I admit that my only knowledge of Cambodia before I started planning this trip was that it is a tourist destination in Southeast Asia where Angkor Wat is, which I knew has a temple with trees growing out of it.

books upon books upon books
I’m edumucated, I swear

In the months I spent scheming and video watching and researching, more tidbits filtered through my frame of reference, but planning a trip from Montana to Cambodia to Thailand to New Zealand to Hawaii to Montana, I only learned so much about our first, brief stop. Days of planning, thousands of dollars, hair-tearing airline ticket deal hunting consumed me, and I didn’t really know what to expect.

Leading up to the trip, I had overbooked myself work-wise because of course I did (I have been carrying my job around with me on my back in the form of a MacBook Air). With a project due to send back to a client within the first couple days of arrival and overestimating how much I could get done in the days leading up to the trip, I was looking at about 40 hours of work still to do in the first few days of setting foot in the country.

I arrived on the ground stressed, overwhelmed, tired, and…I hated it. I well and truly hated Phnom Penh. Every difference, every sensory overload, every hurdle to navigate was too much for me, and all I could do after a jet-lagged afternoon wandering the jostling streets was lie in the hotel room, sweating under the air conditioning and worrying that I’d made a terrible mistake coming here. Hustling tuktuk drivers, oppressive heat, the decaying stench of unrefrigerated meat. I couldn’t handle it.

honey chicken is the most delicious dish
I also had forgotten to eat, and eating is the best part.

But then we left the city the next day on an air-conditioned bus, I got more work done, we checked in to my new favorite hotel in the world, and before two days had gone by we extended our stay in Siem Reap from four nights to nine. Missed a flight, booked a bus ticket, and we still didn’t want to leave when our stay was up. I will be back.

You can only experience a new place once, and first impressions quickly evaporate to ingrained feelings. But I like to remember those first impressions, to be amazed at how perceptions can change so quickly. Because after a bit of getting used to things, the bizarre nuances that strike at first look become the things that are so commonplace they’re not worth noting.

I was so out of my element on my first foray into the third world (are we still allowed to call it the third world, or is that not politically correct anymore?) that everything was new and visceral, and I’m so lucky for that. Here’s what I wasn’t expecting in Cambodia:

1. 90% Dollarization

image via 401calculator
image via 401calculator

I was worried about not getting any Cambodian Riel before I left home, figuring I’d have to hit up an ATM as soon as I landed to cover my visa and taxi. My concerns were unfounded. I knew that many countries use the US dollar almost exclusively, and I knew Cambodia was one of them, but I don’t think I realized quite what that meant. Prices in the supermarket are in dollars, vendors take dollars, automated machines take dollars, ATMs dispense dollars, visa on arrival costs 30…dollars. Dollars, dollars everywhere.

2. Garbage

In advance, I obviously knew Cambodia is a developing nation, and many of its residents live in extreme poverty. Even so, I had no idea of the amount of garbage that could accumulate on the side of the road. I mean, it makes sense. The people who live there have other shit to deal with, like feeding their families with a GDP per capita of $1000.

3. The smell

In the spirit of the second item on the list…there’s a distinct smell that goes along with that. There’s something in the combination of heat, garbage juice, cooking meat in spices, and the dusty dirt roads that just is Cambodia for me. The association of smells is so strong, this isn’t even a negative. In fact, I get the warm and fuzzies every time I smell something similar. Odd.

4. Outlets

I did do a (very small) amount of research on this before I left, but I couldn’t seem to find a conclusive answer about what type of plug adapter I would need. The most specific I could find was that the crazy electrical job in-country uses every plug type imaginable.

Pictured: insanity
Pictured: insanity

No problem, as mine is universal to universal. We got there to discover that when you say “every plug type imaginable” it actually means universal outlets! So exciting. Why can’t the rest of the world get on this bandwagon?


5. Cars

Every single car I saw in Cambodia was nicer than mine. This is not hard, since I drive a 1996, salvage title, smashed trunk, replaced hood, out-and-out beater, but I don’t just mean marginally nicer. I mean, I didn’t see any (non-classic) car that was pre-2000s, and the most budget brand was probably Hyundai. Most of the vehicles on the road were nice new Toyotas, Lexus, BMW, Land Rover…that or motorcycles and tuktuks, of course. The reason for this is a very well-established keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality embedded in the culture. People are driven to buy cars they can’t afford for status reasons, and by can’t afford, I mean REALLY can’t afford. With little-to-no market for used cars and a 125% tax rate on new ones, that shiny Corolla cost $52,500.

6. Traffic

I loved this. It was absolutely bonkers the number of cars that can slowly flow down the streets without stop lights or reason of any kind. In Cambodia, vehicles move through the cities at a slow, consistent rate that means that pedestrians just have to take their life in their hands and start across when there aren’t many cars coming. Duck cars and walk steadily, and the sea of motos will part for you. The first time crossing the street in Phnom Penh, we found another person who was preparing to brave the traffic and just shadowed her, figuring that if she died, we could die with her. One guy we met asked if we knew why motorcycles didn’t look as they entered traffic. “They don’t want to look death in the face,” he said.

7. Heat

Obviously. Yet still, the heat and humidity sucker-punched me in the face. The next person who says to me “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” I will sucker punch THEM in the face. It’s the heat AND the humidity AND the inescapability that makes breathing and moving and thinking unbearable. But spring for the air-con every time and slather yourself in Tiger Balm, and you can survive if I can.

8. Key cards turn on power in hotel rooms

I loved this. I had seen people complaining about this on TripAdvisor reviews (it’s a fun game to spot fellow Americans—we’re usually the ones complaining about things the rest of the world takes for granted) but hadn’t really realized what it was. Essentially, you insert your keycard into a slot by the door in order to activate the electricity in the room. It works out very well to conserve electricity, but of course you can’t leave the air conditioner on or charge your devices while you’re out, which is probably why people can’t stand it. But hey, if I’m spending $16 for a lovely hotel room, I am happy to be nicer to the hotel’s energy budget in exchange.

9. It’s absolutely beautiful

Even with garbage and smells and pushy tuktuk drivers and wild traffic, there are scenes like this every way you turn. I didn’t want to leave, and I can’t wait to go back.

The Cambodian National Museum in Phnom Pehn


A lovely scene in the Royal Palace Park...
A lovely scene in the Royal Palace Park…


girl in red sees me
…shit, she sees me. There’s no way she can see me from that far away, right?
girl and her friend somehow spot me taking a photo with a serious zoom

0 Replies to “First impressions of Cambodia (Or: Things I would have known had I done any research in advance)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *