Cambodia was a bit of a slow burner for us. After being introduced to the country via the tourist hotspot of Siem Reap we slowly began to understand more about Cambodian life and the challenges it’s 16 million people face – and the horrendous suffering they’ve had to contend with in their recent history.
There were things we loved about the place and others we didn’t. Nevertheless, here are 14 things we’ve learned after visiting Cambodia for one month…
1. People strike up ridiculous poses around temples
Seriously, what is it with people?! They go through all the effort to get to see something as historically significant and awe-inspiring as Angkor Wat and the single most important thing they want to do is to strike a pose for the camera in front of, on, or under one of its many features. Never mind that the buildings have been standing largely untroubled for centuries, it’s quite OK to go and climb all over them, hang off the crumbling trunk of a stone elephant with one hand while the other is held aloft sporting a highly originally two-fingered peace sign.
And they do it by the coach-load.
I realise that I might be getting older and crustier with every passing minute but is this really remotely acceptable?
2. Don’t expect to be alone watching sunrise at Angkor Wat
We got up at 04:30, were picked up by our taxi driver at 05:00 and were at the entrance to the temple by 05:30 – and there were already lots of other people there, too. It’s supposed to be one the must-see things to do when in Siem Reap but we wondered whether it was really worth all the hassle.
3. Cambodian street food is surprisingly good
OK, we didn’t go uber-adventurous and tackle the deep-fried tarantula or the crispy fried black beetles. But the Khmer stuffed frog was pretty darned good. Three whole frogs stuffed with rice, lemon grass and Khmer spices – all on a stick straight off the BBQ. And yes it did taste a bit like chicken.
Better still, Kralan. Sweet, sticky rice roasted inside a piece of sealed bamboo with coconut milk, grated coconut and beans. All you have to do is pull back the sides of the bamboo (like peeling a banana) and eat the rice inside with your hands. It’s sold in markets and on street stalls. Absolutely delicious and perfect for picking up while on a bike ride.
4. Motorbikes are used to transport everything
From pigs to whole families, it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s not difficult to imagine the outrage that would break out in the West if anyone was caught transporting five people on the back of a motorbike – without helmets. But in Cambodia (as in many other South East Asian countries) it’s the norm. God only knows what the outcome would be in the event of a crash.
5. Cambodian kids have to be the cutest in the world
All kids in Cambodia seem to have an inbuilt desire to wave and shout hello at any foreign passer-by, almost as if it’s part of their DNA. And I mean ALL kids – even ones that are still too young to walk. We experienced this a lot in Myanmar/Burma but here it was at another level altogether. Just a simple reaction but one that just seemed so genuine and warm – you’d have to have a heart of steel to not reply in kind.
And they just love to pose for a photograph, too.
6. They have a serious problem with rubbish
It’s everywhere. Whether we were in cities such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, or out in the countryside there seemed to be no infrastructure in place capable of handling it. Time and time again we’d see locals just dump their waste around them without a care, or maybe toss it over a wall and into the river below. It’s a trend we’ve seen all over South East Asia but to be honest, compared to Thailand, Indonesia and even Myanmar, the Cambodians were by far the worst culprits.
7. Pyjamas are something of a fashion statement
8. They love to exercise in public
We saw these mainly in Battambang and Phnom Penh. Usually, in the early morning or early evening, locals come out en masse to make use of the public exercise facilities along the riverfront, while tourists look on in amusement from nearby bars and cafes.
9. Guest houses double as training centres
These feature in many Cambodian towns and cities and are designed to help train some of the country’s most disadvantaged children and adults in hospitality skills so that they can go and find jobs or set up their own businesses. We came across and stayed at two gems in Kratie and Kep.
Le Tonle Tourism Training Centre in Kratie is a lovely converted traditional wooden Khmer house, which provides basic but comfortable rooms for just $10 per night. But it’s the warm, friendly service provided by the young staff that really makes the difference – which is a credit to the way they’ve been trained. The food was great, too.
Better still, Khmer Hands Bungalows in Kep, owned by American Chris and his Cambodian wife, Naomi not only provides hospitality training but also serves as a centre for developing handicraft skills. And Chris is planning to launch a workshop for teaching woodwork skills in the near future.
They thoroughly deserve our support and are definitely worth seeking out.
10. Cambodian food is under-rated
I’d read that Cambodian (or Khmer) food was not as renowned as neighbouring Thai or Vietnamese – and indeed had heard from other travellers that they’d found it boring. Not true!!
While it doesn’t quite compare with the rich, spicy, herby flavours of Thai cuisine, there’s still plenty to enjoy, such as the creamy, coconut-heavy Fish Amok, the dry, spicy Beef Lak Lak and the thick, creamy Khmer Curry. Oh, and the Red Tree Ants with Beef and Holy Basil that yours truly ordered was pretty special too – although toothpicks are definitely required as those pesky ants do tend to stick between your teeth for a while afterwards.
