Phnom Penh, Cambodia or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the City
I woke up late. The previous day I was up extra early to catch a 7AM bus from Ho Chi Minh City for a 6 hour ride to Phnom Penh.
Sample Budget (for 1)
Getting there from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: $14 (+$35 for the Cambodian visa)
Accommodations: $38 (2 nights at Jasmine Terrace Hotel)
Food: $19 (2 lunches, 2 dinners, breakfast was free at the hotel)
Booze and snacks: $9
Bus to Sihanoukville: $5
Total: $85 ($33 per day plus transport in and out)
Today, I was going to take it easy, poke around Phnom Penh, trying to avoid the unpleasantness and absorb the few good things I remembered about the city. My last visit to the Cambodian capital wasn’t a great one. I remember the barefoot children begging for money, the garbage-filled streets, and the overall depression that seemed to rise up with the cockroaches from the cracked streets. I hoped to avoid all that this time around. My first step in the right direction was booking a hotel outside of the backpacker area. After a bit of research, I found the expat area, where there were some western perks, but not much tourism (or tourist traps). As I ate my breakfast on the quiet terrace of Jasmine Terrace Hotel (about $20/night), I watched the owner weed his garden, occasionally looking up at me with a smile to ensure that everything was good. It was good. The breakfast was simple but delicious, and the coffee was freshly brewed. I thought back to the first time I sat down to a beverage in Cambodia. It was on the patio of the hotel I was staying at. I took a sip from my first Ankor Beer, holding it in my mouth, judging it for its lack of flavor. Suddenly a man’s head pushed through the bushes. “Hello. You come with me tomorrow. I take you on tuk tuk.” Uhhh, no bud.
Tuk tuks are a cool way to get around, but negotiating a fare can get quite tiresome, quite quickly. This time around, I would see the city from the seat of a bicycle. Jasmine Terrace Hotel provides bicycles to its guests for free. The owner had me pick one out and he gave it a quick inspection while I grabbed my backpack.
Riding a bike through the streets of Phnom Penh might sound a bit scary at first. The traffic can be a little intimidating, but it’s actually not that difficult at all. Not that many years ago, there were more bicycles on the streets than cars. Both motorcycle and car drivers are used to bicycles being a part of their traffic system. I found that I was not only very comfortable being in the traffic, but I was also able to be a bit aggressive. Any little gap, I squeezed my way through. Sometimes I even gained ground on the motorbikes, squeezing through spaces that they couldn’t fit. Sometimes, I took a bit of a detour onto the sidewalk. In heavy traffic situations, it certainly seemed that the bicycle was the best mode of transportation.
From Jasmine Terrace, Central Market is about a 20-minute ride, but I went up Preah Norodom Blvd, turned right at Independence Monument, took a left at the roundabout where I met up with the river. Riding along the river, I passed the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and Wat Ounalom before taking a left on 130 St, which took me right to the Central Market. After parking the bicycle at one of the lots (500 riel), I explored the market on foot. The French-built building is large and impressive. Approaching it on the street gives you a feeling of awe. Walking into its center hall widens your eyes as you slowly pan the vendors, the walls, and the ceiling. It’s easy to spend an hour walking around the surprisingly large number of aisles. I was occasionally met with, “You buy something?” Or, if I was at the perimeter of the building, “Sir, tuk tuk?” At one point, I walked to the outside and a young child came up to me with his hands raised. He pointed to the coconut that I was sipping from. I handed him what was left of it. The dilemma that is Cambodia: you feel bad for the kids, but you don’t want them to think that begging is an answer. I figured a bit of coconut juice wasn’t nearly as bad as giving them money. I walked 10 steps and heard a thudding crash. Looking back, I saw that the kid had smashed the coconut into the ground. He kicked it to the curb, bag and all. You little shit. I watched him move on to the next white person, hands in the air, desperation on his face.
I eventually found the food section (southeast corner) and sat down to a plate of lort cha (short thick rice noodles with beef and vegetables) along with a large glass of sugar cane juice ($3 total). I enjoyed the noodles even more than I thought I would. They weren’t as savory as I expected them to be. The sauce was really well balanced with equal parts sweet and salt. The only thing missing was some heat, which could have easily been resolved with a scoop of the chili paste that sat on my table. The sugarcane juice, which is the Cambodian drink of choice, was refreshing and provided me with the energy I needed after bicycling around.
On my way out of the market, I grabbed a snack for later. Fried shrimp pancakes ($1 for 2). I hope my mom’s shellfish allergy skipped a generation.
I rode back to my guesthouse, blowing through the cringe-worthy backpacker district with no regrets.
After a shower and a short rest (which included eating the crispy and addictive shrimp pancakes), I got back on the bicycle and rode for about 15 minutes to the Russian Market. I didn’t want to actually go into the market, it was just a place of interest I set my beacon to. My real goal was to get a cup of ice coffee. Mobile coffee shops attached to motorcycles are a popular and very delicious source of caffeine. They are scattered throughout the city, but a popular chain happens to be called Mobile Coffee. I got the ice coffee with milk ($1). It was seriously tasty. I stood by the cart and watched life circle around the squared market until my straw made that awful noise that meant there is no more delicious liquid for you. Back on the bicycle, I wove in and out of the heavy 4:30 traffic until I reached a sign that sparked my interest — Kingdom Brewery. Hmm. I had already carefully inspected (and tasted) the beer section of my local convenience store, and I didn’t see any Kingdom Brewery beer. I decided to investigate. Going through the gate I saw that I wasn’t walking into a bar, but a movie theater. FLICKS, which when written out in all-caps kind of looks like a bad word, is an expat owned independent cinema that shows mostly classic movies. It’s quite a unique place. I briefly talked to the owner, who told me a bit about it and let me have a beer, despite my lack of time for a movie. If I did have the time, I would have sat down in the futon-filled theatre and watched the Killing Fields. At any rate, I was quite content with my cold Kingdom Brewery Pilsner. It was certainly better than any other Cambodian beer I’ve ever had.
