Phnom Penh Travel Guide
Unlike most international capitals, Phnom Penh is not much of a gateway. It is very easy to see much of what Cambodia has to offer and never set foot in Phnom Penh. Until very recently it was actually pretty difficult to get there. Your choices were a few flights a week on Siem Reap Air, a long, rough bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Thailand, or a very long boat ride on the Mekong River – upstream from HCMC or downstream from Vientiane. Now the roads are much improved and the big international carriers like Air France are flying there. Vietnam Airlines has also expanded its services.
Nonetheless, many people give Phnom Penh a miss, preferring to spend their limited time and money at Angkor Wat or in neighboring countries. If you only have a few days in Cambodia, by all means spend them in Angkor Wat – you’ll need at least two or three full days there. Then if you have a few more days, visit the Cardamon or Elephant Mountains and the Tonle Sap for a bit of activity. Finally, if time allows, spend a few days in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh is at the junction of three rivers—the Sap, Mekong, and Bassac. This strategic location has always ensured the city a place, both good and bad, in history. Cambodia has been at war, or the victim of others’ wars, for many years, and it shows. The infrastructure is crumbling, the people look underfed, children are too often sold into slavery, and petty thievery at knife-point is all too common. In the 1950s only about 100,000 people lived in the city. Now the number is about 1,000,000.
Following the Paris Peace accords in 1991, the brutal regime of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the "killing fields" was ended, but the coup in 1998 was “déjà vu all over again” and the fledgling capitalists and their international backers once again fled the country. The investors have been slowly returning, but few are willing to commit to the country’s long-term future right away. As a result, Thai investors are filling the gap, and Phnom Penh is beginning to look like a small version of Bangkok. One way to see just how strong the Thai influence is? Take a look at the cars and ubiquitous pick-up trucks. Despite being surrounded on all sides by countries that drive on the right, with left-hand drive vehicles, the majority of vehicles are right-hand drive. This is both a safety issue and a legal one. Technically these vehicles are not legal, but the government looks the other way unless it is convenient not to do so.
If you get sick or hurt, get out by any means possible. Don’t go to a Cambodia hospital or clinic. If you have absolutely no choice, go to your embassy or consulate and throw yourself on their mercy. The electricity and plumbing also leave a lot to be desired. Make sure your hotel has a generator or you may spend lots of time in the dark with no running water.
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