My Phnom Penh Trip Report or Phnom Penh for Newbies
I had that nervous energy you get when you do something for the first time. I'm 58. At my age I don't often get to do something new. I'm boarding a Bangkok Airways flight to Phnom Penh and I haven't been to Cambodia before. I've heard it's similar to Thailand of years past. I took the 2nd half of December off work so I could see my Thai partner for Xmas; I came all the way from Farangland to see her only to be told (several months ago) that she would go to the temple and thus be busy in the first week. OK, Cambodia here I come and I'll see her in the 2nd week of my vacation.
Naturally she changed her mind sometime after I booked the Cambodia trip. I said that was no problem — I was going anyway. Then she asked if I was angry with her? No, I wasn't. My expectation in life is if you say you'll do something then you do it. She said she was busy; I said I was going to Cambodia and that's the way it would be. I think it's best to live by your principles.
The real attraction of Cambodia was the prospect of Snookyville (that's Sihanoukville but often referred to as Snookyville, which I will continue to use in this post because I like the name). I've heard it's like Pattaya 30 years ago. I'm old enough to remember that and I liked it; I wanted to experience it again and see the place for myself. But when I investigated I found it was too difficult to get there. To my surprise there was no transport from the airport to Snookyville (maybe by taxi, but not using an inexpensive means of transport) and with my itinerary it wasn't practical to get there on the same day. Ditto for the return trip. With only 5 nights in Cambodia and the need to spend 2 of them in Phnom Penh I decided Snookyville wouldn't be the focus of my trip; I'd try Phnom Penh and see how that went. Maybe I'd make a flying visit to Snookyville, but the focus would be Phnom Penh.
I thought Cambodia would be about getting laid and not paying much for it. Without going into every detail I'm outlining some of the things I experienced. My primer for newbie visitors to Phnom Penh. My trip report.
I was worried about the visa on arrival process. I read about the dual currency economy. I knew I needed to bring US$ and while I don't have a problem with that I didn't think I understood how it would work. I figured this would be a cheap holiday so I budgeted $500 for the 5 days. (I budget that much for 1 day when I visit Bangkok, although I normally spend half of that on myself and give the other half to my partner. I'm Mr. Nice Guy; or maybe Mr. Dummy.)
I needed $30 for the visa on arrival. I read I should have a visa photo with me when I arrive. I read it wasn't worth getting an e-visa, that it was just as easy to get the visa on arrival. That was bad advice. The visa on arrival process was frantic and disorganized; not exactly pushing and shoving but close to it. If I had an e-visa I could have simply gone to the Immigration queue and the arrival would have so much easier. Note that for next time. On the plane I met guys with similar plans to mine; one had been to Phnom Penh a few times before, the other was a newbie like me. Neither had an e-visa. The other newbie didn't have a photo and had to organize that in the arrival hall. I lost track of him in the Arrivals hall so I don't exactly know how things worked out for him. I saw him at the baggage carousel, so I know he survived. An e-visa would have cut 15 minutes and considerable stress out of the process.
The taxi ride to the city was a microcosm of the visit. I read and was told (by the experienced traveler) that I should get a voucher for the ride that would cost $12. After looking around I managed to find the booth to get the voucher. But you don't pay for the voucher, you just hold on to it or maybe show it to the taxi driver. At the end of the journey you pay the guy $12. The voucher appeared to have no purpose except to reassure me of the price. True, I felt better knowing what the price would be and I could always push it in the face of the taxi driver if I felt I was being ripped off; but that didn’t happen. I paid the taxi driver $12 when we arrived at the hotel — he was happy and there was no argument about the price. And that's what the holiday was like. No stress; no fuss; prices are inexpensive so pay what is asked; obviously bargain where you can but everything seemed to be pretty well organized; if you didn't argue and accepted things as they were the whole process was low stress. I'm an experienced expat. I know when I visit other countries they're designed for their citizens not for me. It's up to me to experience their lifestyle and conditions. If I like it, that's great. If I don't, catalogue it and move on. No fuss, no furore.
