First Impressions of Cambodia and Phnom Penh

Central park in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Central park near the palace grounds.

Smashing 120 kph past the Laos border and into Cambodia, the mini van takes up most of the small, paved road with no painted lines. Animals and children are regularly on the sides of the road, just feet from obliteration. After several hours, we finally arrive in Phnom Penh.

Getting Acquainted with Phnom Penh

Asia is a full on blitzkrieg on the senses and Phnom Penh is the panzer division. Thick exhaust and pollution fill the lungs, jackhammers and backfiring motorbikes assault the ears, sour sewage and rotting garbage sting the nose, and dust and hot air coat the eyes and film the tongue. On the positive side, my eyes and tongue are also hit with amazing temples, colorful neighborhoods, and delicious foods. It is mayhem.

Tuk tuks flood the crowded streets, which are heavy with Western ex-pats in their 50’s and 60’s arm in arm with young Cambodian women. A mix of US dollars and Cambodian riel exchange hands at the street stalls and businesses, as both are widely accepted. Drugs and prostitutes run rampant along the riverside boardwalk and sleezy night clubs. Tuk tuk drivers offer everything from weed and transportation to opium and escorts. Exotic, beautiful women and lady boys patrol the bars looking for business. Many areas seem like a poorer, dirtier, weird little Las Vegas.

Activities in Phnom Penh

Central Market

The central market in Phnom Penh is a crowded hub of everything from barbers, cafes, souvenir stands, and electronics stores.

The central market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The central market in Phnom Penh.

Russian Market

Smaller than the central market, the Russian market is more of a locals market complete with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and industrial equipment stores. There are also a large amount of stands geared towards towards and “the best coffee in Cambodia”.

Vendor in the Russian Market of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Vendor in the Russian Market near S-21.

The Boardwalk

The Tonle Sap Shore Boardwalks is one of the main walking areas in the city for tourists. The area is packed with restaurants and cheap bars. Unfortunately, it is also packed with pushy street vendors, drug dealers, and prostitutes at night.

Tonle Sap Shore Boardwalk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tonle Sap Shore Boardwalk.

Local farmers markets

Sprinkled throughout the city, I found a few different markets just wandering the streets.

Farmers market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Local farmers market I stumbled across.

S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison)

S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng Prison, is one of the toughest tourist attractions to visit in Southeast Asia. The old high school was converted into a torture and killing prison for the Khmer Rouge and tour is a powerful one.

Torture Room in S-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Torture Room in S-21

Killing Fields

Probably the most famous attraction in Phnom Penh, the killing fields and the audio tour that accompanies it were very sobering.

Mass Graves at the Killing Fields

Mass Graves at the Killing Fields

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are located right in the center of the city and close to the water. The manicured grounds and gigantic throne room are an impressive sight.

Royal palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The royal palace throne room.

Nightlife in Phnom Penh

The nightlife in Phnom Penh is a nice blend of cheap hostel bars, trashy “pool halls”, swanky bars, and expensive night clubs. You can pretty much find whatever you are in the mood for.

If you want to get some cheap beers, take a walk along the boardwalk and grab some $0.50 beers at any of the small restaurants on the water. If you want to meet other travelers, take a walk down Street 172 near Wat Ounalom where hostel bars line both sides of the street for blocks. To find more Western style, San Francisco swanky bars, visit Chez Flo and the Elbow Room on 308 street. It’s tough to go from $0.50 per beer up to $6 for a drink, so I actually never even went to and would not recommend going to a club, but from what I have heard, there a few pretty good ones.

Lastly, part of the nightlife that I had never experienced before was the ladyboys. Because Cambodia came before Thailand on my trip, I was not prepared to face the plentiful groups of ladyboys found in the Phnom Penh nightlife. Just a heads up to anyone getting ready to drink or go clubbing in the city, be prepared to meet some transgender women!

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