HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, September 6, 2010

Some thoughts on life in Cambodia

Now that I've been here for over a week, I though I'd talk a little bit about what I think of Cambodia. The food has been good, not great. There are a lot of rice and curry dishes, as well as soups that basically look like Vietnamese pho. The best meal I've had was when a few of us hopped in a Tuk-Tuk and asked the driver to take us where he eats. We ended up at a store on a side street where no one spoke English, but through pointing we all ended up with a delicious soup bowl, coming to a grand total of $7 for 5 people. I had my first desperate sprint to a bathroom after eating lunch on Saturday. Oddly enough, it didn't happen after eating water buffalo, eel, frog, ox, goat with a sauce that had ants in it, or a whole fried tarantula, but after eating Pad Thai with shrimp, something I've had several times before. Luckily that passed quickly and I was able to eat crocodile cooked three ways later that night. It was almost as good as alligator but way bonier. I'm definitely looking forward to eating in Vietnam, since that is supposed to be one of the most delicious countries in the world.
The beer here is also good, not great. The most common brands are Angkor, Anchor (which can be confusing), and Beerlao. The best I've had is Tiger, which is popular all over Southeast Asia. The nice thing is that you can get a huge bottle of beer for $2 or less.

The people are amazing. Everyone is ridiculously friendly, and they almost always smile at you, even if you aren't. I've talked with some of the people I've met here about whether or not quality of life equals standard of living, and the people here show that those two concepts are not the same. I've seen naked, filthy kids playing with nothing but twigs, and they look like the happiest children in the world. People on the street seem very happy, even if they have nothing to go home to, or even a place to call home. Coming from America, where everyone is supposed to have the biggest, best, and most expensive TV/computer/car/house, this is jarring. However, it has me thinking that the person with the most things is probably not the most happy person.

I really enjoy providing entertainment for the locals, as many of the things we do look completely ridiculous to your average Cambodian. For example, I went to lunch with some friends one day, and a monsoon rolled through while we were eating. To get back to our Tuk-Tuk driver after lunch we had to go through what is apparently the most flood-prone intersection in all of Phnom Penh. So, we waded through a foot of rancid floodwater while locals laughed hysterically at us from their dry spots in the stores lining the street. I still don't want to know what I walked through, but I was happy to give everyone a good laugh.

The country itself is quite pretty. One of my favorite things is seeing the sun rise as I run along the riverfront at 6am. On our drive out to Siem Reap this past weekend we saw two incredible sunsets, and the rice paddies of the countryside are exactly what you picture when you hear the words Southeast Asia.
One negative aspect is the obvious poverty. As soon as you arrive at any touristy area, children ambush you trying to get you to buy whatever they are hawking that day. Many of them speak good English, and I wish that I could just talk to them and ask about how they live, but all they are interested in is the sale. Seeing some of abject poverty here can be difficult, but, again, everyone somehow maintains a smile.

It is fascinating to see the mix of modern and ancient present throughout the country. Another reason I love going on early morning runs is to see the elephant that tourists can ride at a park in Phnom Penh walking with its master to the park. They take the road along the river, one of the busiest roads in the city, and cars and motorbikes pass the beast like it is just a normal part of traffic. It certainly isn't something I've ever seen back in the U.S. I thought this pictures, taken from my hotel in Siem Reap, illustrated the modern/premodern juxtaposition perfectly: a motorbike trying to pass a herd of water buffalo being taken to pasture. Again, not something you see in most countries.
Overall, I definitely like Cambodia, in case it wasn't obvious. However, I am even more excited to get to Vietnam, which happens Sunday.


  1. Cambodia sounds cool. I can relate to your feelings about the poverty, when i was in Nicaragua the poor children spoke English better than most of the locals and they were constantly trying to get us to buy little trinkets. But like you said, if you buy one thing, you will never be left alone. I saw your family in Mass today. Do people in Cambodia/ Viet Nam go to church on Sunday?

  2. Cambodia is largely Buddhist, so they do whatever Buddhists do. There were temples all over the country. Vietnam has a lot of Christians - there are a bunch of churches in Saigon, for example. The majority religion is Buddhism as well, but I think the country is more secular, and the there is no official religion because the government is socialist.