“What’s your favorite country?” Every long-term traveler dreads the question. How could one possibly pick definitively? Yet I must admit, whenever someone asks, Cambodia does bubble to the front of my brain. So I’ve been disheartened that lately I’ve been hearing the opposite when both online peers and real life friends make the journey there. My Brooklyn friends reported Phnom Penh was their least favorite destination on their Southeast Asian honeymoon. A colleague at a travel conference confided that she and her husband couldn’t wait to for their ten days in the country to be up. Fellow bloggers expressed mixed emotions and downright disappointment and straight up dislike.
Thus far, I’d made two trips to Cambodia and fallen deeply in love both times — I even briefly considered applying for a graphic design position that popped up in Siem Reap a few years ago. Had the country changed so much since my last visit? When I realized that my dear friend and constant-traveler-for-work Wes was actually going to be home in his base of Phnom Penh for my final week in Southeast Asia, I immediately invited myself over to find out.
I’m not here to tell you how to run your life but if you aren’t bringing mango sticky rice onboard as one of your carry-ons you are doing Southeast Asia air travel wrong. Don’t blow this, people.
We had pretty grand plans — a biking trip through the outskirts of the city, a weekend in the riverside town of Kampot, and absolute oodles of really Cool Travel Stuff™. In reality we never left Phnom Penh and spent like, 80% of our waking hours drooling in front of our computer screens. But even still, when the time came a week later to start my journey back to the US, I wasn’t quite ready to go.
I was just as enamored as always.
Wes’s apartment categorically did not suck.
It made me more determined than ever to share all the moments that have made Cambodia — and on this trip specifically, Phnom Penh — so magical for me. Running along the riverfront at sunrise. Stocking up on cheap bootleg DVDs and pricey imported snacks for an impromptu movie night. Watching old people Zumba in the park. Painfully trendy restaurants. Bring-your-own-bottle-of-wine $5 sunset cruises. Colorful yoga studios. Laughing the night away at an expat stand up comedy show. Sharing a wink with a tuk tuk driver who gets your joke.
Damn, I love this city.
I love the charming Street 240, filled with cute cafes and elegant spas and boutiques that make me temporarily suspend my impatience for shopping.
Some notable favorites include The Shop, which served up passionfruit iced tea and delicious sandwiches; Bliss Spa, where I splurged on a three hour package for less than $50, and Le Lezard Bleu, a gorgeous gallery where I bought myself a rare souvenir.
I love expat adventures like my afternoon out to Yoga Phnom Penh, a gorgeous studio tucked on a residential street in the south of the city. After class, I walked to the modern Grab n’ Go cafe for wifi and a sandwich, and fantasized about it being a regular part of my routine.
All over Phnom Penh, tuk tuk drivers are seemingly crouching around every corning, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to whisk you out of the mid-day heat. Wes lives on the third floor of an apartment with an open staircase down the back, and without fail I could hear desperate cries of “Lady! Lady!” by the time I hit the second landing. The vast majority of the time, we broke their hearts with a simple one word explanation: “Walking!”
When I exited the yoga studio this day, the driver seemed overjoyed at his luck, being the only one vying for my business. I gave him a sympathetic smile and shook my head. He looked momentarily surprised, and then a look of understanding came over his face as he raised his eyebrows at me. “Walking,” he nodded, with a self satisfied tone that said, “I’m onto what you white people are into!”
We shared a laugh as I strolled off down the side street.
I love the raw, unpolished activities on offer, like the sunset river cruises offered all over the city. Sounds glamorous, and it can be. Or, it can be a $5, plastic-folding-chair on the roof variety, in which you are strongly encouraged to bring as much booze as you can carry.
What you might want to add to your packing list, however, is a bottle opener — we found this out the hard way and ended up removing our corks with the pocket knife of a helpful member of the crew. In a classic incident of Southeast Asia overlap, my girl Janine, one of the Koh Tao besties, was passing through Phnom Penh while I was there as well. It made for a crackin’ night on the roof of the river barge.
