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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

31 December 2010

Cambodia nutshell

I like Cambodia, even though things don’t work quite how they’re meant to, the traffic is chaos and the country is clearly very poor. My warm feelings may in part be due to the nice accommodation we stayed in, but getting an enormous plush villa by a pool for the price of a cosy shoebox in Hong Kong is part of the charm.


Accommodation
Cambodia has accommodation in all ranges, but we spent a bit of money for our Christmas break. In Battambang about £40 got us a lovely big villa, beautifully furnished, in a resort of only 7 villas that had a nice pool and a restaurant. In Siem Reap everything is more expensive than the rest of Cambodia – it is basically a tourist town – but still £30 got us a very nicely appointed double room in a smart hotel. So, it doesn’t cost much to have a very comfortable stay in the main towns of Cambodia. I’ve no idea what a really tight budget would get you.

Oh, but one thing you must expect is random service. We got this in both hotels as well as in restaurants. Sometimes you’ll get something different from what you ordered, or something gets forgotten. It happens, everyone smiles, and you either enjoy whatever you got or wait while it’s changed.

Food
Cambodian cooking is typically south-east Asian, based on rice and with some spices used – though nowhere near as many, nor as dramatically, as in Thailand. If you eat in tourist restaurants, you’ll pay more than in Thailand but it’ll still be around £3 for a main course. Locals eat cheaper, but Cambodia isn’t Thailand and you might not want to risk local street restaurants unless you can get one recommended.

There are a couple of really good dishes special to Cambodia. “Amok” is a coconut fish curry and very tasty, the amok is actually the name of some leaves that are cooked with it. “Lok lak” is beef fried up in a spicy and very peppery sauce, or sometimes just served with lots of pepper.


Drink
I haven’t found out much about Cambodia’s drinking habits. Despite being an ex-French colony, they certainly prefer beer to wine; the latter when it occurs is cheap stuff from Australia. Though I should note that there is one Cambodian winery, near Battambang, which makes a robust but drinkable red wine and a very smooth and easy-drinking brandy.

There doesn’t seem to be a tea habit in Cambodia. The coffee situation is confusing; I’ve seen “Vietnamese coffee”, “Cambodian coffee” and “bone coffee” being offered among others, but all the coffee I drank in Cambodia was pretty horrible. And given a chance they’ll put condensed milk in it, to whiten and (over)sweeten in one stroke. To be fair, most of the coffee I had was in our two hotels and they may simply be using bad stuff.

Transport
The drivers in Cambodia win the prize for worst yet, though certainly also the most courageous. Road rules are utterly optional, and we’ve taken left turns (remember: they drive on the right) by cutting into the oncoming traffic, then driving along the left curb among the oncoming traffic, before finally grabbing our turning. Emerging from minor roads is done on the basis of “I’m emerging, you lot just slow down and let me”.

Mercifully, everyone drives fairly slowly in town. Outside of town there’s also a lot less traffic. For tourists, the tuk-tuk is fairly ubiquitous as a mode of transport for either taxi work or touring around the sights, though you can splash out more to hire a car.

Oh yes, and a boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap is memorable even if you don’t crash into another boat. It’s a long trip, though – definitely 8 hours. On that subject, I’d recommend to anyone to visit Battambang, and to do so before going to Siem Reap. The boat trip is better, and also the ruins around Battambang are a nice intro to Cambodian temples but would be a big anticlimax after Angkor.


Weather
After about 9AM in December it is really hot in the sun, but just dry enough that you can be active if you want to. In the early morning and late evening it is more comfortable, but you never need more than a T-shirt.

Scams and hassle
The border at Poiphet is apparently home to many scams, but we seemed to dodge them fairly well. The worst hassle in Cambodia definitely comes from the touts around the temples of Angkor. They want to sell you food, drinks or souvenirs and then start shouting at you in their whiny voice as soon as you’re in sight. Ignore the souvenir sellers and buy in town. Just for example, I was offered a scarf for $4. Without any haggling on my part (except for repeatedly saying “no thanks”) the price went down to $2 then to $1 and then even two for $1! The food and drink is overpriced too, but unless you weigh yourself down with a picnic you’ve got no option.

General tip: if you’re staying in a good hotel, you can avoid a lot of risk by asking them to arrange things for you.

Other tip: there are very good English speakers in Cambodia, especially among guides. If you’re thinking of hiring a guide, and the one you are talking to is not a good English speaker, look elsewhere.

Crime and security
We didn’t see or experience any criminal behaviour in Cambodia, so nothing to mention here beyond the usual advice to be careful everywhere you go.

Hiking and wildlife watching
We didn’t do either of these things in Cambodia, so can’t really comment. There is said to be a lot of pristine jungle in far-flung parts of Cambodia, but I doubt there’s very much infrastructure to support visitors.

Regional variations
Siem Reap is a very special place, and that’s not necessarily a positive. It’s a big town grown up entirely around tourism to Angkor and so it has things you won’t find anywhere else in Cambodia like fine dining and designer boutiques. But it is also overpriced for eating, staying and everything else you do, and it is so tailored to western tastes that much of what is Cambodian has been hidden.

I say this because in and around Battambang we felt a lot closer to the country. It’s the second city of Cambodia, but actually smaller than Siem Reap and with a really laid back air. We haven’t been to Phnom Pehn so can’t make comparisons, but I would thoroughly recommend anyone coming to Cambodia for the temples to take a few days in Battambang first.

Conclusion
It’s hard to say why I’d like to come back to Cambodia, possibly just because in 9 days and two locations you can barely scratch the surface of a country. It’s an interesting place to contrast with Thailand. On the one hand, people here are less savvy and perhaps more openly friendly than in Thailand. However, it is also a more basic country, definitely undeveloped. Yet ironically English is spoken better and more widely among the people we encountered, possibly because unlike Thailand they have no domestic tourists. For the same reason you’ll actually find Cambodia a slightly more expensive place to visit on a budget that its developed neighbour.


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