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talesofasia guide to the provinces of Cambodia


Phnom Penh

updated February 2006

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The nation's capital and only significant urban center, many, but not nearly enough, tourists will spend a day or three here. Personally, I think every visitor to Cambodia should spend a couple of days in Phnom Penh.

It's poor, yes, it's dirty, yes - but not nearly as much as a few years ago, it's chaotic, yes, and as it prospers, this little town of one million people is beginning to experience the requisite traffic headaches one would expect, something practically unheard of as recently as 1999.

Phnom Penh has an odd sort of energy which some people, self included, quite like, while others just want to get out fast. Try to come with an open mind and understand that just because you may see some ugly, unfortunate samples of the human condition, it's not cause to bury your head in the sand in denial or disgust. Accept that life is unfair and look for something positive in the people around you. You won't have to look long or far.

As for the guidebooks, the Rough Guide Cambodia does a better job describing Phnom Penh's major attractions than does Lonely Planet, however, Lonely Planet does a better job providing the necessary practical information.

The following is a quick survey of Phnom Penh designed to give you only the very basics but complemented with a few insider's tips you might not find anywhere else. An excellent source of practical information on Phnom Penh can be found at http://www.canbypublications.com. Upon arrival do track down a copy of their free guidebook. Also have a look at the talesofasia Guide to Phnom Penh.

Crime and safety
Arrival and departure
Getting around town
Eating and drinking
Tourist attractions

Crime and safety
Crime is not the problem it once was but do exercise common sense. At night, anything you have is safer in your hotel room than on your person. Do not carry your passport or large sums of cash at night, you don't need them. Carry only what you need and a few dollars more so you're not caught short just in case. And don't go around with a bum bag!!!! In the unlikely event you are held up, do not resist! The robber may be as scared as you because if he's caught, he may very well end up dead.

However, while armed robbery was once Phnom Penh's curse, the problem now is bag snatching. Long a problem in Saigon, a motorbike with two aboard makes a dash at another motorbike or cyclo carrying a passenger (often a tourist) with a handbag, camera, shoulder bag, whatever and the former's pillion rider makes an attempt to lift the bag and the pair speeds off, if the victim ends up on the ground with a broken shoulder, so be it.

But really, while crime exists in Phnom Penh, the city is still safer than most western cities. If you want to worry about something, worry about a traffic accident. And on that note, do not even think about operating a motorbike here unless you have prior third-world urban experience.

Arrival and departure
By air to regional international destinations and a number of domestics. See my FAQ - transportation for more information. Getting to town official taxis charge $7 and will usually try to get you to the hotel of their choosing. If you have an advanced reservation somewhere you'll probably get free pick-up. If not, start walking away from the terminal towards the road and you may find the taxi fare begin to drop dramatically. By the time you reach the road you can get a moto into town for $1-2, if a taxi hasn't already agreed to take you for no more than $5, quite possibly less.

By boat to Siem Reap. Boat docks are at the northern end of the main riverfront area.

Buses, share-taxis, and pick-up trucks to anywhere in the country. Again, see my FAQ - transportation for more information.

Getting around town
Most people take motodops (motorcycle taxis). For locals and expats, fares are never agreed to in advance, tourists can usually get away with this, but a lot depends on the level of English of the driver. The better he speaks the more likely he's going to hassle you for more money. Nonetheless, the usual procedure is to just get on and go, 1000 riels for short trips, 1500 for medium-distance, 2000 riels across town, double it at night. Feel free to offer up an extra 500 riels, one, because you can and two, because you'll significantly decrease the likelihood of having any problems with the driver. More information about fares and local transport can be found at FAQ - transportation.

From flophouses to five-star hotels, Phnom Penh's got them all. I'm not going into a listings bit here, see the Canby site for that. The only place I ever stay is the Dara Reang Sey and I quite like it, for the family that runs it, for the location, and that it isn't surrounded by mercenary motodops.

The Khao San Road of Phnom Penh is Boeung Kak Lake and I think the place is a shithole. What does it have? Lots of cheap guesthouses, cheap places to eat, internet shops, backpackers, etc.

