Translated by: Pal Capewell
It’d be a lie to say all countries have the same impact on us and they all make us fall in love with them head over heel. Not every country has given us the same - either by quality or quantity - but nevertheless we are truly grateful for having had the chance to visit. Our point is to be very frank with the readers here. Based on our experiences, we became rather uninterested with Cambodia as we progressed southwards in Laos. Poverty everywhere, relying on tourism and naive tourists so heavily that it turned sickening. Pairing extreme poverty with tourism is never smart, from our perspective. Eni and I arrived to Cambodia with rather low expectations. Over time however, somehow this apathy faded off and even the disgustingly corrupt border crossing didn’t deter us from enjoying the next Southeast Asian country.
Let’s leave the border crossing fiasco out of the first impressions since it is so embarrassing for the country that there are no words for it. Besides, it is solely due to the super corrupt officials and does NOT represent the people. And, based on that, Eni and I agreed to leave the border crossing out of our image for Cambodia as we biked away from that horrid place. Instead, our impression begins from the first village we entered and started chatting with the locals. They welcomed us warmly, without any suspicions - instead, they helped us get settled. This is also the place where our most fascinating breakfast happened (thus far), with four seventy-something year olds. The six of us not only shared all the food but the interest we had towards each other, which took form in a rather limited, but all the more entertaining communication. Let’s begin with the topic that comes to mind for us first when thinking of Cambodia. No, it’s neither its history nor its architecture - but the people.
Cambodian people are wonderful. Seriously, in every single way. The poorest country we have been to thus far (unfortunately it’s quite the leader from a global perspective too, in this aspect). When I say poverty, I mean the simplest, most basic things. Yes, there are countries that are way poorer than Cambodia, but Cambodia is the one I personally witnessed and experienced.
Then there is the historical trauma, whose criminals and survivors are in our parents’ age (50-60). Cambodians don’t have much, except the depressing past, yet their eyes still sparkle. These loving souls emit only calm and happiness. Unlike Laos, they were not kind and hospitable towards us because they expected money (though Laos had its exceptions too, I must admit). Whom Eni and I smiled at either already had a smile on, or broke out in a smile immediately. This is why after a couple of days we were constantly smiling. It is such a liberating feeling!
It’s not clear how many people can speak English, but a few words are ready in everyone’s vocab. For children, the basic “hello, goodbye, I love you” are the most common, but they use what they have in such adorable ways! What Eni and I realized in the Laos-Cambodia-Thailand trio was that in Laos the children were the most direct and welcoming, in Thailand we expect the adults to be this way, but in Cambodia both kids and grown-ups are super sweet and loving. Cambodians always turned to us with genuine care and interest. Never a pushy or forceful move, never a negative incident. As we rode through towns on our bikes we couldn’t even determine where the “hello”s came from most of the time, just shouted the greeting right back. Us two and the locals had fun examining each others’ facial features in the quaint restaurants Eni and I dined in.
Talking about faces. I don’t want to cut to the chase, but I have to. There is a belief back home in Hungary that Thai people are all exceptionally beautiful. Well, sorry guys, that’s nowhere close to reality. In general, it’s really not true. Eni and I were surprised ourselves as well. Sure, there were a few beautiful faces but the chances of seeing such were much higher in Cambodia. Kids, women, men, everyone. Cambodians’ skin is darker than that of Thais, their noses are wider, and they have some impressive muscles - so impressive that those skinny white boys in European gyms would feel embarrassed. Maybe instead of going to the gym every day they should work on the fields, cultivate rice and do all hard work by hand. We only saw one Cambodian who was slightly fatter than the average, but it was obvious he belonged to the wealthier group. (Just to compare, Thailand has way more overweight people, children as well. The wealthier region, huh!) So yeah, Thai women might be pretty but they have nothing on the Cambodian beauties! Family values are important, Cambodians are very patient and loving towards kids. The elderly and monks enjoy the highest level of respect.
They are a very calm bunch, like you probably read in our New Year’s blogpost. Not one unruly move. Cambodians are generally modest, kind, trustworthy and calm. Perhaps these four words describe them the best.
Like in Laos, there are not many cars. Most people get by on motorcycles if they can, and also transport goods that way too. Most of you wouldn’t be able to imagine the size of the trailers behind these tiny motors. The roads are in terrible condition, though we did see efforts of some kind of reconstruction (with more failures than successes, sadly). The most extensive means of transport is the bus. Except the high-end ones, the buses are ran-down and whether they should be in service at all is questionable. Not that the average passenger notices, as the roads are so bad that the best Mercedes Citaro would shake the life out of anyone here; take the Siem Reap - Phnom Penh route for example, which takes seven hours. Unbearable. The traffic is not crazy at all though, and can be considered within reason (on a scale where China is crazy and Hungary is well organized). The Consulate’s website summarizes it pretty well: “The downside of road transport are the mines, which are often unmarked. For your safety, we strongly recommend to avoid train services due to the questionable state of the infrastructure. Motorcycles are not recommended. Again for your safety and due to the lacking knowledge of the drivers and questionable infrastructure, please refrain from motor-taxi services. If traveling by boat, make sure to only board safe-looking ones with proper organization. Refrain from boarding a boat that seems to be carrying more than it’s capacity. In general, do not board any means of transport if it seems overloaded.”
