You’re fresh off the airplane and have just moved to Cambodia. You need advice from someone who’s been there and done that. Since I’d rather not field your 2:00 AM worried phone calls unless you’re a REALLY good friend, I’ve decided to write this simple guide to expat life for you instead.
Am I Safe?
JULY 2012 ADDENDUM: The Mystery Disease the Western media is currently having a fit over is very unlikely to harm you if you are traveling to Cambodia soon. The USA has not yet seen fit to issue a travel warning. The disease only appears to be harming young children.
Unless you are traveling with a young child, or are immune-compromised, you should be fine. (And you should think twice about traveling with young children or with immune system issues to Cambodia or any other developing country in the first place). You should be much more concerned about Dengue Fever and Malaria than you should be about MYSTERY DISEASE.
MAY 2012 ADDENDUM: Cambodia has seen a disturbing uptick in government violence against activists and protesters since the year began. Although this hasn’t yet affected foreigners to any real extent, it pays to be aware. Avoid protests if possible. If you do come across a protest, it is prudent to avoid getting involved. Police and guards can get aggressive if they see you taking photographs of unrest.
You are reasonably safe in Phnom Penh circa 2012, and very safe in the provinces. Despite anything you may have read about the Khmer Rouge, anarchy, and random violence against foreigners, Phnom Penh is a relatively safe city, and is certainly safer than most US cities of a similar size. I have not had a single run-in or scary moment in the year I have lived here.
It pays to exercise basic street smarts. Don’t walk alone at night, especially in neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. Don’t get too drunk, too high, or too all-around messed up to keep tabs on your surroundings. Never take anything out on a night on the town you can’t afford to lose. Drunk foreigners are an easy target for sticky-fingered opportunists. This is good advice everywhere in the world.
When going home alone late at night, it is a good idea for everyone, male and female, to make friends with a trustworthy tuk tuk or moto driver. Get his number and call him when it’s time to leave the bar. He will make sure you get home safe once you have established a relationship. Buy him a beer occasionally (just not too many).
The most common crime against foreigners is purse snatching. This usually occurs when the victim is riding in a tuktuk or on a moto late at night. Hold onto your purse TIGHTLY when in transit, and sling it across your shoulder. Alternately, give in and wear a backpack like I do.
Home robberies are common, although usually non-violent. Look for an apartment high off the ground, with at least two heavy, locked doors between your inner domicile and the outside. Compounds with a guard and a dog are extra good. Always lock the doors to your porch at night, even if you are high off the ground.
Take special care with locking up your bicycle or motorbike. We used two heavy chains to lock up our bike, and it still got stolen. To this day, we’re not really sure how. Cambodian thieves are remarkably ingenious, if infuriating. If you can possibly keep your bike or motorbike inside of a compound or in a parking lot with a garage, do it.
Make friends with your Khmer neighbors and your landlord: they will keep an eye out for trouble, and it helps a lot if they like you.
Cambodians often drive drunk. This does not mean it is ever OK for you to do the same. Unless you really like broken limbs, amputations, pricy medical evacuations, or potential death.
A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT STREET DRUGS
Do NOT do street drugs in Cambodia. I don’t care how good a night you are having, or how polite that nice drug dealer seems. DO NOT DO STREET DRUGS IN CAMBODIA.
Foreigners die every year from doing “cocaine” or other hard-core drugs—that are often laced with deadly chemicals.
Fun fact: The water treatment facility in Phnom Penh has won international awards. (A water expert told me this, so I know it must be true!) Tap water is OK to drink in Phnom Penh, and is 100% off limits in the provinces.
Although Phnom Penh’s water is clean, the pipes leading to your house may not be. It’s a good idea to buy a home water purifier for around $15. You can easily pick one up at or nearby Central Market.
Profound intestinal and stomach discomfort is just part of life in Phnom Penh. Any expat discussion will invariably segue into horrifying bathroom-and-barf stories once you’ve got a few drinks in you. This is something you need to accept. Still, there are some food guidelines to follow:
Don’t eat the street food. Rules may be bent on this one if you are with a Khmer person you are reasonably sure likes you. I sometimes eat street noodles, but my stomach is cast in iron, and I’ve still regretted it once or twice. Donuts and fruit are usually OK.
