• Jon Herbert

Phnom Penh Survival Guide

Updated: Aug 12

Phnom Penh is a city in constant transition. Setting up here can be daunting but - with some useful information to hand - is not complicated or difficult.

Elevated photo of Phnom Pen towards the Rosewood Hotel along a straight boulevard, taken against a blue sky slightly clouded sky

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First time out in Phnom Penh is an experience like no other. While the city has more than its fair share of trendy cafes and attractions, the navigation of hot, congested roads and the contrast of bustling street stalls adjacent to the sparsely populated concourses of modern high-rises tests the adaptability of all but the most seasoned travellers. For the persevering, familiarity with the dynamism of a city in constant transition offers an eclectic cocktail of vocational and social opportunity, which can be enjoyed fully once the administration of making a home in the city is out of the way.


1. So, you really want to live in Phnom Penh?

2. Phnom Penh: areas of interest quick start guide

3. Accommodation and utilities

4. Transportation: getting around Phnom Penh

5. Grocery shopping

6. Mobile internet and broadband

7. Going Out

8. Green spaces

9. If you have a problem – police and medical care


Phnom Pehn urban skyline against a red sunset

1. So, you really want to live in Phnom Penh?


The name Phnom Penh is evocative of post-colonial decadence. Although shades of faded grandeur can still be found, the reality is that today's Phnom Penh is the economic and political capital of one of the fastest growing economies in the world, baring symptoms ubiquitous with seismic urban change, including rapid construction of high-rise condominium and office buildings, and rudimentary transportation infrastructure that struggles to meet the demands of a fast-growing population.


Arriving in Phnom Penh with an entrepreneurial mindset or a job offer in hand offers an enviable opportunity to both experience the city and explore the wider region in non-work time. Visitors seeking a tranquil, culturally attuned environment with access to nature may, and frequently do consider (cheaper) alternatives, including Siem Reap, Battambang, and Kampot, in which case Phnom Penh is a wonderful place to visit for a change of pace.

Destination: Battambang - a city less travelled


2. Phnom Penh: areas of interest quick start guide


While not as huge as Bangkok or KL, Phnom Penh is a dense, dynamic, and diverse city, and it's impossible to provide insight across the entire topography in a few short paragraphs. However, there are several locations of interest for would-be residents staking out plans based on proximity to amenities, accommodation options and popularity with other expats.


Boeng Keng Kang (BKK)


Boeng Keng Kang (BKK) to the South of the downtown area is divided into three zones. BKK1, which includes the Independence Monument and Wat Lanka, is the most popular area in the city for well-healed expats, due to its leafy boulevards and up-market shopping and dining options including the popular Basac Lane expat-focussed bar area. Commensurately BKK1 has the highest rents and apartment prices per square meter, and BKK2 and BKK3 to the East offer cheaper accommodation within range of the amenities in BKK1.


Toul Tom Poung (TTP)


Further south Toul Tom Poung (colloquially TTP) is currently the most vibrant lifestyle destination for expats to live and work. Close enough to central areas of the city for communing to work, this area is known for the myriad of trendy cafes, coffee shops and other entertainment venues. For shoppers, the 'Russian Market' offers an atmospheric venue for bargain hunting clothing and knickknacks, or simply to grab a chilled fresh fruit juice and people-watch. TPP is lively at all hours some may prefer to stay in a quieter area and visit when 'in the mood'.

Olympic

East of BKK the Olympic area (named after a local stadium) is a little further away from the downtown area compared to TTP and BKK. The Olympic area is home to numerous chilled cafes and bar restaurants catering to the many apartment buildings around this location, making it a draw for expats looking for a balance of quality of life, peace, convenience, and economy. The Olympic market is a multi-level destination for bargain hunters looking for anything from tailored clothing to Chinese electronics.


The Riverside (Sisowath Quay, Daun Penh)

An image of a building of four stories of bar restaurants in Phnom Penh, taken at night illuminated with neon signs

Ubiquitous in conversations about Phnom Penh, the riverside-walk with its iconic outlook at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong remains a popular daytime destination. However, since covid many family-friendly cafes and colonial-style hotels have closed, to be either replaced with soulless glass facades, or simply shuttered. At night, the area is now often ominously quiet, other than at weekends around a few back-street expat and hostess bars, some of which attract anti-social behavior and petty crime. For accommodation options some proclaim spacious apartments with a river outlook at bargain rents, but narrow entrance ways off seedy streets frequently lead to unlit staircases and enigmatic neighbors.


