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I’m ready to commit. After half a year of travel, I feel confident to name my favorite city in Asia. Granted, I’ve only been to a few of the big ones. Bangkok is a very close second, with Kuala Lumpur in the middle and Ho Chi Minh City firmly in last place. Sitting pretty at the top of that list is Cambodia’s vibrant capital. In fact, I like it so much I hope to someday live in Phnom Penh for some period of time.

Phnom Penh National Museum

During my previous visit in 2009 I ticked off most of the “tourist to-do’s,” leaving me tons of guilt free time during this trip to enjoy Phnom Penh at a more relaxed pace. In the coming week I’ll share some of what I got up to, but in reality it’s not the tourist attractions, the amazing markets, the adventurous activities or the charming riverfront that make up what I love most about this city. Okay well, it partly kind of is the riverfront.

Phnom Penh

It’s walking down street 240 in the afternoon and discovering the most beautifully designed NGO run café tucked in a corner. It’s rollerblading on top of Sorya mall with dozens of Khmer kids trying to make a skate chain with you. It’s strolling down the river side and watching the group aerobics classes and picnicking families. It’s sharing a drink with new friends at a no name bar where mojitos cost $2 dollars and then dancing all night at a club that your home country’s embassy has taken time to write warnings against. It’s that perfect combination of wonderful waterfront atmosphere, great expat community, strong local culture, and bustling, creative energy, rolled in with the little things that make life great. Here’s some of my favorite details about the place locals affectionately call “The Penh:”

Phnom Penh

The Size

Central Phnom Penh is the perfect sized city. It is small enough that you could walk almost anywhere (though not for lack of enthusiasm on the part of tuk-tuk drivers!) but large enough that it has distinct districts and space to get lost in. It’s small enough to grasp and not large enough to be overwhelmed by.

The Nightlife

While in Phnom Penh, we partied all night at both bars full of travelers and clubs full of locals. You can have sun-downers overlooking the river at the famous Foreign Correspondents Club, join in on an open mic night on Bar Street, and then head to the famously seedy Heart of Darkness nightclub and party with rich kid Khmers. It’s big city nightlife, and I love it.

Phnom Penh Nightlife

The Busy Calendar

From Oktoberfest (post to come!) to Fashion Week to nightly documentary showings at an art house theatre, there is always something on in Phnom Penh. A calendar that jam packed means not only do you have no excuse to be bored, but also no excuse to be lonely.

The Great Design

I know this sounds like a weird thing to list, but as a former design student I couldn’t help but fall for a city so packed with trendy hotels, stylish restaurants, and hip boutiques. There is truly something special and unique around every corner. And I’ve come to realize this isn’t the case everywhere… just try finding boutique accommodation in Ho Chi Minh city!

Phnom Penh Design

The Mix of Expats and Locals

For me to want to live in a place, I admit I would need the comfort of a developed expat community. And in Phnom Penh there is a vibrant one full of artists, entrepreneurs, and do-gooders. But they are far from overwhelming the true heart of the city, which is the local people. In Koh Tao, for example, I sometimes forget that I am in Thailand because it has been so developed to cater to expats. It makes for an easy life but not always the most rewarding. In Phnom Penh, tourists are not the main attractions but rather guests in a bustling Cambodian city. It’s a perfect balance.

The People

Khmer people are simply some of the loveliest, sweetest and most unassuming people I’ve met in this world. There is not much more to say than that! As an added bonus, Khmer is one of the easiest South East Asian languages to pick up a bit of, making it easy to endear yourself to everyone you encounter.

Phnom Penh Bookstore

Believe it or not, I am somewhat in the minority when it comes to this great city. I’ve heard from many backpackers who managed to find it boring, or in the word’s of one traveler, “a dump.” Obviously, I couldn’t disagree more.  If you are coming to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, don’t make the mistake of giving Phnom Penh only a day or two, or worse, skipping it altogether. Take a few days to slow down, throw the guidebook in the back of the bag, take a few long walks, and explore one of the jewels of South East Asia.

  • Dad
    November 29 2011

    How lucky am I to have been to Alex in Wanderland’s number one SE Asia metropolis

    • Alex
      November 30 2011

      Did you love it as much as I did? I can’t remember. We had such a cool hotel though!