11. Cambodian spiders bite
I’m not a fan of spiders. Thankfully, on our nine months of travel so far I’ve only come face to face with a rampantly loose (and large) one on the wall of our beach-side bungalow in Sri Lanka. Cambodia, however, managed to provide the first spider to actually bite me.
We’d been sitting on the beach in Koh Rong with a bottle of wine, waiting for the nightly bioluminescence to appear in the sea. Of course, with very little light pollution we were in complete darkness, apart from the light provided by the zillions of stars above us. Before I got into the water I’d felt something bite me just beside my ankle but, thinking it was either a mosquito or a sandfly I just ignored it and thought about applying some Tiger Balm to it when I got back to the bungalow.
However, on closer inspection, the bite mark was actually three puncture wounds in a triangular shape, which is apparently the tell-tale sign of a spider bite. And it was now bleeding and hurting. Cue the application of iodine solution, followed by the regular addition of ethanol and dressing to keep it clean.
I’ve no idea how big or what type of spider it was, I’m just glad I didn’t see it. And thankfully, it wasn’t venomous.
12. They like the odd monument or two
From fruit-based statues in the middle of roundabouts to huge crabs perched on offshore stages, you’re never too far away from a monument that’s, should we say, that little bit different. This one in Kep represents the crustacean for which the seaside town is famous for, which we sampled in one of its many beachfront eateries – crab and squid with green Kampot peppercorns.
13. Tourists need to help local communities…
Without wishing to state the obvious, Cambodia is still one of the poorest places in the world and it shows as times. Not only is the country even now still recovering from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, but with its lack of natural resources (70% of its exports are textile goods) and somewhat less-than-enlightened leadership, it has struggled to keep up with the economic advancement of its neighbours, such as Thailand.
We came across plenty of community-based initiatives which encourage tourists to spend their dollars for the benefit of locals – such as the Mekong Discovery Trail around Kratie. But with the vast majority of foreign tourists venturing no further than Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or maybe one of the tropical islands in the south, the influx of tourist dollars to the more needy parts of the country is no more than a trickle at the moment.
On a visit to a local Bunong village in the remote eastern province of Mondulkiri, we met a family who lived together in a one-roomed bamboo house with no electricity – just an open fire in the corner for heating/cooking etc which filled the room with smoke. They literally had nothing save a few crops and their love of each other. Yet they still offered us some fruit as a welcome gift to their home.
Nicky gave the little girl in the photo below a friendship bracelet, which produced an appreciative grin the width of Cambodia itself. It was touching in the extreme and a moment that made us think about what we could do more of to help. Encouraging other tourists to support these communities would be a start.
…but not by riding 92-year-old elephants
It’s certainly a dilemma as one of the simplest ways for local villagers, like the Bunong people of Eastern Cambodia, to earn cash from tourists is to offer rides on their elephants, which they’ve used as domesticated animals for generations.
Our views on elephant riding are simple – it just shouldn’t happen. Nonetheless, we took a trip with one local company based on their mantra that they were trying to encourage villagers to allow tourists to walk with and wash elephants rather than ride on them. However, trying to encourage one set of villagers to do this when there’s another just down the road who are only too willing to offer rides is clearly a challenge. Unfortunately, what we were told and what actually happened were two different things. Ultimately we were horrified to witness a 92-year-old elephant being mounted by THREE fully grown adult tourists while it was bathing in a river. It was passed off by the trip organiser as ‘just some fun” but it smacked of taking the easy option to us. In fact, we appeared to be the only ones in our party of 15 who had a problem with it.
And therein lies the problem.
14. Crossing the road in Phnom Penh is a nightmare
Rules of the road are obviously there to be broken. But when there are no apparent rules in the first place what you’re left with is a free-for-all. Which is pretty much what driving around Cambodia’s capital city is like.
And, learning how to cross the road as a pedestrian goes something like this…
Day One: Position yourself on the kerb and look both ways at the ensuing traffic chaos. Decide not to cross for five or ten minutes as there doesn’t appear to be any chance soon that the traffic will dissipate. Decide to walk half a mile further down the road in search of a pedestrian crossing. Tentatively walk out into the road using the crossing only to find that every road user ignores it anyway. Reach the other side and find the nearest cafe for a stiff drink.
Day Two: Stand behind a local who has the confident swagger of someone who’s done it all before. Wait for him to make his move and follow in his slipstream as he puts his hand up in the face of oncoming traffic as if to say “Slow down, driver”. They slow to a halt in response. Reach the other side and politely nod to him in acknowledgement.
Day Three: March to the kerb in fully confident mood and continue into the traffic without even breaking stride. Stretch your right arm into the air and display your open hand to every scooter, tuk-tuk or taxi heading your way. Watch in self-satisfied smugness as the traffic around you slows to a halt. Reach the other side and feel tempted to cross back over the road one more time – just because you can.
- The Best Of Cambodia In 21 Days
- 3 Alternative Things To Do In Cambodia
- The Killing Fields Of Cambodia
…or visit our Cambodia page.
What did you think? Have you been to Cambodia? If so, what did you learn about the country while you were there? Or maybe you’re thinking of visiting Cambodia soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.