Cambodia: A quick word
My first impressions of Cambodia have teeter-tottered drastically, from wildly frustrating to awe-stricken. Here are a few words:
The dry season is hot. And dry. I thought my upbringing would have conditioned me, but 102F with 89% humidity feels like you’re being prepared for dinner.
To USD or not to USD, that is the question. Cambodia’s currency is the riel, which converts at roughly 4000 riel to 1 USD. 90% of the country uses USD, but many places will only accept flawless (and I mean flawless) USD. I had 4 different bills rejected that I received from a major US bank teller (yes, a human, not the machine), 2 bills of which when given to a by-stander, could not find a flaw. We aren’t talking about bills that just got washed in jeans pockets.
C’mon Cambodia, if you want the benefit of having the USD as your currency, take USDs. I’ve scoured the Google to learn why flawless bills are so important, and I can’t find a definitive reason. If you’re worried about forgery, there are about 6 security features designed into USD that you can quickly check to make sure the bill isn’t fake, or just use the riel. I have no problem converting, but I have a problem not being able to spend the money I have.
Part of the crazy juxtaposition, there are a few main roads that comprise the city of Siem Reap. The rest could best be described as rural. Pub St could be in Anywhere, USA with Billboard’s Top 40 blaring out of every club and drink specials galore. The party continues into the waking hours…
Except for when they are rejecting less-than-perfect money, everyone is very polite and almost jovial. Most people speak just enough English to help you get by, but as expected, more rural towns offer fewer English speakers.
Because of the degree of impoverishment, peddling is incessant. I’m certain that children are taught to peddle. They learn a few words in a few languages and are sent into the world to sell trinkets. And there’s fierce competition because so many are peddling, so there’s a bit of a persistence that’s hard to avoid. I feel terrible for being annoyed, but there’s something amiss between the poverty-stricken people and the tourist centers designed to cater to comparatively wealthy tourists. It feels a bit Truman Show. There are a few organizations that help disabled and less fortunate start on the right path, many of which are in Phnom Penh.
And I don’t mean Paris, New York, or Tokyo expensive, but compared to other SE Asian countries, I find it strangely expensive… primarily because it uses the USD. Lodging is fairly similar to my only country of comparison (Malaysia), but things like a bottle of water are nearly 2x the price (USD1.00 vs. RM1.80, or roughly USD0.45). A tuk tuk ride can be USD2-4, whereas a train ticket in Kuala Lumpur was RM2.60-4 (or roughly USD0.60-1.0). An inexpensive street meal in Siem Reap may be USD3-5, whereas a hawker meal in Penang cost about RM4-5 (or USD1.25). Three day admission to Angkor Wat may be the most expensive single item I’ve purchased to date. The difference-maker is that there is no conversion. They are playing on the strength of the dollar.
There is no question, even if for its shear scale, that the Angkor site is simply stunning. Did I need 3 days touring all the temples? No, but I’m not an archaeology buff. To some, a week may not be enough because there is that much to explore. The monuments are amazing even by today’s standards. So much intricate detail and grandeur. It’s mind-boggling that such a lucrative, advanced, powerful society once existed where now a country struggles to emerge into the developed world.