Once known as the Pearl of Asia, today’s Phnom Penh is vibrant. A city filled with young people embracing a modern lifestyle. They’re slick, chic and technologically up-to-date. Mobile phones are de riguer. They have smart buzz bikes and dress beautifully and trendily. Much new construction is afoot – new malls, high-rise apartment blocks … the Pearl of Asia resurrects.
The ratio of cars to buzz bikes is inverse to that of Vietnam. Cars and SUV’s hog the streets and many of the vehicles are large 4×4’s – Nissan’s Toyota’s the odd Range Rover and Porsche Cayenne – all look new. Tuk-tuks chug-chug everywhere and are used by locals and tourists alike. The streets are generally wide, boulevard-style, and traffic lights control the traffic well. Congestion is higher than that experienced in Vietnam because of the higher number of cars on the road, along with the parking problems that result.
Yet there’s still street food and street enterprise going on if you care to walk away from the more glitzy and touristy areas … much like in Vietnam. Phnom Penh is a mixing bowl of old and new, of tradition and modern and, increasingly, a tourist destination.
One of the most popular areas in Phnom Penh for tourists is Sisowath Quay, alongside the Tonle Sap River. Sisowath Quay is a strip that houses restaurants, bars, hotels and night clubs. With names like the “69 club” you can only imagine what is being promoted at these night clubs. Small wonder there are so many single western men wandering around killing time during the day until the night time swings round.
Delivered by our ferry to Sisowath Quay in the late afternoon we grabbed our back packs and dodged the tuk-tuk touts and walked purposefully away from the tourist area. It was a good strategy as we found a peaceful looking tuk-tuk driver and negotiated a decent fare to our hotel. No fool our tuk-tuk driver though – he introduced himself as Mr Lucky, presenting us with his business card, and sold us a day trip around the city to see the sights we’d come to see. Lucky indeed … for all of us.
To close the day we dined at one of the touristy restaurants at Sisowath Quay. While pricey, the meals were money well spent. Presentation alone was worth the fare – a gentle coconut flavored vegetable curry wrapped in banana leaves and a ginger infused beef stir fry with a cone of sticky rice.
We dined boulevard cafe style, sitting on the pavement watching the street life go by. Significant numbers of older, western men walked past us. Most had clearly dyed their hair and had a hungry, predatory look about them. Looking closer, it became apparent the predatory look was no mistaken first impression. Young boys and girls were being targeted and accepting of introductions and whatever comes from that. I later confirmed this suspicion from several local sources who explained that Cambodia is significantly cheaper than Thailand and therefore attracting this type of tourist.