Phnom Penh

The Silver Pagoda, in the grounds of the Royal Palace.

Phnom Penh, at the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap Rivers, is the capital of Cambodia and its largest city.

Understand

Despite being liberated from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese in 1979, Phnom Penh has long remained a bit rough. Things are improving, though roads remain shabby, traffic chaotic, and electricity strained.

The city is slowly gaining high rise buildings and traffic lights. The beauty that made it a "Paris of the East" before 1970 is unfortunately well hidden, though a few French colonial buildings remain. The wide boulevards and promenades envisaged by the French have become parking spaces and market stalls: pedestrians are not in favour.

The most pleasant strolling is to be done along the park-like river front, which hosts cafés and restaurants aplenty. Standard tourist sights are few, which makes the city a place to relax, watch the street life and absorb the local colour. Phnom Penh is a worthwhile destination for those who enjoy an "edgy" experience and can brave the downsides of reckless driving, noise, dust, and perennial theft.

Touts and beggars abound. A firm but polite refusal should work. Older or disabled beggars will be happy to accept 500 riel. Bear in mind that anyone old enough to have survived the Khmer Rouge has had a tough life. Generosity here is no bad thing. Some older people may even invoke a blessing on you for your gift. Cocky young kids demanding a dollar should not be encouraged.

The weather is hot and humid, with showers in the late afternoon in the rainy season.

The Buddhist Institute at Phnom Penh
NagaWorld at Phnom Penh
The Cambodian Parliament
The Colonia Mansion at Phnom Penh


History

In 1975 Phnom Penh was choked with up to 2 million refugees from the war between the then US-backed government and the Khmer Rouge. The city fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, who completely emptied it of civilians and allowed it to crumble for several years. The city's small class of skilled or educated professionals was systematically murdered by Pol Pot, or driven into exile.

Cambodia's developing economy and institutionalised corruption have concentrated wealth into a new class of nouveau riche that now frequent Phnom Penh's new fancy hotels and restaurants. Increasing tourist numbers are also bringing about improving tourist infrastructure.

Orientation

All of Phnom Penh's streets are numbered. Some major thoroughfares also have names. The scheme is simple: odd-numbered streets run north-south, the numbers increasing as you head west from the river, and even numbered streets run west-east, increasing as you head south (with some exceptions, e.g., the west side of what was Boeung Kak Lake).

House numbers, however, are quite haphazard. Don't expect houses to be numbered sequentially on a street; you might even find two completely unrelated houses with the same number on the same street.

Get in

See Cambodia | Get in for general information on getting into Cambodia.
See Cambodia | Get in | Visas for detailed visa information.

By plane

Phnom Penh International Airport (IATA: PNH) is the largest airport in Cambodia, 7 km west of the city.

The new terminal is a thoroughly pleasant and modern facility, and features a post office, bank (including ATMs), restaurants, duty-free shop, newsstand, tourist help desk, and business centre.

Taxis from the public taxi stand at the airport cost a flat USD9, and tuk-tuks cost USD7 officially. If you are willing to lug your bags outside the airport fence you can catch a tuk-tuk into town for USD5. While taxis might be a safer option, it's better to avoid them as the drivers are arrogant and tend to not return change. Tuk-tuk drivers are a lot more friendly and more flexible. For visitors on a budget without a lot of luggage, it's worth catching an official motorcycle taxi for USD2.

Duty-free shop prices in Cambodia are horribly inflated. Alcohol and cigarettes cost half as much at shops and supermarkets in the city, like the Lucky Supermarket, so stock up on alcohol (put it in your checked baggage due to liquid restrictions for carry-on baggage) and cigarettes before you come to the airport. For example, 1 l of Absolut Vodka is USD21 at the airport, and USD11 at supermarkets in the city. Electronics are also overpriced, but at least they're the genuine article.

