Phnom Penh, I Love You!

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 4th, 2012

The streets of Phnom Penh, CambodiaIt was 2007, and I was only meant to be in Phnom Penh for three days. I had less than a month in Cambodia before I moved to Thailand, and I wanted to explore as much as possible and get off the tourist trail a bit. But three days became four, four became seven, and seven became ten. Every day, I woke up, thought to myself, “I’ll get the bus tomorrow,” and rolled over and went back to bed.

I’d walk out of my room into the common area overlooking the lake and slink down next to my friends. “What movie are we watching today?” I’d ask. Later, we’d go out for lunch, relax during the afternoon, and head out around town at night.

Phnom Penh was a city you just became stuck in. It sucked you in. It was laidback, cheap, and easy-going. The locals were friendly, polite, and helpful. The pace of life here was perfect for trapping other travelers, and our group got bigger by the day as more people fell into the black hole that was Phnom Penh.

However, as the days ticked down on my visa, I knew I’d have to leave. By the time I finally did, I’d fallen in love.

I especially loved the gritty, Wild West feel the city had. Here the streets were still made of dirt, and cars and motorbikes raced around you in all directions as you gained on an ox cart. People swarmed the streets. The buildings were a bit run down from years of neglect. Yet this was a city of contrasts, with ritzy hotels standing next to abandoned buildings. Hell, they were still celebrating the arrival of ATM machines when I visited. The city was changing rapidly, and there was such contrast that the feeling of possibility was tangible.

Now returning almost exactly five years later, so much of the city has changed and developed. Where before I had to walk miles for an ATM, there’s now one on every corner.

Wat Phnom in Cambodia

Things are more expensive now, by which I mean meals now cost $1.50 to $2 USD instead of $1. Hotels that were once $2 are now $9. Buses costs $5 USD instead of $4.

The most noticeable change is that the lakeside district, once home to all the backpacker guesthouses, is now gone. It’s a tragedy that corruption and greed pushed over 4,000 people out of their homes and ruined one of the city’s best areas.

There are more cars here, and every shop now seems to be a mechanic’s garage. The roads of the city are (mostly) paved; there are a few overpasses now. Traffic is even worse than before.

Beoung Kak Lake, Cambodia in 2007

The city’s changed a lot since I was last here. There’s more money, many nicer buildings, some shopping malls, and a lot more upscale restaurants. I’ve found some good sushi and Korean BBQ restaurants, which, given the influx of Korean and Japanese money, doesn’t surprise me much. Yes, Phnom Penh is developing.

But while the face of Phnom Penh has changed, its heart has remained the same.

The streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It’s still gritty, polluted, and full of dust. Buildings are still run down, lots remain empty, and the streets are still filled with chaos. People line the bars for hours on end on hot afternoons. Cars zoom past rickshaw drivers. People still laugh on the corner like they used to, and the old men play their domino games. Everyone’s in a hurry to get nowhere. Behind the façade, it’s still the crazy city it was back then.

Phnom Penh might not look like the city I fell in love with. Its exterior face has changed so much that I barely recognized it. It’s a new city. But that happens a lot in Asia. The pace of development is so rapid that years seem like decades of change here.

The a market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

All those years ago, I came to Phnom Penh not really expecting much. I didn’t know a lot about the city. I simply imagined it to be a run-down city with not much worth staying for. Yet Phnom Penh became and still remains one of my favorite cities in the world. I loved Phnom Penh.

The streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I was nervous coming back. When you walk away from a place with such fabulous memories, you can be scared to go back. What if you only liked the place for the people and you return to find nothing but ghosts? What if the place you remember is now only a dream? Will the magic be gone, leaving you with nothing but memories and disappointment when you return?

I worry about that a lot when I travel, but then I bite the bullet, fight the fear, and return to find that places can still be as wonderful as they were that first time around….even if everything is different.

comments 31 Comments

It’s staggering to watch the pace of development in Asia, while right here at home my town seems to be the exact same place it was 10 years ago – not much has changed. I imagine this is what a lot of the US was like post-World War II.

Jerod

I was only in PP for a day and a half, and I couldn’t wait to move on. It’s just another crowded, dirty city, with stinking trash (and sex tourists) in the street and little charm to speak of. As far as I can tell, the night life consists of hanging out in bars with bored women angling to get paid to give you a hand job at the end of the night. I would recommend that people spend no more than a day here, or else skip it entirely.

NomadicMatt

I think you could make that argument for any city in the world if you stay in the sex district. That’s like saying all of Amsterdam is the red light district or all of Bangkok is Nana. There’s a lot more to PP than what you saw. But I will give you that it is crowded and dirty.

PP is a very cool city – mainly because of its gritty and chaotic feel. I was there a few years ago and went out to a bar one night with some guys from the hostel. I bumped into a journalist friend of mine and asked what he was doing there. “Oh, we’re doing an undercover sting about the illegal prostitution ring that runs out of this bar”, he said. That kind of sums up the place! :)

NomadicMatt

interesting story. PP is nothing if not gritty.

Rob Davies

I have to agree with you on Phnom Penh. It sucks you in. I didn’t expect much other than a sad history, but it turned out to be one of the best cities I visited on my trip to Asia. It has something about it, that makes it hard to leave.

NomadicMatt

it has that special something to it.

I was in Phnom Penh last month and i thought it was cheaper there but this post revalidates my perception hehe. I still love Cambodia and wanting to come back and may be that time, I can write a similar post which I can compare my previous travel there to which I am travelling in the future.

Thanks for this and love the photos you took of ordinary people down the streets. Was in Wan Phnom too. hehe

Those pictures look like the PP I know, love and have under my skin, making me want to return on a regular basis. Enjoying the insights, though!

