Cambodia: First Impressions. Lesson Learned.

Posted on
Jul 14, 2014

View from a tuk-tuk, Phnom Penh.


We arrived late on a Saturday night, by way of Seoul, a 12-hour flight followed by a 5-hour one. We’d elected to have a car pick us up from the airport, and pressed our faces against the backseat windows as we drove to our hotel, watching the landscape.

What was most surprising was that it didn’t look all that different, or that foreign. It reminded me a little bit of South Africa, and both of us of Peru, only it was … well, Asian. It was sweltering hot and humid, something that I’d anticipated but still wasn’t quite ready for; when we’d left Seattle, seeming ages before, summer had not yet hit, and it was chilly and rainy.

But in Cambodia, summer had arrived, or perhaps it never ended; when we asked people about the weather, they commented that the temperature had cooled down now. April and May, they said, had been truly rough, with the mercury inching close to triple digits.

Now it hovered in the mid-nineties, the humidity around 80%, a metric which baffled me. Was the air … 80% water? No. That didn’t seem right. A heat index told us that the moisture in the air meant that it felt more like 110 degrees.

The point is: it was damn hot.

We cranked up the air conditioning in our massive hotel room (sparse and spacious, with ceilings so high that I’d wake up in the middle of the night with the distinct feeling I’d been sleeping in my high school gymnasium) and plopped down onto crisp sheets and a stiff mattress, but jet lag had us up after a matter of hours.

We rented a tuk-tuk for the day, and climbing in with the giddy unsureness of strangers in a new place, we drove through Phnom Penh. The air was heavy with heat, weighed down even further by the smell of exhaust, dried fish, and a pungent smell that I first thought was rotting fruit, but later was able to recognize as durian.

Dear god, the durian. We will get to that a later date, but let me just say: the notoriety is not undeserved, and if I never eat it again I will be both sad and relieved.

Scooters zipped past us, as well as the occasional honking car, adhering to no discernible rules of traffic that I could make out. I imagined that if you looked at it from above, it would seem slightly less chaotic, like watching the paths of stars through the galaxy. Up close, though, it was madness, even though everyone seemed to get where they needed to go.


We took it all in, Nicci and I, she always with a smile and I occasionally with one. She would later dismiss her optimism as naivete, and I wasn’t entirely sure that was fair. Or at the very least, was not entirely sure that was a bad thing. No one, I told her, walks around wishing they were more jaded than they are.

I had found myself on a two-week trip with a rare breed indeed – a wide-eyed, optimistic world traveler.

Nicci. Also: Nicci’s necklace.


That first day we simply sat back and took it all in – the history and tragedy of the Killing Fields, the noise and the crowds of the markets, saffron-robed monks walking through it all like oases in the chaos.


As we drove through downtown, not far from the palace, my eyes followed a scooter on which was affixed a flat board with the bodies of two dozen or so chickens tied to it. I watched, mesmerized and sufficiently horrified, as one lifted its head and vomited; I’d thought they were all dead.

I was half turned around, and in that brief second I heard Nicci yell. I turned back to see a man on the back of a scooter had reached in and grabbed her necklace, and with a quick –snap– it was gone.

Nicci’s hands flew to her neck as I sat dumbfounded. I’d always thought that if something like that ever happened, I’d have time to react, to do or say something, but it was only well after it was over that my reaction came, a wave of oh-my-gods and are-you-okays that proved totally worthless after the fact.

We kept speeding along (no sense in making our driver stop because there was little that he or anyone else could do), clutching our bags more tightly now, aware that we weren’t simply watching the chaos around us – we were part of it, for the next two weeks at least.

And wouldn’t you know it, Nicci smiled almost the entire time, and I occasionally did, too. Because we were someplace new and exciting and a little bit frightening.

Nicci, sans necklace. The smile remains.


The events of that day stuck out, each one carrying with it a lesson, varying in significance. This was not the first one I learned, nor the most important, but it is perhaps the most concise:

Cambodia Lesson #5: When riding through downtown Phnom Penh on a tuk-tuk, keep a close grip on your personal possessions.

That seems like a good place to start.

