“Same Same, But Different”: The popular Thailand t-shirt slogan also could describe the Phnom Penh bar scene in this post-pandemic era.

It had been a month shy of four years since last touching down in Cambodia’s capital and while, at first glance, the riverside area appeared just as it did in October 2019, the differences became glaringly apparent over the following days.

It was comforting to find some favorite dining spots – Armand’s, Oskar & Fatboy Subs – still open, little changed from before Covid-19. Other spots, like the riverfront Burger King (a symbol of Cambodia’s modernization) didn’t survive the pandemic, however.

Cambodia, of course, is hardly the only country hit hard by the coronavirus. Neighboring Thailand had more than its share of pandemic misery, but its recovery has been quicker than Kampuchea’s. Even those who survived had to make incredible sacrifices to do so. Armand said, yes, his namesake French bistro – a dining spot so acclaimed it’s been  name-checked by the New York Timesmade it through, but, to do so, he sold off his house, his truck and burned through much of his savings.

So, too, does the city itself feel like it’s bruised and battered. The previously well-paved streets are now pot-holed and pockmarked. Litter is far more prevalent than before. The city just feels dirtier than it was, in the mud and grime way, not morally.

As for the riverside Phnom Penh bar scene area, it feels like there are actually more bars than there were in 2019, although only a couple, this low-season weekend, could count more than a handful of customers during prime Friday and Saturday night hours.

Phnom Penh Bar Scene: Not Unlike Pattaya

Phnom Penh’s waterfront area always has had comparisons to Pattaya, what Pattaya is or could be. The riverfront promenade – so wide and well-paved, complete with long stretches of grass, trees and even exercise equipment – is what Pattaya Beach Road should be. Even now, as the Pattaya City Hall rips up the beachfront for the fourth time, the work underway will fall far short of the first-class riverfront Phnom Penh bar scene boasts.

On the downside, the Phnom Penh bar scene streets between 104 and 154, remind one all too well of Pattaya’s Soi 6, but one on steroids. Seemingly every door, other than a stray convenience store, is a beer/hostess bar, all with nearly identical signs, layouts and business models. Where Pattaya has Soi 6, with about 70 bars, there must be 400 same-same bars competing for customers between streets 104 and 154.

And, of course, there are more bars away from the riverfront which, these days, must be doing even more poorly. The road that dissects the Phnom Penh bar scene streets between 108 and 154 running parallel to Street 13 is now lit up, filled with bars that weren’t there in 2019 and hone to a large, new live-music house.

So, in the first days of September 2023, what’s the Phnom Penh bar scene like? Some takeaways from three nights on the town:

Lots of Girls, Few Customers

No matter country this happened in, there’s no way for all but a handful of bars to be profitable when there are as many of them as there are in the Phnom Penh bar scene. It would be impossible – and boring, frankly – to try to hit all the bars on every bar street. They’re pretty much all the same and, amazingly, all seem to employ about a dozen women.

Most bars this low-season weekend had fewer than a dozen customers. In some places in the Phnom Penh bar scene, the girls sat outside and shouted loudly to anyone walking by. In others, they appeared to bored or frustrated to try and seemed content to eat or scroll their phones.

With Covid, fewer customers and more competition, there are clear winners and losers in the Phnom Penh bar scene. Street 104 – four years ago a vibrant and hopping street with places like Rose, Air Force, Marine and One Zero Four – is now dead and mostly dark. One Zero Four, the best bar on the street, is now a restaurant.

Meanwhile, Street 136, the most expensive of the Phnom Penh bar scene streets, has become about the only place with fun bars. 69 Bar, very good four years ago, is great now. Full of energy, customers, and lots of pretty girls. Almost all the good bars are on 136, with honorable mention to Street 130.

As like Soi 6, mining the large field of girls in the Phnom Penh bar scene is work. Call it finding diamonds in the rough, needles in a haystack or wheat from the chaff, there are a lot of young (20ish) pretty girls, most new to the game, to be found. But there are also a lot of girls with “H” or light-bulb figures who clearly have been spending more time grazing than galloping.

Unlike Soi 6, or Thailand for that matter, nearly every lady working in the Phnom Penh bar scene is friendly and eager. That shouldn’t be surprising, as Cambodians often are called the nicest people in Southeast Asia.

Chinese & Indians Galore

As mentioned, there are few customers – it is low season, of course – but the few customers there are overwhelmingly are Chinese or Indian. Koreans and Japanese still outnumber the white man, but not by much.

The influx of Chinese falls in line with China’s continued takeover of Cambodia. Sihanoukville, of course, boomed with Chinese investment in casinos and property, and then went bust when Cambodia’s government cracked down on casinos. The Chinese now seemed to have turned their attention to Phnom Penh, where Chinese signs and text are everywhere. Armand’s, a French bistro run by a French-Cambodian, now has a printed menu where the Chinese text is twice the size of the English.

The bargirls grudgingly seem to have accepted the change in clientele, mostly out of necessity.

This is not the Sexy Night you’re looking for…

The Days of the $1 Beer Are Over

The big draw for bar hoppers in Cambodia has always been the plentiful supply of cheap, good (or decent) draft beer. Draft Anchor or Ankor long was US$1 a glass. While it’s still possible to find 75-cent beer at riverfront restaurants during the day, the days of the $1 draft in the girlie bars is over. Nowhere, anywhere was it found over three nights of bar hops.

The other notable development compared with four years ago is the near-takeover of Cambodia-brand beer. It has supplanted the more-expensive (and tastier) Anchor. Now most bars offer either Cambodia or Ankor draft, although Anchor appears to be fighting back by putting big Anchor signs on a strip of bars on Street 130 and Street 136.

Customers can now expect to spend a minimum $1.50 (hard to find) to $2.50 (increasingly common) for the same draft half-pint. At 55-88 baht, it’s still a great deal for Thailand beer hounds, however.

Prices Approaching Bangkok Levels

“Great Deal” cannot be said about all the other associated bar prices in Phnom Penh’s riverfront anymore, however. Prices for lady drinks to bar fines to tips is approaching Bangkok go-go bar levels for a Soi 6 experience.

Lady drinks – usually a small beer filled with ice – now starts at $4 (140 baht) and often hits $5 (175 baht). Bar fines on Soi 136 are $20 (700 baht). According to those familiar with these things, the ladies opening gambit for spending time in your hotel now starts at $100 (3,500 baht).

Phnom Penh is no “poor man’s paradise” any longer.

Phnom Penh Bar Scene: Still Worth It?

No one is going to travel halfway around the globe to visit only Phnom Penh’s bars. British/European/North American travelers are either going to be in Cambodia for the temples and make bars a side trip, or will doing the naughty-boy rounds in Thailand first. But is it still worth it?

Yes. For sure.

Indeed, the Phnom Penh bar scene no longer is cheap. Finding the “right” lady is more work. The city itself is beat up. But the overall experience – despite the Soi 6 comparisons – is still night and day from Bangkok. The girls are nicer, younger and less jaded. Customer beers are still dirt cheap. The hotels are inexpensive. The foreign (especially French) food in Phnom Penh remains outstanding. And there’s more to Cambodia than just the bars.

Just don’t expect to find $1 beers in hostess bars anymore.