2016 Phnom Penh city guide for newbie expats: travel essentials; expenses; sightseeing; bars and restaurants; accommodation and rentals; Phnom Penh gyms. Learn everything you need in a single read.
In contrast to the frenetic megalopolis that is Bangkok, Phnom Penh is small and rickety, with a relaxed air of old Asia. It is a compact city without skyscrapers, just a handful of shopping malls, and smiling people everywhere. It is flat and easy to navigate by bicycle, scooter or tuk-tuk.
Expat scene: Phnom Penh has a small but vibrant expat community that is made up of NGO workers, English teachers, sexpats and exiles. In addition, there is a regular flow of short-time tourists passing through, which adds a festive flavor to the mix.
Phnom Penh locals: locals are surprisingly friendly, considering that most are desperately poor. It is not uncommon to see entire families sleeping rough. Many tuk-tuk drivers live in their vehicles and only eat when they get fares. Minimum wage is $128 monthly by law, but much less in practice.
Phnom Penh Travel Essentials
For detailed visa information, check out the Traveler Essentials section of our Introduction to Cambodia guide.
- Peak season: November-February is cool and sunny.
- Hot season: March-July is sweltering and humid.
- Rainy season: July-October has lots of rain in short bursts that floods the streets.
Flying into Phnom Penh
By air, there are daily flights into Phnom Penh Airport (PNH) from all major regional airports (Bangkok, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Taipei) as well as from Luang Prabang in Laos. The terminal has ATMs, money changes, and 3G SIM cards for sale.
Cambodia uses a dual-currency system: the local currency, the riel, is used interchangeably with the US dollar. You can pay for everything – and receive change – in either currency. Larger sums are typically quoted in dollars, smaller amounts in riel. Most cities have ATMS that accept foreign cards and disperse in US dollars.
SIM Cards & Google Maps
If you purchase a 3G SIM card to use with your smartphone, the Google Maps app with GPS tracking works wonderfully in Phnom Penh. Immediately past customs at the airport are a selection of SIM providers. When buying SIM cards beware that sellers will charge as much as you’re willing to believe. Cellcard SIMS are popular with expats, and cost $10 ($5 for the card, $5 for a month of service).
Getting from the airport to the city
The airport is 11km from the city center. Taxis from the official taxi stand at the airport costs a flat US$10. Alternatively, there are always many tuk-tuk drivers hanging around outside the terminal, willing to haggle down (in low season) to $5 into town.
Getting Around the City
Phnom Penh is a small flat city with most locations within 10 minutes of each other. Traffic looks chaotic, but there is an order to it which is easy to get into the flow of.
- By taxi: except from the airport, sedan taxis do not ply the streets and are usually only available by reservation.
- By tuk-tuk/ moto-taxi: hordes of desperate drivers lurk all over the city hassling pedestrians incessantly. Most places you will want to go are within 10 minutes of each other, which should cost a maximum of $3.
- By scooter: many places near the riverside rent scooters. Be warned that if you don’t have an international driver’s license, the cops will catch you.
- By bicycle: Phnom Penh is flat snd easy to cycle. Using Google maps GPS on your smartphone makes navigation a breeze. An added bonus is that there are no rules for bikes here, free reign to zip through traffic, onto sidewalks, and down the wrong sides of the street.
Leaving Phnom Penh by Bus
Phnom Penh lacks a central bus station, but has many smaller ones run by private companies. Any guesthouse will hook you up with bus tickets for a fee, or else you can buy directly from the company of your choosing. Two popular options with expats are Capitol Tours and Giant Ibis.
- To Poipet (Thai border): the main overland route to Bangkok takes 5 hours and costs $8.
- To Ho Chi Minh City: this trip takes 6 hours and costs $10
- To Siem Reap: half of the road is unpaved. Take the Giant Ibis night bus with a valium (9 hours, $15) and arrive fresh and rested. Take the day bus and suffer.
- To Sihanoukville: a smooth 4 hour drive along a paved national highway through countryside. Capitol sells one-way tickets for $8 – stick a bike in the hold for an extra $3.
