Phnom Penh, Cambodia Report of what it's like to live there - 02/27/08

Personal Experiences from Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 02/27/08

Background:

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

I've also lived in Oberammergau Germany; Aspen, Shaba Zaire (DR Congo); Baghdad Iraq; Amman Jordan; and Erbil Kurdisatan, Kabul and Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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2. How long have you lived here?

15 years.

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

I work with a number of NGOs but also consult with the U.N, and U.S. Government.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

You can connect through Bangkok (Thai / United / others) or Ho Chi Min City (Vietnam / Northwest(?)) or go via Singapore Airlines, Malaysia or Korean Airlines.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

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

Local and regional products are cheap and available.There are lots of imports from Europe and U.S. but they are more expensive. Wine and booze is very cheap.

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

Bicycle and bicycle parts if you need them.

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

Never think of fast food. I recall only one hamburger in 15 years here. There is too much good and cheap food from every cuisine here: Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, steaks, vegetarian, seafood, and, of course, great Khmer food with every permutation of fish, fresh and prepared vegetables, tons of fresh fruits, chicken, pork and beef, and a variety of spices. The main influences are Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and French cooking. Lots of local restaurants have a few extra staff on hand who will be happy to look after well-behaved kids.

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Daily Life:

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

There is reasonable express mail available from Phnom Penh and regional capitals. Mail service in is OK. DHL, UPS and FedEx is available although there may be a request for customs fees. Mail can be sent out with travlers to U.S., Thailand or Europe.

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

Cheap.

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

There are lots of ATMs in PNH and a few in provincial capital cities. Several banks offer free ATM withdrawal in US$. Others allow US$ withdrawals for a US$2 fee. Credit cards are becoming usable in Phnom Penh but generally only in upscale businesses.

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

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

Yes. Cheap cable - less than the U.S.

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

Not much. Cambodians, particullarly the young, study and like to use English, but it is not yet as common as Hong Kong or Singapore. Most places will have English speakers. If you do any of the fun off-track things above you need a bit of Khmer. A few older people speak French, there is a lot of Chinese in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. A lot of Vietnamese are in Phnom Penh and the South. A good amount of French is spoken in Siem Reap, Kampot and Phnom Penh, with a strong francophone community in each.

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

It is not very accessible but some efforts are being made. You can contact the National Center for Disabled People (NCDP).

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Thais on the left, Vietnamese on the right, Laotians in the middle and Cambodians all over! It's supposed to be on the right side although most locals have difficulty understanding the concept, and it is nice to have the option of the left side sometimes. The maximum fine allowed by law is only US$0.50 so never pay a fine/bribe too far above that!

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

There are very cheap local taxis, pick-ups, vans buses and boats. They are generally overcrowded and can be dangerous. There is a middle tier of buses and boats aimed at tourist that is more expensive and safer. Cars/taxis/vans can be rented with drivers that are safe and affordable. ~US$30 for a car for a day in Phnom Penh, which includes car, driver and gas. A bit more in Siem Reap.

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3. 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?

You can purchase locally a good and cheap used Japanese vehicle. These are may be simply imported used cars but can be ex U.S. wrecks that have been repaired. Everything from micro cars to Hummers is available. It's a good place to buy used motorcycles also (see Vay's Motorcycles).You only need a sedan to go to 90% of the provinces. If you are adventurous, and want to go everywhere, get a 4 wheel drive. Driving can be anarchic, so bring or buy a larger vehicle if you want more safety. Note also that locally available vehicles may have safety and pollution devices disconnected. It's more expensive to repair U.S. vehicles and there are delays for parts. All parts are readily available for common Japanise, Korean and German vehicles.

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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?

US$80 to $100 for a DSL line with some limit to capacity. See www.online.com.kh or www.citylink.com.kh. The first has the best customer service, but slightly higher prices. The latter is a bit fly by night, avoiding taxes to reduce costs. Reasonable dial-up accounts and prepaid internet cards available. A few upscale locations have wireless available, but costs up to $5/hr. Most upscale hotels have internet available, but not usually included in the room costs; make sure to ask.

