Phnom Penh: A New Adventure Begins

Our flight out of Vientiane departed at noon. Just over an hour later, the Phnom Penh skyline appeared and we touched down in our new home.

In our dozens of moves over the years both together and on our own, our move to Phnom Penh may have been the most surreal.

Lori and I visited PP briefly in 2012 while backpacking across East Asia. Despite having spent three nights here seven years ago, long time readers may have noticed that we don’t have any posts covering Phnom Penh. And, in fact we only took a dozen pictures during our whole stay.

That’s not necessarily a reflection of PP’s photo- or blog- worthiness as it is a reflection of where we were at in our travels then.

We arrived in Phnom Penh in November 2012 off the heels of nearly a week in Siem Reap, exploring the unfathomably large Angkor temple complex, home to famous Angkor Wat, and 1,000 of its closest friends.

We took a lot of pictures.


So many, in fact, that I’ve avoided even attempting to organize and write blog posts about Angkor.

Additionally, we’d been traveling for five months straight by the time we reached Phnom Penh. If it had been our first stop, we certainly would have taken an interest. But it was one more stop upon dozens and dozens.

And finally, and maybe most significantly, Lori found herself laid up in bed for two of those days with some flu-like thing, significantly curtailing the amount of sightseeing we did.

What made arriving here so surreal for us, however, may have been the fact that we’ve been living just an hour’s flight away in neighboring Laos for the past three years and never once visited.

We managed to visit Thailand and Malaysia multiple times during that period, and even made it back to Vietnam earlier this past year. But not Cambodia.

Which made Cambodia more intriguing to us than other countries in the region.

Add to that, that few countries on the face of the planet have seen more rapid development over the past decade than Cambodia (particularly in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville), and we knew that the Phnom Penh of 2019 might be virtually unrecognizable to us.

All of this put together meant that we had a vague recollection and few photographs of a Phnom Penh we visited seven years ago that has undergone a dramatic transformation during that time.

We’ve traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia in the past three years, but Cambodia has remained unvisited.

…and, an hour away by air.

Peering out from the airplane window at the high-rise infused sprawl below, we knew that, despite the short distance and shared cultural heritage between Laos and Cambodia, many aspects of living in Phnom Penh will be completely different.

We’re looking forward to it.

Of the four of us, Noe seemed the most excited. For weeks, with every move he’d ask, is this Cambodia? Are we in Cambodia? He knew that once we reached Cambodia, he’d see his Legos again and not have to pack up for a while.

It was a relief to finally be able tell him, “Yes, Noe, we are in CAMBODIA!”

At the Airport

Lori asked her new employer what she needed to get the proper visa on arrival. We’ve experienced more than our fair share of visa headaches over the years, so wanted to make sure that all of our ducks were in a row when entering the country.

This has become even more important to us traveling with two little ones, particularly around nap time.

I was very skeptical when Lori came back and said we just ask for a business visa at immigration and pay the fee.

Yeah, right, as if immigration is going to just hand us all business visas on arrival without a letter or anything.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

When we got to immigration, we asked for a business visa at one window, paid our fee at another, and collected all four passports at the third window, all in under five minutes.

Getting through immigration took us another ten minutes. A thirty-second walk later, we were at baggage claim, and another minute later, we were outside at the taxi stand.

Note from the future (Dec 2019): It bears mentioning that the process of a one-year, multiple entry NGO visa is much more convoluted and frustrating than we imagined. But for the initial 30-day single-entry business visa on arrival. No problem.

After getting back from Malaysia, I told Lori that one of the things I will miss the most about Vientiane is the airport.

I love the small one or two- gate airports of less-visited capital city’s like Vientiane. I love talking to real people at check-in, rarely waiting in line for more than ten minutes at check-in, security, or immigration, and being able to walk from one end of the terminal to the other in under five minutes.

It’s the way air travel should be.

So, I was very pleased to discover that Phnom Penh’s airport is not much different in that regard. Yay!

We wrangled a taxi van just large enough for our luggage and kiddos, and made the slow slog into downtown Phnom Penh.

Same Same…But Different

Some aspects of Phnom Penh remind us of Vientiane — modest airport on the periphery of the city, aging communist block-style architecture, and no multi-lane controlled access expressways.

However, there are already plenty of major differences we’ve noticed just on our trip from the airport. The amount of activity throughout the city is far beyond that of any corner of Vientiane. And, Phnom Penh is jam packed with India-style auto-rickshaw tuk-tuks like this.

While Phnom Penh had the old-fashioned remorques (motorbikes towing a horse carriage) in 2012, they weren’t nearly as pervasive (or cheap!) as these zippy little auto-rickshaws, which they did not have then.

Straight off the bat, we can tell Phnom Penh is just a busy city, reminiscent of Noe’s Richard Scarry “Busytown” books. Everyone’s busy getting somewhere or doing something (but not necessarily in any hurry…just busy).

Driver’s actually use their horns here! I know, it’s crazy. In Laos, NO ONE honks. EVER. Even in a life or death situation. They just don’t do it. NEVER EVER EVER.

Phnom Penh, they seem to use the horn to the degree that one might expect in a city this size. Certainly nothing like Bangkok, Hanoi, or NYC. But, they do use it.

And construction sites and heavy machinery are literally everywhere.

Noe (and Riley) are going to get a kick out of that.

Mom and dad, not so much.

Temporary Housing

One of the benefits that Lori’s employer offered for our move-in was paid accommodation and unpaid leave for one-week prior to her start date in Cambodia. We knew finding an apartment that ticked all the boxes and fit our needs in Phnom Penh in 2019 wasn’t going to be easy, so Lori took advantage of both benefits.

