The Scoop on Phnom Penh

It turns out in addition to earning my TEFL, I learned a few things while I was in Phnom Penh …

Getting around….
In Phnom Penh, you’ll have three main options for getting around. One is obvious–walk. When you put aside the stifling heat, the chaotic traffic, and the constant nagging of tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers, the city can be a very pleasant place for a stroll.

Early mornings in Phnom Penh are a joy. In the mornings, tuk-tuk drivers and merchants are less aggressive, and many of PP’s citizens are have already been at work for hours. The streets are full of mothers walking children to school, friends or family grabbing a bite to eat, and venders selling coconuts and fruit, coffee, soup, and countless more. Before the sun burns too hot, and before too many tourists emerge from their hotels and guesthouses, the city is, arguably, at it’s best. This is a great time for a walk.

Option two is to hire one of the one-million tuk-tuk drivers scattered around every nook and cranny waiting anxiously for your service. Remember: when agreeing to a tuk-tuk, always negotiate. Accept no more than half of what was originally suggested and know EXACTLY where you are heading. This often means bringing a map of the city and pointing to your desired location. Never assume any driver actually knows where you are going, or that they know how to read the map, even when they nod their head while you tell/show them. Cross your fingers and have faith that you’ll arrive where you desire eventually.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The view from the back of a tuk-tuk

The final option is to hire a mototaxi. This is by far the fastest, most practical and most exciting way to get from A to B. Understand that Phnom Penh in the 70s had a population of 2-3 million. After the Khmer Rouge was finished with their reign of terror, the population dipped to 862,000. These days the population is back at over 2 million. With such a rapid growth rate, the city’s infastructure stuggles to keep up. Imagine a 4 way intersection in the center of a bustling capitol city–with no stop lights. Now try crossing the road as tuk-tuks, motos and cars fly at you from all directions, and you’ll get a vague idea of the chaos of Phnom Penh’s streets. At any given time you can pretty much guarantee a traffic jam. This is exactly why jumping on a zippy little motorbike is preferable to a car or even a tuk-tuk.

A bite to eat…

If you want to pay pocket change for your meals, stick to the streets. Some days I’d buy my breakfast from a woman pushing a cleverly constructed cart–selling short, fat rice noodles fried in sesame oil, tossed with bean sprouts, topped with a runny fried egg and chill sauce ($1). Some days I’d sit at the tiny plastic tables and chairs of a family run street stand and order crispy, smokey and sweet grilled pork and a runny fried egg over a bed of rice topped with pickled ginger veggies ($1). When I wanted a quick dinner, I’d opt for the baguette venders. Always a fast and tasty choice, the baguettes–leftover from years of French influence–were spread with a sweet jam, filled with pork or grilled meat and cucumber slaw, drizzled with chili sauce, wrapped in recycled newspaper (this part: not for consumption) would put me back about 75 cents. No matter what meal, I’d often swing by a local market for a steaming bowl of soup. These soups were often composed of thinly sliced beef, translucent rice noodles, mystery meat balls, lettuce, bean sprouts, scallions and Thai basil in a savory broth served with fermented bean paste, chilies and limes for condiments. One time, as I enthusiastically ate her soup, a vender dropped a gelatinous boiled pig’s foot into my bowl (in approval of my good taste, of course). I hid the terror from my face and ate it with delight, as she looked on.

Phnom Penh would not be bad place to loosen your purse strings a bit and have a nice sit-down meal. It’s emerging as a bit of foodie scene and nearly every type of ethnic food imaginable is obtainable. My classmates and I used our long lunch breaks to test out some pretty fantastic Indian, Nepalese, Khmer and Western food. I noticed Italian, African, Pakistani, French and even Mexican restaurants in the city.

Do buy a coffee (50 cents) from one of the street countless venders. Do not mistake this coffee for your standard Starbucks Grande Caramel Macchiato. This coffee would beat the shit out of any one of those pansy-ass diluted $6 cups if ran into it in a dark alley. Khmer coffee, like Vietnamese, is a thick, midnight black liquid, not unlike motor oil–sometimes sweetened, sometimes enhanced with a shot of condensed milk–poured over iced. After your first sip you may need a moment to reconsider your definition of coffee. If you had planned on having a relaxing morning, you will change your plans. If you have class, you will spend the next several hours tapping your legs, fidgeting and sketching in your workbook.