By bus

Cambodia is improving its roads. Since around 2008, asphalt has been blazing trails into unexpected and remote places making for faster, year-round accessibility. The main highways that run on either side of the Tonle Sap from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Battambang, Sisophon and Poipet (for Thailand) are both well-paved and in good condition.

The quality of buses runs the gamut, with the less desirable buses being a few dollars cheaper than more comfortable options. Safety standards are low and crashes (not always reported) are common, both "quality" and "cheapie" buses alike.

Tickets are available at the bus station. Guesthouses and travel agents throughout the city will also arrange tickets for a USD1–2 commission.

Some passengers have experienced valuables being stolen from their luggage when stored out of sight.

International services

Borders are not open 24/7. Some night buses will wait at the border until it opens. If entering Cambodia, watch out for visa scams and avoid the Kumho Samco if coming in from Vietnam.

Buses arriving from Pakse enter the city at night (around 19:30-20:00) via Monivong Ave, leaving tired and emotional travellers prone to being preyed on tuk-tuk touts. Watch out!

Domestic services

Phnom Penh is the domestic transport hub and direct buses run to just about every provincial capital, including far flung town like Pailin, Samraong, Banlung and Sen Monorom. The crowded peasant mover Paramount Angkor specializes in out-of-the-way towns. Avoid it for intercity travel as it's the same price as more genteel companies but does not guarantee a seat.

More frequently visited destinations include:

By boat

Ferries connect Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and usually take 6 hr. Tickets for foreigners cost USD32. Many, but not all, of these ferries offer the option of sitting on the roof, which makes for a much more scenic, albeit less comfortable ride than the bus; take sun block, a hat, and enough water to last you for several hours just in case the boat gets stuck. The boat leaves at 07:30.

Fast boats leave every morning around 08:00 from Chau Doc in Vietnam's Mekong Delta and take 5 hr to reach Phnom Penh. The boats make the return journey the same day and leave Phnom Penh around 13:00, arriving in Chau Doc in the early evening.

There are 3 choices of boat to Chau Doc:

By train

There is a limited freight service running from Kampot to Phnom Penh on the Southern Line.

"Bamboo trains" operate in various towns along the line, though the one most pushed to tourists is just outside Battambang.

Get around

Phnom Penh's main streets are in good shape. Some smaller streets and footpaths are rutted and potholed, clogged with garbage, stagnant water, parked motorbikes, sleeping people, and building materials. Many smaller streets bear either no or misleading signage, however Phnom Penh is logically laid out (see orientation) and navigating is not too difficult.

Tuk-tuk, sir?

Not having a ride will necessarily entail your being pestered for one. Phnom Penh's lack of coordinated public transport gives jobs to many poor provincial immigrants, who badger any pedestrian in the city centre, particularly tourists.

  • Agree a fare in advance. Be clear whether it is for one way or return and in total or per person.
  • Drivers will try to avoid losing face by not admitting ignorance. Therefore, "Do you know where this address is?" will always be answered by "yes". Put it to the test and show a driver a recipe, while claiming it's an address. Be patient and expect the driver to pull over mid-trip to ask passers-by for directions even to the most obvious of destinations.
  • Don't leave possessions exposed to snatchers. Women are often targeted.
  • The tuk-tuk drivers outside the Foreign Correspondent's Club are notoriously pushy and aggressive. Avoid them: walk half a block and hire someone else. If you don't want a lift saying "no thanks" generally works. Better still, try it in Khmer: "otday awkunh".

See

Sisowath Quay as seen from FCC
Royal Palace

France's Cambodian colony was acquired late and largely neglected. Historic, colonial architecture was limited to start with and has largely decayed. The Grand Post Office Building, Central Market and Raffles Le Royal Hotel are notable exceptions. Generally any building in good condition, old or new, will be behind a big big wall and security guards.

Tuol Sleng Prison
The Killing Fields
Wat Phnom

Do

Buy

Kravan House

Popular tourist buys include silk, silverware, handicrafts and curios (including Buddha figures), and made-to-order clothes (which are often of good quality). If you want to support businesses that are noted for supporting Cambodia's culture and heritage, look for the Heritage Friendly Business Logo from Heritage Watch, an organization that promotes the preservation of Cambodia's cultural legacy.