Phnom Penh expenses and income potential
A broad look at expected costs for visitors to Phnom Penh (converted to $USD):
|Item||Phnom Penh||Ho Chi Minh City||Bangkok|
|Gasoline (per gallon)||$1.28||$1.04||$1.07|
|Local bottled beer||$1.10||$0.89||$2.17|
- Guesthouse dorm bed: $5.00
- Street cafe meal: $4.00
- Local draft beer in a restaurant: .50¢
- 3-star aircon hotel: $30
- Foreign cuisine restaurant meal: $10
- Bottle of imported beer: $3
The biggest expense for most people will be alcohol – per-unit prices are cheap, but add up fast!
- NGO Management: $4-6,000 monthly
- ESL teacher: $800 monthly
- International School Teacher: $1,800 monthly
- Expat Bartender: $500-700 monthly
- Minimum local wage: $128 monthly
- Local construction workers: $80 monthly
- Local Drivers: $85 monthly
Keep in mind that the legal minimum wage is $128 per month – the sheer amount of urban migration ensures that many get haggled down to working for less.
Advice: prepare for endless pleas for money: tuk-tuk drivers will constantly call after you while kids and haggard moms hassle you on the sidewalks. Try to be firm and kind while considering that you’re in the 3rd-poorest country in Asia.
On holiday, those accustomed to rigid schedules may discover a void – lots of free time to spend, and no real structure in place on how to spend it.
The easiest way to fill that void is to drink beer all day.
The next easiest method is to take day-trips. Even though admiring statues and staring at paintings may not be what you consider interesting back home, the adventure of getting there at least gives you something to do – and a means of interacting with the city beyond the bars.
The Khmer Rouge memorials are well worth checking out, but in Planet Asia’s experience, the big tourist sites (like the Royal Palace) are a drag – hot and crowded, with touts and beggars hassling relentlessly. If you must, check out Tripadvisor’s Phnom Penh tourist attractions for an exhaustive list.
Below is a summary of the main spots.
- Central Market: this city landmark contains a decent selection of knockoff electronics, t-shirts,luggage and souvenirs.
- National Museum: just across from the Royal Palace, this building contains a collection of ancient artifacts and statues.
- Wat Phnom: at the center of a small park near the riverside, the temple marks the founding of Phnom Penh. The park itself is a popular gathering place for locals, and also a magnet four touts flogging elephant rides, knick-knacks and fortune-telling services.
- Independence Monument: this landmark, which commemorates the departure of the French in 1953, is at a main traffic hub and thus dominates the center of the city. There are two large parks nearby that serve as a popular chill-space for locals during evenings.
- Riverside: cultural sites and dozens of pubs, restaurants and shops line the riverfront. The Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and National Museum are within walking distance, while between streets 178 and 240 are dozens of bars, pubs and restaurants. Strolling along the riverside is a popular way to catch some evening breeze, while street 178 is known as “Art Street” because of the several art galleries that all seem to sell the same generic prints.
- Killing Fields: located 15km southwest of the city, this particular site is where 17,000 men, women and children were interrogated, tortured and killed.
- Toul Sleng Genocide Museum: this high school was converted into an interrogation center during the Khmer Rouge era and into a museum after peace was restored. Thousands of photos and torture devices make up the majority of items on display.
Bars & Restaurants
There are four main areas that cater to expats in Phnom Penh: Street 172 (backpacker joints); Street 278 (backpacker cafes, nightclubs, international cuisine), Street 51 (sexpat bars, nightclubs, street food) and the riverside area (beer bars, lady bars, live music, backpacker cafes, local food).
Moving forward, rely on listings, or else stroll around one of the four areas and see what catches your fancy. If you want complete listings:
- PhnomPenhNightlife.com gives a complete rundown of what’s on in the city.
- For standard dining options, try Tripadvisor’s Phnom Penh restaurant listings
- For interesting local delicacies, check out the Phnom Penh Post’s 2014 Cheap eats in Phnom Penh
- For high-end local and international cuisines, check out the the Rusty Compass list of Phnom Penh high-end dining options
In backpacker joints, expect similar fare across the board: pizzas, curries, noodles, pastas, English breakfasts, etc.
Most NGO offices and international schools are in the BKK1 area. There are a few backpacker places there, and also a wide selection of more expensive drinking and dining options, with prices similar to what you would pay in the west.
