Culture Shock :: Cambodia

2 01 2009

Remember when I said that in Thailand everything was different? Well scratch that. I was wrong. We’ve now been to Cambodia. During our month here I’ve come up with many metaphors and stories that could help you understand what it’s like in this country, but in the end I don’t feel right using any of them, because the more I learn about Cambodia, the more I realize I’ll never understand it. Thailand is as familiar as Europe compared to the land of the Khmer people.

Below are some of the quirky things we’ve noticed. If you want to get a deeper knowledge of Cambodia, you’ll have to read some books and visit the country, because they’re still figuring it out themselves.

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:: Pajama Party ::

One of my favorite things about this country is the dress code. Even if you live in a wood and banana leaf hut with no electricity or running water, you still look good. Most of the young men wear dress slacks and nice club-style, collared, dress shirt. But this is if you’re going into the city of course, if your going to work your rice patty you’ll probably be in a ratty old t-shirt and your favorite underwear. The women look pretty good when they wander into town as well, but my favorite fashion is when they’re having a comfy day. Matching teddy bear pajamas. These aren’t just for Saturday morning cartoons with big bowls of sugar cereal either, this is an all purpose outfit fit for any occasion. Work, beach, parties, weddings, anytime, anywhere. Oh, and yes, they do go swimming in these precious garments.

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:: Rock and Roll Aint Noise Pollution ::

When you book a bus ride through a western run company, they often promise you “No Loud Khmer Music” during the trip. They do this for a reason. We’ve given up trying to figure out what instruments make up Khmer music or why they like it. We can’t even tell if the music has any melody, rhythm or harmony anywhere in it. What we can tell though, is that they like to listen to it really, really loud. The best part is when your guesthouse happens to be near a wedding or funeral because blasting music at top volume throughout the neighborhood at six in the morning seems to ensure a long marriage and blessed soul. Not easy to sleep through… for Jen 🙂

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:: Do Not Get Sick ::

That is the best travel advice of the western doctors practicing in Cambodia. Not very encouraging, but oh so true. It’s scary traveling in a country that tells you if you get really sick, you better get to Bangkok or Singapore because they can’t help you here. It’s even scarier when you’ve both gotten food poisoning at least once and one of you just got over a mild case of dengue fever. In Europe they don’t worry about refrigerating much and in Thailand we ate most our meals from food carts – but here, in Cambodia, is where we decided to get sick. Lovely.

As far as we can tell, there is no way to protect yourself from illness in this country, so be prepared with plenty of paracetamol and oral rehydration salts (ORS). Most of the bottled water here doesn’t have any vitamins or minerals left in it, so even if you don’t get sick, you are going to get dehydrated. You can get the rehydration salts at any pharmacy, they’re pretty cheap and they seem to work miracles. Every time we drink some, we feel immediate improvement (with both sickness and general dehydration). If you do get food poisoning, look it up online because it comes in a few different forms with different levels of severity. If you get really sick, get to doctor immediately in case you’ll need to be evacuated to a good hospital. If you’re in any city other than Phnom Penh or Siem Reap when you fall ill, it’s probably best for you to return to one of those cities for a good clinic. Have fun and good luck. Don’t tango with the mosquitoes, they’ll win.

They look something like this.

They look something like this.

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:: Where’s All the Khmer Food? ::

Cambodia is on the other side of the tracks from Thailand when it comes to how they eat. No more plethora of food cart snacks, no more safe-looking cheap food holes, no more 24 hour supply of tasty treats to quench your food thirst. In Cambodia, you pretty much have to eat at restaurants and the meals are priced accordingly. The strange thing about all of this is that it’s relatively difficult to find traditional Khmer food o the menu. At most restaurants serving Asian cuisine you can at least find Amok or Luk Lak, but not much else. It’s a rare, and very tasty treat when you find a place with good, authentic, Khmer-style food. The other stange thing is that, unlike Thailand, the western food here is great. I’m not sure how this happened, but we ate more great western food here than we did Asian food. Granted, we did eat at mostly NGO restaurants who train street kids useful work skills, and they may be catering to westerners, but why was it so good? Maybe it was just because it’s for a good cause. Who knows.

Our Khmer Cooking Teacher

Our Khmer Cooking Teacher

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:: Look Both Ways ::

If you think you’re a cautious pedestrian at home, you’ll need to up your game in Cambodia. The old method of “looking both ways” still works, but you need to pump it full of red bull if you want to cross a busy Cambodian street. They only have an idea of what we would call ‘lanes’ on the roads and just because most of the traffic is going one way in your lane, doesn’t mean you don’t have to look the other way. Vehicles will drive directly into oncoming traffic and they don’t exactly slow down when they do it. So if you decide to play Frogger, look back and forth, back and forth, the entire way across. And good luck waiting to find a crosswalk or a traffic light to get to the other side, they barely exist and even if they did, nobody would obey them. The red lights we’ve seen are not only just a suggestion, but a whispered suggestion that the drivers apparently can’t hear over their Khmer music. Oh, and horns. They love them. They’re used to tell the other vehicles that you’re coming and that they better get out of the way – unfortunately, everyone is honking at the same time. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing their driving test has two questions on it: Do you have a moto? and Does it have a horn?

Traffic Intersection

Traffic Intersection

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2 responses

3 01 2009
Kathy

I was just thinking about “Culture Shock” yesterday – wondering when it would be published. And Wa-La! Great post – very interesting. But then, they all are!!! 🙂

3 01 2009
Andy of HoboTraveler.com

Excellent post, I truly enjoy the best, top, or top ten, however metaphors explain the idiosyncrasies of culture. I hear a phrase in Phom Phen by a motorcycle taxi driver. “You want small one or big one?” referring to girls. I am 53, it often becomes annoying in Asia. Thanks from Andy of HoboTraveler.com Travel Blog and HoboHideOut.com Hotels

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