Visiting the Province of Ilocos Norte

After a week in other parts of the Philippines, a visit to the province of Ilocos Norte was a refreshing change. For the first time since my arrival in the Philippines I felt compelled to pause and stay a bit longer simply because my first day in Ilocos Norte was my first day in the Philippines during which no locals went out of their way to rip me off. There weren’t many other foreigners to see yet locals were always very friendly and respectful. More so than in any other part of South East Asia I have visited. And that made for a very comfortable and enjoyable stay. Needless to say – I was in no rush to move to a different part of the country.

Photo: Ilocos Norte Capitol Building in Laoag
Photo: Ilocos Norte Capitol Building in Laoag

What made instant impression was respect I received from tricycle drivers. They are as bountiful in Ilocos Norte as they are in other parts of the Philippines, yet even though I was the only foreigner around, none came jumping down my throat at any time of my multi week stay. Not after arrival, not before departure nor at any other time have I felt pressured by trike drivers or anyone else on mere premise of me being a foreigner as it is in other parts of SE Asia. As a result, I never felt hesitant to step outside of my hotel room to wander the area because I was always left alone to enjoy as I pleased and at a pace I chose.

This welcoming, no pressure environment which is basically impossible to come by elsewhere in SE Asia save Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei got even more tourist friendly when I went shopping in local marketplaces. I bought rambutan, bananas and mandarins from locally run stalls yet each time I was quoted the same price locals pay. I kept buying fruit all the time because at no time, no seller ever tried to overcharge me.

When I went to eat in local eateries, I was once again charged the same amounts locals pay. Coconut – staple of my diet was also quoted by each seller at a very attractive local price of 20 Pesos (less than $.50). And even when I went to have a few beers in a bar, my total bill always showed correct number, without artificial inflations like it kept happening in other parts of the Philippines.

The only downside to Ilocos Norte – which applies to whole of the Philippines – is crap accommodation for ridiculously high price. Philippines is the only country in the world I know of where you can find even crappier accommodation than in Laos but for more than twice the amount of money. This is completely out of proportion to the cost of everything else in the country and definitely out of what accommodation costs in other SE Asian countries.

Philippines simply offers Philippine quality for European prices. If I compare $30 worth of rooms I stayed in in Barcelona or Berlin to those for the same money in the Philippines, I see my wallet grow hands and beat me up for shelling out so much for such dumpholes.

Other than that, a visit to the province of Ilocos Norte was for the most part a pleasant experience. Although… this self proclaimed True North of the Philippines, which covers the north-west corner of Luzon doesn’t have any mega malls (something the rest of the country is full of). For some, this may be a deal breaker but for me it was a plus. If you take into an account the fact that locals don’t inherently rip foreigners off, you can get more bang for a buck dealing with them than any mega mall could possibly offer.

Cost of Food in Laos

As a traveller, dining in Laos is also not as cheap as in other SE Asian countries. When it comes to food, Laos adopted that crappy discriminating practise widely popularized throughout Cambodia. Just as it is in Cambodia, Laos eateries believe that it is perfectly justifiable to overcharge (rip off) foreigners so getting food for the price a local would pay is rare.

Restaurants in popular tourist areas have menus in both Lao and English, but don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s bilingual. This is just an illusion created to make you believe that you are getting a local deal, but the prices on the menu only apply to foreigners. A local would come, look at the menu, smile at it, put it aside and ask in a language you cannot understand how much it was going to be for him which will never end up being the same as what you as a foreigner would have to pay.

Out of this part of South East Asia, Thailand is the best country when it comes to the availability of locally priced food available to foreigners. Prices in Thailand are often clearly marked and visibly posted, even if you go to the most non touristy market in an area where you will have been the only foreigner in ages. Yet the price posted will apply globally – this is how much this particular item costs and everyone, regardless of their color of skin will pay this amount. There is no such thing as different price for different people. Sadly, that’s not how it works in Laos. As a tourist, aside from finding transportation and accommodation vastly overpriced compared to other countries in SE Asia, I also found lack of inexpensive foods available to foreigners financially exhausting.