Leave a Comment

  • Wow, it’s shocking that that happened! I’ve heard about that kind of thing on metros where they grab your bags and run of the train but I’ve never read a story of it actually happening. At least you were still able to enjoy the trip and I hope it wasn’t a sentimental/expensive and not too much was lost.

  • This was one of the best pieces of travel writing I have ever read. Your usual snarkiness wasnt there like it usually is (maybe a slightly different writing style – less personal to your relationships- because you are in a place so different from what you are used to) , but I could picture myself there so easily. The photos you chose were perfect. I can’t wait to read more!

  • wow that is crazy he snatched the necklace! It seems like this is really common there!

  • Abby

    Lovely Geraldine – (I’m an avid follower. Love your style. Love your marriage. Love it!)
    I’ve just recently returned home from two weeks in Bali (with a quick stop in Taiwan), and it sounds so far like you had a very similar experience to me. Shocking cultural changes and similarities. Oppressive heat and humidity that made it hard to even want to walk around. Beautiful culture with a tinge of fear.

    I get it. I get it good.

    Just wanted to throw in a little camaraderie for good measure.
    Faithful Blog-Follower Abby

  • It was such a cool necklace too. Sucks that that happened. =(

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, glad to hear your friend had a positive attitude even though her necklace was stolen 🙂 Cambodia is on my bucket list of places I’d like to visit.

  • I never got used to tuk tuks. At home, you carefully put on your seat belt every time you get into a car and then you start riding around in tuk tuks, holding on for dear life to avoid being deposited on the road in the midst of what seems like a cacophony of one near miss after another. I finally realized that I did better with my eyes wide shut. (PS: I wasn’t wearing any jewelry and my pocket book wasn’t visible.) Having been there this year also, I look forward to following along on your trip.

  • Ray

    I can totally sympathize with the heat, though luckily I have not (yet) lost any of my personal possessions! In Vietnam at the moment the temperature must be approaching something similar to what you have in Cambodia.

    When facing this issue in Vietnam, my advice would be to do a cooking class to get out of the heat. You will have the added benefit of experiencing some of the world’s most amazingly complex and delicious cuisines. This is what I did last week and I have written all about our 12-course marathon cooking session!

  • Sad about the necklace, but it only took about 20 minutes for my Father-in-law’s wallet to be lifted in “civilized” Prague.
    My lesson in Cambodia was to stay low, carry extra ammo, and distrust anyone who says they’re a friend. I got back in one piece.

  • Just breathtaking and awesome!

    My husband and I DVR episodes of Jeopardy!. We’ve both been busy for the past two months so we haven’t watched it much and we’re still watching episodes from April. Last night I got a question right because of this post (I knew Phenom Penh was in Cambodia) so thank you very much, Geraldine!

  • Wow, what an adventure first day! I love Pnomh Penh, but it’s definitely a bit a wild place. Still, I can’t believe someone swiped her necklace!

    I’m really excited to hear about your first durian 🙂 I do hope that you got a good one. There is a BIG difference between a good durian and a bad durian. I sent you the durian book I just published with my tips and tricks for choosing a good one – I hope you found it useful!

  • It almost happend to me, too! I saw a guy on a scooter putting his hand towards me, so I moved back quickly. You need a damn good reaction and luck. It’s a pity because such an incident has a big influence on your overall experience in beautiful Cambodia. Carina

  • Not the first story I’ve heard of drive-by snatches in Phnom Penh, either. A friend had her laptop snatched on a business trip.

    But overall quite a city to be part of! I think the traffic operates by way of constant case-by-case right of way negotiations. That’s the impression I’ve got, anyway.

  • Great post. Thanks for the tip about Cambodia. So we really need to be careful and don’t leave our things unattended when it comes to travelling.

  • It can happen anywhere. We used to get warnings about it in Spain, Italy, Greece, all over Europe and it still happens regularly in places like Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

    I’ve lived in Thailand for years and it has a particular problem with bag snatchers on motorbikes. There was a Scottish woman killed in Bangkok a couple of years ago when a motorbike thief whizzed by and grabbed her bag. She was flung to the floor and hit her head on the pavement. Died within a few hours. Very sad.

    Basically, always be aware of what’s going on around you, no matter where you are, and it’s less likely that you’ll have problems. NOT that I’m blaming the victim you understand 🙂

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