Hotel and Getting Around
Thank you, Agoda. I selected what turned out to be a good hotel in the Riverside area that had a decent rate ($45 per night). They described themselves as a 3 star hotel which I thought was harsh; maybe not 4 stars but close to it. If you're new to Phnom Penh I recommend staying at Riverside. It's close to everything; it's easy to walk anywhere. There are lots of restaurants, pubs and bars close by. If you want to go somewhere that's too far to walk there are lots of tuktuks or motorcycle (motos) to use. In 6 days and 5 nights in Phnom Penh I must have said "no" 500 times to offers of transport. This is perhaps a downside of my visit; I can do that for a week without getting annoyed. If I was there for a month it would be different; although if I stayed for 3 months I'm sure I'd assimilate. Personally I like to walk. I get a better feel of the place, I'm in no rush and it was "winter" when I was there so it wasn't hot or unpleasant to be outside. (Around 25 – 27C every day with no rain.)
Eating and Drinking
I have 30 years of experience visiting Thailand and think I know prices there quite well. I thought everything in Cambodia would be cheap and I was right & wrong. I was looking forward to eating on the streets and especially looking forward to eating good bread. I live in a country with poor quality bread and Thailand isn't exactly the patisserie capital of the world.
I didn't like the look of the street food as much as I thought I would so I didn't eat much of it. There was bread everywhere but served with more fillings than I like. By "fillings" I mean pressed meats and a variety of vegetables. I didn't see as much plain bread as I expected and I had no ear for the Khmer language so had trouble asking for just a plain baguette. Even though I didn't like the fillings for the bread (served similarly to Vietnam rolls) I found they were good when I tried them. The baguettes were good quality, too, but I would have preferred to eat them plain.
As I didn't eat much street food I was "forced" into restaurants. They were more expensive than I expected. In general I found the cafe and restaurant prices (in downtown PP) to be the same price as or even more expensive than food in the suburbs of Bangkok. But there was more variety in the Phnom Penh food than in Thailand; more western food options and the Cambodians use less spice. That wouldn't suit everyone but it happens to agree with me.
Drinking was another matter. I can't remember being in a place where drinks were so cheap. In downtown PP, on Riverside which is a popular tourist and probably an upscale area for locals, it was easy to find happy hour with local draft beers for $0.75. Still on happy hour — bottles of local beer for $1; Beck's beer $1.25; Hoegaarden, Heineken, Guinness, Corona all $1.50; English cider (apple, pear or strawberry) $1.50; and every little hole in the wall bar and eatery has free wifi. As a visitor I didn't need or buy a local SIM card — free wifi everywhere worked well for me. Happy hour wasn't from 5-7 PM, it was generally all day and lasted until 8 PM, 9 PM or even 10 PM in some places.
The drink prices were fairly consistent at pubs in that part of town. There are also hostess bars (this is why you're reading the article, right?). Surprisingly the drink prices weren't a lot different. A bottle of local beer in the bars was generally $1.00-$1.50; lady drinks were between $2.50-$3.50
My research said the Cambodian ladies (in hostess bars) are less pushy than their Thai sisters and you could talk to them without being pressured into buying them a drink.
You could ask them to come and sit with you. You could ask them to go away. You could buy them a drink. You could choose not to buy them a drink. Nothing seemed to be a problem. Having been around Thailand for a long time I don't feel it's right to string along the girls — they have to make a living — but they certainly didn't pressure me to buy drinks. When I bought them a drink it was me who offered and they happily accepted but I don't remember any lady asking me to buy a drink for her. If I didn't buy them a drink I'd leave a tip when I left and they were grateful. I think they get $1 for each lady drink so if I didn't buy them a drink I'd leave $2-$5 depending on how long I spent with them and everyone seemed happy. (I'm sure the bar wouldn't be thrilled but I'm not on earth to please everyone.)
My research for the price of ladies' company was probably out of date. From going around I found the going price of ST was about $30 – $40 depending on the lady and the quality of the bar. I only asked about LT with one lady who wanted $50. On night #1 I thought that was too much and declined. By night #2 I thought that was a dumb decision and went back to secure her services. She was happy to see me back and honor the previously quoted price. I suggested to her that she would have to be "enthusiastic" for that price; she said she would be and lived up to her part of the bargain. After 5 nights in Phnom Penh and being quoted $40 for ST by a few ladies I felt I was lucky to get my LT arrangement for $50; and stupid to pass it up on the first night. But, hey, that's why they call it a learning curve.
