Its been 6 months since Mick and I first moved to Cambodia and started working here and what a fun adventure it has been. There’s been torrential rain, protests, armed police wandering the streets, amazing food, kittens, exploring, bike rides, visitors and more. We have had challenges in our jobs, and achievements too. There’s been many fun nights with our friends, long lunches, lazy Sundays and travel planned. I could detail each and every one of these things, but I thought I would list 10 things that I am loving, and hating, about Cambodia.
Do you have any others that you might add to this list? There sure is plenty more that I would!
10 things…I like about Cambodia..
1. Cheap food
Food prices here are very, very reasonable. Fresh fruit and vegetables are cheap, ridiculously so. To eat out at a local restaurant for breakfast (like our favourite noodle shop!) it costs Mick and I 17,000 riel (~$4.30). For dinner it can range from $4 each and up to eat a huge amount including beers. So good! In Australia it is much cheaper to eat at home than eating out, but here its probably the opposite. There are some hoity-toity restaurants that have main meals starting at $9 and going up but these are not your usual spots to feast at.
2. Cheap booze
Alcohol prices in Australia are ridiculous. Paying $9 for a 30ml spirit drink in a bar is too much. Paying over $5 for a crappy beer like Carlton Draft is also too much. I know there are reasons for these high prices (taxes, govt. wants to reduce alcohol consumption etc) but it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on reducing alcohol consumption or alcohol related violence. Perhaps these issues have more to do with cultural norms than the cost of booze?
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, beer, wine, cocktails, spirits and everything else in between is cheap. Cans of beer cost less than $1, cocktails tend to be around the $5 mark and imported wine (its all imported!) from Chile, France, Italy or Spain hovers between $5-$15 for a bottle. You can get wine in Australia in that range too but from my experience, a decent (read: drinkable) bottle costs $15+. The cheap prices of alcohol is not coupled with intense booze-fueled violence. Most Khmer’s have 1-2 beers, turn red in the face and/or go to sleep.
Riding a bike in Phnom Penh is exhilarating and relaxing at the same time. The first few times going around the independence monument certainly makes your heart beat a little faster, but after a while you realise its actually very relaxing. You slowly pedal around, going with the flow, minding your own business and its all very chilled. You can explore a lot of this city on a bike and its cooler than walking! I just wish that Sydney wasn’t so full of hills that it made riding a bike not such a massive deal haha.
Life here is so much more relaxing than in Australia. There is a lot less pressure to be everywhere, do everything and be a high achiever all the time. If you want to spend the weekend napping on the bed, couch, papasan chair and floor, then no one is going to blink an eye. If you delay things, there’s no drama. If you take a long time to get somewhere, it’s a-okay. People understand the need for life-work balance and they make sure that there is that balance, always. Family time is incredibly important. Seeing friends is essential. Having a break (whether it’s for lunch or for a holiday) is necessary for keeping a sane mind and a healthy body. Some of my workmates have 3 hour lunch breaks to ensure that they don’t work too hard & get a chance to have a sleep in the middle of the day.
5. Caring Culture
One of the things that strikes you very early on when you live or work or even just travel in Cambodia is the sense of care and responsibility that your khmer friends, colleagues or even tuk tuk driver will have for you. Most Khmer people are incredibly generous and caring and will go out of their way to make sure everything is ok, that you don’t need anything and that you are happy and comfortable. Recently I was sick with tonislitis (boo!) and I felt that usual twinge you have when you have to have sick leave. I felt I was letting the team down, that I should really be in the office and all those usual feelings. My Khmer colleagues felt very different about it and were genuinely very concerned about me and my health, so much so that they came round one afternoon to check on me and they brought a lovely big basket of fruit for me to help me get better! How incredible is that?
6. Market Life
I love love love shopping in local markets. I love the buzz of the people, the friendly banter, the smiles, the freshness of the food, the vibrancy. I love that raw meat gets slapped down on tables beside a stall selling handbags, I enjoy pulling up a pew and slurping on some noodles while watching people buy their seafood. I think its great fun, exiting and interesting.
Buddhist cultures intrigue me, i think mostly because it is the unknown. Growing up in Australia has it definite bonuses and it is a very rich multicultural place, but most of the religious aspects to the country are Christian. The laws and rules are based in christian beliefs which seem so “boring”. Buddhism is (in my opinion) a lot gentler, fairer and more open to all than Christianity appears so living in a community with these aspects is warm. There are some issues of course such as the conservative rules about clothing and relationships but it is still a wonderful belief system.
8. Not Understanding Everything
One of the things that I really enjoy about living in another country is not understanding things. The language and culture differences are so interesting and its such a cool thing to try and work out whats going on and why. It also extends to not understanding the language which can mean that a relaxing brunch in a restaurant is not interrupted by having to listen to someone complain about the price of grapes or how late their taxi was or some other minor issue. I’m sure the people here talk about such things, but its nice to not have to hear about it!
Cambodian folk love to laugh at foreigners. Our clumsy attempts to speak the language amuse them to no end. Our awkward ways of eating food and the silly things we try and ask for just cause the biggest smiles and laughs. But its not a malicious or cruel laugh, its fun and funny and kind. They are getting a kick out of us messing things up or not knowing the right way to say something. The older ladies love to laugh at you trying to buy meat in the market and smack your arm with the back of their hand to show their amusement. The tuk tuk and motodop drivers think its hilarious when we bring a case of beer home and will slap Mick on the back. And we just laugh along too.