If you have a choice, pick the restaurant with air conditioning. There seems to be a correlation between AC and cleanish food.
When cooking at home, it’s safest to buy your ingredients from the major supermarkets like Lucky or Pencil, and not from the local open air market. The farmers market ethos doesn’t apply well to un-tested foreign stomachs. May be relaxed if you’re willing to soak your veg in bleach.
What If I Get Sick?
Emergency S.O.S is the best Western medical care facility in town, but it is pricey. It is on Street 51 and offers a choice of Khmer or Western doctors. They’ve treated my boyfriend and I well when we’ve visited, and can do X-rays – good to know in a country where some sort of motorbike mishap is almost a guarantee
Another option is the Naga Clinic, near the Independence Monument, which is slightly cheaper. I have not frequented any Cambodian clinics and have not heard good things.
Pharmacies are everywhere in Phnom Penh. The U-Care pharmacy chain is the classiest in town, and it is guaranteed you are getting the real thing when you buy from them. You can often choose between the Western or Chinese/Indian version of the drug.
I don’t buy anything more pyschoactive than Advil and sunscreen from independent pharmacies here. Independent pharmacies in Cambodia have been known to sell fake or substitute medications. This is not a risk you want to take.
There is no such thing as a “prescription” drug here. Prescription drugs that can cost $15 to $20 a tablet back home on the illegal market in the US retail for $6 or $10 a box in Cambodia.
Fact is, pretty much anything you can think of is available over the counter in Phnom Penh’s thousands of pharmacies, including drugs such as Xanax, Valium, codeine-containing painkillers, Colonopin, and others. Be responsible, kids.
Be aware that “uppers” such as Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Adderall are NOT available in Cambodia. If you need these drugs, it is best to bring them from home, or have them sent to you.
Emergency S.O.S is expensive, but is open 24 hours and should be your first choice for injuries, serious illness, and other sudden problems. They can tell you if your emergency is bad enough to warrant leaving the country, which brings me to……
Cambodia isn’t exactly overrun with mental care facilities (worrisome in a country with rampant PTSD) but some do exist. I’ve heard good things about Indigo Psychological Services. If you are in the market for a psychiatrist, Dr. Ben van den Bussche at the The International Centre for Psychiatry & Psychotherapy at Sen Sok International University Hospital is about the only game in town at this time.
Serious Medical Problems
Buy evacuation insurance. Do it right now. I have personally seen terrible, terrible things happen to people who did not. Insured or no, if you have a serious injury, illness, or mental problem, do not stay in Cambodia.
Cambodia simply does not have top-notch medical facilities yet. Singapore is your best option. Bangkok will work too.
Where Should I Shop?
Central Market (Psaar Thmei) is good for kitchenware, t-shirts and dresses, jewelry, and souvenirs for the folks back home. It also has the cleanest food section, although I’d still be careful if I were you. Prices are higher than elsewhere here, so some gentle bargaining is a good idea.
Russian Market (Pssar Tuol Tom Pong) has the best clothing selection and is the best place to buy DVDs. It’s also good for home wares such as lights, objects d’ art, pretty ceramic dishes, paintings, and other aesthetically pleasing things. Wholesale (and bootleg) books can be found at a couple of stands along the market’s edge. Avoid the food section at all costs, although the fresh orange juice is tasty.
O’Russei market is three stories of utter Asian-inflected chaos, but can be incredibly useful for the braver expatriate. Everything from shoes to machetes to video games to durians to rollerblades to clothing to machine parts is sold here. Here, you will walk through seemingly endless sections of shoes, random electronic parts, stationary weird t-shirts, and dried sea animals of every possible species.
Westerners just don’t seem to go to O’Russei, and prices usually are not marked up as a result. Be emotionally prepared for the sensory and olfactory assualt. If you are, O’Russei has the best deals in town.
