Guide for your 3-6 day stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ve met so many traveler’s in Laos and Thailand who are going to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a few days. I feel overwhelmed when they ask me for recommendations of what to do or where to eat because after spending 8 months in the country, there is much to experience beyond temples and food.

But to save you some hassle and research, here are my recommendations to enjoy the lovely town of Siem Reap, including non-tourist activities short-term visitors would likely not know about. This will be an evolving post, so if you have any must-see suggestions to add to this, please email me at marcokokotravels@gmail.com. All of the costs are in US dollars.

You can click on your section of choice:

ACCOMMODATION

Budget ($10.00 or under per night)

Photos of Happy Guest House, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I don’t know anyone who has stayed at the following budget guesthouses but they’ve gotten some decent reviews on TripAdvisor.

Mid-range ($13.00 to $40.00 per night)

Photos of Golden Butterfly Villa, Siem Reap

This photos is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I highly recommend Golden Temple Villa  or their other guesthouse Golden Butterfly. Both buildings are within the same block of each other if you have budget for about $13.00 to $25.00 per night. My friend and I lived at Golden Temple Villa for a week and we ended becoming great friends with the staff. The service is fantastic, people are so friendly and you get the following services for free:

  • Bicycles: You can easily get around the centre of Siem Reap on a bike and this will save you tuk tuk money (tuk tuks are small motor taxis)
  • 30-minute Khmer massage
  • Tea, coffee, bananas and wifi
  • Picnic basket to take with you on your day trip to Angkor Wat (only at Golden Butterfly, not Golden Temple Villa)

While it may seem lame to eat at the restaurant of your guesthouse, I have to say, the food is amazing! For the price of $2.25 or just a bit more per dish, you get good quality, Khmer food with good flavor. I’d save a dinner meal to try your guesthouse dinner. You’ll definitely find me there on a regular basis.

Four and five star hotels ($40+)

This photos is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I have not stayed at these hotels but you can find amazing deals at agoda.com. My friend’s mom stayed at a four-star hotel for $40.00 a night when she booked through Agoda and the regular rate is $120.00.

TRANSPORT

Bicycles

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Cycling around Siem Reap

Bicycles is the second cheapest and easiest way of getting around the small city of Siem Reap next to walking. You can find shops and rent bicycles for as low as $1.00 a day. Some guesthouses may provide you with a free bicycle.

Tuk tuk

If you want to get out of the city, you can hire a tuk tuk off the streets. To get within the kilometer or two costs $1.50 to $2.00. Of course if they know you’re a tourist, they’ll try to charge you more at first, but you can do a friendly barter to a lower price. Rides from the Siem Reap airport to the center of town is $5.00.

To save you some hassle though, you can use one of these two tuk tuk drivers who are also my friends. I used them because they always drove for a good price and very punctual, including days that needed a 5 a.m. call. You can ask the guesthouse to make a call to one of these drivers. I’ve also met with them to tell them I am sending people their way and they can charge a fair price.

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Tin Tin (left) and Somroeun (right).

  • Tin Tin’s contact: 017865255 (Cambodian phone number), sotserm@yahoo.com
  • Somroeun’s phone number: 0977528869 (Cambodian phone number), samoeurn2008@yahoo.com

Of course, if you are happy with the service and have the ability to tip at the end, I would encourage it even it’s not a tipping culture. Please tell them Melissa from Canada says hello when you see them, I’d appreciate that.

DAY ACTIVITIES

Free Sombai tasting

Photo courtesy of Sombai

If you have at least an hour and a half to spare in your day, take the time to treat yourself to a free tasting of Sombai, a rice wine that is produced in Siem Reap. This product integrates local spices, fresh fruits and the talents of Cambodian artists who hand-paint the bottles.

Sombai was developed by a woman named Joelle from my native country, Mauritius, and her husband. They took time to fine-tune the ingredients and the packaging and successfully grew the business. Have a drink and enjoy a conversation with this wonderful couple.

