Two Bowls of Rice
Editor’s Note: This is part of our series, SLG Perspectives which offers a unique take on travel experience and the complex nature of local life through the eyes of our correspondent’s based across the world.
Two Bowls of Rice: Cambodia, View From a Bike Seat
I was scared the first time I went to Cambodia. Granted my fear was probably bit overblown, but when my friends and I found ourselves in the grungy and haphazard border-town of Poipet, my insides turned to jelly and I looked around for an easy escape back into Thailand. There is a stark different between the borders of Cambodia and Thailand; Thailand’s side is more orderly and there are gleaming 7/11 signs everywhere, beacons of familiarity. When you cross into Cambodia, you can’t help but notice that everything seems to have a thick layer of dust covering it. Ramshackle buildings crowd the streets and beat-up cars that shouldn’t be on the road speed by with overstuffed with goods or people.
Why was I in Cambodia, and why was I suddenly feeling fearful and regretting my decision? Well, it all started when our group of friends decided to take a long weekend trip from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We saw the value in organizing our own transportation and decided that when we crossed into Cambodia we would hire a taxi and split the cost. Everything was going smoothly until we crossed the border and fell for the oldest trick in the book: a friendly and helpful tout, ( someone who is usually trying to sell you something because they will receive commission.) Yes, he was friendly. And yes, he let me borrow his pen to fill out the customs form, but he also convinced us to take the “free bus” to the “bus/taxi station” which turned out to an overpriced private company in a remote and rundown part of the town. My friends and I were frustrated and I was scared. We had no idea where we were and we were being pressured by a seemingly ever growing crowd of people to take the overpriced bus and exchange money despite the overinflated rates. The tout even had the gall to try and convince us that all the ATMs in Siem Reap were not working and we HAD to exchange money here and now. That’s when my friends and I smartened up and we realized we were being played. We had fallen for the “free bus” bait, but weren’t so easy to fool that we would believe there would be no place in a large tourist-based city to exchange money.
There are touts and shady tourist businesses in all countries, but for me this was the first time I had ever witnessed one and been a part of one. Even after living in Bangkok for 2 months prior, I had avoided Khao San road like the plague and so I wasn’t accustomed to being circled by eager taxi drivers and touts hoping to cash in on a lost and confused tourist. I wasn’t used riding in beat up cars with no seat belts and the steering wheel on the wrong side, careening down the road honking the horn incessantly and passing traffic on the left and right. I truly felt the fear of stepping outside of my comfort zone and I almost turned around backed out. I’m sure glad I didn’t.
Instead, I chose to return, 3 more times in total, and then eventually moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and made it my new home in Southeast Asia. I love living here. I have interacted with scores of Cambodian people(I even fell in love with one!), been to countless weddings and religious ceremonies, eaten bamboo sticky rice until I thought I would burst, overcome my fear about sitting side-saddle on a motorbike and determinedly improved my squat. I have traveled the country top to bottom and side to side in many different forms of transportation from rickety buses to motorbikes and the backs of pick-up trucks. By far though, the best experiences I have had in Cambodia have been while pedaling a bicycle.
I started regularly bike riding in Cambodia about 2 months after I arrived. I first had a rental bike and then realized my commitment was worth investing in my own. I joined a biking group and experienced the countryside surrounding the capital city, Phnom Penh, in a refreshing new way. On these bike rides, I went to few places foreigners go and witnessed the infectious joy of a young student able to practice English with a foreigner for the first time. I biked through rural villages, rice paddies and dusty and bumpy dirt roads and sometimes there weren’t even any roads, just torn up ox-cart paths that led to hidden pockets of the country where few ventured. It was on these bike rides that I began to see Cambodia in a new light and I started to see more than dusty roads, tuk tuks and overcrowded markets. I started to see the very essence of a country; the people.
Being an expat isn’t always as romantic as many are led to believe it is. It’s thrilling and exciting living in another country and you get to experience the culture on a much deeper level than if you were just traveling through, lingering only important landmarks or cities where all the tourists flock. Yet, even when you are living in the country, there is still a wall, thin or thick depending on the location and individual that separates the expat from the local. It’s difficult to digest truth, but is right there, in the word ‘expat’; someone who is from another country/culture and implicitly a stranger and the local, who seamlessly blends in.
