Phnom Penh, Cambodia Report of what it's like to live there - 05/02/17
Personal Experiences from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No--I've also lived in or near Seoul, London, and Tokyo.
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?
Pacific Northwest, USA. But I've lived in several other places in the States.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
I live in a tile house. No air conditioning, but a fan works for me during the hot season. It really depends on your salary, needs, and the kind of life you want to live. You could rent a really nice 1-2 bedroom apartment with all the trimmings plus amenities like a gym or a pool for under $800 a month, or you could share a large house with other expats for under $200 a month. Inner Phnom Penh close to all the expat amenities can be quite expensive. I find that the Tuol Tompoung neighborhood has the most laid-back, pleasant vibe and comparatively low crime while still having a decent commute time to most places of employment.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are several Western-style supermarkets which sell almost anything you could want, as long as you aren't especially picky about brands and don't mind paying a bit of a premium. French, Thai, and Vietnamese brands predominate but you can sometimes encounter lovely surprises like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Some products are consistently available but a few are random in their appearances. It can be a little frustrating to be unable to read labels. I imagine it's even more so for someone with dietary restrictions. The Khmer markets are good for produce and are much cheaper. A single person could expect to spend $50/week on groceries if you shop at the local markets as much as possible.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Honestly you can get almost anything here, but it can get a little expensive. If you cook with SE Asian ingredients you can cut back on grocery bills.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are several websites which offer food delivery from most restaurants, and I believe a new food delivery phone app called Tesjor has been started but their offerings are still limited. About every cuisine imaginable (including sushi!) can be found here but you have to be careful. I make a practice of avoiding the "everything" restaurants. They have Khmer, Thai, Chinese, Italian, burgers, pizza, and usually none of it is very good. Stick with the restaurants which serve only one kind of cuisine and you'll probably be happier.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
The usual tropical pests. Ants, roaches, drain flies, rodents, that sort of thing. I found that a cat solved the last problem for me quite well.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I don't really send or receive much mail but the local post office has been fine when I have. A bit slow, but fine.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
I don't use household help, but a full-time housekeeper or cook or nanny or whatever should be paid at least $300/month, plus bonuses and paid holidays if you can afford it and want to be generous. The salaries here are really low and upward mobility is so difficult to achieve so honestly if you're a (comparatively) wealthy expat, the least you can do is pay your staff well.
The work ethic and culture is also really different from the west. Family always comes first so if your nanny's sister is getting married in another province she will definitely leave for at least a week and hopefully she will give you notice ahead of time. It's a good idea to have backups on speed dial for such situations.
I'd also recommend having a couple of good, knowledgeable tuktuk drivers and developing strong relationships with them, which includes generous compensation for their services. In addition to getting you where you need to go, they will look out for you and can be valuable allies in a challenging situation, and you may find yourself being introduced to new cultural experiences.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are a few gyms around the city. The good ones are a little expensive but for some people it's worth it. I work out at home. There are also frequent classes happening everywhere, like yoga, dance and Pilates.
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?
Larger stores and expensive restaurants catering to expats will accept them, as will AEON mall. Otherwise this is a cash society ATMs are generally easy to find. Use the normal precautions that you would anywhere.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
This is a Buddhist country with a substantial Muslim minority. There are several Christian churches but I can't speak to any of them as I am not religious at all.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Many people find that English gets them where they need to go, but life will be easier and Khmer people will very much appreciate you if you learn a little Khmer. Tutors are cheap and easy to find.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Depends on the disability. It's definitely not a wheelchair-friendly city. However, Khmer people are often very kind and helpful. I've had random people on the streets rush to help me with heavy bags as I exit a tuktuk, for example.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Tuktuks are generally the way to get around the city. For long distance travel you can hire a private taxi or take a bus. The roads are very dangerous, so be careful when and how you travel.
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?
Anything with AWD. But traffic is very, very bad in Phnom Penh so I wouldn't want to own a car here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It took the company a few weeks to show up at my house but once they got it installed, it's been fast enough for my needs. Many apartments come with internet already installed.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local providers are reasonably good and cheap. I pay about $5-7 a month for my phone plan. Bring an unlocked smart phone from your country if you can, but be careful about the power here as it can ruin electronic batteries.
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?
There are a few Western vets in the city who will be able to take good care of your pet, assuming they don't need particularly complicated care. Not sure about a quarantine but probably not. Sadly, it's not uncommon for dogs to go missing and many are stolen for food. The situation for animals is pretty heartbreaking. There are no laws about animal abuse and a very limited public understanding of or compassion for animal well-being and suffering. Be prepared to have your heart broken a lot.
