Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Learning on the Road

After ten days in Siem Reap, I'm starting to get used to a few new aspects of life and I'm learning where I need to adjust.  It's still a bit difficult to condense my thoughts into a coherent post, so I hope that a list might help!
From the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider
I think the tree is winning.
1. I need to get better at pool.

Nearly every bar I've been to in Siem Reap has a pool table.  Even a quieter restaurant down the street from our guest house, with an entrance covered in leaves and a side path to two peaceful hammocks, has a pool table.  On our first night going out in Siem Reap, we started at the Sunset Bar above our hostel.  Eric and I each grabbed a beer and joined the group sitting around the pool table.  I met some great Europeans and learned that the pool skills I thought I'd developed in high school with occasional half-days spent at Diesel had not existed then and certainly do not exist now. 

Playing pool at the Sunset Bar in our guest house, Garden Village
Despite my poor skills, playing pool and loitering around pool tables has been a fun, low-pressure way to meet people, which is always good for a shy person like me.  Until I give up and start singing about "Trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P," I will be working to get the 4 ball into the corner pocket.

2. This is not New York City — the cabs find you.

One of the many things I had not expected upon arriving in Cambodia was the prevalence and spirited nature (I'm trying to find a nice word for "aggressive") of tuk-tuk drivers.  As you approach any street, or even frankly leave any business, there will be multiple men asking, "Tuk-tuk, sir?  Lady?"  I have never lived somewhere where transportation was so actively available, or where a negative response did not lead immediately to the seller backing off.  When I reply that no, I don't need a tuk-tuk, many drivers have asked, "Tomorrow?  Where are you going?" 

Riding in the tuk-tuk to see Angkor Wat
They're a great way to get around. Feeling the breeze on your face
as you ride is better than air conditioning in my opinion.
 When we arrived in Phnom Penh, the guy who drove us from the airport to the hostel offered to come back the next day to pick us up and drive us around the city.  Another man pulled his tuk-tuk over to the sidewalk while Eric had stopped to take a picture.  He started talking to me about the architecture in Phnom Penh and offered to take us on a tour of old French style buildings.  As Eric explained to me, one tuk-tuk ride may not be a lot of money to a tourist, but it can mean a lot for a driver.

3. I'm still not used to aggressive selling in general.

Walking through the markets here, each stall has someone sitting in front asking, "Hello lady, do you want to buy something?"  Every restaurant has a hostess asking, "Hello, do you want something to eat?"  Each massage parlor or food cart or fish massage place has someone to call out to you, asking if you want to buy whatever they're selling.  While there are definitely stores in the U.S. that do this, I haven't experienced this level of active selling before.
These noodle stands set up in the late afternoon and stay open until the early morning.
They're right off Pub Street, and perfect for a post-bar snack.
While visiting one of the temples in Angkor recently, Eric and I passed by a row of stalls selling general touristy goods and food.  Two girls approached us, asking if we would come buy things at their stall.  We kept walking, saying no, we didn't need anything, and they followed us, asking where we were from, what our names were, and reciting facts about the United States.  As we reached the monument we were there to see, each girl gave us a free bracelet, telling us to be sure to go to their store when we needed something.  It was a little intimidating and a huge guilt-trip.  When we left the monument to return to our ride, the girls began to follow us again, asking why we weren't buying anything.  I recognize that being a tourist in a tourist area means that this will happen.  People need to make money, and if aggressively selling usually works, then that's what they'll do.  I'm just still not used to it.

Elephant sculpture outside the Siem Reap night market
On the other hand, I've found my passivity has worked out so far.  When I was shopping for a purse in Siem Reap's Old Market, I found one that I liked, but it was more money than I wanted to spend.  The seller insisted that as her first customer, I was good luck for her store.  When I hesitated and said I might keep looking, she dropped the price by two dollars.  I kept hesitating, and she dropped the price another two.  By then, the purse was nearly half the original price, so even if I was getting an inflated estimate as a tourist, we both walked away happy.  My haggling skills might need improvement, but at least my mild insistence that I'm going to look elsewhere has worked so far.  

4. Cambodia may have ruined me for Western prices.

In Cambodia, the official currency is the riel, but everyone takes American dollars.  I don't mean that they take dollars as a courtesy, like how a Tim Horton's at the Canadian border might take American dollars if you're out of loonies.  All of the prices listed on menus are in American dollars and the ATMs give out American dollars.  While this has made living here a little easier, since I know exactly how much I'm withdrawing from my bank account without having to calculate exchange rates, I am going to have issues returning the the United States.  Here, I can get breakfast for a $1 and lunch for about $4.  When Eric and I went out for a nice dinner the other night, I splurged for a $3 glass of wine.  Most alcoholic beverages cost between $1 and $3, and several places serve 50 cent beer.  I'm not sure I can return to a land of $10 cocktails without cringing, at least for the first few months.  Friends, I will do my best to refrain from pointing out, "You know what this would have cost me in Siem Reap?!" every time we go out for dinner and drinks. 

This pan-fried pork and pineapple cost about $2.
It was delicious and one of my favorite meals here.
One thing I am still getting used to is the lack of coins.  The Cambodian riel trades at about 4000 to the dollar, so when something costs anything other than a full dollar, the change comes in riel.  Twenty-five cents change is a 1000 riel note.  After breaking a five at a place that was out of dollar bills, I got a 10,000 riel note.  It was a little mind-boggling.  

5. Lizards are friendly and kind of loud.

On our first night in Siem Reap, Eric and I stayed in a bungalow room with walls made of bamboo.  It was beautiful, but the bamboo was not the sturdiest building material, so the walls had cracks and small holes.  We slept under a mosquito net (it felt like a slightly grown-up fort) which protected us from anything buzzing around.  As soon as we turned out the light, there was a loud squeak and a clatter in the upper corner of the room.  I sat upright, my heart racing.  I couldn't figure out what it could be.  A bat, maybe?  Some deranged cat that had crawled in from the roof?  It sounded massive and the translucent mosquito net didn't seem like it would withstand an attack from something large and scary.  Eric rolled over and groggily asked if I was okay.  The squeak and rattle happened again and all the muscles in my back tensed up.  "It's the lizards," Eric explained.  "They're here for the bugs."  

Our room the first night in Siem Reap
I'm thankful for the lizards and mostly have gotten used to their squeaking/clicking sound, but that first night it took an extra few minutes for me to fall asleep with the sound of them running over the walls, hunting for mosquitoes.   

One lizard hanging out by the window screen
I'm still learning as we go, and I have a lot more ahead of me.  I'm enjoying it all so far!  More updates to come soon. 

What have you learned when visiting new places?
What was easy or hard to get used to?


  1. Aunt Beth and Uncle BeauApril 5, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    Wonderful documentary Laura. Enjoy and celebrate the differences in cultures. Travel in itself is wonderful, but actually integrating into the culture is so much more exciting.

    1. Thank you! I'm enjoying the chance to understand the culture better. It's been nice to be in one city for a couple weeks and get a better feel for it. I hope you're doing well!