While living in Cambodia, I’ve had my fare share of moments where I have realized that even though I call this country home, it is still foreign to me and I am still a foreigner. I’ve anxiously tried to use the language, even though my shyness encourages me to hide behind translations. I’ve tried to smile non-discriminatingly, but I struggle to force one when I hear another “Tuk tuk Madame!” shouted across the street to me. It wasn’t until I got on a bicycle that the barriers started breaking down and I started to see Cambodia in a new light. When I was on the bicycle, I found myself on roads that many locals and foreigners had only seen from buses window as they whizzed by and those roads brought me to villages and towns where there is no “backpacker” area. Sure, people still stared and looked at me funny, but there was no area that was groomed into a Western enclave, forcing locals and foreigners alike to mingle with open minds.
It was on these bike trips that I had some truly groundbreaking experiences that rekindled my love and devotion to this country. I broke out of my shell and eagerly practiced the Khmer I have learned and spoke with countless people, who were all curious about where I was from and where I was going on a bicycle. I talked with women who shyly asked if I had a boyfriend and then giggled when I said yes, I was entranced by an old man who lived just 20 kilometers from Phnom Penh, yet had never been there before and I dutifully waved hello to school children eager to practice their English(I even gave my telephone number to one student and he has religiously called every few nights to practice his English).
These were the moments when I realized that yes, I am a foreigner in a foreign land, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t interact with the people who have lived here all their lives and talk with them about everyday occurrences; there were locals who were interested in more things than whether I would buy their goods or take a ride in their tuk tuk. It was through this realization that I felt myself melting into the backdrop of the country and finally feeling the joy and elation of finding my place.
Learn the Language
Learn some basic Khmer. I know it’s not easy to learn a language, especially one that has vastly different sounds that Romance languages, but knowing how to say hello, goodbye, how are you, how much I like/I don’t like, numbers 1,000-10,000(currency is in high denomications) and other basics will really help open up doors and make you more approachable. Many Cambodians are quite shy to talk to foreigners in English, whether they have studied the language or now, so if you are the first one to break the ice it will be greatly appreciated and encourage them to talk with you more.
Budget and Bike
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a fancy bicycle. The major roads are in good condition and unless you plan on veering off the major roads, a sturdy bike with decent gears will be fine. We met another biker who spent $100 on his bike and was riding halfway across the country on it! There are plenty of repair shops along the major roads and you will find people are eager to help you should you run into any problems and Cambodian people use motorbikes and bicycles regularly, so they are familiar with the mechanics.
Take Breaks, Stay Hydrated
Take a break during the mid-afternoon hours, slather on sunscreen and drink A LOT of water. Cambodia is hot. I highly recommend a mid-afternoon siesta between 11-3 or complete all your biking before noon. Sit down at a road-side stall that sells refreshing sugarcane juice, coconuts or water and eat a hearty Cambodian lunch to help you recover. And drink water. Lots of it. Even if you don’t feel thirsty, you still need to drink. I recommend 4-5+ liters a day. Seriously, you will sweat a lot, the sun will be beating down on you and being dehydrated is miserable and dangerous.
Watch the Road
Be careful of traffic. The driving in Cambodia is terrifying and no body really follows the traffic laws. There will be speeding SUVs, lumbering trucks, kids riding bicycles and motorbikes dodging through the traffic. One thing the drivers do right is honk when they are approaching you. For awhile, I hated this and thought it was extremely obnoxious, but then I started riding my bike on the roads and I realized how courteous and life-saving it can be. Don’t wear headphones or listen to music. Pay attention to the road and when you hear incessant honking behind you, just know it’s a driver letting you know they are behind you and preparing to pass
Learn to Laugh
People are going to laugh at you. I’m talking a deep-bellied, you-are-the-strangest-person-on-Earth-for-riding-a-bike-for-fun kind of laugh. Don’t take it personally. Cambodian people don’t view exercise the way we do and they certainly don’t see the benefit or fun in riding a bicycle instead of taking a quicker and cooler form of transportation like a motorbike or car. My advice, laugh with them and smile inwardly knowing just how awesome what you are doing is.