Cambodia Travel Tips

In just a couple of months I will be taking a group of friends with me to Cambodia for the first time. Now that flights are booked, the countdown is on to give them the lowdown on how best to prepare for their first time there. So as I sat to draft an email to them, I thought, why not share it with the world since I’m often asked for my pointers anyway?

Note: these mostly apply to the cities and not necessarily to the more remote, less beaten path.

Where to start: I always recommend that first-timers start in Phnom Penh to learn about the country’s tragic recent history. Personally–and embarrassingly–I knew nothing about the genocide the first time I went to Cambodia. It was a huge punch in the gut when I visited Tuol Sleng (a high school turned prison turned museum) on my first day in Cambodia and learned about the Khmer Rouge regime that killed millions of their own people in the 1970s. It’s humbling to learn about and makes you appreciate the kindness and generosity of the people you will encounter that much more.

Where to end: If you are traveling just to Cambodia, end your trip in Siem Reap with a visit to the Angkor temple complex. If you plan to spend a lot of time in other countries in the region too, personally I would suggest going to Cambodia early in your journey and not leaving Angkor Wat for last. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Angkor temples until 3 months after seeing temple after temple after temple in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, so by the time I got to Siem Reap I was a bit templed-out and not as impressed as I imagine I would have been if I wasn’t so jaded at that point. I know that many people may argue the opposite because nothing would be impressive after seeing the motherload of temples, but I personally prefer one massive memorable WHOA experience to trump all others than a lot of MEH ones. Especially when you’re talking about frickin’ Angkor Wat! Learn from my mistake. No one should look at Angkor Wat and say MEH.

Where to stay: In Phnom Penh I always stay in the area around Street 278. It’s full of low cost guesthouse options compared to the more popular riverfront area and has some good food options, too.

In Siem Reap, unless you are looking to party, stay on the “other” side of the river from downtown. There are many guesthouses off of Wat Bo Road. Downtown is still very accessible by foot or bicycles (which you can rent from any guesthouse) but you don’t have to deal with the rowdier tourist crowd. The prices are lower there too and the restaurants are far more authentic.

Wherever you stay, ask for a business card when you check in. This may come in handy if it has the address written in Khmer to show tuk tuk or moto drivers who may not understand English. However, it is also likely that your driver may not be able to read, so I try to carry a photo of a landmark within walking distance of my hotels to show if all other communication fails. Have the photos printed out if possible, because flashing a fancy phone may not be smart if the wrong people are around.

How to pay: This is the most unexpected—and also most convenient—part of traveling in Cambodia. As far as foreigners are concerned, Cambodia runs on U.S. dollars. ATMs will give you U.S. dollars. You can pay for everything in U.S. dollars as long as the bill is small enough for the occasion (i.e.- don’t pay a street food vendor with a $20 bill). Change, however, is usually given in the local currency (riel). You can also use the dollars and riel interchangeably and combined using the universally-accepted exchange rate of 1 USD = 4000 riel. For example, if something is labeled as $1.50, then you can give them $1 + 2000 riel. Or you can give them $5 and you’ll get 14,000 riel (or any combination of dollar bills and riel) back. Sounds complicated but it is very easy to get used to.

So if you are traveling from the U.S. and want to avoid overseas bank charges, bring cash with you. Make sure that the money is clean with no rips and with minimal folds/wrinkles. Cambodians are suspicious of fake or worn money, so even if you think a bill looks OK, they may reject it because it is too tattered. I go into my bank before each trip and specifically ask them for new bills in $20, $10, and $5 denominations. I don’t think I’m their favorite customer when I ask this, but they do it! I also start breaking $20s to collect $1 and $5 bills in the weeks before my trip. Those are usually harder to come by at the bank and will be the most valuable to have in Cambodia to easily pay drivers, street vendors, and others selling low cost items that usually don’t have change (or at least say they don’t).

How to dress: The joke in Southeast Asia is that there are three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest. This holds especially true in Cambodia where the temperature usually hovers in the 80s and 90s year-round. Not to mention the intense humidity, which can be overwhelming in the spring (side note: showering in the morning can be quite useless since on most days I would start sweating as soon as I walk out the door). All this to say, pack breathable, light clothing—cotton tops, linen pants, jersey skirts, etc. You’ll also see that in Cambodia scarves are used to protect from the heat rather than cold. They are also great to have on hand should you need to cover your shoulders to enter a holy site (knees and shoulders must be covered and shoes removed), or your mouth when going down a dusty road on a tuk tuk (might I take this opportunity to shamelessly plug krama wheel scarves?).

Also keep in mind that most guesthouses offer cheap wash and fold laundry service, so keep the number of clothes you take to a minimum.

How to eat: Two words: Street stalls. Just point and pay for anything that looks good to you. No need for questions.

This is by no means comprehensive (there are guidebooks for that), but they are the tips that I have found to be the most valuable after several trips to Cambodia.

***

Do you have any tips to add? Let me know in the comments below!

Advertisements

Money Matters (and other things that matter more)

I moved a couple of weeks ago and unfortunately this meant hours of tediously sorting through and parting with useless papers and junk.