About Money. The Cambodian riel is not used for large purchases. Prices for anything more substantial than a plate of rice will be quoted in US dollars. The Cambodian Central Bank maintains the riel at approximately 3,900–4,100 to the dollar. Be wary if rates are outside this range. Money changers are plentiful near the central market and display their rates on boards.

Only up market places will accept plastic (normally with a 3% surcharge). Changing dollars into riel is generally unnecessary, though the parsimonious will notice a small benefit. Small purchases with notes above USD20 can cause problems, though vendors will manage. Do not worry if a vendor runs off with your large note, they are finding change not robbing you. Torn, damaged, or old series US currency may not be accepted.

There are plenty of ATMs. They dispense US dollars and accept international cards. Canadia Bank and Mekong Bank ATMs were fee-free but no longer as of the end of 2014. Typical charges are $4 or $5. ANZ Royal bank charges USD5 per transaction, max single withdrawal $500. Canadia Bank charges $4, max single withdrawal $400. Union Commercial Bank PLC charges USD4 per transaction. For safety reasons, it's a good idea to use ATMs inside banks when they are open. It also gives the opportunity to ask for smaller notes, such as 20s, 10s and 5s. The Mekong Bank at 220 Sisowath Quay are happy to change big notes to smaller ones or change damaged notes.

Cashing traveller's cheques can be problematic. Even major banks may refuse to exchange traveller's cheques above USD100.

Antiques

The Cambodia Antiquities Law (1996) bans the sale, purchase and export of Cambodian antiques, and since 1999 the US has banned their import. Consequently, most of the "antiques" sold in Cambodia are reproductions.

Books

The pirated books that children will try to sell you for USD5 need to be haggled down (they buy them for USD1). Spend a minute or so leafing through before buying. Quality varies: pages can be in the wrong order or missing, or the book may not be the one described on the cover.

Clothing and accessories

Throughout the city, but especially in the Russian Market, tailors make custom made clothes: A medium quality costs USD12 and a high quality costs USD15.

Electronics

Handicrafts

St 178, just north of the National Museum, is known as Artist Street and has many interesting boutiques.

The Art Deco dome of the Central Market

Marketplaces

Eat

FCC

Phnom Penh offers some interesting culinary treats not found elsewhere in the country. These include French-influenced dining and Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian dishes. Pizzas, banana pancakes, and fried rice are always easy to find.

The river front hosts everything from stand-up stalls to fine French bistros. Stalls likely lack hygienic practices: eating peeled fruit and vegetables and anything uncooked may have undesirable consequences.

Exotic treats

Duck embryo eggs are sold at the southwest corner of Sokun Mean Bun St (St 178) and Norodum Blvd (in front of the green SSN Bldg) inside a big high school compound, together with days old hatched chicks to frogs (everything is eaten, not just the legs) dipped in batter and deep fried. Skewered and grilled pigs ears, chicken claws, and gizzards are sold in the Central Market. Pig intestines are sold at USD1 per 100 g, cut into pieces and splattered with sauce. Grilled small crabs, lobsters, prawns are also sold in the market. Chicken feet are sold in the open-air restaurants as you turn to the right at St 154 as you go northbound from Monivong Blvd. Bugs and other insects, especially the grasshopper, spider/crab, and grubs and pupae stage are sold along Sothearos Blvd from 184 St to 178 St.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Superficial security

Most of the time, Phnom Penh bars and clubs are safe enough and a lot of fun - however, some of the more "hip" places are popular with the notorious local "elite" youth (and their minders) who carry firearms and other weapons, and who are allowed to pass through so-called "security" checks without being searched.

Places to hang out after dark include St 104, St 278, and St 108 around the St 51 corner, which all feature restaurant bars, hostess bars, and guesthouses.