NomadicMatt

I’m glad I’m not the only one.

jan

I wonder if it will suck you in again!

NomadicMatt

I escaped it this time but I am going back so you never know.

I hated PP last time I was there. Pollution. Traffic. Ugh.

But nearly every other traveler loves it.

Guess it’s kinda like you and Vietnam (which I loved). Destinations are like flavors: some appreciate the bitter parts, while others prefer the sweet stuff. OK, that’s a bad analogy… but you get the point.

Did anyone else not like PP? Or am I WAY out in left field on this one?

-Adam

I’m really surprised to hear you say this. I’m in the LOVE Phnom Penh camp, but outside of some very vocal travel bloggers, I think I’m in the minority. Most people I meet in real life didn’t really see why I was so gaga over the place. So no, I don’t think you are alone in your thinking. But I do think you are wrong :)

NomadicMatt

I’ve met a lot of people in real life who like the city!

LOL – fair enough, Alex.

I know Matt doesn’t like Vietnam, but I LOVE it.

To each their own ;)

Oh, I’m with you on Siem Reap. Incredible spot, and Angkor Wat is incredible. I’m heading to Machu Picchu in a few months and look forward to comparing the two!

NomadicMatt

Phew…I was beginning to think I was the only one who didn’t like Vietnam as of late!

Wow! That’s … Pretty different than my impression of Phnom Penh. I went to S21 and then the killing fields then went and shot an AK-47, in that order. So, it was a little depressing and I felt mildly guilty for saying “yes” to the shooting range. (But, it was kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity that I felt like I couldn’t pass up.)

I also volunteered at Save the Children of Cambodia, an orphanage about 20 minutes out of PP. The village life that surrounds PP is incredible – I feel like I learned a lot more about Cambodians by stepping just a little out of the big city.

Definitely feel like Cambodia has a bit more “grit” than neighboring countries. They’ve seen some real nasty stuff not too long ago.

Efrutik

Moscow. Look at all the pictures of the city it is nothing like the place that I remember 11 years ago.

Haven’t been to Phnom Penh yet, but good post about the place. Looking forward to visit some day.

Haidang

Just left PP and I can see why you love it! Totally a watered down version of HCMC, people are nicer, less traffic, just everything similar to HCMC but PG13ified. Your name is totally here!!!: ) But Bangkok will always be home

Ash

Phnom Penh is a diamond in the rough, a city with a desperate desire to be modern but also a deep appreciation and in many cases rediscovery of it’s rich cultural heritage. The modern history element only adds another dimension to this gritty, wonderful multi-textured and resilient city that has survived so much anguish, from being razed by attacking foreign armies, to the secret/illegal US bombing between 1969-1973, to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge where nearly one in four Khmers perished. PP is at a crossroads now, a place in transition. I hope PP grows to become like a microcosm of a future Cambodia, rural and urban, modern and traditional, gritty and serene.

Woody

No way, I was there in 06 and 07, I used to love every evenin goin to the open balcony of the bar of hostel overlooking the lake and watching the amazing sunset with people from all over the world, with a beer or two and a smoke… And it’s all gone – mad…

Hmm.. it’s always interesting to see change especially in a place you had such sound memories in.

Stephan

Hi

I have known Phnom Penh since 1998, have not been back since 2004. I have been to Cambodia and PP many times and stayed in PP for long stretches. PP is one of my favourite cities, the wild-west atmosphere mixed with the colonial back drop of the French – different from all the rest.

Some ugly events seem to have occurred in the eight years since I have been away i.e. the destruction of the Boeung Kak Lake (which I still find difficult to accept) and the culture of land grabbing. Whilst land confiscation is nothing new in Cambodia it seems to have evolved to a new scale now. “Boeung Kak was a Lake” is a poignant pictorial account of how the lake met its demise. When I saw the Youtube version of the recent photo exhibition in PP I felt and feel as a race we are doomed. Profoundly depressing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75cwyHmzkSw

Buses? Atms? Not in my day! It was a trip to the bank if you wanted money lol. I too would be nervous to go back to anywhere with memories – but I guess you have to go with the flow and every experience is different. I will go with an open mind as always – new experiences await…

Hi Matt,

I love this post of yours! I lived in Cambodia for 10 years and I must say, everything you had to say about Cambodia/Phnom Penh was on point. People outside looking in might think that Cambodia doesn’t have much to offer because it’s a third-world country, but when you give this place a chance..Give the people a chance, you can’t help but fall in love with this beautiful country! Cambodia will always be home to me! I’m glad Cambodia remained as one of your favorite cities, especially after all your travels around the world!

-Christine

P.S. Congratulations on your new book! Can’t wait to hear about your stories when you visit Philly on your book tour!

NomadicMatt

Thanks!

Justin

Depressing that the lake photo you posted is only a thing of the past. I checked out the remains of it last year during my visit, all that’s left is sand. Saddening all the people were forcefully removed and all the businesses in the area have closed up shop.

Anna

Nice description of PP! I spent 7 weeks volunteering in Steung Meanchey, a suburb of PP and fell in love with the city. I guess it is dirty and it can smell nastily but all the dust and crowdedness is somehow fascinating. Siem Reap or Kampot are obviously a lot cleaner and more quiet but PP is, however, breathtaking. I guess a lot of people skip PP but it takes a few days to get the charme of the city like you said. I would have loved to see it 5 years ago and can’t wait to go back there and see what’s changed.

James

I recently returned from a 2 month trip to SE Asia.

I visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An, Phu Quoc, Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siam Reap, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

I can honestly say that Phnom Penh was DEFINITELY my favourite. Loved every moment of it. Friendliest people and I love the laid back atmosphere. Doesn’t hurt that it was extremely cheap as well.

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