My experience as a digital nomad in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

my experience as a digital nomad in phnom penh cambodia | charlotte o'hara

Hey gang! Today's post is a little different than my regular blog stuff - no tech talk here :)

I was bumming around on my phone last night, scrolling through old pics, and I came across all my photos from my trip to Cambodia in June 2018. I realized that I haven’t properly written about my experience as a “Digital Nomad” in Phnom Penh but it’s something that you might find interesting.

You can read a brief summary of my stint in Phnom Penh (PP) in my June 2018 recap blog post but I’m going into much more detail here!

So without further ado, let me tell you all about it. Fill up your cup, grab a seat, take a look at my mediocre iphone photos, and let’s chat about this awesome experience!


 

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Why Phnom Penh, Cambodia?

Because it’s equally frenetic and charming?

LOL! Jokes aside, here’s how I ended up there.

Let me start by giving you a backstory about why I was even doing the whole “digital nomad”/ remote work in the first place, and how I found myself doing it in Cambodia (of all places)!

If you’ve been following me and my business for a while, you might know that although I’m Canadian, I’ve been living in Bali, Indonesia and running my business from there since January 2018. With the exception of a few short but sweet trips to Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur to renew my visa, I hadn’t done a whole lot of travelling around SE Asia on this trip. I was based in Bali and super happy to explore the island and live a fairly settled life there from January - June 2018.

Anyways, in June of 2018, I was co-working out of Outpost in Bali and one day I was talking to the founder, David. I mentioned that I would be heading to Cambodia in a few days on my way back to Canada and he convinced me to extend my trip and check out their Phnom Penh location (known as the Green Penthouse) and work from there for a week. I didn't even know that Outpost had a location in Phnom Penh but after I looked it up online and got to ask him a few questions, it sounded like a fun thing to try out.

I am so glad that I took his advice!

I was already going to be in Cambodia to visit some family friends who live down in Kampot (they are retired American doctors who now run a not-for-profit women’s & maternal health clinic) so I decided to extend my trip and co-work out of Phnom Penh too. Also, the parents of one of my housemates that I lived with in Bali are expats who live in Phnom Penh and they very kindly let me stay with them for a big part of my time there!

Side note - I spent a full month travelling all around Cambodia back in February 2015 when I was doing a SE Asia trip and I absolutely LOVED it and was super excited to go back.

Here are a couple photos from my 2015 trip in Cambodia that I pulled from my Instagram:

^ Rocking the infamous elephant pants like every other basic bittie backpacker

So to recap: I had two sets of family friends in Cambodia, I already had plans to visit on my way back to Canada, as well as a tried & true co-working space to work out of, so I figured why the heck not extend my trip and try out the whole “digital nomad” thing in PP for a while!

Quick note : the last time I was in Cambodia was 2015 and I was honestly blown away by the progress/advancements I saw in just 3 years. The last time I was in Phnom Penh, there were only a handful of buildings taller than 5 stories but now there are skyscrapers and high-rises popping up all over the place. When I visited Cambodia in June 2018, it seemed like the country had leapfrogged forwards SO MUCH in a short time, it was honestly nuts to see. Everything from the infrastructure to the new glass high-rises being built to all the designer boutiques and expensive cars driving around - it’s clear that Cambodia is booming right now, it was so cool to be there and feel the energy in the air. Big changes, that’s for sure.

People & Culture & Language

Cambodia has a wild history, equal parts awe-inspiring and horrifying. I couldn’t possibly do it justice to summarize it here, but you can always read this overview on Lonely Planet’s website.

Cambodia’s more recent history is extremely dark and the stories of the genocide & civil war are obviously upsetting, but rest assured that you won’t experience any of that turmoil if you decide to visit.

I’ve travelled all over South East Asia and I have to say that Cambodia is always top of my favorite places to go.

I loveeeeeeee the Khmer people - I’ve found them to be extremely kind, warm, gentle, fun-loving, generous, helpful and all around wonderful people. They’ll greet you with a wide smile, seem to genuinely appreciate tourists, are interested in your trip to Cambodia and want to make sure that you enjoy it - and tell your friends to come too haha!