Bars

Live music

Hostess bars


A note on hostess bars

Surveys have found that the HIV rate among Cambodian female sex workers is about 13%.

Sleep

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget budget USD5-20
Mid-range midrange USD20-50
Splurge splurge Over USD50

Budget

The former Boeung Kak Lake with demolished guesthouse, Phnom Penh, Oct 2011

A good range of accommodation is available around the city. The budget traveller area was area known as Lakeside, near the now filled in Beoung Kak lake. The colony of guesthouses has been decimated, but not eradicated. Remaining businesses are desperate for clients, which makes prices very cheap. Guesthouses 10 and 11 still exist and offer rooms from USD4/night and USD3/night respectively. Services include such laundry, Internet, money exchange, ATMs, and restaurants, including an excellent Indian restaurant.

St 258 (near the Cambodia/Vietnam Friendship Park), Street 51 (near Wat Langka) and St 111 and 172 also have some good budget options.

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

As in any big city, be wary walking alone at night.

Daytime bag-snatching is not uncommon. Women are the main targets. When riding in a tuk-tuk keep your bag toward the middle of the tuk-tuk to protect against bag snatching. When on a motorcycle taxi, keep your bag between you and the driver or in front of the driver. Do not carry/wear your bag on your back!

Scammers and con men sometimes work the tourist areas such as the riverfront, Hun Sen Park and the Sorya Mall. A group of scammers operate around the riverside, targeting travellers. Their basic method is to start a conversation, make friends, claim to have a relative who is soon moving to your country of origin, and invite you to dinner at their house. Once you get there, they will apparently try to trick you into playing a rigged card game for money, and if that fails then they will give you stories about sick relatives and ask money for that instead.

Beware of fake monks. Real monks don't walk around begging of tourists. Please ignore them or call the tourist police (012 942 4840) if you are harassed by fake monks.

Stay healthy

As in most developing world countries, avoiding cold, uncooked food is desirable to prevent stomach upsets. Salads are also suspect at times. Ice is usually OK as it is made from filtered water in factories.

Unsafe sex

There are dozens of girlie bars catering to foreigners in the cross-streets back from the river. Freelance girls are picked up at establishments like Heart of Darkness, Sharky's Bar, Riverhouse Lounge, and Martini Bar.

HIV is carried by about one in eight of Cambodia's female sex workers. NGOs have got the HIV rate in the general population down from around 2% to around 1% over the past decade, but emerging liberal behaviour coupled with ignorance of safe practices may reverse this gain. Condoms are strongly advised.

Connect

Telephone

Cheap SIM cards from $2 for GSM phones are available on almost any major street. A vendor should have an activated test card to be used to make sure your phone will operate on that network. Calls between mobile networks can be spotty and Skype calls from abroad to mobiles in Cambodia are sometimes dropped, so be prepared to redial frequently. SIM cards, phone credit and internet packages can be bought and activated at the airport located just after passing through customs. A great time and place to do so if you know you going to buy a local sim card in Cambodia. Its a good idea to have your phone sim unlocked before leaving home. It seems all phones sold in Cambodia are unlocked. Dual sim phones are cheaply available which are useful for travellers who want to use their home sim card and a local sim card at the same time.

Mobitel and metfone have the best coverage around the whole of Cambodia. Metfone is particularly good for their internet packages (e.g. 2.5Gb for one month for $5) and they allow hotspot tethering from you smart phone unlike Mobitel. Useful if you use a laptop a lot and want to use wifi via your hotspot enabled smart phone.

Most of the major networks, such as metfone, have kiosks at the Phnom Penh airport located just after walking through customs where you can buy a local sim card, some credit and an Internet data package. If so, check that it all appears to be operating OK before heading off, such as by loading up a web page and checking your balance.

