Things to Know before you Go to Phnom Penh

Last Updated on June 30, 2012 by Christine Kaaloa

Things to Know before you Go to Phnom Penh
Things to Know before you Go to Phnom Penh

As a tourist and traveler, I find it occasionally frustrating to view the inner antics and life of city  from a bus or tuk-tuk enroute to another destination. I may see something culturally peculiar or fascinating, but only get a fly-by record of it.

But before I can raise my camera, the event is gone… Before I can sniff the scent of it’s natural air, I’m inhaling exhaust.  You need to be in the streets in order to truly get a better sense of a place or culture.

The streets are the veins, which make up the body of a city and a place can look very different, when you’re walking through it. The streets hold you stories about its people, culture and lifestyle.  Cambodia is more than  Angkor WatTuol Sleng, Tonle Sap Lake floating villages  and a list of things to do in a Khmer city.


Things to Know before you Go to Phnom Penh

Street  jobs of the past are present in Phnom Penh

Walking in Cambodia can you might feel torn between feeling like you’re in a modern city and yet not. While malls  exist, street culture is a big part of the Phnom Penh culture. Street life in Phnom Penh can occasionally feel like it’s from the 1950s. There’s still a handful of jobs and businesses which take place on the streets and they can feel a little old school.


Car Status

As you may have guessed, the majority of the population gets around by way of motorbikes, so much of the lifestyle revolves around motorbike culture.  Only the wealthy own cars and ironically, SUV’s are the vehicles with seemingly the highest status in Phnom Penh.

Like most places, Cambodia has it’s social classes of rich and poor. A common vehicle for affluent Khmer folk to drive is symbolic of wealthy status and prestige; and thus, are big and bulky SUV’s.

But these aren’t just any SUV’s. Cambodian SUVs come with its dealers’ logo prominently branded for all to see. Lexus, Mercedes, Landcruiser.

What is the most popular brand on the market?  Lexus.

lexus in cambodia


 10.  Motorbikes are for everyone else!

If you’re not rich enough to afford a big chariot like an SUV, then you probably drive what the rest of the population drives… a motorbike. Cambodians aren’t as die-hard bikers as the Vietnamese however, so you won’t see them converting their motorbikes into beds, packing mountainous crates and household appliances nor drive long distances on them .

But they do treat them like precious horses.

motorcycle parking

You can see what you eat

If you’ve read my post on Fear Factor Foods in Cambodia, you’ll get an ample eyeful of things I’ve photographed from the streets of Phnom Penh. It’s enough of a culture shock to make you question Cambodian food. Rest assured, Cambodia has many restaurants and foreigner-friendly food too. By why take pictures of that?

ducks Poultry sellers  (Not quite ‘free range’, but not caged either  Khmer craftspeople and sellers Produce sellers   crabs Preparing and cleaning crabs on the street near my guesthouse .  bananas  Bananas anyone?
street food cafes

Street food cafes

Medical Facilities & Services

Medical facilities in Phnom Penh seemed basic for locals walking in off the streets. From hospital care centers to dentists, if you don’t have to get sick in Phnom Penh, then I wouldn’t.  Pharmacies are your best bet to catch your medical needs early on. I can’t promise anything after that.

hospital khmer


Transporting Goods

Cambodians certainly aren’t as creative as the Vietnamese, with stackable items all perfectly balanced on a motorbike. Phnom Penhers love their motorbikes, but are much more relaxed about transporting things in normal means. Still, here’s a couple of interesting ways of moving things around.

IMG 7197


Khmer Fashion & Style

In Cambodia, there’s a contemporary western look worn in daily lifestyle. The style is modern, simple and semi conservative, despite the warm weather.  For formal or traditional celebrations, Khmer dress customs are fancier and Khmer.

cambodian clothes

clothes in cambodia

Leisure: Hanging out in Phnom Penh

Cambodians love to lounge and hang out, especially the men who tend to hang out in buddies or groups. Often you’ll see them on their motorbikes relaxing or outdoor cafes.

IMG 7203



Cambodia’s religion is similar to many of their Southeast Asian neighbors,  Theravada Buddhism.  95% of the population is Buddhist.

IMG 7439




What are things to know before you go to Phnom Penh?

Back  << Things to Do in Phnom Penh: A walking tour  (Pt 1) 


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  • Love the poultry seller! Well, all the food, really….

  • Nice post! Thanks for sharing.

  • […] Photo Essay: What does a street say about its people?… A lot! (Phnom Penh) […]

  • Great pictures! Captures the essence of the Penh, especially the squat toilette’s.

  • This reminds me a lot of Mexico. People waiting at the car wash, the similar-looking shops, food sold in the streets, religious items sold in the street, etc etc 🙂

    I find it kinda funny the way they show off their cars with the logos!

    • @Laura: Yes, I thought the car logo thing very humorous. I suppose most cultures have ways of showcasing their status but this was undisguised, the most obvious I’ve seen yet.

  • Tim from New Zealand
    July 2, 2012 12:26 am

    very cool image essay…remidns me of the time when I was in PP this time last year. One thing that I saw which I didn’t have time to capture I will try and describe below:

    A 4 lane highway in downtown PP with tuk tuks, cars, bikes, buses etc going down it. There’s two guys laying a new overhead cable. In most western countries they would either dig up the ground, or divert the traffic lanes to achieve this and it would take a crew of workers – but not in Cambodia.

    All they had was a big reel of power cable being pushed in front of oncoming traffic, and behind it, a guy with a big stick to hold the cable above so that vehicles could drive under it. The whole process took about 30 seconds.

    • @Tim: ha ha… It’s too bad you didn’t get a snap of it. No honking from the cars or irritation? Those moments are like golden nuggets. I once took a snap of an Indian man setting up lights for a festival in India and he was on a high ladder mounted on a wheeled cart that another man was pushing through the city. I love seeing a country’s resourcefulness and that’s what your experience sounds like.

  • Great pictures of Pnom Penh’s street life, grrltraveler, especially the coal seller.

    What’s the fowl next to the white geese (swans?) that look like wild turkeys or gamecocks? They seem to be dead. What’s at the bottom of that picture that seem to be ducks or baby geese? Are their feet tied: how’re they kept in an enclosure?

    • @Natty: Thanks. The coal seller is my favorite too.

      I just thought it was peculiar cause none of them were running away or making noise. All of them were alive (even those wild chickens or hens?) and just sitting sedately. I guess they must’ve had their feet tied to keep them there. They were all quiet.

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