Going there straight after laid-back Laos, it was like a slap in the face. In my sleep I can now hear ‘one dollar, only one dollar madam’ (‘madam’ said using the Asian pronunciation with the stress on the last syllable).
And what is ‘only one dollar’? Well, pretty much everything from cola and milkshakes to tacky souvenirs and postcards and from a bottle of beer to a foot massage. Not the dead-skin-eating-fish massage though, that’s ‘only two dollar madam’, (unless it’s ‘happy hour’).
I think the idea is that they know that one dollar is not much to most western people, less than a cup of coffee at home, and so people will spend it to alleviate the guilt and to feel like they are doing some good (or more likely, to make the seller go away).
Ever the socialist, my White Western guilt exudes out of every pore. However I can’t afford to prop up the entire Cambodian economy. Nor can I afford to give ‘just one dollar’ to every trader, sad little child or landmine victim who asks for it.
Nowhere is the cultural difference between neighbouring Laos and Cambodia more noticeable than at the night market. In Laos they pretty much sit back and let you look at goods (as soon as you pick something up to look then that’s a different matter and they’re over telling you what an excellent choice you’re making, however at the shopping stage you are free to look). Here they are trying to grab you in as soon as you walk past: ‘cheap price, madam’. In the end I buy nothing, because it is too much hassle to look.
Ankor Wat, the biggest tourist draw in the country, was overcrowded and swamped with people endlessly trying to sell you stuff. Try stopping for a bottle of water and you have to deal with ‘only one bottle of water madam, what about your driver? And my mother is thirsty too, and me, and I’m saving for my school fees. Give me money and I can be your friend on Facebook’.
Travel alone and you will find Cambodian Lotharios lurking in hotels or restaurants, ready to pounce on any solo woman. The man in the massage place has ‘a private room for us’ and the hotel night receptionist bangs on my door ‘because you look so lonely and I have taken care of the lonely ladies before’.
In Phnom Penh women are advised to carry decoy handbags, because motorcycle muggings are so common, and you end up in a constant state of foreboding, just waiting for something to happen.
Most places I’ve been I am keen to go back and explore more. However Cambodia, whilst I’m glad I’ve seen it, next time I would happily swap for Laos or Thailand.