Explore Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh got us really surprised when we saw the luxury on the streets. During our time in Thailand, we really thought we would go to a much more poorer place when making plans about Phnom Penh. Our minds changed when we reached the city after passing the border and rural landscape.
After dropping our stuff at the hostel, we decided to have a walk in the city center at 8pm. We felt like there was not much around, most of the food was finished, we had a small snack and went back to our hostel.
Our impression of Phnom Penh
As much as the rural areas looked poor, Phnom Penh looked very rich to us.The national currency is Riel but is almost never used for showing prices. Even a pineapple you buy on the street is sold in USD. The fast growing tourism sector has a big influence on this. After textile, the biggest part of the economy relies on tourism. With this, the minimum price for even the smallest things is 1 USD. The USD rate is stable for 4-5 years (1 USD – 4.000 Riel).
The next day, we were even more surprised when we saw a lot of 4×4 jeeps on the streets. According to somebody we spoke who lives there, it’s not very hard to purchase a big car, we are not sure though. There is a serious gap between the rich and poor. The government is happy with external investors. During the last decade the government made it legally easier to invest in the country.
We saw a lot of Europeans and Americans working in Phnom Penh. With foreigners living in the city, a lot of foreign brands have come too. We saw big known fast food chains on the streets. Next to this, there are a lot of luxurious Asian and European restaurants and clubs.
Transport is easy in Phnom Penh, because the city is build in grid system and is flat. Cycling is a good way to move around. But with rush hours there can be a lot of scooters and its good to be careful.
The reason for us to be in Phnom Penh was to apply for the Vietnam visa. The embassies are near the city center and relatively close to each other. We preferred walking after getting ripped off a few times by the tuk tuk drivers. It takes maximum 1 hour to get somewhere around the city by walking. If you prefer the tuk tuk but don’t want to be ripped off we suggest to use the ‘Pass App’ application. This way you will at least pay a decent price.
All prices in the markets are in USD and simple items can be expensive. It’s the same for small shops on the streets. You need to have bargain skills in Phnom Penh. Locals don’t pay the same amounts as the foreigners. The people don’t speak much English. Even the younger ones are very closed. When you ask a question you might need to insist to get a reply.
Phnom Penh has a lot to offer for street food. There is a food stall on every corner. Noodle soup, Lort Cha (Khmer noodle), spring rolls and a lot of fried meat can be found. Usually the little restaurants and food stalls start round midday and last till 7/8 pm. There is a night market in the city center where you can find food till the late hours.
One of the best things for us was the chicken noodle soup. We especially recommend to eat it at the food section of the Russian market. Next to this we liked Lort Cha very much. It’s a cheap and an easy dish you can find all day.
Drinks are very cheap in Cambodia as well. The happy hours of bars last long. You can find draft beer for 0.50 USD from 10am to 7pm. Foreign liquor brands can be found for good prices in markets.
Transport and accommodation
Because Phnom Penh is located in the middle of the country, it is easy to travel to other cities and neighbor countries by land. You can reach Thailand, Laos and Vietnam easily by bus. Traveling to Siem Reap costs round 7/8 USD and if you like to travel to the surrounding countries that would cost round 20 USD. You can purchase bus tickets from most hostels. Still it is wise to ask for prices to a few travel agencies and hostels before purchasing. Busses and minivans have air-conditioning and are not too bad for long travels.
There are lot of hostels and guesthouses in the city center. Budget hostel prices (dorm) are round 5 USD and if you prefer a private room that would cost round 8/10 USD.
What to do in Phnom Penh?
The palace is one of the main attractions of Phnom Penh. The building has Khmer style roofs and looks like the palace in Bangkok. Not all parts are open for the public. If you wish to enter the palace you must dress properly, meaning wearing clothes that cover up the body.
Phnom Penh national museum
With its impressive building, the national museum is located near the Royal palace and contains a lot of Khmer sculptures. You can find Hindu gods and a lot of buddhas in the museum. The opening hours are from 8.00am until 5.00pm daily and the entrance fee is 10 USD.
This museum is not for the faint-hearted. The building used to be a high school which was later turned into a prison, where estimated 17.000 people where tortured and killed. The opening hours are from 7.00am until 5.30pm daily and the entrance fee is 2 USD.
If you can handle the genocide museum, you might want to see the killing fields as well to get the full picture. There are remains of prisoners, mass graves and maybe one of the most shocking items: the collection of 8.000 skulls behind clear glass. The killing fields are located 15km south-west of Phnom Penh. You can go there by tuk tuk. The total ride will cost round 20 USD.
The night market is located in a touristic area and therefor can get crowded. There are small shops and food stalls located on a big area. The small shops sell clothes, footwear and similar items and at the food stalls you can find all Cambodian dishes. There is an open area in the middle of the market where you can sit down and enjoy your food.
You can reach the Central market by a 10 minute walk from the center. It’s located in a big passage and exists of small shops. In the middle section you can find sunglasses and jewelry and at the sides you can find electronics, clothes and footwear. Don’t pay the first price they tell you, with a little bargain they are willing to lower the price to half.
The Russian market is very chaotic. The paths are very small and in some sections there is a dominant meat smell. You might feel like you want to throw yourself out of there from time to time. Still it’s definitely worth a visit. You can find a lot of fresh, fruits and vegetables. Some other things you can find are: small equipment, electronics, meat and food. Don’t forget to try the chicken noodle soup and spring rolls at the food section.