10. Riding my moto
Although the roads are chaotic, the crash rate is high and the road conditions are appalling in some areas, I love riding my motorbike around this fine city. The trafic may be insane and terrifying, but it goes slow and people are not in a hurry to get anywhere. Its not a big deal if you pull out in front of someone, in fact I would suggest its actually expected. People don’t take any notice of whats coming up and just slip into a lane or pull out from the kerb. This can make for a very pleasant ride, even if you have to be alert at all times. Compared with riding a motorbike or scooter in Australia, its a lot slower, other motorists are more respectful and aware of you and you don;t have to deal with young guys trying to race you or cut you off at any time.
10 things I could do without in Cambodia
1. Garbage Piles
Sometimes you forget that you are in a developing country. There are fancy restaurants, fast internet, great coffee and a diverse population of Khmer and foreigners. But then you see and smell the garbage piles that litter the streets. There are no proper garbage bins to dispose of garbage so instead, giant piles of garbage form, often taking up half of a road. In some areas, the garbage pile is on the footpath, outside of a shop or around the base of a tree. And they stink. Especially near seafood restaurants.
2. Ignorant Tourists
Cambodia is a conservative country in many ways. Difference is not celebrated or even tolerated in some circles. Clothing is very modest – shoulders covered, no cleavage, legs are also covered, to the knee or even below. Public affection is not appreciated. When you have been here a while, it is quite confronting to see young girls in their hot pants and singlets hanging off their boyfriends while wandering into the genocide museum, around Angkor Wat or even just schlepping around the city without thinking about how offensive it is to some local people. In addition, Cambodian people are fairly mild mannered and very shy (especially towards foreigners) and they don’t work well with hard words, loud voices or strong demands which some people really don’t realize.
A lot of people who visit other countries do their research and are prepared for the society norms – and then the handful of others who do little research and think they are exempted make it awful for the rest of us.
3. Tuk-Tuk Claps
The tuk tuks of Cambodia are known for their savvy business skills. Bright lights, fancy seating, friendly calls and clapping. They love to clap. “LADY! TUK TUK” they will yell while clapping their hands overhead. And even if they see you every day, they still will love to do this. Some people find this really infuriating and frustrating, I find it hilarious and I just laugh at them / with them as I shake my head “no” again. I have seen some t-shirts printed here that actually have “No tuk tuk, not today and not tomorrow” written on the front, but I doubt that most tuk tuk drivers could even read it, let alone would pay any attention to it
4. Open Toilets / street pissing
Yep. Pissing on the street corners is a popular activity for tuk tuk drivers and motodop drivers. During the early hours of the day until late night you can spy them huddled in a corner watering a concrete fence or tree. The fragrance is overwhelming in some areas, but I guess there is no alternative. Public toilets are few and far between.
5. Street Kids
Its hard to get away from the poverty in Cambodia at times, especially in certain tourist areas. Children are managed by their business-minded parents or carers to go begging in bars, forced to sell cheap sunglasses or books and play up to the bleeding-hearts of tourists. And its pretty bloody awful to see and experience. Their grotty little clothes that don’t fit properly, their filthy feet that don’t have shoes and their birds-nest hair that seems exaggerated to appear worse. But to support these kids with money just makes the situation worse – that’s what their parents want, and they don’t get an improved life if you buy those cheap sunglasses. Buy them a meal if you really need to or donate to a child ngo who supports streetkids like ChildSafe or Friends International.
6. Dangerous Roads
One word – crazy. The roads here are insane, and dangerous particularly at night when drivers have consumed their body weight in beer and whisky then decide to take themselves home. The crash statistics are terrifying (5+ people killed every day, 20+ seriously injured). People speed, drink drive, use their phones and don’t know the road rules.
7. Thinly-veiled Racism
This is a huge generalization and please feel free to share your stories that rebuff what I am saying, but a lot of Cambodian people are racist, particularly towards the Vietnamese and Chinese. They also will make racist comments about people from Africa who have dark skin, about Americans who are overweight and anyone who isn’t Cambodian or looks properly Cambodian to them. This even extends to their friends, colleagues and family who they will deem as not being Cambodian enough and call them Chinese or Vietnamese in a derogatory way. It’s a bit jarring especially when you come from a country like Australia where this full-on kind of racism is limited to small towns and ignorant minds.
8. Smoking in Bars/Restaurants/Clubs
YUCK. It stinks, it hurts my throat and eyes and I hate it. Enough said.
Sometimes the noise gets a bit too much. In an office context, you sometimes have to deal with drilling, banging, people talking on speaker phone, mobiles ringing on EXTREEEEEEEEM, loud talking and youtube clips playing on full volume. Then you head home to the sanctuary of home and have the school next door, the market opposite, the stalls downstairs playing Britany Spears super loud, the caars honking, the car alarms going off, the noisy cat yelling at you and more. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all and go listen to some great music on your headphones before you lose.your.mind.
I am not a huge dog fan at the best of times and in Cambodia the dogs are definitely not looked after well. They bark a lot, they hang out in weird places and they are pretty grotty. Combine that with the prevalence of mange and rabies and I really don’t like the dogs here.