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Phnom Penh Weekend Travel Tips* – Part 1

The appeal of Cambodia as an international tourism destination started with…a pair of boobs, shorts and a gun. The popular character of sexy explorer Lara Croft in Tomb Raider projected Angkor Wat, an archaeological site previously known to a handful of history lovers, into worldwide fame. Backpackers first, mid-range and luxury tourist afterwards, all are making their way to the magnificent Angkor in the thousands (and it is amazing in case you were wondering – read for instance this post by my friend Ruth) and Phnom Pehn is often relegated to a simple stepping stone in most South East itineraries, which is a pity although it’s easy to see how people would be drawn to sexier regional capitals like Bangkok.

phnom penh highlights

Phnom Penh is truly a kaleidoscope of sounds, colours and smells, best enjoyed at a relaxed Cambodian pace

 

However, Cambodia’s capital is becoming more and more popular as a short range destination out of Singapore – no wonder why. Having lived in the Lion City for over 6 months now, I completely understand the allure of cheaper booze, cheaper food, cheaper shopping (ok, cheaper everything) and…yes, even the appeal of noise and chaos and non-domesticated city life and the thrill of eating unsanitized, possibly unsanitary, things. And you do definitely get plenty of all the above in PP, which is why I liked it so much.

So without further ado, here’s my PP recommendations:

Getting around in Pnomh Penh

Strongly recommended: get a local SIM card with data. It is ridiculously cheap (think USD 3 for 5 days, on the uncommon “3.5G” standard) and it will be a lifesaver.

From the Pnomh Penh International airport, a taxi to the centre is the best option and also the only viable option. I saw a few tuk tuks, but with almost 10 miles between the airport and the centre on the heat and on a busy road, an air-con cab is what you need. They are metered so no surprises, it should be around USD 12.

getting around in phnom penh

Tuk tuks and carts in Phnom Penh…and a very fuzzy late night solo tuk tuk ride -yes, Phnom Penh felt safe enough to me to do it, of course keep your wits about you. My lovely tuk tuk driver waited for me until I managed to wake someone up at the Yu Khin guesthouse

Most streets in Pnomh Penh don’t have a name but a number, and part of the city has a grid-like structure. Fantastic- I hear you say- so much better to navigate than trying to remember Khmer names and articulate them to a non-English speaking tuk tuk driver. Well, curb your enthusiasm. Not unlike other Asian cities, numbers and grid don’t necessarily overlap – so Street 40 is not necessarily close to Street 41. Or 42. There might as well be a Street 329 just around the corner of Street 40, so in short be prepared for the gesticulations, map pointing (mostly useless) and writing down of street numbers on the palm of your hands whilst trying to explain your destination to the omnipresent tuk tuks. Take it as it is, a mildy amusing sport, and don’t get heated up as there is no point. Without annoying and racists generalizations, it is true that Cambodian people are very – veeeeery relaxed. As you’ll be probably on holiday, relax, spare your energies and you will eventually make it to where you have to go. Bring snacks.

If you’re only staying a few days, tuk-tuks are going to be most likely your main transportation method. They are everywhere (expect when you really need one). Unlike what I have seen in Indonesia for example, there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between “tuk tuk for locals” and “for tourists”- of course, the prices will be different but the actual contraption is the same. Most of them are motorized and some decorated with colourful batik – you’ll be grateful as your bum would otherwise stick to the formica seat covers. Yes, nice image I know- you are welcome.

How much is a “fair” price for a tuk tuk ride in Phnom Penh? From our experience, most tuk tuk rides under 15/20 minutes were priced at 2/3 USD for three people on a single tuk tuk. Haggle as much as your conscience allows…which brings us to the next point.

How to “do good” in Pnomh Pehn as a tourist: where to stay? what to buy?

I could mention statistics or delve deep into erudite disquisitions, complementing what little I remember of my international Affairs degree with extensive googling- but I’ll go for the short form. Cambodia.Is.Poor. Desperately poor. And if it is easy to forget when I am lying down with a cocktail in an infinity pool, or playing my Indiana Jones/Lara Croft fantasy in Siem Reap, it is much more of a reality on PP, especially when stepping out of the centre – as we did when we visited the Killing Fields. The number of children roaming the street was also quite striking, at least to me, coming from countries where is is quite rare to see them – I must say, most children looked happy and healthy and carefree as only children can, but it is no news that Cambodian orphanages and “children centres” are a prime destination for “volontourism” (not to mention less well intentioned pursuits).

orphanage in cambodia

The place we stayed at in Pnomh Penh, Yu Khin House, is a guesthouse run by a Cambodia charity which also harbours a small boarding school for children. We chose it because it was a lovely place, well located, locally run and reasonably priced – and NOT by any means because we wanted to feel like heroines saving the poor kids, or pretend to be making any difference in their lives by posing on Instagram as “volunteers” for a day or two with a cute dark-skinned child in our lap (sorry, my slightly strong view on this is emerging).

