Living in Cambodia: A Firsthand Guide (For Digital Nomads)
Living in Cambodia was not something I planned to do at all.
I prepared to be there for a week and ended up staying for 8 months… because I fell in that pesky little travel-planning ruiner thing called love
But you’re not here to read about my romances, you want to know how to survive and thrive in this country.
The following guide is tailored for digital nomads (long term travellers who make most, if not all of their money online) and are considering moving to Cambodia. There is a heavy focus on the capital city, Phnom Penh and by the end of the post, you should have a well-informed opinion on whether this is the place for you to lay down some roots for a bit while keeping your latest online project going.
Visa Situation For Digital Nomads Living in Cambodia
When it comes to getting your hands on a Cambodian visa, it really couldn’t be simpler… for most nationalities, unless you’re from Afghanistan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Sudan, where things get a little more complex.
If you own a passport outside of these ten countries, you can usually get your visa on arrival. But, to save on time with border control and immigration, it’s worth sorting it out beforehand.
You can apply for a Cambodian visa online by filling out a few simple forms, at the end of which you’ll be issued an e-visa. Aside from filling out some personal information, you’ll also need to pay a visa fee of around $40. The application form will include details such as your name, date of birth, occupation and any countries you’ve visited recently.
The only catch to organising your visa before your trip is that you’ll need to enter the country within 90 days of your visa being issued. Once you’re in Cambodia, you’ll have 30 days until your visa expires. If you need a little more time, it’s easy enough to extend your visa for another 30 days for a fee of between $30 and $50 at immigration.
When I was living in Cambodia I knew a girl who knew a girl at immigration. She took care of this for me every month. I’m not saying that you should do that (and it of course comes with its own risks), I’m just putting it out there for the sake of candour – it’s certainly one of those countries where you can bypass red tape if you know the right people.
Make your own choices, as do I.
Once you’ve got your e-visa, you can only arrive in Cambodia at the three sanctioned international airports: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. If you want to travel overland from Vietnam, Thailand or Laos, you must do so at sanctioned border crossing towns too. These include Poi Pet (Banteay Meanchey), Bavet (Svay Rieng), Cham Yeam (Koh Kong) and Tropaeng Kreal Border Post (Stung Treng), but new crossings seem to be added to the list on a regular basis.
Weather in Cambodia
Much like the rest of South-East Asia, Cambodia has two distinct weather seasons: the dry season and the wet. The altitude and latitude of Cambodia are pretty much uniform across the county, so the entire country tends to experience the same weather patterns at the same time of the year.
While travel across most of the country is possible throughout the year, you might want to plan your time living in Cambodia with a drier period of weather. Cambodia’s dry season begins around October and lasts until late April, or early May. During the last months of the year, temperatures rarely reach past 20°C. As the new year comes in, however, temperatures can climb up to a scorching 34°C and higher in January and February.
During May, Cambodia’s weather season transitions from glorious dry days to torrential downpours. With the southwest monsoon passing over South East Asia, this rainy season tends to last right through until October and, incredibly, provides the country with 75% of its annual rainfall. Temperatures hover around the 25°C and 27°C marks, making for a pretty humid few months. During this time, travel to the Mondulkiri Province and Ratanakiri Province in the east of the country is almost impossible as the rain washed roads become completely inaccessible.
Travelling to some remote parts of the country is difficult and even impossible during the rainy season, but living in Cambodia during this time has its advantages too. Mainly, the number of tourists drops off hugely, which means much fewer people at some of the country’s most popular attractions. At the same time, the lush green vegetation of Cambodia comes to life, trading the hot season’s dry, dusty streets for vibrant floral shrubbery.
Important Khmer Phrases For Newbies Living in Cambodia
After long exposure to Europeans and North Americans, many Cambodians have at least a basic grasp of English phrases. I wouldn’t recommend relying on this though, using a few Khmer phrases here and there always brings a gorgeous smile to a local’s face.
Here are a few basic Khmer phrases to master before you move to Cambodia:
- Arkun [ar-koon] – Thank you
- Som dtoh [som-toe] – Sorry/ Excuse me
- Chom reap sour [chom-reap-sore] – Hello (formal)
- Susadei [soos-a-day] – Hello (informal)
- Chom reap lear [chom-reep-ear] – Goodbye (formal)
- Lee hi [lee-hi] – Goodbye (informal)
- Bah [bah] – Yes (male)
- Jah [chaa] – Yes (female)
- Ot teh [ot-tei] – No
National Holidays in Cambodia
After living in Cambodia long enough, you’ll get used to the natural rhythm of their many national holidays. Some of the holidays are western-influenced and Chinese-influenced, while others are uniquely Cambodian.