Psar Thmei (Central Market)

An image of the art deco ceiling taken from inside the Central Market in Phnom Penh

North of BKK and west of the Riverside sits the iconic art deco Psar Thmei ('new market'), selling everything from fruit and vegetables to handicrafts and clothing. The market is a splendid edifice, and the cooling effect of the ingenious slatted dome design is a welcome reprieve from the heat of the streets. Smartphone shops, jewelers, and opticians dominate the surrounding shopping area.

Sen Sok City


Sen Sok is around 30 minutes' drive to the North from the downtown area. Of interest because of its malls and superstores including Aeon 2 and Makro, several Borey (gated community) developments serve both Khmer and expat communities looking for a family-friendly environment with amenities outside but commutable to the city centre, although accommodation is priced accordingly.


Toul Kork


Between Sen Sok and the city center, Toul Kork is a large area in the throes of gentrification, including construction of several condominiums around a newly minted shopping area: 'TK Avenue'. Accommodation options are keenly priced relative to the established Sen Sok area, although the mix of options in TK is loaded towards condominiums and link houses rather than villas with gardens.


Other locations outside the centre


Por Sen Chey around the airport to the west of the city centre, and Chroy Changvar to the northeast across the river, are suburban residential areas and can be attractive to those looking for a family home in a safe neighborhood. However, amenities catering to foreigners are sporadic relative to the downtown area, and a one-way trip downtown can take 45+ minutes depending on traffic.


3. Accommodation and utilities


Hotels etc.


Hotels and guesthouses of all flavors and price points are scattered throughout Phnom Penh, with deals and reviews available online through commonly used hotel-booking portals and Airbnb. Alternatively, eyeballing guesthouses and smaller hotels in person may lead to a better deal., although visitors with long-term plans will usually better value in an apartment lease of 6 months+ albeit while relinquishing some housekeeping services.


Renting a property

An image of an art deco style apartment building in Phnom Penh

Finding a rental property in Phnom Penh usually requires engaging an agent. Several large agencies along with a range of properties available for viewing can be located online. Alternatively, engaging a smaller agency via a walk-in may open door to different options. A good agent should assist with negotiations with the landlord and provide reliable information about the area and property, noting that agents are paid by the landlord - never pay the agent.


Key considerations when considering a property include the location, traffic situation versus commute, and 24-hour security. Aunit on a high floor with secure windows will also deter would be thieves.


Contract and deposit conventions include a contract in English language (you may need to place a thumb print in addition to a signature) and a deposit equal to two months' rent payable in advance, with rent also payable in advance. The agent may have a legal team to review the lease, but this is not independent legal advice that can be relied upon.


Utilities (power and water) are usually paid for directly by the tenant, and the lease agreement may or may not include internet. In many cases the landlord will provide a monthly invoice, in which case there may be a premium charged on electricity usage, so it is worth checking what the unitised electricity charge is and asking the agent if it is reasonable because power costs can be expensive in Cambodia, particularly with regular aircon usage.


Payment and moving out is something to ask about before a deposit is paid, including notice period and early termination (the lease period may automatically continue if notice is not given). On moving out tenants have a call to make on whether to try and set off (not pay) the last couple of months' rent against the deposit, but how practical this is can vary from case to case. Some landlords try and hold on to deposits for 'cleaning and repairs' whereas others can be more relaxed, depending on the condition of the unit on handover.


4. Transportation: getting around Phnom Penh


Geographically Phnom Penh is compact relative to many other large cities in the region. However, traversing the city can be frustrating and even traumatic at times due to lack of non-road transit options, traffic congestion, and frequent non-adherence to rules of the road. Particularly exasperating features include numerous filter-in junctions (formal and informal), resulting in choke points around the downtown area and bottlenecks on the two main roads into town from the airport to the west.


An image of busy traffic in Phnom Penh at night

Walking


Although there remain some leafy boulevards around BKK1 which are suitable for a pleasant stroll, Phnom Penh is not equipped for pedestrians due to the lack of pavements, which where they do exist are used stall-holding and motorcycle parking, the traffic situation, which is at best frustrating and often dangerous (pedestrians should exercise the utmost care even when using a crosswalk: look out for motorcycles running lights or travelling in the wrong direction), and the hot climate, which does not lend itself to maintaining a fresh ensemble when going about on daily business on foot.


