Random thoughts about life, love, science and what it means to be human

Tourist price

There are a few reasons why the exponentially higher prices on everything rubs me the wrong way here in Cambodia.

First of all the value of goods and services is contextual. Just because I can afford it doesn’t mean I should pay the same price for a bowl of noodles in Cambodia as in Singapore. The cost of materials and the rent for shop space is not the same here. 

Secondly it is really unfriendly. It creates and reinforces this us vs them mentality. Already there are language, cultural barriers, and xenophobia to penetrate. So really this viral capitalist mentality isn’t helping, and I fear that the natural friendly tendency of the village people I meet is slowly eroding away in face of exhortation by less scrupulous official types. I was trying to negotiate a deal with a local coconut vendor in broken Khmer/English and there were some “helpful” other guys there including one in uniform who decided to gang up on me. In the end I walked away so it was not a happy ending for all.

Third it is unfair, and creates bad feelings. If you want to have a tourist surcharge, like with a lot of the attractions here why not price fairly across the board and put it up in writing?

Last I think my personal philosophy leans towards communal not for profit causes and crowd sourcing, and this burgeoning out of control capitalism in Cambodia’s nascent tourism economy just rubs me the wrong way. It erodes the niceness out of being human. It’s like what happens when you feed wild animals and they subsequently mob humans for food and have to be put down. I honestly do think humans can do better though.

Bottom line: Forcing me to pay 200-500% the price on items means I will not be coming back to Cambodia. Nor will I be recommending it to my friends.


Farewell Siem Reap Hello Battambang

Yesterday was great! Kicked off with a sunrise visit to the beautiful Angkor Wat. Since I made the effort it turned out to be a cloudy day of course, but no less beautiful. Wandered around the millennium old temple complexes for the better part of the day until Ta Keo shredded my left knee which was already partially hurting from a grueling climb up the Cameron Highlands the weekend before. Decided to call it a day after Ta Prohm, better known as the Tomb Raider temple, where the massive stone structures have been torn apart by even more massive trees. Mountain Bike was definitely worth it! Green Cycle Tours in the Old Market neighbourhood has well maintained ones and they will take a drivers license to hold until you return the bike, instead of a passport which some of the other companies require. Later in the hostel I met friendly backpackers Jose and Carola and joined them for dinner and a shopping jaunt. There are parts of Siem Reap that are less touristy but these are relatively well hidden. Got less grief from the salespeople while travelling in a well seasoned pack, and was able to get some good deals. Today I am on a bus to the picturesque Battambang, slightly more off the beaten trail, after scandalizing the Cambodian hostel staff with the concept of coffee without sugar.

Battambang=More travelling less writing

Which is as it should be.

I really like the vibe here. It is at the same time chill and bustling, alive, eclectic and there are all sorts of interesting folks. I have been trying to put my finger on it over the last day or so, and can only conclude that this is one of those confluent places where people of all walks meet.

Street art and book cafes are burgeoning. I found the beginnings of a local bicycle collective type space in the form of The Battambang Bike and enjoyed chatting with Tha a young Cambodian who is currently running the operation solo. Last night the Cambodian Space Project played 2 concerts, fusing Cambodian vocals with Californian surf rock and other cheesy 70s styles. They were really good but ugh cheesy 70s music. Had an enjoyable conversation with Kyle and Francis tall hippie yoga dudes who are on vacation from the university of Edinburgh. They are on the end of a loop around SE Asia, spending a week volunteering here repaving some walkways at a local school before heading home. Also hooked up with Millie and Coby, from England and SF respectively, and hopefully we will be able to get together and do some exploring later.

The town itself is a bustling hub, surrounded by local villages lining the rivers.  It is more annoyingly touristy than I was expecting. Lots of rabid hassling by tuktuk drivers, especially at the bus station. It is getting hard not to be rude. Have to remember to clarify prices before sitting down at local eating establishments. The sleepy villages nearby boast fish sauce and bamboo rice, which gets distributed around Cambodia. There are also lots of crocodile farms which supply the local leather trade. Passed by a wedding on a dusty village road. Cambodians in fine clothing gather to share a meal the day before the actual ceremony. Unfortunately there was still a cultural barrier and we didn’t get invited to stop.