I love the restaurant and bar scene. Sure, you can — and should — eat several of your meals from a plastic stool on the side of the road. But if you can spare the riel, (just kidding everyone uses dollars, hey there George Washingtons the middle of Southeast Asia) there is an amazingly diverse and impressive roster of cuisines and cocktails from around the world.
Some favorites from this round? The cocktails and rooftop views from Le Moon (those afraid of heights should be able to handle this one — Phnom Penh is a phenomenally squat city), the haute Khmer cuisine at Malis (make a reservation), and most of all, the hidden collection of micro-bars and and restaurants tucked into Bassac Lane, off Street 240 ½ .
One night, we tucked into dinner off the superb and selective Meat and Drink menu, while on another we sipped daquiries at the book-lined Library. Other members of the mini empire include bar.sito, Public House, Seibur, Cicada — each one about the size of a New York City hotelroom. That is to say, microscopic.
And most bizarre honorable mention goes to Doors, a tapas restaurant and live music venue where our cocktails came garnished with an eggshell and a slice of wonderbread dabbed in boisenberry. Yup.
I love the offbeat evening entertainment options. The Flicks, which I fell hard for on my second trip to Phnom Penh, has expanded to include two more theaters, one of which we strolled to on a sticky evening to soak up the air conditioning and a documentary.
Another night we went for some laugh therapy, and caught a stand up comedy show in the backbacker hotspot of Street 278. The expat-oriented jokes had us in stitches and we kept the giggles going after with a round of laughing gas balloons (or three) across the street at the rooftop Top Banana bar.
I love the riverfront, where life bustles at every hour of the day. Restaurants on the Mekong range from Mexican to Indian to Thai, and we indulged in them all, each accompanied by a heavy side dish of people watching. I often went for a post-dinner foot massage at one of the cheap spas lining Sisowath Quay, a routine that became so regular in the short course of a week that I started to greet my masseuse by name.
One night, as I blissfully floated towards the cashier to pay, she cracked open an Angkor beer and invited me to join her. I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with the Khmer employee of a large NGO about what made travelers love Cambodia so much — I’d told him it was the people, so sincere and unjaded compared to their more economically developed neighbors. He’d agreed. “It is from the heart, here,” he concurred.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t discount the negative experiences that others have had here. I can understand the root of them, I think — I’m not blind to the dark side of Cambodia or the difficulties of traveling there. But man, I love that Cambodia makes me feel things. Some of them are warm and fuzzy and sepia-toned. And some of them hurt my head and some of them hurt my stomach and some of them hurt my heart — it’s true. But what a gift to be in a place that makes me feel so undeniably alive.
Thanks for having me, Phnom Penh.*
* And, you know Wes as well, though he refused to pose for a single photo with me.
what a beautiful post!
Can’t wait to see all of this for myself in November 🙂
Thanks Sarah! Enjoy Cambodia — I have plenty of posts in my archives if you need more tips.
Cambodia just made it further up on my list 🙂
It definitely deserves top billing, Evelina.
Any news on that new solid conditioner you were gonna try?
Actually, I just finished the first bar this morning — what a coincidence! I love it and have a post in the works, but in the meantime it’s from Harmony LLC. Great stuff!
It´s been my dream for so long to explore Cambodia, I hope I will get a chance to do so as soon as possible, it looks wonderful from your photos and stories 🙂 wonderful photos and thank you for sharing 🙂
You are so welcome, Helca! Thank you for reading.
Beautiful post, Alex! I can see why you love it there.
Thanks Sonja. It is a really special, special place.
LOVED this post! I’ve been reading a lot of negativity about PP lately as well, but I’m planning to go next month so it’s so nice to see someone having a great time there recently. I can’t wait to explore a bit of Cambodia – really looking forward to it!
Go in with an open mind and heart and a list of recommended places to see, stay and eat (this post might be a place to start 😉 ) and I’m sure you will adore it.
Very glad to read an alternative take on a city I didn’t really love that much. Next time you’ll have to be my tour guide – deal?
