Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The good, the bad and the ugly

I’m going to put it out there. Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, has been my least favourite place I’ve visited during my Southeast Asia adventures so far. It may be that I’m biased as I am a bit sick of huge cities by now, having spent most my life living in London. Or it may be that we simply overstayed there, visiting for 3 nights (a rookie mistake!). Or maybe Phnom Penh is just a ‘love it or hate it’ type of place, as I have met people who really enjoyed their visit there, happily embracing the hectic madness of the city.

So, to show that travelling isn’t all lounging on white sand beaches and meeting lovely friendly locals wanting to exchange tales about their country, I think it’s also pretty important to highlight some of the places that didn’t feel so amazing. The places that you wouldn’t rush back to visit again in a hurry.

I’ll start off my thoughts on Phnom Penh on a positive note because although I didn’t love the place I actually still think it’s worth a visit (just a quick one perhaps!).

The good:

  • The killing fields are an absolute must visit. It will not be enjoyable or pleasant but will be more of a thought-provoking and educational experience to learn about Cambodia’s poignant history and the millions of people executed by the Khmer Rouge. We were also supposed to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum but decided not do after feeling pretty emotionally drained after our visit to the killing fields. However, travellers we have met have said it was also very moving, if not more so than the killing fields.
Choeung Ek at the Killing fields
Choeung Ek, the mass grave of the victims of the Khmer Rouge
The skulls of the victims
The skulls of the victims
The Killing fields
The sites of the killing fields were actually so peaceful.. it’s hard to imagine what happened there not too long ago

The Killing fields

  • The night market had an incredible food section and everything was so very cheap. You could go round all the little stalls filling your plate up for next to nothing, and there was a huge space in the middle of the market with embroidered carpets to sit on. I had a fresh fruit shake, fish noodle soup and a type of garlic bread infused with some sort of seafood (it was nicer than it sounds, promise!) To finish off, I headed straight to the stall advertising deep fried Oreos. And yes, they were absolutely delicious. I had three.
Phnom Penh night market
Our cosy seating for the evening
Phnom Penh night market

Phnom Penh night market

The bad:

  • It was dirty. I know this is a given in big capital cities, but some of the stenches really were awful and it’s never nice to see litter strewn everywhere.
  • The crime in Phnom Penh is pretty bad, and this reason predominantly put me on edge during our visit. We had been warned plenty of times before arriving that bag snatching is a common occurrence, and our guesthouse even advised us not to walk back from the city centre after 9 pm due to gangs functioning in the area. On our last day, someone on the back of a scooter even reached into our tuk-tuk and tried to grab our friend’s phone right out of his hands! Lucky for him it just fell to the bottom of the vehicle. Let’s just say I held onto my handbag pretty tight for the rest of that day!
  • There seems to be a lack of green space. This is a small criticism, but it bothered me nonetheless. Our group had gathered ingredients for a picnic on our last day and we had all wanted to sit in a nice park to eat. However, we had no luck finding such a place or anywhere decent to sit, even after asking several tuk-tuk drivers. Instead, we had to make do with a stretch of green that was pretty littered with rubbish, with suspicious-looking men wandering near us (I was already pretty on edge after the attempted mugging!).

The ugly:

  • The poverty in Phnom Penh did shock me quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that when travelling Southeast Asia it’s something that I’ll come across pretty often. And, it’s important to be as conscious of it as possible. But, seeing it in Phnom Penh did break my heart a little. We went out drinking a couple of nights during our stay, and both nights we saw some pretty upsetting scenes. There were so many prostitutes, some so addled on drugs they could barely stand up, slumped into the gutter with disturbing gurns fixed on their faces. We often saw very young girls (a few most definitely underage) accompanied with much older western men. Sex tourism at its finest.There were children, some asleep alone, dirty and unclothed on the concrete floor without any cover whilst tourists drank and sung along to blaring music just metres away. Other children were going round miserably trying to sell lank roses or cheap bracelets without much luck. Bear in mind this was about 2 am when children should be tucked up in bed asleep.
Phnom Penh nightlife
One of our nights outs’ in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh nightlife

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time in Cambodia and had an awesome time in places such as Siem Reap, Battambang, Koh Rong and Kampot. But Phnom Penh is certainly not a city for me. I’m glad I went and would urge anyone visiting Cambodia to visit and see it for themselves, especially for the killing fields and the museums. But if I could go back, I would spend one night there, and only one full day. Then I’d get out of there pronto and head for the coast!

Leave a Reply