Much like the festivals in neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia’s National holidays often intertwine with entertainment and tradition, this is how they fall throughout the year.
- 1st: New Year’s Day: Although Cambodians use the Buddhist Lunar Calendar, the westernised New Year’s Day is still recognised and made a public holiday. Most things continue as normal without any disruption.
- 7th: Victory Over Genocide Day: Also known as Cambodian Victory Day, Victory Over Genocide Day celebrates the overthrowing of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. The day is a solemn one and is more of commemoration rather than a celebration.
- 8th: International Women’s Day: International Women’s Day is a holiday with strong socialist and communist ties, having first been made a public holiday by the Soviet Union. The day is set aside to recognise the accomplishments of women and the women in our families. If you’re a woman living in Cambodia, keep a lookout for offers and promotions on March the 8th!
- 13th-16th: Khmer New Year: This four-day festival coincides with the Solar New Year, one that is recognised by many south and southeast Asian countries. It is also seen as a four-day harvest festival in a country that is predominantly agricultural. Considered to be the most important national holiday in Cambodia, many Cambodians head to Angkor for the Angkor Sankranti festival. Here both Cambodians and tourists can enjoy a range of traditional Khmer games and dancing.
- 1st: International Labour Day: Another holiday born out of socialist worker leanings, International Labour Day recognises the successes of the working class.
- 6th: Visak Bochea: The most sacred day in the entire Buddhist calendar, Visak Bochea celebrates the day the Buddha reached the point of Nirvana and attained enlightenment. Living in Cambodia, you will notice the city streets get a good cleaning, and temples are adorned with flowers and other gifts.
- 10th: Royal Plowing Day: Royal Plowing Day marks the start of the rainy season and the first ploughs to break the now workable farm soil. Head to Meru Field in front of the Royal Palace to watch the opening ceremony of Royal Plowing Day.
- 14th: King Sihamoni’s Birthday: The king is a popular monarch in Cambodia, and his birthday is recognised as a public holiday.
- 18th: Queen Mother’s Birthday: Mother of the late and much loved King Norodom Sihanouk, the Queen Mother’s Birthday is also recognised as a Cambodian national holiday.
- 16th-18th: Pchum Ben: Also known as ‘Ancestor Day,’ this national holiday is set aside to remember those who are no longer with us (a more relaxed affair than Mexicos’ Day of The Dead Festival) from up to seven generations back. It’s a much tamer affair than neighbouring Thailand’s Nine Emperor Gods Festival, however, there are strong parallels, such as giving offerings to the gods and the departed souls of the Khmer ancestors.
- 24th: Constitution Day: After decades of unrest, dictatorships and foreign powers involving themselves in Cambodian affairs, it’s no surprise that Cambodia has its own day to celebrate the writing and ratifying of its national constitution.
- 15th: Commemoration Day of King’s Father: This day is dedicated to celebrating the life of the previous king, King Norodom Sihanouk. He passed away in 2012 and was much loved by the Cambodian people.
- 29th: King Sihamoni Coronation Day: This date celebrates the coronation of the current King Sihamoni, who was coronated on this day in 2004. Cities usually come alive with parades and firework shows.
- 30th – 1st Nov: Bon Om Touk/Water festival: Bon Om Touk marks the end of the rainy season in Cambodia. The highlight of the festival is the boat races along the Sisowath Quay riverfront in Phnom Penh.
- 9th: Independence Day: A celebration of Cambodia’s independence from French rule in 1953. Again, this is celebrated with parades and evening firework displays, including the illumination of the Royal Palace.
Wifi and Data While Living in Cambodia
Although Cambodia may be one of the least developed South East Asian countries, you’ll be surprised at how well connected the country is. Whether you’re visiting for a while or living in Cambodia, it’s best to get yourself a phone sim card or face hefty roaming charges.
Cambodia has a competitive phone data market, meaning you can have your pick of the latest deals as they are promoted. The main networks in Cambodia are Metfone, Cellcard/Mobitel, Beeline, Smart, Excell and CooTel. The signal from all of these networks works well in built-up places such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but you’ll find that it varies across rural areas.
The majority of ex-pats living in Cambodia opt for a prepaid package from Cellcard, as they have cheap packages, decent coverage and good English-speaking service.
While you’re living in Cambodia, you may want to sort out some kind of internet connection for your home. There are two ways of going about this.
