As we approach the end of our two months in Southeast Asia, we’ve arrived at our last new country in the region: Cambodia. I feel a bit bad for my assessment on Cambodia because it comes on the heels of Vietnam, a country we absolutely adored. Vietnam was right up there with Seoul as far as places that immediately store our hearts. But we aren’t in the business of staying in one place for too long, so we packed our bags and were ready to see what Cambodia had to offer!
We arrived in Phnom Penh via plane from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was our shortest flight of this trip, clocking only 29 minutes wheels up to wheels down, but the alternative was a 7+ hour bus ride through the mountains. For us, the cheap flight was preferred.
It took us a minute to get a handle on Phnom Penh. On our first night at about 6 PM, we took a left from our hotel. We walked for a mile through oddly empty streets, closed shops and lots of trash. It just felt quiet, dirty and kind of like we didn’t belong. We eventually made our way to the riverfront (Sisowath Quay), where we did uncover a central area alive with bars and restaurants (and a strange sex strip, more on that below).
Had we turned right, as we would do the next day, we would have discovered a small side street filled with trendy cocktail bars, modern western restaurants and a busy main street decorated with lots of New Year’s lights.
While this sounds like maybe we just got lost, and maybe we should have known to take a different path, it actually just sums up the organization of this city. It’s a place that still seems to be searching for it’s identity, especially when it comes to tourist appeal. The more we walked around the city today, the more we discovered tiny side streets and backed alleys that were filled with cool bars, local shops and nice restaurants. It’s just that these tiny commerce bubbles are so spread out and hidden. There’s no real central area or great way to even find these little pockets.
And we get it. The fact that this city has tourists at all is nothing short of a victory for this extremely poor country coming off an absolutely brutal recent past. Only since the 90s have the people of Cambodia worked to develop their tourism industry and it’s hard to give the country too hard of a time. As we make our way to Siem Reap (home to the heavily touristed Angkor Wat), I’m interested to see if and how our perceptions of the country change. (Update after getting to Siem Reap: We actually love Siem Reap as a city! We think you should probably just skip Phnom Penh of give it like, a day.)
We’re not in the country for long, just about 1 week, but we’re glad to have the chance to learn about this country and are excited to be a part of it’s new future. We hope to see Cambodia continue to draw tourists on the Southeast Asia circuit and to continue to grow and develop as it comes into its own.
Our Cambodia Travel Route
- Phnom Penh
- Siem Reap (where you’ll find Angkor Wat)
First Impressions on Cambodia
- The streets are so quiet. The first thing we noticed was that the rush of motorbikes that we’d finally grown to love so much was gone. There are motor bikes here, of course, but it’s nothing compared to the constant zipping and packed streets of Vietnam. We miss the chaos! Crossing a street with a walk sign seems so boring to us now!
- The country is poor and their recent history is heartbreaking. When you come to Phnom Penh, the genocide museum and the killing fields are required viewing. If you don’t know about the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, I HIGHLY recommend this documentary on Pol Pot, the brutal dictator who orchestrated the systematic and brutal murder of 1-3 million Cambodians (nearly 1 of every 4 people in the country). The killings ended in 1979 but the Khmer Rouge regime remained in control (with help from the US) until 1999. The country is rebuilding, but still remains one of the poorest countries in the world (152 out 187 lowest GDP per capita – source).
- There’s a weird (and honestly sad & disturbing) sex scene. After we found the riverside area, we took a turn down a street that looked like an extension of the riverfront bars. There were lots of bright lights and balcony seating, and we thought, let’s check it out. We quickly realized that the street was lined with sex clubs with blacked out doors and silhouettes of naked girls. We decided to get a drink at a sports bar on the corner and found it filled with men drinking alone or old men with much younger women. While if these were just strip clubs, I wouldn’t have as much an issue with this (I’m not here to judge), but there’s an unsettling cloud that hangs over this type of activity in Cambodia, a country known for sex trafficking, specifically child sex trafficking. I don’t what happened behind those doors, but I think it’s important to be aware of the issue before engaging with it.
What you need to know — Cambodia:
- Population: Phnom Penh — 1.5 million | Siem Reap — 200,000
- Altitude: Phnom Penh — 12 meters | Siem Reap — 18 meters
- Exchange Rate: 4,000 riel to $1 USD but everything here is in USD (when you pay if either currency, you’ll often get your change in mixed denominations of USD and riel)
- Primary Language: Khmer & English
- Walking Tour: Nope
- Time Zone: Indochina Time Zone, UTC +7 (13 hours ahead of US Central Time)
- Taxi: Yes, plus little tuk tuk taxis
- Uber: Yes, plus PassApp, which is essentially tuk tuk Uber and that’s super fun!
- Public Transit: Buses only in Phnom Penh, none in Siem Reap
- Emergency Number: 012 999 999
- Running: One day we’ll run again …
- American Football: YES! We’re in Siem Reap for the Super Bowl and there are lots of local bars opening their doors at 5AM with breakfast and drink specials for the game which is on at 6:30 AM local time. We’re planning on going to Belmiro’s, where they’re offering all you can eat and drink for $18 USD. (That’s crazy expensive in a town where beer is $0.50 and meals are $3.50, but we sometimes still think in USD in which case it’s totally worth it!
- Starbucks: Yes. A really cool one in Phnom Penh and just one in Siem Reap.
- Local Starbucks Specialty: Yes! They have an Okinawa Brown Sugar Latte and it was delicious.
- McDonald’s Veggie Burger: There’s no McDonald’s in Cambodia (crazy, right?)
- Coffee Price: Iced lattes at a cafe were $2 USD and cold brew was $3.50 USD (actually USD, I’m not converting for you. USD is the main currency here and we hate it.)
- Beer Price: You can get a draft of local beer, Angkor or Cambodia, for only $0.50 – $0.75 during happy hour and about $1-$1.50 regular price. Cocktails range from $1 – $3.