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 fairly easy to get a job teaching English, though it probably won't pay a lot. There are also a lot of NGOs that are often looking for staff.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Dozens, but practice caution as many NGOs are not especially ethical. Orphanage tourism is a sad reality here.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Cambodians are sharp dressers in the professional realm. Be clean and tidy. Men wear button-down shirts, trousers, and closed-toe shoes. Women usually wear skirts and blouses.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Violent crime against foreigners is uncommon unless you really go out of your way to get mixed up with the wrong sort of crowd. Most Cambodians are friendly people who will be nice to you but poverty can impel people to bad choices. Theft, such as bag-snatching, is sadly very common. Keep your bag close to you and don't carry too much cash. Being friendly, getting to know your Cambodian neighbors, and learning to speak some Khmer will go a long way towards keeping you safe in your neighborhood.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Air quality isn't great but could be worse. Depends on your area. Traffic is terrifying and motor vehicle accidents cause many deaths and injuries. Routine medical care can be found here, but for anything serious you'll probably need to go to Bangkok. Dental care and physical therapy is also available--many Western practitioners have set up shop in Phnom Penh.
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?
Motor vehicle fumes, and sometimes dust during the dry season. Also, nobody here ever seems to clean out their air conditioners, so the filters are often full of mold which gives me terrible cold-like symptoms.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Peanuts are in a lot of things. Shellfish is also popular. The concepts of food allergies and food safety are not always fully understood here so be cautious. Carry an Epipen if you need one.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Wherever you go, your problems go with you, and Cambodia seems to have a way of bringing that out in people. The lax law enforcement combined with the easy availability of alcohol and drugs can lead to some unfortunate circumstances for people with poor impulse control.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very hot in dry season (March-May) a bit chilly for a few weeks in December-January. The rain cools things down a bit. Rainy season is usually June-September.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Several IB international schools which are very expensive, and several other international schools (not IB) which are of varying quality, some pretty good. I wouldn't send my kids to the Cambodian public schools.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
Nannies are cheap, and several preschools exist. I haven't used them.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Not many, but the local expat community sometimes organizes events.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Lots of expatriates, but there are three basic types--the professional NGO and government workers, the backpacker-type English teachers and volunteers, and the long-term expats who teach English or maybe moved here to start a business. They tend to stick in their own circles, with only occasional mingling, and sometimes exhibit disdain for one another. You can be very happy here, there's a large expat community with lots to do and regular events, but choose your social group wisely as it's also not difficult to get sucked into troublesome circles.
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?
There are exercise clubs, music clubs, poetry clubs, gaming clubs--really almost any hobby you could come up with, there's a group for it. Regular events too like art shows, trivia nights, and sports events.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It depends on what you're looking for. I know people from all three groups--some are happy, some are not. There are a lot of options here and your experience will probably be what you make of it. I had a lot of fun with my partner going to events and exploring together. There's a stereotype that Western men who move here only want to date local women, but I'm not sure how true that is. There do seem to be more single women than men.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Cambodia is very tolerant in general. Khmer LGBT people may experience discrimination and often won't come out to their families, but violence is very uncommon. I think LGBT expats get by just fine. Some clubs in Phnom Penh have regular drag nights, there are a couple of gay/lesbian bars, and there is a burgeoning LGBT culture.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
"Soft" discrimination against women, but expats, as always, have it easier than locals. There's some prejudice against people of color due to the culture (white skin means educated and rich, dark skin means poor peasants), and there's often suspicion towards black people because there have been some very public criminal incidents involving African nationals (mostly Nigerian) over the past several years. It's normal here for people to point out physical characteristics, including skin color, and it's not considered hurtful or rude. People will also ask questions that may seem very personal ("Are you married? Do you have children? Why not?") but it's all part of getting to know you here.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Getting to know local people has really made my time here pleasant. Speaking Khmer with locals opens a lot of doors to cultural experiences I wouldn't have had otherwise, and it changes the way people interact with you. You feel less like a walking dollar sign and more like a human. Khmer culture values harmony and maintaining a humble, positive vibe and generally just being chill will earn you a lot of street cred around here.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Kampot is a beautiful little coastal city and you should definitely spend some time there. Siem Reap is touristy but a can't-miss place. Sihanoukville has some nice beaches but can be a little seedy. I hear wonderful things about Mondulkiri but haven't been myself.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Lots to be found at many markets, but be careful, it's not all ethical. The garment factories are legendary for treating workers poorly (as in, people have died!), and anything wood could come from an illegally logged forest. I've even seen ivory in some markets. Shop fair trade--there are lots of options!
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Rich culture, lots of culinary adventures to be had, a diverse community of expats to hang out with, generally pretty affordable compared to the US although more expensive than you'd expect for a developing country and considering the average local salary.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I actually did a lot of research before moving but some realizations only come with time and experience. Like learning how to interact with locals on their terms rather than coming in like a know-it-all Westerner.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, I'm glad for my time here, but I don't think I'd want to move back. There is a lot of beauty but also a lot of heartbreak.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Superior attitude, winter clothes, stash of Western snacks.
4. But don't forget your:
Good running shoes, comfortable clothes, a theft-proof bag, and smile.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
First They Killed My Father (book and movie), In the Shadow of the Banyan, Don't Think I've Forgotten, The Killing Fields.
6. Do you have any other comments?