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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?

Mobitel is the most common, a bit more expensive, but with poor customer service. Others have less coverage. You are likely to be issued a phone. All services are cheaper than the U.S. if you choose your plan correctly. You buy your phone and service seperately; you own the phone. Lots of phones available. Local services use GSM 900 and 1800. Buy a triple band (adds GSM 1900) if you want to use it in the U.S.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

Skype/internet. Private or at internet cafes for about US$1/hr.

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Pets:

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

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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?

Lots of NGOs, but local skills have increased dramatically, so jobs are tougher to find these days. It is easy to make your own business.

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

Casual to business. A jacket is not required to visit most government officials but it is nice to have on a tie at least for first introductions. Ministers will have on a tie, possibly a suit in their A/C offices. There are some formal and black tie events for special occasions.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

It depends on the area of the city: it can be unhealthy (dusty) on dirt roads or moderate in residential neigborhoods or good along river and outside the city.

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

There is some minor crime but life threatening crime is unusual. It is generally peaceful.

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

SOS and a few other clinics. Medivac to BKK or SIN for major cases is the norm. There is excellent medical and dental care in Bangkok at very good prices; almost 24 hours and 7 days a week. You do not wait for service/appointments. It's very affordable compared to the U.S.

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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?

There is a cool season from November to March, a hot season spanning April, May and June, and a rainy season July to October.

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Schools & Children:

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

The International School of Phnom Penh offers IB and has a central location but suffers from limited space. Northbridge has space but suffers now from management change, and is 25-35 minutes outside of town. Ican is a growing British school with a central location. There are lots of local and semi local schools, including religious and French schools.

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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?

iCan is excellent. Private nannies are easily available and very reasonably priced.

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Expat Life:

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

Expats from the embassies, expats from the NGOs, expats in business and expats in tourism business and traveling through on tourism. There must be several hundred in Phnom Penh, a few hundred in Siem Reap and a hundred in Kampot and Kampong Som.

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2. Morale among expats:

Good. It is an easy life, once you adapt.

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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?

Homes, bars, restaurants...

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

There are not a lot of Western attractions, but for families there are swimming pools, arcades, a few malls, and cheap DVDs, games and computer software. Kids can play together at each others' houses. For singles there is lots of nightlife, volunteer opportunities, local culture, restaurants and bars. All of the above is very inexpensive. It is easy to get out of town for beaches (4 hrs) or Angkor Wat (5 hrs) and to Ho Chi Minh. There are easy and cheap flights to Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur.

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

It is very liberal but not a huge community.

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

No.

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

Boat trips on the Mekong, elephant rides in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, explore Angkor Wat on a bicycle, motorcycling (dirt biking) in the countryside, bicycling along the upper Mekong, take a boat from Lao border to Stung Treng and ST to Kratie (Ramsar wetlands), see the Dolphins in Kratie and Stung Treng, go overland from Koh Kong to Pursat (experienced and adventurous travelers only), travel overland from Phnom Penh to Laos, travel overland from Ratanakiri to Mondulkiri, visit the protected areas in Koh Kong, Mondul Kiri, Ratanakiri. Weekends in Kirirom, Kampong Som, Kampot, or Battambang. Sit by any river anywhere and have a fresh coconut, cold beer, grilled squid or other delicacies.

Sit by the river or a park and watch life go by. Get a motorcycle and cruise around town. Eat great and cheap seafood in Kampot, Kampong Som, Phnom Penh or Koh Kong. Go to a spa in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Get a massage.

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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 and wood handicrafts and furniture.

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9. Can you save money?

Buy local, explore local, relax; yes.

Import only U.S. products, fly out every weekend, and eat only at the upscale places: no.

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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:

Desire for junk food, hectic pace, lack of childcare.

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3. But don't forget your:

Smile.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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

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

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7. Do you have any other comments?

W. Somerset Maughan said that in Cambodia you can see people in the villages living their lives in the same way as the images you see carved into the walls of Angkor Wat 800 years ago. Get out of Phnom Penh and and into the countryside to see it while it lasts, it's going fast.

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