Cambodian coffee, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodian/Khmer coffee

A baguette lady, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A baguette vender

My favorite breakfast in Cambodia

My favorite breakfast in Cambodia

Note: Careful with meat. Don’t assume the meat in your soup or over rice is pork, beef, or chicken. If it tastes a bit funny, it probably is something funny….Cambodians have been known to eat nearly any creature (and nearly any part of that creature). A friend of mine told me she saw a man in the street cooking something in a strange green liquid. Upon closer examination, she was horrified to see a fat, juicy rat simmering in his pan.

*Note: When walking along the river, you will notice an unusual number of pizza places with “happy” in the title. While many of these places indeed have a pleasant atmosphere and friendly staff, this is not what the word “happy” is referring to. When ordering a “happy” shake or a “happy” pizza, eat with caution and don’t be alarmed if in 40 minutes to an hour your limbs are tingling, you’re experiencing delayed reaction time, or you’ve got a mean case of the munchies–these are merely symptoms of the healthy dose of “happy” that’s been added to your food.

Going out …
After hours, any day of the week, the streets from just west of the river spanning to the Central Market vicinity come alive. Beautiful backpackers, homely old men escorted by beautiful Khmer girls, middle aged European couples, Japanese tourists all take to the streets looking to appease all of their strange desires. Phnom Penh has a bustling nightlife that will satisfy the needs of anyone from those looking to enjoy a casual drink in a scenic location; to creepy old men seeking lady bars filled with large-breasted Asians to backpackers looking for an all-night bender to top all benders featuring a cocktail of cheap, illegal drugs & booze and dirty dancing. This is not a city for people who have addictive personalities (or maybe it is, depending on who you ask). It’s a lawless, Wild Wild West Las Vegas. Hold on to your purse tight and never bring out with you anything you wouldn’t mind losing.

Other random observations/tips:

  • Because of Phnom Penh’s rapid growth (as noted above), much of the city is a constant dusty, dirty construction zone. If you wear contacts, this will bother you. This also may be why many Cambodian’s find it fashionable to wear surgical masks. Don’t be ashamed to pick one up yourself if you’re bothered by dust. Do know you’ll still look like a goofy germaphobe to every tourist you pass.
  • It’s perfectly acceptable for Cambodian woman of a certain age to wear matching pajama sets as clothing, in public. Mother–I thought of you and your polar bear PJs every time I saw this.
  • The beggars of Phnom Penh are some of the most heartbreaking I’ve encountered in all my travels. Many of whom are children, mothers and skinny babies, men missing limbs. Knowing the country’s tragic history (and the US’s shameful relation to the problem), this can be particularly troubling, know this, be prepared for this, react as you choose.
  • You’ll notice Buddhist monks wandering the streets of Phnom Penh. These are all men who became monks a.) Because they are poor–Monks receive food & board and free education; b) By choice in court–men who have been convicted of petty crimes can choose a term as a monk or the same amount of time in jail; c) because they choose to devote their lives to living a pure and chaste existence (one that does not include sex, drugs or alcohol, touching money, voting, sleeping on comfy beds or eyebrows/hair). One does not have to vow to become a monk for their lifetime–a few years can be enough.
  • Be prepared to use squat toilets and always keep a spare square or two on you–toilet paper is not a given.
  • Cambodia is a spa lover’s dream. Even if you’re a dude, you will soon find yourself magnetically drawn to the $3 foot massages, $4 pedicures, $6 Khmer massages… I think every single person in our class, at one time or another used our lunch break as a pampering opportunity.
  • Book in advance only your first night’s accommodation. If you decide you love it, stay. But many will find that after wandering around a bit, better deals are to be found.
  • Come with an open mind and intrepid attitude. Depending on who you ask, the city could be an exciting adventure or an uncomfortable stopover on your way to Siem Reap.

Never squat on western toilets...

Remember never to squat on western toilets…

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Royal Palace


  1. Not sure I want to visit Cambodia, but if I do it’s comforting to know I can just wear my pajamas – since I am evidently a woman “of a certain age”……..thank you very much Lindsay. Just kidding, sounds fascinating!


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