Cambodia: An Introduction.

Dear Mum,

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Kids don’t have video games in Cambodia.

I’m in Cambodia and have been for two weeks or so. I’ve been falling behind in writing these because Cambodia is super radtacular and we’ve been busy doing loads of fun stuff whilst at the same time contending with power outages and sporadic internet. I plan to make 3 posts about Cambodia, and this one is sort of an overview of the whole experience. I didn’t really do a summing up of Thailand but I’ll try to do some comparisons in this post.

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  Both have beaches. And sunsets,

Flights are expensive and visas run out, so we had to make hasty plans to escape Thailand on a budget in limited time. Originally, we had planned to go to Laos, but we were swayed instead by friends and limited money to instead head straight to Cambodia. Our journey from Koh Tao involved a four hour ferry ride, a 10 hour bus ride, a 5 hour spell in a 24 hour bar in Kao San Road at 4 in the morning, another 6 hours on a bus, and a whole lot of waiting around in between. By this point we were at Trat, a town close to the Southernmost border crossing. We could have tried to push on and hope to reach the border that night before it closed, but decided instead we had jack of sleeping sitting up and stayed overnight to get a fresh start in the morning. We had a relatively uneventful night in which a lady boy kept touching me and I ate some undercooked chicken from a street vendor and didn’t die.

I would recount the rest of our journey but it would really just be more rambling about catching and waiting for buses. The land border crossing was mildly interesting, with us only getting ripped off slightly.

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Border crossings are sort of rad and sort of annoying.

More interesting were our first impressions of Cambodia.

In many ways Cambodia is similar to Thailand. It has a king, the people are brown and friendly, it’s a country in South-East Asia, there are monks and stuff, etc. There are also some marked differences. Cambodians are poor. Sources tell me the average wage is 2 dollars a day. I thought Thailand was what we might call a developing country, but it is nothing compared to Cambodia. The scenery flashing past my bus window was mostly empty landscape, but when we did come upon a town, houses were often hand built by the owners, made entirely of wood and sometimes too small to stand up in. Some places use tarps for walls. It is not uncommon to see people transporting goods via ox and cart.

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Cambodian housing. I’ve seen both worse and better here as well.

All of this is of course the hangover from the horror show that was the Khmer Rouge, although apart from the occasional land mine victim (there are still minefields in some parts of the country), you could almost forget that it even happened. As a rule the Cambodian people tend to be just as friendly and hilarious as Thais, and are extremely welcoming to foreigners (although one guy told me he didn’t like the Russians or Israelis much).

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Cambodia also has some less horrific history which is actually pretty amazing.

The Cambodian landscape seems to be mostly flat fields for grazing and rice, red dirt, forests. There are a few mountains about, but the overall impression one gets is of a vast flatness. You will likely see some free roaming chickens and cattle walking carelessly across roads. Somewhere out there are a bunch of minefields which still need to cleaned up. It is the dry season, but Cambodia seems to be, if not hotter, then dryer than Thailand.

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Reminds me a little of Australia.

I thought Thai traffic was a little unruly – what a sheltered little boy I’ve been. In Cambodia, people drive like fucking maniacs. Big always has right of way over little (to the point they will run them off the road), lanes are optional, number of passengers relies entirely on how many people you can physically jam in or get to hang off the side, and speed limits are self-regulated by the individual driver. By far the most surprising thing was that I didn’t see anyone die.

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Especially since we went everywhere in one of these bad boys.

The national currency of Cambodia is the Riel, although in practice everyone uses US dollars, with Riel making up the cents. 1 US dollar is worth around 4000 Riel, which means you sometimes have to do some tricky mental arithmetic to figure out prices which feature fractions of dollars, but choose to display them entirely in decimal units. For example, an item showing a price of $3.60 will in practise cost you 3 US dollars and about 2400 Riel. Riel comes in paper notes only, in denominations from 100 up to 20,000 (I think) and if you’re not careful you can end up with a wallet stuffed with almost worthless paper bills. Because I’m a genius I immediately changed 150 American dollars to Riel once we were over the border. I then had to lug around a wad of 600,000 Riel in various notes for a week trying to get rid of it all. There’s nothing quite like watching a tuk tuk driver’s smile change to a grin of defeat when you hand him a fistful of Riel. Screw those guys, they overcharge you anyway.

Oh yeah, bartering prices is a much bigger thing in Cambodia as well, and pretty much any initial price given (unless its marked on a shelf or similar) is guaranteed to be a hilariously over the top rip off. As I said before, Cambodians are lovely, but to them every foreigner is an overly rich sucker used to paying too much money for everything. Prices can usually be bartered down to something reasonable, and in the end a couple of dollars isn’t a huge difference for someone from a first world economy. But when the locals are paying 12 and half cents for a coffee and the guesthouse restaurant is charging 2 dollars to privileged white folk there’s no shame in playing the barter game, especially since you can pay a market merchant or trinket seller 3 dollars for something and they’ve already cleared the average wage for that day. Jerks.

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Some roadside trinket stalls.

There will be no shortage of Cambodians after those tasty first world dollars, either. Depending on where you are it can be difficult to escape the endless parade of trinket sellers, fruit vendors, masseuses, genuine landmine victims, and tuk tuk drivers. Oh man, the tuk tuk drivers. Tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia will park back to back along major streets and will offer their service to anyone and everyone, even if you have refused the driver next to them. The standard inquiry into whether you might be interested in employing their services is to just say “tuk tuk?” Combine this with tuk tuk drivers parked in every available space along a street and the background music to Cambodia is an endless repetition of the syllable “tuk”, over and over and over.

A surprising cost was food. In Thailand, you could get a pretty excellent noodle soup for about a dollar from a street vendor, or 3 dollars from a restaurant. In Cambodia you will pay about 4 dollars in a restaurant for… nothing special to be honest. Khmer food has been a disappointment, Thai beats them in spades there. Maybe I’m eating in the wrong places. They have a dish with ants in it. I’m not eating it.

I realise I’ve made Cambodia sound kind of horrible. But it’s not. It’s really, really not. In fact, it’s fantastic. All of this stuff just adds to it’s flavour and we’ve had such an awesome time. This stuff will come up a bit more the posts to follow, which I will be trying to get  up before I depart this promised land.

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Also, it has monkeys. Monkeys kick arse.

Love,

Your son (the favourite one).

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