Of course, the Consulate’s job is to protect the Hungarians abroad, but Eni and I felt it to be a bit overly dramatic. It wasn’t all THAT catastrophic. There is a certain Asian perspective, which doesn’t coincide with the Western one. If we used a Western objective we would probably not be able to travel at all, as everything would be considered crazily scary and dangerous.
Food and Shopping
Rice, with chicken, pork, fish or seafood to go with it. This is the most common menu in most kitchens. Or, one can get the famous “noodle soup” which they prepare like in Laos but without the salad on the side. There is a lot of grilled meats and fish. Eni and I think Cambodians do better sandwiches than their northern neighbors. Bring the meat, we love it so! Their sugarcane juice is really delicious and they use tangerine to “citrusize” it (it’s a word I just made up*Balazs*). So basically sugarcane with a bit of citrus taste. They serve it with crashed ice. By the way ice.... a sensitive topic. One has to be extremely careful, as it is rarely hygienic. Ice is transported in massive blocks on a back of a dirty motorbike, covered by an equally dirty plastic wrap and are cut to pieces by tools with dirt of questionable origins. Eni and I tried to avoid ice at all costs, but at times it did force its way into our diet (for example locals put it in our coffee). This is why we asked most of our drinks to be hot (we prefer it that way anyway). Hygiene is not a common “illness” around here. :P Our stomachs had quite the training but I am not sure if I’d be willing to just fly in from Europe and risk a week long food poisoning during a two-weeks holiday...
They sell a lot of different meals from their motorbikes. Actually, they basically sell everything from their motorbikes. Sandwiches, sugarcane juice, ice-cream, coffee, noodle soup, fried pasta, raw fish and veggies, sweets. What we suggest to visitors is what can be said for most countries - eat where the locals eat. That way the authenticity of the meal is real, and it’s less likely that you will have food poisoning (khm, less likely, not unlikely). Extreme dishes Eni and I tried: duck embryo, fried insects, frog stew and stuffed frog grilled.
Supermarkets are rare, but small stores can be found in most towns. Don’t expect large selection but one won’t have to starve. Tap water is not drinkable but bottled water is readily available everywhere. The smaller bottles are cheaper if one buys in bulk. It was quite an uncomfortable feeling to produce this much trash, but one either buys 1.5 liters bottle for $0,50 or 6 liters in small bottles for $0,75. Banana, mango, pineapple, dragon fruit, jack fruit, durian are available everywhere. Durians have an unbearable stink to them and it’s easy to spot where they are grown. It smells like when the onion goes bad and you mix it with rotten tomatoes. Haven’t tried yet. No particular reason, just how things panned out. Cambodia has smaller bananas with black seeds; they taste much more like kiwis than what a European considers a banana. Coconuts are delicious, I love both their juice and their meat. Obviously not everyone is a saint here either, but regarding prices and payments we were taken for a ride much less frequently. Another interesting fact is how universally they accept USD, at the same rate nationwide. 1 USD - 4000 Real. Basically making USD a universal form of payment.
Fried banana. Best recipe ever, will do some back home too!
Cambodia is basically a grassy savanna. Quite boring, if you ask me. The sea to the south, jungle and mountains to the west. From this perspective, Laos is much prettier and more diverse. But one can hardly hold that against a country! Their architecture is quite unique - well not in regional perspective because Laos and Thailand were also part of the Khmer Empire. If we see a door or gate of a church, we already know it’s Khmer due to their typical characteristics. Eni and I mostly saw the countryside architecture though, which is very similar to that of Laos. Mostly wooden and bamboo “forts” with plastic roof. Bigger cities carry the French heritage. Angkor’s ancient city is a most fascinating spot. You can check here, if you missed it. (PASTE LINK?)
It is said that the best party is the one for which you don’t prepare. Well that’s how Eni and I were with Cambodia. We expected the least, that’s why it hit the biggest, the most. We grew fond of it for its culture, heritage, history and lovely people. This tiny country grew into our hearts! If we don’t consider Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, it’s not a very touristy country though. It has everything for the perfect summer holiday: it’s interesting, colorful, exotic, cheap. There is plenty to discover. An ideal destination for those who feel Thailand to be too boring or too deep in their comfort zones. But don’t expect services and infrastructure like that of Thailand! For me, that’s what makes it so much fun.
Word of advice before taking a nosedive into your very own Cambodian adventure - ask for the necessary vaccinations and preparations in your home country.