Moto (motorcycle)


Popular amongst expats riding a small motorcycle (under 150cc) is a cheap and convenient method of getting around for those prepared to brave the traffic. Sale and rental are options: in the case of buying a moto there are ownership registration requirements, whereas rental of a basic moto can be around 3$ per day. Local licencing laws (technically) require riders to have a Cambodian licence even for small motorcycles, which may or may not impact travel or health insurance if there is an accident. Police will stop and fine motorcyclists not wearing a helmet; helmets also offer protection against severe injury and death, so wear a lid. To avoid theft, park the moto in an attended lot, paying the guard 1,000 - 2,000 riel when you leave. Never leave items of value in an unattended motorcycle.


Car (driving)


Owning or renting a car is expensive in Cambodia due to the heavy import duty inflating the price of new and used cars, and the same licencing laws apply as for motorcycles but with greater scrutiny. Unlike motorcyclists, most Cambodians tend to drive private cars slowly but look out for rampaging commercial vehicles including large trucks. Inside the city there can be issues with cars at loggerheads on bottleneck sections of road and bad parking obstructing vehicles larger than a tuk-tuk. Be aware that if there is an accident foreign drivers may be held guilty until proven innocent, and it is not unknown for a hired 'driver' to run away from a vehicle before police arrive never to be identified in a subsequent enquiry.


Tuk-tuk / taxi


Tuk-tuks are an available, convenient, and (if a fair price is agreed) cost effective option for whizzing around town, or otherwise sitting in traffic people watching without the responsibility of controlling a vehicle. Ride hailing apps like Grab and PassApp make it easy to agree destinations and pricing using a smartphone app. Otherwise there can be pitfalls around agreeing a price and misunderstandings on destination, so it is best to pre-empt this by carefully agreeing the journey details in advance, and if uncomfortable with the perceived comprehension of a driver politely declining and finding an alternative. If paying in cash have small denomination riel ready to pay the driver who may not have change. Keep all belongings securely inside the vehicle to prohibit opportunists passing by on a moto. Larger, cyclo style tuk-tuks are being phased out in Phnom Penh due to running costs versus the newer cab style variants, but if a larger 'Cambodian-style' vehicle (pictured) can be found this usually offers a more comfortable and atmospheric journey for a slightly higher price.


An image of a Cambodian style tuk-tuk, with a motorcycle towing a carriage

Taxis are a comfortable option for inter-town/provincial journeys, but for trips in and around Phnom Penh taxis tend to cost atleast 3x the price of tuk-tuks, so a view needs to be taken on whether the airconditioned comfort is worth the additional cost depending on the distance, weather (e.g. heavy rain), and context of the journey. Taxis can also be booked with Grab, although on occasion the driver may try and negotiate the 'real price' on arrival.


Cycling


Bicycles are used for commuting purposes by many expats around Phnom Penh. If riding in and out of the city centre the congestion and road-safety be a concern, but it is done. A robust upright bike enabling quick turning and good visibility is ideal, and cyclists should wear a cycle helmet to protect themselves in case they are accidentally 'pinged' by a passing moto or tuk-tuk. Bicycles should only be parked in a supervised parking area or lock-up, or alternatively locked in clear view close to the rider when out and about.


Road safety in Phen Penh


As illustrated above, Road safety is a concern in Phnom Penh, and Cambodia has an unenviable road traffic accident statistic including a high mortality rate. Steps are now being taken to ensure the use of motorcycle helmets and encourage safer driving habits, but there is still some way to go. In addition, the emergency services in Phnom Penh may not be available or able to quickly reach an incident due to traffic. Taking a tuk-tuk or a taxi is always an option in a situation that may be more dangerous, for example due to the traffic situation or the wellbeing/sobriety of the traveller, because in Cambodia being safe is highly preferable to be sorry for taking the riskier option.


Man on a motorcycle wearing a helmet, taking a monk as a passenger who is not wearing a helmet


5. Grocery shopping


Supermarkets


Modern supermarkets abound in Phnom Penh, with the most popular large supermarkets being Aeon (within either of the two Aeon Malls), Lucky Supermarket, and Chip Mong Supermarket. However, although well-stocked with local and Chinese meals and ingredients, even these large supermarkets may not stock speciality items that expats may be hankering after, including snacks, sauces, or even some cuts of meat (e.g. steaks) or vegetarian meals. Helpfully there are several medium sized supermarkets that specialise in items for expats, including Angkor Market in TTP, and Super Duper and Thai Huot Supermarket which have several outlets in BKK and around the centre town. Each of these vendors stock slightly different ranges, so it is worth doing some scouting to identify the place that stocks the 'home' items you need.