Deal! 🙂 Maybe post-TBEX! (Notice how I’m hardcore campaigning for all my favorite bloggers to make their way to Bangkok en masse.)
Hi Alex, really enjoyed this post, especially the last paragraph as I’ve had similar thoughts about Bangkok over the past week (first timer)!. I’m also just starting out my Cambodian adventure, so cheers for the tips!
Ah, Bangkok, one of my favorite cities in the world! Glad to hear you are enjoying it 🙂
I loved Cambodia as well! Plus, that river cruise looks like fun. 🙂
It was so fun. Might try the fancy one next time, but I really enjoyed the cheapie version quite thoroughly.
I’m intrigued, what was the souvenir?
Just a very small (I think like 3″x4″!) art print of an Apsara dancer’s hands 🙂 Wish I could have bought out the store though!
OMG! I’m just wondering what brought me up here… its your way of story telling. Your posts are just enlightening & timely read with the support of beautiful pictures.
I’ve been to Cambodia too. I love this country and deeply in love with Siem Reap – peaceful city and lot of polite people. Thanks for sharing. The way you portray your experiences just made this country looks pretty beautiful!
Regards from Malaysia
Thank you so much for your kind words! Siem Reap is another city I really adore. I need to get back there on my next visit!
Phnom Penh was my least favourite destination from my Southeast Asia trip, but I feel like I would have seen the city in a different light had I known of your recommendations before visiting. You’ve highlighted some gems here, and I will come back to this post should I ever return to the Cambodian capital.
Aw, sorry to hear that Ashley. Having some insider tips always helps — one of many reasons I love reading and writing travel stories!
Love the photo of you with the bottle of wine – all class 😀 It’s funny how Cambodia (and also Vietnam,) are such polarising countries for people. I have yet to visit either so I can find out for myself. I love the way you ended this post – a country that makes you feel the dynamics of human life can never be a bad experience right? Just… an experience.
Exactly. And yes, I do love the wine photo — especially considering Janine is a juice bar owning yoga teacher 🙂 Gotta let loose sometimes!
Well said, Alex! I am absolutely in love with Cambodia. From the temples of Angkor to the beaches of Koh Rong, how could I not be? And Phnom Penh happens to be one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. I first went there in 2008 and I was so taken with the city that I fantasized about moving there for years after that trip. I went back to Phnom Penh about a month ago, really curious if I would still be as enamored with it. And I was! I have this inkling that I will call it home one day. Yes, the city has seedy and sometimes downright disturbing aspects. And I can understand why people don’t like it. But the people, the expat community, the bustling markets, the architecture, the riverside setting…there’s just so much to love.
I feel the same way about Phnom Penh — I would really love to try living there even if just for a month or two. Maybe it’s a city that is better to live in (or pretend to live in, like I did here) than to just backpack through.
Alex, have you considered a job in Marketing for PP? I think you’d be amazing! We spent 5 days there in January and I found the dust and chaos a bit difficult to take… But even I want to head back based on this article!
We spent a month in Cambodia in total, and I’m so glad we did. It takes a while to “get” the country I think, and I can fully understand why short visitors (journey wise I mean, not height wise!) don’t always click with it on a super-fast visit.
Ha, I do admit to having a high tolerance for chaos. I also love your clarification that your comment isn’t meant to be taken height-wise, because I can tell you as a mega shorty Cambodia is a GREAT place to be 😉
I’ll have to reconsider Phnom Penh now. I too have heard less than stellar reviews of PP and decided to skip it when we visited Cambodia last year. Now you’ve given me something serious to consider!
PS – Just started following you recently and I love your blog! Beautiful pictures!
Thanks Ingrid! I have tons of Cambodia (and other Phnom Penh) posts in my archives — check ’em out and enjoy your trip!
Cambodia was a country I had read a lot about before visiting and I felt like I was in love with the country before I even set foot in the country. I found that Cambodians are the warmest and easiest to connect with. I absolutely loved Kampot and I’d live there in a heartbeat.
