Sam Thompson

A trip to Phnom Penh makes one appreciate Bangkok

I wasn't all that impressed with Cambodia's capital

Recently, I was asked to help chaperone a group of students attending a Model United Nations conference at a school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at a really fancy-schmancy international school (Northbridge, a member of the Nord Anglia group of schools). I'd never visited Cambodia (save a visa run, which doesn't count), so figured... why not?

A short visit

I must say, I wasn't overly impressed with the sleepy capital. Granted, I was only there for a few days, and was in charge of a dozen teenagers, so I wasn't exactly free to roam about much. I'm sure there are some quite interesting things to do and local haunts that pass the time - a number of the other foreign teachers I met at the conference had lived in Cambodia for years - but with the exception of the quite out-of-place ridiculously posh school that hosted the conference and the Cambodian Country Club we stayed in quite near to it (not far from the airport), I found Phnom Penh to be what I'd imagine Bangkok was twenty years ago, and I'm not exactly seeing that in the best light.

The wealth gap I saw in the very short time I was there put Thailand to shame; here we are at a school where 15-year-old students are driving themselves to school in Audis and Porches (yes, really), and just 100 metres outside of the school gates, there are cows in the streets (if you can call them that) and non-stop traffic in a city with significantly less inhabitants than Bangkok.

We only got to drive about the city a small amount, but of that small amount, 90% of it was sitting in traffic; as much as I cringe to admit it, per capita, I feel Phnom Penh has worse traffic than the Big Mango, primarily due to terrible roads and just no control of traffic at all.

A lawless land?

For all the grumbling I do about Thailand not having enforced traffic laws... I'm not sure Phnom Penh has any laws at all! That's not necessarily a bad thing to me, Thailand is sadly becoming far too Western-style in its over-regulation-but when it takes an hour just to go two kilometres in a relatively low-population city... well, I don't know what to say.

The city itself is much what I would expect in a less developed country (even by Thai standards), but has several severely out-of-place buildings (like the school we visited) that are a bit shocking - primarily being the government offices in their [must be foreign invested] splendour, surrounded on all sides by abject poverty, with signs promoting the country's politicians everywhere much like what I'd expect to see in a... how shall I put this without getting into trouble... strictly controlled country. Sure, it's the same as Thailand in the respect of celebrating leaders, but I felt these to be far more imposing.

Danger zones

Safety, at least according to the several local teachers I spoke with, seems also to be far more of an issue in the Cambodian capital and surroundings. Several people told me not to go here, or not to go there after a certain hour on our trip; this is just not something I've had to even think about living in Bangkok.

Outside of this, though, I think my primary problem with the city is its dustiness, and this is coming from someone who deals with Bangkok buses blowing plumes of black dusty smoke in my face every day. I really don't know how the locals deal with it; it's so dusty throughout all the places I visited that I could taste it! The heat was the same as Bangkok, and perhaps we just visited at the wrong time of year, but still.

The plus points

It's certainly not all bad; I was highly impressed with the locals' English skills-far better on average than what I've experienced even in Bangkok-and the cost of living is ridiculously cheap, even by Thai standards. The city can certainly cater well to expats too, judging on conversations with other teachers there, and there are several expat-friendly haunts and grocery outlets (just don't expect any Siam Paragons). The riverside boulevard area we visited was nice once we finally arrived (although, to me, nothing special), and there looked to be some lovely historical temples worth visiting should one have the time.

However, even with all its warts, I kept thinking to myself: man, I have it lucky in Bangkok. In comparison, Bangers feels like it's in a sweet spot between totally lawless/undeveloped and the organisation/convenience of a Western-style city... and having experienced Phnom Penh, I can now both notice and appreciate that.

By no means am I "hating" on Phnom Penh; as I said, I have no right to judge the city with any finality due to the nature of my trip and the extremely short time I spent there. I'm sure that, like Bangkok, once you get to know the city it has its own draws and charm. And one certainly can't complain that it's expensive! But for me, I'll straight-up say it: I've been spoiled by Bangkok.

I hope you enjoyed my blog. If you would like to get in touch or perhaps e-mail me with a question, I would love to hear from you - All the best, Sam Thompson.


Well done Sam. Extraordinarily accurate observations based on such a short trip. My son works in Phnom Penh and I have had the opportunity to visit about every six weeks over the last twelve months or so. As he has lived in different areas of the capital, I can only add that my impressions changed depending entirely on the area. In one area I was happy to be locked safely in my apartment by 6pm. I remember my son saying "hey dad walk 100 meters down that street and if you come back I will give you $100." The poverty is extremely disturbing in some areas. The wealth extremely disturbing in others. That said, the area of BKK1 where I visit now is an absolute treasure. French influence, wonderful food, friendly and safe. After living on the Thonburi side of Bangkok, its a pleasure to experience the western fusion in Phnom Penh. Nothing I like more than a Saturday afternoon in the Score Bar watching the football, drinking an ice cold ale, and having a laugh with a friendly crew. There are draws and charms as you say, it just takes a little time to find them. Again Sam I enjoyed your accurate observations. Thanks for the great read.

By John Lawry, Bangmod (14th August 2017)

A British friend once declared that "If you see a Khmer doing anything except shuffling their feet; they have just stolen something.

By Mark, CNX (28th April 2017)

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