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Daily Life in Cambodia

Most of our posts highlight specific places or stories that we want to remember; here’s a run-down of the minuscule, everyday things that make traveling and living in Cambodia fun, interesting, difficult, and sometimes just plain weird.

(Just a warning – this is a really long post, and it is mostly written for our own future recollection… feel free to skip over the boring sections.. :))

Living Arrangements
We’re renting the top floor of a home owned by Oma, a girl that I work with at AHC:

Oma lives with her husband, 6 month old daughter, and mother downstairs, while we have the top floor of their home to ourselves. It’s a little dark and cabin-like, but we have tons of space, and we love living in an actual neighborhood rather than in a hotel. In addition to the bedroom and private back deck, there’s a separate living room with some gnarly orange 70’s furniture and a small “kitchen”, which includes a mini-fridge and small table with some dishes for cooking.

Our road:IMG_0532

RIght outside our back door, there is a primary school full of adorable, screaming kids who wake us up at 7 am every morning on the dot. Knowing that I would be at work Mondy-Friday, we did not think this would be a problem… That is until Saturday arrived, when we quickly learned that Cambodian children attend school 6 days a week – Monday through Saturday. All was quickly forgiven though – once they discovered that there were foreigners living right outside their school,  their favorite activity became lining up on the upstairs railing to wave at us and scream “hello!” at lunch time– too adorable.IMG_0245

A google map of our apartment: Our apartment on GoogleMaps.

The only problem with our apartment is that we tend to break things in it or otherwise manage to accidentally break the rules – a lot. One day, after a failed attempt at the barber, I cut Scott’s hair in our bathroom; this meant that the next day our landlord had to come up and unclog all of the pipes leading to the shower and sink (oops!).

Ever since the clogging incident, the shower never really worked again, and they had a maintenance man in our apartment every day until we moved out. He was never able to fix the problem, and we ended up taking cold bucket showers for our last full week there. Joke was certainly on us.

Next, we managed to get locked out of the family compound one night by coming home too late and leaving our gate key locked inside our apartment. WIth the help of the neighbors across the street, Scott scaled the 10-foot tall security fence and then let me inside. Seeing that it was around midnight, we thought we had gotten in without being see by our hosts.

However, two days later, we came home to find this:

–barbed wire strung across the entire top edge of the security fence.  Coincidence? We decided not to ask, and they were too nice to mention the incident.

Finally, on our last day living there, while trying to unlock the front door, we accidentally triggered the vertical bolt on the inside of the door to fall down into its notch in the floorboards, completely locking everyone out of the apartment. After 30 minutes of trying to jam our fingers through the door to pull the lock up again, we had once again attracted the attention of all of the neighbors across the street, who then alerted our landlord. We nearly gave our landlord a heart attack (there was no other way into the apartment other than sawing a hole in the wall), but our very-pregnant neighbor and her friend were able to jimmy the lock open by reaching through a crack with their smaller hands. Crisis averted.

Siem Reap is full of good food. And because eating out at a restaurants here costs the same as cooking at home, we get to eat every meal out (about $1- $2/ meal)! I thought I would be sick of Asian food after a few weeks of traveling here– surprisingly (and thankfully), I’ve found the opposite to be true; by being here for so long (going on 5 months now), we’ve really been able to delve deeper and experience the extraordinary variety that exists in the cuisine and appreciate the subtleties of flavor as it changes from region to region. And I love every bit of it.