Internet

Wi-Fi is available in most of the hotels that welcome Western tourists and backpackers. Speed and reliability is on par with neighbouring countries. There is no shortage of Internet cafés in Phnom Penh. Most are in the 1,500 riel/hour to 2,000 riel/hour bracket (~USD0.50)

Wireless and wired connections for laptops are available at a number of outlets. Most up-market hotels provide high-speed broadband access, but at a premium. A number of cafés along Sisowath Quay including the Foreign Correspondents' Club (expensive), Fresco Café (under the FCC, also expensive), K-West Café (at the Amanjaya Hotel), the Jungle Bar and Grill, and Phnom Penh Café (near Paragon Hotel), and Metro Cafe (free).

Post

The main, impressive French colonial-style post office is at the intersection of St 13 and 102, roughly between Wat Phnum and the Riverside. Another branch is more downtown, at the intersection of Sihanouk and Monivong Blvd. Both offices offer full range of postal services, including PO boxes for affordable prices, and are open 7 days a week.

Postage for international postcards is 3,000 riel. Very nice picture stamps are available. Philatelists: ask for mix and match options. Letters and especially parcels to Phnom Penh's post office frequently go missing, or are not made available to recipients for up to one year.

Cope

Bring your largest pair of sunglasses: Phnom Penh is dusty year-round (even in the wet season) and riding in tuk-tuks means a lot of the dust in your eyes.

Embassies and consulates

Medical

Ascertain that the doctor has a Western medical degree. If not, get out. Local training is poor and treatment can be fatal. Local hospitals are generally basic, including Calmette Hospital, the city's best. A doctor's appointment should be made at one of the international clinics, which can also arrange transfer to a hospital in Thailand if necessary.

Go next

Cambodia

Sihanoukville, Battambang, and Siem Reap are within a few hours reach. Watch out for guesthouses profiteering on bus tickets. Several tour companies offer day-trips to Tonle Bati, which includes Ta Prohm, an Angkor-era temple not to be mistaken for the Angkor-area temple of the same name.

Rates as of May 2012 (from Mekong Imperial International Travel & Tour Co., Ltd. at 339 Sisowath Quay (Riverside) Tel:+855 23 5550401; +855 92 341732; +855 95 793232). They do free pick-up. It could be USD1 cheaper to buy directly from the bus company.

To Company (comments) Departs Hours USD
Siem Reap Mekong Express (air-con, snack, water, guide) 07:00 08:30 12:30 14:25 6 12
Apsara Khmer Travel (air-con, water) 07:00 09:00 13:30 15:30 5 9
Gold VIP (air-con, snack, water) 07:00 08:30 13:30 14:30 20:00 24:00 5-6 9
Selia Angkor (air-con, snack, water) 07:00 09:00 14:00 15:00 5 9
Virak Buntham 11:30 (5 hr) 18:00 20:00 24:00 (6 hr) 9
Sok Sokha (cold towel, air-con, snack, water) 07:30 08:30 12:30 13:30 6 8
Capitol (air-con) 06:15 07:30 08:30 10:15 12:00 13:30 14:30 6.5 7
Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 07:00 07:45 08:45 11:30 12:45 15:15 7 7
Sihanoukville Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 07:00 08:00 09:00 11:30 12:45 15:45 17:00 5 7
Capitol (air-con) 07:15 08:45 09:45 11:15 12:15 13:30 14:30 5 7
G.S.T. (air-con) 07:15 08:15 12:30 13:30 13:15 5 7
Virak Buntham (blanket, water, air-con) 01:30 4 8
Kep/Kompot Capitol (air-con) 07:30 13:00 4 7
Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 06:45 07:30 09:30 12:45 13:45 5 7
Kratie Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 06:45 07:15 8:00 10:30 6 8
G.S.T. (air-con) 07:00 6 8
Battambang Virak Buntham (air-con) 05:00 06:30 5 7
Capitol (air-con) 07:00-14:45 (every hr) 5 7
Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 06:30 07:45 08:45 10:45 12:45 6 7
Koh Kong Virak Buntham (air-con) 07:45 12:30 6 9
Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 07:45 11:30 6 9
Kampong Cham Capitol (air-con) 08:15 14:00 3 6
Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 07:15-15:45 every hr 3 6
Preah Vihear G.S.T. (air-con) 07:30 8 7
Poi Pet Virak Buntham (air-con) 20:00 21:00 24:00 7 10
Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 06:15 06:30 07:45 07:30 8 10
Capitol (air-con) 06:30 08:00 10:00 8 10
Stung Streng Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 07:15 9 12
Rathanakiri Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 07:30 13 12
Mondulkiri Phnom Penh Sorya (air-con) 08:15 8 10

