Moving to SE Asia gives immediate benefits of peaceful societies, low cost of living, incredible food and year-round tropical weather.

Phnom Penh Riverside
A morning stroll along Phnom Penh’s delightful Riverside

Moving to South East Asia

Phnom Penh is in the heart of SE Asia. While all ASEAN nations are great choices for expat living, Phnom Penh is towards the bottom of the pack.

Map of Southeast Asia
Association of southeast Asian nations (ASEAN)

Given the choices in the region, there are much better places to expatriate. However, there is plenty to like about Phnom Penh, especially for those seeking a low-key lifestyle with lots of personal freedom.

Benefits of living in SE Asia

Across the region, the low cost of living, lack of social pressure and freedom to do your own thing can be a wonderful platform for self-development. Additional benefits:

BenefitExplanation
Social fabric developed over 5,000 yearsWestern life is only a few hundred years old and built on logic. Asian societies have ancient roots that promote traditional values: respect for elders, helping the weak, nurturing children, social harmony.
Traditional gender rolesWhile gender issues have deepened divisions in the west, Asia (to an extent) retains traditional roles of alpha men and beta women.
Cheaper and healthier foodProcessed foods are impossible to avoid in the west, but in Asia those are a treat from the norm: rice, meat, fruits and vegetables.
Freedom from propaganda and social pressureYou won't understand any advertisements, will be excluded from most local conversations and will always be regarded as an outsider. As long as you keep harmony, you are free to live as you wish.

Here are some of the benefits that popular Asia destinations offer to expats (borrowed from Planet Asia):

CityBenefits
Chiang Mai, ThailandLaid back town with a hipster feel and the highest concentration of digital nomads in the world.
Da Nang, VietnamThe beaches, mountains and low-key city life attract a lot of online teachers and digital nomads.
Shanghai, ChinaMake tons of money and indulge in world-class bars and restaurants.
Penang, MalaysiaAmazing food, decent beaches, modern amenities and high quality health care make this a haven for retirees.
Bangkok, ThailandFast-paced international city with a variety of expat jobs, amazing street food and a pumping entertainment scene.

What makes Phnom Penh less appealing?

Phnom Penh lacks the quality of infrastructure found in other popular destinations like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The city offers limited low-paying jobs (mainly as English teachers), just a few dozen international restaurants, a ramshackle social scene and very basic shopping options.

Phnom Penh street scene
Gritty living on the hard streets of Phnom Penh

In addition, Cambodian beaches pale in comparison to those in other SE Asia destinations.

Otres Beach Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Otres Beach is 4 hours from Phnom Penh but very basic (source)

Living Dirty in Phnom Penh

Let’s swing over to the dark side of the expat equation: Phnom Penh has loose visa laws, basic infrastructure, lax policing, a foreigner-friendly society and easy access to illicit and over-the-counter drugs. In addition it has a ‘bargirl’ scene that caters to people with very little money.

This attracts a lot of low-quality expats that come here for shady reasons: criminals on the run, drug addicts, the mentally ill and pedophiles:

paedophile arrested in Phnom Penh guesthouse
British paedophile busted in Phnom Penh with 8-year-old boy (source)

Indulging in drugs and alcohol

From a tourist perspective, the city may seem a wonderland of cheap sin: seventy-five cent beers, Xanax sold over-the-counter, delightfully friendly bargirls. Day drinking is encouraged.

For holidayers looking to blow off steam, the abundant opportunities to indulge in cheap thrills can be very tempting.

Day drinking bogans in Asia
Day-drinking bogans chilling round the girlie bars

Running out of money

Here’s a common Phnom Penh story: destitute expat scores some teaching work in Phnom and learn that everyone in this town is your friend when you have some cash. They make fast friends in girlie bars and start running tabs. Add in some crystal meth, a few missed classes and suddenly they are broke.

In a flash, when run out of money in Phnom Penh, the city will show you its dark side. It’s rough.

Homeless British teacher caught in Phnom Penh
Failed English teacher caught begging for money and sleeping on the streets in Phnom Penh (source)

It’s not an isolated case. Rounding up homeless English teachers is a regular part of Phnom Penh city life.

