A Week In Cambodia: First Impressions

This is my first real trip to Cambodia. I had been here before but only for the utmost touristy experience: Museums in Phnom Penh (the genocide one is particularly striking) and the temples in Siem Reap…classic, and not frankly very fun unless you’re really into old stuff.

I am back this time in Sihanoukville, a fast developing coastal city in the Southwestern part of the country. Not the least touristy place frankly, every beach practices prices along what you pay in Europe or in the US. US$10 is quite standard for a night in a guesthouse, while a decent meal is about 3 to 5 dollars supposing that you avoid the super cheap stuff sold by walking merchants on the beach.

I’ve carried a little survey here, and it appears that behind the living standards are in fact very low. The entry salary in construction or as a cleaner in  a hotel is about 45 US$, with accommodation and food provided. The local man can eat out for a dollar or two per day.

With the affluence of tourists though, it’s very easy to “scam” tourists and give them a 5 USD$ motorbike ride of 5 kms, or sell them a 1US$ water bottle. All these seem standard for the naive traveler, but they are insanely overpriced for local standards. As a consequence, many people change jobs to become either a driver (tuk-tuk and motorbike outnumber by far taxis), or a beach merchant (one of the most annoying and insisting kind), or more sad, prostitutes.

The economics of tourism, and a low level of education combined, are a disaster for this already poor country that should put efforts to grow in the line of China and India. Tons of kids that don’t go to school walk the beaches forcefully trying to sell you fruits, sunglasses or bracelets. Also young women, that could be doing a respectable job instead sink into prostitution for as long as their looks will allow. Money, as much as possible, and now. This is what people want, and we can’t really blame them for that…how they do it is sad though. I haven’t surveyed the prices here, but with a low-entry job paying no more than 50USD a month, and a tourist meal costing 5 US$, I wouldn’t be surprised if the working woman made in one night what it takes hard-workers a month to make.

It must be a very difficult task to get the population to favour education and long-term benefits rather than immediate rewards, especially when the discrepancy in earnings is so huge. The is told by their parents, and as I have witness in India, the parents will oppose you fiercely if you tell them that the kid should go to school. You could blame their irresponsibility, but we humans, like many other animals, have a natural drive for immediate reward. Growing out of it is a challenge.

This has been going on for ages. Where is Cambodia now? The roads are still quite bad, apparently not as bad as in Vietnam though. You often experience power shortages which induces water shortages too. No power, no internet. I experienced various internet speeds, so it’s hard to blame that on the Telecom companies, it may have just been the guesthouses acting cheap and sharing a low-speed connection on a Wifi network…Some places have no roads and the paths are full of fine redish dust (bad for cars and for your lungs). People wet it in the morning to prevent it from being volatile. Pharmacies sell counterfeit drugs, that are popular for making you a lot more sick than you were initially, and so on and so forth…Besides the tourist-related investments I have seen, and the locals benefiting directly from it, I can’t seem to see anything in the line of working towards a greater country.

I met a really kind man at the guesthouse, who is very fond of scuba diving and who’s been active on Earth preservation since childhood. He told me how saddening it is that the reefs are being completely destroyed. In a country of widespread corruption, fisherman just pay a bribe to the authorities to be able to dynamite the fish. Again, money-driven misbehaviour: So long as it is cheaper and easier to bomb the fish and corals, people will continue doing it. They can’t care less about the consequences.

However, in every bad there’s a good. Cambodia assemble a lot of the great social aspects of their neighbors. They seem as lively and social their Vietnamese peers, they like to play and to have fun, which I prefer to the super smiles of Thailand than seldom match a bubbly attitude. Cambodians are a lot more expressive than the reserved Singaporean, it is not even comparable. They are also very laid-back, it is not rare to see them sleeping widely in a tuk-tuk or in hamacs. Nothing near the unbeatable “laid-back-ness” of Laos though, where you would sometimes need to wake up a driver, shake him hard and beg him to do some work in exchange for good money!

In Sihanoukville, their English is quite poor, unless they have worked on the beach for a long time. But again, that gets us back to the education issue. NGOs helped by the government advertise on tuk-tuks saying “Cambodia is looking for responsible tourists to protect Cambodian kids“. It’s about time.

Talking about responsible tourists, Sihanoukville is not the right place for that! No judging, however people do get massively drunk everynight. Very good clubs with excellent music (Utopia – House music near Serendipity Beach) quickly turn into mating places between drunk foreigners and young local lazy ladies looking for a prey. Well not really, strangely, from what I observed, they often outnumber man, they are bored and they spend hours waiting for a catch, but they constantly make foreigners work really hard to get them. There are things in life I will just never understand! I also don’t get it that a man would go for a prostitute (1- She’s a prostitute!!! 2-She’s medically unsafe 3-she doesn’t care about you 4-She’ll suck your MONEY 5-she’ll play very hard to get 6-she may not be so good looking or interesting to talk to…) when there are tons of single, wonderful, available tourist women, from all possible countries to choose from!..including from Cambodia. They are getting a tan, while waiting all day on the beach for something to happen that would spice up their life, something just more original than someone handing a flyier for free beer or asking you if you want a massage or fruits…Again, there are things in life I will just never understand!

