My Impressions of Phnom Penh Cambodia

National Museum - Phnom Penh Cambodia

National Museum in Phnom Penh – Cambodia

My Impressions of Phnom Penh Cambodia

Leaving Vietnam to reach Cambodia entailed yet another day-long bus ride, this time from Saigon to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh: three hours to the border, an hour for everyone to pass through Vietnamese and Cambodian immigration points, a break for lunch and another four hours to central  Phnom Penh.

I got my first impressions of Cambodia at the border and it was certainly different from Vietnam! The border itself consisted of an attractive red-stone gate set in a 100-yard-wide strip of heaped up dirt, messy fields and heaps of rubble. Not a good sign… The road beyond was rough dirt. Gone were Vietnam’s paved roads.

border gate to Cambodia

border gate to Cambodia

At least there was one sign of progress- the road was being extensively reconstructed, though it looked like it might take a few years to complete with the scraggly construction crew on site. Needless to say, I endured a rough, bumpy four-hour ride to Phnom Penh.

Another immediate difference were the people. While the Vietnamese looked Chinese to me, the Cambodians looked Thai/SEAsian. The Cambodians had darker brown skin and wider, flatter faces.

Their manners were entirely different too. Just by crossing a border I was suddenly freed from being continually pointed at, poked, touched and grabbed. Whew! Cambodians are definitely not touchy, feel-y, pokey, grabby! They are much less aggressive and calmer. I liked that, a lot.

Cambodian children - Cambodia

Cambodian children – Cambodia

Unfortunately, I soon was subjected to people continually laughing at me instead. That pissed me off just as much as the Vietnamese habits of poking and prodding. I quickly found myself day-dreaming of an escape to Thailand, where the locals continually smile and tell me how beautiful my fuschia-colored hair is.

In any event, our bus eventually arrived in Phnom Penh’s guesthouse area, lakeside, at dusk. The rooms in Cambodia were another major change from travel in Vietnam. For nearly the same price as rather luxurious budget rooms in Vietnam, I suddenly found myself ‘treated’ to bare-bones rooms with tilted sinks (if any), cheap linoleum flooring, paper-thin walls and dodgy construction. Goodbye luxury budget travel!

backpackers' lakeside area - Phnom Penh - Cambodia

backpackers’ lakeside area – Phnom Penh – Cambodia

On the other hand, Phnom Penh’s guesthouses all had large wood verandas set out over a small lake full of thick floating foliage. We guests were spared roads, traffic and noisy boats. The atmosphere was quite pleasant and peaceful.

Unfortunately, the immediate area was basically a slum of jumbled up dirt alleys, dark at night, with garbage and mess strewn about and packed with local residents’ tiny shacks. Yucko! At least in Vietnam people live in reasonable, if small, houses and the roads are paved and comparatively clean.

Cambodia was decidedly less developed than Vietnam.

As for Phnom Penh, I can sum it up easily in one word: blaaaaaaaaaahhhhh! It’s a surprisingly huge city of nondescript sprawl leading for many miles in every direction. There’s not an interesting building or shop in sight.

neighborhod street - Phnom Penh - Cambodia

typical neighborhod street – Phnom Penh – Cambodia

Another good word for the city is: pigpen. A few main roads were smoothly paved, but all the side streets were rumbled, potholed dirt roads heaped up with garbage piles and lined by dull little shops. Kids were running all over the place all day long, apparently not attending school. Many beggars filled the city, mostly children, women with babies, old nuns and  crippled or amputee-d men.

In fairness, I will admit Phnom Penh has one very nice area. Located along the wide Mekong River are the Royal Palace (where the current King and Queen actually reside), the Royal Silver Palace and the beautiful National Museum. A wide park lines the river, although the river banks are cemented and garbage is strewn all about.

Statue in Phnom Phen

Statue at a round-about in Phnom Phen, one of the few attractive buildings in town

Throughout the city, several extremely wide boulevards are lined with big fluffy trees. In fact, most streets in Phnom Penh are lined with trees, lending a softer edge. There are no tall buildings, so the city has a rather relaxed, town-like feeling, betraying its vast unending, impoverished sprawl.

Aside from the palace/river area, though, there’s not much besides blaaahh and slum. In fact, I saw all of Phnom Penh’s ‘attractions’ in just two short days of cycling and exploring. That included visits to the gorgeous Royal Palace/Silver Temple and the National Museum, which is full of stone and bronze statues of Buddha and various Hindu gods. Bangkok, in contrast, would require at least a week to visit its main temples, shopping areas and other sites.

Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda

beautiful Silver Pagoda – Phnom Penh

So after my two short days of sightseeing, I plunged into Phnom Penh’s reputedly great nightlife. ‘Heart of Darkness’, the most popular club did have an amazing ‘World-Asian’ decor and atmosphere, but… well, the music sucked. They actually played Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ –some 20 years after its debut! And that was one of the better songs. All I could say is, “Help!”

I quickly discovered that the city’s other bars and nightclubs suffered from an overdose of hip-hop. It was definitely not my scene. It was ok as a novelty for a change of pace (for about an hour). But after one night of clubbing it was time for me to move on from Phnom Penh.

Given my impressions of the city, I was astounded to meet several westerners who liked it. Eh? Like what? I didn’t get it. A surprisingly large number of westerners were living there, most of them involved in aid/help/ development/volunteer work. Apparently that’s the appeal of Phnom Penh for those so inclined. It is admirable and Cambodia certainly does need help after its atrocious devastation by Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge.

Well, those charitable westerners were welcome to Phnom Penh as far as I was concerned.

I myself ‘escaped’ the blasé city on a bus to Cambodia’s coastal beach area of Sihanoukville.

Read about that trip in my next story coming soon…

(* FLickr CC photo credits:  azwegers / McKaySavage / struple  / Cambodia4kidsorg  *)


Meanwhile, you might also like:

My Visit to Cambodia Overview

My Visit to Angkor Wat and Siem Reap



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  1. Leigh

    Interesting to get your take on the city – blaah and pigpen doesn’t exactly make me want to visit. I actually found the Vietnamese people t be very gentle – but I have yet to go to Cambodia and not sure that I ever will.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Yeah, blahh and pigpen certianly wouldn’t entice me to visit a place either! And I cerntainly have no interest in returning there!

      Thanks for stopping by, Leigh

      cheers, Lash

  2. Gregory Clark

    Hi Lash, my friend and I went to Cambodia in 2012 and again in 2013 and while we loved Siem Reap i agree with you totally on Phnom Penh. Very blah and un interesting and we actually left 2 days earlier than we planned and headed to Siem Reap.

    Loved Siem Reap and the temples food and markets and found the people so amazing and friendly

    Do you have any you tube clips available to watch?

    Cheers, greg

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Greg,


      Sorry it’s taken me a while to reply – I just found your comment here today!

      Thanks for taking time to stop by and add your impressions of Cambodia. Yeah, I’m not hte only traveler who found the country to not be ideal.

      Sorry, I dont’ have any tubing videos for you to watch. I”m pretty sure many other travlers must have made those videos in Vang Veng though!

      Thanks again for stopping by.

      cheers, Lash

  1. Sihanoukville Cambodia » LashWorldTour

    […] My Impressions of Phnom Penh […]

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