One of the items I came across in my desk was quite timely for this month since last September I spent more money in one month than I had ever spent in such a short timeframe.

I had big plans and ideas for the year ahead, but I was expecting them to coordinate amongst themselves and spread out nicely over the next several paychecks.

NOPE.

The month started with me indulging and applying to the Global Entry Program. I had $100 to spare, so why not splurge a bit on some travel luxury?

But suddenly the rainclouds descended…

  • The hotel for my sister’s bachelorette party in Mexico required payment to hold our room during high season.
  • Flights for Cambodia were filling up quickly and I needed to lock in my ticket to ensure I got seats for my next krama wheel trip.
  • World Domination Summit tickets went on sale and I needed to snag one up fast before they disappeared. 
  • My best friend in New York and I had made a pact that next time Cut Copy made their rare way from Australia to either of our towns we would go see them together. Alas, they were coming to Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin so naturally I had to keep my word and bought a pair of tickets to the festival.
  • My aging Macbook began to suffer several near-death experiences and needed to be replaced in order to avoid catastrophic loss (this was before I learned about the magic of the cloud).
  • I also had to get somewhere really fast (presumably the bank) and got pulled over for speeding.

My credit card balance was growing out of control with all of these things hitting at once. As someone who religiously pays off debts on time, I began to panic. This was exorbitantly beyond my monthly budget.

Writing things out always has a soothing effect on me when I need to reign in my thoughts, so I grabbed some paper and wrote out all the expenses that were weighing on me. I can’t say that seeing that total in big blue marker was much consolation (see: (shit.)), but creating that list did help me come to terms with a couple of things.

September expenses

First, looking at it made me commit to a severe money diet. But more importantly, it also made me smile. A damn big smile.

Daunting figures aside, the list excited me—I was investing in new adventures and in my personal and professional growth. Maybe I had to dig deep into my savings and maybe I had to deal with unpaid debt for a few months, but I’ll take occasional financial discomfort if it means creating meaningful memories and opportunities.

So I pinned the paper by my bedroom door as a daily reminder to watch my spending (and speeding) and to continue to seek out those priceless, smile-inducing ways to live my life to the fullest.

Looking back on the year now—on those trips, on the concert, on the conference, and on the things my trusty new laptop has allowed me to create (including this blog)—those debts have turned into life investments that have paid off exponentially. I’m sure there’s a lesson in personal growth in that speeding ticket somewhere, too.

 

6 Must-Eat Experiences Spanning Vietnam

As I was starting to write a new post about street food, I came across this piece that I wrote quite a while ago but never published. Alas, a place to publish! Stay tuned for a more international collection of my street food favorites in next week’s post.

***

Spooning the eastern coast of Indochina, Vietnam’s sprawling territory has so much more to offer a curious palate than the iconic, steaming bowl of pho (which of course should not be missed in its own right).  Each region has distinct flavors defining its culinary culture, so you should take the time to taste and explore. Here are six highlights for a well-rounded food experience as you work your way down the country:

1. BBQ in Sapa. If you’re looking for a way to recover from an afternoon of haggling with the crafty hilltribe women in Vietnam’s gateway mountain town, the alley behind Sapa’s main church houses a row of tarp-covered BBQ stalls. Tended to by women fanning small grills, you can point out your choice of skewer and take a seat at a communal table as your meat is grilled to order. Everything is served with a dipping bowl of tangy barbeque sauce, made even zestier by a miniature lime squeezed in tableside.  Whether you opt for the skewered zucchini, buns, pork-wrapped wild mushrooms, or rotisseried duck, this is a great way to fill up before the long sleeper train journey back to Hanoi.

BBQ in Sapa

sapa bbq2

2. Cha ca in Hanoi.  In a city with streets that each conveniently specialize in one item–shoe street, mannequin street, sewing machine street–it is no surprise that Hanoi has a cha ca street nestled in its Old Quarter chock-full of eateries dedicated to this local dish. Served DIY-style, a sizzling pan of tumeric-coated fish chunks is delivered to your table over a charcoal stove. The chef’s cap is then passed onto you as you dive into bowls of fresh spring onions, dill, peanuts, and vermicelli noodles to create your perfectly-flavored meal.

cha ca

3. Betel nuts in Hue. OK, so they aren’t exactly a meal, but they are an oral experience worth trying if you really want to pick up on a local habit. Trau, which is really an areca nut wrapped in a betel leaf, is often used as an icebreaker, such as say, bumming a cigarette. Besides staining your lips and mouth blood red, the mouth-drying, peppery-tasting combination is a mild stimulant that is believed to give a sense of euphoria. You should be able to find some at a local market, but why not hit up a mellow vampire-mouthed local for a try instead?

betel mouth

4. Cao lau in Hoi An.  There is no dish more regional to this central Vietnamese town, and it’s on most every restaurant or market stall menu. Thick, chewy rice noodles and bean sprouts are topped with tender pork slices, fried dough croutons, fresh herbs and a rich broth to create the texture and flavor explosion that is cao lau. But the crucial ingredient, and reason why it can only truly be made here, is water from an ancient well in town. For a city whose residents are accustomed to rowing their way through a rainy season flood, the locals have mastered the culinary art of belly warming with this dish.