Bowl of fried rice with squid and shrimp can be had for $1 in Cambodia. That same amount will buy you steamed rice with nice dose of (really spicy, mind you) chicken stew in Thailand and in Vietnam, you could also almost throw a beer in it with food but forget about getting a decent portion for an equivalent of $1 in Laos.

Pakse in southern Laos was the only place where white bread sandwich with friend egg and veggies could be had for 8,000 Kip (roughly $1) but be prepared to shell out more everywhere else.

Overall, even for a skilled budget traveller capable of finding the means to travel, sleep and eat on the cheap, Laos happens to be an expensive trip. As a foreigner, the cost of food will be out of proportion to what locals pay but that’s a sad reality of many places in the region.

Local Cambodian Restaurant

While most locally run Cambodian businesses are not very customer friendly, there were exceptions worth doing business with. One of them was a local Cambodian restaurant on the east bank of the Siem Reap river, a block north of the independence bridge (about three houses back). The restaurant was clearly not targeting tourists as it was not on any popular tourist path and it didn’t even have an English name. None of the staff spoke any English, but where there is will, there is way to communicate.

Photo: This Local Cambodian Restaurant Has No English Name
Photo: This Local Cambodian Restaurant Has No English Name

Even though this restaurant was locally owned and run, it did not support discrimination and the same rates applied along the full spectrum of customers, regardless of their color of skin. Menu had items listed in Khmer language with some English translations to the right of it. Those translations seemed to have been put together by consulting a dictionary, instead of an English speaking person and had to be taken with a grain of salt, but gave reasonably clear idea as to the dish. There were occasional surprises, though:

Several items in the menu were translated into English as “Chicken and Vegetables” however what it ended up being was chicken stomachs with vegetables. Similarly, there would be a column of five dishes each with different Khmer name, but English translation for each of them was the same. The very first meal I ordered had its name listed in English as “Fried Egg with Tuna”. This was pretty close to what I got, except that the fish that came within this uniquely looking and tasting omelette was not tuna. It was some small, fresh water fish. Not a big deal.

Photo: This is What My Favorite Local Cambodian Restaurant Looked Like Inside
Photo: This is What My Favorite Local Cambodian Restaurant Looked Like Inside

The same menus were used by everyone – locals and foreigners alike and the same prices applied to everyone equally. Everyone regardless of their ethnic background also received the same level of service and courtesy, although I could only compare it with myself as I have never seen another foreigner ever dine in that restaurant. Still, despite being a foreigner, I have never been charged extra just because I looked different.

Photo: All Customers Get More Rice Than They Can Eat
Photo: All Customers Get More Rice Than They Can Eat

Virtually every meal they had in the menu was listed at mere 7,000 Riels (approximately $1.75) which included unlimited rice and tea (within reason, of course). Best of all, despite being a local restaurant, all customers were provided with safe-for-drinking ice to cool the tea down with. This was great since many locally run eateries use cheaper, industrial ice which is produced in unsanitary conditions using unsafe tap water. For your information – safe ice has smooth, cylindrical shape with hole in the middle of it, whereas unsafe ice is just an irregularly shaped crushed mass.

Photo: Safe Ice Served by the Local Cambodian Restaurant
Photo: Safe Ice Served by the Local Cambodian Restaurant

Food in the restaurant was fantastic. Preparation never took too long and every dish I tried had great taste to it. I also asked the students in my English class to teach me how to request no MSG in my food in Khmer language because no one in the restaurant spoke any English and I wouldn’t be able to continue dining there if they kept adding it to my food. Luckily, the cook had no issue with cooking without MSG for me so I was all set. BTW, it’s easy to remember how to say No MSG in Khmer – it sounds very similar to saying “No BJ” in English. You literally just use the abbreviation of “blowjob” and add “No” before it. If you can memorize “No BJ, no masau soup” they will know exactly what you are asking for and will gladly leave it out of your food.

