Phnom Penh – City Guide
I’ve been to Cambodia three times and know that I’ll be there many more. Phnom Penh is the city I never mean to get caught up in, but always do. For me it has the perfect mix of history, great local and western food, friendly people and rawness that you struggle to find in the developed world. I have read contrasting reports on safety in Phnom Penh, but there has never been a moment when I felt unsafe.
Costs in Phnom Penh
Accommodation is a bargain in Phnom Penh, even by South East Asia prices. Expect to pay $4.50 for a bed in a dorm room or $6 for a private room in a hostel. It’s possible to get a cheap room in a guesthouse for $5 and up. Rooms at the lower end of the scale will likely be without hot water. For $10 a night you can enjoy a little more comfort, with aircon, ensuite with hot water and maybe even a tv.
Food is very affordable in Phnom Penh and it’s often cheaper to eat out than to try to prepare your own food. Street food will set you back $1-2 and you can find decent restaurants meals for around $5. If you stretch your budget to $10 you can find yourself eating very well.
Transport is very cheap here too, so it makes Phnom Penh an easy city to get around. Expect to pay $1 for a trip throughout the city on a motorbike. If you’re in a group, it’s better to take a tuk-tuk. Single tuk-tuk journeys run at about $1-2. Consider that hiring a tuk tuk and driver for the day can be as inexpensive as $10, so if you’re planning to explore the city extensively this is the best option. Phnom Penh is well connected with other cities around Cambodia, as well as Saigon and Bangkok. For more information on buses that depart from Sorya bus station click here.
Things to do in Phnom Penh:
The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) – this memorial site is a haunting reminder of Cambodia’s dark past. While it is not a pleasant day out, I think this is key to appreciating Cambodia’s history and the wonderful people. Throughout Cambodia you will notice that there is almost an entire generation missing and Choeung Ek helps give you a deeper understanding of why. There is a glass stupa in the center, which houses hundreds of skulls of men, women and children. I would suggest watching the film located in the movie room to the right just inside the entrance before viewing the grounds.
S21 Museum (Toul Sleng) – This is the former High School that was transformed, during the Khmer Rouge, into a torture chamber. An estimated 17,000 people lost their lives here during 1975-1979. If you are interested in reading a personal account of what the Khmer Rouge Regime was like, read ”First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung. It is written from a child’s perspective, so is easy to follow. If possible, I would encourage you to visit the S21 Museum before the Killing Fields.
Royal Palace - A grand display of Cambodian architecture during the French Indochina period. A warning: its charm may be lost if you’ve already visited the Royal Palace of Bangkok. Regardless, the grounds are well maintained and there is much historical significance here. Arrive early, take a tour guide and dress appropriately and you will get the most from this palace.
Russian Markets - Relatively good selection of goods and considerably cheaper than the Siem Reap markets, you can find some decent bargains. Beware of quality though, ensure that you inspect clothing for any imperfections before purchasing. It can get quite hot and stuffy inside, so make sure you find some iced coffee to cool you down (really delicious). You shouldn’t pay more than $2 for a tuk-tuk here from almost anywhere in Phnom Penh.
Central Markets - Quite similar to the Russian markets in terms of products, but I would say that the central markets have slightly less touristy things, though you can certainly find some here still. The building itself is very unusual and worth a visit in its own right. There is plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables here at very low prices. Make sure you sample some Dragonfruit and Jackfruit, both are delicious.
Tamao Zoo - This is one of the few zoos you will find in South East Asia that are up to “Western standards”. It is more of an animal rescue place, than a traditional zoo. You can get up close and personal with the elephants and bears. Things are quite spaced out and the Zoo itself is a bit out of town, so you might find it better to take a tour rather than arrange your own trip, especially if you are traveling solo or just in a pair. It’s well worth the visit, especially if you have children with you. Bare in mind during the very hot months the animals will be a lot less active.
Friends Restaurant - This is one of my favourite restaurants in Phnom Penh and it’s consistently good. It is in part with a NGO that helps train street children in Phnom Penh so that they have employable skills. It also supports a number of local schools. The service is wonderfully attentive, the food is great. It is expensive by a Cambodian standard, but at least half of what I would expect to pay for anything back home. There is a sister restaurant Romdeng which I have enjoyed a few times too – warning: they have excellent cocktails.
Volunteer - I think Cambodia is one of the best places to volunteer in the world. It’s rough history combined with the beautiful, warm smiles of the locals draws you in. It is a developing country and there is a lot of poverty. There are numerous orphanages in Phnom Penh, but I chose to volunteer in a rural area of Cambodia called Takeo. If you are interested in reading my volunteer story and finding out more information about volunteering in general click here.
Budget Tips for Cambodia
This section isn’t really necessary, because Cambodia is probably one of the cheapest places I’ve ever been. So, chances are if you’re there, you’re saving yourself money already. You are a lot less likely to get ripped of in Cambodia than in say, Vietnam, but it’s still possible to ensure you get the best price possible with these simple tips.
Walk away - Almost all prices in Cambodia are negotiable unless they’re printed and even then they’re might still be negotiable. It gets pretty tiresome haggling over a few dollars, so I always try the “walk away” approach. Which is to simply: walk away and see if they offer me a better deal. If not, then I consider whether the price they were originally offering me seemed appropriate and fair. Please be considerate when you’re trying to score a bargain with the locals, a few hundred riel can be the difference between a good day and a bad day for them and sometimes it’s not worth fighting over.
Use Riel - For smaller spending, you’re likely to get a better deal if you spend in Riel. Basically how currency works in Cambodia, is that “dollars” are USD and “cents” are Cambodian Riel. If small prices (i.e. a few dollars) are quoted in dollars instead of Riel you can almost be certain that they are for tourists and not locals. When I was in Cambodia 1 USD was accepted as 4000 Riel, but if I changed my USD into Riel I would get about 4100 Riel to the dollar. This works out to be a loss of 10,000 Riel, or $2.50, for every $100 USD you spend. This isn’t a huge amount, but I’m not a fan of giving away money. Don’t make the mistake of withdrawing a large sum of Riel, simply change crisp USD into Riel as you need it. Riel is worthless outside of Cambodia.
Hire a Tuk-Tuk - One off tuk-tuk fares add up quickly. You get so much more value from hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the day. When you find one that you like hire him for your length of stay in Phnom Penh, or at least for the days that you’re going to be exploring a lot. Usually they’re quite appreciative of the ongoing work and are more than happy to wait outside while you do whatever you want to do. Anywhere between $10-15, or roughly $2 an hour, is a fair price, although if you travel a lot I would expect to contribute some additional gas money. I tend to pay my driver at the end of the day, although I have given a portion of the wage as a security after the first trip. If I buy myself a drink I will always get one for my driver, too. If you take this option, think about how much time you’ve taken of your driver and how helpful he’s been and tip accordingly. It is not expected, but certainly appreciated.
Don’t Take the Airport Tuk-Tuks - If you want to save a few dollars on your transport costs from the airport, the best thing you can do is walk outside of the airport grounds. Usually it will cost $7 for a tuk-tuk to the city, but outside the airport you’ll find tuk-tuks and cycles waiting to take you for a few dollars cheaper.