Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand: Three Siblings of South East Asia

I started writing this note with the intent that it would be a summary of Cambodia but it was difficult to expound on the experiences in Cambodia without repeated references to both Vietnam and Thailand. So, instead, I thought that it might be more informative to do a collective “Same, Same. But Different” of the similarities and differences between the three beautiful siblings of South East Asia.

And they are all beautiful, the kindness and the happy vibe of the people in all three countries has been overwhelming and, to use a traveller’s cliché, humbling.

Let’s start with the biggest similarity: laughter is only ever just below the surface in any of the three. In our experience, only in the campo of Spain have we experienced such a natural and generous inclination towards laughter.

I believe the second common factor is deeply related and that is the lack of xenophobia. Not once, not one single hint of resentment or mistrust. The closest was in Phnom Penh where we were the “walking wallets” but a handful of Khmer words never failed to disarm.

At the risk of offending many, I will attempt a general characterisation continuing the sibling metaphor. Vietnam is the tall, elegant, modest sister clad in a calf length oriental silk dress with a gently coy shyness and mysterious but troubled past now slipping into history. Cambodia is the slightly earnest brother with a chunk of social awkwardness that’s easily mistaken for teenage angst but hides a deeply violent past from the casual observer. That awkwardness has a flash of steel to it though and the teenage boy is turning into a young adult, refusing to let the violence define him as a man choosing, instead, to see the opportunity.

Thailand is the pretty one. Short skirt, no knickers and a boyfriend with a BMW.

Ok, I’m being a little unfair to Thailand for comic effect. But not much. I’ll come back to that later.

One of the first things that struck us about Vietnam that was different was a really silly thing that infuriated me for 15 seconds – door locks are horizontal. You have to hold your key horizontally to get it in the lock. Imagine a tired westerner in the half-dark with a hotel key that can’t find the hole and now you understand the 15s of cursing! Cambodia is the same and in Thailand, it’s now back to vertical.

Now here’s an interesting one that I’ve mentioned before but I don’t really understand the differences. Let’s start with the similarities, they are incredibly tactile in South East Asia and don’t have our inhibitions of personal space. Girls, and less often, men will touch you affectionately; most often a stroke across the shoulder as they pass, sometimes a full-on hug, in the same way, your 12-year-old niece who is very fond of you would hug you. It’s not sexual and I believe it to be linked to the lack of xenophobia and the complete expectation that your response will be receptive. It’s rather lovely.

Now here’s the really interesting thing, in Vietnam it was 50:50 and we would both be affectionately mauled but in Cambodia, it was me, the male, that got all the attention. I’m not talking about beer bars or go-gos where the males would be the obvious target for affection, but this is in cafés, shops and restaurants.

In Thailand, same thing, but it’s Siubhan that the girls affiliate with; same touchy-feely affection but it’s all much more a sisterhood thing. I will get the occasional hug or touch, but there’s always the check towards Siubhan that she’s ok.

But let’s go back to Cambodia while I struggle to describe my sense here. Forget our feelings of exploitation in the beer bars for a minute, but once we had passed Phnom Penh, the Cambodian ladies exuded a feeling of sexuality and sexual freedom that wasn’t evident in the rural areas of Vietnam. Thailand, despite its contrary press, is a generally conservative nation in these matters, so Cambodia stands out as different. It would be rare that a roadside shack selling cold drinks and, maybe, steamed corn wasn’t staffed by a flirty lady with make-up, earrings and bright red lipstick. It was lovely but struck me as anomalous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing a Jay from Inbetweeners impression and purporting that they’re all “gagging for it” but I can only guess that because half of the population is under 21 that what we are observing is a very young populace going through a rapid self redefinition as a nation.

Traffic next. Cambodia and Vietnam aren’t that far apart in the “anticipate & accommodate” approach and by the time we had reached the Cambodian/Thai border we had adopted this into our style of riding. Essentially, traffic lights, stop signs and any give way indicators were curiosities to be ignored and we would meld with the maelstrom trusting that everyone would work around us. But over the border into Thailand we were surprised at the first roundabout when the Thais were using their horns as a gentle chastisement for our discourteous infraction of the rules and not giving way to the traffic already on the roundabout. Suddenly Thailand was the passive-aggressive rule obeying elder sibling and we were the brats!

