Just Another Day in Cambodia


I’ve had a couple of people ask me “Just what the hell do you do all day?” So, I thought I’d try to capture an average day of travel around Cambodia, one of those “do nothing” days that make up the bulk of my travels.

It’s 7am in Kompong Cham, a quiet riverside town that’s called “the Gateway to Real Cambodia”, and I’m packing up to leave. The town is completely quiet — I think I’m one of only five or six tourists here and about half of the businesses are shut down. I spend a good twenty minutes trying to download a new book to my Kindle app on my iPhone for the bus ride — internet access here is slow, at best.

The book finally downloads and the tuk tuk driver is waiting outside the hotel and takes me to the bus station for $1 US. It turns out to be a private bus service –not the main bus station– but they have a bus leaving for Kratie (pronounced “Kratchy”) in a half hour, so I don’t protest. The bus ticket is $7, which seems pretty high compared to others I’ve taken, and the driver hangs around until the woman running the place slips him a bill or two. Double-dipping is the norm here.

The bus pulls up and my heart sinks — it’s rusty and rundown, with oily handprints all around the engine compartment.

The bus pulls up and my heart sinks — this is no VIP air-conditioned tourist ride. It’s rusty and rundown, with oily handprints all around the engine compartment and all of the tiny windows are open. Everyone piles in, throwing their luggage on the floor in the back. The bus is only half full and I’m the only foreigner.

At first I’m thrilled to have a seat to myself –a rarity in SE Asia– but just as I’m getting settled, two locals wrestle a 100cc motorbike onto the bus and manhandle it down the aisle, parking it next to me and trapping me in my seat.

On the road to Krabi, Cambodia

We leave on time and are about 20 kilometers out of town when we pull over by an abandoned building and the driver gets out. After sitting in the heat for several minutes, I decide to get out and see what’s up. This requires me to scramble over the motorbike and several large sacks of rice. I look like Ed Asner playing Jackie Chan, but manage to escape without injuring myself or others.

Everyone is squatting in the shade of the bus, looking back the way we came. No one speaks English, so I’m not sure what’s happening. After nearly a half hour, two scooters pull up — apparently, we’d left a couple of customers behind and have been waiting for them to catch up.

I watch the landscape roll by — palm trees, rice fields, and an endless parade of thatched huts, working families, and brown, bare-assed babies.

The rest of the trip is uneventful, and the heat never gets too bad, so long as we’re moving. I alternate between reading and watching the landscape roll by — palm trees, rice fields, and an endless parade of thatched huts, working families, and brown, bare-assed babies.

Four hours later, we stop in Kratie and I’m dropped off on the main street by the Mekong River. As always, I have no way of knowing where I am or how to get to the main tourist area. A tout is there, promoting a nearby hotel with an AC room for $15 US. It’s a couple of dollars more than I’ve been spending, but he offers a free tuk tuk ride to check it out, so I agree. I climb in to the tuk tuk and we drive about half a block before he stops in front of the hotel — no wonder the ride is free.

The place is actually quite fancy and overlooks the river, so I agree to stay the night. While the AC in the room is cranking up, I rinse the dust and sweat off in the shower, and then use the toilet. Only after I’m done do I realize that bathroom has toilet paper, but it’s mounted on the wall by the sink — a good five feet from the toilet. Very handy.

Thais and Cambodians don’t use paper, of course, preferring to use a small hose by the toilet to rinse off after doing their business.

Thais and Cambodians don’t use paper, of course, preferring to use a small hose by the toilet to rinse off after doing their business. I don’t mind using the hose when I have to — it gets the job done, though you still have to dry your ass afterward so I’m not really sure what the point is.

I hit the button on the nozzle and find that, unlike most, this one has a lot of water pressure — I’ve seen riots put down with less. I leap up in surprise, slip on the wet tile, and nearly brain myself before grabbing onto the sink. At least I won’t need more coffee today — I’m feeling very alert.

