Into Cambodia

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

Within two minutes of being in Phnom Penh, our traveler’s euphoria – that which swells with each introduction to new lands and experiences – was swiftly whisked away.

It disappeared with the sound of screeching tires and a loud thud. I turned just in time to see a woman fly over the handlebars of her scooter as another cut across, her helmeted head hitting the pavement first. We weaved past her and around the congested traffic, Pete and I gripped the sides of our tuktuk a little tighter and silently wished for our own safety in the half hour drive to our hotel.

Motos at Night - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

That would not be our last fearful excursion. On our very next tuktuk ride from our hotel to the centre of the city, it was our turn to tangle in transit, with our driver smacking a scooter who cut across the front too close. All were okay (our driver laughed about it for the next several minutes), but it was enough to shake me up once again.

I am not sure I’m ready for this.

So much of being in Cambodia reminds us both of our time in South America: the swirling smells of grilling meat and rotting garbage, unfamiliar creepy crawlies (of which I am unreasonably terrified), the permanence of dust and grime on anything and everything, spurring my need for a shower after every outing.

I never thought of myself as a traveling princess – we endured some very challenging travel while in South America – but perhaps I have become that way with age and from more recently being spoiled by luxurious Europe. I can barely stomach that our hotel’s standards of cleanliness don’t match mine, and I am struggling to accept the continuous roar of horns and revving motors as dull white noise.

I have never been a fan of crowded and busy cities, and Phnom Penh is bursting. It’s exhausting, dirty, daunting. Despite repeated claims of the city’s overall safety and the draw of a new culture to be discovered, I find my interest in exploring to be at a desperate low. Pete’s is too.

We’ve been making a good effort though, exploring the Royal Palace in stifling heat, participating in a cooking class, and taking a general tour of the city via tuktuk (accident free, thankfully). And each time we have ventured out, there have been things that absolutely delight us – the way the kids are always smiling and waving, the food (ooohhh, the incredible food!), and the brilliant architecture that seems otherworldly and is a colourful introduction to this entire region. Tonight’s sunset was also something for the record books, the sky bursting in pinks and oranges and the sun larger than I think I’ve ever seen it.

I have never been a fan of crowded and busy cities, and Phnom Penh is bursting. It’s exhausting, dirty, daunting.

Road Construction Phnom Penh

The other day, our tuktuk driver missed a turn and we ended up on the wrong side of a six lane road. We told him to just drop us off and we’d walk, but he could sense our nervousness at having to cross all the traffic. He parked his tuktuk and led us across all six lanes, stopping all the cars, scooters and tuktuks with his outstreched hands to safely deliver us across the very busy street. His beaming smile and pure kindness warmed my soul.

But then Pete almost bit into a sandwich when ants began to crawl out. I spent two days bound to my hotel room, needing to be reasonably close to a toilet thanks to something I ate or drank. And we had a scary near-miss in a tuktuk, once again.

This city is at once maddening and stunning. After our first few days, I cannot decide how I ultimately feel about it – I am teetering on a thin edge with adoration on one side and loathing on the other.

We’ve got a few weeks left yet to see where I land.

41 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • November 7 2013

    Woa! You’ve landed on MY continent now? Welcome to SEA! Sorry about that loud “thud” welcome band. πŸ˜‰

    Interesting. While I’ve traveled elsewhere, to many lands in Europe, Africa, Central America, etc. over the years – it never occurred to me that Asia might take some getting used to. I guess it’s just “normal” for me now.

    Not to worry. Trust that you’re in for a treat. I presume you’re headed to Angkor Wat and it truly.is.spectacular.

    Any chance you’ll be moving a bit west – I’m presently in Chiang Mai, but am headed for Myanmar at the end of this month. A wee rendezvous would be great!
    [email protected] recently posted..How To Piss Off a Thai Consul

    • November 8 2013

      We have been to Angkor Wat and were aptly blown away. I only wish we had more time there.