Again my research said that hostess bars in Phnom Penh (and probably all of Cambodia) are not the same as Thailand. They don't have shows like Suzy Wong in Soi Cowboy, or Angelwitch in Nana Plaza; they don't have go-go dancers or coyotes; they don't feature skimpy outfits or near naked ladies to entertain you. You go into a bar; you choose a lady; you chat — the best you can with the language difficulties; you make a deal or you don't; you leave. As far as I could see that was about it.
The closest thing I found to a racy bar was a place called Cyrcee (pronounced seer-say). The description I got of this place was the ladies would give you a blow job before you could order your first drink. Well, that was an exaggeration. But it was a rocking little place if you like to be naughty. It's a normal hostess bar — no fish bowl or wannabe massage parlor. It had lots of ladies (about 20) with good variety. They weren't shy about what they offered or how it worked. There's a ST hotel across the road that costs $5 for the room; $10 for the bar fine and $30 for the lady. I am no longer a young man and as such there are limits to my powers (I wish I had the energy of yesteryear); yet the girl I chose managed to convince me to take her friend as well. The honest truth is I have tried this twice before in my life and each time was a disappointment. Instead of every man's fantasy of combined action both of my experiences were sequential with one girl doing her business and the other one a bystander; then the first one left and the second one had her turn. These are not my best memories so I was reluctant to try it now. I raised the concern with these two ladies and they assured me they would work in tandem so I figured "at this price, even if it isn't good, I don't have that much to lose". Off I went with my two ladies and had a remarkably good time. I only wish I was 20 years younger but I'll cherish this as a good memory — the first time it's worked out for me like it does in the movies. If you want to go to Cyrcee I can't give an exact address but walk along 130 St heading west towards Central Market; you'll see the sign in the side street on the left just before the market; it's hard to find during the daytime (why would you want to go during the day?) but it's easy to see at night even though the sign is small.
I just found out it's pretty easy to get Ceycee's address and a map if you Google it — let's leave it at that because the information is likely to be more current than anything I provide here.
PP Street Layout
Before going to Phnom Penh I was intimidated by the street numbering system and the advice on where to go. 136 Street; 130 Street; 148 Street; 51 Street…
When you get there it's much easier to figure out. Even numbered streets go from east-west; odd numbers go north-south. Street numbers jump in large numbers; it's not a grid like Manhattan. Because of the irregular shape of the downtown area many streets start and end in a short distance. So when you're at Riverside you'll see the streets go 118, 130, 136, 144 & 148. You'll find all the street numbers somewhere in the city but they don't necessarily extend all the way across the city. It's the same for the odd numbered streets. It's much easier to get around when you learn this.
Believe it or not I wasn't fully occupied with my "meet & greet" of the ladies. I like a bargain as much as the next person and think shopping in Thailand is great value. Phnom Penh was better. Clothes and shoes are inexpensive. Shops on the street and stalls in the Central Market had clothes for 50% to 66% less than Bangkok. Before going to Phnom Penh I bought a pair of trousers in a Bangkok Tesco Lotus for the bargain price of $15. After a few days in Phnom Penh I thought that was positively expensive. While I didn't research this extensively it seemed the prices in the roadside shops were relatively fixed and bargaining was the norm in the market.
If you like a bargain you should visit the Central Market. They have lots of things — clothes, shoes, caps, hats, food — everything you could ask for. Many of the stalls had incredible inventory and selection of goods. The biggest challenge was choosing what to buy. And while I was happy with the prices I ran into some tourists who'd just spent a week in Siem Reap who complained the prices were double what they'd found there. So while I was happy they were turning up their noses saying everything was too expensive.
Currency and How It Works
I said earlier I was intimidated by the idea of bringing and using US$. It really wasn't a big deal. Prices for tourists are quoted in US$. You pay and get change in dollars. The approximate exchange rate is US$1 = Riel 4,000. When change is less than $1 they give you Riel. You can pay in Riel if you want; in line with the easy going nature of the people everyone accepted the rate of $1 = 4,000. The actual rate was about 4,080 but not once did anyone say "No, you need to pay me 20,400" as opposed to 20,000 when something was $5. Considering it's a relatively poor country and almost everyone you meet would value the extra Riel 400 it's surprising that no one insisted on the extra few hundred. I've been in lots of countries where they want that extra 10c but in Cambodia everyone seemed relaxed about it.