Photo: Customers Also Got Complimentary Chilli Peppers
Photo: Customers Also Got Complimentary Chilli Peppers

For a few weeks, this local Cambodian restaurant was my favourite place for eating. It got pretty busy around lunch hour so I tried to avoid going there at noon but outside of breakfast (very early in the morning), lunch and dinner times the place was quiet and enjoyable. Everything was a little too perfect about it. They did not discriminate, food was great and well priced, ice was safe and No MSG requests were complied with. They never tried to overcharge me just because I was a foreigner so I kept supporting the business until the day the owner crossed the line and attempted an overcharge.

Photo: Fried Morning Glory with Fish - My Favorite Dish
Photo: Fried Morning Glory with Fish - My Favorite Dish

It was after a very long time of regularly dining there and never having a problem, when some woman walked in with a tray full of rice cakes. These were small, pinky sized rolls of rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Presence of raisins and some other fruit gave them slightly sweet taste which worked perfectly as an after-meal desert. Because this took place after I had spent more than a month in Cambodia, I could already understand some of the language, especially the numbers, so I overheard her asking for 100 RielS when she was offering the cakes to other customers (other locals who were also dining in the restaurant).

After having offered her rice cakes to everybody else, the woman eventually came to me. I had just finished my meal and the owner of the restaurant was by my table as I was paying for my food. Realizing that the woman didn’t speak any English, I made a hand sign with the money I was still holding in my hand for her to show me how much per cake. At that point the owner of the restaurant who was still by my table and felt compelled to “help” me understand the price took the receipt and wrote “200” on it.

Photo: Complete Meal for 7,000 Riels. Too Bad the Owner Got Greedy
Photo: Complete Meal for 7,000 Riels. Too Bad the Owner Got Greedy

I ended up buying that one cake for 200 Riel but felt like this was a major breach of trust. Needless to say, it was the last time I dined in the restaurant. He was always fair with me before so it was really disappointing to reach the point at which he would try to rip me off because I was a foreigner. Was the desire to earn easy 100 Riels by overcharging a foreigner really worth losing a loyal customer?

In The End, It Was All About Money

I enjoyed my English class profusely. The class was lead by a Buddhist monk with great command of English (the best English I’ve heard any Cambodian speak – I’m guessing he must have gotten scholarship to study in an English speaking country, but I never actually asked to know for sure) and the students, who came from all walks of life were a wonderful bunch. Anyone was welcome to attend the class, but after the class, students paid the Khmer teacher (the monk) 500 Riel (there are 4,300 Cambodian Riel to a US Dollar) each. This didn’t apply to monks. Monks don’t pay.

The students also didn’t have to pay anything to me. The 500 Riel fee for the Khmer teacher was a regular per class fee they’d have to pay regardless of whether I was there or not, but there was no extra cost for the class with me. However, I had to make something very clear right from the get go. Unfortunately, being a foreigner, the first and foremost thing each of the students saw when they looked at me was money. It was really disappointing and it took me a while to eliminate it. Lesson after lesson, either during the class or right after it, various students would approach me with seemingly personal questions, but they always swerved into business solicitations. It would typically go about something like this:

Student: How long have you been in Cambodia for, Mark?
Me: Only for a little over a week now.
Student: How do you like it so far?
Me: It’s very hot, hotter than anything I have previously experienced but I drink lots of coconut so it’s manageable.
Student: Have you been to Angkor yet?
Me: Yes, I went today. It was my first day and it was amazing.
Student: Would you like a tuk tuk for tomorrow?
Me: No, thank you. I have a bicycle and I enjoy riding and exploring at my own pace.
Student: Where are you staying?
Me: In Prom Roth Guesthouse, right around the corner from here.
Student: I know a better guesthouse, can get you a special price.
Me: Thank you for your offer, I may take a look at it later but for now I’m happy with this one.

Day after day, lecture after lecture my students would be approaching me with offers clearly directed at making money at me. It only confirmed what I already knew – for a Cambodian, a westerner is nothing more than a wandering cash cow. It was a dog eat dog world in Siem Reap, though. Millions of tourists keep coming year after year, but for each tourist, there are dozens of relentless touts out there. Tourists are pushed beyond their limits and forced to lock in, disregarding any and all locals trying to approach them.

