Phnom Penh, Cambodia Report of what it's like to live there - 01/16/12

Personal Experiences from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 01/16/12

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. This is my fourth expat experience.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

West Coast, USA. Trip time varies depending on your connections. Best connection currently is via Taiwan.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Over two years. Still living here.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Working for an NGO.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Lots of selection to choose from. BKK I is sort of the prime location, in terms of centrality. Many properties are also ridiculously overpriced, meaning it's favored by moneyed expats. Tuol Kork is home to hundreds of lavish (and some not so lavish) villas, and prices are more reasonable. The commute can be hellish, however, unless your office is in the right area. Chroy Changvar (over the Japanese Bridge) is cheap and sort of up-and-coming. Lots of new properties, which is a plus. But it's also far from the center. The riverside area is also popular, but can be expensive. Some good price/location ratio areas include BKK III, Russian Market and Boeung Trabek. One note: even in Tuol Kork, the commute might only be an hour at peak traffic times. Yes, this qualifies as "hellish" in Phnom Penh. But keep in mind that Phnom Penh is fairly compact, and that's an hour to do maybe 10-12 km (or less). Also, one of the nice things about this place is its compactness. It's a great place for going out at night, hitting bars and restaurants, walking along the river, etc. Being out in Tuol Kork could distract from that experience for some. One last general note about housing quality: It's fairly poor compared to other places in the region. Natural gas is bought in canisters and central hot water is pretty rare, though becoming more common in fancy new apartment buildings. Many kitchens resemble dungeons with little aside from a concrete "workbench" (this is where your "stove" goes - a camping-style device that plugs into your canister of cooking gas). Cabinets are a luxury. Bathrooms can be downright terrifying. Obviously conditions vary greatly, and things are improving as more foreigners come and more apartments are remodeled and constructed. If you pay, there's always something out there (though it might be on the sterile side). But the price-quality ratio seems a bit out of whack overall.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Very cheap compared to the west, though prices can be high if you go only for stuff imported from outside the region. There are plenty of good grocery stores, foreign bakeries, foreign butchers, wine shops, liquor stores, and other specialty shops. You can find almost anything, though you often have to make more than one stop while you're shopping.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

KFC is still the only major international fast-food chain, though I believe there are one or two Korean ones as well. There are local imitations. Of course, "real" local fast food can be found in markets, little restaurants, and street stalls. As has been mentioned here, Cambodian food is not quite as good as its neighbors, but it can grow on you if you give it a chance, try different things, and go beyond the obvious. Even if it doesn't grow on you, you will be spoiled for choice in terms of international cuisines. The choice is amazing for a city of this size. You can find virtually anything here, and prices tend to be reasonable. Many do delivery as well. Eating out (or ordering takeout) is definitely one of the pleasures of living here. We don't cook nearly as much as we used to in other places ...

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Labeled organic products can be found at a few places, as can gluten-free.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes can be bad, and some carry dengue fever. Ants are an annoyance, infesting random foods that are left out and even squeezing (or eating their way) through air tight Tupperware and plastic bags. Stuff like sugar has to go in the fridge. We can't leave bread out for more than a couple of hours. It will be covered in ants. Cockroaches are a part of life, but they mostly leave you alone.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

The post office, but many advise against it. Getting a PO Box is best, or having things delivered to your place of employment. There's no regular home delivery service. Some have reported thefts from packages, and disappearing packages as well.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Help is relatively cheap, but price varies depending on language skills, experience, the job to be done, and, frankly, what you want to pay. I've heard prices as low as $100-120/month for a full-time housekeeper/nanny who doesn't speak English or French. More common is something in the $150-$200 range. I suggest paying even more if you find someone you really like. It can be very hard to find the right mix of skills (especially language). It's very useful to have someone around who can help with all the various issues that arise, from calling the cooking gas guy when the tank runs out, to knowing where to get some random item, to translating when your landlord sends a guy for to fix the electrical wiring. It's like anywhere else: The right person can make a household run so much smoother. The wrong person can create a lot of frustration.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Generally no problem, though lots of the banks charge about a $4 access fee (on top of whatever your home bank charges). It usually makes more sense to open a local account.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Two major papers - the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily. Both do a good job of covering local events and carry a selection of wire stories. Cable TV runs around $100/year and has a dozen or so English channels, plus channels in other languages as well.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You can get by without much, but knowing a little will help in various ways, from getting you a bit closer to the culture, to getting better prices at the market (sometimes!). A food-related words go a long way when you walk into a random restaurant in the provinces, where there's no English menu and no one speaks a word of English.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Many. Sidewalks are for parking and driving your motorbike on, not for walking. Elevators are pretty rare.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Affordable, yes. Safe - more or less. Some bus drivers drive like maniacs, but they're the biggest vehicles on the road, so people tend to get out of the way. It's less safe for chickens, cows, and people on motorbikes.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

The Toyota Camry is still the king of the road here, though occasionally they seem outnumbered by Lexuses. Various 4WD models are also popular and quite useful. A 4WD isn't strictly necessary for day-to-day driving, but higher clearance can be very convenient due to the bumpy/pot-holed roads. Also good for road trips -- plenty of waterfalls, caves, and tourist sites that require heading 10-15 km down dirt roads.

