Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I'll Have the Lime Juice, or 15 Things About Traveling in Cambodia

We've just returned from two weeks in Cambodia, and helpful sort that I am, I thought I'd type out some info for others planning a trip. This is the stuff I wish I'd known about vacationing in Cambodia. We flew into Siem Reap and divided our time between there and Battambang, so we did not visit Phnom Penh or the beaches.

1. To state the obvious: oh my word is it hot and humid, and there's not always A/C. Of course if you live in South Florida this probably will not bother you, but we are wimpy northerners. We were like limp rags by late afternoon. We were there in early November, which is the beginning of the dry season, but we did have some rain. It was way too hot to wear a rain jacket (I carted one halfway around the globe and could easily have done without), but I did appreciate my rain/sun hat.

2. Not to be missed: Angkor Wat, of course. The Angkor National History Museum in Siem Reap. The night market in Siem Reap (also open during the day, it's just fun to go at night). The bats in Battambang-- over a million bats fly out of their cave at sunset every single night. Go mid-afternoon if you want to hike up the hill to the Buddhist temple and the disturbing memorial to the Cambodian killing fields. (The famous bamboo railroad in Battambang was closed for renovations when we were there.)

3. Go to Angkor Wat early in your trip. We went on our very last day and I wish we'd gone earlier. By the last day, we were tired, and our attention had shifted to the details of our travel. It's always an amazing place no matter when you go, but you'll probably have more energy to appreciate it early on.

4. Also, Angkor Wat is crowded. Far more crowded than we were expecting, with dozens of busloads of (mostly Asian) tourists. Entry is $37/person (plus the cost of your tuk tuk), which to our Disney-jaded American eyes is a perfectly reasonable fee for a global treasure, but there was some grumbling from those who had been when it was cheaper.  "Angkor Wat" describes a temple complex spread over 40 km, not just the iconic main building, so your visit can last anywhere from a half-day to several days. My favorite was the Banyon Temple at Angkor Thom, Dean's favorite was Ta Prohm.

5. Cambodians are friendly, capable people. They are quite poor by American standards, but not at all pitiful or downtrodden. They are doing just fine. Also, there were very few beggars (in two weeks, I saw maybe five), and there is very little homelessness.

6. Not even Cambodians drink the tap water, so be careful about that. Most hotels provide bottled water in your room, and more can be purchased cheaply in the lobby or at almost any store you pass. Most restaurants serve filtered water, or you can order bottled water, but we did not eat any salad or uncooked vegetables, which were probably washed in tap water, on the advice of our hosts.

7. I was not sorry I had a half-roll of toilet paper in a ziplock stashed in the bottom of my backpack. Ditto for having a bandana handy for hand drying.

8. There is wifi at many restaurants and cafes, and our hotel had great wifi (better than our wifi at home). There was cell service pretty much everywhere. I got a Cambodian SIM card (which gives you a Cambodian phone number, and disables your stateside number for the duration) and a code for 100 minutes of use, and my phone functioned pretty much like it does at home. If you don't get a SIM card your phone will probably only work when you have wifi. We used What's App when we were connected to wireless to stay in touch with our kids.

9. By American standards, traffic is a chaotic mess-- lanes are fluid, stop signs are just there for decoration, the traffic patterns at major intersections are often confusing. But that's to our eyes. After you've been there awhile, you realize there is a graceful, dance-like flow to the traffic. Cambodians are friendly, patient drivers, rarely topping 35 mph, often smiling with good humor when they have to adjust course around you.

10. Cambodians mostly drive "motos," small motorcyles, sometimes piling an adult or two and a couple of kids on board. Tuk Tuks, the open air taxis favored by tourists, are powered by motos. We loved the tuk tuks, not least because you get a nice breeze on a hot, humid day. Riding a tuk tuk rarely costs more than a couple of dollars.

11.  Clothing: Cambodians have enough experience with tourists that they aren't going to gripe at you about your clothing (although they may turn you away from entering a temple if your shoulders or knees are bare--as they do at Angkor Wat). There were plenty of tourists, especially in Siem Reap, wearing shorts and tank tops.

But if you want to show a bit of cultural sensitivity and dress the way the Cambodians dress, Cambodian women seem to usually wear ankle-length leggings or skinny jeans and a long top or a shorter one with a longer shirt over. Moderate scoop necklines are OK but I didn't see any cleavage, bare shoulders, or bare midriffs at all in the two weeks we were there, and only very rarely bare knees. Even when seated, women's knees are covered (usually by leggings). Cambodian men mostly wear pants, but there were enough men wearing knee-length shorts that they seem acceptable. No tank tops, though (among men or women).

12. Whenever you have the chance, order the "lime juice"-- made-while-you-wait iced limeade. It is fabulous, especially when you are hot, sticky, and tired. In Siem Reap it was sometimes called "Cambodian lemonade" or similar, but in Battambang, it was just called lime juice, and they had it in most restaurants.

13. By the end of your stay, you will start thinking it is highway robbery to pay more than $10 for a meal. The food is an unbelievable bargain. One time, five of us had dinner with entrees, a couple of side dishes, five beers and a glass of wine for $21 (total, for all five of us). Green curry chicken is pretty reliable, as is "lok lak," beef in a mild sauce served over rice with a fried egg. And you can always order fried rice or spring rolls if nothing else appeals. Tipping is not common, you usually just round up or leave an extra dollar or two. We were told that in some (most?) places, tip money doesn't go to the wait staff, it goes to the owner.

14. In both Siem Reap and Battambang, it's common to pay with American dollars. If you need change, you'll usually get it in Cambodian reals. The going rate is 1,000 reals = a quarter. It doesn't hurt to bring a stack of $1 and $5 bills, although banks will change your larger bills if you need it. Some places in Siem Reap would take credit cards (including the larger merchants in the Old Market), but the only place we could pay with credit cards in Battambang was the hotel.

15. Thank you is "ar-koon," or "al-cone," or "ar-gun." Everyone seems to pronounce it slightly differently, but everyone also really appreciates that you tried. The "r" sound is almost an "l", the "k" sound is almost a "g", and the "oo" sound is almost a short "u". Start with "ar-koon" and see how it goes.

And an extra, which doesn't really have anything to do with Cambodia but it was news to me: how come I never knew about activated charcoal before? I read about it in the Rough Guide to Cambodia, so I grabbed a bottle at WalMart before we left, and it is miraculous. You take a capsule or two when you have an upset stomach and half an hour later you feel waaaaay better. I'm not sure if it would work if you had full-on food poisoning, but if you've just eaten something that disagrees with you, it's great.

I hope you get to go. We had a great trip, Cambodia is a lovely country.

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