Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia! Land of temples, monkeys, tuk tuks, pollution, elephants, corruption, poverty, history, huge snakes, genocide…..
Upon arriving you will need to pay for a visa $25 which they prefer to receive in US Dollars, as do most of the vendors at markets, restaurants and tuk tuk drivers so don’t need to get too much money converted. Then pass through the rigorous customs agents…. ha ha joking they seem to just be there for looks. Cambodia is a free for all, almost anything goes in this country…..
Our accommodations were arranged through our TESOL program as well as our ride from the airport. We filled an entire tuk tuk with our baggage! I felt crazy for packing more in my suitcases than most Cambodians even own!
The average annual income of a Cambodian family is $2200 a year and even though prices are lower it is still almost impossible to live off. Most people are desperate to earn money in anyway they can, even drugging their babies so they look sick and sad to get more money begging.
Over half the population is under the age of 30 because of recent genocide executed by the Khmer Rouge. The country is also littered with land mines, it is recommended to only walk on paths when you are outside the city to avoid injuries, there are many amputees as proof.
But what Cambodia lacks in financials they more than make up with their rich history and charming people.
We came to Kampuchea a week before our TESOL program started to make sure we would have enough time to explore the city of Phnom Penh. So glad we did because once our classes started we were occupied from 9 to 6 everyday and weekends we had prearranged trips with the program. Our nights we spent doing homework, shopping at the market, venturing to the riverfront for a few drinks and food and bonding with our newly acquainted friends. The city is a poor backpackers paradise, everything is cheap cheap cheap and so close together. Most of the museums and attractions are within a 10 kilometer radius.
“Its the most dangerous country you’ll ever visit, because you’ll fall in love with it… and then it will break your heart.” -Former US Ambassador Joseph Mussomelli on Cambodia
If you are interested in humanitarian and international aid I would strongly recommend doing your research before making donations. Cambodia is infamous for receiving millions in aid funding that never sees the people and only works to support the corrupt government. If you have the means check out The Trap of Saving Cambodia a film made by NGO workers in Cambodia to document the discrepancies witnessed by these volunteers.
Tourist are strongly encouraged to never give money to children begging or buy anything from them especially during school hours. Begging children are often forced to give their earnings up to a person who acts as their pimp providing them minimal food and shelter- Slum Dog Millionaire really hits home here. While on the riverfront in PP you will often be approached by young children, if you watch them for long enough you will eventually see them run to a man who gives them more crap to sell, takes their money and points them in the direction they should go to next.
The health standards in Cambodia are well… not there. Flies are all over the meat at the markets which is not refrigerated or wrapped in any manner. If you buy street food you will almost always notice your chef’s hands are no where near pristine and you will often pay for it later. We stuck to vegetarian at reputable restaurants for the first week or so to let our stomachs get acquainted with its new inhabitants, travelers are always recommended to eat local yogurt upon arrival to gain new probiotics and bacteria that work to protect you… trust me you will be grateful!
Most fancy, catered to the westerner hotels will have western toilets almost like you would see at home. But venture anywhere outside that little bubble and you will be introduced to the squat toilet. The toilet situation in Cambodia is one most pampered western derrieres have a hard time getting used to. To start the toilet seat is not a seat at all. You squat over the ceramic hole with your dirty feet getting any splash back. Secondly it always smells terrible, usually with flies and roaches, the above photo is at a well maintained mall. And of course Cambodians don’t use expensive toilet paper so you will almost never have some in your stall, often you can buy it from the restroom attendant- but portions are small. Cambodians often use what is lovingly known as the “bum gun” as you can see on the left side of the picture. This gun is used to spray off any debris with water after using the toilet, it is not uncommon to see wet butts walking around town, but don’t worry it is so hot out you won’t be wet for long!
MONEY MONEY MONEeY, MONAY! In Cambodia the currency is known as the RIEL. Upon first inspection you may feel you are playing with Monopoly money, they have soo many small bills that are worth the equivalent of pennies back home but will buy you fruit at the market, water or toilet paper. It is important to get to know the current exchange rate well or you will be taken advantage of by the occasional crooked tuk tuk driver or smart aleck little kid peddling goods. I had a friend in the program who was given change once, before counting you had to assume they had gotten too much money back because there were so many bills. After totaling up her change she had only received about $3 back when she was supposed to get $17, they love to pull this trick on you if you pay with American and get change back in Riel. To avoid this try to always bring small bills with you when going into a bartering situation, you are usually safe to spend big bills at hotels and chain restaurants.
More to come on the beautiful ‘Bode….