There are lots of foreign projects here, focusing on child welfare and capacity building. I had a chance to rent a kayak from Green Orange and paddle downstream along the river back to Battambang town. It was serene. Passed lots of children shouting HELLO from their backyards and stilted dwellings. Also some local fishermen and villagers washing clothes and bathing. $12 for one way kayak rental and $5 if you want a guide.

Siem Reap first impressions

The entire town seems to be constructed around tourism. The streets are cleaner, the hostels slicker, newer, complete with pools and a/c. Everyone speaks English. There is perpetually some construction going on in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh my hostel was having a new bathroom put in. Here there is a new building going up across the street. It was hard to find any sign of the local food sellers. Since I was starving I decided to eat at the cheapest restaurant I could find. Everything was ≥$2, which is ridiculous for Asia, especially Cambodia. Later I did see some stalls on the outskirts of the old market area but there weren’t many options. Bought a reuseable bag from Bloom Bags, in support of a local cause where single Cambodian moms sew bags out of old rice sacks to send their kids to school. Also restocked on baggy cotton pants which for the same haggling prowess can be gotten for cheaper than in Bangkok. Decided to splurge $5 on a really nice bicycle. Cheaper rentals can be found if you are content with seven speeds on an internal shifting hub which may or may not be stuck on the highest gear. Can’t wait to do my own tour of Angkor Wat tomorrow. Going to try and catch sunrise at the ruins.

Cambodian highway adventure

This morning I am headed towards Siem Reap on the Golden Bayon Express. The bus is packed full, old and dingy, and the advertised WiFi does not work. By dint of being small and female I have been assigned the seat right in the back on top of the rear wheel, making for a horrid ride over the portions where the road has been eroded away as we fly over the potholes beeping erratically at the vehicles we pass as the surrounding fields pass by at uncomfortable speeds. Fuck you, driver. Have I mentioned that I can’t wait to be off the tourist trail?

Phnom Penh sights

Today I am writing from the cool safety of my hostel balcony as heavy rain falls outside all afternoon. I am beginning to get used to the incessant touting, the tourist surcharge, the dust, dodging the crazy traffic, the reek of urine and rotting garbage on the street and am consequently less grumpy. Hit most of the requisite tourist spots—Cheung Ek, Tuol Sleng, the grim reminders of the civil war, and the national museum. Decided to skip the royal palace in favour of an afternoon nap. Opulent architecture and furniture has never been my thing anyway. Can’t wait to get out of the city. When I get back here after my loop around Cambodia I would like to try and stay near the Russian market for a feel of another neighbourhood.
So far my stomach is tolerating the local cuisine. So far I’ve tried bowls of hot soupy noodles with fresh seafood, chicken, a rice dish with roasted meat, and another with minced pork and fresh veggies. Everything is really good and really fresh. I need to find the coffee! Have not spotted the vendors yet. If the rain stops I will venture out to the market nearby for dinner and hit my favourite dessert stall along the way. There is a bowl of sweet potato/pumpkin mush with sago and tons of sugar and coconut milk out there with my name on it.

Phnom Penh first impressions

I hate it. It is a cesspit. There are piles of stinking garbage everywhere, no real attempt to export the local culture, and the people are out to get you at every turn. Granted, they need to make a living and it’s usually for not more than a dollar or two, but it says a lot about the nature of the people here. I hate walking around feeling their slimy tentacles reaching out at every turn. What is odd is that the people actually negotiate the fleecing, rather than try to rob you outright. The streets feel safe enough.
Had a couple bowls of noodles so far, at local establishments. The tourist price is about $1-$1.50. No idea how to order the more exotic things the locals were having so ended up with seafood in one and regular shredded chicken in the other. Pretty good. Haven’t braved the iced desserts yet. Lots of steamed snails that I may try later too. Visited Wat Phnom and wandered around the northern side of the city on foot, heading down to the touristy strip by the river. East of the hostel on 108th street are some cool market stalls that appear at night, selling everything from eels, frogs, seafood and snails to fruit and veg and slippers.
One more day to do the requisite touristy things and then I’m headed to Siem Reap.