Cambodia was one of the earliest countries to reopen without quarantine in Southeast Asia, and I just so happened to need to do a visa run from Thailand. That was enough reason to pay an overdue revisit to Phnom Penh.
This trip to Phnom Penh was in December 2020, and I saw in the new year here. At this point, Thailand had a 1-day quarantine system, while Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia were not yet open for tourism. I did the 1-day quarantine in Thailand, so arriving in Cambodia with only a test at the airport was a great improvement.
I went to get some money at the airport and I was greeted by this row of ATMs. It took me 5 different machines using 3 different cards before I could find one that would give me any money. Cambodia still uses US Dollars for large denominations, and the machine I selected only dispensed $100 notes. I knew that was going to be problematic for the tuk-tuk ride into town, and I figured the convenience store at the airport isn’t going to want to break a 100 for a bottle of water, so I bought a sim card for $7. It turns out that the sim card vendor had also been hit by tourists with 100 dollar bills, so she scrambled around other shops looking to break up the change. The sim card would become useful later in this trip.
After getting my nose probed with a covid test and the money drama, it was finally good to be in the back of a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh. One of the first things I noticed was that the tuk-tuks are now the Indian-style autorickshaws instead of the trailers that are latched onto the back of a motorbike.
The big improvement in transport in Phnom Penh has been the transport apps like Grab (which bought out Uber in Southeast Asia) and the local ride-hailing app, PassApp. I had never been able to get a fair price for a tuk-tuk here, so these apps save haggling when you don’t know what the fare should be. PassApp shows the old-style tuktuks and rickshaws as options. Getting a sim card to use this app saved me a lot of transport headaches.
I was coming and going from Phnom Penh on this trip, so I had two short stays here rather than a long stay. This trip report covers December 2021 and January 2022. As I noted in my guide on where to stay in Phnom Penh, if you are here for a short time, then stay by the riverfront. If you plan to stay longer (like digital nomadding for a month), then stay in the BKK area.
The good thing about staying by the river is going for morning walks along Sisowath Quay on the riverfront. I don’t know why, but the sun shines differently in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Perhaps it’s just my nostalgia for this region, or perhaps it’s the piles of rubbish that burns on the side of the street that gives the sunrise a different tint.
I’m familiar enough with Phnom Penh now to know where my favourite old buildings are. One of my favourite areas is around the old post office.
There are some old buildings around the post office that are in terrible shape, so I always go back to check up on them to make sure they haven’t been knocked down yet.
I’m always drawn to the Central Market every time I come to Phnom Penh.
The central dome is an amazing structure that I never tire of seeing.
The Chaktomuk Conference Hall is also one of my favourite architectural highlights of the city.
One of the first things I did on my first trip to Phnom Penh in 2005 was to visit the Foreign Correspondents Club. This bar is in a building on Sisowath Quay, and it’s the ideal place to sit with a drink and watch the Tonle Sap merge with the Mekong. I’ve been to the FCC on every visit to Phnom Penh, so I was sad to see it was closed on this trip. They were closed for renovations, so at least they have not closed down.
[FCC (left) under renovation.]
The same can’t be said for the traveller cafes on Sisowath Quay. Many of them have either closed down or not reopened yet. As I was in Phnom Penh at the start of the country’s reopening, it was too soon to tell if this was permanent.
As Phnom Penh was my first exposure to Southeast Asia, this was also my first exposure to traveller cafes serving western food and drinks (and “happy” pizzas). There are more upmarket bars along the riverfront now, and it might be that the pandemic has put an end to these cafes.
One thing that I was unreasonably excited about was the opening of a Pizza 4P’s restaurant in Phnom Penh. It was nice to go to a pizza place in Phnom Penh that didn’t have happy in its name.
Pizza 4P’s is a pizza chain from Vietnam that was founded by a man from Tokyo. That sounds like an odd combination, but it turns out that the Japanese may be the best pizza makers in the world, so being via Vietnam is not an unreasonable stretch.
Pizza 4P’s is in a new building on the riverfront. In addition to getting a pizza fix, it was a good alternative place to watch the river while the FCC was closed.
In the same building as 4Ps is a Starbucks. I was staying near here so I went for coffee in the morning.
I was thinking about how much Phnom Penh had changed since my first visit when there was no Starbucks. There are Starbucks everywhere in Phnom Penh now, and I opened my Google Maps to see how many there are:
My preferred cafe chain in Phnom Penh is Brown Coffee. This cafe started out as a single store, and I had it listed on my (now outdated) cafes in Phnom Penh. Brown Coffee has since expanded across the city and is opening branches in other parts of Cambodia as well. They have better lattes than Starbucks (and are cheaper too), so going there is a no-brainer.
I noticed that the Thai cafe chain Amazon has now set up in Cambodia as well, so I hope that Brown starts spreading their franchise wings across Southeast Asia.
Speaking of chains, the big convenience store brands have arrived in Cambodia. A 7-Eleven had opened in Phnom Penh (though it was too far from the city centre to see for myself), and Circle K have started spreading across the city.
As I have been to Phnom Penh numerous times I wasn’t here for sightseeing. On this trip, I was compiling a construction report for Future Southeast Asia, so I spent my time visiting construction sites of the city (of which there are many). I use these construction sites as targets for urban exploration. My Google Maps was covered in stars of places I wanted to visit, so I would walk to those points and see what I saw on the way.
[New Phnom Penh skyline behind the National Assembly.]
One building I was curious to see was Flatiron by Meridian.
The building gets its flatiron shape from the block of land it is on next to the railway. If you want to see how lopsided urban development is in Phnom Penh, then walk alongside the railway shacks next to the Flatiron by Meridian.
I passed the new Lamborgini showroom on the way to the Flatiron. It used to be that the Lexus was the status symbol of wealth in Cambodia. I see TikTok videos in Vietnam of crypto kids in Lamborgini clubs, so it seems to be a regional trend.
There is a new city being built near here called Phnom Penh City Center. If you didn’t know anything about the city you may wonder why there is so much empty land so close to the city centre. This area used to be the Beoung Kak Lake, which was controversially filled in and the community around the lake moved elsewhere. The lake was famous in the backpacker scene for hosting cheap guesthouses. One of my travel regrets was not going there and having a look.
[Phnom Penh City Center.]
There has been a proliferation of new malls in the years between my last visit. The Olympia Mall had just opened and there were only a few shops open when I visited. I was looking for a toilet (the best reason to visit a mall) and this search took me all the way to the top floor.
I also revisited Diamond Island (Koh Pich), which I wrote about on my visit in 2017.
There is an Arc de Triomphe replica here.
And more shophouses on top of all the new malls, which makes me wonder where all these new shops are going to come from.
To get a better overview of how much development is going on, I went across the river to see the city skyline in full.
One of the activities I wanted to do on this trip was to get the train to Sihanoukville. Unfortunately, the railway hadn’t reopened after its pandemic shutdown, but I went to the station to ask – just in case it had miraculous restarted overnight.
The station has been renovated since I was last here, with some new cafes and artwork within the terminal building.
I returned to my favourite place to be, by the riverfront in the evening.
With the train out of action, I got the bus to Sihanoukville. If you thought Phnom Penh has gone through radical changes, wait until you see Sihanoukville.