By Kate John
Cambodia is a unique and wonderful place, that’s why they call it the Kingdom of Wonder. At one point it was the most developed and stable part of Southeast Asia, but after years of internal turmoil it has fallen behind it’s neighbors in terms of advancement. Make no mistake, that doesn’t mean it is any less amazing than Thailand or Vietnam. If anything, Cambodians are more resourceful, kind-hearted, and creative than anywhere else. Living here is a treat. There are some quintessentially Cambodian moments you’re likely to experience during your time here. These are a few of my personal favorite times that made me really know I was in Cambodia.
One thing unique to Cambodia is the use of motos. You see scooters piled high with everything and everyone. I seriously mean everything. They fit more stuff on a scooter than most people would believe could fit in their sedan. Four people and a dog? No problem. Three pig carcasses and 12 dozen eggs? Easy. I’ve seen scooters piled up with everything to stock an entire grocery store, and somehow still transport two adult humans. The insane amount of things people put onto scooters is unlike anywhere I’ve been before. While motos are commonplace in Italy or Spain, the way they’re used in the Kingdom of Wonder is completely different. You definitely know you’re in Cambodia when you see four high school students ride by in their school uniforms on a singular Honda Dream.
Something that amazes as much as it amuses me is the electrical system here. You’ll see power lines that look like they should be causing electrical fires. They are just piled on top of one another, sometimes hanging down. I once watched a man tie the lines up with another downed line, because they were so heavy they had sagged down into the street. Power outages here are common, but usually short-lived. I’ve never had power out for more than two hours, which I think it a marvel given the wiring. I’m not an electrician, but it is something that took some serious getting used to when I first arrived.
You’ll know you are a true Cambodian Expat when you’ve come to understand the tuk tuk driver communications. Hand signs, bargaining, and directions are all an art form that takes some time to master. I don’t own a moto myself, so I spend a lot of time in rickshaws and tuk tuks. I knew I was really accustomed to driving here when I started being confused why people were honking at my ride, while we were parked in the middle lane of a waiting to turn left at a green light. The rhythm and flow of the Cambodian streets takes some time to adjust to. But there is no better way to get to know the city than cruising around its streets.
Southeast Asia has a ton of amazing things to offer, elephant sanctuaries, stunning waterfalls, beautiful beaches, dizzying markets. Many people travel here for the price reduction though. Living is cheap, and it’s easy to be amazed by that at first. But you know you’re really in Cambodia when you become offended when you have to pay more than $1.50 for a beer. Or more than $3 for fried rice. I recently got invited to a friend’s fundraising event back in the US that advertised the charity would receive $1 from every beer sale. I was astounded to realize that I’d forgotten that beer costs $5 in the Colorado breweries I left behind. It is easy to fall into a new normal here, and the price reduction is one of the things I really love about living here.
The sounds of street vendors hawking their coconuts, plastic baskets, barrettes, and clams in the street is normal. An everyday occurrence, you will become accustomed to hearing people shouting, or pre-recorded loudspeaker advertisements. The people who pick up recyclables and turn them in for a profit walk by with their squeaky horns, or ice-cream truck music. This becomes the background noise of your life. That and construction all day, cars and motos passing by, and children playing in the alleyways. Coming from a loud part of Seattle, the noise makes me feel right at home. But if you’re worried about sleep there’s no need to fret, everything gets pretty quiet around 9pm.
Whether it’s crazy scooters, rat-nests of power lines, or low prices, Cambodia is a world apart. You’ll love every minute of your life in the Kingdom of Wonder, and find new and hilarious moments to tell your friends back home about. Eventually, culture shock gives way to assimilation, and before you know it, the US will seem weird and foreign to you!
After volunteering for a year in the Denver Public School System, Kate felt like she needed a change. Her and her boyfriend both got TEFL certified and set off on an adventure of a lifetime in the Kingdom of Wonder. Kate is one of ITA's Writing & Content Ambassadors.
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- Learn More about ITA Ambassador, Kate John
- Visit Alumni Ambassador Corner: Cambodia
- Teach English in Cambodia: Country Profile
- Phnom Penh, Cambodia City Fact Sheet
- Finding an Expat Community in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- How to Get Around Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Tips for Overcoming Culture Shock While Teaching English in Cambodia
- [Video] Instagram Story Takeover: Teach English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- My 5 Favorite Spots in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Expert Tips on What to Pack for Teaching English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Mobile Phone Apps You Need to Live in Cambodia