Yes, there are a few bad eggs out there who will try to hustle or scam you, but it’s definitely not as commonplace as other places in the area (cough * Vietnam * cough). Just be smart about travelling and you’ll be fine.

One of the first things I noticed back in 2015 (and it still rings true) is that everyone in Cambodia is so young. Like seriously, it’s like an entire country of twenty-and-thirtysomethings and lots of young children. It’s very rare to see an older person and sadly many of them are in bad shape (physically & emotionally, by the looks of it). Scarred, burned, crippled and missing limbs… many of them had seen better days. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the reason for this is that most of the older people were wiped out a generation ago with the Khmer Rouge Genocide - and the Cambodian population had to be built up again. Super messed up to think about, but as a silver lining that does mean that there’s a very lively, energetic & youthful energy around. They all seem genuinely eager to leave the bad old times behind, the horrible memories can stay in the past. Instead, they’re choosing to put their energy toward a future filled with foreign cash money rolling in, at least that’s how it felt to me.

There’s also a big expat community in Phnom Penh and I found everyone to be very welcoming, friendly and FUN! Seriously, these people like to have a good time and are always keen for a night out. The expats are from all over the world but there are particularly a lot of French people (because Cambodia used to be a French colony). Phnom Penh isn’t a massive digital nomad haunt (yet) or maybe the co-working spaces were just quiet because it was high summer and insanely hot, so most of the expats I met there were long-term residents who worked in government or for international agencies, not-for-profits, teachers at international schools, or else for private businesses (lots of bankers/finance people, engineers, miners and geologists).

There are also a lot of hardened, long-term expat motherf*ckers who have been there for decades and will never re-assimilate into their home countries, hippie white western women who work at a not-for-profit for a year or two before going back to New England to get their MA, starry-eyed ‘entrepreneurs’ who are hoping to turn Phnom Penh back into the Pearl of Asia grandeur of yesteryear, and whole lot of bat-shit-crazy backpackers who come in flaming for a few days, ready to spend $200 on a rocket to blow up a cow.

It’s a very mixed bag, but I LOVE it.

Also, yes, there are geriatric old men in white socks and sandals who are clearly in Cambodia for sex tourism but you can easily avoid them - and the methamphetamine-ravaged prostitutes aka taxi girls who are always by their side - if you stay away from the grimy-ass bars in Phnom Penh’s nightclub area. That whole scene is a gong show and I can’t say I had any interest in slumming around with that particular crowd (shocking, I know), but I’d still say there are no more sexpats/sex pests in Cambodia than in Thailand.

The official language in Cambodia is Khmer but English is widely spoken - especially as a tourist, most services and businesses that you’ll interact with are totally fluent in English. Also, since there’s such a strong French community, it’s a good idea to brush up on your basic French, especially if you’re going out and hanging around locals/expat bars (not tourist haunts).

Arrival & Visa

I flew directly into Phnom Penh’s International Airport from Bali on Air Asia (which included a quick stopover in Kuala Lumpur). As I mentioned, this was my second time visiting Cambodia and as I was going through immigration at the airport, the officer noticed the previous Cambodian visa from my 2015 trip in my passport and gave me a warm "Welcome back!" - so typical, the Khmer people are some of the nicest, friendliest people I've ever met.

I paid $30USD for my 30-day tourist visa on arrival at the airport and I think I also had to give them a passport sized photo, but it was super simple.

Money & Currency

The official currency is the Cambodia Riel but US Dollars are widely accepted.

1 USD = approx 4000 riel.

I just checked the conversion rate and as of today 1 USD = 4,088.59 Cambodian Riel and 1 CAD = 3,073.61 Cambodian Riel.

Pretty much everyone uses US dollars and you can withdraw that currency at ATMs around Cambodia or bring USD into the country with you, which makes things super easy.

