Phnom Penh: Dirty, Dangerous and Depressing

We took 2 steps outside of the airport doors and we were immediately swarmed, “tuk tuk, sir? Madame, tuk tuk?” We slithered our way through the mob of drivers ready to take us to our final destination when we were nudged by a Finnish man asking to share a ride into the city. He had clearly done this a time or two and knew how to play the game and save some money. We took him up on his offer, wiped the orange dust off the seat of the tuk tuk, and hopped in. As we made our journey into town, we made small talk with the friendly, yet seemingly emotionless man. He sure seemed to want to talk, but never made so much as a smile or a laugh. After answering his questions about what we are doing in Cambodia, we returned the question, to which he replied, “I come for pretty ladies”. As I turned my head to the side and tried to hold back the vomit, I noticed the sun was setting behind us. I whipped out my iPhone and asked the man to take a picture of us. I figure I might as well take advantage of the situation and at least get a picture. We barely snapped the photo when another tuk tuk driver took note of what we were doing, drove up beside us and urged us to put our phone away. “Cambodians will snatch out of your hand! Keep your phone away! Put your purse low. They will steal!”. I had heard Cambodia was bad about petty theft, especially the guys on motorbikes that will drive up and snatch your purse before you even realize what happened. After having my purse snatched in Thailand, I thought I was being extra cautious by wrapping it around my waist and tucking it between me and Charlie, but apparently having your phone out puts you at risk as well. I quickly realized how big of a problem it must really be if not even 5 minutes on the ground, the Cambodians were already sending their warnings. It was a bit of an unsettling feeling, and from then on I couldn’t help but feel that every person we passed on a motorbike was out to get me and my purse.

phnom penh depressing

The drive to our guest house felt like a long one. In actuality, it was probably only about 30 minutes. I couldn’t help but notice the mounds of trash piled up all along the road. Everything was covered in a thick, orange dust. We stopped at a few traffic lights and each time were approached by young, half-dressed children that hadn’t been bathed in what looked like weeks. Maybe longer. One young girl in particular approached our tuk tuk and held out her tiny hand while a baby rat was scampering over her foot. It was so heart-breaking I could hardly look at her. She stood there for the duration of the light, and then stepped back onto the sidewalk just as the light turned green and the hoards of motorbikes came whizzing right through her path. We carried on and I kept waiting for us to get to the “nicer” part of town. I figured the “touristy” part of town must be a little more well kept. Well, that never came. And the first 30 minutes of our time in Phnom Penh pretty much sums up the rest of the trip.

phnom penh depressing

We were happy to finally make it to our guest house, the Mondulkiri Boutique Hotel, and it was actually very lovely. It was clean and modern, and the breakfast was also a plus. Especially after just leaving our so-called hotel room in Hong Kong. While it was technically “walking distance” to the riverfront and Royal Palace, sidewalks in Phnom Penh are practically nonexistent and walking in the street is nearly impossible due to the unkempt roads and potentially hazardous traffic situation. We found that getting around by tuk tuk was a better option than walking, which is very rare for us.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

We didn’t do much research before heading to Cambodia, but the one thing we knew we wanted to see were the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Not knowing much (or anything really) about Cambodia’s history and the millions of innocent people that were executed by the Khmer Rouge, we were interested in learning more about the tragic event. We had heard it was a very moving experience and not one to be missed. We first visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 Prison), which was once a school that was transformed into a prison when the Khmer Rouge took over. Here, they imprisoned and tortured many of the victims before they were carried off to the killing fields for execution. Just a heads up – it is very graphic and hard to make it through without getting emotional. Expect tears.

S-21 Prison Killing Fields Phnom Penh

We had read prior that hiring a guide when you arrive is a must. You can walk through on your own, but you will learn a lot more from one of the locals – many of which lived through the time and have some sort of personal connection. When we arrived, many of the guides were already off on a tour except for a few ladies. When we asked to hire a guide, they all just looked at each other until one woman finally stood up with an “if I have to” attitude. She rushed us inside and began her script in very broken English. We had a difficult time following along and could tell she was not into it. When we asked questions, it was obvious we threw her off her script and she would just start her story over again. While many of the other guides sounded really informative, I think we had just a bit of bad luck. She kept telling us to walk around by ourselves for a few while she had to “talk to a friend”. At the end of the tour (which was clearly cut short), she told us how her father and brother were taken away by the Khmer Rouge never to be seen again. She then dramatically turned her head to the side, told us it was difficult to talk about and that the tour had to end and we needed to pay. I hate to call her a liar because I have no idea what she’s been through, but the whole thing seemed like a charade. The fee was $6 and we handed her a $10, which was all we had. We expected change and planned to tip her a few dollars but she just scurried off with the $10. On the way out, we passed her already chatting with her friends and her damp eyes had mysteriously dried up. We definitely felt cheated and the experience was kind of ruined. It was saddening to see someone who lived through this  time completely exploit this tragic, yet important piece of Khmer history.  We wanted to be informed, but it was clear she just wanted her money. I truly don’t think all of the guides have the same intent and we definitely recommend paying a visit. But talk with some of the guides before you hire one!

