My wife and I have been living in Thailand for a number of years and have traveled around Asia a bit, but we had never been to the capital city of Cambodia. Even though it is close to Thailand, there are huge differences and it was a really exciting trip that I would recommend to other expats in Thailand or visitors that want to venture into something new. From what I saw, Phnom Penh has a few nice advantages for expat living that should make it a place to consider for those wanting to escape life in the USA. For sure it is less hassle (and cheaper) than Thailand with year long resident visas.
We traveled to Phnom Penh probably the most difficult way you can do it, via the Cambodian major “highway”. Few other countries, including Thailand, would call this a highway as it was tedious, slow and very rough. We boarded our bus in Poipet on the Thai border and traveled the 408km (about 250 miles) down this highway and the driving time was about ten hours! The reason it took so long is about a third of the highway is unpaved, and even in the part that was paved there were potholes everywhere big enough for a cow to fall into. The bus jumped around like an amusement park ride which is interesting for about 4 minutes. After that, it was a major chore. No rest was possible and the bus was jumping around so much it was even difficult to focus on the amazing views of the countryside that passed by.
Bottom Line: it is my strongest suggestion that you don’t even consider driving or riding a bus or car from the Thai border to Phnom Penh. This is one destination that is best traveled to by air.
Cambodia is still a very poor country. Thailand is leagues ahead of Cambodia in the prosperity level. Most houses in the countryside are made from bamboo and palm leaves on stilts with no electricity, no front door, and no screens on the windows. Cambodia is for sure third world (Thailand to me is second world). At every stop where the kids spot the arrival of foreigners, we were instantly surrounded by a small army of very needy children offering trinkets, fruit or just asking for money. Since Cambodian kids are so beautiful and very sweet, it is extremely difficult to escape them without some donations. And the more donations, the more kids will come. You have to work your way to the bus and just hope you have not denied the neediest of them.
After our grueling driving trip, we finally arrived into the city which was a welcome sight. Everyone on our little mini-bus needed a drink after that trip. Phnom Penh, like Bangkok, is a mix of very modern high rise buildings, street markets and government compounds. The capital city of Cambodia is much smaller than Bangkok (BKK), with a population of around 2 million, which is about one-fifth the size of the Thai capital city.
The recent history of Cambodia and especially Phnom Penh is tragic. To have a major city completely emptied out as it was done some thirty years ago under horrendous circumstances creates a special psyche on the people for at least a couple of generations. It gives the people a humbleness and appreciation for peaceful good times. I found the everyday people of Phnom Penh to be cheerful and friendly, and it was a pleasant experience simply talking with shopkeepers and restaurant waiters and tuk-tuk drivers. Everyone seemed to have a happy disposition in Phnom Penh, and genuinely wanted to talk and introduce themselves. They do not treat tourists as though they needed to soak out money from them. They did not seem to be aggressive towards tourists in any way (and perhaps that is a reflection that Phnom Penh is not inundated with tourists as in much of Thailand or Siem Reap). There were lots of nice smiles and gratefulness when we gave them a little business or offered a tip. Everyone seemed very polite.
For those inclined to notice these things (and I must confess that I am one of them), Phnom Penh also seemed to have an abundance of very attractive young women in short skirts and high heels that went about their business unescorted. For a young (or maybe even old) single guy, I think this city can offer a lot. There are many interesting nightlife and “entertainment” venues spread out over the central part of the city that look like they would be very interesting to those that are open to that kind of visitor activity.
Phnom Penh is a good walking city, with real walkable sidewalks (rare in Thailand). It does not seem overly crowded, and no massive parking-lot traffic jams to maneuver. Some wide major boulevards, especially around the government areas, seem to only have one or two cars going down it at a time. Motorbikes are the main transportation for Cambodians.
Phnom Penh does not have many of the modern attributes of BKK that we expect in big Asian cities, like 7-11 stores and giant modern shopping malls. There are very few of the fast food chains like KFC that you see all over Thailand. The city looks like what you would imagine BKK must have looked like back in the 60’s or 70’s before it was fully developed as it is today. That gives Phnom Penh a much more relaxed feeling than busy and chaotic BKK.
