As I’ve mentioned before, our initial impression of Cambodia wasn’t the best, and after a few days in Siem Reap we decided to only spend about two weeks total in the whole country. The beaches weren’t really something we felt like we needed to do since we spent SO much time at the beach in Thailand, and everyone we talked to told us that Phnom Penh was seedy, dirty, and just a waste of time. At this point we were ready to spend a few days in Phnom Penh just to check it off our list and then hightail it to Vietnam. This would have been the case too if we hadn’t decided to look into Workaway at the last minute. We decided that if we could find a Workaway position we would stay a little longer in Cambodia. After a few unsuccessful attempts, we finally sent a message to Ramon Stoppelenburg at The Flicks in Phnom Penh (the job that got Anthony interested in Workaway in the first place), and just like that we had a three week stint in Phnom Penh lined up with accommodation! Regardless of what the Cambodian capital was like we were heading there.
On the day of our bus journey to Phnom Penh I was a little nervous. We’d mentioned the job to a few people and were always given the same reaction: a look of confusion followed by some form of the question “Why would you want to spend three weeks in Phnom Penh?” I reminded myself that Anthony and I usually ended up liking places that most people didn’t, and that Siem Reap had ended up growing on me quite a bit. For better or for worse, Phnom Penh would be our home for three weeks, so I needed to give it a chance and form my own opinion. We boarded a Giant Ibis Bus (great company…highly recommend them if you’re ever in Cambodia), and set off for our next stop.
The ride itself wasn’t particularly scenic, but we ended up arriving in a rainy overcast Phnom Penh an hour ahead of schedule (literally unheard of in SEA). We hopped in a tuk-tuk (after having to negotiate the price with about four different drivers) and headed to our new home. One of the best things about a tuk-tuk is that you can observe everything around you very easily. Right away I could see that most people were right, Phnom Penh was indeed a pretty dirty city, but so are Athens, Berlin, and Bangkok and we love all three. To be honest if a city is too clean it’s almost weird to me. I like a certain grittiness, and Phnom Penh absolutely has that, but it also has a certain beauty as well. It’s like most of SEA: a mind boggling contradiction.
Our tuk-tuk driver took us down streets with huge trees dripping with twinkling lights one minute, and small alleys with shady dark corners full of trash and people lurking smoking cigarettes the next. We rode by huge modern sky rises towering next to dilapidated one room homes. There were cockroaches scuttling across the street on every block and giant lit up signs advertising Cambodia, Angkor, and Kingdom beer. Music spilled out of bars and mixed with the constant blaring of horns, and in that first twenty minutes in Cambodia’s capital I knew this city would not fail to give us a weird and wild time. I wasn’t wrong.
From a backpacker’s perspective, I can see why Phnom Penh usually doesn’t make the top of the list. There are only about three days worth of typical tourist attractions (this is if you take it slow), and while the nightlife is quite crazy, the constant fear of being ripped off or robbed can put a damper on the partying. There aren’t nearly as many street food options as Thailand or Vietnam, and while booze is very cheap, it’s still a fairly expensive city overall if you don’t know where to look. That being said, we LOVED our time in Phnom Penh. The job at The Flicks threw us into an amazing community of expats so it felt as though we’d been there for years not just three weeks, and we were able to spend time living like locals and travelers alike.
We walked around the massive Aeon Mall on a Friday night with the hordes of Cambodians doing the same, and spent time on the roof at 11 Happy Backpacker drinking cheap beers and playing kings. I managed to find flax seed and oats at the grocery store and had a salad several times a week without the fear of being exiled to the bathroom for twelve hours afterwards. We rode bicycles all over the city and slurped down amazing homemade noodles for less than $1.50 a bowl at the Chinese Noodle House. Our team failed miserably at trivia at the local expat bar, Showbox, but one of our many Flicks customers generously shared beers from her team’s first place case of Cambodia before inviting us to another local bar called Zeppelin’s where a cool old Cambodian guy sits with thousands of vinyl records waiting for people to come pay him for a request. An actual live juke box.
Leaving Phnom Penh ended up being a lot harder than I ever anticipated. I had expected to find a city that I would have to tolerate, not one that I would fall in love with, dirt and all. It was yet another time I was incredibly glad we didn’t listen to anyone else and decided to make up our own mind about somewhere. I was also very glad we did the Workaway because we never would have seen it for what it truly was otherwise. Is it dirty, hectic, aggravating, and at times dangerous? Absolutely, but it also has a pretty awesome budding food scene, great cultural opportunities, and excellent nightlife. The entire country is trying to make up for years of cultural deprivation ripped away from them during the Khmer Rouge, and Phnom Penh is no exception. There is still plenty of petty crime, and it’s still socially acceptable to litter everywhere since someone will just be burning the trash at night anyway, but people are trying to move forward. Developers are buying up city blocks, and hip restaurants were popping up even as we lived there. The city is a walking contrast, but before you dismiss it, give it a real chance. There is a lot of shine under what appears to be a dingy top layer.