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7 Tips for Visting Cambodia

If you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, here are a few things I learned during my visit that might help you!

Cash is King – and the US dollar is everywhere.  Apart from the airport or the Villa Paradiso, its hard to find anyone who will accept your card. Many hotels, restaurants, and shops will only accept payment in cash. While the official national currency is the riel, most prices are posted in US dollars and change will be given in both paper varieties. If you are running low, many ATMs will dispense US dollars. On islands like Koh Rong Sanloem, only cash is accepted and there are no banks or ATMs.

Remove Your Shoes – when you enter a private home, religious space, and some businesses. Even on the  islands I needed to take my shoes off before entering any of the huts or public spaces. My sandals had an ankle strap, and if I had it to do over, I’d get something that was easier to slip on and off.

English is Everywhere – but don’t assume everyone speaks it. The majority of people you come across seem to speak a few words in english (numbers, basic pleasantries, etc), but you quickly learn that doesn’t mean you can communicate. The very few words I learned in Khmer were invaluable for getting around and bargaining. If you can only remember one, make it thank you. An “Awe Koon” goes a long way.

Bring  your Northern European 2 prong plug adaptor – because the one marked for Asia region won’t work. As a former french colony, the European influence hasn’t completely disappeared. Besides architecture from years gone by, the electric system uses round 2 prong plugs and not the flat 3 prong plugs you’ll find in other neighboring countries.

overheated? coconut water is nature’s gatorade

Drink Water – even when you think you’re not thirsty. The heat and humidity in southeast Asia are no joke. Bottled water is easy to get and inexpensive. Alternately, go for what the locals drink: count water or sugar cane juice. You can find carts all over offering these specialties for $1 or less. I didn’t even realize until I got back that I spent the entire week at least partially dehydrated.

A Scarf or pashmina  – is the national accessory. You’ll see plenty of locals with scarfs around their necks or heads as blocking the sun actually helps you feel cooler. Both the pashmina I brought and the scarf I purchased at the Russian Market saw continuous use. They’re also good for visiting religious sites where you need to cover your shoulders.

Avoid KTV – (Karaoke Television) even if you adore karaoke. The name is deceptive, as these are largely fronts for sex tourism. They’re only open at night and I passed many on way to the airport. Girls dressed to sell were sitting in red plastic chairs in the entrance waiting to be chosen by an incoming customer. If you absolutely need to sing along to your favorite Styx song, do it in your hotel.

Did I miss something? Share your tips in the comments below!

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A Phnom Oudong Outlook

On my final day in Cambodia I was in for a treat. S took the day off work, made a very tasty spanish tortilla for breakfast, and (along with A & Y) we  were off on an adventure. We hired a tuktuk for the day and set off for a long drive north through the countryside, destination:  Phnom Oudong.

Phnom Oudong, a mountain bordering the formal royal capital and Buddhist religious site, is about an hour dive north of Phnom Penh. Highway 5, which runs along the Tonle Sap river , isn’t yet fully paved, but will take you nearly to the gate. The dive north was something of an event in itself for me. From our tuktuk I would see the neighborhoods of the Cham minority (Cambodian ethnic muslims), rice paddies, fields of lotus flowers, factories, and tradtional khmer homes on stilts (so that they won’t flood during the rainy season). The sides of the roads are littered with trash throughout the country, as infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up with development yet, and at various points along the way there were small fires that were set to burn the collected rubbish. Cows walk on the shoulder, or sometimes in the middle of the road, prompting drivers to swerve around them.

just a few cows, in the road

 

You start walking up an incline past a number of stupas damaged by the Khmer Rouge, until you reach the start of the stone steps carefully set into the side of the mountain. There are a total of 509 steps up to the buddhist temple, and for the last section you need to take your shoes off out of respect (the white marble steps allow for you to not burn your feet). Along the way you pass baskets for monetary offerings, local beggars, and another stupa. We even encountered a few wise monkeys on our ascent.


The stupa at the very top is an incredible work of art. The white stone almost glows and every surface has intricate carvings and iconography. When you can finally tear your eyes from the structure and look out, the view is incredible from every direction. The country side below stretches  like a lush, green, patchwork quilt. From the southern view you can see the old city of Oudong below with its gold painted structures and temples.

