Phnom Penh – First Impressions

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Last Updated on April 26, 2024 by Audrey Scott

During out first night in Phnom Penh, two bank guards shared their dinner with us after we showed curiosity in what they were eating. They invited us to take a few bites, told us the name of the dish in Khmer, and indicated how much we should pay for the dish to avoid being ripped off. Not quite what we were expected from a city from which we heard reports of “dark and dangerous.”

Street Garbage - Phnom Penh
Side Street Chaos – Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh’s streetscape had a different feel from what we had seen in Vietnam and Laos. It exhibited a South Asian feel with street markets, garbage heaps, people and transport all jumbled together in odd spaces. Dirt roads run right into well-paved and polished city streets while spiffy government/NGO SUVs share space adjacent to garbage scavenger cycles burdened with trash. Wealth and poverty stand juxtaposed, in the first act of a multi-act play whose ending has yet to be written.

There is a strong foreign NGO and expatriate presence in Phnom Penh, indicating that large amounts of donor money currently flow into the country. Unlike Vientiane, this cash doesn’t dominate the feel of the city, save a neighborhood or two. Refreshingly, Phnom Penh seems to retain its Cambodian-ness.

Several Cambodian organizations run social enterprises such as restaurants or beauty salons employing street kids who have gone through skills training programs. Patronizing these types of businesses is a good way to learn more about existing social and economic problems, while contributing to the cause.

Royal Palace

Royal Palace – Phnom Penh
Royal Palace – Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts – we spent our first at the sobering Tuol Sleng museum and the next day at the beautiful and perfectly manicured Royal Palace. Tuol Sleng showed Cambodia at its bleakest, while the Royal Palace showed it at its most opulent.

The grounds of the Royal Palace were some of the most attractive we had seen in Southeast Asia. The bigger temples in the Royal Palace have all the gilt, shine and fame, but we preferred the smaller ones where local people prayed and made offerings for the coming Chinese New Year.

Burning For Luck

Burning Fake Money - Phnom Penh
Burning for Good Luck in the New Year – Phnom Penh

As Chinese New Year approached and passed, we spied altars in living rooms and shops decorated with everything from smoked chickens to flowers. In addition to the placement of odd bits on altars and spirit houese, locals get fired up by burning fake $100 bills, paper business suits, paper mobile phones, and paper houses. The idea: if you burn the paper representation, then you have a better chance of getting it in the new year. It got us thinking…what would we burn?

Phnom Penh – Lasting Impressions

We spent our last evening in Phnom Penh at Boeng Kak Lake, enjoying inexpensive gin and tonics and fish curry while watching the sun set over the lake and city. A peaceful and beautiful end to our stay in Phnom Penh. We were pleasantly surprised by Phnom Penh and could have easily stayed longer.

Photo Essay – Streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation, Food and Activities

  • How to get there: By boat from Saigon or by plane from Bangkok (Air Asia), Saigon or other neighboring countries.
  • Where to stay: Golden Bridge Hotel – clean, air-conditioned rooms for $13-$15/night in an area near the Independence Monument. The free laundry is a really nice perk, especially after the Mekong Delta tour. Run by a nice family. Address: No 7CD, Road 278, Sangkat Beng Keng Kang 1, [email protected], +855 023-721396/7
  • Where to eat: For a fix of really good huevos rancheros (rare in this part of the world), visit Jungle Bar on the riverfront. Inexpensive and good curries are on offer at guesthouses at Boeng Kak Lake.
  • What to do: Spend an afternoon wandering around the temples and grounds of the Royal Palace. For a window on Cambodia's recent history, visit Tuol Sleng for a sobering, but important afternoon.
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

4 thoughts on “Phnom Penh – First Impressions”

  1. Absolutely, Phnom Penh at first glance seems hectic, disorderly and out of control. I was overwhelmed by the amount of mopeds and their crazy driving skills. Everyone seemed like they were in such a rush to get somewhere. I remember being scared to cross the street in fear of getting hit. But after spending a few days there and learning how things operated it only seems this way on the front end. Yes Phnom Penh is like any other major city. It has its attributes of class and luster as well its levels of poverty.

  2. @Michael: Isn’t it amazing how after a few days in a place all that seemed different or crazy at the beginning becomes “normal.” I’m curious how Phnom Penh may have changed since our visit in early 2007.

  3. Boeung Kak Lake is mostly gone. The lake was pumped to create land for new development. Thousands of families and small businesses were evicted.

    In 2007, when you were there, the development scheme was already on the books and the first indications of coming evictions were evident. However, most people did not understand what they would mean.

    Today, this is perhaps the most famous eviction case in Cambodia because of a small group of courageous and outspoken women activists, who have gone to jail repeatedly and who are still seeking just remedies.

    According to rights groups, an estimated 700,000 people have been affected by land grabs and other land conflicts in Cambodia since the early 2000s.

    • This is so truly sad, Terry. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us and update our community. We’d heard a little about this a few years ago, but had no idea the extent of development and displacement it would mean in Phnom Penh.


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