City life Prepare for insane noise pollution while living in Phnom...

Prepare for insane noise pollution while living in Phnom Penh


Prepare for insane noise pollution while living in Phnom Penh

There’s not much information online about the problem, but it will hit you hard in you live in Phnom Penh. Noise pollution is off the charts. Sleeping in later than 6:30 am anywhere in the city is impossible. High-pitched sawblades grind steel as 50,000 hammers pound in unison. Vendors, showoffs, weddings, funerals and more blare foghorns through neighborhoods with impunity. Compre prepared, or spiral into madness…

The sonic assault in Phnom Penh is relentless and devoid of compassion.

Phnom Penh noise pollution

Cambodia is a developing country with awareness missing in a lot of areas. That’s why Phnom Penh has tons of awareness campaigns. NGOs collect millions to base here. There are awareness campaigns about Jesus, street cats, gay rights and vegan food.

Gay pride Cambodia
Rumbling tuk-tuks motor through the streets blaring techno on loudspeakers to spread awareness.

There aren’t any awareness campaigns about the harmful effects of noise pollution. So here’s a start.

Physiological effects

The amygdala handles emotional processing in the brain. Stressful noises trigger the amygdala to send distress signals to the hypothalamus. In response, the hypothalamus signals adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream.

Cambodian noisy painting crew
The red bag contains a radio with broken speakers playing techno songs at full volume. These painters camped outside my window for a week.

A steady flow of adrenaline and cortisol brings on physiological changes. These include an elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure.

Chronic exposure to noise keeps this stress response activated. In a constant state of distress, the body starts to break down.

At first you will suffer weakened concentration. Then, productivity loss, communication difficulties and fatigue caused by a lack of sleep. That leads to more serious issues like cognitive impairment, and hearing loss.

Developmental effects on kids

Science shows that children exposed to consistent noise have more trouble at school. A study found degraded reading attention, problem-solving, and memory.

Tuk tuk driver with airhorn
This guy drives through neighborhoods announcing that ladies on foot are collecting donations.

Noise pollution also affects speech perception. Gary W. Evans, PhD says that children exposed to noise will adapt to ignore it. “But not only do they ignore noise, there’s evidence that they also ignore speech.”

That means they are tuning out harmful stimuli, but also the stimuli they need to pay attention to.

Hyper-arounsal and PSTD

Hyperarousal is the primary symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even when real danger is not present, the body remains in high alert.

Steel beam cutters Phnom Penh
These guys are cutting steel beams with high-powered sawblades in 12-hour shifts on a residential rooftop.

2009 estimates were that 40% of Cambodians suffer PSTD because of the Khmer Rouge era.

Under constant barrage of noise, your blood pressure and heart raise rises. If noise is ongoing, your stress levels can mobilize into a default state of hyper-arousal.

Cambodian noise standards

Noise standards do exists in Phnom Penh, but enforcement does not. As a result, no noise standards exist anywhere but on paper.


After some digging, we found a Sub Decree on Air Pollution and Noise Disturbances. Published in July, 2000, it lays out some noise standards.

Cambodian noise laws
Residential areas have a max allowance of 60 decibels during the day.


The decibel scale is logarithmic. An increase of 10 decibels means the sound gets ten times louder. So a noise measurement of 50 dB is ten times louder than a sound measured at 60 dB.

Ice grinder noise pollution Phnom Penh
This guy grinds ice every morning at 6am outside a residential area at 170 times the allowed limit.

  • 0-30 dB, faint: sounds at this range include whispers and the ticking of a watch. Most sound in this range is almost inaudible.
  • 46-65 dB, average: this is the level of regular conversation, a bubbling stream or a cat’s meow.
  • 66-90 dB, moderate: blenders and beard trimmers make this level of noise.
  • 91-100 dB, very loud: this is where you need earplugs. This is the level of gas-powered lawnmowers or cars without mufflers.
  • 101-125 dB, extremely loud: aircraft takeoff, loud concerts, Cambodian street weddings and funerals.
  • 126+ dB, weaponized: like the sound level of a rocket taking off.

Lack of enforcement

In developed cities, noise standards and the means to enforce them exist. For example, the city of Toronto employs 24 noise enforcement officers. They’re available every day from 6am to 2am to address noise complaints. Armed with specialized monitoring devices, their tests can solve noise problems immediately.

The problem is that even though Cambodia has noise standards, there’s no one to enforce the rules. Most neighborhoods are self-policed.

Phnom Penh street justice
Self-policing is the norm: local drunk gets beaten; market thief gets head shaved. (Images: CambodiaExpatsOnline)

As a result, most people accept that they must grit their teeth and bear the burden.

Solutions for Phnom Penh noise

If the area where you live in Phnom Penh is too loud, the simplest solution is to move. To find a place fast, there are three options. The first two groups are on Facebook: PPhousing and PhnomPenhHousing9999. Better than both for cheap deals is the Khmer24 apartment listings.

If moving isn’t an option, below are two other coping techniques we’ve tried.


Bring from home if you can. There’s only one shop in town with a regular supply of earplugs: Super Duper.

Super Duper supermarket earplugs
Super Duper is the only shop in this noisy city that sells ear plugs.

These earplugs work, but just a bit. They dampen sound a little. After an hour, they feel like bubblegum stuffed in your ears. Insanely uncomfortable.

Noise cancelling headphones

When the ear plugs failed, I decided to try the next level: sound-cancelling headphones.

The top two models are both available here. The Sony WH-1000XM3 sells at Sokly Phone Shop for USD$369. Over at Thearun Computers, they sell the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 for $349.

Trying to save money, I bought a Soundcore Space NC for $109, from UFO Store 310.

Anker Soundcore Space NC
The Soundcore Space NC has decent features but mediocre noise cancelling.

Anker’s Soundcore Space NC is a decent headset. The big ear cups fit over your ear and block out sound even when turned off. With noise cancelling active, it cuts around 30% of the sound out. Good, but not enough for the heavy duty streets of Phnom Penh.

Next, I scored a good deal on a used pair of Bose Quiet Comfort 35s. These live up to the incredible reviews. Noise cancelling cuts around 90% of noise. With soft music playing, it cuts out completely.

But still there were problems. After around 3 hours, the headphones get clammy. Jumping out of a noise cancelled cocoon into Phnom Penh noise can be jarring. My solution was to get two pairs with powerful noise cancelling.

Noise cancelling headphones.
Combined, the Bose QC 35 and JBL Tune 600BT are nearly enough to keep the noise at bay.

So I picked up a pair of JBL Tune 600BT headphones. The noise cancelling is almost as good as the Bose. Instead of over-ear cups, these fit on-ear.

When I get tired of the Bose, I switch tot he JBLs. Then switch back to the Bose when needed.

To conclude this section, even the most powerful noise cancelling headphones in the world will struggle to handle the noise in Phnom Penh.


Sound is an essential part of everyday life. But when sound turns into noise, it can affect mental and physical health.

There’s no immediate solution, but awareness is a start. If we recognize noise pollution as a serious health issue, we could find realistic ways to manage it.

Video: Sounds of Phnom Penh

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