Phnom Penh Basics

If you’re arriving in a country for the first time, it’s helpful to have some idea of what to expect when you get there. Do you need to take local currency with you? Should you book a hotel before you go? How do you get out of the airport? Here’s a bit of help for those on their first visit to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.

There’s really only one way to get to Phnom Penh easily, and that’s by air. In theory you can do it overland, but it’s a long slog from Thailand, and road communications from Laos and Vietnam aren’t terrific either. Alternatively you could sail up or down the Mekhong, but let’s keep things simple for now. So you’ll be landing in PP’s western suburbs.

Visitors to Cambodia require visas. The good news is that it’s possible to get them on arrival, so you don’t need to go trekking to an embassy – but you’ll need to remember to have two passport-sized photos with you, plus US$ 20 for the fee. The even better news is that if you’re in the least technologically savvy, you can get an e-visa online from the Cambodian Foreign Ministry. At US$ 25, it’s slightly more expensive than the visa on arrival, but the extra expense is worth it to save queuing for a visa.

What about money? Well, if you’ve got US dollars, you’ve hit the ground running. Cambodia uses the US dollar in parallel with its own currency, the riel; the exchange rate in general use is US$ 1 = 4,000 riel. Generally riels are only used where fractions of a dollar are involved, although a 10,000-riel note does exist (we saw one or two on our most recent visit in May 2012). The Thai baht is also accepted in a few places, though by no means as widely as in Siem Reap, and the exchange rate is generally not very good.

If, on the other hand, you don’t have US dollars, there are plenty of places that exchange money, at the airport and in the city. Cash machines are also widespread and dispense dollars.

Getting from the airport to your destination in the city is relatively easy – just go to the appropriate counter at the terminal exit and tell them where you want to go. They’ll hand you a voucher which you pass to the first driver available (and there are usually several available); the driver will then take you to your destination and you pay him. The fare from the airport to Sisowath Quay by taxi (on the west bank of the Tonle Sap river) was $9 as at May 2012. The taxis do generally have seatbelts that work, which isn’t universally the case in South East Asia.

Motos – trailers pulled by scooters, a bit like tuk-tuks in Thailand but more makeshift – are also available if you fancy roughing it. Or living slightly more dangerously, although the relatively sedate speed of traffic in Cambodia (typically 40 km/h speed limit in the cities, generally observed) means that accidents are generally no more than trivial bumps.

(None of these vehicles have meters, by the way. As usual with unmetered vehicles, it’s best to negotiate your price before setting off on your journey, although the small amounts involved may somewhat blunt your haggling zeal.)

Where is your destination, though? Phnom Penh is not that big a city for tourism, though it does have its attractions (Siem Reap airport actually handles more passengers annually). Actually, it’s not that big a city, full stop – population estimates are rather confusing as they depend on how you define the city, but it feels like a city of about 800,000-900,000. Most of what’s going on in terms of restaurants, night life and hotels is within a kilometre or so of the riverfront.

We’ve tried a couple of places to stay, both of them in that central riverfront area on Sisowath Quay. The Bougainvillier Hotel was billed as a bit of luxury on the riverfront but was rather Fawltyesque when we stayed, in terms of quality of accommodation and even more so of service. On the other hand, the California 2 Guesthouse is relatively basic but clean, comfortable and convenient – and friendly.

There are plenty of boutique hotels in the area, but the international chains are building up (literally) a presence too.