“I’m melting, I’m melting,” I kept repeating in my head as I walked through the humidity and heat that contrasts my Pacific Northwest comfort. Southeast Asia and literally anywhere with humidity tends to not be my first choice of travel. My inner grump comes out and my patience wears thin quickly in my discomfort.
By no means will this stop me from traveling, living, and exploring these areas. It just means that I’ll most likely be subjecting my boyfriend to the worst sides of me. That poor soul, I’ll give a special shout-out to Hung for putting up with me during these adventures.
I had no preconceived ideas of what to expect from my trip to Cambodia (aside from the heat). I actually had no idea what to expect and booked the trip pre-investigation of what to do and sights to see. This probably was not my finest planning moment. However, there were many things I saw, felt, and learned through this trip and I wouldn’t have traded for the world. Here are the five eye-opening moments I didn’t expect from visiting Cambodia:
1. DON’T EXCHANGE YOUR USD TO CAMBODIAN RIEL
Due to naiveté and most likely a lack of research, I didn’t realize how dependent Cambodia is on American tourists and their dollars. My biggest tip to anyone traveling to Cambodia anytime soon would be not to waste your time (or money) converting your money to riel.
Most places that we went to in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap had price tags listed in USD. There were many times that we ended up having to ask the shop owners how much the item would cost in riel and then they would end up bringing a calculator out to convert the dollars back to riel just for us. Oops.
2. MANY PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH
This was something totally unexpected. (In fact, when we went to Tokyo I had expected more people to speak English than I had planned simply because growing up as a Japanese American I was told that Japanese went to school learning English. Again, I’m at fault for believing what I’m told.) Many Cambodians speak English. Not all, but many. The realization of the dependency on American tourists set in after the experience of the USD versus riel and easy communication.
3. THE DIFFICULTY IN FINDING AUTHENTIC CAMBODIAN FOOD
The hard part about this one is that we had never had Cambodian food so it was difficult to gauge what’s authentic in the first place. However, as we walked around Phnom Penh, the streets were lined with restaurant after restaurant labeled as “Sushi”, “Korean”, “PIZZA”, etc. A lot of the shops we took a minute to look at their menus and they did have some Khmer food, but how much do you trust a place that offers pizza and beef luc lac on the same menu? Yeah, I don’t either.
In Phnom Penh, we asked the front desk agent at our hotel for an authentic food experience they would recommend. I’m sure she assumed we wanted “Americanized” food because the restaurant we ended up going to (although delicious) was pretty expensive. I highly doubt that with many of the Cambodians manning the tuk-tuks asking for $10-$15 after a day filled with driving you around are wining and dining in luxury for a $25-$50 meal. As I looked around the restaurant it was filled with tourist after tourist. Hopefully, we would have better luck next time. (We ran into the same issue in Siem Reap. Sidebar, we were going to try the street food vendors, but I think I got a stomach bug adjusting to the new bacteria in the area so I wasn’t very adventurous this go around.)
4. ANGKOR WAT WAS THE MOST AMAZING EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE
Although I had my complaints of the heat and difficulty finding authentic food, Angkor Wat, and Angkor Thom were by far the most amazing travel experiences of my life. I had never been in the presence of something so ancient. These temples were so magnificent and so powerful. They were rich with history and held so many stories. If there is any experience I would recommend to anyone, it would be to explore these amazing gems.
5. THE CITY CAN BE OVERWHELMING
Prepare for lots of noise and lots of solicitation. I’m not talking about the busy city noise of cars bustling about, honking horns, and construction noises. I’m talking about being prepared for hordes of tuk-tuk drivers approaching you at all times and asking you for your business. A tuk-tuk driver will walk right up to you and ask if you need a ride almost as soon as you climb out of one. They are persistent and pushy. It’s hard to blame them because they need the money. I felt like because of the tuk-tuk drivers consistently trying to grab my attention as I walked the pathways it ended up distracting from the experience of the areas we were exploring, which is unfortunate.
Take everything I say with a grain of salt, because each individual, of course, has their own tolerance levels and their own expectations. Visiting Cambodia definitely got me out of my comfort zone, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I left wanting to discover more of Siem Reap, its’ rich culture, and the temples I left behind.
Happy Wandering Millennials!