Needless to say, any foreigner who’s been in Cambodia for more than 5 minutes will be so fed up with aggressive touts, they will not accept any more locals into their personal space. As a result, locals know that their chances at striking a successful conversation with a random foreigner on the street are minimal. They simply know that each foreigner, regardless of how long they’ve been in Cambodia, has already been jumped so many time by locals (and each time it was solely for the purpose of making money at them), they have had enough of it and will just beat each next one off without listening to what they had to say.

Siem Reap is overflowing with money hungry Cambodians who wish to skin every foreigner that comes into view off every single dollar they have, but are unable to get to them because their boundaries were already crossed and all locals are already seen as aggressive, money hungry machines that don’t stop at nothing to get their dollars. And then they see me, standing right in front of them, within the walls of the same room, looking straight into their faces instead of looking away to avoid eye contact (in Cambodia, if you make an eye contact, it is perceived as an invitation to let them sell you something) and talking to them without them struggling to get to me. So what do they do?

That’s right… I threw myself right in the viper’s nest. Each of my students had the most seemingly helpful advice for me, because apparently if I buy from anywhere else but from where they say I should, I will buy badly. It went on like that for a few days until I could not take it anymore and made myself clear in front of an entire class. I said the following:

I come here to help you study the English language. I do not take any money for it and I do not expect any. I am here because I enjoy the lectures and like to share the knowledge. However, I do not like that you see my presence as an open invitation to sell me something or get commissions for me. I volunteer my time to help you improve your English speaking skills, but I must ask you to respect me and stop looking for the ways to make money at me all the time. Whatever the type of business you are affiliated with, whatever the type of services you offer – do not solicit any of it to me just because I make myself an easy prey by coming to your class.

Sadly enough, my class was not a part of some overpriced school so anyone was welcome to attend. This was a good thing on one hand, because not many Cambodians can afford to pay $400 per semester for a fancy classroom with a fly-by teacher. Classes like the one I joined allowed people without a sponsor or with lower income levels to still get some education and improve their chances at scoring a better paid job. But because it was so open and affordable, it left me exposed to endless solicitations. In the end, it was all about money for them. You offer them a finger, they don’t just take whole hand. They’ll take all of you.

Discrimination and Racism in Cambodia

Cambodia is an extremely racist country and a foreigners will encounter discrimination on every step of their stay. How you will be treated, how much you will pay will be determined by the color of your skin. This is racism in its purest form and it is so deeply rooted within Cambodian culture, anywhere you go you will be greeted with the “us versus them” treatment.

To better understand the premise of discrimination in Cambodia, one should look at it from an opposite angle. Imagine a Cambodian comes to Canada for a visit. From the moment they set their foot on Canadian soil, they will be treated equally to everybody else. They will have the same rights and the same obligations as everybody else, regardless of their ethnic background. They will enjoy the same respect when walking down the street as everybody else with no one having the right to yell at them from across the street just because they look different. And when they go to buy something, they will pay the same price as everybody else. Regardless of the color of their skin, the treatment in all walks of life will be the same. In Canada, you are one of us. You are no different. You are a human, you are the same and you have the same rights and privileges as everybody else.

It is not like that in Cambodia. Cambodia is a country where from the moment you set your foot on their soil, you will be treated differently. In Cambodia, there are Khmer people and then there are foreigners. As a foreigner, you are not one of them – you are different. You will be treated differently and different prices will apply to you.

If you find yourself within a crowd of locals walking down the street in Cambodia, you will be singled out and subjected to abuse while all of the locals surrounding you will be left alone. You will never feel integrated into the culture, because they will always single you out and always treat you differently and will be very open about you being different. Cambodians don’t try to hide their racist tendencies. You are not one of them, you are different and that’s that. Discrimination and racism in Cambodia and very much alive and as strong as ever. When one group of people gets preferential treatment from another group of people based on their ethnic background, you get a textbook perfect example of discrimination and that’s exactly what Cambodia is all about.

Angkor Thom Royal Palace Area and Violent Cambodia

The area of the Angkor Thom Royal Palace used to house the royal palace built by Suryavarman I in the 11th century. It was remodelled several times, most notably by king Jayavarman VII, builder of the entire Angkor Thom compound. It is believed that the royal palace area was in use as the royal palace area all the way until the end of the 16th century.