I so agree, Martha. And I can’t believe I’ve still not made it to Kampot! An excuse to go back 🙂
For some reason, I’ve always been less enthusiastic about visiting Cambodia than I have about practically every other SE Asian country. Even though many have raved. Why is that!! What’s wrong with me? It’s a bit of an intangible, trying to qualify an attraction to one place & an indifference to another. Many times I’m logically sure I’d love a country & yet lack the motivation to go?!
Ha, I feel ya. There are countries in South America that are like that for me. Like Colombia. I think the more people insist I must go, the more I’m like, yeah…. someday? Ha. Maybe we are just contrarians!
I definitely want to go there with an open mind. I tend to fall for cities that have natural beauty so it will be interesting to see what I think of Phnom Penh
I think you will find a lot of beauty in sunrises and sunsets over the Mekong 🙂
I adored PP! We extended our stay by three days for much required r&r after 8 days in Vietnam. The people a ridicously friendly. There is so much history (unfortunately modern history!) I also recommend dining at Friends- restaurant ran by ex street kids. Great post Alex!
I’ve heard of Friends but haven’t made it there yet. I love all the social enterprises throughout Cambodia. Adding it to the list for next time!
Thank you so much for writing this post Alex. As you know I lived in PP for two years and it has a very special place in my heart.
All the negative posts about Cambodia and PP really upset me, as I just can’t understand how one could not like Cambodia. Yes, it may not be as glitzy as Bangkok, but for me it is all about the beautiful people. They have been through so much, yet they have the biggest hearts in the world. The kindness I have received from some of the poorest Cambodians was truly wonderful and humbling.
I think that a lot of people who only spend a few weeks in Cambodia and only tread on the tourist trails automatically risk being treated as tourists and that may also involve rip-offs, theft or scams (as is the case in ANY other country in the world). It is also important to treat people, including tuk tuk drivers, with respect. Even if you have been asked for the hundredth time if you want a tuk tuk. A polite smile and no will go a long way. They are only trying to make a living in a harsh and unforgiving social environment. Entering a country with understanding of its culture and its history is essential. It is a nation where welfare does not exist in any form, and where healthcare and education are corrupt and flawed to the very core. It is a nation that has been suffering from the Khmer Rouge, decades of civil war and dictatorship. So of course there will be people who take advantage. What would you do if you had nothing?
Also learning a few words of the language and making people believe you care about Cambodia will make a huge difference. If you are ignorant it will show, if you try and blend in you will have the most rewarding holiday of your life.
Rant over, and thank you again for showing people that Cambodia deserves a chance. 🙂
I love your rant, Tammy 🙂 I thought of you when I was publishing this post — I know you are another major Cambodia championer! I agree that there is something so uniquely warm and welcoming about the people in Cambodia, it constantly humbles me. Of course there are bad eggs as in any society, but overall I have found the national psyche is so gentle and kind. It is unlike anywhere else I’ve been.
I loved Cambodia. It’s true, we were lucky to travel for 3 weeks in the country without any negative experiences that I’ve read and heard about. Just something we never came across. But, that wasn’t the reason why I loved Cambodia – it was, because as you’ve beautifully put this country makes you feel so alive, with so many beautiful, sad, but ultimately fulfilling emotions. Cambodia is one my favorites too 🙂
I’ve definitely had, well, if not negative, than deeply uncomfortable experience in Cambodia. Ones that broke my heart. But yes, in the end it is part of what makes Cambodia this dynamic place that keeps drawing me back in — I’m invested in seeing it flourish.
A very quick aside – I’m not sure I have ever looked as stylish on a plane as you do in that first picture.
You have a way of bringing a city to life with your passion for it, and honestly it is making me want to hop on a plane to Cambodia (even though I have practically no interest in it on my own).
Ha, thanks Marni! That shirt was 100 baht at the Pai night market, and everything on me is a knockoff. Glad to hear I can pull off a $10 look!
