Cambodia currently ranks as the 13th poorest country in the world – just below Zambia and one spot ahead of Pakistan (source).

Phnom Penh Cambodia street scene
Order and chaos on the gritty streets of Phnom Penh

Unlike Zambia and Pakistan, expat life in Phnom Penh has enough modern world conveniences to keep expats with simple tastes well satisfied.

Foreign Correspondents Club Phnom Penh
Expat happy hour at the Foreign Correspondents Club

Those looking for an Asian experience with all the comforts of home would be better off in Bangkok, Osaka or Shanghai. Those looking for basic comforts and simple living are likely to love what Phnom Penh has to offer.

Phnom Penh skyline at dusk
Expect quiet evenings in a city that sleeps early

Phnom Penh demographics

Phnom Penh Phnom is the capital city of Cambodia and also the largest, with a population of 1,501,725 people.

Phnom Penh city skyline
Low-rise buildings, tree-lined streets and classical Khmer architecture

Population density

The city covers 678 km and has a population density of 5,700 people per square kilometer (source).

Phnom Penh skyline
The city core has a higher population density than Beijing

Population density compared to other cities:

  1. Singapore: 8,188 people per square kilometer
  2. Kuala Lumpur: 6,890 people per square kilometer
  3. Hong Kong: 6,690 people per square kilometer
  4. Beijing: 6,000 people per square kilometer
  5. Phnom Penh: 5,700 people per square kilometer
  6. Bangkok: 5,300 people per square kilometer
  7. Hanoi: 3,300 people per square kilometer
  8. London: 1,510 per square kilometer
  9. Chiang Mai: 132 per square kilometer

Expat and Tourist estimates

Chinese people in Cambodia
Phnom Penh expats are mainly Chinese and SE Asian

As a starting point to a rough guess, in 2017 the Cambodia Interior Ministry released results of an 18-month census on foreigners living in the country. It estimated that of the 160,000 foreign nationals living in the country, 100,000 were Chinese nationals (source).

On the tourism front, 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
A rough idea of expat demographics in Cambodia

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.

Western expats partying in Cambodia
Western expats and backpackers are becoming a rarity in Phnom Penh. (pic source)

Moving to Phnom Penh

If you plan on moving to Phnom Penh, follow these steps to ensure a smooth landing into a comfortable life:

Get work permit and visa

  • If you are a tourist, you can get a 30-day visa on arrival
  • If you are planning on looking for work, there are 6-month job seeker visas
  • If you already have a job lined up, your employer will arrange your visa
  • If you are a digital nomad, you can arrange your own long-term visa
  • If you are 55 or older, you qualify for an indefinite retirement visa

The system is currently being overhauled, so the specific rules are hazy. Check out our 2019 guide to visas and work permits in Cambodia – it gives an easy overview of the rules, then advises paying a travel agent to sort it out for you.

Choose an area to live

The most important decision will be choosing a place to live. This Phnom Penh housing guide breaks down each of the city’s main districts and summarises the pros and cons of the most common expat housing areas.

Get your basics sorted

First, set up a bank account. Then, consider private internet. While many expat apartments offer shared wi-fi in Phnom Penh, getting your own connection is cheap and easy to set up. This writer has experience with Opennet – a private 8mbs connection costs $55 setup fee and then $18/ per month.

The only other basic you will likely need to sort is your diet: cook at home, or eat out? Cooking at home is more expensive than eating Cambodian style, but much cheaper than eating at western restaurants in Phnom Penh.

If home cooking is your thing, make sure to read our roundup of the best supermarkets in Phnom Penh. If sandwiches fit the bill, our list of best sandwiches in Phnom Penh has you covered.

If you can stomach eating local (basic meat, rice and veg) you can get three square meals for less than $6. If you stick to eating western food, your wallet will get slimmer as your waistline expands.

Local Cambodian food market
Eating cheap local food may not suit all tastes

Sort out a lifestyle

If you are a barfly, hit up Sundance on the Riverside or Hometown Hangout in the Russian Market area – both are social expat bars where it’s easy to get connected.

If yoga is more your thing, local boutique hotel YK Art House has a great writeup about yoga classes in Phnom Penh. If fitness is your focus, check our our Phnom Penh fitness guide.