      We will be in Chiang Mai next weekend! It appears that we will finally get to meet! πŸ™‚

      • November 8 2013

        Woo and HOOO! Next weekend? That’s the Loy Krathong/Yi Peng lantern festival!!! (the 16th) Sure hope you have a place to stay… Happy to put you up at my place, but… not sure all 3 of us would fit on the bed. Let me know if you need any help w/ that.

        I’ve opted to do the festival with a group of couchsurfers – 540 baht – if you want in, do let me know a.s.a.p. and maybe I can get you a place.

        Oh, and did I neglect to mention:

        wooooooohoooo!
        [email protected] recently posted..How To Piss Off a Thai Consul

        • November 8 2013

          Sadly, we spend one night in Bangkok and arrive in Chiang Mai on the 17th. BOO. Otherwise, we totally would have joined you.

          We have booked our apartment in advance so no need to squeeze us in. (But thanks!)

          • November 8 2013

            Oh dear. That totally sucks. Indeed, one of the main reasons I decided to settle down in CM this month is so that I can (finally!) witness Yi Peng.

            But at least we can rendezvous on the 17th or 18th?

            • November 9 2013

              Yes please! Are there any festival related activities on the 17th? We want to see *something* if possible!

              • November 9 2013

                Yes, yes! I’m slowly learning what it’s all about, and there seems to be TONS of stuff even on the 17th. Perhaps not the glowing lantern display, but the Loy Krathon floating candles, etc. and it looks like there’s a boat race on the 17th:
                http://www.city-now.com/yeepeng2013.php?lang=English#eng. Shoot me a Facebook message so we can set up a rendezvous.

  • November 7 2013

    I feel compelled to comment here because I’ve been living in Phnom Penh while volunteering for a month and a half now… and I wanted to read that you’ve fallen in love, but that may be because I, too, have wanted to fall in love. But I feel the mix – the amazing kindness of people, but the tragic history, the beauty and the grit side-by-side. I’m learning to love the sounds of the Khmer language, but it’s as if I start understanding, and then I realize I can’t possibly contort my mouth to make the exact sound I need to while speaking… the contrasts! I’m excited to follow the rest of your time and hope you discover more of the magic, which I know is here, but perhaps sometimes in hiding…

    • November 8 2013

      There is a lot of magic, and we discover a little more everyday, but it is almost always coupled with something awful. We’ve been here three weeks now (our blog is a bit behind), and I feel like I am still teetering on that edge…

  • November 7 2013

    Wow, your story does remind me of some challenges I faced in South America too. I have been considering Cambodia, but I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge now. But the photograph is beautiful!!

    • November 8 2013

      Like most things in travel, the challenge is often worth it. The city is growing on me a bit, and there are definitely great things about it.

  • November 7 2013

    Oh boy! Looking forward to this…a little. I’m excited to be visiting Cambodia–are you based out of Phnom Penh for a little while? I’ll be making my way there in the next few weeks.
    Jeremy recently posted..20 Killer Photos of New Zealand

    • November 8 2013

      We only have one week left Jeremy, then we’re onto Thailand.

      • November 9 2013

        Great! I just left Thailand and have arrived in Laos. Perhaps our paths will cross somewhere along the way!

  • November 7 2013

    Ah, the capital cities of SE Asia… Our first one was also Phnom Penh, and we had a similar experience. Our first tuk-tuk ride was positively nerve-wrecking. In Hanoi, every day brought a new sight of a crumpled body in the middle of the road. Although fascinating in their own right, we have tended to escape capital cities in developing countries as soon as we can – too much madness in an already mad world. Having said that, some of the most kind people we’ve ever met lived in those chaotic SE Asian streets. Hope the rest of lovely Cambodia brings more peaceful experiences. Fantastic photos, as usual. Good luck!
    Lunaguava recently posted..Travel Website Statistics: October 2013

    • November 8 2013

      Thanks so much! And now that we’ve also escaped the city a couple of times – I have to say, I wish we were out in the countryside more. It’s what I love about most places, and Cambodia is no exception! The city is growing on me a bit, but I crave some peace and quiet. And tuktuk safety. πŸ™‚

