First of all – we had a fantastic time in Cambodia and loved most about it and were really sad to say goodbye. We spent 24 days in the country, cycled 1,139 km, were 68 hours in the saddle and saw most of its hot spots.
Cambodia is 1.5 times the size of England of which 5% is covered by water of the Tonle Sap lake. It has a population of 15 million of which 90% are Khmer and the average annual income is just 610 USD which makes Cambodia one of the poorest countries worldwide. Sadly, the average life expectancy is only 61 years.
Below is a random collection of some Cambodian peculiarities we found noteworthy, funny or just interesting.
Pyjamas: I still cannot get over the pyjama fashion, it is just hilarious seeing women in my age wearing red, yellow or baby-blue outfits with teddy-bear, flower or comic prints. Admittedly, I am also a bit jealous as it is the most comfy outfit I can think of. And nobody sees if you have a few kilo too much on your hips (you won’t even feel it yourself as the pyjama grows with you :)).
Language: Khmer is a language hard to learn. In the little more than three weeks we just managed to say ‘Akon’ (thank you), and that’s about it. In the main tourist areas people speak English very well, however most of the times with an accent we really needed to get used to as they cannot pronounce the ‘S’ at the end of a sentence and as commonly known for Asians, they use the ‘L’ for an ‘R’. When we first arrived we had no clue when a waiter asked us if we would like to have “Li” with our food, he of course meant ‘rice’. Or if we would like to have ‘I’ in our drink. On some menus they also write an ‘L’ instead of the ‘R’, we once could have bought Malbollo (yes, cigarettes are on the menu and you can buy them separately or by package).
Ice: People usually don’t have fridges. They buy their food fresh from the market where animals such as fish, chickens or ducks just get killed when bought. We were also told that all the other meat is always just from the day (which I still doubt, given the sometimes very stale smell on the markets). But they always have huge blocks of ice which gets delivered by small non refrigerated trucks or mopeds/motorbikes (packed in sawdust), sawn in small pieces and as per quantities needed right in front of the house. If the ice isn’t delivered directly to the house people just buy it somewhere and carry it on their bikes, motorbikes, in plastic bags and it sometimes falls on the street as it is too heavy for the bike which is one of the reasons why we always opted for warm and ice-free drinks despite the temperatures.
The early bird catches the worm: Cambodians get up very early. As soon as it is light, life is in full swing. Women sell their goods on the market, small food stalls are open to sell iced coffee, rice porridge or bread. Fantastic for us early risers, as we could always get some food in the morning. On the other hand they also go to bed early, and shortly after dusk shops are closing and roads are emptying. Handy for us once more as we could always have early dinners.
Women: There is a lot of respect for women which was a huge relief for me after India, where a woman is just good for doing all the work and give birth to baby-boys. In Cambodia women of course ride motorbikes, why not? They of course have a job other than caring for their children, households and husbands and they go to school as their male siblings do.
People: As much as Cambodians are emancipated they are very friendly, warm and welcoming. We did not make any bad experiences – except for the one or other bad-tempered hotel manager or disinterested shop sales person. The children are cute, funny, cheerful and seem to enjoy themselves if they are poor or rich, on a bicycle, motorbike or afoot, at school or at the playground. And the children always shouted their super enthusiastic ‘hello, hello’ to us.
Food: The food is OK, but there is not so much variety as there are just a few main dishes such as Lok Lak or Amok they serve, but that’s maybe just our impression and what they serve for foreigners. We ate a lot of noodle soup as well, but that’s not an original Cambodian dish. We loved their baguettes, they were huge and always freshly served, hence warm and crisp. And they had great fruit shakes, tukaluk, a bit too sweet for my taste but still good. So far Thai food still ranks first.
Vehicles: They have very funny tractors or trucks that almost look like self-made vehicles. They are very basic and without a cabin, you can see the engine and the driver is usually wearing a helmet. These vehicles can go very fast!
Roads: Good things first: they are empty and even the ‘busy’ main roads between the bigger cities are not busy and cycling is very relaxed and you can concentrate on the surroundings instead of the traffic. Traffic-wise Cambodia is made for cyclists. Roads can also be a nightmare. Especially if they consist of gravel and dust. On the upside, you get a free full body exfoliation and a day-long massage as you hobble on the way. The dust also give you a wonderful tan as the combination of sweat, sun cream and red sand make you look as if you’ve just come from a four-week beach vacation.
Nature and wildlife: While there is hardly any jungle left (I’m not going into this again, it is sad enough) and with it a lot of wildlife vanished, it has still some stunning landscapes left: the Mekong, the Tonle Sap lake with it’s beautiful floating villages and some remaining jungles. I would almost call it the country of the butterflies as I’ve never seen so many (different) butterflies as in Cambodia.
Monuments and architecture: Thankfully the Khmer Rouge couldn’t destroy all of the fine Khmer and other heritage such as the hundreds of Angkor temples or all the other temples and monuments across the country. We loved the wooden stilt houses. The inside is very basic with hardly any furniture, but they just look beautiful.
Cleanliness: I have to admit, after India every country is clean. We were really impressed by the Cambodian’s attempt of keeping the country clean. In small street stalls we could help ourselves from sauces in clean flasks, the tables were clean and not sticky and usually every table had its own dust bin. And as far as I recall we only used our own sheets for sleeping once. There are dust bins almost everywhere, even where you don’t expect them and the best is, most of them are produced from recycled tires. Well done!
Furniture: If it comes to furniture they are a bit odd – at least for our taste buds. There is just one style: polished hard wood. Restaurants are full with all kinds of chairs, stools, tables, cupboards and they are always exactly the same. They resemble more a furniture shop than a restaurant as the rooms are usually overloaded with furniture and you can hardly walk anymore. And don’t think you get a cushion to sit on, no way, you sit on the hard wood, and we suffered a lot with our sore bottoms, I even considered to buy a pillow, just to sit on…..
We are now the second day in Vietnam, spent the first night in an awful but expensive guesthouse, couldn’t find decent food and left without breakfast this morning, cycled on heavily undulating roads – we’re back in the mountains – and rewarded ourselves for the hard work and the bad hotel yesterday with a nice lunch and a super luxury hotel in Pleiku instead of cycling another 50km.
Good morning, Vietnam!