Cambodia compared to Thailand
Before I first visited Cambodia I had the impression that it was a cheaper, inferior alternative to Thailand, somewhere you went if your money was running too low to stay in Thailand. Probably this is how some people would see it but for me it is better. The main plus point for me are the people who much more amenable to foreigners than Thais. Also the lack of outlets such as McDonald's and Tesco Lotus is attractive if you relish the authentic Asian experience.
Phnom Penh airport is modern and efficient. Walking times are delightfully brief compared to Bangkok airports.
It is not free to enter Cambodia. E-visas cost $25 (750 baht) and are good if you want to save a page in your passport. They can be used at the airports and at the Koh Kong and Poipet land borders (not, however, at Phrum, the crossing near Chantaburi). If you didn’t already get an e-visa, you will need to join the line for a visa on arrival. Remember to bring a photo, and if you forget, try not to get scammed for a 1000 baht penalty. You should get away with $5 (150 baht). Koh Kong has a reputation for scamming a visa fee of 1200 baht, it should be $20 or 600 baht, as a result the e-visa is actually the cheapest option when entering at Koh Kong. The airports and Poipet and Phrum will only charge $20 for a paper visa. This will get you a one month tourist visa which is extendable for one more month. Or you can pay $25 for a business (officially called an ordinary visa). This can be extended for 3, 6 or 12 months (cost $285 or 8500 baht for 12-month multiple entry).
Taxi from Phnom Peng Airport
$9 (270 baht) in a taxi or $5 (150 baht) in a tuktuk hailed outside the terminal on the main road. You can push your (free) luggage cart through the car park right up to the gate to the road. PP is to your right so no need to cross the road (they drive on the right in Cambodia).
Playboys (as the locals call them) are a problem, especially late at night. Bags and jewellery can be snatched from tuktuks and motorbikes at any time. Be aware, especially coming from the airport. Don't flash cash or expensive phones or tablets.
Rattanak Hospital has a good reputation with expats. Tel: 023991000
Hotels and guesthouses
Reasonable air-con en suite rooms go from $15 (450 baht) up. A good quality room should cost no more than $30 (900 baht). Look for late discounts on latestays and Agoda.
A decent pad will go from $200 per month up (6000 baht), for rentals of at least six months. Electricity is expensive (minimum $2.25 per unit) and deposit and electricity problems with landlords are common.
PP is a noisy city, much noisier than Bangkok. Relentless honking of horns and music played at high volume. Don’t come if you need a quiet night.
Very few in PP. Not a problem. Likewise flies.
Bland but nice. Chili hardly used at all. Farang (called barang in Cambodia) food much better quality and more available than in Thailand, especially bread and sandwiches. Also some good French restaurants. Good quality local and farang food can be had in restaurants for $4 to $6 per dish (120 to 180 baht) or street food for $1 to $2 (30 to 60 baht). Chopsticks are used more than in Thailand.
The most common local beers are Angkor and Anchor, both available in cans, bottles and sometimes on draught. Cans are cheaper than bottles. In a shop a can of Anchor will cost about 0.65c (20 baht), cheaper when bought by the case.
A small bottle of water will cost 1000 riel (7.5 baht or buy 12 small bottles from street vendors for 5000 riel 40 baht). Coke will cost 2000 riel (15 baht).
Wine and spirits
Good wine from South America, Australia and Europe is widely available. Good stuff costs from $8 (240 baht) per bottle. There is a wide selection of imported spirits, including many malt whiskies. Because Cambodia does not produce its own spirits, there is no punitive tax on imported products.
There are some good quality non-hostess bars (Cadillac, Garage, Lone Star, Riverhouse), approaching the ambience and quality of brown bars in Amsterdam. Gogo bars and nudity do not exist in Cambodia.
There are many of these dotted around PP, most of them are small in size. Most of them are not open bars but you may get a glimpse of inside through shaded glass. No nudity but on the right occasion a bar can be as raunchy as any in Thailand. There is a shortage of customers, even in high season. If you are willing to flash the cash, you may well get movie star treatment. Local beer costs from $1.50 to $2 (45 to 60 baht), lady drinks $3 (90 baht), whisky or rum coke $3 to $4 (90 to 120 baht). The mixed drinks are stronger and longer than in Thailand. Most bars play modern music, sometimes with video. Live music is available occasionally in certain bars (136 bar in St 130, Oscars in St 104 and Black Cat in ST 51, Barbados in ST 130 and of course Sharky in ST 130). Many bars have pool tables. Most bars have a single unisex toilet (which the staff also use) with no urinals so when a bar gets busy there can be a bit of a wait. Toilets are usually not very well maintained, with a few honourable exceptions (e.g. Best 136 in ST 136).
