Moving to Cambodia…First Impressions

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush

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.

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush

Living in Phnom Penh…First Impressions

It’s pretty.

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.

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush

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.

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush
I honestly didn’t even tweak these colors in Lightroom!
It’s ugly.

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.

It’s cool.

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.

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush
Sippin’ on an icy-cold beer at the Night Market.

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.

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush
I bought these right outside my house!
It’s hot.

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!

It’s walkable.

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.

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush

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!

Moving to Cambodia...First Impressions - Travel Lush

Have you ever had mixed feelings about the city you live in?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

45 thoughts on “Moving to Cambodia…First Impressions

  1. Wow! Great post. Everything sounds amazing (both the good and the not so good), and what a fantastic opportunity this is for you. Can’t wait to hear more about the food scene and see more photos!!

    1. Thanks sister 🙂 I’ve definitely had my good and bad moments. But I’m sure things will mellow out once we get more settled. But we really are enjoying it here for the most part, especially the food. Because you know how much I love food!

    1. Thanks Vera 🙂 It’s still shocking to me that I’m actually living here. I highly recommend spending an extended period of time (like a month or two) living in a SE Asian city. I rented an apartment for one month in both Vietnam and Thailand while I was traveling and really enjoyed getting to know the cities I was in.

  2. I can’t believe you’ve been in Phnom Penh for 3 weeks now! (Then again, I can’t believe we’ve been in Playa for 3 weeks either, so I guess time is passing at warp speed for both of us!) I definitely think there is a tug-of-war of emotion that happens during your initial period settling into a new home as you get to rediscover all of the things you loved about a place, but the longer you spend anywhere, the more the little warts and blemishes become apparent too.

    As you know, Phnom Penh is one of my least favorite places in SEA, so many of the negative things you’ve noticed were ones that were prominent in my mind during my own visit, but I’m glad that you have still found that much of what you loved from before still holds true. The one thing I would definitely fight you about, however, is that PP is a good walking city: It would be if there weren’t so many aggressive tuk tuk drivers! We noticed that locals pretty much never walked, and I think it’s because it’s impossible to do so without being harassed. We had more than one tuk tuk driver follow us down a street repeatedly asking us if we wanted to drive somewhere. It was so annoying and spawned Tony’s dream to one day rent his own tuk tuk so that he could follow them around and ask them if they wanted a ride in retaliation!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Three Years Later: Reinventing Travel & Rediscovering our Tribe

    1. Seriously, where does the time go? I agree that actually living in a place is far different than traveling to it. I can’t even convey how overwhelmed I was with the whole move when we first got here. I’m not sure why, but I had a major freak out the second week. I feel a lot better now but I suppose having some anxiety about these things is normal? So far I really am still enjoying all the things I loved about traveling here. Though I did manage to unwittingly move next to a construction site and that is bumming me out to no end!

      Ha, oh no! The tuk tuks haven’t really harassed us, but they super overcharge foreigners and they will NOT budge on prices. I have yet to figure out the art of dealing with tuk tuk drivers here! Also, I would love to see Tony actually follow tuk tuks around asking if they want a ride. I’ve had that same fantasy so many times!

  3. Congrats on you big move! It must be so exciting to discover all the new places in your new home. 🙂 SE Asia is definitely one of those places that has a lot of pros and cons – sometimes extreme. We were just in Bangkok, and decided to try driving a scooter downtown, and boy was there a big difference from Seoul. Roads were so much narrower, traffic was more chaotic and the pollution was really bad. 🙁 And the heat…wow! It was still a fun adventure, but it reminded me that really living somewhere, is usually not the same as visiting (when everything is charming, even the obstacle course sidewalks.) 😉
    Shelley recently posted…A Magical Maldives Sunset: A Good Day (and Night)

    1. I can’t believe you guys rented a scooter in Bangkok. The thought of that terrifies me. I love riding scooters but I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to city driving. I’m far too spazzy to pull it off 😉 Though I know I’ll have to get a scooter eventually. I think living here is going to be amazing but I know it’s also going to be frustrating and intense at times. And while I totally expected this, I did get a bit overwhelmed by all of it last week. One of the things that drives me nuts about SE Asia is all the construction. Hammers and buzz saws are the bane of my existence!

