Phnom Penh, Cambodia Report of what it's like to live there - 02/13/15

Personal Experiences from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 02/13/15

Background:

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

2nd expat experience. Previously lived in Africa.

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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?

United States is home base. The trip is long...too long. Common routing was through Seoul or a hop over to Bangkok first and then there were various options from Bangkok.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2013-2014.

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

Government - U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

I lived in The Hamptons apartments in the BKK neighborhood. It was spacious and adequate for us. However, the kitchen was small and closet space limited. Expat housing location and amenities vary widely depending on if you're with the diplomatic community or with an NGO. Diplomats are often in BKK or Bassac. NGOers were spread around the city. Phnom Penh is a small city and most commutes in the central part of the city would likely be 20-40 minutes.

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

If you shop local, it will be cheap. If you shop for Western products, it will probably be more expensive and you may have to drive to several stores to find what you're looking for. If you have special products/foods you use/eat, bring them. I had a housekeeper who did our shopping for basic groceries and cleaning supplies, which made life easier and cheaper for me.

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

Stock up on summer clothes, tank tops, sandals, flip flops. It's hot! Most Western style clothing is either too small (in the open markets) or too expensive (in the chic boutiques). But there are plenty of tailors who can make clothing to fit.

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

Sadly, more Western fast food joints are popping up. BKK now has a Burger King, KFC, and Domino's Pizza.

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

Mosquitoes - there's no malaria in Phnom Penh, but they do carry dengue fever. Lots of ants in pretty much everyone's home.

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Daily Life:

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

We used the mail service through the Embassy.

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

Very available and very cheap. Depending on the exact hours and duties, you could hire a part-time person for about US$200 a month.

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

I was a member of The Place gym. Membership was US$650 a year (with an embassy discount) and included full use of the facilities (including pool) and all exercise classes. The Place is in BKK and was a 10-minute walk from my house. I loved it, went 2-3 times a week, and left Phnom Penh in possibly the best shape of my life.

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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?

I never carried or used ATM or credit cards.

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

Not necessary. Many expats didn't learn it and didn't need it. Cambodians speak pretty good English and most signs are in English. However, the moment you jump in a tuk-tuk with a driver who nods that he knows where you want to go and five minutes later you discover he doesn't and he also doesn't speak a lick of English, you'll want to know how to say "Turn left on St 51." So, you should invest some time in learning tuk tuk directions (straight, left, right, stop) and numbers.

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

Anyone with mobility issues would have significant difficulties. I can't recall many handicapped-accessible features anywhere and no wheelchair ramps, unless you count the ramps used by motos to drive up onto the sidewalk.

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Transportation:

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

Tuk-tuks are the best! Most one-way trips cost US$2. I hired a regular tuk-tuk driver who took me to and from work every day. I would also use him on evenings and weekends for dinners or errands. During the day, I felt comfortable hailing any tuk-tuk driver. But at night, I preferred to have a driver I knew lined up. The biggest security concern with tuk-tuks is not the actual driver, but to keep an eye on your bags since a moto can easily drive right up next to you, reach in, steal your stuff, and drive off.

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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?

We had a Honda CRV, which was a great car for us, and we never had issues getting parts/service. In the city, you can get by quite well with tuk-tuks and motos without needing a car at all. But we liked having the car for weekend trips or late nights out when tuk-tuks might be harder to come by. A smaller car is probably better for maneuvering the busy streets, but bigger vehicles do rule the roads. Any car would probably do; I'm not aware of any import restrictions. Security while in a car is not a problem, except you need to be alert not to run over the motos darting in front of you.

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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?

My internet was great. It was provided free by my apartment building, so I don't know the company or cost.

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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?

My husband had an unlocked I-phone and bought top-up cards available at almost any street corner vendor.

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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?

If flying through Bangkok, be sure to double-check airline pet policies and pet visa requirements. Entry into Cambodia was easy, with no quarantine or regulations beyond the usual rabies shot and health certificate. Most expats use Agrovet veterinarian, which is very good. I brought all cat food/litter with me. As seems usual overseas, pet food is expensive in Phnom Penh. The city overall has very, very little green space for dogs.

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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?

It's okay, but competitive. Just showing up as an expat isn't going to get you a job, or even a volunteer gig. You need to have a marketable skill.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Plenty, but you should do your research to be sure any organization is reputable and not engaging in child tourism.

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

Work - business casual or lower. Public - very casual. Flip flops rule the day in Cambodia.