For breakfast, we always have the traditional Cambodian noodle soup (our favorite…) at a very local place right across from Angkor Hospital. The first few days, the young staff were absolutely terrified to serve us (since we didn’t speak much Khmer) and would literally push someone else to go wait on us. One day, the girl that was most scared of interacting with us yelled into the back kitchen for someone who spoke a little English to come wait on us– to which I quickly shot back in perfect Khmer, “Hey– I speak Khmer, and I want to order the noodle soup, please!” By day #30, she had finally started to come around… a little.IMG_0432

[The requisite tray of condiments to season your soup to your liking: green chilies, pepper, sugar, salt, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, red chili paste:


At lunchtime, Scott usually braves the 100+ degree heat to meet me at the hospital for my lunch-break. We generally skip eating (because the breakfasts are so filling) and instead enjoy a fresh-pressed palm-sugar drink from my favorite drink vendor, while hanging out by the river (in a take-away plastic baggy for just 12.5 cents, these little drinks can’t be beat!):IMG_0307Dinner is always varied but is usually traditional Cambodian food– stir-fried noodles, fried rice, sour soup, or amok curry. Here are some of our more interesting meals…

The pumpkin curry and cassava fritters (first pic) and “wedding day dip” and traditional wedding day “cakes” (second pic) at Chamka Vegetarian Restaurant:

Out to eat with our friend Bon from the hospital– the best part of this meal was the Sweet and Sour Fish. I ordered the “watermelon soup”, which actually turned out to be a typo in the menu for “winter melon soup”– big difference!!IMG_0659For Valentine’s Day we ate at a local family-run restaurant called “Touich”, where they picked us up at our apartment in an old 1964 French jeep to take us to the restaurant. The whole salt-packed, roasted fish was one of the best fish I’ve ever eaten:

IMG_0360(The above picture was taken because, halfway through our meal, the waitress walked up to us and asked if she could take our picture to put it on Facebook! So we asked her to get one with our camera too. We haven’t checked to see if our pic made it to Facebook or not yet..)

Traditional Khmer amok curry at Amok Restaurant:

Siem Reap was also home to the first bag of Doritos I had found for the first time on the whole trip!!! woohoo
Wow, that’s an embarrassing picture.

The night food market…IMG_0376Worklife

Scott spends his days working at our favorite cafe in town, Art Deli. It is not only an amazing space, decorated with tons of great local art, but they also make the best homemade iced lime soda in town and have the nicest waitstaff (…occasionally surprising us with free drinks and such:)). We will miss them when we look back on our time in Siem Reap, and I keep wondering, will they still be here, working, when we return some day?

(…notice the old bathtub being used as a table… water pitchers strung together for lighting… the big screen by the windows is for watching free movies with your cuppa joe!)

I spend my weekdays working in the diagnostic lab at Angkor Hospital for Children (detailed in an earlier post- pictures can also be found in that post).

The hospital entrance and waiting area:

Registration and out-patient clinic. (AHC sees over 500 patients a day– a day!! Most of those patients are seen right here on these benches in the waiting room by a nurse, who determines if the child is sick enough to be seen be admitted and seen by a doctor.)

I work in the microbiology department along with Sona (next to me) and Poda (next to Sona), who keep me laughing all day long:

First day of “school”…

It’s official!

My desk and lab space:

All of our results are written on a large board, which we review with the resident doctor around 11am each morning.

The permanent laboratory staff:


The 4-bed emergency room:

The Capacity for Health and Education Building:

The hospital garden, which is used to educate the villagers on how to set up a proper garden when they return home. The villagers are also given free seeds to start gardens of their own:

The dental clinic:

The Visitor’s Center:

The hospital laundry is still all done by hand:

On my walk home from work each day, I usually stop in the pharmacy next to my work to love on Doot-doo, perhaps the cutest puppy in the world. His owner always sees me coming and has Doot-doo awake and ready for cuddling by the time I get to the store.IMG_0528Nightlife!

Being a touristy town, Siem Reap is also full of good (if touristy…) nightlife, and we were never far from a good after-dinner Angkor beer or snake wine:

One of our favorite bars (anywhere in the world), “Laundry Bar”. Not only did they have delicious cocktails, but they will also burn 20+ movies or music albums to your USB stick for less than $5! All legally, of course…….. (right..?)IMG_0341“Angkor What?” bar, where we found ourselves dancing on occasion… the best part about this bar is the UV lights, which illuminate anything white into an other-worldly glow. The clientele is a little young/backpackery, but it’s hilarious to read some of the things that people write on their glowing white T-shirts before heading out onto the dance floor.