You can either pay for a service to be set up in your home; Opennet and Digi are some of the fastest speeds, especially in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Secondly, you can buy a portable 3G/4G modem with a monthly package from a mobile phone provider. This has the advantage of portability, but it’s important to check for the best connectivity in the area you’re planning to live in.
Food in Cambodia
Cambodian cuisine may not be known the world over compared to its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, but this is no reflection of how delicious and diverse Khmer cuisine can be. Drawing on traditional flavours and spices of the region, Cambodian cuisines include a plethora of ingredients, with a strong leaning towards rice and freshwater fish.
I don’t eat meat anymore, but I did when I lived in Cambodia. So apologies to the veg crowd, I can’t really give too much value to what veggie/vegan options are out there. These were the main dishes for eating in Cambodia:
- Fish Amok. Fish Amok is arguably the national dish of Cambodia and can be found across the country. This creamy fish curry, usually using snakehead fish or goby fish, is combined with turmeric, kaffir lime, lemongrass, and shallots then steamed in a banana leaf bowl before serving.
- Beef Lok Lak Alongside Fish Amok, a dish is known as Beef Lok Lak also competes to be Cambodia’s defining dish. This dish consists of stir-fried strips of beef marinated in lime and Kampot pepper, served with rice or a range of vegetables. This dish is modified to particular tastes across Cambodia and the wider reaches of South-East Asia.
- Green Mango Salad. Cambodian food is also known for its fantastic salads, both rich in freshness and flavour. One of the most beloved has to be the green mango salad. A mix of crunchy green mango, chilli, fish sauce, tomato, pickled cucumber, onion, peppers and fresh basil or mint. This is a fantastic accompaniment to a dish or can be simply enjoyed by itself.
What Currency is Accepted in Cambodia?
At first glance, the currency situation in Cambodia can seem a little confusing to the average outsider, but you’ll soon get used to it once you are living in Cambodia.
The official currency of the country is Cambodian Reil, written as KHR or ៛. As an inflated currency, you’ll find that one US dollar equals around ៛4,000. Alongside the Cambodian Riel, United States Dollars are also accepted throughout the country and dispensed from Cambodian ATMs.
Paying for higher value items in US dollars is the norm, but only crisp, undamaged notes will be accepted by the locals. Change for anything less than five dollars will usually be given back in Cambodian Reil at a rate of ៛4,000 per dollar.
Cambodian Riel is a closed currency, meaning it can’t be traded outside of the country. Don’t forget to exchange all of your excess Riel before you leave Cambodia, or you may find your wallet full of expensive and unusable tissue paper.
Cost of Living in Cambodia
Although Cambodia has one of the fasted growing economies in Asia, Cambodia’s overall cost has stayed relatively low. Employment opportunities for expats are particularly good, especially for educators and business owners. Ideally suited for digital nomads, a foreigner living in Cambodia alone could easily get by paying around $800-$1000 per month.
Let’s take a look at how this cost is broken down and how this will affect your monthly spending when living in Cambodia.
Cost of rent
- Studio apartment inside the city: $500/month
- Studio apartment outside the city: $150/month
- Single Unit 1 Bedroom apartment: $650/month
Transportation (minimum fares)
- Tuktuk: $1
- Bus: $0.30
- Taxi/Grab/Pass: $2 (more on these apps in the transport section below)
Food and other groceries
- Chicken per kg: $4.50
- Pork per kg: $5
- Rice per kg: $0.75 – $1.25
- Bottled water: $0.70 per litre
- Local beer $0.50
Luxuries and nightlife
- Lunch at local restaurant: < $5
- A night out for 2-3 people (with alcohol) at local clubs: <$50
- Lunch for one person at a mid-range foreign restaurant: $5-$6
What are Cambodian People Like?
The Cambodian society that we see today is relatively young; built from the ashes of catastrophe, the people of Cambodia have a shared experience of horror and conflict that defines many of them as a people. The fact that the Cambodian Genocide only ended 40 years ago means many of its people and the community’s social structure is in the form of shared recovery.
Read more on that grim, but an important topic here: Mass Murder Of A Nation: How One Man Wiped Out 25% Of Cambodians in 4 Years
This, however, has done nothing to stem the overwhelming friendliness of Cambodian people, a positive trait seen across the whole of Southeast Asia. This affable nature is punctured by an often conservative shyness, something that makes Cambodians even more likeable.
Deeply religious and family-orientated, many Cambodians thrive off traditions while still knowing how to have a good time.