Photo: Angkor Thom Royal Palace Area Northern Wall Gopura
Photo: Angkor Thom Royal Palace Area Northern Wall Gopura

The area of the Angkor Thom Royal Palace was once surrounded by a 5 meters high wall. Only a few fragments of the wall remain today. Five gopuras (entrance gates) allowed for access to the royal palace. Main one was on the east, connected to the Terrace of the Elephants, while north and south wall had two gopuras each. After exploring the royal palace area, I exited through the gate on the northern wall, just west of Sras Srei pool.

After exiting the area I was first exposed to the sight I was looking forward to the most – ancient stone and jungle becoming one to a point that one could not be without another. This was the first thing I learned about Angkor Archaeological Park when I initially found out about it many years ago – ancient temples were abandoned, jungle grew over and across creating some of the most mind-boggling spectacles I have ever seen. I really couldn’t wait to explore Ta Prohm temple which has the most of these giant silk trees growing on top of ancient stones, but Angkor Thom Royal Palace area already contained the same, only on a much smaller scale.

Photo: Monstrous Tree Growing On Top of Stone Fence
Photo: Monstrous Tree Growing On Top of Stone Fence

Unfortunately, this was a rather remote spot which required getting off the well paved trail so when I exited through the gopura, I found myself in an area full of locals who looked pretty excited to see a foreigner there. I’m an explorer so my wandering feet took me to a place where no tourists ever go, but it came at a price. Cambodians enjoyed making remarks about me clearly realizing I couldn’t understand and had a good laugh at it. This was not an isolated incident though, as every foreigner visiting Cambodia gets that on virtually every step. Large groups of locals doing what they are the best at – nothing, spend their entire days sitting around, killing time by entertaining themselves by making remarks about every foreigner that comes into view. They don’t try to hide the fact that they are talking about you and the more uncomfortable they make you feel, the more entertained they get.

Photo: Gate Through the Wall Surrounding the Royal Palace Area og Angkor Thom Where a Group of Gnarly Cambodians Hung Out
Photo: Gate Through the Wall Surrounding the Royal Palace Area og Angkor Thom Where a Group of Gnarly Cambodians Hung Out

By venturing off the beaten track, I turned myself into a lamb that ran straight into wolves’ den. Seeing gnarly locals a large group of which I walked up to regrouping and pointing fingers at me while clearly talking about me and planning something out reminded me of the fact that Cambodia is one of the world’s most violent countries with remote areas of Angkor counting as particularly popular spots for violent crimes including armed robberies and rape, I quickly realized I needed to get out of there as soon as possible. I can’t even fathom what would have happened if I were a female foreigner, but I clearly understood how terrifying it must have been for scores of girls who got raped at Angkor. And while rapes at Angkor (and everywhere else in Cambodia, but particularly at Angkor because that’s where the most foreign girls venture on their own not expecting a violent crime) continue to occur with alarming frequency, violent crimes committed on foreigners at Angkor are not limited to sexual abuse of the girls.

I was able to assess the situation quickly and acted accordingly to maximize my chances of getting out of there unharmed. It was a very close call, but I believe my larger than average size as well as my acting as though I had something large behind my belt allowed me to have the potential attackers rethink their strategy which gave me enough time to get back to an area with many foreigners around.

Photo: Huge Tree Growing Atop of Ancient Wall - The last Picture I Took Before Darting Off to Save my Arse
Photo: Huge Tree Growing Atop of Ancient Wall - The last Picture I Took Before Darting Off to Save my Arse

Getting off the beaten track in Cambodia is a risky business. Locals take great joy at making foreigners feel uncomfortable with remarks clearly directed at them. This happens everywhere, including public areas where they are unable to take further actions. But once a foreigner finds themselves far enough from any safe heaven, verbal remarks start turning into attempts to take action. Value of human life is about $50 in Cambodia. The police force is a joke and if someone gets murdered, their corpse will rot somewhere in the jungle until the wildlife has carried all of the remains away. With millions of the military grade weapons from the Khmer Rouge regime floating around uncontrolled and unregulated, and with Khmer Rouge killing recruits currently in their 40’s and 50’s, there are more than enough reasons for one to be extremely careful wherever they go. True Cambodian crime statistics are purposefully skewed by the government known for being the most corrupt government in the world so don’t ever rely on that. There is a very good reason as to why Cambodia is considered one of the most violent and most dangerous countries in the world. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that they’ve been here for a long time and have had no problem, because restricting where they go and staying locked up most of the day to stay safe is not the lifestyle I would enjoy.

