Cambodia: Welcome to the Jungle

Hanoi, Vietnam – Cambodia. The name conjures contrasting images and feelings – part sobering reality, part uplifting hope and humanity, and part organized chaos. Less than 20 years removed from their last coup d’etat, the country is going through massive change while continuing to heal from past wounds. At times it felt like I was in the Wild West – a place where anything goes – which can make traveling quite an adventure until you get used to the cadence of daily life. However, the people were very open and caring and helpful (and most spoke English very well) which made the adjustment as smooth and painless as possible – turning the uncomfortable into the thoroughly enjoyable.

As for the sobering reality part, consider:

  • Villagers and farmers outside the cities survive on only $0.18 per day
  • Cambodia received its independence from France in 1953, but has since suffered through the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, and a civil war after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown.
  • There are still untold amounts of unexploded land mines, bombs, and other ordinances throughout the Cambodian countryside.

It’s a war torn country seeking peace and prosperity, but currently suffering through poverty and corruption. Progress will be slow, but I sense a reason for optimism with the younger generation. When prosperity does come, the smiling and happy people of Cambodia will deserve every bit of it.

On to the highlights:

  • I should have known I was in for a wild experience when my hostel arranged for a tuk tuk to pick me up from the airport instead of the taxi I requested. Further suspicions should have arisen when the driver walked across an eight lane road in heavy traffic, without the aid of a stop sign or stop light, to retrieve said tuk tuk and then drive the tuk tuk directly across the same road and amount of traffic. I thought the guy was crazy, but as I later found out, it turns out he is quite normal.
  • The reason I wasn’t picked up in a taxi is because there really aren’t any Cambodia (or cars for that matter). And, the reason I didn’t take the city bus is because, well, there really aren’t too many buses period in Cambodia either. You’re choices for mass transit come down to the ever dangerous motorbike taxi, the somewhat less dangerous tuk tuk, or the always reliable, yet still dangerous, option of walking.
  • Walking dangerous? Well, for starters, there are no sidewalks (they’re generally used for parking). When you can use a sidewalk, you have to worry about low hanging power lines (or at least giant Westerners like me have to worry about them). Then, not only do you have to worry about walking in the street, but you also have to worry about crossing it because there really aren’t any stop signs or stop lights – even for major intersections.  This means there’s pretty much a constant flow of traffic that you have to play Frogger with – just step off the curb, cross one lane at a time, and hope to God no one runs you over. Oh, and did I mention they don’t always drive on the right side of the road? So, while you’re playing Frogger and crossing the street you really have no idea which direction traffic will be coming from. While nowhere near as good as the tuk tuk driver that picked me up from the airport, I’m still undefeated and I worked my way up to crossing six lane roads with light to moderate traffic and four lane roads with heavy traffic.
  • Nightfall adds another degree of difficulty to the whole process because there really aren’t any street lights (unless you’re on a main road in Phnom Penh or there’s a restaurant or business open late). As does rain – especially when pot holes and unpaved roads are present. Just imagine walking down the middle of the street dodging traffic (that could be coming from any direction), power lines, and potholes. And, if it’s dark, only being able to use oncoming headlights to see. I don’t think crossing the street in the US will be much of a problem anymore.
  • While there may not be any city buses in Cambodia, I did ride an inter city bus round trip between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which

    Try sleeping when the bus rolls down a street like this.

    turned out to be six hours of absolute torture. Why? Well, for one thing the roads weren’t always paved, smooth or both (try sleeping on a bus and smacking your head on the window when the bus hits a pothole every couple minutes). There were literally parts of the trip where I had to grab the seat in front of me to avoid falling into the aisle – and I had a window seat on both legs of the trip.