  • November 7 2013

    Even after two years living in China, I was nervous before we went to Cambodia. I wasn’t sure how I would react to the abject poverty. In the end I was deeply affected, but in the most positive way. I was moved and overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of people who had so little. Our tuk-tuk driver showed up wearing the same clothes every day, lost both parents to the Khmer Rouge, and still was filled with joy and forgiveness. He brought us bottles of cold water every day and always had a smile on his face. It was heartbreaking, inspiring and incredibly humbling. That place changed me more than any other and I can’t wait to return.
    Heather recently posted..Mount Vernon: Home of America’s First President

    • November 8 2013

      Wow Heather, what a fantastic experience you had! We are getting snippets of it, but not quite to that extent. So glad you had such a great experience. πŸ™‚

  • I always interested to read posts about Phnom Penh because it is one of my favourite cities in the world. I stayed there for two months this year, but I am always baffled when it is described as bustling, busy, crazy etc.. My immediate impression was that it was incredibly laid back for a capital city, and that opinion never changed. I walked almost everywhere, there isn’t a huge amount of traffic, it’s not all that noisy – I don’t get it. Perhaps it is because I am from London and immediately before arriving in Phnom Penh I was in Saigon – places that really are busy and bustling.

    Regardless of the different impression the city made on us, I hope you get to love it!
    David @ That Gay Backpacker recently posted..Guanajuato. It’s just pretty, like.

    • November 14 2013

      Like everything, travel is relative and will be viewed by everyone with a different perspective. Phnom Penh is quite bustly (new word!) for us.

  • November 7 2013

    Holy smokes….what a way to start. Glad you guys have found some kindness and enjoyment along the way!!
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Snakes, Spiders and Scorpions – Jungle Life on Roatan

  • November 8 2013

    I appreciate the honesty, and can understand being torn between adoration and loathing – it DOES sound like a place that could evoke both those feelings. I hope you are eventually able to settle into SEA and fully enjoy it!
    Amanda recently posted..The French Riviera: I Get It Now

  • Laura
    November 7 2013

    This reminds me a bit of my brief experience in China. I didn’t quite stay long enough to have my unsettled first impression turn around. Phnom Penh sounds like quite a challenging place to visit, especially after Europe! Looking forward to how it turns out for you!

  • November 8 2013

    Interested to read about your thoughts after you complete your stay! I’m a bit exhausted (and terrified) just from reading this post. Hang in there πŸ˜‰

    Happy travels!
    Lauren Meshkin recently posted..My Guide to 24 Hours in Charleston!

  • November 8 2013

    STUNNING sunset photo.

    I’ve been in your shoes before. I felt the same way about Kathmandu. I found the best way to get comfy is just to be there longer. It may not be your cup of tea ever, but at least understanding it just comes with time.

    You’ll find your way! Keep the stunning photos coming at least! πŸ™‚
    Annie of TravelShus recently posted..Learning to Embrace Travel Challenges

  • November 9 2013

    I really appreciate your honesty in this post, and can empathise with the difficulty in adjusting to a new city. Sometimes you just need to give yourself permission to move on if a place doesn’t work out. I hope you are settling in a little better now, and look forward to reading more about your time there.
    Hannah recently posted..The art of long-term travel

  • Charlie
    November 10 2013

    I understand your mixed feelings about Phnom Penh. I found it quite a hard place to adjust to. the poverty and the dirt was a lot to take in, fortunately I love big cities (plus I was 22, perhaps I’d need a bit more comfort nowadays!) and, as you mention, found the people so full of warmth and the food delicious. I would love to go back. The people, food and life of the country is just as beautiful outside of the city though. I’m sure you guys will like it better.

  • Chanel @ La Viajera Morena
    November 11 2013

    Your first encounters seem quite terrifying compared to my experience. Phnom Penh certainly was not my favorite city in Cambodia, I much prefered Battambang and Siem Reap. I fell in love with the country while being there. I hope the rest of your journey gets better!

  • A Montrealer Abroad
    November 11 2013

    I love how you specify that you are not a travel princess — and this made me realize that I am totally one! Nothing in this blog post makes me want to visit Cambodia or Asia in general. Too dirty, too bustling. It may make me a bad traveler but I can’t fathom the thought.

