After spending a month in Thailand it was time to move on to Cambodia. Anthony and I spent an entire day (literally 15 hours) traveling from Krabi Province in Thailand to Siem Reap in Cambodia. It was a very long day with the bumpiest bus ride of all time, but we made it safe and sound, if a little tired and road weary. Our first night in Siem Reap got off to a bit of a bumpy start. We arrived fairly late, and decided to walk to the night market to get something to eat since we assumed it would be like all of the night markets in Thailand. Not quite. Cambodian street food does exist, but since the country is far less developed than Thailand and the sanitation standards aren’t necessarily the best, it’s not always a safe bet. In fact, when we finally found the night market, there were only shake stands and dessert carts. At this point, hungry was very quickly turning into hangry for both of us so we picked the first place still serving food on an incredibly touristy strip of bars aptly named Pub Street. We should have known better.
Now, I am by no means an expert traveler, but one thing I’ve discovered to be true everywhere is that most super touristy streets are going to be lined with places serving really bad food. And most of these places are open super late and in a well traveled area where they can prey on exhausted tourists thinking this is their only option. If you’re patient and do your research it’s easy to avoid these crummy places, but when you’re starving and tired logic goes out the window. Anthony and I have made this mistake a dozen times (bad pizza in Rome, bacalhau that was way past its prime in Lisbon, the list goes on), and I’m sure we’ll make it again, but after 15 hours of travel we just wanted to sit down and fill our very empty stomachs. Spoiler Alert: it was a COMPLETE disaster. I managed to eat a decent bit of the “pizza” we ordered because if there is a combination of bread, sauce, and cheese in front of me I’m going to eat it…even if it tastes like cardboard. Anthony’s steak sandwich was pretty much inedible, but luckily we ordered three entrees so he had a back up. I don’t even remember the name of the restaurant, and it’s our fault for making a rash decision, but please don’t let your stomach do the deciding! If we had just wandered to the end of Pub Street we would have found an awesome little place with amazing food that didn’t break the bank. Either way, after an expensive and unsatisfying dinner and hoards of tuk tuk drivers harassing us on our way back to our guest house, Cambodia didn’t make the best first impression.
We got up the next morning with every intention of giving Siem Reap a second chance. I knew it wasn’t fair to judge a country on one bad meal, especially after coming from a country we’d loved so much. We found a cheap place around the corner from our guest house where we tried Khmer food for the first time (it was delicious), and we were all ready to take a three stop tour with the tuk tuk driver we’d met the night before. Unfortunately, as Anthony mentioned, we got ourselves into a bit of a bait and switch situation and the gentleman who showed up was NOT who we were expecting. We decided to take the tour anyway because at the end of the day it was our own fault for being naive and the driver had come all the way to pick us up.
As we headed out of town to Tonle Sap Lake I was fairly irritated. So far everything people had warned us about Cambodia had been true. The bus ride was horrible, the border was a nightmare, and everyone seemed to be trying to scam us. My irritation became full fledged anger when we arrived at the port that would take us to the floating village and found out we had to pay $25 each to get to the village itself. There was no way Anthony and I were going to pay that much and after a quick search on the internet with so many people warning that those running the boats were exploiting the people living in the village we marched back to our tuk tuk driver and told him to take us to the next stop.
I was fuming for about five minutes, but gradually started to relax. It wasn’t our driver’s fault that the first stop was a scam, and it wasn’t his fault that we didn’t get who we were expecting for the tour. This was just a hardworking guy trying to do his job. I started to zone out staring at the hazy countryside when I noticed something that broke my heart: a tiny handwritten sign in front of a little wooden house that read “Lotus Tours, 25 cents”. I had noticed the lotus farm on our way out to Tonle Sap Lake, but had missed the sign entirely and only caught it by chance the second time around. This was when I officially decided to stop being so hard on Cambodia. Yes we’d had some bad luck running into scams, but there are tourist scams everywhere in the world. It wasn’t fair for me to judge everyone based on a little bad luck. We were in a country that had known so much terror and is still seeing the affects of these atrocious acts against humanity today.
Since having this little reality check, Cambodia has grown on me quite a bit. Yes, there is poverty everywhere, but there is also so much beauty and interesting culture to observe. So many people have almost nothing, but they are kind and hardworking and always willing to greet anyone with a huge smile. They are trying to move on and do whatever they can for their families. Yes there are plenty of people also taking advantage of the tourism trade, but that’s just forced Anthony and I to be a little more thorough with our research. No big deal. Siem Reap basically exists to support the tourists coming to see the Angkor Wat temples, and it never got easier to see massive luxurious hotels next to entire families living in a tiny one room home, but it’s part of the paradox that is Cambodia. A country that has come so far, but still has a very long hard road ahead of it.