Two things about using USD in Cambodia:

  1. I had a few $100 US dollar bills and those were surprisingly hard to break, so I would suggest bringing smaller denominations if possible. I went to like 6 hotels & restaurants and none of them would take/change my $100 bill so eventually I had to buy a coffee at the iconic Raffles hotel in PP because they were the only place that would take it haha!

  2. Make sure that you never accept bills that are ripped or torn because you won’t always be able to use them the next time you to go pay for something. Fresh, crisp bills only!

Also, it goes without saying that Cambodia is a developing country and as such, it’s extremely affordable/inexpensive. Seriously, everything is SO cheap there so if you’re on a budget or want bang for your buck, Cambodia delivers.

You can also ball out HARD and it won’t break the bank $$$$$$$

Wifi, Internet & Phone Data

I purchased a SIM card for my unlocked phone at the airport when I landed in Phnom Penh and it was like $10 for SO MUCH DATA (I can’t remember how much but it was wayyyy more than I needed for a few weeks). Apparently the airport has the most expensive SIM cards and it’s even cheaper if you buy a one in the city but whatever, we’re talking about a couple bucks so I didn’t really care.

As for internet and wifi, I was blown away by how good, fast and strong the wifi was in Phnom Penh, as well as other parts of Cambodia!

There’s free wifi everywhere and without a doubt it was faster than the internet I’d been working with in Bali. For both uploads and downloads, Cambodian internet was FAST and dependable!

Wifi was everywhere but on the rare occasion it wasn’t working or stable enough for me, I just hot-spotted with the data from my phone. Easy.

Co-working spaces and working from cafes

As I mentioned above, I co-worked out of Outpost’s co-working space in Phnom Penh and I loved it for so many reasons!

IMPORTANT NOTE: I think Outpost might be moving/changing locations in Phnom Penh however (at least that’s what it says on their website right now) so double check the information on their website for up to date info before you go!

First of all, it was comically inexpensive at a whopping $5/day. LOLOLOLOLOL.

The wifi exceeded my expectations, and that was the most important thing for me while I was there working on a few big projects.

As a co-working space, Outpost was gorgeous and there were so many different work spaces and set-ups so you could choose the kind of work place depending on your mood or needs (e.g., phone/video/Skype call rooms, quiet area, social space, etc.). There was a big kitchen with free tea & coffee, several outdoor spaces and an insane rooftop patio overlooking the river and downtown core, as well as plants everywhere!

Sunset view over the Tonle Sap river, from the Outpost rooftop

Sunset view over the Tonle Sap river, from the Outpost rooftop

Beautiful views from Outpost

Beautiful views from Outpost

The staff was so great, seriously the sweetest and most helpful team ever!

As for the other people co-working out of Outpost, I was there in June which is definitely off-season (because it’s so HOT) so there weren’t that many people there…. it was super quiet, tbh. There were a couple long-term expats and local Cambodians who had permanent desk spaces there but otherwise, it was extremely quiet. But from what I understand, there’s a much stronger community there at other times of the year and they put on social events, rooftop drinks on the patio, yoga classes, etc. but just not when I was there and it was basically empty haha.

Outpost’s PP location is actually in Chroy Changvar peninsula on the other side of the river from the main tourist strip and they have a free boat that takes you across the river as well, which is great but I kind of had trouble with this haha and ended up just taking a tuk-tuk several times, especially after dark.

Outpost also had co-living rooms available and I spent a few nights there and it was awesome too, extremely comfortable and a great place to chill out. Also there was a security guard outside the property entrance and a night guard that did regular rounds so I felt very safe staying there as a solo female traveller.

Phnom Penh is also home to many other co-working spaces and they all cost pretty much the same - very affordable day rates and monthly passes. Check out CoWorker’s site for summaries and reviews of all your options.

When I stayed with family friends over in the BKK1 neighborhood, I visited Impact HUB and it was also wonderful! Definitely the place to be if you’re staying in the heart of BKK1 (which is the neighborhood I stayed for a while and would stay there again).

