From Ho Chi Minh City I booked a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. After about 3 hours you get to the border crossing where you hand your passports to the guy in the bus and basically just walk through the Vietnam exit counter the Cambodian entry gate. We didn’t talk to a single person at customs, just walked through, no questions asked. I’m pretty sure that was the easiest border crossing I’ve ever had! We paid $30 for our tourist visa, which I thought was only supposed to be $25, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that extra $5 was a bribe for speedy service. Or the people on the Cambodian side don't care at all and turbo stamp every passport, that would make sense too!
After you cross the border into Cambodia you begin to realize that everything looks just slightly worse than in Vietnam. The roads, the quality of the buildings, and the cars and motorcycles people are driving. Plus it was late in the afternoon so there were tons of pickup trucks filled with Cambodian laborers taking them home from wherever they were working during the day. I believe the average daily rate for someone working out in the countryside is $1/day. It’s an extremely poor country. If you’re going to get culture shock anywhere in SE Asia, Cambodia is probably the most likely place.
We arrived in Phnom Penh at around 8pm, and the bus dropped us off at the side of the road, about a mile away from the touristy area. If this was my first time in Phnom Penh I might be getting nervous, as it’s usually not fun getting dropped at some random place at night in some run down, 3rd world city. But Phnom Penh doesn’t scare me. There were tuk-tuks and motorbike guys waiting around so I hopped on a motorbike and we were off.
So I made it to the backpacker street and found some hostel to stay the night at a whopping price of $4/night. The room was like a jail cell and the bathroom had a resident cockroach. Good thing I was only staying one here one night. If you get cheap accomodations in phnom penh you get what you pay for!
After dropping off my stuff I just wanted to wander around for a little bit, reacquainting myself with the city that I had first visited six years prior. I walked down the riverfront where drink ladies were hawking beer and soft drinks and little kids were playing some sort of game involving only their sandals. I strolled past the happy pizza places and ignored about a dozen offers to buy weed. After a bit I turned down one of the main bar streets, where dozens of girls sit outside their respective bar and beckon you to come in. I declined, but I couldn’t resist the offer of chicken shawarma for $1 from the streetside food cart. So yeah, Phnom Penh is definitely the dingy, seedy place that I remember it for! But the roads were better, there were more western style restaurants and coffeeshops, and it looked as if new buildings were coming up everywhere. Some would say it’s on the up and up!
Now normally I don’t like staying in big cities when I’m traveling, but my goal in Phnom Penh was to make some money playing poker. Surprisingly the city has one of the better poker scenes (if not the best) in Asia. The two main venues are Nagaworld, which is the casino, and a poker room hosted inside a hotel, called RiverKing. If you’re a new player to RiverKing they let you stay at the hotel for free the first few days and then charge $10/day after that, so that’s where I ended up. The poker room is nice, they give you free food and drinks, and it’s a pretty close-knit community. Most of the friends I’ve met in Cambodia play at this poker room. The only downside was the games weren’t as juicy as I was expecting. But the games at Nagaworld were better than I was expecting and they routinely have rich Chinese and Indian tourists/businessmen drop good amounts of cash at the poker tables. So that’s where I usually play.
So far things have been pretty good. My only main gripes are the garbage everywhere, the occasional awful smells that want to make you puke in your mouth, the overwhelming humidity, and the tuk-tuk drivers. These guys are incredibly annoying. You can’t walk down the street without every tuk-tuk trying to get your attention even if you make it extremely clear you don’t want a god damn tuk tuk! They will say “hey man, tuk tuk?!” while you’re already inside a freakin tuk tuk! If you try and ignore them, they only ask louder and more aggressively when you walk by. And then once you walk past them they’ll whisper ‘hey, you need weed, marijuana, lady?’ as a last ditch effort. Agh, I can’t stand these guys. I saw a grumpy looking old man walking down the street the other day with a shirt that said “NO TUK TUK TODAY” in bold print and I cracked up. Perfect shirt.
But besides all that, I’m still enjoying the city. Everything is so close together. Basically anywhere I’d want to go is in a two mile radius. And the food scene is surprisingly decent. There are lots of expats in Phnom Penh so you can find pretty good American style burgers/wings/pizza. But then you can also find, Mexican, French, Italian, German, Turkish, Lebanese, Israeli, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, really anything! I don’t eat Khmer food as much as I thought because there’s just so much variety here. Along with the food I like the chaotic city life, the temples, the grand palace, the markets, the monks walking around, the women carrying stuff on their heads, the cheap beer, cheap massages, walks along the riverside, seeing movies in the small cinema, the pool at the nearby hostel, and it goes on an on! There’s plenty of things to keep me entertained here in Phnom Penh!