Tuk-tuk drivers will often stare at you in blank confusion or start snickering when you ask to go to O’Russei. Be not afraid.
Western grocery stores are are growing in number in Phnom Penh. They usually contain many departments and are somewhat akin to malls. It’s worth paying a little more for produce and meats that won’t give you giardia.
Lucky Market on Sihanouk boulevard has a wide selection of fresh meats, vegetables, and other cooking ingredients, as well as pre-marinated meats and pre-chopped meal ingredients if you’re short on time. Western snack foods (including Baked Lays, Pop-Tarts, and sugary cereal) are on offer, as well as some housewares. There’s a bakery, and a small deli selling roasted chicken and other lunch items. Department store upstairs.
Bayon Market on Russian Boulevard is a good choice for wholesale items and booze. Huge wine and liquor selection, and some Western snacks you can’t find anywhere else, such as corn meal, popcorn kernels, tortillas of all sorts, et all. Bakery attached.
Pencil Market off Norodom (it’s behind the KFC) is a cavernous place with an OK selection of produce and booze, and a huge selection of snack foods and other packaged food products. A very random selection of clothing and home wares can be found upstairs.
The Khmer bargaining style is gentle, low-volume, and low-key. This is not India or Mexico.
Yelling at a shopkeeper will usually just frighten him or her and will not get you what you want. Most Cambodians are not too interested in screwing you over on prices. Most sellers will drop a price considerably if you are polite, don’t make too much eye contact, and giggle a lot in the process.
A gentle “Ot tei, akon” (no thanks) is all you need if a shopkeeper is making too hard of a sell. Most will drop a price even more if you walk away. Don’t be a dick. (This all was hard for me to learn, as I’d previously spent a lot of time in India, but is a very important nuance.)
Yes, it can be done – if you’re 1. lucky and 2. nice. Most sellers at the major markets will take something back or make an exchange if you can prove it was damaged or broke prematurely. Don’t be a jerk about it, or the odds of you getting your money back or an exchange will drop precipitously.
Yes. There are lots of good language tutors in town, and Khmer is an easy language to learn. Not to mention that just about everything gets cheaper when you can speak to the motodop, tuk-tuk guy, or seller in their own language.
Cambodians seem to be very pleased when a foreigner bothers to pick up some Khmer. If you make an effort to learn the language, just about everyone you meet will be willing to help you with your pronunciation, or teach you a new word or two—or some creative swear words, if you’re lucky.
I get offended when otherwise educated and enlightened foreigners who have committed to living in Cambodia for one or two years disdainfully say Khmer is too “small” a language for them to bother with.
How would you feel if some foreigner washed up in your neighborhood back home and didn’t bother to learn an word or two of English? And then aggressively shouted at you in their native language and got pissed off when you didn’t understand?
Get it now?
Expats tend to congregate in the BKK 1 neighborhood, where I live. There are other foreigner enclaves near Wat Phnom. There is no need to live near your fellow foreigners, of course, but central city locations are usually more convenient, and closer to stuff expats like, such as wine bars, Western food, high-end coffee shops and hygienic supermarkets.
Look for apartments that have recently been renovated. This will save you maintenance trouble down the line.
Beware of noise problems and nearby construction. Construction begins at 7:00 AM in Cambodia. Cambodians also like to keep roosters and paranoid, yappy dogs. You may want to consider investing in a pellet gun.
Choices, choices. None of them very good if you’re used to Western or East Asian speeds. There are good reasons for this which I will not bore you with. Here’s a list of Cambodia’s many, many Internet providers.
Home Internet connections are relatively expensive here when compared to those in the West. For something usable – in my book, at least 1Mbps download speeds – you will probably pay at least $60 a month.
We have an Ezecom “high speed” connection we won in a raffle. At 8:00 PM, our download speed was 1.19 Mbps, which is actually pretty impressive for a home connection in Cambodia.
I haven’t experienced much better here in Cambodia – though I hear significantly higher speeds and even fiber optic connections are available through some ISPs if you are willing to pay for the privilege.
