Life in “The Penh” has the good, the bad and the ugly. A combination that makes life in Cambodia very interesting, but it can send some people into despair. There is great accommodation, but at a price; there is the traffic, but it can drive foreigners mad; and there is the food, a huge variety but often over-priced and often terrible. So, let’s dive in and check the pros and cons of living in Phnom Penh.
Living In Cambodia | Phnom Penh
Accommodation in Phnom Penh | Roof Over Your Head
Here I will be looking at long-term accommodation. For volunteers and travelers looking for short-term accommodation visit our page dedicated to booking accommodation and our hotel secrets page. For short-term digs, there are plenty in the Riverside area with some starting as low as $6 a night. In fact, Phnom Penh is littered with guesthouses; after all, people need their privacy. The further from the centre the better the deal you can arrange. Of course, there are some places that are not the least bit interested in guests staying longer than a couple of hours. So, let’s see what’s out there.
Living on The Streets | NO
At the desperation level, there are a handful of foreigners who have gone native and decided to live it rough on the streets. They make a living collecting cans, plastic bottles and cardboard. They sleep in a dark corner and make their Cambodian competition ask why. However, these people tend to be down on their luck or made some bad decisions; don’t go there.
Phnom Penh Guesthouses
A step up from this are the guesthouse dwellers. It is possible to live for $250 a month, all in. This includes a room with an attached bathroom – describing it as on en-suite is a stretch – a bed, desk and chair, fan and television. You might luck out and get a refrigerator. It is a Spartan existence, but it suits a certain personality type. Check the security situation as belongings have a habit of going walkabout. Have a look around the Orussey area and you are bound to find a place.
The guesthouses go up from there in every way. Most guesthouses offer long-term arrangements: shop around. Expect to pay at least $350 up for a decent place that is fully furnished with an equipped kitchen. Usually, utilities are extra, and air-conditioning will send your electricity bill through the roof.
Guesthouses typically don’t allow cooking in the room, but a small electric cooker seems okay. Besides, outside food is cheap making cooking unecessary.
Phnom Penh Apartments
If you want an apartment, look around and don’t grab the first one you look at. There is a wide selection of semi- and fully-furnished apartments. Having mentioned this, you will still need to buy extra items, such as those for the kitchen.
Apartments in Phnom Penh tend to be on the expensive side for what you get. Buildings are usually old with dodgy wiring. Make sure everything is working before you move in and no word of mouth agreements. Get everything down on paper and signed.
I know people who have rented apartments for $150 per month, add utilities. These places are rough and usually have no furniture. I think the idea is to pack them with Cambodian workers from the provinces not a foreigner, but hey $150 is $150.
There are semi-furnished apartments for about $200, which are cheap and cheerful. They can be found in older buildings. Get one of these, spend a bit of money sprucing the place up and you will have a half decent home.
From here the prices for apartments typically start about $350 and escalate from there: semi-furnished, fully-furnished and often in new buildings. For these, you can hire the services of an agent but be careful as agents are typically commission obsessed and will steer you in the direction of places they make the most money out of.
One last thing to consider with apartments is gas. Usually, this involves delivery of a gas bottle. The local gas man will want a deposit for the bottle and money for the gas. Get the gas man to lug the bottle up the stairs and give him $1; he’ll appreciate it, as will you. Make sure you know where the local gas provider is.
Traffic in Phnom Penh
The great nemesis for foreigners. The cry goes out, “What are they doing?” At first glance, Phnom Penh’s traffic is chaotic: no one obeys the rules, people go through red lights, nobody gives way, and using the roads is an endless battle with people doing the oddest things.
I have regularly seen motorcyclists and cars turn onto major roads without looking and cut off oncoming traffic, cars pull out from minor roads onto major roads then stop, then the driver pulls out a mobile phone and starts a conversation. Now, where I come from, people would be honking horns and cursing the bloke, but not in Phnom Penh. The traffic finds a way around the car and life goes on. In fact, the bad driving that is practised is accepted with incredible tolerance. Forget road rage – that is a waste of time.
I have seen many accidents, but they are usually minor ones because the traffic is so slow. For example, there is a lady on a scooter laden with groceries. She pulls out in front of a car without looking. The car hits her and the groceries go everywhere. Words are exchanged, the vehicles checked, the groceries picked up, and everybody goes about their business. This is a very typical scenario.
So, while people ignore the official road rules, there are plenty of unwritten rules that are to be followed.
Unwritten Driving Etiquette in the Penh
For example, the pecking order. The smaller you are the less authority you have on the roads. So, a pedestrian has no right of way being at the bottom of the pile. Then there is the bicycle, which has more right of way than a pedestrian and up the list you go. A big SUV is more than willing to cut you off, turn in front of you and generally move badly in the traffic, and there is nothing worse than dealing with a driver who can’t see over the steering wheel.
It doesn’t stop in the city. On the main highways, there are slow vehicles being overtaken by mini-buses which in turn are being overtaken by private taxis, all at the same time. If you happen to be unlucky enough to be coming down the other side of the road, the chances are that you will be run off the road.
Of course, if it is the Prime Minister’s motorcade of 30 vehicles then everybody gets out of the way.
At the end of the day, dealing with Cambodian traffic is a matter of common sense. People will drive in unexpected ways, even dangerous ways. Don’t take risks, and don’t lose your temper as it will get you nowhere. And, as always, expect the unexpected.
Eating Out in Phnom Penh
People often compare Cambodian food to Thai food, except that it is less spicy: that’s a bit of a stretch. It is possible to buy a meal for 8,000 Riels. This will usually be a rice or noodle dish. One of the best buys is the pork and rice breakfasts. These restaurants can be found everywhere. For as low as 4,000 Riels you will get pork on rice with pickled vegetables, spicy sauce, an egg and soup. Breakfast places usually open early and are finished by 10 am. There are a slew of foreign restaurants on and near Riverside. Expect to pay much more in these places. There are also Cambodian places that sell meals for $3 to $4. They have cheap glasses and jugs of beer.
Getting Around Phnom Penh
Transport is everywhere in Phnom Penh: boats, cars, taxis, motorcycles and Tuk Tuks. The government also has plans to improve the city’s transportation system. There is even a rumour of an elevated railway system.
In Phnom Penh, one of the best ways to get around are the Pjajs. These three-wheeled and metered taxis are fantastic. You can use PassApp, an App that you install on your mobile phone. PassApp tells you how long your ride will take to get to you, and you can show the driver through the App where you want to go: no language barrier. It also eliminates the annoying haggling you have to do with Tuk Tuk drivers who only want to overcharge you. To get the App, download it from Google Play or Apple App store.
If you are forced to use a Tuk Tuk, try to get an idea of how much the journey should cost and negotiate from there. The owners of these vehicles will not hesitate to get as much out of you as possible.
There are a ferry services plying the Mekong. Several ferries cross to the opposite side from Phnom Penh. There is also a ferry service that runs along the city side of the river.
Beyond Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is the ideal centre to explore Cambodia; the temples of Angkor Wat, Kampong Cham, Preah Vihear. Maybe you have visited S21 and want to see where Pol Pot has his final resting place in Anlong Veng. A bus or cycle trip to Battambang is worth putting on your bucket list. Your in the ideal place to explore Cambodia; enjoy the adventure.