Also, just about every cafe has solid wifi so you can work from those too!

Accommodations & where to stay in Phnom Penh

During my time in Phonm Penh, I stayed in 3 different types of accommodations:

  1. With family friends who live in the heart of BKK1 neighborhood

  2. At Outpost’s Co-living space attached to the co-working space

  3. At a hotel downtown near the waterfront (I can’t remember the name, sorry!)

I definitely recommend staying in the BKK1 neighborhood of Phnom Penh, as opposed to the main tourist strip along the river. BKK1 is a trendy neighborhood where lots of expats and wealthy locals live and it has everything you need, is centrally located, loads of amenities, food & drinks, etc. There are several hotels here as well as serviced apartments (western style), which are a great option if you plan to stay in PP for a while.

I definitely enjoyed staying at Outpost’s Co-living space because the rooms/facilities were very comfortable and great value but like I said, it was super quiet and hardly anyone else was there (because of the time of year). Also, it was on the other side of the river from everything which I didn’t love. That being said, Outpost’s website says that they are moving locations, so that might change the co-living experience.

The hotel I stayed at for a couple nights was totally fine too. I think I paid like $25/night for a clean & comfortable private room with A/C & breakfast. Can’t remember the name, sorry!

Fitness, health & wellness

I was in Phnom Penh for a few weeks in June, which is the hottest month and it was SO HOT, like honestly I was blown away by the heat!

A river runs through the city & main tourist district and there’s a path that’s good for running, but you have to go really early in the morning or later at night in order to beat the heat. I tried to hit 10k steps/day and that was a real challenge because of the heat, if I’m being honest.

When I stayed at Outpost, they have free bikes that you can borrow so I went out for a bike ride a few times, along the river and around the neighborhood. It was beautiful and great to see a local perspective and part of town, away from the main tourist area!

Also, Outpost’s co-working space was up on the 7th floor (if I recall correctly) and they had a gorgeous outdoor staircase that I climbed every day (early in the morning or late at night, because of the heat), and that was a good thing to mix it up and get some cardio in.

Out for an early morning run along the riverfront path in downtown Phnom Penh

Out for an early morning run along the riverfront path in downtown Phnom Penh

The stairs at Outpost, Phnom Penh. Great for running up!

The stairs at Outpost, Phnom Penh. Great for running up!

Beautiful house that I passed on one of my bike rides from Outpost

Beautiful house that I passed on one of my bike rides from Outpost

When I stayed over in BKK1 neighborhood, I went to several yoga classes at Nataraj studio and really enjoyed my practice there - definitely recommend if you're in the area. I noticed that Phnom Penh had several other boutique fitness & yoga studios, modern gyms, climbing walls, even a Crossfit box so that’s good to know for next time.

As for wellness stuff, there are loads of spas and you can get very cheap but good massages! I went to a little place in BKK1 (can’t remember the name) and a wonderful 1.5 hour massage was like $15. I also had a very indulgent massage & spa package at Raffles hotel, highly recommend.

Health-wise, here are a few of my observations:

  • Don’t drink the tap water but Do bring a reusable water bottle because you can re-fill it very easily

  • Walking around the city can be a bit crazy because of the traffic, scooters/motos, roads/sidewalks, etc. so obvi be smart and use caution… or hire a tuk-tuk

  • Always wear a helmet if you rent a motorbike or ride on the back of one (duh)

  • The heat was no joke (especially when I was there in June) so stay out of the sun during mid-day and make sure that you are staying hydrated

  • Air quality was generally fine - not insanely polluted but I remember it was quite dusty and dry, but also really humid especially before the rain rolled in in the afternoons

  • Definitely still a lot of garbage out on the streets, especially if you’re out of the main tourist core or expat neighborhoods.

I’d say the only downside is that there’s no real swimming in PP - there’s the Tonle Sap river but you DON’T want to swim there, and the ocean is a few hours away. There are plenty of really nice pools around town, however, so all is not lost. But as someone who loves the ocean and is a fan of surfing/swimming, this is one of the downsides of Phnom Penh.