Sounds cool, huh? Well, there are cheap places to eat and internet shops all over the city so you can strike those two out. As for accommodation, I can think of numerous family-run hotels scattered around the city that offer decent fan rooms for under $10 and are in much better locations.

Now, I should also point out that the lake stinks, is quite polluted and infested with mosquitoes, you're not near anything worth seeing, you can't walk anywhere, and it's not exactly the safest neighborhood in town.

If all you want to do is lie in a hammock all day and smoke spliffs with other budget tourists (yes, YOU are a tourist!!!), then the lake will do you fine, but then why are you here? Really, are you in Phnom Penh to see Phnom Penh or to lie in a hammock and smoke spliffs? If it's the former, then I suggest you avoid the lake, if it's the latter, well, I can't do anything for you and at this point I don't care to, anyway.

In the O'Russei area is the other Khao San Road neighborhood as you'll find the Capitol Guesthouse and its affiliates and a few blocks to the south is Narin's and its various satellites. I'm not particularly enamored with either one.

There are a lot of lower to mid-range hotels scattered around the downtown area, many on or within a couple of blocks of the river.

See the Canby site for more hotel and restaurant information.

Eating and drinking
Phnom Penh has a wide variety of drinking and eating options. Most of the restaurants are along the river and along street 240, with a smaller grouping on street 63 south of Sihanouk Blvd. On my FAQ-food page as well as in the toa Phnom Penh Guide I have descriptions of a few places of which I'm familiar.

Tourist attractions
Phnom Penh doesn't have a lot of these and beyond what's in the guidebooks there aren't a lot of "secrets". Probably the most interesting thing you can do is to take a walk around some Khmer neighborhoods to absorb the sights and sounds. I can think of two good areas for this. The first is the several blocks south of Psah Chas, just west of the river and east of Norodom Blvd. Another good neighborhood is the O'Russei area - north of Street 182, just west of Monivong. These areas are perfectly safe in the day time.

As for the attractions, here's a very quick rundown:

Tuol Sleng Museum
Everyone visits here, or should anyway. This is the prison turned museum documentating the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It's not the most enjoyable experience but one you should do nonetheless. Usually combined with a trip to the "killing fields". See the Kandal page.

Wat Phnom
Famous pagoda on a hill. Marks the founding of the city in the 14th century. Worth an hour of your time.

Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda
Absolutely must see. I personally found the Silver Pagoda side of the wall (you'll see what I mean when you get here) a little more interesting than the Royal Palace, but both are worth part of an afternoon. Guidebooks all give a thorough write-up of what's here. Warning! Camera fees are enforced, don't try to be a tightwad and get away with taking photos without paying! You've been warned.

National Museum
Big red building near the Royal Palace. Khmer art and more Khmer art. More exciting if you haven't yet been to Angkor. More easy to appreciate if you have. Do visit.

Independence Monument
This is the big pineapple at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk Blvds. Try not to crash your motorbike here.

Many pagodas. Wat Ounalom, conveniently located near the National Museum is Phnom Penh's main pagoda. Other downtown pagodas are Wat Lang Ka on Sihanouk and Wat Koh on Monivong (the latter is from time to time a haven for homeless families and glue-sniffing teenagers).

Main market for souvenirs is the Russian Market (near Tuol Sleng) and the largest market is the Central market which is really called Psah Thmei which does not mean Central Market but actually means New Market. A block south of the Central Market is Cambodia's first attempt at a shopping mall. For the locals, the escalators and elevators are quite a novelty. To absorb that local market "feel" try Psah Chas, Psah O'Russei, or Psah Kandal. All are downtown.

-Walk along the river, chase off the motodriver/guides.
-School of Fine Arts. Not a tourist attraction but if you stand out of the way, behave yourself, and don't bother anyone you can usually watch a dance class.
-Old buildings. French colonial architecture is scattered throughout the city but a concentration of it can be found around the post office just east of Wat Phnom.

For information on sites outside of the city see the Kandal, Kompong Speu, and Takeo pages.

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