A personal story of our media director living in Cambodia. He shares experiences from the mundane to the unusual.
His information is essential for anyone who will be volunteering for any length of time in Cambodia or planning to fully explore the rich Khmer history of Cambodia. Make sure you have all your essential items packed before you set off – be prepared.
Living in Cambodia | Phnom Penh
I am often asked what it is like living in Phnom Penh. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t have a least one unique experience. But what is it about this city, which is also known as “The Penh” and “PP”, that draws people to it to work and live, sometimes for many years.
Traffic in Phnom Penh
Let’s get to what is for most visitors to Phnom Penh an ugly topic. Over the past several years the number of vehicles on the capital’s roads has increased significantly. The economy is doing well, which means more money is spent on status symbols such as cars. Unfortunately, this money isn’t spent on learning how to drive and most people behind the wheel shouldn’t be there: drivers who are so small that they can’t see over their SUV’s steering wheel; drivers multi-tasking by talking on a mobile while smoking a cigarette and talking with passengers; vehicles overtaking and undertaking at nerve-racking velocities; nobody follows road regulations; limited or no traffic management; and people who are more than happy to run red lights and barrel through intersections without looking. The list goes on, and it is a long list. However, from all this chaos, there is a strange logic to the traffic’s workings.
Surprisingly few Accidents
Having lived in Cambodia for many years, and considering the amount of bad driving, I am surprised how there are in comparison few serious accidents. However, there are lots of minor accidents, or “taps” – a tap is where a motorcyclist collides with another or bingles with a car because the rider or driver isn’t paying much attention. There are some red faces, face-saving smiles, an exchange of words, and people go their separate ways. You see quite a bit of this around markets and busy business areas. Generally speaking, injuries are minor and no harm. Typically, if you are involved in an accident, it will usually end with an exchange of cash.
There’s a lot of drink driving and riding, so be watch out, especially at night, for these types of people.
Handling the traffic is straightforward. As always, remember the pecking order: pedestrians are at the bottom of the pile and depending on the size of your vehicle, it goes from there. The bigger the beast, the more right of way it has. So, if you like walking then you’ll be weaving and dodging your way about the city.
Living in Cambodia | Accommodation and Food
Living in Cambodia and in Phnom Penh is an ongoing assortment of sounds. There is the steady growl of traffic in the city; the collection of sounds from refuse gatherers with their squeaking and honking horns that announce whether they are for collecting plastic, paper or cans; and the street vendors who have recorded voices bleating out their wares. And this is all just in your immediate neighbourhood. If you want quiet then choose apartments or rooms on higher floors, but not too high as most buildings don’t have elevators and many buildings have temple-style stairs – steep and small steps.
For foreigners, there are three areas that they typically gravitate to. These are Toul Tom Puong, BKK 1 and Riverside. These areas also have excellent places to eat and buy food. However, don’t exclude other areas in Phnom Penh; if for no other reason, price.
Rents in the Penh tend to be expensive, and you tend not to get great value for money. People usually pay $350 to $450, plus utilities, for an okay semi-furnished place. Buildings are often older and often run down.
Some people choose to stay in guesthouses. Great for a short time, but they can get a little tedious if you stay too long.
Living in Cambodia | Food Journey
Food choices in Cambodia is good. In Phenom Penh there are many supermarkets such as Lucky and Pencil where you have a good selection of products. Don’t forget the local wet market, and there are many of them. However, in the neighbourhoods mentioned above, some of the best value for money and product selection are the mini-marts found in the area.
There is a huge variety of restaurants: Mexican, Indian, Iraqi and Korean are just a taste of what’s available. There has also been a recent surge in fast food outlets such as Dominoes Pizza and Burger King. However, some of the best places are the Cambodian joints, and they are everywhere. These places generally have pretty good local fare, and if you are lucky you join in the raucous locals as they watch the Khmer boxing. And don’t forget the local coffee places. They typically have deck chairs out the front and have delicious ice coffees.
Living in Cambodia | Health Care
Let’s face it, healthcare in Cambodia isn’t great. There are a couple of hospitals you can go to, and some clinics are okay. There are foreign medical professionals in the country, but they are far and few between and will charge exorbitant rates, and, to be honest, most are a dodgy lot. If you don’t have health insurance, you could find yourself in a world of pain. Do not consider arriving in Cambodia without health insurance. The consequences could be dire.
There are places such as Calmete Hospital, Pasteur Clinic and the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital, but even these places don’t rate very highly.
The bottom line, if you have a serious health problem and need immediate attention, go to Thailand or, better still, your own country. Thailand is the best viable option as it has some good hospitals.
Out and About in Phnom Penh
There are a lot of places to go and enjoy your free time in Phnom Penh. All the areas that expats live in are also great places for entertainment.
Riverside is where most people gravitate. There are lots of restaurants and bars. The variety of food is good, and prices range from super cheap to overpriced. As mentioned, the food choices are great with local food in abundance and plenty of other nationalities represented. For some, this area is a bit touristy, so they want something else. Just dive into the back streets and you’ll find plenty of Cambodian restaurants.
BKK 1 is good for bars and restaurants but Toul Tom Puong is the surprise location for good food and company. This area has some great Vietnamese and Thai restaurants at bargain-based prices. There are also some great rooftop and sky bars in the area. Of course, Toul Tom Puong has the Russian Market, which has all manner of shopping and lots of good eateries.
Out and About | Further Exploration
Khmer culture is rich and visits into the countryside will fill you with awe. Obviously everyone knows about the temples at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap; however, get on a bus or your bike and explore places such as Preah Vihear or Kampong Thom or the undiscovered areas of Battambang. Perhaps the last bastion of a dictator, or a cycle ride from Phnom Penh to Kampong Som for the fit among you.
Volunteer in Cambodia
One thing that you should consider is to volunteer in Cambodia. There are hundreds of worthwhile charities in Cambodia that need you skills. Perhaps Teaching English or construction interests you. Maybe you are able to help in healthcare or sports. No matter what your interest is, you have a skill that is needed in Cambodia. Even if the skill is fund raising and donations.
Living in Cambodia | More information
If you cannot find what you need to know about living in Cambodia on our website, feel free to contact us. We will be happy to help you.
Living In Cambodia | Picture Gallery