The talesofasia guide to Phnom Penh
by Bronwyn Sloan
updated August 17, 2004
Phnom Penh has become a very easy city to make your way in and out of. Pochentong Airport, as everyone still calls it, or Phnom Penh International Airport as it was recently officially renamed, has been developed into a thoroughly modern complex from the shack it used to be and now boasts a bevy of restaurants and gift shops. Maybe that is also why they have decided that guests will be so impressed they will pay some of the highest departure taxes in the world—USD25 for international flights and USD6 for domestic. Any tourist savy moto taxi driver will know how to get to the airport, and taxis will definitely know how to get there.
To go the other way and get from the airport into Phnom Penh, a semi-organized pseudo-official taxi system will charge USD7 to drop you at your hotel (or just as likely, a hotel of their choosing). Motos are also hanging around the exit into the carpark in large numbers, and, if you want to be really cheap, walk outside to the road and there are yet more motos who will probably charge less because they don't have to pay any entry fees or any touts. Budget for between one and two bucks.
Land - coming and going
For land border crossings, there are two excellent resources: the excellent Canby small guides are the definitive print guides to the latest developments (see specifically the Phnom Penh Visitor's Guide), and on-line, this website offers a comprehensive Overland section.
But to give a brief idea, there are several crossings into Vietnam open and readily accessible from Phnom Penh. In the wet season, boats are available all the way to Chau Doc down the Mekong, but this option seems to dry up with the seasons. The Victoria Hotel—a high class establishment winning rave reviews both for its Chau Doc hotel and its Cambodian branch in Siem Reap—can organize a boat from Phnom Penh which will take guests all the way and even help you through Vietnamese customs for around USD35, but the rooms are not cheap. Otherwise, take a taxi and a boat from Neak Luong or ask tour operators who advertise a budget boat whether this option is currently available.
The Moc Bai crossing into Vietnam is the big favorite with shoestring tourists and can be reached by bus, minivan or taxi. Vietnamese visas are NOT available at any border crossings into that country, and numerous people have wasted a lot of time and money going and chancing this fact.
The road to Koh Kong and over to Thailand is now good except for a few missing bridges, and share taxis all the way from the capital are fast replacing the notoriously gung-ho boat service from Sihanoukville as the popular option to the border crossing there. The boat can be a serious nightmare in rough rainy season seas. Taxis from Phnom Penh leave early morning.
To get to the beach at Sihanoukville, hop on one of the several bus services at the southwestern corner of Psar Thmei that leave at staggered times throughout the morning and early afternoon. These are cheap and relatively comfortable. Share taxis are also available, and are not comfortable at all, despite the fact that the road is one of the best in Cambodia.
In fact, just about every province can now be reached from Phnom Penh easily by share taxi, and often by guesthouse minibus or even a real bus. Roads have improved drastically to most destinations in recent years—they may not be as good as they are where you come from, but to locals it has been a road construction miracle. Four hours to Siem Reap by local taxi? Four hours or less to Battambang? Tremendous. An organized bus service which is popular with expats is also an option to both Battambang and Siem Reap and takes around six hours. This option has the advantage of lots of legroom if you choose your bus company carefully, Mekong Express would be your best choice to Siem Reap, and your seat early. Some have better buses than others.
The more adventurous might look to leave Phnom Penh for the border crossings at the former Khmer Rouge strongholds of Pailin and Anlong Veng and into Thailand. Both of these are now open to foreigners but are as of yet little utilized by foreign travelers from the Cambodian side. Pailin in particular can be reached in relative comfort in around seven hours now from Phnom Penh with quite good roads as far as Battambang and anyone's guess but probably not TOO awful from there. Anlong Veng may take a fair bit longer and requires a stop in Siem Reap, but a recent trip up to the border there found immigration officers looking bored and claiming that the only foreigners they have seen since starting work there were two Swiss cyclists, so unless you are a Swiss cyclist you would still be a pioneer.
Improved roads have meant a lot of travelers have been ignoring the ridiculously expensive boat route to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh, which is usually hellish into the bargain. The boat is not that scenic—the Tonle Sap lake is very big and very brown, and once you come to terms with that, six hours in the baking sun becomes a bit tedious. On top of that, the length of time to get to Siem Reap by road is now around the same as the boat if traveling by bus and considerably less by taxi, plus taxis, if shared, are far cheaper and, unbelievably, less stressful as far as this journey is concerned. In fact, two people renting one share taxi all the way would still save both of you money.
Getting Around Town
Most tourists find themselves on the back of a moto, or motorbike taxi (motodop in the local lingo), very quickly. Some never lose their fear and make do with cyclos, which are a more sedate and romantic way to see the city but could be painfully slow to go long distances and seem to want double what a moto wants for the same trip if they smell fresh tourist blood.
