Impressions of Phnom Penh
Though I have lived and worked in Asia on and off for over 20 years, and been to Thailand many times, I only discovered the Stickman site maybe a year or so ago. I enjoy the weekly as well as readers' submissions. One theme I have noticed, other than the "girl done me wrong" or "gogo bars ain't what they used to be" stories, is that a number of long term expats are disillusioned with Thailand and looking for greener pastures. Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and even Cambodia are often mentioned. I had considered all these places as possible retirement destinations, but chose Thailand, specifically Chiang Mai.
I recently spent several days in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I first went to Cambodia about 20 years ago to visit Angkor Wat, which along with the Pyramids, Machu Pichu, and the Great Wall, is truly one of the man made wonders of the world. At that time, Phnom Penh was a pretty wild place, and probably a "fourth world" country. I recall a saying back then that men who can't cope with the real world go to Thailand; those that can't cope with Thailand go to Cambodia.
I hadn't been to PP in about 5 years, so wanted to see how the city has grown. Since I had already been to the main tourist venues (National Museum, Killing Fields etc), I tried to look at the city as a possible place to live. Here are my impressions, with the caveat that it is based on a short visit.
First Impressions: after quickly clearing the visa on arrival queue, I jumped in a taxi to take me to my hotel along the river. I quickly noticed that traffic congestion was much worse than I remembered, and there were a lot more cars on the road. Like much of South-East Asia, more people can afford cars today, but the city planners never expand the roads to handle the traffic. I also noticed several new buildings and construction projects, though overall it is still a low-rise city, with very few high-rises. PP is not a major city like Bangkok, and in size I'd compare it to Chiang Mai without the mountains or charm. The main currency accepted is US dollars, although you should have some local currency for small purchases.
Getting around: the Tonle Sap river runs through the city, and serves as a boundary in the city center. Sisowath Quay is the road that runs along the river, and is full of hotels, guesthouses, bars and restaurants. The National Museum and Palace are on this street. There is a paved walkway along the river, which gets very crowded at dusk as locals go for a walk, take their children to play etc. The city center is set up on a grid system, the roads parallel to the river are odd numbered, the streets intersecting the river are even numbered, so it is a pretty easy place to understand once you learn the main streets. Due to the French influence, some of the major roads are very wide, with trees and parks lining the road.
There is no mass transit or regular bus system, and the main way to get around (if you aren't driving) are tuk tuks, motor taxis, and the occasional metered taxi. Metered taxis don't generally cruise around looking for fares – you need to book them.
While there are a few high-end hotels (Sofitel, Intercontinental, Himawari), the majority of hotels are pretty small and would fall into the 3-star category. There are also numerous small guesthouses and "boutique" hotels, as well as youth hostels. Prices are reasonable and it is not hard to find a simple, clean room for 30 – 50 dollars per night. Of course you can go higher or lower.
For long-term stays, there are not a lot of furnished apartments, condos or serviced apartments available. I spoke with a few expats who said that if you want to be in a nice, elevator building, with a pool, they are few and you will pay top dollar. That is one great thing about Thailand – there are many condos for rent to suit all budgets.
My comments are based on reviewing the local newspapers, real estate sections and talking to expats. I did not visit any realtor's offices.
I do not find the local Khmer food to be anything special, much like Philippine cuisine. But, I did find many very good Western style restaurants in PP. I went to one small Italian restaurant on Sisowath Quay that was outstanding – great food, good wine selection and reasonably priced ($12 – 15 pp). I also ate at a very nice small French bistro a block away from the river, very authentic French food. There is also a well known local restaurant that takes orphans / street kids and trains them to work in the hospitality industry. The food is good, and you feel like you are contributing to a good cause while you dine.
There is street food available, but not on the scale of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. There are local markets around town, though I didn't see any supermarkets (Foodland, Villa Market, Tops), but I didn't look hard. Overall there seems to be a decent selection of restaurants around town.
I know this is a topic near and dear to many a farang in Asia. While I do enjoy going out for a few drinks, listening to some live music, chasing after bar girls or hitting clubs till 3 AM is not my thing. Been there, done that. However, since I was on a scouting expedition to evaluate PP as a possible home, I forced myself to check out the bar scene!
Locals may know of others, but the 3 main nightlife areas for farangs seem to be clusters of bars located on street 104, street 136, and street 51. On each street there are many bars, but nothing like the scale of Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza or Pattaya. I did not see any gogo bars or outdoor open beer bars, but there are many bars with hostesses there to talk, play pool, flirt with and they are available for take out. I stopped in a few bars on Street 104 and 136, and found them full of ladies from not too attractive to knockout. I did not make it to the famous street 51, or go to the after closing clubs. Some bars were very low pressure, while in others you were surrounded by an army of girls as you entered and they wouldn't leave you alone. I found the ladies generally friendly and like Thailand, most came from the poorer, rural provinces. There are also some Viet girls, who can be lovely but harder than the Khmer girls. English was a mixed bag, similar to Thailand bars. Since I'm not a big fan of tattoos and body piercings on ladies, I did not meet any hostesses that had ink, or body art. I guess they are more conservative than their Thai peers.
As far as prices, drinks were quite cheap compared to Thailand. In many of the bars, an Angkor beer would cost a buck, mixed drinks $3 – 3.50, same for a lady drink. The bar fines were $10, and $40 – 50 seemed to be the asking price for take out, though you might be able to bargain lower. Most of the ladies said they were good with overnight. If you are a sex tourist or expat that likes the bargirl scene, you could be pretty happy in Phnom Penh I reckon.
I asked a few expats, and PP doesn't have the full service massage places like Thailand, though there may be some if you are a local.
As a retiree, having access to quality, affordable medical care is an important consideration in choosing a location (right after easy women LOL). I did not need medical attention while in PP, but did speak to a few expat residents who said that overall medical care in Cambodia is poor, even in the capital. They said that if you need anything other than basic care, it's better to get to Bangkok or Singapore.
Thailand, on the other hand, does have some hospitals that are well regarded by Western standards, at least in the bigger cities (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya etc). In fact, medical tourism is a growing business in Thailand due to the quality of care and affordable price.
If good medical care is important to you, Cambodia may not be the right place to live.
Outside Phnom Penh
I understand that there is a decent expat population in Sihanoukville, a beach town 3 – 4 hours from PP. I went there once and wasn't impressed, though there are some nice small islands you can visit on a day trip. It cannot compare to Samui or Phuket in my opinion, but it is very cheap.
Some expats told me that there is a small expat population in a small town called Kampot, also about 3 hours from PP. It's very quiet, so I assume it would be like living in a small town in Isaan.
In summary, I think Phnom Penh is an okay place for a short visit. There aren't many interesting tourist attractions, but the nightlife is lively and some good restaurants. The people are generally pretty friendly. It is growing, and a large shopping mall just opened in the past month or two. For me, Thailand, despite its problems, still has it over Cambodia as a place to live, but everyone has different tastes and interests, so give it a look.
I think the main advantages for Westerners considering Cambodia over Thailand are the ease of getting a visa (basically $300 and you get a 1-year visa without any fuss at all), along with the lower cost of living. The Cambodian people are friendlier too and I get the impression that they genuinely welcome Westerners.