I’ve now been living in Cambodia for about three weeks. And I still don’t think the fact that I’ve moved on from Jakarta and am now living in Phnom Penh has actually hit me.
It’s exciting. But it’s also daunting. It’s familiar. But it’s also totally different…
Being in Phnom Penh has been kind of a shock to the system. In Jakarta I lived in a very sheltered, very middle-class complex. Sometimes it was easy to forget I was living in Indonesia. But this time around I actually feel like I’m living in Southeast Asia. I’m right in the thick of it!
It’s a good thing; it’s the reason I’ve chosen to live abroad in Southeast Asia. But it’s also chaotic, intimidating and, at times, frustrating. The fact is that Phnom Penh is a pretty crazy place to live in. There is good. And there is bad. And I’ve experienced both since my arrival three short weeks ago.
Living in Phnom Penh…First Impressions
Just walking around Phnom Penh I find beauty hidden in the most unlikely of nooks and crannies on a daily basis. There are literally stunning gilded temples on every other corner. There are monks wearing saffron-colored robes walking the streets. There are beautiful French-colonial buildings scattered around town.
To top it off, the city is hugged by the milk chocolate-colored Mekong, Tonlé Sap and Bassac rivers and, from what I’ve seen so far, the sunsets are out-of-this-world beautiful. If you ask me, this city is incredibly gorgeous and picturesque.
It’s true. Phnom Penh has its issues. There are heaps of trash piled on the sidewalks and in the gutters. The buildings are disheveled and crumbling (something I actually find aesthetically beautiful but also sad). And the building boom is literally changing the face of the skyline in what many argue is to the city’s detriment.
But it’s more than just physical. Walking around it doesn’t take long to remember that Phnom Penh is, after all, a very poor, very complex Southeast Asian city. One that has a history that’s so tragic I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. And the scars from that time are still very much visible.
One of the reasons I wanted to live in Phnom Penh so badly is there is so much going on. In a few minutes’ time I can literally walk to iconic cultural sites, like the Independence Monument and the Presidential Palace. I can walk to coffee shops whenever I go stir-crazy working from my apartment. I can head to the riverfront to go for a jog or to sip on a sunset cocktail.
A plethora of international restaurants – Russian, American, Indian, you name it – are located a short stroll from my front door. And if I’m feeling super lazy, I can literally walk across the street and munch on street food. Phnom Penh is a cool, happening city and living in the heart of it pretty much rocks.
It’s so hot! Whenever I remark on the heat here people say, “But Jakarta is so much closer to the equator. I must have been hotter there.” Hmm…maybe it’s the fact that I arrived in Cambodia during the height of the hot season. Or maybe it’s more humid here? But it is honestly so hot! When your weather app tells you it “feels like 115 degrees” outside, you know it’s hot. But that’s Cambodia’s monsoon season for you!
That might sound a bit weird, but it’s true. In Jakarta life takes place indoors. I was probably indoors 99 percent of the time. It’s not uncommon to go from your apartment to a taxi to a mall and back again without ever stepping foot in the sun. I probably suffered from a serious Vitamin D deficiency because of it. And with its lack of sidewalks and infamous traffic it’s nearly impossible to travel anywhere in Jakarta by foot.
But Phnom Penh is totally different! In Phnom Penh I can walk everywhere. And I’m literally slathering sunscreen on my face multiple times a day.
There are actual sidewalks here, even if they are filled with parked motorbikes! And there are even public spaces and parks where people can and do gather. This didn’t exist in Jakarta. Being able to walk wherever I want is a huge perk to living in Phnom Penh.
It’s perilous to walk anywhere.
Clearly I’m exaggerating a little, but learning to walk the streets in Phnom Penh will take some getting used to. Much like Vietnam, there are no rules when it comes to driving. People drive on the wrong side of the road, on the sidewalk…wherever. To say I am petrified to drive a scooter here is a total understatement…though if I’m going to be here for two years I’d better suck it up.
But just walking around is pretty insane. You have to look down to watch for gaping holes in the sidewalk, look up to check for random wires strung across the sidewalk, look forward lest you walk into a parked motorbike, look behind you in case a vehicle is coming at you.
It’s a whole thing…
And to cross the road is basically to put your life in the hands of all oncoming motorists. So far I’ve had two very close calls, one with a moto driver and another with a speeding SUV!
Its food scene is awesome.
Phnom Penh has a great food scene, and I have gone food crazy since I arrived here. One thing I love about this city is that eating out is incredibly affordable (not the case in Jakarta!). I can snack on street food for under a dollar or I can dine in one of the city’s many fabulous international restaurants for less than $5.
In the past few weeks I’ve indulged in Vietnamese phở, Lebanese falafel, Cambodian papaya salad, American bagels and so much more. It honestly amazes me how great the food scene is here in Phnom Penh. I don’t think this city gets enough credit for just how many quality and innovative restaurants they have.
Its local food is not super vegetarian friendly.
My only complaint about the food is that Khmer food isn’t all that vegetarian friendly. To be honest I’m still not all that clear about what Khmer food actually is. (I promise I’m going to do my research and write all sorts of food posts on the subject later.) But it does seem to be very meat and fish oriented.
Dishes that are vegetarian, like papaya salad and many of the noodle dishes, tend to be prepared with fish sauce and fish paste. Luckily Phnom Penh has some amazing pure-vegetarian restaurants and I’ve been able to sample a few local dishes…like this dumpling soup. So I can’t complain too much!
Have you ever had mixed feelings about the city you live in?