Homeless English teachers arrested Phnom Penh
Police driving homeless English teachers past Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace (source)

Getting arrested

The last place you want to end up in Phnom Penh is the notorious Prey Sar Prison. If you are sleeping on the streets, have overstayed your visa, cause violence or break the law in any way, prepare yourself for the possibility of hard justice, Cambodian style.

American tourist arrested for drugs in Phnom Penh
Tourist busted four using drugs in a Phnom Penh guesthouse (source)

Living Clean in Phnom Penh

For those not interested in the rock and roll lifestyle, Phnom Penh offers incredible opportunities for self-development.

For example, there are plenty of gyms in the city, yoga classes and several small pockets of passionate hobbyists (pets, gardening, photography, art etc) that are easy to find and connect with on Facebook.

If your time and energy is not going to be spent on barstools, there are many alternatives in Phnom Penh.

Mountain biking trail near Phnom Penh
Cycling on a Mekong Island a short ferry ride from Phnom Penh’s riverside

Interestingly, it is the things lacking in Cambodia that yield some of the greatest long-term benefits. We list these below:

No fast food culture

24-hour McDonald’s is a late-night staple for drunken expats in Korea, Japan, China, Thailand and Malaysia.

In SE Asia, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are the only countries that don’t have McDonald’s franchises. In the short term this might really suck, but in the long-run there are huge benefits.

Phnom Penh street food
Fast food in Phnom Penh

McDonald’s brings fast food culture to the masses like few other can: dozens of shops in prime locations serving food that is cheap, delicious and brimming with standardised western quality.

Once accustomed to the food and lifestyle, the way is paved for others to enter the market.

Fast food franchises in Cambodia
The 10 most valuable fast food franchises in the world (brand value in USD) – source

The limited American fast food franchises around Phnom Penh makes it inconvenient for regular binge eaters.

In addition: while journeying to a KFC, Domino’s or Burger King to get your fix, you will pass by dozens of places serving tastier, healthier and much simpler food for way less than a processed western chain burger.

Bai sa chrouk: Cambodian pork and rice
Bai sa chrouk: BBQ pork on rice topped with a fried egg, sold for $1.50 all over town

Weaning off fast food poison

Processed food load nasty chemicals into your body that deprives it of nutrients. It causes a ton of health issues that regular eaters will confuse normal. Once you go clean from fast food in Phnom Penh, these health benefits will kick in (source):

  • Less mood swings: saturated fats give you brain fog; sugary drinks cause energy crashes; simple white bread carbs affect focus, alertness and energy
  • Improved hair and skin: unhealthy fats in processed food causes thinning, dull hair. Healthy fats (such as from walnuts) does the opposite. If you have acne or blotchy skin, eating clean will clear it up fast.
  • Less cravings: beware eating anything with high-fructose corn syrup. This activates the addictive part of your brain (just like heroin) and is found in products like ketchup, frozen meals and breakfast cereals.
  • Less sick time: eating too many processed foods hurts the body’s ability to fight colds, since these lack the nutrients to fuel the immune system.
  • No constipation: like Cartman, chronic fast food eaters may never know the joys of regular bowel movements
Khmer style beef noodle soup
Super-healthy Khmer-style beef noodle soup is ideal for breakfast or lunch

Most expats will go with the flow and start eating cleaner when they settle in Phnom Penh. Processed foods become a rare treat, while meat and veggies with rice or noodles will become the norm.

However, when you truly need a taste of home, check out the Best Sandwiches in Phnom Penh for a rundown of healthy western fare.

Fractured expat scene

Those interested in a truly independent lifestyle will find the lack of an expat scene useful. There simply aren’t enough western expats here to justify a ‘scene’. Rather, expect small pockets of western and Asian nationalities scattered around the city.

In 2017 the Cambodia Interior Ministry estimated that of the 160,000 foreign nationals living in the country, 100,000 were Chinese nationals (source).