At Yu Khin House, the children are around – you can hear them play instruments in the hall, watching TV and playing in the pool, but there is no planned interaction with the guests and I think that’s exactly how it should be if you ask me.  Each of us had a huge, tastefully decorated bedroom – some even with two or three rooms inside – which was spotlessly clean, with AC and a view on the green and peaceful garden. Breakfast was simple but fresh, with juices and delicious fruits, ideal before a day with lots and lots of eating stops. At less than USD40 per night, it is a bargain for the average non-backpaking traveller  and a price allowing the charity to run the school and pay the staff fair wages.  This is also true of many other places in Cambodia, including charity-run restaurants and shops (more on that on next post).

yu kin guesthouse phnom penh

Details of Yu Khin House – I loved it there!

Nightlife in Phnom Penh – the Foreign Correspondents Club…or not

If you’re a history buff…skip the Foreign Correspondent Club and go have a look at the many Pnomh Pnh historic buildings. Or, go to the FCC as a nice watering hole but don’t expect anything more.

The FCC was a big disappointment for me (which doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great time with my girlfriends – cocktails are cheap especially during happy hour and the place is airy and cool). Maybe the former foreign correspondent in me was expecting too much after reading lyrical descriptions  of this bar as something coming out of a Hemingway novel.

[FCC’s] story began just 18 years ago, when a South-East Asia-based British lawyer named Steve Hayward talked his way across the Vietnamese border on New Year’s Day, 1992, hungover and in search of adventure. A tentative ceasefire had just been declared in Cambodia after years of genocide, civil war and invasion; tanks rumbled through the streets of Phnom Penh and a military curfew was imposed after 10pm, enforced by soldiers bearing AK-47s.

“It was desperately poor — the best you could get was a bloody banana — and there was a lot of unease with the withdrawal of the Vietnamese and the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) coming in,” Hayward recalls. “But there was a real feel to the place, despite it being so off-bounds.”

On his first day in Cambodia, Hayward met a couple of UN advance soldiers who told him there’d be 23,000 troops arriving in six months’ time, each with $US100 allowance for a day. Sensing a business opportunity, Hayward went to Hong Kong and convinced a bunch of lawyer mates to invest $US5000 each. This was promptly transferred into gold and used to buy a building near the Phnom Penh Central Market called the Gecko Bar.

The first bar to open in Cambodia since 1967, from the start the Gecko became a hangout for UN officials, diplomats and of course, gin-swilling reporters; and before long it had become the de facto journalists’ club. But Hayward wanted something bigger; and he found it on the riverfront at Sisowath Quay in 1993, then a no-go zone of “thieves, vagabonds and worse”. (from the Sunday Morning Herald)

My opinion? I am sure FCC  was a landmark in PP turbulent past, when the city still was a frontier, and certainly some of the history of the Pol Pot regime as the West knows it has been written here…today, it is a badly concealed tourist trap. Even the contrived Batavia café in Jakarta manages to retain more of its colonial spirit. AT FCC, the biggest pull would be  from the “view” on the Mekong and the pretty wrought iron and dark wood décor, for the rest, it is your typical tourists place with Western food, westernized Asian dishes and pizzas. Not a Cambodian in sight, I suspect not even the staff.

phnom penh nightlife bar sito

Top right and lower left: snapshots of the Foreign Correspondents Club. Other pictures from Bar.Sito on Street 240

If you want to have a glimpse of where the expat community in PP (mostly NGO and international institution workers) actually hangs out these days – and they DO mix with locals, try somewhere like Bar.Sito. Hidden in a dingy alleyway like in the best cool speakeasy cliché, it is stylish, pretty atmospheric and great fun for people watching.  Strong and surprisingly well- made cocktails priced at $5 also feature. Like many other joints, Bar.Sito is in the up-and-coming, even a touch hipster area around Street 240.

Next up on travel tips for Phnom Penh: eating out, Khmer food (and fried tarantulas), best Phnom Penh markets and the tragic legacy of the Pol Pot regime. 

I thought about titling these posts “5 things to do in Pnomh Penh” or something equally eye- and Google pleasing…the reality is – although most improvised travel bloggers wouldn’t agree –  writing such a post would imply me doing a lot more than 5 things there and then selecting the top ones. Even better, it would imply me having lived there an amount of time sufficient to confidently tell you about the absolute highlights of what the city has to offer. Reality is, I only had three days in Cambodia, so my very personal list of practical travel tips and must-do things in Pnomh Penh comes from this limited, if well research beforehand, experience. Hope you enjoy it!

 

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2 Comments

  1. Wonderful sketches of life here, Serena. No qualifying necessary.

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