Preah Ntep

I bicycled through the South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom and rode my way across straight road lined on both sides with many trees and dozens of inquisitive monkeys. This was without doubt one of the busiest roads in Angkor Archaeological Park. Connecting two of the most iconic sites in the area – Angkor Wat and Bayon, the number of tuk tuks and buses with organized tours was overwhelming.

Photo: Preah Ntep Pagoda Near Bayon Temple
Photo: Preah Ntep Pagoda Near Bayon Temple

About a kilometre into Angkor Thom, I was approaching a T intersection that split the road I was on to wrap around Bayon temple, standing proudly right in the middle. At the south-west corner of the cross roads was a pagoda with statue of Buddha and many locals praying inside and preying (on tourists) outside. Bayon is the largest state temple at Angkor and I knew it will take a while to explore, so I decided to pull over and take a breather from frying sun in the shade of the pagoda. I asked the locals and was told that the pagoda is called Preah Ntep. Somebody spelled it out for me this way even though the pronunciation suggested that proper spelling would be Preah Entep.

Photo: Buddha Image in the Preah Ntep Pagoda
Photo: Buddha Image in the Preah Ntep Pagoda

The pagoda was vastly insignificant and was one of many found within the Angkor Thom complex. Stopping for a breather obviously meant exposing myself to the relentless harassment of kids clearly sent to prey on tourists by their parents and instructed to say certain things to maximize chances of a score. I sought peace of mind but did not find it. I did get slight escape from the sun but touts forced me to quickly move on. Below are few pictures of Preah Ntep, a pagoda that doesn’t even exist on any map of Angkor Thom.

Photo: Child Touts Preying on Foreigners Outside of Preah Ntep Pagoda
Photo: Child Touts Preying on Foreigners Outside of Preah Ntep Pagoda

Legendary Khmer Hospitality Myth

If you’re doing your homework and looking up info on Cambodians (Khmer people), you may stumble across references about Khmer Hospitality which is allegedly legendary. I had also heard about it prior to my arrival to Cambodia and just as everyone else who came to the country with open mind, I was set up for a big surprise. Legendary Khmer hospitality is a myth. At least the genuine one, but then again – all other forms of hospitality are worse than hostility. Let me explain:

When I was offered sticky rice cakes by complete strangers at Wat Bo temple, it was my day two of a three month stay in the country. This generous gift was from the heart and represented the most sincere form of generosity. Exactly the way I’ve heard about and came to expect. Sadly enough, this was an extremely isolated incident and cases of genuine hospitality and/or generosity towards strangers, especially if the stranger is a foreigner are virtually nonexistent. During the three months following this experience, all I have encountered on daily basis was fake hospitality. What’s fake hospitality?

You see – as a foreigner, you will be nothing less and nothing more to Cambodians than a walking bag of money, or a walking ATM machine if you will. Cambodians won’t see a friend in you, they will only see the opportunity to make money. They may act like the nicest friends to you, but hidden motives will come to light sooner or later. You may even be offered something (aka hospitality), but if you are given something, it’s because they will expect something back in return. The fact that it’s natural for westerners to return the favor was noticed by Cambodians who relentlessly abuse it for their benefit.

You may encounter a random local approaching you with beaming smile, offering you free drink in this scorching weather (or anything else) which will surely leave you in awe. What they’re doing is making you feel obliged to buy something from them. It’s a way to get close to foreigners as it’s getting more and more difficult due to extremely aggressive nature of Tuk Tuk drivers and omnipresent touts. This is not hospitality, this is abuse of the fact that westerners are used to appreciate random acts of kindness and understand the premise of returning the favor.