“Miss Wong’s”: a classy place with delicious upscale cocktails (passion fruit cosmos… jasmine martinis… real (Belgian) beers… :))IMG_0486Drinks by the river on a lazy Saturday:

“X Bar” had a roof-deck skateboard ramp that Scott would use, prime for watching the sun go down over Angkor Wat.IMG_0442One night we were hanging out at X Bar when we noticed a large, fun-looking group of 20-year old Koreans and a handful of Cambodians hanging out, taking down a serious number of beer towers. An older man in his late 40’s, who seemed to be in charge of the group, wandered over our way and told us that the group was here to volunteer to teach English to kids out in the countryside. He asked us to join the group, so that we could, in turn, help the Korean group practice their English as well (because even though they were teaching it, some of them had only a basic understanding of English). He eventually coaxed us to walk over to the group, where he got everyone’s attention and said, “I just met these nice Americans at the bar; they asked if they could join you.” That wasn’t exactlyhow we remembered the conversation going, but everyone happily made room for us and proceeded to teach us an uncanny number of odd, confusing, and hilarious Korean drinking games.

IMG_0260By the end of the night, we were all up dancing to the live band that was blasting out 70’s American rock tunes.

IMG_0266…things quickly got a little sweaty! At least for this guy…

IMG_0276Whereas most of us were doing the typical funny/clumsy move-to-the-beat kind of thing, one of the Cambodian guys started doing a traditional Cambodian “Apsara” dance when it was his turn in the middle of the dance floor – I can’t do the dance justice to explain it in words – perhaps it would be comparable to if I started waltzing in a dance club, for example. But he wasn’t joking around – it was simply what he knew how to do. One of my favorite travel memories.

Learning to speak Khmer
Three days a week, I’ve been attending Khmer language classes, which are offered free to hospital volunteers. One of my hobbies has always been learning new languages, and Khmer definitely presented the greatest challenges yet with its difficult pronunciation and sounds.

IMG_0469My first week learning Khmer, I tried to ask a waitress at a restaurant (that same noodle soup shop mentioned above, in fact…) what they had available that day in my very best Khmer (since the items that are available there vary from day-to-day), to which she replied “Sorry; no speak English.” Clearly, I needed some work.

The next day in class, I told my language teacher what had happened. He laughed and told me that my pronunciation is great and that maybe she was not expecting me to speak Khmer and thus thought I must be speaking English. I had my doubts.

The next day, I simply tried speaking more confidently and loudly (since I’m famous for being quiet), and voila! She was so surprised that she looked like she would fall over, but she understood me perfectly.

The need for making it very clear to people that we are actually speaking Khmer (and not English) became so essential for one of the phrases that we learned, lest it be deemed that we were just speaking rude English…. That phrase is pronounced “git loy”, and it means “I’d like to see the bill, please,” but we found that it was often confused for us saying rudely in English, “Get me _____!” The waiter would respond, “Get you what?” And we just felt terrible… A clear “git loy” response usually resolved the situation!

Once I felt more confident with my pronunciation, I tried to use Khmer as often as I could, and it paid off both figuratively and literally. One day I asked a woman in English how much that hoola hoop that I had my eye on would cost (since there are no prices on anything, and everything is bought by bargaining). “Two dollars and fifty cents,” was her response. Deciding that I didn’t want to carry it home then, I came back a few days later to buy it. I asked the same woman the same question, but this time I asked in Khmer… Her response? “Two dollars!”

Fish spas
I love, love, love the fish spas.  At first it was something that I tried just for kicks, but once I realized how good it made my feet feel, I was hooked. That is, until this booger actually bit my ankle and left me bleeding down my leg!!!IMG_0484(In fairness, it was a scab that he nibbled off to begin with, and I’m still a staunch supporter of the fish spa. Sorry, is that TMI?)

We’ve finally grown up a little and started leaving out the majority of our toilet stories on here… but Cambodia was just too prime for good toilet encounters to leave them all out. First, there were the signs at Angkor Hospital that demonstrated that you should use the toilet and not the grass to relive yourself:
IMG_0239(All immaturity aside, these signs are a part of the hospital’s community education initiative on proper hygiene, etc, and I think it’s great that they have these.)