Took book a tasting session, call +855 (0) 95 810 890. You can have them talk to your tuk tuk driver to give you directions for the tasting at their welcoming home just a ten-minute drive outside the city centre.

Get your Cambodian wedding photos done

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You don’t recognize me do you?

If you have a few hours to spare to get your hair and make up done (girls specifically), have fun doing the Cambodian wedding photo shoot. Most of the expats who live in Siem Reap do it, but you can get them done at many studios. Most of the costumes are $15.00 per person and $25.00 if you choose to be an Apsara.

Warning: If you are a guy and doing this shoot, know they charge $5.00 every time you change the jacket.

Get your Cambodian hair wash

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Most tourists would never know about the relaxing and refreshing Cambodian hair wash while they’re in Siem Reap. After a day at the temples, bike ride or if you simply want an affordable treat for yourself, you can get a wash, head massage and blow dry that lasts 30 minutes. You can bargain for $2, or more if you have a good experience.

I always go to the salon that is on the same small road as Golden Temple Villa. If you’re coming down Sivatha Road towards the roundabout, turn right where the sign says “Golden Temple Villa.” You will see two salons almost side by side on your left side, go to the second salon with the nail polish on display inside the store. You’ll know not to go to the first one anyway because they will try and charge you $5 and no bargain room.

Baray in the Angkor Wat area (best in dry season between December to May)

IMG_3532You can spend the morning or afternoon hanging out at the hammocks and water at Baray and include this trip as part of your temples day around Angkor Wat.

Many local people hangout by the Baray and you can buy drinks, BBQ, fruits and other merchandise in the area. It will of course be a bit more expensive so you can stock up and buy snacks in town and bring it with you. It costs about $1 US dollar for one spot with three hammocks. It’s a great place to see sunset as well.

King Oudayavarman II built this human-made reservoir one to keep water in rainy season and dry season for the farmers and people who llive nearby.

You can share the cost of a tuk tuk to get there or you can rent a bicycle, go straight down National Road 6 (the way towards Thailand) and cycle 14 km to get there. You will make a right turn at a blue sign and go all the way down until you reach the Baray. If you’re not sure of the way, you can ask people along the way and just say, “Baray?”

Landmine Museum

If you can spare at least two hours in your day, I highly recommend visiting the Landmine Museum where you can learn about Cambodia’s inspiring founder Aki Ra and the organization’s work. He is a former child soldier who spent almost 20 years in war. After the war, he has dedicated his life to clearing as many landmines, unexploded bombs and artillery rounds as he could find. He started working alone and diassembled landmines with his own hands and homemade tools, up to an incredible 300 landmines a day.

He was named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes in 2010. Not only has he accomplished a lot,  but he is an extremely modest man. I read an article about him in the museum and when the interviewer asked him what he will do once Cambodia is free of landmines, he said, “I will farm.”

You can take a tuk tuk to get to the museum. See the map here and learn more about the Landmine Relief Fund.

Temple Club cooking class on Pub Street

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As much as I try to avoid very touristy spots while I’m staying longer at a place, the Temple Club cooking class was well worth $10.00 when my friend and I went. Over the course of three hours, we walked through the old market, made spring rolls, several curries, soup, sauces and dessert, which was a lot of food! And we got to take the rest home. You can also sign up for the class through Golden Temple Villa or Golden Butterfly in addition to making a reservation at the restaurant.

Free tour of the Silk Farm

Photos of Angkor Silk Farm, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

You can take a free shuttle bus daily from Artisans D’Angkor that leaves at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. You can go there (on the same small road as Golden Temple Villa) and sign up for a bus ride. The ride is about 7 km away, the tour lasts for about 30 minutes then you can spend some time looking at all of he products made from the traditional methods of weaving. Getting there and back will be about 2 to 2.5 hours.

NIGHT ACTIVITIES

Cambodian Circus

This nightly show is definitely a must-see performance. By going, you’re supporting this generation of artists, all of whom have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, including orphans and former street children. You can pick up tickets at the venue for $15.00 before the show starts at 7:30 p.m. every day.