Is Cambodia a Safe Country To Live in?
One subject that I am happy to use comparisons within travel is that of safety. The saying “there is good and bad everywhere” is a useless and lazy metaphor, some places are simply more dangerous than others and pretending otherwise is a danger in itself.
While Cambodia is certainly safer than the Latin American countries that I have lived in, it still comes with its own safety concerns.
Phnom Penh tends to have more crime as there are more people living there and big city life all around the world tends to be a little rough around the edges.
Bag-snatching (mainly against females) in tuk-tuks and scooters and sneaky pick-pocketing in tight areas is common in the capital, and it’s not completely unknown in the rest of Cambodia.
The police are pretty sketchy and I often heard you can get someone killed for $XUSD by a policeman in Cambodia. I’m not sure how much of this is an urban myth (I’ve never tried to bump anyone off) but I have known of people to have had some dodgy run-ins and get away with bribes.
However, it’s mostly one of those countries where you can find more trouble if you go looking for it. If you’re getting smashed or high and are hanging out in precarious areas around questionable people then your chances of danger will be higher.
Women should be aware of scumbag drink-spikers, which is sadly not exactly uncommon on the party islands.
In short, petty crime (mostly drug-related) is worth looking out for, but in general, Cambodia is a safe place to live.
How To Get Around Cambodia (Transport Guide)
This part of the guide is to help those planning to live in Cambodia, feel prepared with enough knowledge when they want to get around the country.
Travelling via bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
Using the bus network to travel across Cambodia is one of the most popular forms of transport and one of the most cost-effective. The route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, a route you’re pretty likely to take while living in Cambodia, takes between five and six hours.
Most major bus companies run this route but with varying levels of comfort and speed. It’ll cost you a mere $7 for a cramped ride on a local bus. If you’re hoping for a bit more room, and don’t fancy sharing a seat with chickens, I’d recommend Giant Ibis, a bus company that’s popular with expats and tourists.
These buses offer a lot more comfort, including onboard wifi and charging points. This service will cost around $14, but it’s probably worth it.
Travelling via train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville
After many years without a working railway, Cambodia reopened a line from the capital to Sihanoukville on the southwestern coast. This service runs once on a Friday, once on a Saturday and twice on a Sunday – no other days of the week. The journey will take around six and a half hours to complete, with a few stops on the way.
Trains have their own AC, comfortable seating and occasionally a TV playing in the corner. The cost of the train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is usually around $8, and it’s best to purchase your ticket beforehand. Each ticket has a seat number which acts as your seat reservation.
Travelling by train is a great way to cross the country and, with a window seat, take in the passing Cambodian countryside. Travelling by rail also gets you off those often hair-raising roads, something that’s ideal if you have the propensity to suffer from car sickness.
Travelling via private car hire
If you’re the kind of traveller who prefers the easy life, then you do have the option of travelling across Cambodia in your own privately hired care, but you will need to pay for the luxury. Travelling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in your own privately hired car will set you back between $75 and $100, which can be split between all (four) passengers on board.
As the luxury option, this might not be the best option for everyone living in Cambodia, but it does have its many advantages. For one, you have your own relaxing space within the car, not having to worry about the numerous other passengers as you would on a bus. Secondly, a privately hired driver can pick you up from your own home, hotel or location and similarly drop you off wherever you wish. Pure convenience.
How To Buy a Car (or Motorcycle) in Cambodia
If you’re living in Cambodia for a few months, or maybe even a year, then it makes more practical and financial sense to buy your own car or motorcycle to get around.
However, there’s a small caveat: to legally drive or ride around Cambodia, you will need a Cambodian driver’s license – authorities don’t accept an international driver’s license. Getting your hands on a Cambodian license isn’t as complicated as you first think though, especially if you already have a driving license in your own country:
- Gather together eight passport-sized photos of yourself with a white background.
- Find your passport and your valid visa (this must have six weeks left).
- Request a letter from your local Sangat to confirm your residence.
- Complete an eye test at a local centre for around $2.50.
- If your home driving license isn’t in English or French, this will need to be translated by your embassy.
- Take all of these documents, along with your $7.50 fee to one of the licensing offices in Phnom Penh.
Once you are legally allowed to drive, there are certain things it’s worth remembering before you purchase your first vehicle:
- Make sure you receive the registration card from the previous owner if it is a second-hand vehicle or from the dealer if it is brand new.
- Register as the new owner with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
- Buy vehicle insurance and make sure your medical insurance covers you too.
“Best” Place To Live in Cambodia?