  • Audrey
    November 29 2011

    Sounds like it has the perfect mix of everything! Lovely photos as always ;D

    • Alex
      November 30 2011

      Thanks Audrey! Although it was kind of hard to find a decent “nightlife” shot out of my fuzzy options 🙂

  • Oh wow, now I gotta go!!!!!

    • Alex
      November 30 2011

      If you ever do Andi, I have loads of suggestions for you! Just wait until my “where to stay” post!

  • Steve McKee
    November 29 2011

    excellent observation, A: “In Phnom Penh, tourists are not the main attractions but rather guests in a bustling Cambodian city.”
    Keep sharpening that keen eye

    • Alex
      November 30 2011

      Thanks, Steve! I guess that travel writing class paid off after all!

  • Roy
    November 29 2011

    Wow this post make’s me want to go to Phnom Penh soooo bad!

    • Alex
      November 30 2011

      Cambodia should be on everyone’s list!

  • Nomadic Matt
    November 30 2011

    I love this place. One of my favorites. Good choice.

    • Alex
      November 30 2011

      I didn’t know you were a PP fan! I have a great hostel recommendation for you if you’re heading back during this SEA trip.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    December 6 2011

    OK, I’m with you on LOVING PP (and I was only there for a hot minute). But I also loved HCMC and have disliked everywhere I’ve been in Malaysia (although I’ve yet to visit KL and I hear it has a lot more to offer than KK and Penang, etc.).

    • Alex
      December 6 2011

      I TRIED SO HARD to like HCMC…. but it just didn’t work out between us. Le sigh. I visited KL when I was deep in the honeymoon period with Mark so even a trip to McDonald’s for midnight ice cream cones seemed like the most fantastic thing that ever happened in the universe. I’m pretty sure that even sans the rose tinted glasses I would like it though. A few quick recommendations: Go to the Menara KLC viewing tower at night. Go to the aquarium underneath the Petronas Towers (I’m assuming you are an aquarium lover like me) and go to… Reggae Bar, I think it’s called? A Bob Marley shrine in the middle of a Muslim metropolis. This comment is getting really rambly so I’ll just end things here.

  • Pearl
    December 12 2011

    Hello Alex! I stumped over your blog while im searching info on cambodia and your blog is amazing! It takes alot to do a one way ticket. How long will you be in cambodia? I’ll be there during christmas! Why dont you proceed on to Singapore! I will gladly host you (:

    • Alex
      December 12 2011

      Hello Pearl! Actually as I write this I am back in Thailand, where I am temporarily living. I’m excited for you and your upcoming trip to Cambodia! I will certainly get down to Singapore someday and I’ll be certain to look you up! Thanks for reading 🙂

  • TammyOnTheMove
    July 24 2012

    Hey Alex, I just came across your blog and I am really enjoying reading your stories. I can understand why you love Phnom Penh so much. I have been living here for almost 10 months now and I am loving it here. Like you say it is not as stressful as other big Asian cities and remains a charm I can’t quite explain. If you ever decide to move here I can give you some tips if you like. 🙂
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..A field trip

    • Alex
      July 25 2012

      Hi Tammy! So glad you found me 🙂 Yes, I am a Phnom Penh lover! I will look you up if I ever fulfill my dream of moving there!

  • Anidha
    July 30 2012

    Thanks for linking me to your other blogs.
    This was exactly what I was looking for 😉
    I’m travelling with three others, and they’ve been very sceptical about going to PP as people have been telling them that it’s a dead place full of graves. I love seeing PP through your eyes thus far and am all for exploring more of its hidden secrets in 2 weeks’ 🙂

    Once again, thanks for doing PP justice. Now I can’t wait to get myself there 😉

    • Alex
      July 30 2012

      I think you’ll enjoy Phnom Penh, its an amazing city! Have fun!

  • Elliott
    May 14 2015

    :O I don’t dislike any big city in South East Asia. I’d probably put Manila low on my list, but Phnom Penh wouldn’t be number one. I’m here right now for the second time and I just can’t get into it. Ho Chi Minh is actually my number one. Spent 2 months there. My sister lives there and maybe that’s why I’ve seen so much that most people haven’t in Saigon. But definitely my number one.
    Elliott recently posted..Why I Won’t Ride Elephants in Thailand

    • Alex
      May 16 2015

      Hope that Phnom Penh starts to grow on you… you should check out some of my newer posts on the city, you might find a place that turns your opinion around!

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