Cambodian Culture Shock

During the Covid-19 scare in Asia, my family decided to leave China for a few weeks and head to the Southeastern country known as the Kingdom of Cambodia. We were there for 2 weeks living in the capital of the country, Phnom Penh and got to learn a lot about the culture of Cambodia. It was significantly different than the Chinese culture we had come to love and it was very interesting to go through culture shock all over again.

Central Market

The first thing that really shocked me about Cambodia was the amazing food at the street vendors (cheap too)! Street food has really been cut down in China and so we jumped at the chance to try some of the food here in Cambodia. On our first day at the central market, we found a bowl of pork pho for $2 and it was incredible. In fact, many of the dishes we found in Phnom Penh were noodle-based, probably because of the heavy Thai influence. There are a ton of options, too. Western, Khmer, Thai, etc. We were walking home a little later one night and Korey wanted some ice cream. Seconds later, a guy with a handcart came around with an ice cream sandwich for just 50 cents! The true surprise came when we found that it was a literal ice cream sandwich, balls of ice cream in a bread bun! Still it was pretty good, although Korey couldn’t be persuaded to eat the bread bun. Also, unlike other countries that I have been to in Asia, Cambodia has a huge amount of western food present. We are talking hamburgers, tacos, macaroni and cheese, chicken cordon bleu, etc. Not getting to eat these delicacies as much as we would like to, we gorged in Cambodia and the most expensive dinner we had for our family of 3 was $25!

The next thing I noticed was something I noticed in Thailand as well, the plethora of homeless animals that aren’t at all scared of humans. Every restaurant I went to, there was always homeless animals that would be inside the restaurant and never got kicked out! It was almost as if they were the mascots of these little establishments and most were very well-behaved. In fact, one little puppy got our attention as we were walking down the street and led us to the restaurant that he stays at. He laid on the floor as we had a great meal and didn’t beg for scraps or attention. We visited that establishment three more times and he was always there! Most other places had cats though, and one had three little kittens and the waiters would just walk around the kittens that were sprawled on the floor. It was so funny because this wasn’t a one-time occurrence. This was most of the food joints we went to! One cat was comfortable enough to follow us to the second floor of the restaurant and no one said anything. She also wasn’t afraid to crawl over our chairs and follow the food, waiters didn’t bat an eye. I just thought it was so different from the US that it definitely stopped me in my tracks every time I saw it!

One of my favorite parts of the Cambodian experience was the transportation. We didn’t take a single car or taxi, we only took tuk tuks! I had never ridden in one before this trip and they are the perfect way to travel around the city. Even from the airport with all of our luggage, these little open-air carts attached to scooters were a great way to travel. We would spend between $2-$10 traveling around Phnom Penh, $20 for a full-day in Siem Reap. We didn’t need an app to hail a tuk-tuk either, like many of the tourist guides suggested. There were tuk tuks everywhere and they were constantly offering their services. At first it was convenient, then it got a little annoying. But don’t be afraid to bargain with them. There are so many of these drivers that they need as many fares as they can get. I wish China or the USA had this kind of transportation because it is comfortable and so convenient. The locals don’t seem to take them too much though, they all own their own scooters and can easily fit 3-4 people on them. If we didn’t have a kid, we would have rented a scooter for $6 a day but didn’t have the opportunity. But since the roads are so narrow, there is no parking and they end up parking their rides on the sidewalks. We spent a good portion of our time walking because our hotel was so close to the main tourism attractions and the scooters parked on the sidewalk often meant we were walking in the street.. I can’t live like that all of the time, I wouldn’t be able to take it.

One of the downers in Cambodia I had actually read about before we had gotten there. The situation with the trash in Phnom Penh is pretty bad. There were a few areas where it was just 20 feet of trash lined along the street with no one picking it up. It was even worse outside some of the restaurants, where their leftover food from the night before was sitting in the 95 degree weather all day. We would take a tuk tuk down the street and you could see the trash bags piled up on top of each other down the road and animals would be rummaging through it. It didn’t help with the bug problem either. It is a real shame to see this just outside of the Royal Palace, where the King and Queen of Cambodia reside. This was the only real negative to the Cambodian experience and I hope that they attempt to right the situation for the good of the city and the planet.

Along one of the major roads

I also want to talk about the more luxurious part of Phnom Penh. We visited a few of the malls in Cambodia because we hadn’t been able to go to movies or anything in China during the epidemic. I was really astonished by the wealth that was shown in these malls. Korey and I had a date night and went to the movie theater, where we were surprised with VIP tickets (still only $20 for the two of us). We got a private waiting room, free tower of treats, luxury love seat that leaned back, etc. It was a very welcome surprise and there were so many familiar restaurants surrounding the theater that we would see in the states, not just fast food. Swensen’s is a popular ice cream place in California and we couldn’t resist! One of the best sweets I have had in a while. Some of the malls were enormous and some were very tightly packed together, but the money was definitely flowing through those places and prices were much more comparable to stores in the United States. I saw a pair of regular flip flops for $10 and couldn’t believe the price difference between the malls and markets. If you want to keep it cheap, head to the markets like the locals.

Lastly, I want to talk about the money/language situation. I have been to a few countries in Asia, but never have I seen another country regularly use American currency. Apparently there are over a dozen that do, but it was amazing to see prices in both Cambodian Riel and US dollars. The conversion rate was roughly 4,000 Riel to $1. They didn’t use the coins so any change was given back in Riel. Also, they won’t accept any crinkled or slightly ripped bills. This was SOO infuriating because we were getting a ride from a tuk tuk driver late our first night there and we only had a bunch of hundreds and a few twenties. He rejected all of our twenties because of some minor blemish and didn’t have enough change for a hundred. I had to pay a $5 ATM fee to get a ‘good’ bill to pay this guy and he couldn’t understand why I suddenly had an attitude. As for the language, almost all the people I came into contact with in Phnom Penh had a fairly good handle on the English language. Those in the tourist industry were much better, but I didn’t have to pull out a translator at all in Phnom Penh (unlike China).

American Dollars and Khmer Riel

In the end, our trip to Cambodia was another amazing adventure for our family! We saw the sights, learned about a different culture, and checked another UNESCO world heritage site off our list! Cambodia is a wonderful country and I suggest any that get the chance to see it!

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