As is the case with any county in the world, the best place to live changes from person to person. With a mixture of busy cities and deserted beaches, Cambodia appeals to every type of traveller, but you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons of each destination to find out where’s best for you.
Apart from living in an area you enjoy, it’s important to have a town, village or city where you feel safe and have all things you need within an acceptable distance.
Let’s take a look at the best places to live in Cambodia and see what each one has to offer.
Living in Sihanoukville as a Digital Nomad
Sihanoukville, named after the former King Norodom Sihanouk, has transformed over the past fifty years from a sleepy seaside town known for independent fishing families to a giant of international tourism and Chinese invested high rises.
The gateway to many of Cambodia’s most idyllic islands, including the remote Koh Ta Kiev and the party island of Koh Rong, Sihanoukville’s place in Cambodia’s tourist identity has grown with every year.
As high rise Chinese casinos stand side-by-side with backpacker’s hostels, Sihanoukville is hard to pin down when it comes to the overall vibe. In spite of its vast industrial expansion, it still retains its port connections and its Gulf of Thailand coastal beaches – something that’s always hard to resist.
Pros of living in Sihanoukville
- Close to the beach and picturesque islands.
- Streamlined connections to Phnom Penh and beyond.
- Great casinos (if gambling is your thing).
Cons of living in Sihanoukville
- Slow internet speed.
- Highly built up, to the point where it mirrors more of a building site than a city.
- Not much of an ex-pat community.
- Unpredictable power cuts.
Although Sihanoukville isn’t going to top the list for the number one digital nomad destination, its proximity to some of Cambodia’s most idyllic islands makes it a popular choice for a beach bunny digital nomad. Choose the area close to the shore or jump on a boat to embrace island life to get the most out of Sihanoukville.
Living in Siem Reap as a Digital Nomad
Siem Reap is arguably Cambodia’s international front door, situated just a few miles away from visiting the famous Angkor Wat temple complex. This attention has given Siem Reap an undeniable economic and cultural boost, making it a popular destination for digital nomads living in Cambodia. Not only do you have one of the most coveted archaeological sites in the world on your doorstep, but you also have the hangover that comes after exploring it – and in this case, it is mostly positive.
Drawing in tourists, Siem Reap is a continuous beehive of activity and life, from daytime wandering to a booming nightlife of bars, clubs and general feel-good times in the city. Siem Reap is arguably one of the better places to settle as a digital nomad living in Cambodia.
Pros of living in Siem Reap
- Cheap apartments and living costs.
- Huge expat community.
- Numerous co-working spaces and cafes.
- The small town feels but with a lot going on.
Cons of living in Siem Reap
- Not a huge digital nomad community.
- Burglary is common in the town.
- Underdeveloped public transport.
- Very touristy and almost always busy.
Siem Reap is one of the more popular destinations for expats settling in Cambodia, and with one of the defining icons, the form of Angkor Wat, only minutes away, there is much romance in the idea of living here. A small community of digital nomads is growing in Siem Reap, including a decent co-working space. To escape the stampede of tourists, it’s best to live just outside of the town, closer to the airport side of the town.
Living in Phnom Penh as a Digital Nomad
The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, offers itself up perfectly as the country’s premier digital nomad destination. With a pleasant mixture of air-conditioned cafes and co-working spaces, the hustle and bustle of city life feed perfectly into a working week.
Although not the largest capital in the South East Asian region, Phnom Penh has a wide selection of restaurants, bars and modern outlets – finding what you need is so much easier here.
The perfect blend of old and new, tradition and modernity, Phnom Penh provides city life without the supersized intimidation that comes with many modern capitals. This laidback feel is punctured by its close-nit nightlife and growing social scene. This, alongside its ever-growing workspaces, makes it one of the best places to settle when living in Cambodia.
Pros of living in Phnom Penh
- Modern shopping malls and outlets in the city.
- Big range of co-working spaces.
- Good transport links to the rest of the country.
- Booming nightlife and huge expat community.
Cons of living in Phnom Penh
- A busy city that can often become congested.
- Far away from the coast and the quiet life.
- The cost of living is slightly higher in the capital.
When it comes to digital nomad destinations in Cambodia, you can’t do any better than its capital Phnom Penh. The huge amount of amenities and resources on your doorstep are like nowhere else in the country. If you want a cheap $1 lunch, you can find it here, but if you want an indulgent westernised three-course meal in a restaurant, you can find that also.
