There are some commentators that compare the Phnom Penh nightlife scene to the Bangkok scene of 30 or so years ago. It is certainly true that Cambodia is a few decades behind the Thai capital in terms of its economic development, and there are also some striking similarities between the sweet natured local ladies and those of Thai girls from years past, but nothing really compares to the Bangkok nightlife scene in the 80s and 90s.
For one thing, Bangkok has always been a huge sprawling urban mass of epic proportions. Its population tops six million, which is about four times that of Phnom Penh. There are none of the characteristic gogo bars for which Thailand is famous, and the Cambodian capital has a much more sleepy feel to it after dark.
There are, however, plenty of Phnom Penh nightlife attractions to keep most visitors happy for a couple of weeks at least and there is even an ever growing bunch of disenfranchised Thailand expats that are moving over to Phnom Penh on long-term visas. Economic development and globalisation does not suit all tastes, and there are quite a few westerners that are no longer satisfied with life in the modern Thai metropolis.
Like I said before, the Phnom Penh nightlife scene does have some similarities with the Bangkok of old, and most important in the minds of the westerners that formerly lived there is the impression that whilst they are not quite so welcome in Thailand as they once were, in Cambodia they are made to feel much more appreciated. The friendly attitude of the Cambodian girls is one reason for this…
You may hear a number of reports from various quarters about the wild, anything goes, lawless streets of Phnom Penh at night, but this is all over-exaggerated and out of date nonsense. It is true that back in the 90s there was a real crime problem; it was a sort of aftermath of the Khmer Rouge cruelty that preceded it, but this is no longer relevant and the risk factor involved in stepping out into the Phnom Penh nightlife is not that different than in Bangkok. If you behave yourself and don’t do anything too foolish, you will be unlucky to end up in trouble, and daytime safety is very high.
You’ll notice plenty of street beggars in Phnom Penh, more than you find elsewhere due to the extra poverty, and many of them have got missing limbs and other deformities. The war-torn countryside of previous years is still littered with unexploded minefields and I suspect that some of the beggars may have fallen foul of them. It’s not just the older generation begging on the street either, there will be children lining up to beg from you and collect your discarded rubbish for whatever pittance it’s worth when recycled. The begging is less visible at night, but during daylight it can be a bit overwhelming.
The standard form of venue in which you will meet most bar-girls are called ‘hostess bars’, there are many of these scattered around the city centre, with streets 51, 102, 104 and 136 the main hotspots along with the city’s riverfront area. Each bar will usually have anywhere from six to twelve hostesses that will be happy to keep you company. I should point out here that there are some significant differences between these bars and the sort of beer bars that you find in Thailand.
Fistly, the bars themselves are much more run down than in Thailand, shit-holes is the word that springs to mind! It’s not just the fixtures and fittings that are past their best, the general cleanliness level is beyond filthy with lots of discarded rubbish and cockroach infested toilets etc. It takes a bit of getting used to if you are a gentlemen with refined tastes! The bars are mostly indoor venues rather than the open-air beer bars of Thailand, so it can be difficult to assess any given bar’s line up of ladies until you venture inside it.
Second, whereas Thai girls working in Bangkok beer bars will almost always be available for take-out, the hostesses that work in the Phnom Penh nightlife industry are frequently unavailable. Keep this in mind and, if a certain lady catches your eye, make sure that you enquire at an early stage as to her availability. Unfortunately, it tends to be the best looking girls that are not available.
Third, if you are tired of being accosted to buy lady-drinks when you walk into a Thai beer bar, then relax. In Cambodia the girls are a lot less bothersome and will hardly ever ask you for a drink. You shouldn’t take advantage of this though; be respectful of the fact that the girls are there to earn a living. The best thing to do is leave a reasonable tip instead of buying them a drink – I’ve no doubt that they get plenty of alcohol rations so a tip is better for them. $1 is enough depending on how much of her time you take up.
As regards other Phnom Penh nightlife venues, there are some classier places to visit and a range of disco type offerings that are full of freelance girls. These are all fairly standard type set ups that are much the same as in Thailand. The only thing of note to mention about the girls in these venues is that if you ask them how much payment they require for their services, they will quote you a price that is usually a lot more negotiable than you find in other countries. Think half the original quote or less and you won’t be far off the mark.
For gambling fans, the other main difference with Thailand is that there are some Casinos included in the Phnom Penh nightlife make up. I’m not sure what sort of gambling options are on offer inside these venues, but I imagine that card games are popular. A few word of warning; if you win any significant amount of money you’ll probably be noticed and it might make you a target for a possible mugging, so make sure that you have your getaway planned. Hiring a ‘tuk-tuk’ driver for the night is a good and inexpensive idea as he can whisk you away when you leave without need to go walking unaccompanied anywhere.
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