A restaurant up the road proves to have the only wifi in the area, so I stop to have lunch and check email. The link is of the ‘tin can and string’ variety and costs $1 per hour, but I’m glad to have it. The menu lists a blue cheese burger and I order one, ever-hopeful and always disappointed. As expected, it’s barely edible — a dry, burned patty resting on a stale, crumbly bun. The quest for a real burger continues…

It’s now four o’clock and the heat is easing a bit, so I investigate the local market. It’s the standard Cambodian set-up, with a hundred small shops packed cheek-to-jowl. Everyone is already closing down, though, so I wander about for just a few minutes, then head to the river to watch the sunset.

The Mekong is lower than many locals can remember ever seeing it. There is a bit of a controversy about this right now — China has installed three dams well upstream and Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are all complaining about the drop in water levels. The Mekong is a major trade route and boats full of goods are stranded on sandbanks up and down the river. China blames global warming and refuses to do anything, though –to be fair– all four countries have dammed the river in one place or another, so there’s plenty blame to go around.

A storm is building in the north, with large lightning displays and distant, growling thunder.

A storm is building in the north, with large lightning displays and distant, growling thunder. I find a street vendor who is thrilled to sell me a beer for 75 cents and sit in a plastic chair overlooking the river as the clouds roll in and the temperature drops.

A young Cambodian man joins me and explains that he’s teaching his students English and wonders if I can explain a couple of English phrases. He produces a book and points out “Gap Year” and “Gender Gap”. We talk for a bit and I’m expecting this to turn into a sales pitch of some sort (as it often does), but instead he says goodbye and leaves.

A driver from the hotel spots me next and sits down to pitch his full-day tuk tuk tour of the area. He tells me a local legend about a monk who turned himself into a crocodile in order to save a princess, but it’s so long and convoluted that I’m lost within minutes and spend the next ten pretending that I understand what the hell he’s talking about. When I refuse to commit to his $25 tour, he gets bored and leaves.

Two Aussie women sit down nearby and we chat for an hour about our travels, while watching the last glow of sunset fade away. After they leave for their hotel, a Cambodian man in his early twenties joins me and quizzes me about every aspect of my life — age, weight, number of testicles… everything. When I explain that I’m not married and don’t have a girlfriend, he is genuinely concerned for me. “But, you are over 40! You must hurry!”

The rain never materializes and the lightning show winds down, so I head back to the cafe to hop online and have dinner. The noodles with vegetables are salty and delicious and I treat myself to a $2 glass of white wine — probably the best glass of box wine I’ve had in all of Asia. It almost makes up for the burger.

Back in my room, a third shower rinses off the sweat and the AC has finally cooled the room down. I watch a downloaded movie on my laptop but barely make it halfway through before switching it off and going to sleep.

It’s been a full day.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Brendan van Son May 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I love the day in a life accounts, I think they add life to blogs. Yours definitely did so, your descriptors put us on the bus and washing our asses with hoses right along with you! nice post!
.-= Brendan van Son´s last blog ..Traveling ‘Green’ in ‘Brown’ Countries =-.


wes May 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Thanks, Brendan. That hose was rough. Normally, all you have to worry about is the water being cold. But this one was a shocker, I tell ya.


Natalka May 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Good post. What guesthouse/hotel did you stay in Phnom Penh? We are heading back next year and would like your recommendation. In ’09 we stayed on the Mekong at the Hope & Anchor but next year we will be on more of a budget. Did you have a blog from your travels in India? Am very interested in your travels there.


wes May 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm

In PP, I stayed at the Royal Guesthouse — it was okay, but nothing great. $12 a night for an AC room, not much charm, and they don’t have wifi (so they can charge for the use of their PCs). A friend of mine stayed at a place near the market that was really nice and cheap. I’ve emailed and asked for the name — will post here as soon as I hear back.

