Only a fortuitous, last-minute hookup had saved my first-ever day in Phnom Penh, so crawling out of bed around 1 p.m. the next day, I was determined to explore more of what Cambodia’s capital has to offer the single male traveler.
After an hour or so of studying a copy of After Dark, a handy (and free) quarterly nightlife guide, and watching CNN to see the Red Shirts destroy what was left of this year’s high season, I finally emerged from the hotel in search of … food. (Hey, a man’s got to have his priorities straight…) There was a dual motive to the food quest, however, as I was seeing what daytime action might be found on Street 104 where, amongst other things, The Rose Bar was said to be well known for its grub. Little I was to realize I was making my first PP Newbie mistake.
Rule 1: Never go to a girly bar for food.
The Rose, which also doubles as a $20-per-night guesthouse, does indeed cook up a fine burger, but when the bill for said sandwich, fries and two Diet Cokes was presented, I was on the hook for $12.50! Adding insult to injury, paying with the $100 bill I had (my only currency in my pocket) was a painful process. At one point the woman in charge said my 2001-vintage bill was too old and thus I’d have to pay an $8 surcharge. After many protests, I was charged only $1 to break it. Needless to say, The Rose is permanently off the tour.
TIP: Come to Cambo with as many $20 bills or smaller as possible. Changing fifties or larger is a real pain.
The Rose, by the way, may be the only thing open on 104 daytime, but the women aren’t worth making the trip for. So, it was back to the hotel, some rest and then, around 4 p.m., the tour continued.
One of the best-known male playgrounds is Street 51. It’s often called “The Strip,” but the name makes this few blocks of bars between Street 174 and 154 sound a lot grander than it is. Or maybe that was simply because I was visiting during the day, rather than late at night, when it’s most popular.
My first stop was the well-known Walkabout Hotel & Bar. The rooms go for as little as $10, but the bar — open 24 hours — is supposedly the real draw. A friend who lives in the capital disagrees, saying he’d visited the Walkabout just once and would never go back. His description was basically of a place with girls on the wrong side of 18 swarming around expats that would make Pattaya’s low-brow tourists look like world-class citizens.
I, however, was apparently experiencing the effects of the New Year’s exodus. There were only a half-dozen women in the bar, none even under 20, pretty much being ignored by an small, but still odd, collection of miscreants, including a guy with a long, white, two-pointed beard and a bloke who actually introduced himself as “Kangaroo John.” G’day mate, I’m outta here.
Other than Walkabout, the strip was pretty quiet. Chili’s, opposite Walkabout, appeared to have gone bust, as it was locked up after 5 p.m. when the sign says it opens at 4. Perhaps it was simply closed for New Year’s. The only other thing open, with people inside, was Shanghai, a nicely appointed hostess bar with good aircon and a collection of the best-looking hostesses I was to find in Phnom Penh. There were only about 10 working at this hour, but I was told many more would come in after 7 p.m.
One lass, in a black top with a plunging neckline and spaghetti string shoulder straps has a lovely set of milky white love pillows. We shared some chit-chat, but the two Koreans buying rounds of drinks pulled her away before I could tell her I was dying to see what she looked like naked. Another lonely beer later, I headed back to the hotel for dinner and a change of clothing, after which, came the eagerly anticipated Street 136.
After Dark writes that “136 has become something of a must-go destination, rather like 104 a few street to the north.” In the two blocks from the river, there are nearly two dozen bars, eateries and guesthouses and, in two visits to the street I found it to have the most-enjoyable nightspots.
All the 136 (and 104) bars follow the same format: There’s a front area comprised of the bar, some uncomfortable barstolls, some tall wooden tables with tall, uncomfortable wooden stools and a back “VIP” section, with low lights, comfy sofas and varying levels of privacy. Some VIP sections are open for all to see, while a few bars hid them behind partitions or even a closed door.
While they have attractively dressed hostesses and dark areas with low music, don’t go thinking these bars operate like the Soi 6 spots they so closely resemble: Khmer working girls, I found at least, to be much more reserved than their Thai cousins. While you can cuddle and kiss in the VIP, no further hanky panky occurred in any of the 104/136 bars I visited (with one exception.) Perhaps with more girls in more drunken states it gets wilder, but I doubt it.
Also be warned that while you can indeed barfine the girls ($5-$10 depending upon time of night), taking them out does not necessarily mean they’re going to sleep with you. Expats warned me that many girls see themselves only as party companions and that, if you want something more intimate, you need to explicitly state your intentions before paying the barfine.
Drink prices are reasonable, considering the setting, with local draft or canned beer running $1.50, mixed drinks around $2.50 but lady drinks at $3.25. The bars themselves looked a lot better than similar Soi 6 businesses and most girls spoke much better English than their Siamese Sisters.