With a huge expat and digital nomad scene, Phnom Penh is a perfect place to network and meet fellow digital entrepreneurs, building your own skillset and reputation as you do so. To be amongst all that Phnom Penh has to offer, while at the same time enjoying the tranquillity of riverside apartments, aim to live along the city’s Preah Sisowath Quay.
Honourable Mentions For Living in Cambodia: Kep and Kampot
A digital nomadic life doesn’t always have to revolve around the over-urbanised cities and booming townships, and Cambodia’s riverside settlements of Kep and Kampot are proof of that.
This sleepy fishing destination by the coast is a perfect place to simply get away from it all. Only a half-hour drive east of Kampot, Kep is a tranquil mixture of sandy beaches, idyllic pepper farms and a beautiful national park. Although not the urban hub you might wish for when working as a digital nomad, Kep is the perfect sleepy place to recharge your batteries.
Pros of living in Kep
- Peaceful laid back way of life.
- Access to Kaoh Tonsay Island.
- Not spoilt by tourism.
Cons of living in Kep
- Lack of modern infrastructure.
- Unreliable internet connectivity.
- Minimal expats and fellow digital nomads.
Taking the mantle as Cambodia’s premier coastal town from Sihanoukville, Kampot is slowly growing into the country’s up and coming digital nomad destination, and it is easy to see why. The laid back vibe of Kampot matches the gentle flow of the Mekong that flows through the centre of town.
This laidback feel does nothing to take away from the life of the town; complete with cafes, riverside bars and a growing expat community, Kampot is the ideal place to settle if you want the Cambodian lifestyle without the overwhelming feeling of a modern city.
Pros of living in Kampot
- Relaxed atmosphere, close to the river and sea.
- A mix of bars and restaurants for all kinds of budgets.
- Great internet coverage.
- Close to islands, national parks and the sleepy town of Kep.
Cons of living in Kampot
- No huge retail or electronic stores.
- Not as walkable as many other towns.
- Noticeable seedy underbelly.
Living in Cambodia As Digital Nomad: Why I Chose Phnom Penh
As mentioned in the intro, I decided to live in Cambodia pretty last-minute because I was dating someone who was volunteering and living there.
I’m not the man to ask why I went there for any logistical reasons, I was fuelled by raw emotion, I tell thee! However, I did learn all of the how-to’s while living there (hence this post). I started making CRAZY money online around that time and truth be told, I didn’t know that much at all about Cambodia (Thailand gets most of the love from that part of the world) so I just thought; “f**k it, what have I got to lose?”
After travelling around the country, I noticed that the Wi-Fi was stronger in the capital (which is possibly the most important thing when you’re just starting out online) and so hanging my hat in Phnom Penh for the foreseeable made sense and I regret nothing.
I don’t live there anymore and I’ll elaborate why at the end of this post, but hold your horses – let’s see what life is like living in Phnom Penh first…
Getting Around Phnom Penh
As capital cities go, Phnom Penh isn’t the booming traffic-laden metropolis that you may expect from other Southeast Asian cities, like Ho Chi Minh, or Bangkok for example. That being said, it can, at times, be a bit of an ordeal trying to navigate its many streets and districts. There are a number of different ways to get around the capital, and when you’re living in Cambodia, you’ll quickly get used to the one you prefer.
Choosing a certain type of transport will all depend on your budget, time frame and the level of comfort you want while getting around Phnom Penh.
Probably one of the most common and popular ways of getting around Phnom Penh is via the mighty tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks in Cambodia come in two different forms: the more traditional three-wheeled, self-contained version and the larger moped-drawn carriage tuk-tuks. Moving slightly slower than motos, a tuk-tuk is a safer and cheaper way to get around, rarely costing more than a few dollars.
You can hail tuk-tuks really easily from the side of the road in most areas of the city. However, you’ll find that most drivers will have limited to no English, so it can be worth having a Khmer version of an address to show. Tuk-tuk journeys are never lower than a dollar, and up to ten minutes across the city, you will rarely pay more than $5. Taking a tuk-tuk to the airport from anywhere in the capital will usually be more than $5 on principle. Don’t be surprised if you have to pay more for the same journey when there are more passengers in your tuk-tuk too.
If you want to cut out the price haggling and address explaining, you can download the Pass App, a local version of Uber. On the app you can get a quote, so you’ll know exactly what you’re paying and the driver can see your destination on a map (although I did meet quite a few drivers who couldn’t get their head around the map either).