I met this guy on the beach, who told me he had spent 2 years backpacking over 27 countries. He finally stopped in Cambodia and bought a guesthouse. “Of all the countries, I have seen, this is by far where I feel most comfortable”.

Anyone can stay in Cambodia for 260 US$ per year on a business visa. There are many agencies that will do the paperwork for you at this price.

How you could help Cambodia

NGO activities :

  • Non-profit Micro-investments. They will keep people busy with the right things, send the kids to school for instance, instead of let them sell stuff (or themselves) at very young ages.
  • Education: Teaching Entrepreneurship or Social Business seems more of benefit than mere English, which they may use to learn stuff from the Internet (good) but also to sell more bracelets on the beach…
  • Environmental stuff: Protecting marine life
  • Protecting the kids from child prostitution, and child work in general
  • Getting women out of prostitution, and preventing that from ever happening in the first place
  • Medical field: Looking for ways to eliminate or reduce the distribution of counterfeit drugs, curing those who got seriously ill from that…

Investments (that would benefit the country):

  • Profit-based micro-investments
  • Developing Roads
  • Low-cost Healthcare

Places in Sihanoukville (Serendipity Beach, the most active) where to:

Stay

  • For Serendipity Beach : I stayed at “Le Jardin aux Hibiscus”, French-owned, 10 US$ a night, it was okay. Two super-single beds in one room. The place nearby “New Seaview Something” looks much better, they have similar rates but I haven’t seen the rooms.
  • Mike and Craig’s (Lonely-Planet-recommended)
  • Monkey Republic (Lonely-Planet-recommended)

Wash Your Clothes

0.75 USD/kg is the standard price. Guesthouses charge more. You find this easily, but on the road to the beach you have a couple of them.

Eat

BAYON: Right before the road to Serendipity Beach, near the mini-mart. Very nice staff, ask for Seafood Amok, amazingly delicious. I get the feel that served cold with Basmati rice, it would make a perfect snack!

Rainy Season Pizza: For US$ 6, enjoy a really filling pizza. I saw “+add Happy 1 $” but I don’t want to know what that is…I am already happy and eating any pizza itself makes me even happier.

New Sea View Something: Down on the road to the beach, great selection of foreign foods, Mediterranean-inspired, not always stunning but good genuine western food is rare enough to be mentioned.

Buy a Bus Ticket

Any guesthouse, 7US$ is the price for Mekong Express, the approved best company. It’s recommended by the Lonely Planet and I asked the owner of the guesthouse whom lived here for long and definitely approves. If you want to avoid dying slowly under 4 hours of local TV singing program that would played over and over again for years, bring your own DVD, they will be very happy to play it and so will the passengers! The Lonely Planet will not tell you this. Also, make sure they include pick at the location of your choice.

Random info:

  • Bring USDs, ATMs charge 4USD every time you draw money.
  • Depending on the practiced rate, you may want to pay everything in the local money. Check the exchange rates you can get and ask you guesthouse what is the current rate used by people.
  • Do everything in your power to protect yourself from mosquitoes, a serious abundant nuisance here, at night only.
    • Long sleeves
    • Pants
    • Socks
    • Anti-mosquito bite
    • If you’re concerned with frequent Internet use : Ask beforehand if the Internet can be accessed from INSIDE either your room or one common room in the guesthouse, otherwise you’ll be dinner for mosquitoes.
    • Avoid the incenses they put near your feet, it’s packed with chemicals, ineffective, and will only give you a bad headache and a cold.
    • Ask your room to be sprayed against mosquitoes daily after the cleaning. The standard waiting time outside the room is 15 minutes.
  • DO NOT go to Spring Guesthouse in Phnom Penh.
  • Plugs from Europe (not UK) and from the US go in pretty much all plug holes.

Ok, 2pm on a sunny day! Time to go to the beach!

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One thought on “A Week In Cambodia: First Impressions

  1. Interesting article, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    There’s just one topic you didn’t tackle: safety. What would you say to girls traveling to Cambodia? (alone or not)

    Side note: there’s a unfinished sentenced in How you could help Cambodia > NGO activities > First bullet point

    L’électron libre: Hey, women should be careful. I’ll send you more info on that, you find that in the Lonely Planet Guides”

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