Oh this makes my heart so happy. I feel many of the same things as you do about Cambodia and I’ve only been to Siem Reap. This year we’re going back, but also going to stay in Phnom Penh. I truly miss traveling somewhere that has such welcoming people and kind hearts. So unjaded. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I love your blog.
I hope you enjoy Phnom Penh as much as I do! I have some accommodation suggestions in my archives, if you’re looking!
Thank you! I just looked and was thinking about doing the Mad Monkey anyway, but your other options look fab too. So many choices…
I’m a relatively new reader but I loved this post! Cambodia hasn’t really ever been on my radar until one of my ESL students brought some photos from where she is from and I fell in love. Beautiful post!
Thanks Kayti! That’s lovely that your student shared something about her home with you. Cambodia is a beautiful place.
Wow – I have to say, I don’t know much about Phnom Penh but this post truly has me intrigued. Anywhere that serves a cocktail with a broken eggshell is a must-see in my book – just when I thought I’d seen it all – ha. Love your photos as well, and the way you’ve captured the city through your own eyes. Oh and as a fellow mango-sticky-rice lover, kudos for downing it at 30,000 feet – amazing.
Never board a Bangkok-departing plane without it 😉
OK! You convinced me! I’m going to Phnom Penh next I’m in Southeast Asia! Love your photos…and enthusiasm.
Love hearing that, Corinne! Hope you get the chance to check out some of the places I highlighted here!
I totally agree, Cambodia just has so much heart. Along with the Philippines, Cambodia is the country I feel most emotional about when I think back on my time there. Yes, some of the things I saw and learned about in Cambodia really hurt my heart but at the same time the kind, resilient people made my time there so special. You’re right, Cambodia does make you feel things, good and bad, but there are such important lessons to be learned there.
Yup, you nailed it — I feel overwhelmed with emotions when I think of my time in these places. And I love that! It reminds me why I started traveling in the first place.
Cambodia remains a glaring hole in my South-East Asian travel map, but it’s one we’ve left for now as it is easily doable (when we eventually return from our current, grand adventures) from back in Australia.
Never for one second however have I had any thought other than I am likely to love it, as I have the majority of other countries in the region (sterile and bland Singapore stands out as the only exception)
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Singapore — but I was only there for 24 hours! Who knows how it would have stood up to a longer trip 🙂
I haven’t been to Cambodia and in some ways I’ve been tempted to skip it because I keep hearing about people getting robbed and hurt… but I also hear about people loving it. I suppose I’ll have to see it for myself 🙂
Wishing you safe and happy travels when you do, Rebekah!
Eggshells, hmm… that’s a new one. What do they do with the rest of the egg? I have not been to SEA yet, most likely in 2016 though! Cambodia definitely intrigues me. Thanks for all the awesome travel tips! And good to hear they like the greenbacks!
It’s definitely bizarre to be halfway across the world and use US dollars! I always wonder where they get them all from… does the US Mint send a fresh supply every so often? (Clearly I understand nothing about economics, ha.)
It’s an interesting article about Phnom Penh, nice views!
Glad you enjoyed. Thank you!
After traveling much of Asia, I’ve always thought that Phnom Penh was one of my favorite cities too. Great post! I think it will convince others why it’s such a great city.
I´m so glad to hear that from another traveler, Stephanie! I hope it will convince them too 🙂
I’m going there in two weeks! OMG. I’m so in love with your photos….I’m curious to find out what emotions Cambodia will stir within me. Yay or Nay? About to find out 🙂
On another note…why is my photo missing when I post stuff *newby travel blogger frustrational deep SIGH*…
Hmmm… are you using a different email not associated with your Gravatar? Sorry, I’m helpless at all this as well! Hope you end up in the love camp, concerning Cambodia 🙂
I hope it’s fixed now…if not &(£^(&@^! LOL. Going to read your posts on Cambodia now to get some inspiration on where to go / what to do 🙂
I am in total agreement: Phnom Penh is a vibrant, lazy, beautiful, smelly, awesome city. I’ve been there 3 times, spending a total of a month, and am looking to return. It’s where I found my voice, my vision, and I will forever be grateful to the people of Phnom Penh for taking me in. I think my photos say more than I could with words, please have a look.