Taxis in the Cambodian capital fall under two categories: those you can book through mobile apps such as Grab, Uber and PassApp and then metered taxis that are run by local taxi companies. Generally speaking, taxis cost less than a tuk-tuk, but you’ll probably have to wait longer for them to turn up.
You will undoubtedly feel far safer in a car, and it’s capable of carrying much more luggage too. Using Grab, the South Asian answer to Uber, you can plot your pick up and drop off location without having to communicate with the driver. This system works 90% of the time, though you may find that your driver isn’t the best at navigating with GPS and might need your destination explained in Khmer.
If you’re looking for a budget option for getting around Phnom Penh and you’re not in a mad rush, the public bus is a great option. A single fair will set you back around ៛1,500 – which is only about $0.40!
Eight different bus routes cover most of the city, and the best way of knowing which is the right bus route for you is to download the helpful ‘Stops Near Me’ mobile app. This app shows you the route, and the time the next bus will arrive.
By far the cheapest mode of travel, you can travel around Phnom Penh by spending very little. Though you might be caught up in the city’s famous traffic jams, thanks to the newly donated Chinese buses, you can sit it out surrounded by a cooling air-con – something you won’t have in a tuk-tuk.
Nightlife and Entertainment in Phnom Penh
Most of us have heard about the famous nightlife in Bangkok and Hanoi, but the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is often overlooked. While it certainly doesn’t compare to the aforementioned cities, Phnom Penh has its own personal charm.
With a wide range of nightlife and entertainment of all kinds, Phnom Penh is the entertainment capital of Cambodia and has plenty of places to entertain a huge range of tastes. Living in Cambodia, you will quickly figure out the places that most suit you and the ones you’d rather never visit again!
Nightlife in Phnom Penh can be roughly divided into two separate camps; bars and clubs. Bars tend to range from the smallest hole in the wall to huge multi-table affairs, complete with pool tables and table service. Clubs, on the other hand, struggle to compete with the superclubs of Europe but will give you a great taste of tacky clubland Cambodian style.
Arguably one of the most famous nightlife spots in all of Cambodia, Pontoon has earned a reputation as being the club everyone ends their night. Me and my Swiss mate shared an inside joke “and then I went to Pontoon,” as that was usually the part of the night when things went tits up.
Pontoon is the last bastion of bad booze on a night out in Phnom Penh. It’s just so beautifully awful, much like Lapa of Rio de Janeiro but in one building.
Located on Street 172, a popular part of the city for nightlife, Pontoon is party central for both Cambodians and expats. Strobe lighting, booming music and an array of low-lit tables.
Pontoon plays a variety of music genres and also caters to the LBGT community of Phnom Penh, including a live drag show called Shameless on Wednesdays. With a huge variety of clientele, Pontoon welcomes a diverse crowd week in, week out.
Heart of Darkness
A few seconds around the corner from Pontoon is another of the capital’s most frequented nightclubs, Heart of Darkness. Opening its doors in the early 1990s, Heart of Darkness has become a staple of Phnom Penh’s nightlife for nearly thirty years. Much like Pontoon, Heart of Darkness presents that club-like feel with strobe lighting, open dancefloors and its fair share of live dancing and music shows. Open until the early hours, Heart of Darkness is the place to go when it’s 1 am and you don’t want the night to end.
Probably one of the most frequented backpacker clubs, Club Love is a stone’s throw from an independent monument and welcomes in the weekly influx of hostel goers and SouthEast Asia globe trotters. If you’re looking for a taste of westernised clubland, then Club Love is the place to go. With both a booming party vibe upstairs and a more chill, laidback feel downstairs, Club Love has an atmosphere to suit every party goer’s needs.
Bowling over Boozing?
If drinking in a loud bar/club isn’t your cup of tea and you enjoy a bit of friendly competitiveness, then good news – Phnom Penh has 4 bowling lanes, the most popular being ‘Rhythm & Bowl, Phnom Penh Cambodia.’
A couple of the popular hangouts during the day for living in Cambodia’s capital…
If you’re craving a little bit of western gastronomy and the face of fellow expats, the Kwest Restaurant is the place to be. Kittled out with a menu representing both European and Asian culinary tastes, you can order yourself a taste of home while catching up with fellow settlers in Cambodia. Located along the Mekong riverfront, Kwest has a fantastic outside area that allows you to soak up the footfall of daytime Phnom Penh.
The Flicks Community Movie House
Gone are the days when cinemas were non-existent, and Khmer families would cram into shop fronts to watch movies. The capital is now home to a range of cinemas showing western and Khmer films. One of the best of these cinemas is The Flicks Community Movie House on Street 95. This small yet welcoming cinema is a welcome to break from the hustle and bustle of city life and gives you a real independent immersive cinema experience.