    Except Japan. Where things are neat, orderly and clean. I could do Japan.

    • November 14 2013

      That doesn’t make you a bad traveler at all, although I do understand how sometimes it can feel that way. Some people don’t understand that not every place will be liked by every one.

  • November 12 2013

    Planning a trip to Cambodia in January, thanks for this post, I’m wondering what side I’ll be leaning towards… Loathing or adoration πŸ˜‰
    BakoymaTravels recently posted..Where to go?

  • November 12 2013

    Loved it when I was there. So much to experience that’s far outside my daily routine.
    Maria recently posted..Alice, Down the Rabbit Hole

  • November 13 2013

    Hopefully things shape up, maybe taking fewer tuk tuk rides is an option? Once you begin to meet some people and eat more food, I think you’ll be much happier. πŸ™‚
    Sally recently posted..iPhone Photoessay: St. Hilarian Castle in Cyprus

  • November 14 2013

    Phnom Penh is certainly abrasive and tough, but reading the comments I’m glad you got out into the countryside, as it is truly beautiful and much more relaxed than PP.

    I loved Battambang so much when I visited for two days, that seven months later I moved here. Now I’ve lived here for four months.

  • November 15 2013

    We have always look forward to a chance to see Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. I can’t wait to hear more of your experience to see how you feel about it. I hope your experience turns more to the positive side as you are there more.
    Evan M. recently posted..Up Close and Personal with some Giraffes!

  • November 15 2013

    I really feel for you because our own shock from entering SE Asia has just barely worn off. I don’t think I experienced as much culture shock entering Mongolia as I did stepping into Manila. It really sent us into a tailspin that we didn’t recover from until our last days in the Philippines. We’re still not fully aware of what was so hard, but it just really hit us hard. Thailand has been much better for us, but I’m not sure it’s the Philippines fault. I think it was just us and the timing. I hope things have gotten a little easier since this post.

  • November 18 2013

    Definitely a crazy introduction to SE Asia! I really hoped you got to see more of Cambodia’s good side during your time there. I’m looking forward to a 2nd trip there!
    Ali recently posted..How Much We Spent Traveling in Rome

  • November 21 2013

    Wow – my first few hours in Phnom Penh also involved a traffic collision … A police officer on a motorcycle played chicken with the driver from our hotel … And we hit him. Not hard, but he flew up on the windshield. And then there was a mad chase through traffic. Chaos!! No one was hurt luckily, but the adrenalin ……
    @TravelEater recently posted..Rebak Island Resort (Malaysia) β€” Feature on LuxuryAndBoutiqueHotels.com

  • December 3 2013

    It is great as always to hear your real feelings about the places you visit. We were just in Phnom Penh and as soon as we landed I felt like I was coming home (after Turkey). Luckily we escaped any accidents and loved the tuk tuk’s (the only time we were cool outdoors). We stayed near the river and loved walking beside it. The poverty was quite heart-breaking and the history tragic, but the dirt was more easily overlooked. The people and food were amazing. I think you were incredibly unlucky with accidents. We did not see one in a month – thank goodness.
    budget jan recently posted..Changi Airport Christmas Decorations 2013

  • elyse
    November 9 2014

    I was surprised that no one mentioned either of the two things that made me uncomfortable in Cambodia…the tremendous number of very young children persistently begging AND the always present couples consisting of older/old Western men and with VERY young Asian girls. Both constantly unnerved me because because they were everywhere. I can handle dirt. I can handle crazy tuk tuk driving. I can NOT handle these two human situations.

    • November 9 2014

      Elyse, thank you for your comment and I 100% agree with you. After our first few days (the perspective of this post), I hadn’t quite gotten to understand that part of it yet, but by the time I left (and upon a long period of reflection), I realized the huge impact that those situations made on me.

      I can understand why people who go to Cambodia enjoy it as tourists, but for me, it weighed too heavy on my heart. Especially after realizing all the same things you said, and this: https://hecktictravels.com/cambodia-protest. Cambodia shook me deeply, and still does. It was a very hard place to be.

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