Phnom Penh: Not What I Expected

After reading articles from other travel bloggers and hearing stories from fellow backpackers, I have to admit that I had a greatly distorted image of Phnom Penh going in.  Perhaps the average traveller is just getting soft, maybe they always were, or maybe there is a side of Phnom Penh that is actually incredibly dangerous.  Regardless, I had begun to wonder what I was getting myself into.  Was I about to set foot in yet another bad situation like I had so many times before?  There had to be a real reason why so many backpackers warned me to just avoid Cambodia’s capital, right?

Phnom Penh royal palace

 

Instead, of taking the advice of so many, I went.  And when I arrived, I was markedly confused.  To my eyes, it was Bamako without the chaotic traffic.  It was a city on a wide stretch of river lined with cafes and restaurants, perfectly paved streets, and tuk-tuk drivers that didn’t find the need to yell fourteen times at me, or get in my face in regards to whether or not I wanted a ride somewhere.  It was tight inner city streets full of smiling kids begging for photos, and friendly hellos.

Maybe it was just the change coming from Vietnam where, as a tourist, I was the ears to an unrelenting choir of stabbing “hello, hello, hello, helloooo” everywhere I went.  Or maybe, backpackers are full of shit.  Maybe Phnom Penh is too far from a beach and a mojito.  Perhaps there aren’t enough bikinis and jello shots to appease the average backpacker fantasy of Southeast Asia in Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh tuk tuk

Sure, Cambodia’s capital isn’t roses and lolipops either.  After exploring the side streets and local markets, it was obvious that there was a bit of an edge to the city.  At times, I got resentful looking glaces as I walked.  But in general, It was far from the squall of darkness and doom that had so often been portrayed to me by others.  I’d even heard reference from some that Cambodia should be avoided all together these days, as it has become too dangerous for tourists.

It’s all just sensationalism isn’t it?  It’s just another example of tourists making their travels sound hard at the expense of reality.  It’s perhaps just another excuse to avoid actual local life instead of baking on a beach, dancing with 4,000 other tourists on a full moon-lit beach, then spending all day sleeping in a hammock while on your iPhone talking to family members back home, telling them how “you’ve begun to find yourself”.

Phnom Penh monks

In so many ways, Southeast Asia has been exactly what I expected.  It’s the land of gullible tourists, partypackers, phony hippies, and a scattering of some really badass travellers that put the rest of us to shame.  But in many other ways, it’s completely different.

Phomn Penh, much like most of Southeast Asia, is not an under-developed place.  The vast majority of people have smartphones, the roads are all paved, and the standard of life seems to be improving for most.  The streets are owned by Toyotas and not oxen-carts.  Sure, it’s no New York City, but Phnom Penh is certainly no wasteland either.

Phnom Penh Buddhist temple

But beyond the development itself, Phnom Penh was far nicer than I would have expected.  I couldn’t have been happier sat in a park watching the sun go down over the national palace.  It felt legitimate weaving through the local markets.  And it just felt comfortable, in so many ways.

Phnom Penh royal palace

I’m sure that if you’ve stuck with this article long enough, you’re starting to wonder my point.  And, well, I guess it’s two-fold.  For one, the lesson I keep learning in travel is that you must make your own judgement.  Don’t skip a destination because others told you to, and never tell another traveller to skip a destination, either.  Each person has their goals in travel.  Some like to party, and others like to push through markets and spend time chatting with the monks they meet.  And secondly, when you go somewhere you shouldn’t sugarcoat it, nor should you dramatize or sensationalize it.  Say it like it is travellers, for the sake of my sanity and those who hope to follow in your footsteps.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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17 Comments

  1. Well said. If I’d listened to others, I would have missed some wonderful places. My conclusion is simply that everywhere is worth seeing.

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    • Exactly, see everything.

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  2. I never got around to writing about Phnom Penh itself, only the prison and the killing fields, but the city itself was pretty easy going. Like you said, waterfront cafes and restaurants etc. Has it been portrayed as all doom and gloom? I don’t know. I guess I wouldn’t stick around too long just because I prefer the beach, and a good mojito 😉

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    • Haha! Truth. I could see how some tourists would see it as a bit boring. But all I kept hearing before arriving from people was it was “violent”, “third-world”, and crime-ridden. I should know better than listen to people, I guess. Enjoy your mojito!

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  3. A tinge of travel snobbery here. If people want to lay in their hammocks while recovering from a full moon then that’s up to them surely.

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    • No, total travel snobbery, I’m not afraid to admit it. Look, I’ve got no problem with partypackers or those who lay in hammocks all day and don’t do anything cultural. That, as you said, is their prerogative. Just grinds my gears when they act like that was a cultural experience, and they found themselves there.

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  4. Excellent post. I enjoyed PP and your view of it made me inserts and why bit more. Thanks.

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    • Thanks Forrest. Glad I’m not the only one.

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  5. Partypackers … love that term man! I’ve run into more than my share on the trail, and while some are just a lot of fun, many of them are loud, inconsiderate, and consistently make very poor decisions in regards to their own safety and the security of their belongings. They then act like it’s someone else’s fault when something bad happens to them **facepalm**

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    • Haha, I’m not sure when I started using the term partypackers, must have been years ago in Europe.
      I’ve got no problem with the partypackers, I don’t even mind mixing it up and making some poor decisions with them, but they are BAD in Southeast Asia. You’ll be downtown Bangkok in the business district and see a group of girls walking around in bikinis. It makes little to no sense.

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  6. Love the term Partypackers! I’ve not been to SE Asia, but really love reading posts like this to get an understanding of what people think about cities, sites and what’s “must do” and what should be skipped… this is the stuff you won’t get in a guide book or on a tour operator’s web site and why travel bloggers are so valuable to the travel industry.

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  7. Regardless of what anyone says, it looks like a beautiful city to me and somewhere I’d love to go one day.

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  8. Brendan, thank you for this article. It definitely reassures me that there was something I missed on the annoying experience of Siem Reap, I feel you when you talk about people yelling “Helllooooo TUK TUK!” every step you take.

    I didn’t vote Cambodia off, but in Siem Reap I couldn’t wait to leave back to Thailand because of how in your face that city was (for me at least). I’ve been in some edgy cities so that was never it, but I guess I had the same experience as you detailed about Vietnam.

    I’ll go back sometime, and you just helped make me more eager to.

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  9. I love PP and did’t have any issues being there as a solo female traveller. However, I know folks who live there and there is more that goes on than you’d think. It’s not a place I’d wander round randomly after dark, but then again I wouldn’t do that inmy hometown either. 🙂

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  10. Great post Brendan! So many of us look to our fellow backpackers and travel bloggers for reliable information when planning a trip that we’re all doing each other a huge disservice by sugarcoating or sensationalizing the places we visit. Perhaps our intentions are good and we want to keep things exciting and interesting for readers but in the end it’s just bad writing if it isn’t honest.

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  11. I’m glad to hear another point of view about Phnom Penh since I’ve been hearing negative things as well lately. Some from experienced travellers, some from expats living there. I think I would still be wary visiting but I won’t write it off altogether before giving it a chance.

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  12. I didn’t really like PP, but I didn’t ever find it threatening, not even sat outside one of the bus stations at 5am! I wasn’t a fan of Cambodia in general – I DID get lots of hassle and a fair amount of overcharging (though Vietnam was far worse for both) and I’m sure I never had more than 2 or 3 decent meals in 3 weeks in the country, but the only place I ever really had any security issues was Poipet. Oh and maybe a bit in Battambang – no one likes to be confronted by a naked man when trying to eat!!!

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