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Thoughts on Cambodia (first visit)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Cambodia can be a rough country to travel in alone. It’s easiest to contrast one country with another. In Japan no one bothers you and it’s rare to be heckled from the street. In Cambodia I can’t walk 100 meters without being offered a taxi, marijuana, or a prostitute.

In Japan all the prices are fixed and foreigners and locals pay the same amount. In Cambodia everything is subject to lengthy negotiation, most taxi and bus drivers get kickbacks for taking you to their favored stores, and even though things are cheap it still feels like you’re getting screwed all the time for being white.


Cambodia is without a doubt the cheapest country I’ve traveled to so far. For $15 you can get a one bedroom suite hotel room with free breakfast and fast internet. Honestly at $450/month I wouldn’t mind staying here for a long time.

The downside of cheap countries is the temptation for excess. Coffee is cheaper than water, beer is cheaper than water, and I hear the drugs are fantastic. I’ve seen way less prostitution than Thailand but it’s still present. As a western traveler you feel that you are viewed as a paycheck and it’s hard to have authentic interactions with locals. In Japan even drunk men on the street were very nice to me: one of them drew my portrait and insisted that we stay in touch.

Cheap countries are not always so cheap: Cambodia GDP per capita is about 50 times lower than Japan at $945/year (Japan is almost $47,000/year). It seems to me that similar quality of life in Cambodia for tourists in Cambodia maybe costs 13 of Japan ($20/day vs $60/day).


Cambodia is poor but the people here hustle. The markets are highly energetic places absolutely packed with goods. As a capitalist it’s a thrill to see so many small independent businesses. There also seem to be few major chain stores, I’m not sure why.


With the negative stated upfront there is a bunch of positive here. Remember that Cambodia suffered a genocide only 35 years ago. As far as I understand all of the adult city dwellers were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, the major cities were evacuated and left vacant for 5 years and the country moved to full time agriculture. It’s reasonable that no one over 40 here has ever lived in city before, that all of city culture in Cambodia was lost during the killings. With that in mind Cambodia is doing very well.

In every country I’ve been the children are positive and Cambodia is no exception. My friend Chris showed me around one of the poorest neighborhoods in Phnom Penh. These people were forced out of nicer neighborhoods and live in shacks by the railroad tracks. Piles of trash flood the neighborhood with feral chickens and dogs picking through the waste. Clothes hang to dry on the barbed wire on a nearby wall.

But the children are so happy. As soon as the camera came out they began shouting “Hello! What is name?” and running over to me. They wanted to have their picture taken. They wanted to see their picture, crowding around me touching my head and giggling and running back again to pose. Giving me peace signs and smiles and laughter and hugs.

Children play in the streets. It’s cliche for a traveler to remark on how happy the children seem, but here it seems better than elsewhere I’ve traveled. It’s beautiful.

Angkor Wat

The architecture of Cambodia is shocking. Angkor Wat is the Grand Canyon of historical tourist sites. The temple actually known as Angkor Wat is several square miles with a 190 meter wide moat surrounding it. It just goes and goes and goes.

Angkor Wat is only one of the major temples. So far we’ve visited at least 10 others. At this point I’m exhausted and have lost track of which temple is which. It’s worth the three day tour as an exercise in understanding the truly incredible things our ancestors accomplished without power tools.

The moat at Angkor Wat (the temple) protected it from jungle encroachment. Other temples were not so lucky and are in the process of being destroyed by trees. I’m glad that the park service has left the trees intact, seeing them intertwined with the rocks is a strong reminder of impermanence.


As a tourist the begging and hustling here wears on the spirit. Small children relentlessly peddle junk souvenirs before their school in the afternoon. They all appear to work off a script: they show you the postcards, they count the postcards off one to ten, and they tell you they need money for school. A common trick is to ask where you’re from and once you tell them respond with the capital and a local saying. My friend from Australia gets told “Canberra! G’day mate.” every time she tells a child where she’s from. This repetition makes it hard not to be rude to the children, but they’re children, and then you feel like a dick.

It’s stressful to have young children follow you around endlessly telling you that they just want to go to school, they just want to eat. Cambodia can be so corrupt it’s hard to tell the truth from fiction. We bought one boy lunch after hearing these lines for almost 10 minutes. Later I heard stories about how these kids are given free housing, food and school through government programs. I heard about children being sold into slavery by their parents to pretend to be orphans for tourist orphanage tours.