On Street 136, the best bars, in my opinion, were 69 Bar, 136 Bar, Oasis and Flora Bar. Pussycat gets some buzz in print, but in two visits (before and after New Year) I found it empty and desperate. UpDown bar is more of an indoor beer bar, but was host to the best-looking woman I saw in Cambodia. With curly blonde hair extensions, beautiful fake boobs and fashion style that was hard to find in Kampuchea, I knew it was too good to be true: When I asked the 22-year-old vixen to join me, she declined, noting she was the (well-sponsored) girlfriend of the 58-year-old bar owner. Just my luck.
As for the “exception” noted above? I’m truly sorry to say I cannot remember the name of the bar. But if you stumble into one with a VIP area behind the pool table and a closed door along with a chubby girl with an huge set of naturals, then you’re in the right place. After a beer, the two of us adjourned to the VIP where my hostess became a lot less reserved. The fun ended prematurely, however, was a group of Khmer guys came into the bar and my attendant suddenly became very self-conscious of having some of the locals see her head bobbing in my lap.
Finally, a special note about Candy Bar. Half-hostess bar, half restaurant, Candy is open 24 hours a day with three shifts of girls. The nighttime girlls are dressed a bit more scantily and are the least-shy of any women I met working the hostess bars. Not the best-looking lot, but fun. And the food is good day or night and, contrary to the rule about buying food in girly bars, it’s very reasonably priced, especially daytime. I made four visits in all there.
Almost identical in nature to 136, Street 104 was the first riverfront street of hostess bars. Layout, prices and format are the same as the 136 bars, so, based on one pre- and one post-New Year tour, here are my picks for the best of the street:
- Bunny Bar – Truth be told, on my first visit to 104 (Day 3 in PP), I didn’t make it past the Bunny Bar. Quite a few hotties, including one who I paid a $10 barfine for because I didn’t want to wait another hour for the price to drop to $5. Twenty years old, no children, great rack and smooth, dark chocolate skin, she cuddled up with me naked after Round 1 and watched an English-language movie with no subtitles until “Ghost Jr.” was ready for Round 2. After that, she promptly cleaned up, dressed and left with a $10 bill in her hand and a kiss on my cheek.
- Shang Music Club – Totally unique on 104/136, the hostess staff here is 100% Filipina. The Chinese-Khmer owner and his Filipina wife will soon renovate the place, however, so there were only six women working after New Year’s. Once refitted, more Pinoy imports will be on hand. As you’d expect, language skills are not a problem here.
- Zanzibar – Last call on my second tour of the street and my second 104 barfine. While she had a bit of a fuller figure, no one would call this sweet girl fat. And, like my Bunny from the previous night, she refused to state her going rate. Actually, any time I pressed a hostess bar girl for how much a short- or long-time would cost me, I was told “up to you.” There were no complaints for a $10 short time with the bunny girl and my Zanzibar lady got $20 long-time. And talk about value for money: In twelve hours we went six rounds (pretty close to a personal best), with two of those occurring after she woke me up for more. My kind of girl.
The Late Night Heart of Darkness
In case you didn’t notice, I interrupted my chronological report of Day 2 after 136. But the night continued into the wee hours at the place Bangkok Bad Boy was too scared to visit: The Heart of Darkness. After my unfavorable view of Martini’s, I figured I’d take a walk on the wild side and hit Phnom Penh’s late-night, and ill-reputed, disco. It actually went so well, I went back after New Year’s and, at the same time, gave Sharky’s one last try.
The Heart as the girls simply call it, has a not-undeserved reputation for being a late-night disco frequented by some unsavory characters. Big “no guns” signs can be seen at the doors and I was frisked each so thoroughly I thought an strip-search was next. No worries, though, if it keeps the place safe.
Inside was jumping both past-midnight visits. There’s a main bar (a tall local draft is $2 and Tiger bottles $3) and a medium-sized dance floor with standing room and seating on the sides. Tons of women. After the hostess bars close and Sharky’s and Martini’s empty out, this is where they come to. Landing a woman of your choice here is like shooting fish in a barrel. Think Pattaya’s Insomnia on a much smaller scale.
The Heart, however, also earns the dubious honor of being only one of two bars that I visited in 10 days (Sharky’s being the other) where I was actually asked for a drink. The girls may be banned from doing so at their employer, but are much more aggressive here.
By the time I hit The Heart on Day 2, I was pretty drunk from starting the day at Walkabout and piling on the beer on 136. Had plenty of chances, but by 2:30 a.m., sleeping sounded more fun than shagging and I took a moto back. So, if you’re keeping score, it was two days in Phnom Penh and I had one long-time to show for it.
Things got stranger on my return visit to The Heart, Sunday the 19th and my last night in Cambodia: I passed up at least two hot Street 136 barfines, missed out on a absolute angel at Shaky’s (more on that in a second) and snubbed a big-titty slut on the dance floor because I didn’t want to buy her a drink. But I did get laid. With whom you ask? A very petitle Khmer minx who, once the deed was done, I discovered was missing two front teeth.