Lots of people make do with a small scooter for getting around town. That's what most Cambodians use. Not the safest option, of course, but it's quick and economical. Rules of the road are a chaotic, but have a certain logic which you'll pick up on after driving a bit. It's not as scary as it looks at first. Car garages are a hassle. Repairs are usually cheap, but the quality of work and parts are poor, and it's not uncommon to have parts stripped (or disconnected, so that you have to come in for more repairs). Part of the fun, I guess ... having your own transport is still worth it.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet cannot be described as high-speed here. Our 1 MB connection is almost $90/month, and it goes out occasionally. Things have gotten better since we arrived, but it still has a long way to go. The latest thing is to use 3G modems that take 3G cell signals and route them through your computer. These are cheap (maybe $20-$30/month, depending on usage, for a 1 MB connection), but I've heard mixed reviews.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cheap and easy to get a SIM card, with tons of companies to choose from. If you have a smartphone, unlimited data plans only run about $5 a month. Much cheaper than back home! Coverage is decent in most places, but there are significant holes in remote areas, and 3G is only available in PP and the bigger provincial capitals.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Agrovet is a good French-run place with reasonable prices.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Yes. The English schools will hire anyone with a pulse, it seems, but salaries are fairly low and I've heard working conditions can leave something to be desired. There are a ton of NGOs, though competition is fairly intense. I've met many highly-qualified people who have been unable to find a job here. Often you have to be willing to work on a volunteer basis to start, to develop connections and a local reputation. The business community is quite large as well. Many expats open their own businesses -- bars, restaurants, shops, guesthouses, etc. In many ways this is a land of opportunity.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Relatively casual in the NGO world. It's hot -- not a place for a wool suit.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Nothing too serious. There are plenty of reports of petty crime, physical safety is rarely an issue. We've found Phnom Penh pretty safe, and have had no security issues whatsoever. But we've been careful and don't live in BKK I (which is Phnom Penh's primary upscale expat area). We've met plenty of people who've had run-ins, though. Usually break-ins or late-night muggings coming back through BKK I or the streets off the riverside. Common sense and the adoption of preventative habits goes a long way. Make sure your house has bars. Lock up your house religiously, even if you're just popping out for a second. Don't leave anything by the windows. Be aware of your surroundings and don't lose control if you're out drinking. And so on.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Yes - dengue is an issue, and there is some malaria in the provinces. Plenty of gastrointestinal stuff to go around as well, plus your usual assortment of tropical diseases. Riding a moto is also hazardous to your health. I've seen some pretty harrowing accidents. Medical care is pretty poor. You have to go to Bangkok or Singapore for serious stuff (or at least you *should* go there for serious stuff!)

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Surprisingly good, but seems to be getting worse as the city develops.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The seasons are hot, hotter, and hottest. December and January can be quite nice, actually, and the good weather can occasionally stretch into November and/or February. But generally it's hot and humid. There are intense downpours during the rainy season, but the showers typical for the tropics -- somewhat fleeting and you don't have entire days ruined by rain.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are a few major ones, all of which seem to enjoy decent reputations - the International School of Phnom Penh, Northbridge, and Lycee Descartes (the French school).

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

No expat preschools available for kids under 18 months, probably because most foreigners have a nanny. After 18 months, there are a number of options. A full-time nanny is relatively cheap, but price varies depending on language skills, experience, and, frankly, what you want to pay. See below for more on that.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Huge, especially for a city/country of this size. Lots of French, but probably an equal number of Anglophone expats, if you add all Australians, Americans, Brits, etc.

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2. Morale among expats:

Great, generally. Lots of people on short-term assignments, so they don't have time to get down. But lots of long-termers as well. They might be a bit more jaded, but they're still here!

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Fantastic, as noted above. Hundreds of bars and restaurants, dirt-cheap prices, good food, good atmosphere, friendly locals and an interesting mix of people. Most entertaining is done outside the home, but there are some fantastic house parties as well.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Great for all, I think, though it can get a bit claustrophobic with kids. There's just not all that much to do, and we make it a point to try to leave for as long as possible during summer and school holidays. Most here have a blast with the dining and nightlife scene. It's lively, diverse, cheap, and a whole lot of fun. It can also be easy to go off the rails a bit, so watch out!

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I've heard it's decent. Not the largest or liveliest scene, perhaps, but at least it's not hostile.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not that I'm aware of.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Travel (Angkor Wat, the southern coast and trips in the region), great nightlife and an interesting group of friends, fascinating work experience, and just generally getting to know the country and its people.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

There are a great many opportunities in Cambodia, a place which most tourists come to only for Angkor Wat. The coast is great, whether it be Kep, Kampot, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, Ream National Park, or the islands. Each place has a slightly different speed. For the more adventurous, there are places like Mondulkiri, Rattanakiri, Preah Vihear, Kratie, etc. There aren't really any blockbuster tourist attractions outside Angkor, but if you can get over that, traveling around the country is great fun. Cambodia is also smack in the middle of Southeast Asia, though air connections leave something to be desired. They're starting to pick up. A connection to Myanmar was just added in 2011. Bangkok and KL are regularly served, as are places like Korea, Taiwan and China. You can also go overland quite easily to Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Prahok and deep-fried tarantulas.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Phnom Penh is all about balance. No one single aspect of life here is off-the-charts awful or fantastic, but the mix of factors is great. It's a nice balance between a comfort, cost of living, a little edginess, interesting work opportunities, friendly locals and interesting expats, and good travel opportunities. It's just about perfect in my opinion.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, if you want to.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Warm clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

Bug spray.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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