Phnom Penh

Royal PalaceBeing on Cambodian soil you feel hot, sweaty, and excited to be exactly where you are. The air is thick; the noise and chaos make you feel alive.

It is precisely this kind of bedlam that I love when I travel. It’s where so much of the craziness happens and after only one day I have not been disappointed.

This was originally supposed to be a trip shared with my girlfriend. Unfortunately her reaction to the first vaccination left it impossible for her to receive the remainder necessary. Vaccinations spread out over a longer period of time will mean this is merely a postponement in our worldwide adventure. So for now I am scouting ahead and looking forward to the day I can share these adventures with her.

Sometime soon she will be fully loaded with inoculations and protected against CDC recommended diseases to avoid.

Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts and surprises. It is located on a muddy river known as the Tonle Sap and spreads from there in a grid-like pattern of numbered streets. The old center is on the riverfront and it is in this area that the few remaining buildings representing Cambodia’s colonial past reside.  Some are still in use, others lay in disrepair.

It’s a busy section of town and gives off an energy you would expect from a place that is fueled by tourism, good and bad.

Any guide-book will tell you that the city is divided into sections and that access to each is easy even if you intend to walk everywhere.

It’s not a big city, at least not the central part. The book will tell you about all the things that make the city great. Like the temples, museums, the silk producing river islands and the markets.

I, however, am going to tell you about the quirkiness of the place. The things that made me take a second look, shake my head in amusement, and smile down deep.

The riverfront is home of the most expensive hotels and restaurants. Shops line the one available side of the boulevard and it is here you will find yourself sipping a beer while gazing out over the vastness of the Tonle Sap.

It is here you can book onward travel to anywhere you want via the agents that occupy seemingly every spare available inch of real estate.

Some of the shops are no bigger than a bedroom closet.

It is here you can grab a coffee or vodka straight up, eat a donut or Thai, Khmer, Indian food; or food from anywhere in the world. Get a tuk-tuk or cyclo, buy gold or buy a postcard. Buy a souvenir, buy a girl by the hour, buy almost anything and yes, buy a coffin.

It’s like Costco!

Dozens of coffin shops line the river with their skillfully carved ornate boxes on display for easy viewing.

That one made me shake my head in amusement.

Phnom Penh is a culinary city and this is no more apparent when your taste buds flare up and announce their desire for a specific type of food.

Khmer Mexican combo anyone?  A spicy yellow curry burrito is not far away.

The shear multitude of these Cambodian Mexican restaurants is surprising and made me smile down deep.

I have traveled to many countries and never before have I encountered a country where the local currency is never used; by anyone. You have to ask to use it otherwise the assumption is that you will not.  At every shop, hotel, restaurant, bus, taxi, tuk-tuk, they all do business in US dollars.

When you pay in US they give you back part US and part Riel, the local currency. Keeping track of how often you are being ripped off requires a lot more dedication.

This made me take a second look whenever I purchased anything. I am expecting this to change as I get further afield.

I guess my biggest surprise is realizing just how cosmopolitan Phnom Penh is. From fancy boutique hotels, to chic bars and restaurants, to the Rolls Royce I spotted driving down the congested main street. Phnom Penh is a city with an agenda to recreate itself from its recent history.

This is very apparent.

For photos of Cambodia click here.

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25 thoughts on “Phnom Penh

  1. Wonderful photos of Phnom Pen. Your description of this upscale city and vibrant city is in such contrast to our images of the genocide by the Communist Khmer Rouge. Like Vietnam, it has become a major tourist attraction. How would have ever thought that back during the war in the 1970s. How times change.

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  2. Thanks for taking us on your trip by showing us photos and telling us about the city. “Keeping track of how often you are being ripped off requires a lot more dedication.” – I have had some experience with this in travels years ago – does not bring back fond memories. Phnom Penh looks quite green!

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    1. They have certainly made a lot of effort to maintain city parks and green spaces which I was also surprised by. Compared to other major Asian cities though it is on the smaller side.

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  3. Sensational photos! Vivid descriptions of the city and its quirks, east meets mex, pointy curlicues everywhere – even on the coffins, I’ll bet. Too bad your GF isn’t there to enjoy, but sounds like she’ll be there soon. Also a bizarre cash system – is that the norm in that corner of the world?

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    1. Thanks Kystyna. I have traveled all over Asia and this is the first time I have ever encountered this cash system where US dollars was the primary currency. Definitely made the initial funds I had changed difficult to get rid of. As for the curlicues you’re right 🙂

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  4. Mmm, I’ll take one of those spicy yellow curry burritos! Phnom Penh sounds fascinating, and I love to hear about the quirky things you won’t find in guide books. Hope your girlfriend is feeling up to traveling soon!

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    1. The shops are not exactly high end William, there is just a variety of them. Even though this is the old downtown area it still has many businesses and customers that are local but this is also an area travelers get situated before heading off into the interior.

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  5. Your thoughts on Phnom Penh sound very similar to my own first impressions! I was really surprised by the cosmopolitan vibe of the river front. When we first arrived there it was late at night and we were worried we wouldn’t find anywhere to eat that matched our budget because of all the Western restaurants around! 🙂

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  6. I agree the pictures are terrific Tim. I know nothing about Cambodia other than what a few friends have told me so I enjoyed learning a bit about what it’s like there today, and I had to laugh about the Mexican restaurants because that’s probably one of the last places in the world I would have expected them!

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  7. Tim, the pictures were, once again, gorgeous. I loved the way you described the riverfront shopping area to Costco – that was brilliant. My imagination went soaring with that description. Sorry your girlfriend couldn’t be with you, but wish you many enjoyable future trips for the two of you.

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    1. Hello Dave! Hope you’re real well. No bummers here, just so happy for Tim that he’s out and about. I’ll get there soon. Meanwhile, I’m lucky as heck to experience Tim’s travels through his writing and photographs. And I do my best to enjoy San Francisco as if I’m a traveler; endless side streets and folks from all over the world to help bring journey, story, perspective and such into each day here. So, a toast to Tim’s adventure, and my absolute best to you and your family. Cheers, Alison… Or, as you very sweetly call me, Ally 🙂

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