9 Survival Tactics for Phnom Penh

By Mark Wiens 19 Comments

At times, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, can feel a bit hectic and maybe a little intimidating.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and while there learned various survival tactics in order to make visiting Phnom Penh slightly easier and more manageable.    Some of these survival tactics might even teach you a few lessons on how to be native in Cambodia.

In any way, have an awesome time in Phnom Penh; a city that I consider to have a great mixture of entertainment, delicacies, humor, and great folks.

Phnom Penh

1.  Tune Out a Little

It is utterly unavoidable that all operators of all forms of motorized transportation will pursue you for a ride.  Motorcycles will pass, notice you are a foreigner, and then reverse in an attack to secure a job.  If you say “no” they will smile and ask again as if you didn’t hear them, over and over.

Survival: If you don’t want to eventually go slightly crazy, nod negatively with a friendly smile on your face continuously.

2.  Chat with Locals

Most locals in Phnom Penh are genuinely friendly and more than willing to converse.  Around the main tourist sector some of the touts have become a little dodgy but are still very friendly.

Survival: Avoid the tourist areas and chat or ask for advice from local Cambodians.  Many are awesome to talk to and speak English surprisingly well.

3.  Have Food to Give Away

There are many beggars in Phnom Penh who hold out their hands and request some form of monetary currency, US Dollars being the most widely begged.  I don’t particularly always support the giving of money as it can be highly misused.  I however do support helping others if they really need a basic necessity.

Survival: Have some form of food or snacks (bananas, nuts, jackfruit) readily available to distribute to the hands that ask for the US Dollars.

Traffic Phnom Penh

4.  Cross the Streets

At rush hour, there is an always present flow of steaming traffic with few traffic lights, leaving next to zero options to cross from side to side.  One night I failed my brilliant idea to cross the street on foot by sprinting and then merging myself into the traffic…didn’t work.

Survival: A group is the best way to cross the street.  Stay huddled and move from one lane to the next (be in the middle).  If you are alone, slowly proceed one step at a time.  If someone is about to hit you, hold out your hand and always attempt to make eye contact.  Get across the street slowly and cautiously.

5.  Afternoon Coffee Break

With the French influence, coffee shops in Phnom Penh serving stout brews are abundant.  When you order an afternoon coffee, a complimentary pot of Chinese tea is also served to you (or 6 pots in my case).

Not a bad deal in my opinion.  Many coffee shops will also offer bread or a delicious dim sum Chinese steamed bun known as Banh Bao which is a bit of a comfort food for me.

Survival: To remain calm and collected amidst a backdrop of chaos, enjoy a quiet afternoon coffee and tea.  The combination’s of caffeine will always result in positive effects.  I frequented a place right across the street from the Russian Market where many coffee houses await.

Afternoon Tea

6.  Accommodation

My stay in Phnom Penh was indeed a pleasant one and fit well within my designated budget.  Around the Boeung Kak Lake, there are numerous guest houses offering satisfactory lodging options.  I stayed at the No Problem guest house at the end of Street 93.

Note: The lake is being developed and filled in with land and may not be around for too much longer.

Survival: Get a room with a friend or two on the Boeung Kak lake front for about $4 and you most likely can sustain living life for quite a sum of time.

7.  Food Partaking

I wasn’t going to let this article slip away without the mention of a few of the delicacies that are imperative to stuff.  Local Cambodian food is exquisite and ranges from delicious ginger chicken to coconut fish curry and bitter melon pork.  The sauces and chili sauces accompanying are equally seductive.

Num Pang, or baguettes stuffed with pate, luncheon meat, vegetables, and sauces, are superb and resemble the Laos version of the sandwich.  The famous tamarind juice from the Kandal Market was unbelievable.

Survival: Try anything and everything especially if it looks good and the eatery is hopping with business.  Here are a few suggestions:

Num Pang Sandwich

8.  Heat Stroke

The afternoon sun in Phnom Penh penetrates with a brute force.  It can dehydrate you and take advantage of you with haste.  Don’t be a victim to the harsh rays.

Survival: water, hat, sunscreen, hydration, rest, coconut juice, tamarind juice

Coconut Hydration

9.  Money Exchange

The US Dollar and Cambodian Riel (KHR) are interchangeable currencies in Cambodia.  However, on the street, the exchange rate is lower than what local banks and exchanges offer.