The Place Gym
If all that delicious sticky rice and cheap beer are piling on the pounds, you might want to opt for a membership with a local gym. One of the most popular gyms in the city for both Cambodians and expats is The Place.
Located right next to the independent monument, The Place is ideally situated for those living in the centre of Phnom Penh. Complete with weight rooms, swimming pools, classes and a steam room, your fitness levels will be back in no time, and you may make a few friends on the way.
Medical Care in Phnom Penh
One thing you don’t want to overlook when you move to Cambodia is the variety of medical care that you may need. From the local doctor, dentist and hospitals, it’s important to understand where they all are and how they work. The last thing you want is to be caught off guard in an emergency, just when you need them most.
If you are in need of hospital treatment when in Cambodia, you understandably want to go to the best one there is. Royal Phnom Penh Hospital is considered the city’s best hospital and should be your go-to. For a general checkup, you will be looking to pay around $200, so it’s important to ensure you have travel insurance before you decide to settle in Phnom Penh.
This fee could change if it’s an emergency or trauma treatment, so it’s important to have that insurance in-date and valid before you settle.
Visiting a clinic for any ailments or pains in Cambodia is going to cost you. A visit to a GP or specialist can vary hugely depending on where you go and the treatment you need. Doctors can charge between $5 and $100, but this number can rise if you require blood tests, x-rays or MRI scans.
There are both Cambodian doctors and foreign doctors operating in Phnom Penh, many of the non-Khmer doctors are French and English speaking.
Dental practices can be found all over Phnom Penh, with carrying reputations. Prices for checkups and dental procedures vary hugely depending on the practice and the dentist. As an expat, you may want to visit the International Dental Clinic in Phnom Penh. Consultation costs here will be between $15 and $25, while the cost of having a crown fitted is around $150 to $350.
The International Dental Clinic has a good reputation in the Cambodian capital and holds itself to a high standard. Again, it’s important to ensure your digital nomad medical insurance is up to date, as that badly-chipped tooth could send you on a weepy, one-way trip back home.
Grocery Shopping in Phnom Penh
Eating out in Cambodia is pretty cheap, so you may end up never cooking for yourself. If you do want to save a few extra dollars and try your hand at a little home cooking, Phnom Penh has a fair few grocery options.
When it comes to fresh fruit or vegetables, you can’t beat the price and quality you find at the local market. You’ll find markets all over the city, small and large, and probably a fair few within walking distance of your home.
If it’s dry goods, canned goods, or something imported you’re after, then you’ll need to head to a much more expensive supermarket.
‘Lucky Supermarket’ has ten locations across the city and sells a variety of Cambodian and important goods, both dry, canned and fresh. If you’re looking for your favourite western cereal, the Bayon Market has a plethora of American, Korean and European goods, along with an array of toiletries.
If you’re on the lookout for something really obscure, like your favourite French wine, then the Thai Hout supermarket is the place to go. Through a combination of careful market trips, supermarkets and the odd import, there are very few items that you will be unable to get as an expat living in Phnom Penh.
Why I Chose To Stop Living in Cambodia as a Digital Nomad
I chose to stop living in Cambodia and felt instantly happy with my decision. I bear no ill will to the place and have nothing but fond memories of the country, I just found somewhere better (for me).
The infrastructure has improved a lot since I lived there, and they’ve been dealt a really rough hand in relatively recent years, so I always tried to give them a break when it comes to direct comparisons.
I now live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it has almost everything that I want in a place and it also has the strong force of nostalgia on its side. Chiang Mai is the city where my online business really started taking off, Phnom Penh was the next chapter after that and it was a massively significant and poignant one.
I grew a lot in Cambodia and I got closer to working out what I was looking for (or what I was avoiding) when searching for a place to call “home.” Since then I have lived in two cities in Colombia and I spent 3 years living in Mexico City.
Out of those three countries, there is only one that I wouldn’t rule out living there again (spoiler alert; it’s not Cambodia).
Neither of these cities (including Chiang Mai) are perfect. They all have their pros and cons and I simply decided that Phnom Penh wasn’t a place to consider my “forever home.” It was, however, my then home and I’ll always feel a deep sense of gratitude towards it and carry a lot of love in my heart for the Cambodian people and their big, bright, beautiful smiles.
Don’t take my word for it. Living in Cambodia wasn’t for me (forever) but it may possibly be for you.