There are also signs on how to properly use a “Western-style” toilet. They had me respectfully chuckling to myself whenever I saw them:

But as funny as these pics were, I always found myself asking, “Why are there no pictures showing foreigners how to use the squat toilet?” Seriously, I only figured out which way you’re supposed to face on it just recently!! And this is after 5 months! Just when I thought I had the squat toilet “down pat” (or “hands down”, if you’re Scott..), I got hit with a new hurdle:
I was on a home-visit to a patient’s house in the countryside for the hospital, and as inappropriate as it might be to ask to use their bathroom (since the families are extremely poor and might be ashamed or embarrassed by their homes), I could not wait any longer. I asked the family if I could use their bathroom. To my relief, they happily directed me to their daughter who would show me where it was. She took me to the back of their home and handed me – a sarong. Here I wanted to use a toilet, and I was being given a sarong. She smiled and motioned towards the backyard. “Where?” I asked, while pointing aimlessly toward the open field in front of us. She didn’t speak English and basically motioned “go figure it out” and left me to do just that. I put on the sarong over my work pants and prayed no one was watching as I wrestled to keep the sarong up around me, while shimmy-ing the pants down, trying to hiding between the banana plant on my left and the big open field to my right. At one point, the sarong was so bunched up that I just felt like I was holding onto a hoola hoop of fabric circling my waist – not covering me at all but definitely taking away a hand that I could have used for balance! I definitely needed a picture showing how it’s done (I think they were secretly snickering to themselves, knowing it’s not possible to use a sarong-toilet with pants on underneath.)

Keeping in touch
Throughout our trip, we’ve been using Skype to keep in touch with friends and family. It’s been a blessing, and I don’t know what we would have done without it. …I even get to watch my nephew have his diaper changed LIVE – what could be better??! (Thanks, Mom…)

We’ve also recently instituted “BYOB” Friday night get-togethers with some of our friends over Skype, where we get to hang out live for a couple of hours. With the 12-hour time difference, that means we are sometimes sipping wine by 9 or 10:00 am on Saturday mornings. 🙂

Random (…stuff I can’t even begin to categorize)
Found in the grocery store one day: breast-enhancing coffee, “Rady Big Boomz”, and “Srim Cup” tea, which is “Easy for Lady”:IMG_0282Burned Meat-flavored biscuits:

IMG_0281At the same store, I tried to get a new stick of deodorant for myself, and I was sad to see that all they had was the roll-on kind…ugh. And not only was it roll-on, but it was also “whitening”, which I’m sure has some dangerous side-effects. Having no choice but to buy it, I was not surprised to find that the purported “whitening” effect does not seem to work– that third arm that’s now growing out of my armpit is just not any whiter than the other two.


The annual puppet parade through downtown Siem Reap, which was basically a huge street party with amazing giant animal floats that would move their arms and mouths. It put any parade I’ve ever seen to shame!IMG_0554


Traffic behind the parade:IMG_0561————–

The shadow puppet show put on by Angkor Hospital for Children for the patients and their families:————–

One thing we rarely get to do on the road is keep up with movies, as movies here are usually not in English, or our internet speeds are not fast enough to download them on our own. Siem Reap had a twist on the movie theater we’d never seen before though: personal cinemas that you could rent out for a couple of hours and watch one of hundreds of movies they had in store. Even better than a real cinema, you get to sit in plush couches and order food and drinks to the room (including beer)! Here we are watching either Harry Potter or Moneyball…


What do Cambodians do when they want to hold a wedding (or funeral) but don’t have any space to hold it? Put it in the middle of the road and make traffic drive around it, of course! This wedding went on for 3 days… and so did the traffic jams. (Luckily, everyone here drives bikes, not cars, so everyone was able to drive around it.)IMG_0250————–

And finally, a parting shot–  definitely for the “random” category:


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