If you stay in a country for an extended period of time, you will make some local friends. If you are volunteering, you will be dedicating your time, skill and effort (as well as money) to betterment of their lives and locals you will be volunteering for will become your friends. They will not need to “bribe” you with “free” offering the way other locals have to, because they are already close to you so the barrier is broken. They can straight up mention that they are cooking and ask you if you’d like to try a local dish. You will not be asked for anything, but sooner or later the time will come when you will be told something along the lines of: “my mom, who invited you to have papaya salad with us few weeks ago…”

One way or another, you will be reminded that they did something for you. That reminder will come when they need something. They will bide their time until the most suitable time (time that can bring them most in return) comes. Sharing something from the heart, just because it’s the right thing to do and because it gives you good karma points is extremely, extremely rare in Cambodia and if you encounter such thing, you can count yourself as one of very few.

It is important to understand the following:

I understand that Cambodians are impoverished people with bleak outlooks for brighter future as corruption is deeply embedded in all levels of society, including high rank politicians, but that still doesn’t mean that this urban myth should continue being spread on. Legendary Khmer hospitality is a myth. If you want to experience genuine hospitality, where people give unconditionally, without expectations to get something in return, go to Eastern Europe. Finding it in Cambodia is extremely rare. And this is not limited to hospitality. The same applies to help, for example. You won’t get unconditional help in Cambodia. If you are lost, need directions or advice and approach a local, they will instantly try to take advantage of the situation and make something off of you. Under normal circumstances, locals have to fight with dozens of other locals who struggle to get to the foreigner for a shot at making money off of them. If a foreigner makes their own effort to expose themselves to a local, it will be like blessing to the local and they won’t pass on this opportunity.

Genuine hospitality in Cambodia doesn’t exist. As doesn’t unconditional help. I realize that one should strive to only say good things about others and if there is something bad, then you either need not mention it or still need to say it’s good because that’s a nice thing to do. But I believe it’s inappropriate to continue spreading on the myth about legendary Khmer hospitality even though it doesn’t exist. I believe in providing truthful information, not incomplete truth in the name of being politically correct. when something is good, I’ll say it’s good and give due respect and acknowledgement. But when something is bad, I won’t simply ignore it just so I don’t sound hurtful.

The truth is, for one case of genuine hospitality, there are hundred of cases of fake hospitality in Cambodia. Fake hospitality is often camouflaged with fancy fluff so if a person is unobservant or ignorant, they may not even realize that they were taken advantage of. The reason no one will go openly at you with fake hospitality is that in case you are that naive, then there is a chance to take advantage of you repeatedly. Perhaps that’s why urban legends about Khmer Hospitality exist. It’s like brainwash by the politicians – not only will you do as they say, you will even ask for it and recommend your friend to do it that way too.

Bait and Switch Scams in Cambodia

Cambodia is one big scam operation. Corruption runs rampant and class differences are apparent more than anywhere else. You see lots of very poor people, and then you see those who drive around on Lexus or better yet, S Class Mercedes cars. In order to survive, locals will try to pull any scam possible to get as much money out of every tourist as possible. As if high occurence of violent crime in Cambodia wasn’t enough, as a visitor you will also have to deal with theft, purse snatching and scam of all sorts.

As a tourist, you should always be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to what you are doing. Never take advice from locals. Find the best place for yourself. Locals will always and only recommend a place that pays them the most commission. This time I would like to point out one of very common scam practices frequently found in Cambodia – Bain and Switch Scam.

In areas frequented by tourists you will found various establishments, including restaurants, bars, clubs, pubs, etc. Most of those will be surrounded by competition (aka many establishments on the street) so each will try their best to get a tourist in. In order to do that, they will post large signs outside offering various deals that would appeal attractive to tourists.

For example when it comes to restaurants, they would have a large sign about some specials for particular meal. This could attract you inside, where those large signs are out of your view. Once inside, you will be handed a menu which has several pages of all sorts of meal, but you won’t find any of those specials from the sign outside there. Unless you have a photographic memory, you won’t know which ones those were anyway.

All staff and management will do their darn best to avoid bringing those specials up. Staff will likely play dumb, saying they don’t know anything about it or will play language barrier trick pretending they don’t understand what you are talking about. If you get the manager and insist on the special as advertised outside, you will have to go back out to look at the sign to tell them what it is you want.