And there’s some distinct character to the vehicles. I’ve mentioned before that before we got close to Saigon we rarely saw a personal car; almost all vehicles were either commercial or two-wheeled but as we continued south down the South China Sea coastline the new resorts became more frequent. It seemed odd that they started ostentatious, backed off a bit on the opulence and then ramped it up again as we got closer to Vietnam’s second city. It was logical then, if a little incongruous, that the first wave of private cars we saw were high end; Range Rovers, and Ferraris amongst the mopeds and pick-ups long before we saw the numbers of Toyota Camrys build.

The Vietnamese mobile middle classes stayed with us for the 60km from Saigon to the border but the moment we crossed the border to Cambodia it became a scene out of Max Max. Imagine a small flatbed lorry with no cab. No bonnet either, just an engine exposed or the world to see and a driver perched atop a seat, sometimes just a wooden crate, but with an exposed steering column in front of him and a stick and gearbox beside. I’m no mechanical expert so I didn’t recognise the purpose of the 2” thick drive belt that was perilously close to any inattentive driver’s limbs. Bigger than a Transit van but smaller than a lorry, these mobile maiming machines were the Utes of South East Cambodia.

Thankfully they’re not built for speed and they plod along the side of the road while all the other vehicles fly by. And they do fly by, traffic speed in Cambodia is noticeably higher than Vietnam and driving standards are noticeably lower. It’s a lethal mix. Cycling down the hard shoulder of the single carriageway motorway we would frequently be facing a car head on as it was overtaking three abreast. Yup, that’s right we’re on the hard shoulder on the right hand side of the road and there would be a car flying in the opposite direction overtaking a vehicle that was already overtaking a vehicle. The first time it happens you’re gonna need to change your Lycra, the second time and it’s mild alarm but by the 100th time all you’re doing is subconsciously calculating the head-to-head closing rate to see if you need to ditch the tarmac and take to the dirt track that is an unofficial extra lane on the outside for most of the distance.

Scooters are ever-present in all three countries but once we were out of the confines of Bavet then the age of the riders seemed to drop to about 8 years old. I’m not exaggerating here, these weren’t “virtually children”, they were very young indeed and were completely comfortable on these little scooters, much like the old Honda C90s. They were obviously the family vehicle as it would be common that there would be 2 or 3 siblings on them. What was most astonishing was not the ages of the riders, but their road sense. Most of our riding across Kampuchea was on the main arterial roads and those barely out of nappies had already developed an acute sense of self preservation. We shared the hard shoulder cum bike lane with them and the more nervous (sensible) of them would be bouncing down the dirt track beside us keeping it away from the flying metal. Gender stereotypes apply here and the most common sight would be a girl of 12-14 years with a couple of younger siblings clinging on, rodeo-style, behind her trying to catch-up on Facebook as the bike bucked and kicked with every mudhole they ploughed through.

Since we had landed in Vietnam a month ago, we had talked about how travelling Vietnam and Cambodia might change our perceptions of Thailand and crossing the borders were stark illustrations of differences.

The border from Vietnam to Cambodia at Bavet is grim and does nothing to paint Cambodia in a good light. Gambling is illegal in Vietnam and Bavet is a casino town. If you painted a dystopian Las Vegas in your mind then you have Bavet. The wide pot-holed roads of deep, red mud give a feeling of 19th century wild west, a place where you feel every alleyway is a knife fight. From the comparative elegance of Vietnam this was a shock that stayed with us until after Phnom Penh.

After 400 miles we approached the border crossing at the other side of the country and the same feeling was upon us. Poi Pet and Bavet are mirrors of unpleasantness.

But as soon as we crossed the border it was ostentatious colour and greenery. A couple of years ago we crossed the Rio Guadiana from Portugal to Spain and the central reservations in the roads were planted with a variety of colourful flora in an obvious display of comparative wealth. Like parking your new Mercedes in your drive as close as possible to your neighbour’s 10-year Ford just to underline the difference in status.