Transport

From what I saw, most people drive around town either in a car, tuk-tuk or scooter/motorbike. You can walk around certain parts of town (waterfront tourist area was fine, and BKK1 area was walkable too) but I’m not sure I would walk for long distances or rely on walking as your way to get around town.

It’s extremely affordable to hire a tuk-tuk or taxi, but be sure to agree on the price ahead of time. Anywhere around the downtown core should be a couple bucks, max. I think I paid $10 to/from the airport.

I biked around the residential neighborhood near Outpost and that was totally fine but I wouldn’t recommend taking the bike across the bridge to the main part of town!

Also, it’s very easy to get around Cambodia from PP - to Kampot or the coast, Siem Reap, etc. Just about any hotel or travel agency can do this for you, and many of the co-working spaces can arrange trips for you too.

Things to do, tourist attractions and activities in Phnom Penh

I was primarily in PP to get some work done but I also enjoyed seeing some of the local sights - I had done most of the big tourist stuff back in 2015, but some things I went back and did again!

Views from the top of Wat Phnom

Views from the top of Wat Phnom

Looking up Wat Phnom

Looking up Wat Phnom

I can’t remember where this was :)

I can’t remember where this was :)

Here are a few things to do in Phnom Penh:

  • National Museum

  • Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda

  • Wat Phnom

  • Sisowath Quay’s Riverside park & promenade

  • Central Market

  • Russian Market

  • Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields - HEAVY

  • River cruise - sunset/evening/dinner cruises are really fun!

  • Sundowner drinks at a rooftop or riverside bar

  • Explore the different art galleries & studios around town - suggestions here

  • Spa trips

  • Get a day pass to one of the really nice hotels (like Raffles) or go to the sky bars/infinity pools (like Sora at the Rosewood, so good)

Also, if you have a few days to spare, I strongly recommend going out for a boat or bike tour of the Mekong Delta!

As a city, Phnom Penh is quite compact so you can easily get around town and see most of the main attractions in a couple of days, but there’s lots to do so you can still stay entertained for longer stays.

Food & Drinks & Nightlife

Delicious vegan dinner (and wine!) at Backyard Cafe in Phnom Penh

Delicious vegan dinner (and wine!) at Backyard Cafe in Phnom Penh

There are TONS of great food & drink options in PP, I promise you won’t go hungry!

Anything from local food at the markets (delicious) all the way up to fine dining, PP delivers.

Food delivery is readily available so that’s a great option for lunch if you’re working from a co-working space.

There are also so many lovely cafes all around town and I was super impressed by all the baristas because they made some mean coffees.

Before I left Bali for Cambodia, I wasn't sure how my plant-based diet would hold up but it turns out I was worried over nothing! Eating vegetarian/vegan was surprisingly easy to keep up in Cambodia too! For local food, there are delicious veggie curries, but you can easily get big plates of rice, veggies and plant-based protein (like Tofu) for like $2. Beyond that, you can get just about anything from international and western cuisines as well.

Phnom Penh is wayyyy more cosmopolitan than I remembered (a lot has changed since I was last there in 2015) and Backyard Cafe and Vibe Cafe were particularly tasty restaurants that I tried on this trip.

The inside of a nice building. Can’t remember where!

The inside of a nice building. Can’t remember where!

Watching the rain come down at the Foreign Correspondents Club along the riverside in Phnom Penh

Watching the rain come down at the Foreign Correspondents Club along the riverside in Phnom Penh

There are soooo many good restaurants around the BKK1 neighborhood (which is where I mostly hung out), everything from sushi to Indian food to western vegan stuff to Mexican and Italian - you name it, you can get it.

Phnom Penh as a very lively bar & nightlife scene but when I was there in June 2018, I kept things pretty tame (read: lame). I went out for a drink a couple of times but mostly stuck to early nights in to watch (read: binge) Netflix - but if you want to go out or party, trust me you can. Here and here are some suggestions.