Bait and Switch scam is very common in Cambodia and everyone will try to make you pay the most they can. I myself have been eating at Khmer Family Restaurant for weeks every day, yet they continuously try to charge me regular price, even though I’m there safely within the Happy Hour when special should apply. You’d think they’d already know that I knew their establishment backwards, yet they will always try to overcharge.

Don’t fall for the Bait and Switch scam. They like playing it because once you enter the establishment and start looking at their menu with regular prices in it, you will have a waiter standing right beside you which aside from making you feel uncomfortable, has a parallel purpose of making you feel like you have wasted all this waiter’s time while you were staring at the menu looking for specials you remember from the sign outside. This will make you feel obliged to bring at least some business for the establishment, even though you know you will never come back. That’s the way Cambodians think – they don’t care whether you as a customer will be back or not. They only care about getting as much out of each individual the first time.

It’s rather easy to not fall victim to Bait and Switch scam. Just pay attention to what you see and insist on what you should be getting and what price you should be paying. Bait and Switch works on many unsavvy tourists so it’s not going away anytime soon. I chose not to be one of those unsavvy travellers. Afterall, the less money I spend on scam, the more money I’ll have left for honest businesses.

Phsar Chas – Old Market in Siem Reap

Since my previous attempt at buying fruit at an open market failed, I was gonna browse through the nearby Old Market (Phsar Chas) and see what is for sale there. I was however determined I would not buy anything, I just wanted to see what they had. Afterall, I was already well fed and felt rather content for the morning. Phsar Chas – Old Market is only steps away from Siem Reap’s Pub Street where Khmer Family Restaurant is located so despite growing heat, I set on my merry way in general Old Market direction.

Motorcycles Parked by Phsar Chas - Old Market in Siem Reap
Motorcycles Parked by Phsar Chas - Old Market in Siem Reap

It was hot. Phsar Chas – Old Market is a marketplace cramped with stalls selling all sorts of merchandise. It’s roofed and not air-conditioned or otherwise ventilated which means you will be sweating your guts out the moment you step inside. The smell is not very flattering either. Some stalls sell fish or dried up meat from unknown sources which give off a lot of, often unpleasant smells in this heat. But Old Market is an experience of its own.

It’s mostly used by locals so as a tourist you will stand out like a sore thumb and will be approached on every step. Owners of the stalls will always see a walking bag of money in you and will do their darnest best to get as much as possible. That’s what makes shopping at marketplaces such as this Old Market so difficult. They have their merchandise on display, but never with prices. Locals shop there all the time and pay fair price, where as when a tourist comes to vicinity, each vendor sees the opportunity to sell at a price that’s a high factor of what locals would pay.

I have recognized this immediately which made it excessively difficult for me to possibly buy anything from the markets. I’d much rather go to a tourist mall where items may not be as plentiful, but food is stored in refrigerated cabinets, not in the open heat and prices are clearly market. Those prices may be higher than what locals pay for the same item at a market, but for a tourist it means that there will be no surprises when it comes to paying. I know what I’ve picked up, I know what my total will be. At a market place such as Old Market, you never do and since I was still new to Siem Reap and Cambodia all together, I did not know what fair price for let’s say a water melon is. It would be really easy to rip me off.

South End of Phsar Chas aka Old Market in Siem Reap with View of Stalls Facing the Street
South End of Phsar Chas aka Old Market in Siem Reap with View of Stalls Facing the Street

Nevertheless, taking a walk through Old Market is a worthy experience. Brace yourself for extreme heat and lots of sweat (at least in rainy season), unpleasant smells of all sorts and glittering eyes of vendors which come alight when they spot you and start running at you until they are in your face and corner you so you can’t get away. Other vendor from other stalls will do the same in hopes you end up buying from them, not someone else so it’s them who get to rip you off, not next door stall. This “in your face” treatment of tourists is rather aggravating and you will get a lot of it. It’s unfortunate and rather discouraging. It discouraged me well enough from ever buying at Old Market or any other market for that matter.