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Posted by on Feb 3, 2013

First Impressions of Phnom Penh


After months of anticipation, we finally landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia two days ago. Our arrival here marks a few significant changes for us, most notably that we will be staying in one place for three months and also heading back to a work environment while volunteering for our partner NGOs. With only a few days under our belts, I can say that I’m intrigued by Phnom Penh and feel fortunate to live here for a while so I can begin to know it more deeply. There is a lot going on here.

Getting Around

Phnom Penh was a welcomed change from Chiang Mai. I still need to write about our time there to provide a good comparison, but for now just take my word that they are different. Phnom Penh has a local energy that radiates from every street corner. Motorbikes line up five across and five deep at each traffic light, ready to take off the minute it turns green. Tuk-tuks meander through the streets carrying passengers and their daily purchases, honking at the motorbikes to alert them they aren’t stopping. Street carts, wheelbarrows and two wheel bikes fill up the space in between. Oh, and there are actual cars also driving as well (most of these are Lexus, a status symbol here).

The level of commerce occurring on every street – mostly by Cambodians – is awe-inspiring. Store after store line the major streets and on side streets, mom and pop convenience stores and road side restaurants intersperse with all types of living accommodations.

It’s also an extremely young city, proving the point that the youth of this country really are the future. Most of the motorbike drivers are young men and women darting around town on the wide boulevards, streets and turnabouts.

Our new tuk tuk driver bringing us to our new home.

Our tuk tuk driver (who has turned into “our” driver) bringing us to our new home.

We have chosen to live in a neighborhood that has mostly Khmer residents, but is close to our NGO offices so we aren’t spending a large portion of our day commuting. Upon first encounters in our local shops, knowing some more Khmer besides “hello” and “thank you” is going to be necessary to alleviate us buying the wrong thing all the time. Our goal on coming to Cambodia was to learn some of the language so living here will absolutely force us to find a Khmer tutor.

Historical Happenings

This weekend is the late King’s funeral and cremation – 100 days after he passed away in October. He has been King since the 1940’s and had a very interesting past given the activities that have occurred in Cambodia over the last 60 years. The city has supposedly swelled to 1 million more people than normal, all who are here to mourn his passing.

Last evening, we strolled along Sihanouk Boulevard and as we came close to the riverfront we joined crowds of Cambodians watching the firework display that was being set off over the river. Little kids would run through the grass and yell  “hello!” to us. Friends were sitting together on their motorbikes watching the display and families were spread out on mats along the river having a picnic. We were the only Westerners around. It felt like we had been invited to a secret 4th of July party.

Watching the fireworks on the Phnom Penh riverfront.

Watching the fireworks on the Phnom Penh riverfront.

As we continued walking along the river, we reached the Royal Palace , the site of mourning for the late King Sihanouk. Makeshift military barracks lined the street as we headed toward the bright white lights adorning the Palace. Groups of Cambodians wearing white were sitting along the grass, saying prayers, talking with their friends and families and paying their respects. White flowers were placed at the front steps and candles and incense burned bright.

The Royal Palace illuminated.

The Royal Palace illuminated.

Candles, flowers and incense line the pathway in front of the Palace.

Candles, flowers and incense line the pathway in front of the Palace.

It was an event I haven’t seen the likes of before and we were there at a time with very few people compared to the numbers who have been arriving to the Palace over the last few days. The walk along the river turned into a surreal and serene night in Phnom Penh.

A song being sung by a group of people outside the Palace provided an amazing backdrop to the evening (video is a little shaky…I’ll do better next time!).

As I begin to process the city and our surroundings, you can expect much more on life in Phnom Penh.




  1. How lucky you were to see such an important and beautiful moment in the city………….love your stories……….keep them coming.

  2. So strange. You where you are absorbing your new surroundings and we are waiting for the Super Bowl to begin.Still, we remain connected. Sending Love.