For residents that might be considered middle class or higher and the expat community in Phnom Penh, the city seems to be divided in roughly two areas: the North side of town along the river, called, naturally, the Riverside area, and the South side of town called Boueng Keng Kang, which seems to be the home for the more permanent better income residents. Most tourists and other short term visitors will be staying in the Riverside area where there are scads of restaurants of every flavor (I think there are restaurants from every European and American cuisine along with other Asian) and much nightlife.
You won’t find Soi Dogs like in Thailand and there is a good reason for that which most Americans don’t want to even think about.
Accommodations are more expensive than in Thailand, probably another half times more than in BKK and probably double the cost of comparable hotel rooms in Chiang Mai, but still very cheap by American standards. As a very general observation (and there are lots of exceptions to this rule), “things” like rent, taxi rides, beer, dinner and a can of Coke seem to cost a bit more than Thailand, while all kinds of “services” performed by Cambodians seem to be much cheaper. Longtime residents might prove me wrong in this, but that is my initial perception.
When visiting Phnom Penh, I think it is important for an American to visit the remnants of genocide of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. It was not very long ago, and most of us vaguely remember reading tidbits about it in the newspaper and hearing something about it once in a while on the TV news during the time it was happening. It turns out that it was one of the most horrible
genocides in human history, which came out a few decades later with books and movies and documentaries. It is a sad and sobering experience to visit the prison torture cells, the sights of mass graves, the barbed wire, the bones and skulls of the victims. Not everyone agrees with me that these areas should be visited, but I found them very moving and made me grateful for the kind of life I have been given. My opinion is that it is a “must see”.
I think it would be good to find a copy online of the movie “The Killing Fields” to see again before visiting Phnom Penh, and then taking the tour to Tuol Slen Genocide Museum (located right in the downtown of Phnom Phenh) which was once a Cambodian high school converted into a torture prison, and then follow it up with a visit to Choeung Ek, the “Killing Fields” located 15km outside of town. It will make for a very reflective educational day that won’t be forgotten (and it shouldn’t be).
A very worthwhile read related to the Cambodian Killing Fields era and the effects on this country afterward is BEYOND THE KILLING FIELDS From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013 (online).
Cambodia is a Kingdom just like Thailand and hence they have a Royal Palace similar to the one in BKK, but on a much smaller scale. Cambodians have a reverence for their King, but it is not nearly to the degree that Thais have for theirs. King Norodom Sihanouk died in 2012 and had a very different relationship towards his people than that of the Thai King. He took the throne in Cambodia in 1941 when he was just 18, but in 1970 he was overthrown as a result of a CIA (United States intelligence agency) sponsored coup. He then fled to China, where he aligned himself with the obscure Cambodian dissident group, the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, the King returned to Cambodia with his new alliances and was able to overthrow the American installed military leadership of the country and resume the throne. The problem was with the group the King aligned himself with that created the genocidal reign, until finally that group was beaten by the independent Vietnamese military that came to the rescue of the enslaved populations of Cambodia. Sihanouk remained King but abdicated the throne in 2004, and he died in China last year at 89. (Just remember that if the United States had never intervened in Cambodian internal politics with the CIA, the Killing Fields would never have happened). Today, his son, Norodom Sihamoni, reigns. The current King spent most of his life in Paris and appears to many to be more closely involved with France than the nation he is the ruler.
Visiting the beautiful Royal Palace in Phnom Penh does give the visitor the sense of what could have been had the United States stayed out of the matters of other nations (this is going on in the world right now in other places unfortunately, and perhaps there will be equally terrible results we will learn about in several decades in the future. This needs to be stopped).
There are also many Cambodian Buddhist Temples in Phnom Penh to visit which are only slightly different than Thai temples (at least in my eyes), a very large Casino (I have been to Vegas too many times, so this does not excite me) and zoos and wildlife centers. But for me, the most interesting thing to do in the Cambodian capital city is to take strolls and soak in the lifestyle and culture, to visit the food markets and see the exotic eatables (some that could freak out a lot of people — like giant deep fried very fat spiders).
Phnom Penh is for me a beautiful city with beautiful people, great food and wonderful ambiance. It would be a great place to have a mini-holiday of about 4 or 5 days.