Booze is so cheap (50 cent beers are everywhere) and they know how to make a mean cocktail at many bars & restaurants. Also I noticed that many places had good selections of wine too. Definitely a big drinking culture here in PP, especially compared to Bali where I rarely drink haha!

If you’re ever in Phnom Penh, be sure to go to the Elephant Bar in the Raffles Hotel (they have afternoon tea, a great happy hour, and amazing drinks) and I also went back to the Foreign Correspondents Club upstairs patio for a sunset drink to watch all the riverside happenings and also check out all the old photos/images they have on display. Sora sky bar had crazy happy hour drinks, it was like $5USD for wine or something, and a gorgeous setting and unbeatable view of the city!

As for nightlife in Phnom Penh, I didn’t do a whole lot on this particular trip but there are so many bars and nightclubs if you want them.

NOTE: There’s also a big 420/green culture and many places around PP will serve you ‘happy pizzas’, but DUH, be smart about this if you decide to dabble. Also, don’t accidentally order one hahahahahhaaha

Safety

I have always felt very safe in Cambodia, specifically in Phnom Penh, even as a solo female traveler. That being said, be sure to read the Cambodian travel advisory from your country (here’s Canada’s) before you go.

My number one piece of advice is to be careful travelling or walking around alone, especially at night. This is particularly true for women or anyone who identifies as female. Keep your wits about you, stay on well-lit and populated streets, consult your map before you go somewhere, keep your phone charged and small cash on hand at all times, and when in doubt, hire a taxi or tuk-tuk. This is something you should consider anywhere in the world, however, not just in PP.

I’d say the next biggest thing to worry about is pickpockets - everywhere I went, people were constantly reminding me to be on the lookout for pickpockets and to keep my valuables hidden on me or else locked up at all times. I was never robbed but I was also super aware of the risk so that probably worked in my favour. Also, I always carried two wallets on me in case someone ever tried to rob me, I had one “fake” wallet that had a few small dollar bills and an old debit card that I would give someone who tried to rob me, but then another “real” wallet -this is a common thing that people do all over the world, not just PP.

Walking around can be pretty dangerous, because of traffic and less-than-ideal roadside and sidewalk conditions, but it’s fine to walk around the main downtown core, tourist areas and many of the residential neighborhoods. This is just a common issue in Asia, tbh.

Don’t drink the tap water, duh.

Read up about common scams (which you’ll probably deal with all over the world, not just in Phnom Penh).

Also, guns are pretty common place in Cambodia and many men have concealed guns so I guess be careful about this too. That being said , I never saw any guns but there are signs/billboards for them around town. A few long-term expats that I met told me to be careful if I was ever in an argument with local men because they might whip out a gun (but more so this is a consideration in the countryside or small towns, not so much in PP city centre).

Again, I felt very safe in Phnom Penh, but I always kept my wits about me and didn’t stay out alone late at night.

Just be smart (as I know you would be anywhere in the world) and you’ll probably be fine :)

Final Thoughts on my experience as a digital nomad in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

10/10, would recommend!

I had a BLAST working remotely from Phnom Penh for a couple weeks and I would definitely go back and do it again!

Don’t forget you can use my special discount code “CAMBODIA” to receive 25% off these two digital products:

When I spent a few weeks in Phnom Penh in June of 2018, I could tell that it was a city in a really neat period of transition - lots going on, a real feeling of optimism in the air, exciting new businesses opening up, lively culture and event scene, and generally felt like things were on the rise - FAST.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Phnom Penh becomes more of a Digital Nomad hotspot in the next few years, it sure looks like it’s heading that way! Phnom Penh is a great city with lots to offer, it’s crazy affordable (seriously, I lived like a queen while I was there), wonderful people, delicious food, a rich & vibrant scene, and basically just a really cool spot to be.

Anyways, If you read this and want to ask me any more questions about doing the whole digital nomad thing & working remotely from Phnom Penh, feel free to get in touch! I had a wonderful time there and I bet you will too :)