The Pearl of Asia
During our time in Cambodia we heard many different opinions about what it takes to live there. There was everything from “I love it” to “it’s hardship duty.” We personally enjoyed our time in Cambodia. It was a little trying at times but it’s important to keep things in perspective so you don’t get jaded. Cambodia has a tragic past and is still recovering. I’m not qualified to go into details but if you are curious you can read about it here.
When we got out of the airport we were being hailed by every taxi driver in sight. If this has never happened to you before it is a little overwhelming. As a resident of the US we are usually struggling to hail a cab. But here you have your pick of cab drivers. Depending on your willingness to brave the traffic you can get a moto (guy who will let you ride on the back of his scooter), tuk tuk (four-person carriage towed by scooter), or a proper cab. Here is a picture of Briana in a tuk tuk.
Traffic is always a shocker, but being in the taxi on the way to our host’s place we took solace in the fact that we were traveling at about 40kph (about 25mph). This would be the rate that we traveled in just about every motorized transport we took. It was somewhat comforting to know that if we were to get into an accident we would most likely survive given the low speeds. Depending on your comfort level you can be as close to the traffic as you like, and by close I mean having your elbows within inches of other moto’s mirrors on a moto taxi. Of course you can take a tuk tuk but its triple the price. We decided to try and save some money by renting a scooter. It was intense at first, but after we survived our first excursion we learned how to be safe. This might seem like a contradiction but if you drive moderately recklessly like the locals do you will be mostly safe. You just have to be predictable.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, has a population of about 2 million people and has changed a lot in the last 10 years. It even has a tall building. Our CS host has been living in Phnom Penh for 7 years, and she was recalling how they had to boil water to make it potable, whereas now a simple water filter system will suffice. We drank the filtered tap water there without incidence. This didn’t stop our food and drink decisions the first night from leading to a sleepless few hours as we stressed that every rumble in our stomach would turn into a flight to the bathroom. We were fine in the end.
Our host had an apartment for us to stay in, which was a few blocks away from her house. So when we arrived we didn’t actually meet her for a few days. We talked on the phone and picked up the keys but we were on our own. After we dropped our bags off at the apartment we decided to get some dinner. Given that we weren’t well oriented we decided eat at the closest place to the apartment. This turned out to be an interesting experience. We walked into a big courtyard with tables outside and small burners on them. There were a couple young kids sitting at the table and they got really excited when we walked in. We said we wanted to eat and asked to see a menu, but they looked at us weird and said “you want to eat here?” We realized why they were shocked when a few scantily clad women came out to see what was going on. We realized then we were inquiring about dinner in a brothel, spun a 180 and left.
The next place was really busy with everyone cooking food on their own small grill at each table. We thought this place looked as good as any so we ventured in and sat down. A kid around 10 years old brought us cups of ice and asked what we wanted. We asked for a menu and made the motion we understood to mean menu and he ran off to get some assistance. He went over and made the same motion we did and then food started coming to our table. It turns out we really didn’t get a choice for dinner, and when the raw beef came out there was no turning back. Briana looked at me and started to turn green. She said “I don’t know if I can do this.” I thought about it and decided that if we were going to eat something sketchy like this, at least we were in control of the cooking. So we fired up the grill and feasted on Khmer Barbeque. This included beef, assorted veggies and sauces. Aside from the initial shock of raw meat it was a really great experience. It was completely off the tourist track and we could barely communicate. In fact we went back for a second visit on our last night and had to “moo” to get beef. We got a few looks from the locals and one table even raised their glasses to us, but it was pretty uneventful. We downed a pitcher of beer and enjoyed being the awkward tourists burning our food because we had trouble regulating the flame. It cost us about $5 and was worth every penny.