The one thing to be careful about is the quality of your US currency. I took money with me that I use in the US without a problem. But in Cambodia they're fussy. If a bill is ripped, torn, marked or too dirty they won't accept it. I had 2x $20 bills that no one would accept because one had a corner missing and the other had writing on it. No problem using them in the US but not acceptable in Cambodia. They are more forgiving of dirty $1 bills than 5s, 10s or 20s. I wouldn't recommend using 50s or 100s — they're too big for general use; it's better to stick to the smaller bills and use 20s as the highest denomination.
Gratuitous Phnom Penh Advice
Here are some tips for Phnom Penh. 51 St around 172 St has a lot of pubs, clubs and bars. The Walkabout Hotel is full of freelancers, seemingly at any time of the day or night.
A place near there on 51 St called Zeppelin Cafe is a great place to go for a drink and listening to 70s guitar-based rock music. The owner, who appeared to be a Cambodian national with a ponytail, sits at the back of the bar with 2 turntables. He has an extensive collection of vinyl records (not a CD in sight) and plays what he wants to hear. He looks like a grumpy bugger and I doubt he takes requests — but it's a great place to sit down, have a drink and listen to some music you might have forgotten about. It's not a pickup joint and it's not the kind of place you can talk much — it is, after all, 70s rock featuring loud guitars.
Just around the corner on 172 St is Pontoon, one of the most famous night places in Phnom Penh. It's a club or disco. Don’t go early. I went at 10:30 PM and it was dead. I heard later that it warms up around midnight. I was also told that it is "the" place to go in PP, has fabulous looking ladies (presumably freelancers) and lots of them. One of the challenges of advancing age is not having the staying power to roam the streets at 2 AM so I didn't get to find out; but people younger than me recommended it.
On the corner of 51 St and 172 St is a place called Le Bon Cafe — a nice place to have a coffee, snack or light meal. It features both outdoor and indoor seating. The owners (or managers) speak perfect English so there is no risk of your order being misunderstood or the wrong item coming to your table. I dropped in during both the day and night; no matter what time I was there the owner / manager or perhaps a family member was there with perfect communications.
Across at Riverside there are many cafes and pubs to choose from. The one I enjoyed most for a happy hour drink was on the corner of Sisowath Quay (the main river side road) and 110, 118 or 130 St; I didn't take note of the place's name and Google street view isn't helping me remember but the one at 110 St "looks" about right. Hint: it has this easily visible, non-illuminated Happy Hour sign at the front:
You can't go far wrong with any place around there, but this corner pub / cafe had friendly staff, nice atmosphere and good prices. It was a place you can just sit down and watch the world go by.
My hotel provided free breakfast which was quite OK. But I saw a place on Sisowath Quay called Camory Restaurant, near 110 St that offered breakfast for $3.95. They had a dozen choices for that price and I found I enjoyed it more than my hotel's free breakfast. Camory is also a hostel style guesthouse; they offer inexpensive accommodation and rooms with as many as 4 beds (presumably for a family or maybe for really good friends). If you stay there the breakfast is free.
Going back to the ladies, another place known for freelancers is Sharky Bar on 130 St. I didn't find it interesting but I could have gone there at the wrong time — yet again. They have pool tables which seem to be popular. Note it costs Riel 1,000, all of 25c, for a game of pool. I read a ridiculous Internet post from some guy who complained he was aggressively confronted when he tried to leave without paying for 3 games of pool. He implied he was ready to fight the bouncers because he couldn't see the sign showing the price. It's amazing someone would be willing to go to hospital for a "principle" when all that's at stake is 75c. That's hard to understand.
I walked around Phnom Penh by myself at all hours of the day and night. I was on main roads, quiet streets and dark back alleys. I didn't feel uncomfortable or threatened once. It was fine even on a quiet, dark street at night when I walked past 3-4 Cambodian men talking together and thought to myself "this might not be good". They kept on talking to each other and barely paid attention to me. I didn't feel there was any threat or safety issue in Phnom Penh.
I wasn't going to miss out on Snookyville. The original idea of going to Cambodia was to lose myself in multiple orgies in Snookyville. If I couldn't do that I was at least going to see it. Just like being in Pattaya 30 years ago — it was something I had to do.