It’s easiest to pick an apartment or house that already has a wireless connection you can use. If not, ISPs will come install a connection at your home.
You usually will have to buy your own wireless router. Watch your ISP installation guy like a hawk – my boyfriend’s iPod went mysteriously missing when we had our Ezcom connection put in.
There is currently no such thing as a Western-level high speed connection in Cambodia, but as long as you resign yourself to frequent outages and waiting up to five minutes for a Youtube video to load, you will be fine.
Some people choose to go with a USB modem for their home connection, which you can put minutes on like a cellphone. Reasonably fast, usually come with restrictions or high prices when it comes to downloads and uploads, crazed Torrenters and YouTube addicts need not apply.
Great for journalists and others who need to access the Internet in weird places. Mobitel/CellCard and Ezecom sell them, as do some other providers.
There isn’t any – well, not really. This ain’t China, and Cambodia’s Internet freedom is probably the best in Southeast Asia.
In 2011, the Cambodian government did attempt to block strident opposition blog KiMedia. As Cambodia’s Internet is primitive at best, they did this by sending threatening letters to every ISP operating here, ordering them to block the site.
Since the ISPs did not legally have to do this, some complied, and some did not. If you are an Internet freedom advocate (you should be) it’s best to go with an ISP that does not block KiMedia.
Ezecom and MekongNet block KiMedia. Clicknet does not. That’s the ones I know about. (Look, our Ezecom connection was free).
Think of KiMedia as a measure of how willing your ISP is to stand up to the government. If you want to read KiMedia and your ISP is one of the blockers, just use a proxy server.
Free wifi is available at most restaurants and coffee shops. You can even get online at KFC. Speeds are highly variable, but hey, you’re not paying for anything more than a coffee, a croissant, or a bucket of chicken.
Is Cambodia Safe for Women?
Women do not need to exercise special precautions here – or any more than they would back home. I would worry more about your fellow expatriate men than I would about the locals. Khmer men are usually polite to foreign women, and there is little machismo attitude present.
There are always outliers, so exercise the same caution you might with anyone back home. Worst I’ve ever got from a Khmer male is the occasional, usually complimentary, comment on my appearance, in way more polite language than the catcalls back home. If they’re saying dirty things in Khmer, eh, I don’t understand em’.
Other women are everywhere at all hours of the day, which will make you feel more comfortable. Cambodian women usually dress fairly conservatively in the provinces, much less so in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian women often will wear long pants and long shirts during the day to avoid tanning their skin, as porcelain beauties are the ideal here. The low-cut dresses and short-shorts come out at night.
Cambodians really are pretty nice. This is due to a culture that avoids confrontation at all costs, recent history excluded. Simple rules of politeness apply. Speak softly and politely, and avoid verbal confrontation. Don’t touch people unless you know them. Hands placed together flat in front of your chest is a nice touch when saying “thank you” (orkun charoon).
When it comes to serious interpersonal problems, there tends to be no smoke and plenty of fire in Cambodia. In other words, when a Cambodian finally does snap, you are going to get little warning before hand, and an extreme verbal or physical reaction. It’s best to be polite, exercise some street smarts and caution, and avoid confrontational situations all together.
Cambodians dress somewhat conservatively, more so in the provinces, less so in Phnom Penh. Men wear long pants and dress shirts most of the time – you will guys folding their shirts up to expose their midriffs on hot days. Men can get away with wandering around in a krama (like a sarong) or athletic shorts if they are in front of their own home or working outside.
Women tend to wear long pants and long shirts during the day, both for modesty and to avoid tanning – white, pale skin is considered very alluring here. It’s no big deal for Western women to wear shorts and tank-tops during the day, but don’t go overboard – and that’s good advice anywhere.
Shorts and tank-tops within reason will not attract street harassment beyond what might be encountered in the West.
Some Khmer women do wear short dresses and revealing clothing in the evening and at social events, mostly in Phnom Penh. Dress codes aren’t really set in stone here.
Don’t dress like a backpacker. Backpackers look stupid. No one in Cambodia thinks your dirty hair, body odor, “tribal” jewelry and Angkor-beer themed wife-beater makes you look cool. Nobody.