Recommended nightlife spots
Although it does not compare to Bangkok, Phnom Penh offers a variety of ladybars, nightclubs and backpacker joints that throw some surprisingly kicking parties. The majority of local expats are women, while sex workers are legion. In most places, males can expected to a vastly outnumbered. Planet Asia picks:
- Clubbing on Street 51: the main sexpat drag also has two pumping clubs among the ladybars: Pontoon goes every night until dawn and draws a lot of affluent young Cambodians. Gunfights are not unheard of, but in general, the $3 drinks are quality and big-name DJs often make appearances. Hear of Darkeness is just a short walk from here and draws sex workers, backpackers and expats on two floors pumping ear-slitting top-40 pop songs. If you need a break from the loud music, Howie’s Bar is a legendary dive with lively late-night crowds getting smashed.
- Live music bars: Sharkey’s has pool tables, live music, open mics and sex workers; Irish pub Paddy Rice hosts open mics every Thursday in a scenic riverside location; the FCC has interesting live gigs most weekend evenings.
- Backpacker hangouts: Mad Monkey Phnom Penh offers tours and regular social events (such as free keg nights). Blue Dog Hostel is located nearby; they cater to backpackers on a smaller scale, thus offering a more intimate means of getting connected. A few minutes away from Blue Dog is Top Banana, the end-point for many backpacker pub crawls organized in the area.
Phnom Penh Shopping
A great thing about Cambodia is that it has not yet been ravaged by consumerism. If shopping malls and consumer diversions are your thing, Phnom Penh pales in comparison to Bangkok:
|H&M clothing stores||4||0|
For westerners, shopping in Phnom Penh is for souvenirs or necessities – the closest luxuries are in Bangkok. Phnom Penh’s main offerings are local markets, supermarkets, convenience stores, boutiques and niche shops. If you want complete listings, check Visit-Mekong.com.
Planet Asia picks:
- Central Market: built in 1937, this features a huge central dome with four wings extending outwards lined with shopping stalls. The purpose of the design is to provide a ventilated commercial center protected against heat and rain. Today the market offers quality knockoff clothing, electronics, souvenirs and jewelry (Tripadvisor reviews).
- Local Markets: there are several local markets around the city offering fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Be warned that some sellers take pleasure in overcharging foreigners.
- Russian Market: west of the city center, this has the requisite knockoff t-shirts and souvenirs, plus a large selection of DVDs and Buddha statues. (Tripadvisor reviews)).
- Supermarkets: Lucky Supermarkets has 5 locations and offers a good range of western and Asian products. Pencil Supercenter is chaotically organized, but offers a decent selection of meats and imported canned goods. Bayon Supermarket has the best selection of cereals in town and a huge array of Singaporean, Korean and Japanese items, but a limited meat and vegetable section.
Accommodation in Phnom Penh
There are many hotels in town that cater to foreign travelers, ranging from $100 nightly 5-star hotels to $5 dorm beds. The easiest place to land from the airport is along street 172 – it’s near the riverside, every driver knows it, and it’s packed with cheap guesthouses.
For a good listing of cheap options in this area, run your parameters through the Hostelworld search engine.
Those looking for long-term options can research on the very active Phnom Penh housing Facebook group or check local adverts on Phnompenh.com. Shared houses rent for as little as $150 monthly, while private units range from $250 to $700 monthly.
Physical Fitness in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has everything needed for fitness freaks to remain lean and strong. Open-air Khmer gyms are all over the city (ask a local), but most are very hot and dusty. Conversely, western-class gyms are expensive ($50-$150 monthly) but well worth the expense for new equipment, air conditioning, steam and sauna rooms and outdoor pools. For all western-class options, check out Travelfish’s Gyms in Phnom Penh or this Keeping Fit in Phnom Penh article.
As most expats live in the BK1 area or near the Riverside, two gyms stand out, because of their locations:
For those near the Riverside, the Cambodiana Physiqe Club has 5-star amenities and a huge outdoor pool overlooking the Mekong River ($50-75 monthly, depending on the length purchased).
NGO office workers and international school teachers tend to frequent The Place, a high-end European-run outfit with all the trimmings and astronomical prices ($150 monthly)
For health foods, Artillery Cafe stocks quinoa and organic meats, while many of the convenience stores in town sell organic brown rice, dried beans, unsweetened yogurt and whole-grain breads as part of their regular stock.
For tourists, Phnom Penh is essentially a transit point onwards to Sihanoukville or Siem Reap. Exploring the sights and nightlife should satisfy for a couple of days, but not much more.
Phnom Penh’s real appeal is as an expat base: visas are easy to procure, the cost of living is cheap, the locals are friendly and the city is easy to get around.