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Health & Safety:

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

There is a lot of bag snatching - about one embassy member a month was a victim. So I was always on guard when I walked around with a bag or purse. Without a bag, I felt free and easy. I never let it hinder my activities. I would leave my purse at home when possible, only carry a small amount of cash, and never carry ATM/credit cards.

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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?

The healthcare system in Cambodia is very weak. You will likely travel to Bangkok or Singapore for almost anything beyond the common cold or a sprained ankle. Many people have tummy troubles (or worse) from the food, although I didn't personally. There's nothing else I can point to as a particular health concern.

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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?

I have asthma and allergies and the air quality seemed fine to me - except, of course, when you're riding in a tuk-tuk stuck behind a truck spewing exhaust...duh.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

I have asthma and allergies and the air quality seemed fine to me - except, of course, when you're riding in a tuk-tuk stuck behind a truck spewing exhaust...duh

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

Hot and hotter. May-October is rainy season, which had some spectacular downpours, localized flooding in Phnom Penh, and more dramatic flooding in the provinces.

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Expat Life:

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

There are a lot of expats in Phnom Penh, due to the high number of NGOs. I would say the expat community is divided into two groups. There are the people who just absolutely LOVE Cambodia, think it's the best place in the world, and never want to leave. And there are the people who think Cambodia is alright, but a bit boring, and are ready to leave after twelve months. I was in the 2nd group.

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

If you don't like to eat out, there's not a whole lot of other activities going on. People didn't seem to host many large dinners/parties/gatherings at their homes, so evenings and weekends could get boring. Phnom Penh is a sleepy city. Cambodians go to bed early and wake up early. So there's not a lot of nightlife except on St 51 or the Waterfront. After hitting the major destinations (Silk Island, Udong temple, Killing Fields), I didn't find many good day/one night trips driving distance from Phnom Penh.

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

I think singles are bored and families with young children find a lack of activities for them. Couples with kids age 8-18 seemed happiest. Phnom Penh is not a happening city.

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

Not sure. Probably better to maintain a low profile.

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

No overt racial prejudice, to my knowledge. Cambodians don't exhibit strong religious prejudice, although I think they assume all other Cambodians are Buddhist. Men are certainly considered the head of household. Cambodians won't hesitate to stare if they see something different or odd to them.

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

Internal trips to Siem Reap/Angkor temples. Regional travel to Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia.

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

Hum...Phnom Penh doesn't have a lot going on and is pretty much an open book in terms of activities to do. I think Wat Phnom is one of the nicest spots in the city and many people give it a miss. Weekly foot massages and pedicures are a nice treat. Siem Reap/Angkor Wat is a 45-minute flight away and is great for seeing the temples and is a fun city to visit. Bangkok is a 1-hour flight away; many other vacation spots are in easy flight distance. Beaches are a 3-4 hour drive, too far for me for a weekend, but great for a 3-day trip.

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

Silk fabric/clothing/accessories, tailored clothing, Buddha statues

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

Phnom Penh is a very easy place to live. It's also cheap. You can easily hire domestic help and not break the bank. There are a gazillion restaurants with every type of cuisine Americans are used to eating, including Mexican! Restaurants are cheap, so you can eat out all the time. Everything can be delivered to your home or the Embassy, including a single cup of coffee. I fell in love with the silk fabric. I had a ton of clothing made or altered by a tailor.

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10. Can you save money?

Absolutely!

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Our expectations were way too high. Phnom Penh is an okay place - not terrible, but not fabulous either. Phnom Penh is a concrete jungle. Most houses have concrete patios instead of yards. There is very little grass and few trees - although the U.S. Embassy grounds are a nice oasis of lawn, trees, and flowers. But if you need green space in your life, this is not the place for you.

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

I would still go for the first posting, with more tempered expectations. I don't think I would return for a second posting.

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

Winter clothes. Fancy clothes. Expectations for a hip, happening city.

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4. But don't forget your:

Flip flops, bathing suit, bug spray, curiosity, patience.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

The Killing Fields,

Wish You Were Here,

City of Ghosts,

Same Same But Different

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider [HD] (only to see the scenes shot at Angkorian temples)
There are various Khmer Rouge movies, but they weren't as good as I'd hoped.

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

Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land,

The Rent Collector,

The Land I Lost.

There are various other Khmer Rouge memoirs (The Gate; First They Killed My Father; When Broken Glass Floats), but they didn't resonate with me as much as the first one I read. Much of the narrative is similar. Pick one and you'll be good.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Phnom Penh is an easy city to live in, but not an exciting one. You'll make what you want of it. And a lot of that will depend on the people who are there with you and social circle you develop to make your own fun.

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