Local Markets


Local markets such as the bustling outdoor market at Boeng Tompon (BT - just South of TTP) are ideal places to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as offering an opportunity to haggle amicably with Khmer vendors. Prices should always be favourable compared to a supermarket, and the sights and sounds of the colourful market are worthwhile for the walk alone. Meat and fish are available; however, there is no refrigeration at the local markets and for this reason many expats prefer to buy imported meat and fish in a supermarket.


Online supermarkets


Online supermarkets are an up-and-coming service in Phnom Penh, with the most notable being Aeon's online marketplace (which offers a selection of what is available in store) and Delishop, which aggregates products from other vendors and arranges delivery and can be accessed either via the web or a bespoke app.


6. Mobile internet and broadband


Mobile internet is cheap (from 5$ a month for more GB capacity than can be easily used) and providing there is a good mobile signal (which is usual in central Phnom Phen) then 4G is a viable option for most services. Alternatively, if internet is not included with accommodation, broadband internet can be installed on a 6 monthly contract basis but it is comparatively expensive at 18$+ per month for a 10 - 20mbs connection, which should be good enough to stream HD TV, but may be susceptible to intermittent outages. There are several internet providers including Internet Home, and Smart and Metaphone also offer broadband options which can be linked to the mobile app respective provider.


There are numerous cafes and casual restaurants that offer reasonably fast internet catering to gig workers and freelancers for those willing to splash out on a cup of coffee or two.


7. Going Out


Eating out is always an alternative in Phnom Phen at any price point. Cafes and local restaurants are scattered throughout the city, whereas expat restaurants and hostelries tend to cluster around a few areas near the centre:


BKK 1 - Basac lane


BKK 1 - Basac lane (or the Basac Quarter as some are now self-styling it) is an area catering for the recreational needs of expats, featuring several bars and themed restaurants. It is a lively and busy area especially at weekends when the younger expat crowd is prevalent, and several club-bars stay open into the early hours. Our favorite places are Red Bar for meeting and chatting, and Pizza Luigi for an authentic pizza and genuine Italian antipasti; both establishments sell draft beer for 1$ - 1.50$ whereas this being BKK 1 most bars on 'the lane' are heading towards 3$ for a local beer.

The antipasti counter in Pizza Luigi, BKK 1

Toul Tom Poung (TTP)


Toul Tom Poung (TTP) offers a plethora of trendy restaurants and cafes and is currently (in August 2022) the up-and-coming expat district in Phnom Penh. Wine O'clock offers a bakery, restaurant, delicatessen, and beer/wine 24 hours either at the restaurant or delivered, which is extremely handy, and the cheesecake is delicious. Kinin is a garden oasis in the centre TTP serving tasty local and western food and is a great place to hangout and chat over a glass or three.


The Riverside


The riverside area is home a range of restaurants along the road facing the river, which backs out on to a couple of circuits of expat bars, restaurants, and numerous hostess bars, which are concentrated in this area of city. During the day, the area is family friendly, but at night - when the area tends to attract older male expats and tourists - this really only applies to the main road directly adjacent to the river front itself. There are a few places worth checking out along the riverside: Austro-Italian restaurant La Croissette is an institution in Phnom Penh, serving breakfast through lunch and dinner to cocktails, with a terrace facing the river and indoor restaurant on two floors serving European and Asian cuisine, wine, and craft ale. A cheaper alternative is the River Bistro, which attracts a steady stream of patrons through its 24-hour opening times thanks to 0.75$ draft beers and an eclectic, reasonably priced menu. Pizza 4Ps does great pizza and this restaurant is well appointed with a large balcony, although the modern facade of the building (which includes a Starbucks on the ground floor) lacks sensitivity and is sadly a sign of the times as colonial grandeur is steadily replaced with concrete and glass. The famous FCC in is still closed for refurbishment at the time of writing in August 2022.

An Irish themed bar and neon lit stores in the Riverside district in Phnom Penh, at night

Street 51 (Pontoon area)


Street 51 (Pasteur) is a long street, but there is an area about 15 minutes' walk or 3 minutes tuk-tuk ride from the riverside, which is home to several clubs and bars, the most well know of which are Pontoon and Heart of Darkness. Worth checking out if extending an evening with friends, this is also an area to watch your drink and keep belongings safe. Bar life can be quiet on weeknights and the clubs don't really get going until 10pm or later.