What a disappointment. Again my "research" suggested there are several parts of town. There's downtown, Victory Hill, Serendipity Beach and some other beach areas. The beach areas were described as backpacker havens. As I'm on the older side of the scale I figure that backpackers and places that cater to them really aren't my thing. Victory Hill appears to be famous for a place called the chicken farm — a place with lots of freelancers who are supposed to cost as little as $5 a time. That didn't appeal to me either. And it seems the authorities have closed it down so even if it appeals to you it's unlikely you'll get what you want any more. So I figured it was a choice between Victory Hill and downtown. I plumped for downtown and chose an inexpensive hotel. It was a bad choice. The place was dead. There was virtually nothing around and very little entertainment.
I'd read of a place called Charlie Harper's Bar that was supposed to be a happening place. With a name like that and Charlie of Two and a Half Men being the ultimate mongerer I figured it had to be good. By nothing more than good luck it was diagonally opposite my hotel. I walked in at 7:30 PM and it was quiet. There were some expats having a drink; a few had what looked like steady girlfriends but there were no other ladies hanging around. I thought it was probably too early. Drinks were similar prices to Phnom Penh. I noticed a sign that said "Lady Drinks $2". Not bad. I asked the woman at the bar when the ladies turn up so I could buy them a drink. She looked at me with complete surprise and said they have 4 ladies at the bar, they were all there right now and I could buy any one of them a drink. But they can't be barfined because they actually work at the bar. What's the point of that?? I can have a drink for myself and buy a higher priced drink for a lady who can't sit and talk to me or join me later? Who would do that? Not me. I asked if there was anywhere around that offered female company; she accommodatingly pointed to the street corner and said "up there, go to Kangaroo bar". Consistent with my experience in Cambodia I have to say she was helpful. It turns out Kangaroo bar is actually called Kangaroo Kitchen (even though it's a guesthouse and a bar). They did have ladies there; I couldn't figure out if they were freelancers or there was a bar fine involved. Of the 8-10 ladies I saw there was only one I found appealing. I spoke to her for a while but decided against taking things further and went back to my hotel alone.
I also read that you shouldn't walk around by yourself at night in Snookyville. Be in a group of 3 or more people. If you're by yourself then go around by moto. I guess I could have gone by moto to Victory Hill or the beach area to have a look. But after exploring the underwhelming downtown area I wasn't motivated to try. It was probably my fault for not being more adventurous.
Snookyville was underwhelming. Maybe I chose the wrong place to stay. Maybe Victory Hill would have been great. Maybe the beach areas were better and not targeted only at backpackers. I'll never know. I didn't enjoy my day / night there and I'm unlikely to go back.
The positive things I'll say about Snookyville are that my hotel was clean, air-conditioned and cost $20 for the night. I can't complain about that. The bus fare to get there from Phnom Penh was all of $7 for a 5½ hour ride. Strangely the bus company wouldn't / couldn't sell me a return ticket. I figured I was being set up for a rip off on the return journey. When I bought my ticket in Snookyville to go back to Phnom Penh it cost all of $5.50
The real problem with Snookyville is the 5½ journey from Phnom Penh. If I went from Bangkok to Pattaya and had a disappointing experience I could always try again — it's only 1½ hours away. But 5½ hours each way means dedicating a full day by the time you get to and from the bus station. I won't do it again because I don't want to spend a full 2 days with the possibility of being disappointed.
How Was My Budget?
6 days and 5 nights in Cambodia. A budget of $500; 2x $20 bills I couldn't use so I effectively had $460. How did I do? I booked hotels using Agoda so paid for them on a credit card and therefore outside of the cash budget. I ate good but not extravagant food, sometimes on the street but mostly in cafes and restaurants. I'm not a big drinker but went out every night and drank more than I normally would in a year. I bought some shirts and a pair of basketball style sneakers. I had a road trip to Snookyville. I had one LT and several STs. Visa on arrival was $30; taxis to and from the airport cost $24; I even managed a meal at the airport Burger King before I left. And ended up with $6 change from my $460. I can't complain and I will go back.
Subsequent trips will never be the same as the first one but I enjoyed my visit. And I realize that while I'm old and have lots of experience in Thailand I can still look forward to that nervous excitement of visiting new places because I haven't yet been to Laos, Vietnam or Burma.
Oh, happy days.