Dress more conservatively at the office than you would back home. Conservative work attire especially applies to women, I’m afraid. Long pants and skirts are best. No shorts, no tanktops, avoid exposed arms if possible. High heels, loud jewelry and tight pants, however, are perfectly fine.
Teenage to twenty-something volunteers and temp workers: THIS APPLIES TO YOU TOO. DON’T YOU ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME.
I hope you like drinking, because that’s the expatriate activity of choice in Phnom Penh. Check Lady Penh for a list of events and meet-ups. Making friends with other expats is quite easy here. Making Khmer friends can be a lot harder.
Monthly “Elsewhere” parties seem to attract every expat in town for a pagan mating ritual. Locations change monthly.
The most popular dance club for the expat set is Pontoon, which features international DJs, dry ice, and expensive drinks. Best saved for late in the evening. Where roughly 80% of Phnom Penh expatriate hook-ups begin!
Other popular expat meet-up bars are Equinox and Elsewhere on Street 278, Rubies wine bar on Street 240, and the Blue Dragon near the Royal Palace.
Beloved hang-outs on Street 51 are Howie’s and Led Zeppelin. Led Zep’s extremely scary looking Taiwanese owner spins metal and rock, and serves up super cheap drinks and excellent pork and leek dumplings. Howie’s features Connect-4 playing waitresses, a pool table, and a painting of a naked lady. What more could you want.
Avoid the Heart of Darkness dance club, for Christ’s sake. The floor is sticky and everyone wants to molest you. Do not believe the Lonely Planet guide.
Journalists can meet up with their foul brethren on Thursday evenings at Cantina, a popular Mexican restaurant and bar on Sisowath Quay.
Speaking as a heterosexual, I can only do so much. Utopia Asia has some good Cambodia listings for men here. Listings for women can be found here.
Homosexuality is not considered a huge “deal” in Cambodia, especially for Westerners. It is best to avoid or limit PDA, but that goes for heterosexual couples too.
No one is going to raise an eyebrow if you rent an apartment or get a hotel room together. There are even guesthouses and hotels that cater primarily to gay males in Siem Reap. You can also visit a men’s-only massage and spa parlor in PP.
There are less lesbian-only offerings, I’m afraid. Lesbian owned bar Local 2 on St 144 by Sisowath Quay sounds like a good place to start. Another branch of the Local is located near Russian Market.
Yep. I advise you to get used to it. Patronizing said hookers is probably a bad idea if you are worried about your sexual health, but they’re not bad people. Just honest ladies trying to make a living. Most of em’.
Working girls tend to hang out at “hostess” bars, where a bunch of scantily clad young women compete for drinks and patrons attention. It’s up to you if you are comfortable entering these places or not.
Popular “working girl” hang-outs include Walkabout on St 51, Sharkies on St 130, and roughly 80% of the bars along Riverside. Avoid/seek out as you please.
Sex trafficking is a huge problem in Cambodia. However, the bars that Westerners frequent and that are located in popular tourist areas rarely use or employ trafficked women.
Don’t assume every prostitute is a helpless victim. Don’t assume every girl working in a hostess bar is a prostitute.
Most importantly: do not assume that every Khmer woman wearing revealing clothing is a prostitute. How would you feel if people shot you that knowing look when you were dolled up for a night on the town?
Pedophilia is a big problem in Cambodia. Thankfully, efforts to stop sex tourism seem to be working, although the creepiest of the world’s creepy do have an unfortunate habit of washing up here.
The majority of pedophilia cases – and there are far, far too many of them – occur in the provinces between Cambodians.
Use your judgment and act if you see a suspicious situation involving an older person and a young child, especially in hotels or guesthouses.
The excellent ChildSafe network has a hot-line you can call if you think something is fishy. The police, sadly, probably won’t be much help.
Emphasis on judgment! You should be able to tell the difference between a perfectly innocent middle-aged man out for the day with his half-Khmer children, and an actual pedophile—as happened recently to a fellow expatriate.