cau lau

5. Seafood in Mui Ne. Pay-by-weight eateries set up in the evenings along the main stretch of road overlooking the ocean in this resort town.  The day’s menu swims in tubs or chills over ice as a server masterfully takes orders from the sea of people crowded around.  After making your selection between giant prawns, squid, fish or any combination of the above, it is weighed and tossed on a grill with your choice of marinade.  The food may take a while, but cheap beer or fresh fruit shakes spiked with the bottle of even cheaper rum help the time fly. Beware if you order shark, as it will be knocked out before your eyes with one hard slam against the ground.  An impromptu snake show may also ensue, in which a snake is sliced, gutted, twirled, and drained (in no particular order) as you eat. Theatrics aside, the stellar seafood is the bottom line. 

seafood in Mui Ne

6. Street food in Ho Chi Minh City. It would be unfair to choose just one dish in such a culinary hot spot as Ho Chi Minh City.  It’s impossible to walk down a sidewalk or alley in this bustling metropolis without running into a cart stacked with banh bao (steamed dumplings) or a plastic table packed with diners squatting over a bowl of pho.  So if you make it to Saigon, as it is still interchangeably called, you should leave some room in your stomach and be quick on your feet, as you never know what delights await you just under that lid, whether it’s sitting curbside, zooming by on a bicycle, or masterfully teetering on the shoulder of a woman crossing the street.

saigon

Stepping Stones

When I look back to identify the root of my travel bug, it no doubt stems from my annual summer trips to visit family in Israel. I was exposed to the act of traveling early and consistently—it became ingrained into my identity in the same way that growing up with dogs has made me a steadfast dog person. But there are a few significant stepping stones in my evolution as a traveler that have paved the way for how my travels have changed over the years.

1. Supervised travel: When my family moved back to Israel when I was in 10th grade, I transferred from a class of hundreds in the Texas public school system to a class of dozens in the international school system. My new school consisted of a tight community of friends from all over the world who were not only born abroad, but had also lived in multiple countries due to their parents’ ever-relocating careers. Needless to say, I had a long list of places I wanted to visit by the time I graduated three years later.

The school also provided my first opportunity to travel abroad without my parents. I joined nearly all of the sports teams, which had annual tournaments as part of a European league of international schools. Basketball took me to Vienna where I met my first pickpocket, softball took me to London where I met my first Michelangelo, and volleyball took me to Brussels where I met my dear, lifelong friend the street food stall. These were my first international trips without my family and although they were supervised, it was a new level of freedom to explore that I had never experienced.

2. Unsupervised travel: My junior year of college I jumped on the opportunity to study abroad. I was studying art history and Italian, which was all part of my master plan to justify spending a year in Florence. During my time there I not only gained my Junior 30 (the Freshman 15 I had evaded, plus interest) but also the opportunity to venture out and explore new places without having to ask for permission. My friends and I found ourselves in a variety of situations ranging from breathtaking to awkward to scary, but we had each other to figure things out together as semi-mature adults.

3. Solo travel: After graduating college, I went on what was meant to be a quick trip to Israel before moving back to New York. I ended up staying and living out of my suitcase for a year, wanting to see what life there on my own would be like (my parents had since returned to the States). Fortunately, I landed a part-time job at an art gallery in Tel Aviv run by my high school history teacher’s husband. To supplement that income, I also started waiting tables.

While Americans traditionally graduate high school–> go to college–> get a job, Israelis have a different standard: graduate high school–> enlist in the army–> take an epic backpacking trip–> go to college–> get a job. While I had always known about this, it wasn’t until I was surrounded by my new server friends at work talking about the trips that they had either just come back from or that they were saving up for that I even considered such a trip for myself. So after that year in Israel, I came back to Austin with the goal to save enough money waiting tables for a solo trip through South America. Being surrounded by others who had done it, especially women my age, gave me a sense of confidence and exhilaration I had never felt before. I was excited for a new challenge in my growth as a traveler.

4. Conscious travel: The first time I incorporated service into my travels was when I joined my friend’s fundraising project, Austin2Africa. I had recently started a new job after returning from 4 months of solo travel through South America and I was still struggling with settling into my first office job. So when my colleague gave a presentation about her recent sabbatical in South Africa and the work that she had done there, I signed on to help with her fundraising efforts without a second thought. Not only was I touched by her experiences there, but it was a part of the world I knew very little about.

After a year of fundraising, our small group of volunteers traveled to South Africa to see how our hard work had made an impact; we funded a two-story annex for an orphanage that was in desperate need of more space. To see the direct impact we made gave me a new perspective on the possibilities to do good that are out there if you open your eyes beyond the beaten tourist path. It was this experience that planted the seed for the volunteer opportunities I sought out in Cambodia a year later, and which ultimately led to a fundraising project, and later business, of my own.

Stories from these periods, and the countless opportunities sparked as a result of them, are ones that I will surely delve more deeply into later. For now I just thought it would be neat to take a step back and pinpoint those pivotal life events that have guided me from my training wheels to unicycle on this winding path I have set out on over the past three decades.