And it was clean. Not that Cambodia was that dirty, there just isn’t the density of population in Cambodia to generate the rubbish that there is in Thailand, but our recollections of southern Thailand from the beginning of this year was that there was significantly more rubbish in the gutter and down the road verges than we were seeing here. More sibling rivalry willy-waving we suspected.

And then there’s the concentrations of military here on the Cambodian border; from the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet that complements Cambodia’s Poi Pet, all the way down the 60km stretch to Sa Kaeo it was infantry barracks followed by armoured division depot followed by infantry again etc. They were all beautifully manicured and the intensely bored gate guards waved and cheered enthusiastically as we rolled by.

We find the Thais are the most accessible on first contact, but because this is our 8th year of visiting it’s difficult to discern whether they are genuinely more accessible or our greater familiarly with the rhythm and etiquette just makes it seem so.

But the Cambodians win the excited shouting hands-down. By a long way. You can be cycling through 20km or paddyfields and hear the voice of an excited 12 year old come from nowhere “Helllllooooo” and after you have have responded it’s now a game to spot where it came from and it will often be some distance away.

If it’s closer then it will often be followed by “where you go?” and/or “what your name” – it’s distracting, repetitive and delightful. For 640km it never wore thin on us.

It’s not just the shouting though, the Khmer are NOISY! Not just a little bit. In villages and towns alike, large speaker systems are the norm; the fidelity quality varies from crap and goes down from there but the volume always starts at 11.

It’s wedding season in Cambodia; the rains have finished and its harvest time which means that there’s money in the households for weddings. On any day riding 70km+ we would see 5 or more decorated gazebos at the roadside. But we would hear them first. If it was early morning it would be the amplified Buddhist chanting and by mid-afternoon it would be 120dB of drum & bass cat-strangling! Traditionally this was a 3-day event but nowadays this is shortened to a day and a half, maybe by public health decree to save the nation’s collective hearing.

When we met our friends Steve & Beq in Siem Reap it was Bon Om Touk (Water Festival) and we had the misfortune to be drinking in a bar in the middle of Pub Street next to a sound system that they were testing for the evening’s celebrations. The stack of speakers stood about 8’ tall and when they turned them on the effect was physical enough to shake internal organs. I’m not joking with this either, the bass seemed to shake our internal organs. Maybe we’re getting old but there was not a chance in hell that we were going to be within a hundred metres of that cacophony during the evening and we headed for a cosy little backstreet bistro for something more conducive to conversation.

As an aside, I’ve used the names Cambodian and Khmer interchangeably as I have with Cambodia and Kampuchea. But that’s the way here. The first time we heard “Welcome to Kampuchea” we thought it was an interesting, but semi-political, statement; a bit like Saigon vs Ho Chi Minh City. I’m sure there’s nuances that we’re not getting, for example whenever someone describes a negative national trait they will use Khmer rather than Cambodian but similarly someone would say ‘The Khmer are a proud people’ rather than use ‘Cambodians’; it’s more suggestive of a culture rather than those bound by a national border that has been fluid over the years. And that cultural pride is definitely there, both below and increasingly above the surface. It’s not nationalistic, not that we’ve seen, and that wouldn’t fit with the lack of xenophobia; but our guide in Siem Reap would often refer to ‘my people’ or ‘my people, the Khmer’ which would include the diaspora in both Vietnam and Thailand. We found that very interesting.

In fact, we found most of his conversation very interesting. Firstly, he was strongly socialist in his philosophy decrying the lack of social investment in Cambodia despite the hundreds of millions that were flooding into the country from Japan, Vietnam and China. He was strongly critical of the government, describing them as deeply corrupt and largely led by ex-members of the old Khmer Rouge regime but he had a particular flavour of distaste for the monarchy and a king that had never lived for any period of time in Kampuchea and remained living abroad; the contrast with the genuine and widespread Thai reverence for the recently deceased King was an obvious observation. It’s all very raw in a way that our western politics isn’t and I was fascinated by his championing of the general well-being and development of the people as the key priority of the country while being vitriolic of communism as a philosophy corrupt both in ideology and in application. A final point of interest was how freely he felt to express these views to us as tourists; Cambodia has similar lese-majeste laws to Thailand, albeit more recent, but it would be highly unusual to hear these opinions expressed by a Thai that wasn’t a close confidante.

