Phnom Penh Travel guide (Part 1)
Unlike most international capitals, Phnom Penh is not much of a gateway. It is very easy to see much of what Cambodia has to offer and never set foot in Phnom Penh. Until very recently it was actually pretty difficult to get there. Now the roads are much improved and some international carriers are flying there. Thai Air, Bangkok Airways, Lao Airlines, Silk Air and Air France have offices in Phnom Penh.
Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh
Nonetheless, many people give Phnom Penh a miss, preferring to spend their limited time and money at Angkor Wat or in neighboring countries. If you only have a few days in Cambodia, by all means spend them in Angkor Wat – you’ll need at least two or three full days there.
Then if you have a few more days, visit the Cardamon or ElephantMountains and the Tonle Sap for a bit of activity. Finally, if time allows, spend a few days in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh is at the junction of three rivers—the Sap, Mekong, and Bassac. This strategic location has always ensured the city a place, both good and bad, in history.
Cambodia has been at war, or the victim of others’ wars, for many years, and it shows.
The infrastructure is crumbling, the people look underfed, children are too often sold into slavery, and petty thievery at knife-point is all too common. In the 1950s, only about 100,000 people lived in the city. Now the number is about 1,000,000.
Following the Paris Peace accords in 1991, the brutal regime of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the killing fields was ended, but the coup in 1998 was “déjà vu all over again” and the fledgling capitalists and their international backers once again fled the country.
The investors have been slowly returning, but few are willing to commit to the country’s long-term future right away.
As a result, Thai investors are filling the gap, and Phnom Penh is beginning to look like a small version of Bangkok. One way to see just how strong the Thai influence is? Take a look at the cars and ubiquitous pick-up trucks. Despite being surrounded on all sides by countries that drive on the right, with left-hand drive vehicles, the majority of vehicles are right-hand drive. This is both a safety issue and a legal one. Technically these vehicles are not legal, but the government looks the other way unless it is convenient not to do so. If you decide to rent a vehicle in Cambodia, make sure it is a left-hand drive.
If you get sick or hurt, it is best to try to get to Thailand if you need serious care. Don’t go to a Cambodia hospital or clinic. If you have absolutely no choice, go to your embassy or consulate and throw yourself on their mercy. Pharmacies will dispense almost anything here (such as antibiotics) without a prescription. Make sure you know what you are taking and that it is not expired. The electricity and plumbing also leave a lot to be desired. Make sure your hotel has a generator or you may spend lots of time in the dark with no running water.
Watch your stuff and be careful of police – they have been known to accost and rob tourists, then walk away.
You might enjoy walking. You can cycle, but you are taking a big risk. Still, many hotels and street-side kiosks will rent bikes.
You can rent cars. Ask at your hotel. Vehicles are not well-maintained. Scooter drivers are glad to offer you a lift for a few dollars.
Taxis don’t want to use meters. You’ll only find metered taxis outside the big hotels.
Buses are cheap, but make sure you get on the right one. Ask at your hotel to get the bus number and tell the driver where you need to go.
Where to Eat
If the choices are too daunting or you want Western European food, there are always the restaurants at the four- and five-star hotels. Otherwise, here are some other options to try. Don’t pass up the bakeries with their wonderful bread and croissants, or the great coffee.
The best food is found in Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese restaurants. There are few Khmer restaurants. Meals are quite reasonable. As with the hotels, new restaurants are cropping up regularly. Ask other travelers for their recommendations, try some of these, or take your chances with a place that looks good. Most places have English menus with fairly accurate translations so at least you’ll know what you’re getting.
Even if the restaurant is only a few blocks from your hotel it is an excellent idea to take a taxi or let your hotel arrange transportation. Even in groups it is not a good idea to walk around the streets of Phnom Penh after dark.
What to See & Do in Phnom Penh : The Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum,…
Pictures of the Royal Palace
and the Silver Pagoda
What to See & Do around Phnom Penh : Kirirom National Park, Mekong cruise,…
Map of Phnom Penh
City Guide homepage
Cambodia travel guide homepage