Being so far away from the intensity of the city, looking out over the beautiful countryside, and hearing the buddhist prayers rise from a local center, its hard not to feel that this is something completely special. Thank you, Cambodia.

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Koh Rong Sanloem, Island Paradise

My Cambodia experience included two nights on what is quite possibly my paradise: Koh Rong Sanloem. Immediately after picking my jet-lagged butt up from the airport, my friend S whisked me into a waiting Land Rover taxi with her friends A and Y to head south toward the coast.  Her plan was to meet up with two more friends, spend the night in the seaside town of Sihanoukville, then all six of us would take the ferry in the morning (booked through one of the dive shops) to the island of Koh Rong Sanloem.

The islands are owned by the government of Cambodia with the land being leased to residents and resorts. Our place, EcoSea, was expat run and dive oriented with a focus on environmentalism (special: pick up a bag of trash and get a free beer). The cabins are raised, wooden, thatched roof structures with  hammocks strung on the front porch. Each unit is ensuite with a flush toilet and shower wand attached to the sink. There is no wifi and the generator is only run from 6p-12a each night, but I didn’t miss either. Situated between the jungle and beach, the sounds are a relaxing mix of of birds, frogs, and water lapping on the sand. A pack of dogs calls resort home, and seem to regard the tourists as convenient sources of ear scratches. The puppies will even crawl into your lap when you’re in the main building.  After 15 minutes I had my feet up in a hammock and felt instantly relaxed. It was like all of my worries floated away  on the wave that brought me there.

At low tide you can walk completely around the side to the town.  Small, dirty, and fully tourism oriented, this is where we went to hire a taxi boat for the following day. With the help of a Turkish expat, who called his friend on the phone, we were able to strike a deal with our Khmer driver: $70 for 6 people, 10a-6p.  He picked us up in the morning and we circled the island, stopping at various points to swim and snorkel off the boat. The waters were clear and blue and the lands we saw were lush, green tree filled jungles. We could see monkeys along the banks and birds circling the shallows. The boat had snorkels available for us to use and we were able to see some tropical fish among the rocky areas. Our driver did have some issue with one of the two engines. At one point  had Y steer the boat while he stuck a pair of pliers in the 2nd engine. It never did work.


One of the special things about Koh Rong Sanloem is the infamous bioluminescent plankton. These small plants light up when agitated, like glitter in the water.  One night I walked along the edge of the water to a dark spot, kicking at the surf and watching small sparks appear in the surf. They’re best seen when completely dark, and the group I was with swam with them on both nights after the electricity was turned off at midnight. My jet lag combined with my natural tendency to fall asleep whenever i’m tired  had the better of me I was never able to enjoy the phenomenon completely. Y did try and wake me up, but apparently a shot that down.

We took the ferry back in the morning, the water rough after a night of thunderstorms.  The remainder of the day was spent in Sihanoukville, rehydrating  on the beach before taking the night bus to Phnom Penh. S is a big fan of the night bus and her enthusiasm  combined with my Harry Potter fantasies was enough get me far too excited. The coach style bus was adapted to have to 2 levels of flat beds, singles on the left and doubles on the right,  including a blanket for each passenger. S and I shared a berth for the 5hr drive. Fully stretched out, my 5’10” self didn’t fit lengthwise, so I propped my legs up on top of my bags. I’d like to say that the trip was smoother than Harry’s, but the fictional version is strangely accurate, only without the ornamental shrunken heads.

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Sensory Overload in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia introduces herself with a blast of intense hot, humid air the second you step off the plane.

After that, the sensory onslaught never lets up. Leaving the airport there’s a crowd of people waiting for family and Tuk Tuk drivers barking for clients. Mixed with the sound of motorcycle engines, the overwhelming noise was disorienting after the quiet inside the airport.  As you continue into the city, the smells begin to collect: gasoline, banana, dust, urine, and durian. The smells and sounds ebb and flow, but never dissipate completely. Thankfully my friend S was there to guide me when I arrived; the collection of sights, sounds, and smells was overwhelming and disorienting after two days of traveling.

Phnom Penh isn’t large, but its growing thanks to construction and modernization projects which seem to be around every corner.  Old structures are being retrofitted with luxury condos and tall modern office complexes are on the rise in every direction. Concrete roads are being built to replace the dirt ones leading into the city and much needed stoplights are going in at major intersections.

