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Phnom Penh can be a pretty overwhelming place, even by Southeast Asian standards. I’m no slouch; I studied Southeast Asian history in school, can speak a little Khmer, and had been to the border a couple of times. I’d also traveled pretty widely in Laos, the poorer parts of Thailand (visit the countryside in the northeast for a few days and be reminded that it’s still a developing country), and Vietnam. So I was arrogant enough to think I’d have a pretty good sense of what to expect when I finally got there last year.
But of course, I was totally wrong. There were a number of things that reminded me of other Asian cities I’d visited, particularly in Thailand, which modeled many of its architectural and ceremonial traditions after ancient Cambodian precursors, and exerted a significant influence in the other direction in subsequent centuries. There are also obvious parallels to Laos, and to other parts of the Theravadin world. But there are also at least as many unique and sometimes deeply startling aspects as well.
The most immediately jarring features of this colorful, bustling, extremely friendly, and still more than a little unsteady little metropolis are without much doubt the urchins and the amputees. Little kids selling shoeshines, postcards, water, and other stuff throng the little clot of tourist-oriented hotels, bars, and restaurants along Sisowath Quay. Landmine victims beg for change at the temples and on the streetcorners.
I gave a lot, bought a lot of stuff I didn’t need, and got into a lot of conversations with the street kids, especially over the first few days, but with deep misgivings. I knew that the kids probably weren’t getting the money in the end. I recognized with particular discomfort that the surprisingly fluid English of one adolescent girl with an armload of bootleg guidebooks was riddled with lies. Of course she is needy, and I’m sure her true story, whatever it is, is compelling, but she was also obviously hustling me. It was hard not to feel creeped out, and worried for her future.
The next thing I found startling, maybe even more than the poverty, were the city’s striking parallel, or even multiple, economies. Not so much for the shockingly expensive luxury-tourism facilities that are proliferating-Cambodia’s worth going to, and where people want to go, expensive hotels get built. But the facilities set up for those who are there to stay were more amazing. There’s a very healthy international development community that has taken up residence in some of the best-refurbished colonial buildings the old quarters of town, and international development aid budgets, have to offer. They’re clearly setting up for the long haul, and doubtless living a lifestyle that, modest though it may be by international standards, is all but incomprehensible to their Cambodian neighbors.
Maybe even weirder, there’s also a growing community of Western aesthetes-antiquarians, artisans, clothing designers, restauranteurs, and others-who’ve made Phnom Penh their home base. Surprisingly expensive galleries and ateliers abound, offering everything from handicrafts to modern silk dresses. Coffeeshops and bakeries that would not be out of place in Palo Alto, California, (except for the fact that they’re served in French mansions from the 1930s), right down to the kiwi tartlets and $2.50 lattes, dot the urban landscape to service fellow expats.
In spite of all this, and in spite of the heaps of garbage and pervasive dust and all the other problems that the Khmer capital will continue to wrestle with well into the future, there is also a real sense of hope in many quarters. Dozens of restaurants and shops supporting worthy causes can be found around town. Alongside (and even among) bloated government expenditures some positive impact is being had by local and international NGOs. And independent of all the global concern their long term guests seem to express, local people are mostly very warm, open, and welcoming.
Finally, grungy and shambolic as it is, the city itself has a great deal of charm in its own right – historical architecture, lovely markets, temples, and riverside promenades are all worth experiencing if you like urban areas.
So go and visit. Try to see more than just the grim monuments to the tragedy of the 1970s, and try to spend conscientiously, but be prepared for at least a little sensory and cognitive overload.over 5 years ago
When we arrived in Phnom Penh, I could barely keep my eyes from closing. One glimpse and you will never be ordinary again. I feel guilty for what I have. I feel guilty to have the freedom to go where I please and move as I want. Last night, I saw bare-bottomed babies sitting in the gutters. I saw war amputees and mothers begging with babies lying listlessly in their arms. Everywhere I look, I see rich Westerners staying in five star hotels and averting their gaze from the destitute that line the streets. I won’t close my eyes to this. I’ve told John to hold on to all the money, because I’d probably give it all away. Everyone needs help here. We’ve limited ourselves to one person a day, but the choices are difficult. Who do we give to? Who is most needy? How can we be the judges? Last night, we ate while little children sat in rags on the street. I couldn’t finish my meal and gave the rest of mine to them.over 5 years ago
I ended up spending 3 days worth here while I met some of my girlfriend’s relatives. This is the biggest city of Cambodia.
We spent New Years Eve at a place simply called the “Rock Club” with swanky round tables, VIP sections and live music on a huge stage playing both traditional Cambodian tunes and modern techno inspired dance tunes equipped with back up fly girls and strobe lights. Lots of fun!
Whether it’s worth visiting or not depends on the person. If you’re interested in Cambodia’s tumultuous history and the suffering under Pol Pot, it is a must to visit the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields, both very moving. If you’re only into the big city lifestyle, you may be disappointed. Phnom Penh itself is not exactly an attractive city or a touristy placelike Siem Riep. In fact, traffic is very chaotic and the streets are generally dirty and dusty. This is a place where thousands of cambodians come to find work and struggle to make end’s meet.over 6 years ago
Ask a question Travel questions
M Sy asks,“hi! i'll be going to cambodia next week and was wonderin' on which places to prioritize. what to expect and what to bring?:) phnom penh and siem rep for 2 days each. i'll also be going to KL. if you have suggestions, please let me know.tnx” over 2 years ago
fours asks,“has anyone here gone to shoot machine guns near the airport for $5? i was too scared to take up the motorcycle drivers' offers.” over 7 years ago
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Activities in Phnom Penh
Save time and money and book your Phnom Penh airport transfer service before you land in Cambodia! Be met on the ground and travel in an air-conditioned vehicle from Phnom Penh Airport to your Phnom Penh City hotel - without the hassle of picking up a ... $11.25
Need to get to Phnom Penh Airport? Plan your trip ahead of time and secure your Phnom Penh airport departure transfer right now. You will travel in an air-conditioned vehicle your Phnom Penh hotel to Phnom Penh Airport. Arrive at the airport on time, r... $11.25
Explore Phnom Penh on this full-day private tour, takes in some of Cambodia's finest pieces of Khmer and French influences with visits in the morning to the Silver Pagoda and National Museum. After a tasty lunch, you will visit the Tuol Sleng Museum, a... $62.50