Cambodia’s Tourism Department gave the following breakdown of tourist arrivals from August 2017 that we used to carve this pie chart:

Tourist visits to Cambodia August 2017 pie chart
Tourist arrivals in 2017

How many western expats in Phnom Penh?

Of the 160,000 foreigners living in Cambodia, 100,000 are Chinese. Given that western expats make up roughly 1/3 of tourist numbers, let’s say that equals around 20,000 western expats in Cambodia. Let’s assume half are in Phnom Penh, that gives us around 10,000 western expats in Phnom Penh.

Small social groups

In cities like Bangkok and Shanghai, there are enough English teachers, business executives and traders to support full social scenes for each niche.

In general Phnom Penh expats are mainly Asian. There is a massive Chinese expat community here plus significant groups of Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian and Singaporean.

Among those hordes you will find small pockets of white/western tourists, teachers, NGO staff and business people.

Limited pub scene

There is no expat pub scene in Phnom Penh like you will find in other places round SE Asia – there simply aren’t enough expats to support such a thing.

On weekends, clubbing options are severely limited. Most bars are very basic and often empty.

That leaves diminished incentive to waste your time, energy and money hanging out in bars.

Weak shopping culture

Your best options for international shopping in Phnom Penh is to fly to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

Phnom Penh has two Aeon Malls and a bunch of small shops. Large sized shoes and clothing are hard to find. Outside of the malls, legitimate brand name clothing is also hard to find.

That means you will have limited options for consumerism and will need to find more productive ways to fill your time (working out, gardening, yoga, boxing classes etc).

Quality of expat life in Phnom Penh

If you are thinking of moving to Phnom Penh, the following bullet points will give you a quick rundown of the highlights and lowlights:

Best aspects of living in Phnom Penh

  • Suitable infrastructure: tap water, electricity, plumbing and internet are solid (garbage collection is ramshackle)
  • Low cost of living: 2-bedroom apartments from $350 per month
  • Foreigner-friendly society: US dollars are the main currency; English widely spoken; consistent flow of tourists; international expats ingrained into city life
  • Easy access to SE Asia: a flight to Bangkok costs $100 and takes 45 minutes, with meal and drinks served. By the time you are done eating you’ve arrived
  • Basic first world conveniences: western cheese and bread, Aussie steaks, vegan food, Aeon Mall, cheap draft beer culture, fast internet, consistent electricity

Toughest parts of living in Phnom Penh

  • Limited clothing options: outside of Aeon Mall there are a few specialty shops, but name-brand clothing (especially in larger sizes) is hard to find. Do your shopping in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur instead
  • Weak fast food culture: in the long run this is a huge positive. But in the short term, there is no McDonald’s, KFC is grim, Burger King tastes weird – addicts might suffer extreme night sweats for a few weeks
  • Limited pub scene: this is also a positive in the long run, as you will be forcibly weaned off of reasons to get drunk on a barstool each evening. There are just a handful of nightclubs, and most parties are DIY – go to a bar with a bunch of friends and hang (rather than mingle with strangers)
  • Shady expats: you will meet Malaysian card scammers, British meth-heads, American grifters, Nigerian princes, Canadian con artists and tons of fighty Bogans – keep your guard up and your wits about you
  • Dangers at night: drunk driving is a problem in Cambodia – if you are on the streets when drunks are out, disaster can happen. In addition most muggings and dog attacks happen after dark. If you make a habit of wandering around hammered drunk at night in Phnom Penh, trouble is much more likely to find you

Conclusion

Given the ease of visas, low cost of living, tropical weather and foreigner-friendly locals, Cambodia is one of the last places left on earth where you can experience life as a hobbit. All you need to do is smile and pull up a chair and you will be welcomed wherever you go.

Hobbit artwork
Enjoy the low-key, unobtrusive lifestyle of the Hobbits

Whether you want to live clean and prosper or descend into a wretched hive of sum and villainy, Phnom Penh offers everything you need.

Star Wars Mos Eisley scene
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

In this version of Mos Eisley, Jabba is GM of a European NGO; Obi Wan is a sexpat; Han Solo teaches English; Chewbacca is hooked on meth; Luke is a tattooed backpacker.