A Phnom Penh travel guide by the locals
Welcome to Phnom Penh
We’d like to think that Phnom Penh is the biggest small capital city in Asia. With around two million people, it is by far the largest human settlement in Cambodia. The city has the trappings of your typical Asian metropolis, people hanging around everywhere, lots of motorbikes (traffic has been horrendous for the past several years), noise, dirt, grime, glaring income disparities (Rolls Royces and child beggars)…
No doubt on the way from the airport to your hotel (a slow ride if you were caught in traffic congestion), you would have witnessed all of the above. But Phnom Penh is not overwhelming: it’s smaller in pollution and in congestion than most of its Asian neighbours. This is due in large part to pre-War urban planning with pleasant avenues lined with trees, open spaces and calming views over the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers.
Visiting Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is relatively compact and you’ll get your bearings quickly. The Monument of Independence sits at the centre, with Monivong and Norodom Boulevards (appropriately named after Kings) as main thoroughfares. Most sights and activities are within easy reach if you choose accommodation in the area.
Phnom Penh is a city steep in history, with a heavy past and hopefully a radiant future. If you like historical buildings (about to be bulldozed), urban architecture or simply like to stroll around town to feel the local pulse, check out our section on historic walks and itineraries in Phnom Penh.
Living in Phnom Penh
Because of the War, most folks you’ll encounter during your stay who were born before 1975 are originally not from Phnom Penh (the real Phnom Penhers did not survive Brother Number 1). Phnom Penh attracts lots of people from Cambodia’s provinces: the jobs in government, garment factories, hotels and other services are here.
Phnom Penhers get up early. They start cleaning up their houses at around five. When the night air is still a little chilly, your average Phnom Penher makes his way to the nearest river front, park or stadium for the morning exercise. It’s still dark and the first rays of light are barely showing up, but people are ready to run, dance, kung fu and hustle. Come six o’clock, after a quick breakfast, you should be washed up, dressed up and ready to go to work.
Around lunchtime, a lot of people move around Phnom Penh again. Those who don’t live too far from office will go home for a couple of hours to see their families.
Around five, after a hard day’s surfing Facebook at work, a beer and some food are in order with colleagues... Alternatively, if you haven’t exercised before dawn, now is the chance to run around and sweat a bit.
Family dinner takes place as the sun sets and usually no later than seven. The streets become quiet at around nine (if you wake up at five, you need to sleep early). But you can always sneak out for a night on the town...
Hanging out in Phnom Penh
King Father Norodom Sihanouk composed a famous song called “Phnom Penh”, which croons about the “joie de vivre”. Those were happier times in the 1960s. But Phnom Penh is still moving and shaking (not necessarily in the right directions), and abuzz with local arts, galleries, performances, eateries, drinkeries and generally loud noise. In our section on activities and things to do in Phnom Penh, you’ll find more ideas of what the locals do for fun.
For a small city, Phnom Penh also has a thriving expatriate community. It is well connected to most Asian cities with flights several times a day to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Saigon, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore. There are a lot of foreigners around, and they’re not all tourists. Shady businessmen cut shady business deals in their striped shirts, but also staff from international organisations (all possible UN agencies, World Bank and other development banks of the World), missionaries of all creeds and misfits that don't fit here either make for a rather cosmopolitan city.
Real international foods and products are easy to come by, from Bordeaux Chateaux to sushis. Cambodia imports everything, which makes the cost of living in Phnom Penh more expensive than neighbouring countries despite the lower local purchasing power.
People hang out in Phnom Penh. Even when people stay at home, they’re hanging out in front of their house (selling phone cards and cold drinks to passersby or simply chatting with neighbours). Friends, colleagues and relatives don’t need much convincing for a bowl of Kuy Teav Phnom Penh (Phnom Penh noodle soup), a can of Angkor beer or some grilled meats. Pick up the phone, text your friends, hop on your motorcycle...
Travel tips for Phnom Penh
We’ve put together a short list of best restaurants in Phnom Pen that serve “authentic” Khmer food (get invited by the locals for real Khmer cuisine). These restaurants are not your average eateries that can be found all over Phnom Penh. The locals don’t usually eat out on the river front (but the tourists do).
Shopping at the markets in Phnom Penh is a must do activity, you’ll be able to justify buying clothes, shoes and handbags as a cultural experience.
Our travel blog is an organised jumble of travel tips to make your stay in our capital city more interesting. How do you hail a moto-taxi? What are traditional Cambodian drinks and dishes? Just click on the relevant posts to find the answers to these questions.