In the same way, you very quickly start to use Kampuchea/Cambodia, Khmer/Cambodians interchangeably, so do you with the US Dollar and the Cambodian Riel. Less than a week into Cambodia and we’re already thinking of a dollar bill as a 4000 Riel note. A roadside stop for drinks would typically be 6000 Riel for 2 x canned drinks plus 2 x water. But if we took 4 x water to top up our backpacks, she would say that it’s $2. For the former, we might hand over a dollar bill and 2000 riel, or if we handed over $2 then we would get 2000 Riel as change. Handing over a $5 bill for a 6000 Riel cost might easily get you $2 and 6000 Riel in your change. Simple innit? It sounds complicated but it all very soon becomes second nature. Just be aware that outside of the cities, and apart from your hotel bill, anything above a $10 note is going to be problematic and don’t even think about a $50 bill. Our hotel in Phnom Penh was brilliant for taking our $50 bills and breaking them down.

Let’s go back to a question I posed earlier about how our Vietnamese and Cambodian excursions may have changed our perceptions of Thailand. Firstly, it now feels expensive. Compared to the UK, it’s cheap; dinner out last night, in a non-tourist place, cost us just over £10 including drinks. That was:

2 x Leo Beer
2 x Rice
1 x Pad Thai
1 x mixed seafood curry for two

A similar dinner in Cambodia may have cost us about $8.

Our room in Pattaya is costing us 850THB, almost exactly £20, and that’s about 50% more expensive than a similar room in Cambodia or Vietnam. Yes it’s Pattaya and yes it’s peak season now, but the room rate is usually 1000THB this time of year.

The one thing that’s surprisingly expensive in Cambodia is bottled water. Here, in Thailand, we buy 1.5L bottles of water for 14THB (33p/42c), the same in Cambodia is almost universally $1 by the roadside and $1.50 from the hotel.

One thing that is universal across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam though is trust in pricing. I’m not talking about the well-publicised rip-off hotspots like a Tuk-Tuk in Bangkok or a taxi driver in Phuket, but the 99.9% of places across all three countries are worry-free. I would descend quickly onto paranoia if I was handed a menu without a price virtually anywhere in the UK, but it’s common here and we play the game of “guess the bill”. Usually we’re not far off and, just like last night, we were over. Yes there’s an occasional parallel charge rate for Farang/Barang such as the Baht buses in Pattaya that charge 10THB for foreigners and 5THB for locals, and I have no problem with this, Florida residents get deep discounts on Disney tickets and I see no difference. But it’s not a rip-off. We have become comfortable with a midnight raid on the minibar, confident that it’s not going to make us wince. Indeed, the hotel that we used most often in Pattaya had the same 50THB minibar charge for a can of Chang that you would pay in the 7-11. The higher up the hotel food chain you go though, the more the western practice of high mark-ups creeps in; but the worst we paid was $2 for a can of beer in our higher end boutique hotel in Phnom Penh. It’s really only the snacks, especially the imported snacks, that you need to be wary of as they’re expensive everywhere.

So how do we feel now?

It’s great to be back in Thailand, it feels luxurious and we’re comfortable here. But this is our 8th year and it would be very easy to confuse familiarity with affection. We’re hugely grateful for the opportunity of riding across Cambodia but it hasn’t grabbed us in a way that Vietnam has. That’s where we want to go back to. Compared to the other two, I’ve spoken about it in very little detail on this post, but I feel that the driving standards and accommodating approach are symptomatic of a pragmatic and civilised culture that we are very far from understanding yet.

Stand-by Sai Gon, we’re coming back.

But then there’s a lot more of Thailand to see yet on this trip, even before we get to Malaysia; a country about which we are extensively ignorant.

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