tuol sleng s21 prison genocide museum survivor phnom penh

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Choeung Ek was quite a different experience. You are given an audio guide that leads you around the memorial to different sites, describing the events that took place at each. It is a very educational, yet heart-wrenching experience. We kept asking over and over why we never knew anything about this event? It’s hard to understand how something so terrible could have happened just over 30 years ago. If you plan to visit S-21, you might be better off visiting Choeung Ek first to better understand the history and then you may not even need a guide. In any event, if you are ever in Phnom Penh, make sure to add this to your itinerary. To say it is a humbling experience is an understatement.

s-21 prison choeung ek phnom penh killing fields

To sum it up, our experience in Phnom Penh was not much to brag about and we are not sure we would return in the foreseeable future. We had no idea how poor of a country Cambodia really is and we just didn’t feel right tramping around town with our smart phones when there were so many people in need of a meal. It was really hard to even eat a meal along the riverside without feeling incredibly guilty when you have extremely poor children begging at your feet. It was very saddening. Very depressing. The 5 year old kids work harder than most grown adults back home. And I just couldn’t handle watching anymore scantily clad young girls throwing themselves at the old, white men looking for “boom boom”. Although the large majority of Cambodians were extremely friendly and helpful, we didn’t feel safe, especially after witnessing a drunk Cambodian man trying to mug an elderly couple in the middle of the day in a busy part of town (see video). While it was an educational and humbling experience, I wouldn’t exactly call it enjoyable. If you were to ask us how long to spend in Phnom Penh? I guess that depends on what kind of trip you are looking for. But we say stay a night. See the Killing Fields. Then jump on a bus to Sihanoukville or head towards Siem Reap to explore Angkor Wat.

FYI:

  • Hotel/Guest House: Mondulkiri Boutique Hotel
  • Time spent in Phnom Penh: 3 nights
  • Cost of tuk tuk from airport to hotel: normally $7, but we shared a ride so two stops was $10 ($5 each)
  • Cost of tuk tuk for the day: $20 (Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng, riverside lunch)
  • Best Meal: Pizza and feta salad on the river front
  • Best tip: Start your day early – it gets hot!!

Check out our video tour of Phnom Penh:

 Have you ever been to Phnom Penh? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. Great read guys, we felt the exact same way about Phnom Penh, one night is enough. Thanks for the advice. 🙂 Pity about the experience ye had with the guide, it’s a shame to see people act like that as it’s just off putting – especially when ye had planned to give her a tip anyway!

  2. I have been there once and was not impressed. I really like Siem Reap and Cambodians in general are quite nice. But, I did not like PP. I want to go back, but only to go to the Killing Fields and S-21.

    • Completely agree! We found the Cambodians to be exceptionally friendly and helpful, and we loved Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. But we don’t see any reason to return to Phnom Penh, unless just stopping by.

  3. I’m curious how long you stayed in Sihanoukville. We stayed a total of a month in Cambodia with almost 3 weeks at the beach. After a couple of weeks and befriending a few expat British and locals, it became apparent that corruption was the norm in the local police, organized crime has a hold at the port and prostitution of under age girls rampant at the “chicken farm” (a dirt road, on the way to a karaoke bar, line with sheds full of young girls on display). During that same time there was a shooting at a beach bar on the most popular beach where someone took the security guard’s gun and shot him. At first the small town is charming and relaxing but stay long enough and it’s no better than PP.

    • Charlie and Brittany May 8, 2015 at 2:38 am · ·

      Hi Laura, thanks for your comment. I think you are completely right. With Phnom Penh it was just more in your face. I’m sure if we had stayed at the beach a little longer we would have found the same thing. That being said, the beach was beautiful and did have a different vibe. We were able to connect with the locals more there and enjoy ourselves more than we did in Phnom Penh. But the bottom line is the corruption, prostitution and crime seems to be a problem throughout the country unfortunately 🙁

  4. I found PP heartbreaking not because of the things you describe ( I didn’t find it particularly bad to be honest – we were staying near the Royal Palace) but because of the young mums selling fruit and veg on the street at night whilst their children slept on benches or the ground nearby. Tragic! The killing fields are a must see and leave you despairing for the capacity of man to hurt. Beware the scams in Tonle Sap also

    • Charlie and Brittany July 6, 2015 at 7:35 pm · ·

      Yes I did hear about those scams at Tonle Sap. It kind of deterred us from even going there to be honest. Its a shame 🙁 Agree that the Killing Fields are a must see. Incredibly tragic.