Many people pick up a regular driver from outside their guesthouse. Some highly reliable motos with good English also hang out on the Pink Elephant/Happy Herbs strip by the river. The ones in front of the FCC have earned themselves a bit of a rough reputation over the years, but one or two are ok. Always try and negotiate a fare first to avoid upsetting arguments at the other end—for both parties. Yes, 95 percent of the time it will be the moto trying to rip you off, but if you don't know the city, remember it may be you trying to do something too cheaply and are therefore accidentally in the wrong. Petrol prices have gone through the roof in recent months and the moto drivers are feeling the pinch. You never see a local jump on a moto without negotiating. Granted, many motos have no idea where they are going, but if you have tried, you will feel better. Prices go up with the number of passengers per moto and after dark. Also, although many motos may have no idea where it is you want to go, they will never admit this as they don't want to lose the fare. Carrying a map helps - for you anyway, it's highly unlikely the driver can read one.
If you find a good driver, a good idea is to negotiate a day rate and have him drive you everywhere for your stay in Phnom Penh and he will wait or come back to pick you up at a set time. A good moto is worth his weight in gold because he will know where he is going, what is happening and may even get you out of a dangerous situation such as a potential robbery. Pay him what he is worth and he will go the extra mile for you.
Reports of motos sexually harassing women home late at night are extremely rare but not unknown (and of the maybe two or three complaints in the past few years, all have seemed to occur around the Boeung Kak lake area, strangely), so make sure you feel confident with him before you take him anywhere remote or potentially dangerous—and yes, 99.99 percent of moto drivers are men.
The motos currently claim they are now losing a lot of trade to motorbike-drawn covered carts called tuk-tuks which appeared a couple of years ago and, despite being banned numerous times by City Hall, have multiplied quickly in number and are in plentiful supply all over the main tourist locations. If you, like many, like to travel in a group, tuk-tuks might be your answer. They will probably charge by the person, but should also be ready to negotiate a day rate. They aren't the most stable form of transport, and though they claim to be able to negotiate the atrocious road to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in all seasons, they are essentially built for good roads around the city.
Motorbikes and dirt bikes so you can drive yourself may be hired at a number of places. Mr Ly at Lucky Lucky on Monivong, around the corner from the Capitol Guesthouse, has been a perennial favorite, but there are some other places such as Flying Bikes and New New that also get good reviews. Ask your guesthouse or local restaurant and bar owners. ALWAYS lock the bike. Motorbike theft is rampant and the old 'rent my bike to the Barang and then nick it back and demand hundreds of bucks in compensation because I am holding his passport to ransom' trick has been known to happen in Phnom Penh, although it is best known as a Sihanoukville specialty. Finally, it should go without saying that if you are not experienced in riding a motorbike in the chaos that urban traffic in Asia is, then Phnom Penh is the last place you want to develop that experience.
Taxis are plentiful outside hotels and guesthouses. Usually unmarked and unmetered, haggle a price before you go anywhere. There are a few taxi companies with marked cabs that will come on call. Their numbers can be found in the Canby Phnom Penh guide.
There are bus stops in Phnom Penh, but no bus service at present after a trial proved that the locals would not bother to walk to a bus stop when they could get a moto or a cyclo to pick them up and drop them off at their door. Ho Wah Genting does offer a service taking passengers to numerous destinations just outside of town.
Walking is not advisable late at night. Although Phnom Penh is a million times safer at night than New York, London, Sydney or even parts of Thailand, there has been a rise in robberies again lately, with streets like Street 178 from the river to the Heart of Darkness being one of the worst areas. There have also been reports of gunfire in the dark places around the new Naga casino and Wat Phnom. Regrettably, bashings have accompanied some of these robberies. This was previously very unusual here and is indeed a worrying change. Don't risk it for the sake of a buck. A tourist moving at 60kpm with a local moto driver who might recognize the assailants or even be an off-duty cop is a much less attractive target than a tourist or two who wouldn't know what hit them going at five kph. Again, a good moto or tuk tuk driver will know where the trouble spots are and avoid them.
And the last transport option—bicycles. If you really want to ride a bicycle in this traffic, a ton of guesthouses rent them for next to nothing. But do you really want to? Have you gone completely mad? If you do decide to rent one, padlock it to a pole or something immovable whenever you leave it unattended. Left bikes have been known to be thrown into passing cars and trucks.
Phnom Penh index page
Eating and drinking
Things to do and places to go in and around Phnom Penh
restaurants, tours and more
The text appearing on this page is © 2004 - 2006 Bronwyn Sloan. For the rest of the website, unless otherwise noted, all text and photographs © 1998 - 2008 talesofasia.com. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.