    1. I highly recommend it Britt! I have a lot left to explore but everyone should visit Angkor Wat at least once. And I totally agree, adjusting to new places is just part of the lifestyle!

    1. I agree. I had very mixed feelings about Jakarta when I moved there. And that never really went away! Obviously living in Southeast Asia is going to come with highs and lows but I do have a feeling living in Cambodia going to be a great experience 🙂 The food in Phnom Penh is so good. I’m not exactly eating a lot of authentic Cambodian food, but the restaurant scene here is booming 🙂

      1. I lived in Singapore for almost 2 years and I had mixed feelings the whole way through! I want to live in SE Asia again, but I’d rather not be based in Singapore or in a big city like that again! I’m glad you are enjoying the food there. Something I do miss about Singapore is access to so many wonderful flavors!
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        1. So interesting that you lived in Singapore. My boyfriend is always going on and on about how he’d love to live there but I feel the complete opposite! I actually really like traveling to Singapore but I’m not sure how much I would love living there…aside from the food. The food is amazing!

          I feel you on the big city thing. Trust me, after living in Jakarta for a year I kind of would like nothing more than to be based in a small mountain town surrounded by nature 😉 Phnom Penh might be a city of two million but it actually feels really small. And I am really digging the food here 🙂

          1. I don’t think I would live there long term again. I think after about 2 or 3 months, I got tired of it. It might have been because I was living further out from the center so it felt less exciting. It really gets very very hot there. The trees help to stave off the heat island effects, but there is still so much concrete that it is insufferable at times. Most people go from one air conditioned place to the next, and I’m wondering now how I played sports there outdoors during the days. The one thing I do miss are the thunderstorms. They were the best I’ve ever been around, and they have figured out everything so there is nearly no flooding ever.

            So, most of my reasons for not wanting to live there are climate related, but also some cultural ones, and going out (when I do every once in a blue moon) is expensive :-\ I could go on, but if you want to talk about it more (if you ever consider moving there seriously), I’d be open to share more of my thoughts and experiences!
            chewy recently posted…Favorite Instagrams August 2015

          2. I can feel you on the heat thing. It is seriously so hot in Phnom Penh. I figured it would be on par with the heat in Jakarta, but I am having a really hard time getting used to the heat here. And supposedly this isn’t even the hottest time of year! I swear I’m moving to somewhere that has snow the next time around 😉

  4. I feel like walkability is so crucial to whether or not I’ll a like a city. Glad that’s the case here, even if it is a bit perilous. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it! So, the food. Wow. I wish I could just grab stuff off the street on the reg for less than $1. That is awesome. And I had no idea there was such an international food scene in Phnom Penh.

    So as a vegetarian, do you allow yourself any shellfish/fish sauce, etc? (I remember in Thailand that they pounded the little dried shrimp into the papaya salad pretty frequently, so it can be hard to avoid.) Is that a little faux meat there in that noodle soup? Looks incredible.
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    1. Coming from Jakarta I am thrilled to be able to walk around, even if it is a tad hazardous. I’m already getting way better at crossing the street 🙂 And yes, Phnom Penh has a really underrated international food scene. A lot of other Southeast Asian destinations don’t do international food well or if they do it’s really pricey. But here you can sample food from around the world without spending a ton.

      No, I don’t eat fish sauce at all. Partially because I’ve always been a really strict vegetarian and also because I really don’t like the way it tastes and smells. Everyone seems to love it but I can’t stand it! What’s wrong with me? Haha yeah, I walked by a papaya salad vendor yesterday and it smelled of the most pungent fish sauce ever. I need to learn how to ask for no fish sauce/shrimp! And yes, that’s fake meat in the soup. If you haven’t noticed I’m obsessed with fake meat. Go figure!

    1. YES! So far I’m digging Phnom Penh way more than Jakarta. This city just clicks with me much more, though it is still an adjustment. But the heat. Oh man, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it. And supposedly I missed the really hot season. I can’t imagine it being even hotter. What the hell?!