  • Another problem I had (and it’s a common one for me in Southeast Asia) is that the seats were designed for Asian body types, which means they were smaller and closer together than airline seats. When you happen to be around 6 feet tall with pretty broad shoulders, that’s not necessarily a good thing. On the trip to Siem Reap the guy sitting next to was so small, and I was so large, that his shoulder was jammed into my rib cage for pretty much the entire six hour trip. And, because the seat was so small I couldn’t move. It made hitting those bumps and potholes feel extra special. Although the trip back to Phnom Penh may have been even worse as there was a wall in front of my seat that prevented me from extending my legs. So, I had to sit in the exact same position (unless I wanted to sit on the lap of the guy sitting next to me) for six hours. I think it took at least two days for my legs to straighten properly after that.
  • To make the return trip even worse, there was an older couple behind me that decided to play the role of the ‘Ugly Tourists’. When I tried to get on the bus, they were sitting in my seat. I didn’t think it was a big deal (I was going to have turn myself into a pretzel to fit in the seat anyway, so what did it matter if I was in the first or second row?), but apparently it was a very big deal to the bus company. I’m not sure what happened because I waited outside, but apparently a major argument ensued between the couple (who thought they were in the correct seats) and the workers (who were trying to tell them they were in the wrong seats). After about 5-10 minutes I was escorted to me seat where I heard the older lady (who was in the seat behind me) talking on her phone and scolding her hotel for for embarrassing her and her husband (since the hotel booked the wrong seats it was obviously all their fault).
  • As for the sights in Cambodia, I was there for Angkor Wat but the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh stole the show. I’m not certain the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda were worth the price of admission, but they were still interesting.
    •  I’ll save the Killing Fields for another post – believe me, it’ll be more than worth it.
    • Angkor Wat and the rest of the temples were definitely cool, and I had a great guide to show me around, but it just seemed like

      Angkor Wat

      there was something missing. The main thought in my mind as I walked away was, “That was it?” Part of the reason was the weather – it rained so much in the afternoon that my visit to Angkor Wat itself had to be cut short. Plus, there were so many tourists – especially at the Jungle Temple (the one used in the Tomb Raider movie) – that it kind of lessened the experience for me. It was still beautiful, and I would recommend anyone to go. It just wasn’t what I expected.

  • Speaking of the rain, I now know why they call it the rainy season. Remember the scene in the movie Forrest Gump, when he’s fighting in the Vietnam War and sees a few drops of rain before turning into a never ending torrential downpour? Well, that may have been an exaggeration, but it certainly wasn’t very far from the truth. The one nice thing about the rain though, is that it’s accompanied by strong winds and cooler temperatures. So, in a way, I kind of welcome the rain – as long as I’m not in it.
  • One odd thing about Cambodia is that everyone wants US Dollars. All prices are in dollars. You can only withdraw US Dollars from the ATM. The cash registers are even rigged to show US Dollars as well as Cambodian Riels. I’ve never seen a country that didn’t want to use their own currency. The upside is everyone used a conversion rate of around 4,000 Riels to $1 USD when the actual exchange rate was more favorable towards the dollar. So, every time I paid in Riels I saved myself a little money.
  • Cambodian food was simply okay, which surprised me, considering the country’s French colonial history. I think the best thing I had was some chocolate ice cream and a Coke from Swensen’s (Don’t judge. The temperature was well into the 90′s, and that ice cream and Coke were nice and cold).
  • What the country lacked in food, it more than up for in alcohol. My favorites were Anchor and Angkor. Both were very light, yet very smooth. Perfect for quenching your thirst in the hot weather.
    • Happy hour nirvana.

      Happy Hour is something special in Cambodia. It’s very common to find buy one, get one free specials or prices reduced to as low as $0.50 for a draft. I think I found my beer nirvana in SE Asia.

  • I’m not certain if Andrew Zimmern has filmed an episode of Bizarre foods in Cambodia, but I think he could make a pretty compelling episode, or three.
    • My first find was at the hotel bar in Siem Reap, where there was a bottle of “local alcohol” – I later learned it’s called Snake Whiskey – that contained a baby cobra and scorpion in

      Snake Whiskey

      the bottom. I would have tried a shot, but I had second thoughts when the bartender (a local Cambodian) confessed he was scared to try it. If the locals are scared to try it, there’s no way I’m trying it.

    • While telling my Angkor Wat guide about the snake whiskey, he told me about cobra wine. For the uninformed, cobra wine is red wine mixed with cobra blood. Apparently, the guide’s friend’s father brought a bottle home one day, took 2 shots, and passed out for 24 hours because it was so strong. Reason number two not to drink anything with a cobra in it.
    • Finally, during our lunch stop on the bus ride back to Phnom Penh I walked past a lady selling something akin to barbeque

      Crickets anyone?

      crickets. At least they looked like crickets and they were browned as if cooked in barbeque sauce. Some even came with chilis. Unfortunately, I can’t confirm how they taste. After the silk worm incident in China, I tend to shy away from eating insects.

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