8. Green spaces


Excluding one-stop tourist attractions there are several outlets for expat denizens of the city to explore, with a focus on green areas and exercise in this increasingly urbanised city.


View of the riverside walk and royal palace gardens taken from Le Moon rooftop in the afternoon on a sunny day

Riverside Walk


While technically not altogether a green space (well there are trees), Riverside Walk and the Royal Palace gardens opposite offer a convenient option for jogging and walking, and this space is often teaming with families watching the boats go by and using the concessions selling food and balloons for the kids running around chasing pigeons. For a few dollars sunset cruises around the Tonle Sap reveal the homes of the fishing families living and working right in front of the city, while Le Moon Rooftop is the best place for a sundowner as the sun sets over the river.


Independence Monument / Wot Botum park

These parks intersect in an inverted T shape and together off the largest green space in the centre of the city, with several notable statues, a duck pond, and kids' playground. There are a few crosswalks to negotiate where main roads dissect the greenery, but otherwise this is a pleasant and family friendly place for a stroll.


Wat Phnom


Wat Phnom and the adjoining park just after the end of the Riverside Walk offer a relaxing and peaceful place for a stroll, although to walk into Wat Phnom Park proper and walk up to the stupa foreigners will be liberated of 1$ / 4,000 riel. Care should be taken with pockets and bags around this area.

photo graph at Wat Phnom looking up the staircase towards the stupa in the center

Chroy Changvar


Across the river around the Sokha Hotel, Chroy Changvar still offers a little wilderness that is perfect for exploring on a bicycle or moto and is a convenient way of 'getting out' of the city without travelling outside of the city limits. As an alternative to the bridge, a ferry can be taken across the river (with bicycle or motorbike) to add a little atmosphere and river scenery to the brief escape.



9. If you have a problem – police and medical care


Be insured for medical emergencies


Phnom Penh is home to some increasingly equipped private hospitals, but there are still occasions when an airlift to Bangkok or another location is required, for example due to severe injury resulting from a road accident. Public medical care availability and quality is insufficient to meet the needs of visitors and expats and private medical care can be costly. It is highly advisable for visitors and foreign residents to insure against medical costs which providing assurance to medical practitioners that payment for treatment will be forthcoming.


It's not like home


Cambodia is classified as a developing country, and this is reflected in the availability of services and infrastructure, which may not be comparable to services in your home country. While visitors may receive preferred treatment there is no entitlement, and the quality of services may be considered from an unfamiliar perspective.


Khmer people place a great deal of pride in being kind and helpful, but this will not always translate into immediate support in an emergency, for example a road accident where there may be some perception of liability. Awareness of the environment and careful selection of destinations and activities and having contacts and tools to hand in case there is a problem is advised, because adopting safe behaviours is the surest way to maintain an improved chance of managing an incident effectively or even avoiding it altogether.


Ask your hotel and local agents to help


Your hotel or accommodation, agent or other contact - to a varying degree depending on the nature and class of service or extent of your relationship - should be able to assist you if you experience a situation, and will hopefully be able to at least help you make calls to the emergency services (in Khmer language), direct transportation to police and medical facilities, and may even offer to even send a representative to accompany you to the police station or hospital to help with the next steps.


Medical contacts


In Phnom Penh there are several private ambulance services, medical centres and hospitals that can be contacted, but your first option should be to ask your hotel or agent to assist, if possible. If your insurance package includes a list of preferred hospitals in Cambodia and you have this to hand, then this should assist in identifying appropriate contacts. Alternatively, if there is a critical emergency the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital is a modern private hospital, but it is suggested to call the emergency number of the hospital in advance to check that the required assistance can be provided and if possible, to be aware of costs and insurance eligibility.


'Tourist' Police contact


Police services operate mostly in daylight hours and may not have a presence at night, particularly away from major tourist areas. If reporting a crime, such as a lost or stolen item, there may be an expectation of a small discretionary 'fee' to support the cost of prioritising assistance, and if you have a local contact who can help guide you through any expectations this may help avoid a cultural misunderstanding.


Tourist Police - Phnom Penh


T: 012 942 484 A: St. 598, 12107, Phnom Penh


Police (general)


T: 117


When making a call it may be helpful to have a Khmer contact to hand so that important points can be clarified in Khmer language, especially if communication with the 'non-tourist' police.



We live in Phnom Phen and will keep this page update as we continue to learn more about how to 'survive' in this bustling city always in transition.



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