It’s easy to lose sight of this part of Cambodia since most of the tourists stay in the city with constant pestering from people who make their living off the tourist trade. This includes tuk tuk drivers, people selling bootlegged books (actual photocopies of popular books such as lonely planet), and restaurateurs. We met a really jaded ex pat at lunch one day who told us of a movement called DRP or Don’t Reward the Pests. Basically they suggest you walk far enough away from anyone yelling at you and find someone who is minding their own business and patronize them. While we don’t approve of the derogatory name (these people are just trying to make a living) we did try to do this to a certain extent, but we would be walking toward an isolated tuk tuk driver and even in the absence of immediate competition they will still jump up and holler at you. In the end you just have to embrace it. You are their livelihood and unfortunately there are about 6 times as many tuk tuk drivers as there are customers.
Aside from the persistent hawkers, Phnom Penh is a nice city. It has some beautiful buildings and nearly every international cuisine is accounted for. The baguettes and coffee were amazing. It was really nice to have bread again after nearly 2 months of rice and noodles. We went into an American bar called free bird, it served Budweiser, hamburgers, and they were even playing Lynyrd Skynyrd on the stereo. We got some nachos and buffalo wings, which were actually good. There is always a risk getting non local food since it is usually of poor quality. We found that most of the Khmer food was worse than the western food. The chicken was gristly and overcooked, though pork was a meat that tended to be safe in most dishes. One of the best Khmer dishes we had was Amok fish. This is a river fish that they put in curry and serve on rice. It was really amazing. Sometimes they serve it in a coconut, but we didn’t have a chance to try it this way. One interesting restaurant we read about is Happy Herb Pizza. If you get the Happy Herb Special and order it “all the way happy” you will get a marijuana pizza. I’m not sure how this works, but it’s probably pretty popular with the tourists.
Another thing we were reminded of in Cambodia is that kids are amazingly capable. For better or worse the economic situation means that a lot of children need to work at a young age. You see small children sometimes no more than 5 years old selling things, cooking, waiting tables, you name it. Coming from a place where it is not uncommon for college age kids to be incapable of loading a washing machine or cooking a hot dog we were struck by the responsibilities and capabilities of Cambodian youth. You would never see little Johnny running the family business because he wouldn’t be trusted to do it. In Siem Reap we saw a 7 year old boy pushing around the family asset, in this case a food cart, rather clumsily as he almost hit Briana with it. It’s difficult to see this situation and not be affected by it. I know everyone would like to let their kids have a childhood of fun without work, but that is not always possible. It’s heart breaking when a kid comes up to you trying to sell you post cards and counts them all out and when you say “no, thank you” counters with “I’m hungry.”
We don’t want to make light of this as the situation in Cambodia is indeed dire but we had a funny experience when we were in Siem Reap. We bought some Durio’s for a snack. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the durian, it is a large, pungent, spiky fruit that stinks so bad it has necessitated signs telling you not to eat it in enclosed spaces. It smells like a mix between onions, B.O., and sulfur. It is truly foul. We weren’t brave enough to try the fruit itself but we thought that as a cream filled cookie flavor it would be tolerable. Enter Durios, the durian flavored Oreo knockoff. When you take the first bite you have to try hard not to breathe because your nasal passages are instantly filled with that pungent aroma and swallowing can be a chore. Once you get past this smell the sweet taste is actually quite nice, but not really worth the pain. So we are at dinner and we had this package of cookies left over when a kid comes up and tells us he’s hungry. We offer him the cookies and he turns his nose up at them and says “Whoa, I don’t want those!” The whole restaurant staff cracks up witnessing this exchange and even we and the boy share a few laughs. I guess you never know.
Overall, Phnom Penh is a pretty cool city to just hang out in. You could do all the tourist stuff there in a couple days and just take the rest of your time to relax and enjoy a few rest days. The river front has many restaurants with free wifi and happy hour all day long (usually 60 cents a beer). You can take a boat cruise and see the floating village as well. Briana and I were happy with how much time we spent in Phnom Penh (6 days). It was a great experience and we learned a lot about the people, culture, and life in the Pearl of Asia.