I thanked the owner and went next door to The Terrace on 95, a restaurant in a beautiful traditional Cambodian house. Sitting on the terrace (I just realized I spent a lot of time on terraces at places with terrace in their name), I ate a banana-leaf-wrapped serving of one of the more popular Cambodian dishes, fish amok ($6). After 20 or so forkfuls of flavor, I was finished and thinking about calling it a night, but something in me told me to make one more stop. That something was the beer I had earlier. After a bit of Googling, I found a craft beer that was made in Cambodia and served at a select few Phnom Penh locations, one of them only a 5 minute ride from me. Deco Restaurant is a classy joint. The interior is beautiful and the staff is very accommodating. It’s probably not a place that I’d find myself in if it weren’t for the craft beer on the menu (cause I lack class). I sat by the bar and ordered a Cerveceria American Pale Ale. It was even better than the Kingdom beer (but twice the cost at $3.50), with a fresh taste and a nice backing of hops. After slowly sipping the last drop from the glass, I headed back to the guesthouse for the night.
Replaying the day in my head, I found myself quite pleased with Phnom Penh. A once sour feeling for the city had blossomed into a fondness. My needs were met (delicious food, coffee, and beer), and in a beautiful environment. I found that from a bicycle, it was easier to develop a relationship with the city. I got to know the streets, had my preferred routes, and went at a pace that was slow enough to see things, but fast enough that I wasn’t being bothered with hopes of hand-outs. I had not wanted to come back to Phnom Penh – my reason for returning was for visa purposes – but as I packed my bag up and got ready for the early ride back to Vietnam, I was already thinking about my return to the city that I learned to love.
The Facts – Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Best Budget Restaurant in Phnom Penh
Beer and BBQ is a combination that I will always let into my life. Phnom Penh has multiple restaurants that offer outdoor seating, cheap beer, and grilled meats. My favorite is 54 Langeach Sros (“54 Good Evening” in English). A pitcher is about $1.50. A plate of ribs will set you back $4. Some chicken fried rice is about $2.50. The food is great and the beer goes down quickly. They have 2 locations, one is in BKK1 (the area I recommend staying in), and one is closer to the backpacker area.
Best Budget Hotel
In the article above, I recommend Jasmine Terrace Hotel. For two people it costs around $25. For me to say it’s the best budget hotel is a bit of a stretch. The problem word being ‘budget’. It’s possible to find a fan room for $5/night in Phnom Penh. That being said, you will probably end up hating the city after going through that.
If you are keen on staying in the backpacker district, Laughing Fatman Guesthouse is a good option. Their restaurant is decent and their rooms are nice for about $15 for a fan room, and $20 if you want AC.
A step up from that, and one that’s not in the backpacker district, is the Flora Boutique Hotel. It will cost about $20 for a double room with AC and free breakfast.
Personally, I’ll spend the extra $5 for Jasmine Terrace Hotel. The free bicycle, friendly service, and relaxed location are worth the extra money.
Bus between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City
Having done this trip in both directions, I can happily say that it’s easy and relatively painless. Mekong Express is a good option if you want things to go smoothly. You can buy your ticket online up to 2 days ahead of time or go to a travel agent if you don’t mind paying a bit of a fee, or to the Mekong Express office directly. If you buy online, you can pick your seat. They usually sell the seats from the front to the back, so if you want to try and get an empty seat beside you, go for the back of the bus, but not too far back because there is a bathroom that you might want to avoid sitting directly in front of. Seat 8D was lucky for me — I was surrounded by empty seats.
In Phnom Penh the bus goes to and starts at Orussey Market. In Ho Chi minh City, it starts and stops on Pham Ngu Lao.
The bus dudes will take your passport early in the trip. If you are going to Cambodia and you need a visa, you can get one at the border for $35 ($30 visa, $5 fee from Mekong Express). The bus attendants will take the money and help you get across smoothly. If you want to avoid the $5 fee, you can try and do it yourself, but the bus won’t wait for you if they finish before you are done. That being said, if you ride with Mekong Express, after they enter Cambodia they stop 300 meters down the road for 20 minutes, so it’s possible to walk there and get back on.
Coming into Vietnam, there isn’t a visa on arrival so if you need one, you have to get it at the embassy in Phnom Penh or at the consulate in Sihanoukville or Siem Reap.
In total, the bus takes about 6-7 hours. They make the trip a few times a day, so the staff is well prepared and experienced. They also don’t try and pick up extra passengers along the way. I did, however, convince them to let me off before they reached the bus station. As we entered Phnom Penh, I followed along using Google Maps and I saw they were about to drive close to my hotel. I asked them to let me off and they agreed.