  5. A bit late but congrats on the move, you finally made it there!! I believe when it comes to SEA, there are always pros and cons because the countries are mostly developing countries but glad that you were able to still see the positive side of being there. Hope to read more about it soon…and is it as hot as it was here in Singapore?? I was literally melting away each time I stepped out into fresh air here…haha….:)
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    1. Thanks Sha 🙂 I don’t know if it’s hotter than Singapore. I just looked it up and it says Singapore is a tad bit hotter. But I don’t believe it! I swear I’ve never been this hot in my life. I just walked to the grocery store and almost died. Plus, this isn’t even the hottest month! It’s supposedly really bad in May. The good news is that it’ll will start getting cooler come October. I can’t wait 😉

      1. Lol, I can believe that it’s that hot when it is just as bad in Singapore. It’s usually the humidity that is the killer for me. I can try to bear with the heat but give me humidity and I wilt within seconds of stepping out of any a/c buildings..haha..Hopefully the weather reports come true for you…weather in Singapore has been really iffy nowadays, I can’t predict it anymore…:)
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    1. Right?! I feel really lucky. So many people I know hate on PP, so I’m glad to hear you liked it. Ha, I’m curious to see what it’s like to be a local too 😉

  6. I am going to Cambodia for the first time next March (first time to Asia actually) – I have a feeling your posts will make me regret leaving Phnom Penh off my itinerary!

    1. Yay, Leigh! I’m so excited for you. Cambodia was one of my first stops (after Thailand) when I first visited Asia back in 2006. That’s when I fell in love with it. Where are you headed?! Go to Koh Rong!!

  7. Love this post! After ten years of vegetarianism, I switched to being pescatarian when I moved to Thailand a couple of years ago as a sort of cultural compromise. I still eat seafood rarely, but I know that when I was in Cambodia, it really did make all of the difference. I’m seriously excited to see what you learn about Khmer food while you’re living in Phnom Penh, and I’m especially psyched to hear your veg finds. Will have to let you know when I pass through Phnom Penh early next year, too! 🙂
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    1. Thanks Katie 🙂 I’ve thought about switching to pescatarianism so many times. The problem is I’ve always disliked seafood, aside from sushi. (Sushi was the only difficult thing to give up when I became a vegetarian about 15 years ago.) But I agree that eating seafood would make life a lot easier in Asia!

      I think my next post is going to be a veg Phnom Penh post, so stay tuned. And yes, let me know your travel plans. I’m so excited for you 🙂

  8. What a great post about Cambodia! I found you via “20 years hence.” I’ve heard many things about Cambodia but you seem to have hit the nail on the head. It’s a mixed bag but it’s got potential LOL! People said the same about Vietnam but when I went, I absolutely loved it.

    I’ve never had mixed feelings about where I live myself otherwise, I wouldn’t be living in it as life is too short and all that…! Having said that I’ve lived in Manchester, London, Prague and Berlin and I’ve loved them all but other people have had plenty to say LOL!
    Victoria@ The British Berliner recently posted…Prague is modern but historical, exciting but easy-going, in the East but with a blend of the West. It’s just one of those perfect places!

    1. I love Steph and Tony’s blog 🙂 Yours is great too! I feel like its the same deal with a lot of Southeast Asian countries. A lot of people really don’t like the Philippines and I love it. But yeah, living and traveling somewhere are two very different things 😉

      Haha, I think it’s just my nature to have mixed feelings about everything. But I think I’m going to make an attempt to adopt your attitude. You’re right, life is too short 🙂

  9. I was just about to ask about how vegetarian the food was. No surprise there though that everything’s meat and fish heavy. I guess the good thing about you living there is getting to discover where the veggie food is. 🙂 You’re definitely selling me on Cambodia based on your first impressions though. 😀 It sounds amazing.
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    1. I feel like I’ve only traveled in touristy parts of Cambodia so I’ve never really had trouble finding veg options. But I’ve heard that when you get off the beaten track being a vegetarian is really hard here. But Phnom Penh is kind of a foodie’s paradise. There are tons of really good and unique pure vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants. My next post is going to be all about vegetarian restaurants in Phnom Penh. Stay tuned for some mouthwatering goodness 🙂 FYI, I just read your Korean food post and I’m starving now!

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