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*I spent 3 days in Phnom Penh in February 2014. Inside of this Phnom Penh Guide, you’ll hear about my experiences and get tips for culture, food, nightlife, things to do and more.
I always loved the name Phnom Penh since I first heard it when I was younger. But I had no idea what the city was like, so I went in with an open mind and a big smile on my face.
The first thing that hit me was the big size of the city. Phnom Penh is the capital city and boats about 1.5 million people. It’s much bigger than Siem Reap (where I was coming from).
In recent years, Phnom Penh has been on the upswing with tourism, and it considered as one of Asia’s future cities. I talked to a local and he told me that Phnom Penh will turn into Bangkok in the next 5 years, so NOW is the time to go because it is not yet commercialized by tourists!
High levels of poverty is seen everywhere on the streets.
Kids younger than 5 years old are selling things and begging you for money. Poor mother are living on a street corner with 3 children. Hundreds of people are seen without arms and legs, just scraping to get by. Just prepare yourself, especially if you’ve never been to a third world country before.
There are an endless amount of street markets around the city. Everything from food, clothes, electronics, hand made goods and souvenirs. Make sure to bargain!! Never buy anything until you’ve knocked down the price at least 50%. Seriously, don’t be fooled because they always open up with a ridiculously high price if you are a white person.
Alright, let’s dive into some quick facts:
– Currency: Cambodian Riel
– Language: Khmer (Cambodian)
– Population: 1.5 million
– Nickname: The Charming City
– The word for “Phnom” in Khmer means “hill”
– Phnom Penh was under French Rule until it gained Independence in 1953
– The famous killing fields from the Cambodian Civil War are located in the city limits
– Phnom Penh was originally called “Krong Chaktomuk”, which means “City of Four Faces” because there are 4 rivers that intersect here
Culture & People
Despite being a very poor country, the people are extremely friendly and I always felt safe in Cambodia’s capital.
It took me a minute to adjust to the poverty levels, but I quickly realized that the people are just like you and I. The tuk tuk drivers (3 wheel taxis) are a little aggressive because they will constantly ask you for a ride every 5 seconds, but they are just trying to make a dollar and will not harm you. Our tuk tuk driver was the coolest guy ever and we became close friends with him.
I encourage you to strike up a conversation with a local, and you’ll see how charming it is. Click this link to learn the Top 10 Khmer Words to keep in your back pocket 😉
What to Do?
Phnom Penh has a nice variety of things to do around the city.
The main tourist attraction is to visit the killing fields from the Cambodian Genocide that occurred some 35 years ago. Let me warn you that it’s really really depressing. It will drain all your energy for the rest of the day.
Over 3 million Cambodians were killed (over 25% of the population under Pol Pot’s regime from 1975-1979. The main killing field is 17 kilometers south of Phnom Penh. Its a good audio tour with lots of information about the war, and you’ll see actually human skulls and graves from where 12,000 people were killed. It’s treacherous. There’s also a museum in a former camp called S-21 that’s brutal and gory. Everything is worth seeing so you can learn about the massacres that happened during the 1970’s.
Aside from the genocide, Phnom Penh is a really cool city to explore! It wasn’t so touristy, as compared with Bangkok or Siem Reap, so I actually felt like I was visiting the real Cambodia. I recommend you to take a long walk up the riverside, and through the main park area where you will see the independence monument. People watching has never been more fun than in this huge open area. Just sit there and try to understand their culture. All you have to do is observe the things around you and you’ll realize how amazing this city is.
For a more complete list, check out my post on “10 Amazing Things to do in Phnom Penh”
The Classic Cambodian dish is called Amok – a coconut milk based curry with basil leaves and other spices. It’s usually served with fish but you can sometimes get chicken. I ate it everyday that I was in Cambodia.
If you want to have a “happy” day., then you can enjoy some “happy pizza” and see for yourself..
To learn more about the best local foods, read my post on 5 Cambodian Foods to Try!
Most of the bars in Phnom Penh are concentrated along the riverside.
That area is pretty fun, but it’s super touristy and the prices are MUCH more expensive than anywhere else in the city. If you want a local and cheaper atmosphere, go to Street 51 (about 1 km inland) and you’ll find some sweet pubs, food places and clubs with locals. Take a tuk tuk there and it will cost you no more than 4,000 Riel ($1USD).
Just so you understand how cheap Street 51 is, I got a pitcher of beer 51 for $2, and that exact same pitcher was $10 at a Riverside bar. On Street 51, you’l get a local taste of culture and have fun partying until the morning. But I must warn you: Be aware of all the hookers…they’ll try to wheel you in.
*Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to book your hotels on this link!