  5. I think in cities like this it’s all about where you stay… if you ever go back (or anyone looking for a recommendation), I stayed at Eighty8 backpackers and this made it a great experience, friendly staff especially the owner who’s a Scottish guy, great food and felt really safe there. They also helped me arrange a tuk tuk for the day, guide etc, so I avoided any negative experiences even if it meant I may have paid a few more $$$. They also arranged my buses down to Sihanoukville and I stayed here again back en route to Siem Reap. https://www.88backpackers.com/

  6. I have lived in Phnom Penh for over 17 years and yes, your contributors are right, it can be disappointing, although equally if you are lucky there are good experiences to be found. “Lucky” is the key – it should not be a matter of luck for visitors to enjoy their stay; their money is very much needed, especially where it does trickle down to benefit the poor, unlike most tourist revenue. Cambodia’s tourist industry, led by the ministry, are always very quick when Cambodia receives accolades, most to do with Angkor Wat. The same people should pay serious attention to these constructive criticisms. Meanwhile I would recommend visitors to go beyond the three tourist centres of Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and Phnom Penh. You will have a quite different experience in places like Mondulkiri – http://anorthumbrianabroad.blogspot.com/2015/03/more-to-cambodian-culture-than-angkor.html#more

    • Charlie and Brittany November 9, 2015 at 6:16 pm · ·

      Thanks for the tip, John! Would love to pay it a visit if we make it back to Cambodia in the future!

  7. … but still pretty amazing!

  8. We felt the complete opposite in Phnom Penh, we were happy to walk around at any time of night or day and never felt in any danger…Sihanoukville was a much different story though! Although that’s besides the point as there really isn’t actually much to do in PP anyway…apart from eat Mexican at Cocina Cartel.

  9. Cambodia and the killing fields is one of the things I can remember from social studies in about the 7th grade. When Time magazine came out with the pictures I think the world was shocked. There is a very interesting book about Cambodia, “Cambodia’s Curse” by Joel Brinkley. It explains a lot about the country and provides some insights into what you see when you are there.

    • Charlie and Brittany January 14, 2016 at 1:08 pm · ·

      Thank you for the tip on hte book. I’m definitely interested in learning more. I’ll have to check it out!

  10. We are here right now and want to leave so badly, in two days this is a list of things we saw.
    1. Middle aged sex tourists everywhere, with girls of an extremely questionable age. Our first hotel (which we left) had an overweight European man with a sex worker. Myself and my girlfriend were disgusted by the noises we hear him making to the point where I got up and banged on his door violently for him to be quiet. Hotels name: grand water front hotel.

    2. Got the worst case of food poisoning ever, violent expulsion from both ends. Hallucinations and fever, my girlfriend had never seen me like that. She asked our new hotel to take us to the hospital, they replied “ma’am hospital no good, pharmacy and medicine with rest safe.

    3. Naked, poverty stricken kids sleeping in a pack of 7 with one girl standing on her own past midnight crying. Wrenched my heart so bad I gave her 5 US dollars. Straight away women came out of the darkness with their hands out for more, some of the boys still awake were searching aimlessly through rubbish looking for food.

    4. The worst thing that happened was when we were going down a street at around 25km h our tuk tuk ran over a five year old girl. Myself and my girlfriend were so distressed by the situation we thought she died. When I jumped off the tuk tuk the driver panicked and wanted to leave the scene with angry people coming his way. I saw her get to her feet, badly bruised but I needed to check for peace of mind. The tuk tuk driver told me later they would have killed him if he stopped and I apologised for jumping out but she had to be checked on. It was not his fault the girl darted across the busy road so quickly we weren’t mad at him.
    Since that we have not left our hotel and are waiting for me to recover in our new hotel from getting such bad food poisoning, this is the worst place I’ve ever been in my life. And I have been to the poorest countries in South america and pretty much all of Asia. I’m telling you, it’s horrible here.

    • Charlie and Brittany April 27, 2016 at 12:49 pm · ·

      Wow…that is crazy. Sounds like you definitely had a worse time than we did. The incident with the little girl sounds traumatizing. Sorry to hear you experienced all of that!!! Its definitely a different world there. And while we met some wonderful Khmer people and had a great time in Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, we have no desire to ever return to PP. Hope you made it out of there okay!

  11. I actually had a good experience with Siem Reap. I liked the town and it felt chilled out. Phnom Penh was a different story. I just felt so overwhelmed by it. It was noisy and dirty and just unpleasant – I agree with you on what you’ve said. I had a friend there who was a teacher and I stayed with him and thanks to him I had a chance to get to know the expat life there. It reminded me of the soldiers from Apocalypse Now – it seemed that they didn’t do anything but take drugs and hang out at dodgy places. Terrible!
    However, I had a wonderful tuk tuk driver that I hired for a day. Two of my friends had met him a year before and recommended him to me. Thanks to him my trip to Killing Fields and the Museum was great.

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