The girls dress well and most of them look sexy in their tight dresses. Unlike in Thailand, they come from all parts of the country, except ironically the far north-east provinces of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri. They are racially diverse compared to their E-saan sisters in Bangkok and Pattaya. Chinese and Vietnamese have interbred with the native Khmer. One of the effects of the Khmer Rouge is that the original Khmer elite was wiped out so the new elite does not have any distinct racial identity. English language skills are typically good but a significant proportion have none and some are better than any you will hear in Thailand. Attitude on average is good, better than Thailand. Drinks hustled gently and drinks not gulped, tequilas are rarely ordered. A lady drink is often a full glass of draught beer with a straw in it, not designed for hasty consumption! Some good shows when girls get in the mood and dance on the bar counter. Most girls not hustling for short time, in fact due to the shortage of customers, they are not expecting to get barfined too often. Bar fines cost $7 to $10 (210 to 300 baht). Tattoos are rarely seen on bargirls. Most of them have 2G Nokia phones, some have iPhones, often copies.
There is a total absence of public transport inside the city. All transport is personalised. There are four choices: taxi (cannot be hailed on the street), tuktuk, motorbike, and cyclo. Short distances will cost respectively $2, $1.50, $1, $1. You can haggle for lower if you can be bothered. Always agree on a fare before getting in, unless you know and trust the driver. Tuk-tuks are easy to find just about anywhere but are painfully expensive compared to Bangkok meter taxis (tuktuk drivers make up for the absence of Indian tailors, bothering passers-by). Motorbike taxis on the other hand (also easy to find) are much cheaper than their equivalent in Bangkok. The bikes tend to be old model (often Korean) and you will not be offered a helmet. However you travel, acquire nerves of steel, especially for crossing or turning left into the big boulevards. Cyclos are great, especially for daytime and early evenings. Walking is an option but beware motorbikes paying no heed to traffic rules by ignoring stop lights and going the wrong direction – always look both ways when crossing the roads – oh, and sidewalks are always blocked so you have to walk in the road – and be careful of crime late at night.
Rubbish and Rats
The central part of PP around ST 136 is unbelievably filthy with rubbish tossed everywhere. Other parts of the city are sometimes cleaner. Oddly, there are few rats, much less than in Thailand.
Phnom Penh has a few beautiful old French colonial buildings, some of them restored. There are also some very nice looking villas that have been built in the past 20 years.
Overwhelmingly Buddhist, often with a Chinese influence. Images are often painted rather than gilded, and accompanied by Chinese writing. Cambodians seem less pious than Thais. There is less talk about making merit and less frequent attendance at the temples (often called pagoda or Prasad, not wat). Christianity is pretty minor in Cambodia. The KR demolished the cathedral in PP and it was not rebuilt. There is a sizeable Muslim population, they are called Cham people.
Much more low key than in Thailand, far fewer images to be seen, in fact probably more images of the prime minister. The previous king was rarely mentioned until he died, at which point there was a substantial emotional outpouring of grief. Now everything is back to normal.
Available in the backpacker tourist areas of PP and SR. There is also a different type of establishment which caters to the local population and is available all over the city (the signs are in Khmer as well as English), and at which more services are offered as extras. Surprisingly each has similar prices for the basic product. The same selection of foot, Thai and oil, but also Khmer massage available (pretty much indistinguishable from Thai massage). Thai/Khmer/foot massage costs $5 (150 baht) and oil $8 (240 baht).
All PP residents seem to have extended families in the provinces and they go visit them at Songkran (and also at Chinese New Year and at Chu Ben in October). PP thus becomes a bit of a ghost town at these times, many bars and restaurants close for a few days. The real action is in the provinces. Of course the road traffic accident figures spike horribly at these times. In PP there are some street parties with people dancing around speakers blasting Khmer songs and drinking beer and smearing (uncoloured) talcum powder on each other’s faces. No water is thrown and foreigners are not greatly involved in the festivities.
Sihanoukville has great beaches. The journey from PP takes 5 hours and is fairly terrifying (as is any journey to anywhere in the provinces). The cost is $6 up (180 baht) on the bus or $60 (1800 baht) in a taxi. Sihanoukville (also called Kompong Som) has good hotels and guest houses, generally a bit pricier than their equivalents in Phnom Penh. The town is very spread out with several distinct areas. Most of it is fairly quiet in terms of barang population but Khmers arrive in force most weekends and all public holidays (of which Cambodia has even more than Thailand). The only hostess bars in town are on Victory Hill, a strange little street with open bars and few customers besides hardened longstayers. Ocheutal beach and Downtown areas have some freelancer bars. Otres beach is backpacker vibe. If you want to go to a beach more near than Sihanoukville, in the dry season you can do a day trip to Kho Dhac, an island in the Mekong River about one hour away and which has a nice beach, tuktuk for the day costs $20 (600 baht, no local accommodation)..
Cambodia is a great place to visit for a change of scenery and there does seem to be a small, but growing number who even prefer it to Thailand.