) is another popular local dish, but I never tried it.
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amok
  • There are a bunch of restaurants and bars along the main street in town (just parallel to the waterfront). Most of these places seem the same with similar prices and menus.
  • Brown Coffee – A higher-end coffee chain, but worth it for a quick stop and powerful AC.
  • Hummus House – Lebanese restaurant, next door to my hostel. I ate here twice – yummy food and especially good if you are looking for a salad or something similar.

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  • Sugar and Spice cafe – I didn’t come here, but it’s supposedly very good. And the profits go towards supporting Daughters of Cambodia organization
  • Friends – Another restaurant with a cause. It’s a bit more expensive, but supposed to be very good
  • Kabbas – Great little local restaurant that is a bit cheaper but very good. Highly recommend! I came here twice.
  • David’s Homemade Noodles – Came recommended if you are looking for noodles. After a month in Vietnam, I was on a noodle break.
  • A few other places (for food and cocktails) that were highly rated, but I never made it to – Harry’s, Malis, Meat & Drink, Bassac Lane

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4 Comments

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  1. Bookmarked your article 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really appreciate your honesty in this post. It’s refreshing. My friend is working in PP at an NGO at the moment and she has had mixed experiences, although does seem to generally enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

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