Laos

Buses to Don Det (USD19, 12 hr) leave at 06:45. The 27 hr journey to Vientiane costs USD46 and takes four different buses. The first leg is on the Don Det bus. Once over the border you'll spend hours on cramped minibuses heading to Pakse before the final stretch to the capital. The border is slow and bureaucratic, with endless form-filling and small bribes to officials, long walks hauling your luggage between windows (500 m), and no one much to assist with enquiries. There have been reports of various problems on the onward journey to Vientiane, from Lao companies not honouring tickets sold in Cambodia, to nocturnal groping.

Prices May 2012:

To Bus Company (comments) Departs Hours USD
4000 Islands/Don Khong (ferry not included) Phnom Penh Sorya 06:45 10 23
Pakse Phnom Penh Sorya 06:45 12 30
Vientiane Phnom Penh Sorya 06:45 22.5 50

Thailand

Through tickets to Bangkok (14 hr, USD15–26) are generally unproblematic. You will change buses at the border. Anything more than USD15 is a bit steep given that Phnom Penh to Siem Reap should cost USD5 and that Siem Reap to Bangkok should cost USD10.

Prices May 2012:

To Bus Company (comments) Departs Hours USD
Bangkok Virak Buntham (via Koh Kong) 07:45 >12 28
Virak Buntham (via Poipet) 21:00 21:30 24:00 24:30 12 23
Gold VIP (via Poipet) 20:00 24:00 (night bus) >12 23
Angkor Express (via Poipet) 06:30 13 18
Capitol (via Poipet) 06:30 13 18
Phnom Penh Sorya (via Poipet) 06:30 13 18
Ko Chang Virak Buntham 07:45 9 23
Ko Samet Virak Buntham 07:45 12 29
Pattaya Virak Buntham 07:45 11 29
Trat Virak Buntham 07:45 8 19

Vietnam

Slow boats to Vietnam (USD9–10) are a scenic alternative to the bus (USD10, 6 hr). The 8 hour journey begins at 07:30 with a minibus to the boat, which then goes to Chau Doc in Vietnam, stopping for an hour at the border for immigration and a change of vessel. Faster boats (USD10) to Ho Chi Minh City take around 6 hours and depart 3-7 times per day. The journey can be also stretched into a 2-3 day Mekong tour (USD40–60).

Prices May 2012:

To Bus Company (comments) Departs Hours USD
HCMC Mekong Express (air-con, snack, water, guide) 06:30 07:00 08:30 13:00 14:00 15:00 6 13
Sapaco Tourist (air-con, water, toilet) 06:00 07:00 08:00 09:00 11:30 13:00 14:00 15:00 6 12
Khai Nam Transport 05:30 07:00 08:00 09:00 10:00 11:00 12:00 13:00 14:00 15:00 6 11
Virak Buntham 08:30 6 11
Virak Buntham (blanket, air-con) 00:30 (night bus) 8 12
Capitol 06:45 08:00 13:30 6 11
Phnom Penh Sorya 05:45 06:45 08:30 11:45 13:30 6 15
Hatien Champa Mekong (minibus, air-con) 08:00 5 15
Phu Quoc Champa Mekong (minibus, air-con) 08:00 7 27
Routes through Phnom Penh

Poipet Pursat  NW  SE  END
END  N  S  Takeo Sihanoukville


This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, February 29, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.