I’m glad to hear so many others have found Phnom Penh as inspiring as I have. It’s very heartwarming to read 🙂
I’m gonna be there tomorrow for a week, so excited and relieved to read your story because I’m gonna be solo traveling since my two friends decided to cancel their trip. Is it safe for a woman to travel solo there?
I’ve always been with someone in Phnom Penh, but definitely made plenty of outings on my own and felt as safe as I did elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Just use common sense and good judgement and when in doubt ask at your accommodation (“Is it safe to walk this way at night” etc.) and I’m confident you’ll be safe and happy 🙂
Great post, Alex. You bring up some really good points and we like how you ended the story….the acknowledgement that Cambodia is a complex place but you simply love it! We’ve been reading a lot of posts about Cambodia recently…this is one of the better ones.
Thank you! I really appreciate that. Cambodia has a special, special place in my heart.
How refreshing it was to read this, Alex. My husband and I lived in Phnom Penh for three years and there hasn’t been anywhere in the world that has captured our hearts as much as Cambodia.
while i was there, I published “The Definitive Guide to Living in Southeast Asia: Cambodia” and miss it every day. In fact, here’s how it affected me to leave: https://www.themeanderthals.com/not-loving-leaving/
What a special place to call home for three years, Gabi. I’ve love to be able to say the same someday!
Thank you so much for this post!
Like you, we had an awful time in Saigon and I was worried Cambodia would be just the same, if not worse. Your posts helped get me in the right mindset for Phnom Penh, spot the gems, and made me feel like I wasn’t completely alone. Thank you so much! Not sure I would have been as positive and ready for it without your insights.
You are 100% right – Cambodia is incredible. Such open and warm people. 10/10 would visit again.
That makes me so happy to read, Alice! This might be one of my favorite comments ever. So glad you enjoyed Cambodia.
What a great post Alex and you put in words how I feel.
I promised myself I would never visit the same place twice, simply because there are too many places in the world to visit, until I went to Cambodia 3 years ago. I have now been 3 times and planning a 4th despite it being a long trip for an Australian family. I love Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Koh Rong Samloem, etc, etc and particularly Kampot but eventually realised it wasn’t the beautiful places. It was the incredibly warm, friendly and content people who teach my kids ( as well as my wife and I) you don’t have to have the latest iPhone to be happy. These people have every reason to be unhappy with how poor they are and their recent tragic history but teach us so much about living and enjoying life, and the true meaning of generosity. I absolutely adore Cambodia and have never understood the bad posts it regularly gets.
What a beautiful story Phil! I love reading about your family’s connection to Cambodia. It is indeed a special place. I wish you many happy return trips!
Couldn’t agree more we loved our time there and can’t wait to go back.
Lovely to hear Ed! I also hope to return someday soon.
Great story Alex! We fell in love with Cambodia our first time there. We look forward to heading back sooner than later hopefully!
Couldn’t agree more… I hope my fourth trip is around the corner!
Wait, I love this! I just recently read an article that was more or less discouraging about Cambodia. I plan to spend a year in Asia next year and would love to visit Cambodia at some point. This blog post just made me 100% more excited about it. Thank you!
Yay! That’s what I like to hear 🙂 Cambodia is one of my favorite countries in the world, I think anyone would be crazy to skip it!
Definitely appreciate your defense letter here. Honestly, the first time I went to Phenom Pehn, I hated it. It wasn’t a very walkable city with sidewalks being commandeered by parked cars and the inability to not get harassed by Tuk Tuks every 10 steps.
My second time to the area was a different story though. I really got a deeper appreciation for the people and was of moved by the historical sites in and around the city.
Anyway, awesome read!
Thanks Ryan! Yeah, the tuk tuk guys can definitely be intense. I haven’t been to another city quite like it! But still, Phnom Penh still charms me.