Thought you knew all there was to know about Cambodia?
Here’s a few observations about Cambodia we’ve made in our time here. Some might not surprise you, but others might help prepare you for a visit. It’s certainly not all rosy. But don’t worry, this is not a deterrent, this is all just part of the reality.
1. Buddhism doesn’t mean vegetarian
Any pre-conceived ideas you had about Buddhism, vegetarianism and respect for animals and all living things can be thrown out the window. Apparently, there are different types of Buddhism and the type practiced in Cambodia is not vegetarian. In fact, vegetarians will struggle to find true vegetarian food. You will be offered food with no meat, but it is highly likely it has been cooked with meat, or it uses a fish paste, like the very popular prahok, or some kind of fish stock. There are of course, vegetarian restaurants in the bigger cities and many restaurants selling western food will have some vegetarian options. As for respect for all living things, sadly animals in this country are often treated with little respect – you only have to look at the big bunches of chickens tied by their feet to a motorbike, their beaks inches from the road as they are carted off to market (yes, alive). It’s quite different from the idea of Buddhism I had before travelling through many Buddhist countries in this region.
2. All of Cambodia is a public toilet
And we mean, all of it. The wall of the hotel across the road, the local park, the river, the side of the road. Yeah, it’s pretty disgusting. To be fair, public toilets (even private toilets) are a rarity in much of Cambodia and for people who are out and about pounding the pavement and plying their trade, from sun-up to sundown and beyond, there are few options. Try to turn a blind eye.
3. Toilets are … interesting
Following on from the previous subject matter, if you haven’t visited Asia or the Middle East and probably a few other corners of the globe, you might get a bit of a shock when you first encounter a squat toilet. Instead of sitting on a western-style toilet bowl, you put your feet on the sides of this one (it’s at ground level or close to ground level) and squat to do your business. There’s often not a flushing mechanism but there will likely be a tub of water and a container to bail water into the toilet. Some hate them but if they are clean there is nothing wrong with them. They do give the quads a good workout too. Most hotels and restaurants will have western-style toilets – but not all, so be prepared, especially if you head out of the cities.
Okay, so if you stick to the more popular tourist areas landmines aren’t going to be a problem. But they are responsible for killing tens of thousands of people in this country and maiming many more. There are organisations working to clear them but with the number of landmines left in this country is going to take a long time to clear them all. Be careful if you go off the beaten track and to more remote areas.
5. The head is sacred
Well, I’m not sure if sacred is the right word but it’s certainly deemed rude to touch people on the head – even children. That said, I see adults touching their children on the head all the time, so it’s all a bit confusing (like many things here). But I’d err on the side of caution and suggest it is best advised that you don’t do this. Best not to insult people.
6. Road rules don’t exist
Well, actually, that’s not true. There are road rules. It’s just that most people seem to find it easier to make up their own, probably because too many people don’t have a license, so have never learnt the road rules. It means the roads are a crazy place. They drive on the right – and the left and the centre and along footpaths. You constantly need to be looking left and right when crossing a road, even a one-way road.
7. The roads
The roads in Cambodia are crap. Yep, there’s no getting around it — unless you are in Kep, which is an amazing exception to the rule. Generally the roads are a patchwork of pot holes and repairs. Some are stretches of dirt. Many of the main roads into Phnom Penh have ongoing roadworks, which have been under construction forever (or close to it) and roadworks signage is a bit random or non-existent. Of course, the traffic on the roads is also unpredictable — anything from cows being walked down the road, to children playing on the verges or grossly overloaded vehicles with people sitting on top of the load. As such you need to allow longer — much longer — than you might at home to go the same distance.
But as mentioned, things are different in Kep. There is clearly someone very forward thinking running things in Kep, or someone has dropped a heap of money into the region. Kep is a tiny coastal town, a little bit sleepy but the roads going into it are three or four lanes in each direction. Apparently there is a grand plan to link Bangkok with Ho Chi Minh, travelling along the coast of Thailand and Cambodia and into Vietnam. And Kep has embraced this and prepared for it in advance. Such forward planning is an unusual occurrence here.
8. World’s largest religious monument
People travel from around the globe to view the famous Angkor Wat temple near Siem Reap. It is World Heritage listed and its history is fascinating. But most people don’t realise Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument. Originally, it was built by Hindus but later became a Buddhist temple.
Many of those same people coming to visit Angkor Wat don’t realise it is just one of many temples constructed between the ninth and twelfth centuries in this part of the world. While Angkor Wat is the biggest and most impressive, many others are equally fascinating. You need to allow at least a whole day to see the temples and even then you’ll only get round a handful. And Angkor Wat is much bigger than you might have imagined.
9. Anything can be transported on a motorbike
You thought you could just get two people and perhaps some stuff in a few saddle bags on the back of a motorbike? Oh, you thought so, so wrong! Motorbikes are the main mode of transport in much of south-east Asia and Cambodia is no exception. And people are ingenious at what they can get on the back of a motorbike or what they can tow behind one. Some of the things we have seen include: four cows in a trailer towed by a motorbike; a motorbike pulling a trailer loaded with about three tonne of wood; three televisions (the old box style) strapped on behind the motorbike driver; a fridge strapped on to the back of the motorbike; 250kg of rice loaded around the driver and sometimes a passenger sitting on top of it; about six cartons of beer; a motorbike strapped on to the back (I kid you not); and a family of six. I constantly delight at the ingenuity and the perseverance of people who have no other means of transporting items. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
10. Insects are food
Yes, you read right – insects. And spiders. Big, ugly tarantulas, water cicadas, cockroaches and crickets are all popular snacks here. Deep fried with some garlic, chilli and salt, or perhaps steamed or boiled is more to your liking. There’s even a cafe called Bugs Cafe in Siem Reap, with a menu specialising in all things creepy crawly. Apparently insects are not a traditional food of Cambodia, so a high-end Khmer chef tells me, but rather is a food that has been adopted from neighbouring nations. It has been made all the more popular since the Khmer Rouge regime was in power because there was such a shortage of food and people needed anything they could get hold of to survive. Today, they make a popular snack in cities and are still an essential source of protein for poor rural families.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the quirkiness of this country, but a selection of our observations about Cambodia. It makes it a fascinating place to live and visit.