As for India, I don’t have anything online — I traveled there over 10 years ago, pre-blog. I’m heading there this trip, but it’s probably 3 months away at this point…


wes May 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm

it’s King Guesthouse on #110. Not far from the river, nice art-deco look inside. My buddy recommends avoiding room #309 as it gets very hot in the afternoon. There’s also a nice place on #108 called Sam Rith that he likes…


Jaime May 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Great post! You really captured what it’s like to be on the road.

Logistics, crowded bus rides, helping people with their English, slippery bathrooms – you’re livin’ the dream!



Maggie May 23, 2010 at 9:55 pm

This post is perfect. I’m launching a rtw trip this summer, and I’ve been wondering what I’m going to do all day long. This is the first post I’ve seen in all the travel blogs that really addresses that topic. Can’t wait to check out the rest of your blog.
.-= Maggie´s last blog ..Top 10 current obsessions =-.


Amy May 23, 2010 at 11:35 pm

I love how this post captures that most of travel is about recognizing the different nuances of our universal priorities – eating, getting around, going to the bathroom and “You aren’t married yet?!”

Enjoy the ride, wherever you are…



wes May 27, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Thanks, Amy :)


Erica May 24, 2010 at 12:32 am


I would just like to say that it is very hard to explain by very loud guffaw at your water hose incident at work. Not only am I bronchitis ridden but I nearly fell out of my seat. Great post and love your wit.

Hubby Shaun says the “I’ve seen riots put down with less” made his day.
.-= Erica´s last blog ..A Case of the Doubts =-.


Eli May 24, 2010 at 2:07 am

This was a good hilarious description of your life on the road. I’ll be staying in that region in a few months and it’s always good to hear what people have to say about it. Not only did you say a few things, you painted a vivid picture. Awesome writing, Wes. Thank you.
.-= Eli´s last blog ..Flowers, Photos, and Food in the Bronx =-.


TR May 24, 2010 at 3:04 am

I’m wondering which stung more: the water pressure or the over 40 snark . . .


wes May 24, 2010 at 7:49 am

The hose. Definitely, the hose…


Jacob May 24, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Great post! Just came across your blog a couple of days ago, but will follow your posts for more of your good work :)

Take care!



Michael May 25, 2010 at 11:53 pm

great read! really enjoyed, but have to say I am somewhat disappointed in yr reluctance to fully embrace the bum gun, c’mon man, you’re now nearly 3 months into SEAsia, get with the program!


wes May 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm

hey, I’ve got no problems with the hose — use it fairly often, actually. But I still prefer paper ;)


Anil May 26, 2010 at 1:21 am

Do nothing days are so underrated :)


wes May 26, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Amen, brother. That’s when the magic happens ;)


Nomadic Chick June 2, 2010 at 8:32 am

Your knack for details is astounding! Impressive. :)
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Video Moment – Vegemite & The Aussie Nomad =-.


Valerie Parreno October 15, 2010 at 8:02 am

I love Cambodia! We visited 2 weeks ago and I’m looking forward to going back in 3 years. Hopefully, the restoration will have been completed by then. It sucked to take pictures of angkor wat with the green net covering some of the towers.

I enjoyed our stay at Bau Savy Guesthouse. We had AC rooms and there was a common area where guests could use the free wifi. I’ve been to HCMC and Bangkok and by far, the Khmers are the most hospitable. Mr. Bovurn, the owner of Bau Savy Guesthouse made us feel extra special.


wes October 15, 2010 at 9:34 am

Cambodia is lovely and the people are so sweet. I, too, grumbled when I saw the scaffolding and such at Angkor. It has to be done, of course, but I wanted pictures, dang it!


Mack Reynolds August 18, 2011 at 2:50 am

this sounds like a very good day to be you. i like how the local cambodian was concerned for you: “you’re over 40! you must hurry!” it’s just their paradigm. the first time i visited the philippines i met a boy cousin a year younger than me (i was 21 at the time). he was working on his second child with his wife, neither of whom had a job. i’m not knocking them, they just have that sort of culture where making lots of babies is what they do.