Ultimate Survival (Note: figures are when I was in Phnom Penh in Jan 2010):

  1. A standard meal on the street will cost $1 or 4000KHR
  2. Instead of using $1, exchange it at a convenient exchanger for 4190KHR
  3. If you exchange $20 you will get 83,800KHR which the banker will round up to 84,000KHR
  4. You will have made 4000KHR, or more importantly a Khmer LUNCH
  5. Do this everyday and it is the ultimate survival tactic for Phnom Penh
Cambodian Riel and US Dollar

Migration Mark had a glorious time in Phnom Penh discovering awesome things and researching.

19 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

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  • Lily

    10 years ago

    Hi Mark I have actually bookmarked your blog and whenever I am free will browse through your articles. You are one daring and different guy who would rather spend your youth learning life’s diversities than work in an office hoping to climb the slow corporate ladder. Frankly if I have a choice and the guts I would choose what you have chosen. Life experiences like yours know no bound and at the end of life journey’s you end up as the “richer” guy. I am looking at this article as I will be going to Cambodia next year. Thanks, great write-up.

    • Mark Wiens

      10 years ago

      Hey Lily, great to hear from you and thank you for checking out my articles. Hope you have a wonderful time in Cambodia next year!

  • Juno

    14 years ago

    I am heading down there in September. Info just what I needed! It will help me so much. hehe.. Thanks! 🙂


    • Mark Wiens

      14 years ago

      Awesome, I’m sure you will have a great time! In my opinion Phnom Penh is a really cool town!

  • Dolly

    14 years ago

    Hi, Interesting, I`ll quote it on my site later.

  • Kat

    14 years ago

    Crossing the street is truly a spectacular sport. Good you made it on the other side. I tend to wait a long time so I could cross… or just find a bridgeway and take that. You’ve seen how Manila streets are haha. Doing fine. Hope you’re doing good as well 🙂

  • Dave and Deb

    14 years ago

    Great survival guide. I can’t imagine how much Cambodia has changed. We were there in 2004 and Asia changes so rapidly! Sounds like the traffic is still the same though:)

  • avisoo

    14 years ago

    great tactics! I will do that at phnom penh.

  • Mark Wiens

    14 years ago

    @Courtney: Great to hear from you, the other day I just happen to stumble into Deanna’s website and then noticed she had some photos of Arizona and went to ASU. I was quite surprised…and now that you know her…ha.

    I just checked out your latest website and engagement photgraphs. They are stunning as well Courtney, you are an awesome photographer! I think you should come to Bangkok and take some crazy pics.

    Hope you are doing great. What are your plans these days?

  • Mark Wiens

    14 years ago

    @unbjames: You are sure to have a great time if you visit. When are you coming through SE Asia?

    @Sofia: You are right, many of these same tactics for survival can be used all over the world and can relieve some of the frustrations. I can’t wait to travel to India and find some more survival tactics.

    @Kat: So I started running paralell to the traffic, but due to a heavy meal, I couldn’t get fast enough, and then couldn’t merge. I therefore hid behind a couple locals as they navigated accross. Hope you are doing well Kat!

  • Courtney

    14 years ago

    Hi Mark! How’ve you been? It’s always lots of fun to catch up on your amazing adventures through your blog. Keep up the excellent writing!

    I was just reading the comments on one of my amazingly talented friend’s blog, Deanna Dent, (www.deannadentphotography.wordpress.com) and noticed your comment! I was just telling her about you and your adventures before she left for Sudan a few weeks ago. What a small world.

    Best of luck in your travels Mark!

  • Kat

    14 years ago

    So how did you survive crossing the street? Hehe.

    Sad to hear about that lake being filled in for development. The things people do for progress.

  • Sofia

    14 years ago

    I have found that these tactics work basically anywhere. I took a lot of inspiration from the way Indian people say yes and no at the same time.. sort of nodding their heads to all sides, so it looks like both yes and no, haha, great way to confuse! but like you say, always do it with a smile on your face. 🙂

  • unbjames

    14 years ago

    Sounds hectic but fun! Cambodia appeals to my adventrous side, going to have to make a side trip from Thailand when I head over the Pacific later this year!