The traffic was one of the things that was difficult for this westerner to get used to. The moped or motorcycle is the vehicle of juice and drivers take full advantage of their ability to sneak along side or through small openings in traffic. Rules and right of ways are suggestions, dividing lines and roundabouts are routinely ignored. The brave can rent a moto or bicycle and join the throng… but I’m not that brave. I walked around the city, crossing intersections when I dared or took a Tuk Tuk, a covered cart pulled by a motorcycle.

building B at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

On my one day to walk around on my own, I went to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Also known as S-21, Tuol Sleng was a prison and torture center under the Khmer Rouge.  My friend S was working with the testimony from the Khmer Rouge trail and had told me a little about the atrocities committed under the regime, but being physically surrounded by the evidence was intensely emotional. I spent nearly four hours walking through the buildings and taking in the stories on the audio tour.

wooden cells in Building B

There are graphic images and stories of the torture throughout and a quiet uneasiness followed me around the grounds. Photographs of some of the 17,000 victims to go through this prison stare at you, somehow both pleading and resigned. The personal stories and testimony from survivors made me sick to my stomach. Before you leave the grounds, you can speak with two of the only seven survivors. Both gentlemen have written books about their experiences and are happy to sign a copy for you. I walked out of the quiet grounds into the noise and smells of Phnom Penh a solemn and emotional wreck, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.

 

overheated? coconut water is nature’s gatorade

 

 

 

 

 

 

yellow brick road to the Royal Palace

 

A few minutes north is the Royal Palace and Wat Preach Keo. These two sites are open to the public for a small entrance fee, but closed for lunch from 11am-2pm.

Unfortunately, this was exactly when I reached them, so I was only able to view from the outside. They are quite beautiful traditional structures, adorned with gold. The streets immediately facing have been blocked off to traffic and tourists walk freely along the sidewalks. The afternoon sun has an intense direct heat, with the shade feeling ten degrees cooler.

 

Shortly after I gave up and took a Tuk Tuk away from the heat and tourists, through the cacophony and smells, to S’s place and collapsed on a bed. Phnom Penh is both amazing and exhausting.

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Prepping for Cambodia

Snorkling friends at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, 1995

When an old friend S got a job in Cambodia, I knew I needed to visit her. We’ve known each other since second grade and (rare for me) kept in touch through the years. She has a curious spirit like me, exploring different countries, always excited to learn more. We went to Girl Scout camp together in the 90s, but this will be the first time we’ve had this kind of adventure together.  Needless to say, I’m more than a bit excited.

I’ve completed my necessary travel vaccinations and got my Visa ahead of time, so now, at one week away, its time for final preparations. While I’m used to traveling for a week using only a carry-on,  that’s been on flights under five hours to countries where anything forgotten can be easily picked up. Planning for more  than 40hrs of travel time to a developing country leads to a few changes in my packing list.

For the plane ride I’m wearing some soft trousers, a cotton tee, a light hoodie, sneakers, a jacket, and a scarf.  Layering these items should keep me warm on the flight as well as during my looooooong layover in China where the weather will be cooler.

  • 2 tank tops
  • 3 short sleeve shirts
  • 1 long sleeve shirt (for temples and other places with conservative dress codes)
  • long maxi-skirt
  • light-weight capris
  • pj shorts
  • swim suit
  • 7 pairs knickers and a spare bra
  • 3 pairs socks
  • sandals
  • first aid kit with plenty of stomach medicine and bandaids
  • personal medicines (including anti-malarials)
  • toiletries
    • sunscreen, lotion, insect repellant
    • deodorant, castille soap, toothpaste
    • face cleaning wipes, tissues
    • tooth brush,  razor, hairbrush, hair ties, headband
  • umbrella and poncho
  • foldable bag & ziplock bags
  • paper-back book that I can leave behind
  • notebook & pens
  • neck pillow
  • ear plugs and eye mask
  • melatonin
  • small fast-dry towel
  • herbal teas and snack bars for the plane
  • iPod, phone, chargers, headphones
  • yarn and knitting needles
  • moneybelt
  • passport, visa, spare passport photos

Mum taught me to never go anywhere empty handed, so I’m also packing a small gift for my friend. All of this in my new, smaller 30L Osprey Porter.  Now let the count down to take-off begin!