Lori did an amazing job researching nursery schools and was fortunately able to line up schools for both boys months in advance, which meant they’d be off and running on the first Monday in Phnom Penh, allowing the two of us to focus exclusively on finding a place to live for the next ten months, and possibly beyond.

Lori also found a nice and affordable two-bedroom Airbnb serviced apartment a short walk from her office and Riley’s nursery school, and a short tuk-tuk ride to Noe’s new school.

She was content with limiting the reservation to the week that was covered by her employer, as she was pretty confident we’d find our long-term apartment by then.

I wasn’t so confident, and advocated for an additional week that we’d pay out-of-pocket for.

In the end, we reserved the unit for the full two weeks, hoping that after an aggressive search we’ll be moved into our long-term residence by the end of our stay at the Airbnb.

Fingers crossed…

Our home for the next two weeks is a two-bedroom unit in an eleven-story unit near Independence Monument. It’s got a tiny and fairly limited kitchen (those burners aren’t connected to anything), but we anticipate we’ll be spending these weeks happily sampling the food offerings in the neighborhoods surrounding the apartment.

The apartment has a pool and a small gym, and housekeeping once a week.

We’re on the seventh floor with two balconies with skyline views — one south-facing and one west-facing, so it gets a little hot up in here. Electricity is very expensive here, but fortunately it is included in this unit.

Facing south, our view of the soon-to-be largest building in Cambodia, Gold Tower 42 — 42 stories of solid GOLD (or gold-tinted windows — whichever you want to believe).

And that nausea-inducing structure next door?

Kids City!

Kids City opened about five years ago and closed about five months ago. Seems crazy, but I have a feeling this isn’t a unique story in Phnom Penh.

Our west-facing view, complete with sunset.

A busy street near a busy temple a few blocks away.

First Phnom Penh shopping trip. Seems you can get just about everything here! For a price, of course.

First-Sunday Errands

The next morning, we revisited one of the few places we remember visiting in 2012 — Java Cafe! We liked this place so much, we visited a few times then, and have fond memories of the food and atmosphere. While Lori was resting, I also spent a few hours catching up on blogs here.

We remember it being a bit of a walk from the guesthouse we stayed at seven years ago, but is a short walk from where we are staying this time around.

It was pretty remarkable. In a city that has changed so much over the last decade and in many aspects is unrecognizable to us, Java Cafe appeared exactly the same as we remember. Apparently, they now have an open-air upstairs section as well, and bake fresh bread, both of which we look forward to trying out.

We were also very happy to find that they have a small play room as well, which kept Noe busy and happy for a long time, while we fed and wrangled Riley.

After spending a week in a hotel in Vientiane, we’ve amassed quite a collection of dirty clothes. It’s our first full day in Phnom Penh, which can only mean one thing: laundry time!

Our apartment doesn’t have a washing machine, so it’s off to the laundry shop. We found an inexpensive little place appropriately named Eazy Laundry down a cool little alleyway off of Street 51 in BKK1. $1 a kilo! If you need to get some laundry done in this part of town, this is the place to do it.

Noe and I explored the alley while Lori and Riley did some good ol’ fashioned pre-treatin’.

Speed ferries to tropical islands in Cambodia.

Noe’s speechless.

Second item of business for the day: Get Noe a haircut.

He’s been asking for a while, and we got a hot tip from a friend here in PP on a good place to take kids. So…

…off to Tokyo Barber we go!

Noe never got a shampoo at Mr. Barber in Vientiane. It’s all about new experiences, Noe. Just go with it.

There’s our Big Boy!

Starbucks…Cambodia style.

Yes, Virginia. There is a Starbucks, or four.

This is their flagship location, and first in Cambodia, opening in 2016. It serves the usual plus Starbucks Reserve.

Unlike other Starbucks we’ve been to overseas, this one is nearly always packed with affluent locals rather than Westerners.

Yep, there’s a lot of money here in Phnom Penh. New money in the hands of a very few. That pack out Starbucks from sun up to sundown. No joke.

But a lot of them I reckon wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this.

Farm to Table.

Locally sourced food with healthful Western choices. And a very unique play area. No plastic toys, just a big ol’ (real) tractor to climb on, and lots of dirt, shovels, pots and pans.

Noe loves this place, and it is quickly becoming one of our go-to places in town. It’s not cheap, but the manner in which the food is sourced justifies the price in a place like Phnom Penh, in my mind. Certainly, more so than the high-society cookie-cutter banquet restaurants in town that attract Cambodia’s rich and famous purely because they are so expensive, and thus, are where all the rich people go.

A lot like ‘Merica in the 1980s, I suppose.

No tablets or devices here. Just good old fashioned dirt and imagination…and free range chickens running around.

…and locally brewed craft beer!

And we didn’t think this place could get any better!

(By the way, Brewlander’s Love wild IPA is absolutely delicious).

We’re excited to get to try out a whole slew of new (to us) restaurants, coffee shops, and bars in the coming weeks and months, with new neighborhoods to explore, and a new culture that is bound to endear itself to us and drive us mad, which seems to be the case when visiting any new place (if you stick around long enough).

I’ve learned one thing over the years and that is if you find yourself head over heels for a particular culture or place, or absolutely hate it, you just haven’t been there long enough.

And with that, it’s time to break the shrink-wrap on my Grab app in Cambodia (think Uber) and order us a tuk-tuk back to the apartment for under a buck. That’s right, you can arrange AND pay for a !! tuk-tuk !! on your phone here.

If there’s one game changer in our move from Vientiane to Phnom Penh, this might just be it.

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