A classic beer goggle moment if I ever had one. Making it all the worse, 10 minutes in my room and she was packing to go. Less than thrilled I passed up Top Totty for a flat-chested crack whore, I slipped her a $5 bill and she was one her way without complaint. So, I may not be proud of what I shagged, but the fact I did it for the equivalent of 175 baht left me with a warm fuzzy feeling.
Post-New Year’s Bounce and Sharky’s (Again)
Three days of Phnom Penh and I was off to Sihanoukville and, upon leaving, I was thinking the Khmer capital wasn’t all that, when it came to the ladies. But after five days at the beach, I felt I’d seen enough and decided to give PP another try, post New Year, to see if it was better.
I’m glad I did. Things were much better on the weekend and, I was told, the bars and girls were still not back to 100%. The most obvious proof of this came the last night, when I gave Sharky’s a third try.
I actually arrived early with food the priority. And, damn, the grub is actually very good. And huge. I saw a burrito go by the size of a small car. My pulled-pork BBQ sandwhich was a foot high and tastier than anything like it I’ve had outside the U.S.
By 9 p.m, the girls were flooding in. Sure, I saw the same old tired Viet girls that had been there the weekend before. But there were lots of fresh Khmer faces including one that made me choke on my beer when she came over waving her hands in a flurry, pointing at her ears and mouth.
Yes, it was the Deaf Mute from Bad Boy’s trip report.
One of the girls present was a deaf-mute, who I must admit appealed on a certain level. How many of our problems with bargirls could have been averted if only they had been incapable of speech? Terry was interested on an entirely different level, in that he wanted to know whether she squeaked or not when having sex. Perhaps next time we’ll find out – for now, she just wasn’t pretty enough.
Truthfully, she had a pretty decent body, although the face was unfortunate. So, I too, did not find out if she squeaks. But I did learn the sign-language for “since you’re not going to buy me a drink, I’m outta here.”
And also, I’m sad to say, that in three visits I saw no girl with a coconut.
Sitting at the bar, I literally had to shoo away a steady stream of hookers both staring at me while I ate (I hate that) and then begging for a drink afterward. It figures then that the one girl I truly found stunning in the bar had to be cajoled into sitting next to me, showed little interest in chatting and then departed before I could buy her a drink. She was a Khmer vision in a long backless black gown, lightened hair, small, but well-displayed bustline, and a lovely face. I sent a friend of hers to pull her back but she’d already left for a short-time with some other guy. Maybe next time.
The hostess bars were much better as well. Pre-New Year, the 104/136 bars had as few as four girls on hand and even fewer lookers. Numbers doubled by the weekend and I’m told most bars carry 25-35 girls in normal times. Even The Heart was better post-Songkran.
Final Notes on Phnom Penh … and Food
Man can not live on beer and beauty alone, so a quick word on food. As BBB noted, there’s lots of good farang food in PP, but I found a lot of it quite expensive, by Thai standards. It was hard to find a breakfast for under $5 and dinners were normally $8-$12. It’s been a while since I’ve been there, but that strikes me as U.S. prices. So, although they’re not the cheapest, here’s a list of where I ate that I enjoyed:
- Green Vespa – (Sisowath Quay near Street 104). Excellent British and decent American food at reasonable prices.
- Huxley’s – (Corner of Streets 136 and 5) – English pub with solid Sunday roast. A bit over-priced, though, with the Sunday bit at $12.50 with soup.
- Candy Bar – (Across Street 5 from Huxley’s) – Huge menu of American and Khmer food at good prices. Daytime any burger, pizza or sandwich is $4. Breakfast is $3.
- Hope & Anchor – (Street 136 & Sisowath Quay) – You gotta sit at an uncomfortable bar seat, but their $5 steak and eggs breakfast is terrific. And BBB said the full English was tasty as well.
Finally, I’ve been asked what did I think overall? I found Phnom Penh to be a great change of pace from Thailand. The place has a much more leisurely feel, the Khmer people are quieter and more polite than their Thai counterparts and you don’t spend all your time feeling like a local is trying to scam you, unlike Bangkok and Pattaya.
The dollar-based economy is a bit of a two-edged sword, though: Sometimes are much cheaper (women and beer) while other things are stupidly overpriced, such as Diet Coke and a bottle of water at $1-$2.
The bars themselves are interesting, but if you prefer your nightlife wilder, then a few days of hostess bars will make you appreciate the Walking Street lesbian shows once you return.
Overall, I certainly would go again, but I would not go during Songkran again. I didn’t see water or powder in the capital, but there were simply too few women about to make the trip worthwhile.
Next up: Sihanoukville.