Road 60: the local hangout
Road 60If you want to get away from the usual tourists spots, you can take a 15-minute tuk tuk ride to get to a popular Cambodian hangout called Road 60. Two big strips of the road are reserved for street vendors, carnival games, rides and BBQ. I love coming here with my Cambodian friends because not many tourists hang out there and it is a place where local people hang out with their friends and family. Road 60 is open from around 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night. Click here for more pictures.

Free ladyboy show at the night market

On Monday to Friday, between 8:45 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. the beautiful ladyboys put on a funny show at the Night Market with the rooftop on Sivatha road. It’s the only market with a rooftop on that road. Walk to the end of the market where the stage is and you can get a massage while you enjoy the show.

Free Apsara Show at Temple Club

If you eat dinner at Golden Temple Club, price ranges from $2.50 to $7.00 per dish, you can see a free traditional Apsara dance show that runs from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Rosana ladyboy show

rosana

This is the biggest ladyboy production in the city and a good show with costumes, lip-synching and beautiful ladyboys. The price for this show depends where you get the ticket, it can range from $12.00 to $30.00 depending on the agency or contact.

Clubs and Drinks

You can get in for free at the clubs Hip Hop (just over the bridge on the river) and Temple Club. If you want drinks and shots for $1.00, ask around for a place called Angkor Famous around the Pub Street area.

EATING AND DRINKING FOR GOOD CAUSES

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If you want to eat and drink while helping support valuable social programs, there are a range of options!

  • Green Star restaurant serves mostly Khmer food and was set up to support the Green Gecko Project which works with street children in Siem Reap. The project provides an education, skills, security, and health initiatives for former street children and their families.
  • Joe to Go is one of two businesses run by the NGO The Global Child that works with street children in Cambodia to give them and education and life skills.
  • Sala Bai is a hospitality training school for disadvantaged children from the villages around Siem Reap. They train about 100 students a year on hospitality skills including skills like waiting tables, cooking and housekeeping, Sala Baï has a proud record of finding work for every single one of its 700 graduates.
  • Soria Moria Boutique Hotel won a Condé Nast Traveler award for excellence in social and environmental responsibility. For deals at their restaurant, check on their $3.00 buffet breakfasts in the morning, their $1.00 tapas and drinks on Wednesdays, and 50% off their menu every Thursday. If you’re planning to go on Wednesday, though, call to book a reservation because it gets busy quickly. One of many impressive aspects of Soria Moria is all of their employees come from disadvantaged backgrounds and own 51% of the hotel. 14 of their staff have graduated from college thanks to their scholarship program. Check out more articles from Soria Moria.
  • The Haven is a training restaurant for vulnerable young adults from orphanages and safe shelters, as well as underprivileged young adults from very rural poor areas. The food is delicious and the restaurant has a very homey feel to it.

EATING ON A BUDGET ($1.50 to $3.50)

Brown Rice

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My Cambodian friends opened up this fantastic restaurant that serves a variety of Cambodian and Western dishes as well as great cocktails. Brown Rice is a five-minute bicycle ride from the centre of town. You can tell the tuk tuk driver it is 200 metres after Pannasasra University of Cambodia (or just say PUC) if you are driving from Wat Bo road and it will be on the right side of the road. If the driver still has trouble, he can call one of the restaurants’ numbers for directions: 017886422, 0979064300, 092669645, 017370132. Click here to see the map.

Phai San BBQ

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You can find small Khmer restaurants around the city that have great portions and prices. If you’re close to the centre of town, you can find about 10 of these restaurants side by side by the roundabout of Sivatha road on the same street as Golden Temple Villa.

I keep going back to my friends at Phai San BBQ, the second restaurant on your right if you are walking from Golden Temple Villa to Sivatha road. While I can’t comment on the food of the other places so much, Phai San makes fantastic fruit shakes for $1.00 and mix and match your fruits!

RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS FOR FOOD BETWEEN $2.00 TO $8.00

La Boulangerie

Photos of La Boulangerie-Cafe, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I love going to this café to relax with friends, use wifi and their delicious range of food from panninis, shakes and pizza. My friend Davann is Cambodian and he studied culinary school in France for a few years and returned to Cambodia to open this successful café. He makes fresh pastries for hotels as well with his well-trained bakers.

Mie Café

Photos of Mie Cafe, Siem Reap

This Photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This restaurant was started by a Cambodian man who began as a dishwasher. He got a scholarship to study in Switzerland and opened this restaurant with high quality food. I haven’t yet tried the desserts but I hear fantastic things about them.

RECOMMENDED FOR FOOD BETWEEN $5.00 to $25.00

  1. Nest Angkor Cafe Bar
Photos of Nest Angkor Cafe Bar, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This has one of the best flavours of all the restaurants I’ve tried in Siem Reap. We tried the lasagna, steak, lobster and it was all good all the time.

Le Malraux

Photos of Le Malraux, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The food at this restaurant has great flavour.

Powerful quotes from The Blue Sweater

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I finished reading a fantastic book called The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz. She writes about her passion for finding ways to tackle global poverty and how she left a career in international banking to do so.

The book includes powerful stories on hard lessons she learned in development, heart-wrenching stories of strong women who survived the Rwandan genocide and entrepreneurs who are implementing innovative solutions to development when people believed it was impossible.

Here are some quotes that really struck me:

“I am because you are.”—A saying in parts of Africa

“In the end, goodness triumphs over the bad. It is our challenge to do good to serve others without waiting for the good to be returned. I am convinced that those people who cultivate universal love will have good fortune on earth. In serving others, I found light in a place of utmost darkness.”—Honourata, a Rwandan genocide survivor who worked to support widows.

Good travel karma?

DSC_0785I don’t believe it too much in superstition but I feel like karma does affect my life quite a bit. Karma is the idea that if you do good to other people, good things will happen to you. If you do bad things, then bad things can come your way. This is an oversimplified version of the concept, but that’s the basic idea.

I can think of many times in my life where if I did or said something that I knew was bad, karma would keep me in check and something bad would happen to me not too long after. Often it would be similar to what I did to someone else.

I feel like good karma has been happening all at once the past two weeks and the timing makes sense because I’ve intentionally tried to help out friends for the sake of it and expect nothing in return in the past month. I believe when we do things without expectation of someone paying us back and do it from our hearts, good things will happen in our lives.

My friends have been extra generous to me in Cambodia, Thailand and now in Bali. They have always been kind since I’ve been in Asia, but the same friends continue to surprise me. My friends’ small restaurant isn’t making a huge profit but because I brought people to their restaurant, they wouldn’t let me pay for my meal. When I arrived in Thailand for the night, my friend not only took time to meet me, but she hung out with me for the night even after having bad food poisoning the day before and still recovering. And now I’m staying at the nicest accommodation I’ve been in since I came to Asia in March and wondering what I’ve done to deserve it. One friend was sweet and said, “You are a genuinely nice person, what you see is a reflection of what you radiate.”

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My Thai friend Poly who was so nice to keep me company in Bangkok before I went to the airport, even after she was really sick the day before! So nice.

Right now, I’m being so generously hosted by my friend Kathy whom I met in Siem Reap at my friends’ small Khmer restaurant. We just started chatting casually a few months ago, which happens often around Cambodia when you meet travelers and I offered to take her around Siem Reap during the evenings for the few days she was in town since she didn’t know anyone. Before we said goodbye, she said I could visit her while she was in Bali studying for a semester. And me being me, if someone genuinely invites me somewhere, I’m going.

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With my friend Kathy who is kindly hosting me for two weeks in Bali, Indonesia. Getting ready for whitewater rafting, surfer parties, temple exploration, mottos and much more.

She was so nice to pick me up at the airport and ask her housemates if I could stay at their place. I was just planning to get a guesthouse originally. I thought she and the other housemates were staying at a simple shared house. But then I arrive and discover it is a beautiful villa with a pool and outdoor kitchen! Not only that, they have hired staff to wash dishes and clean the rooms every day. Good travel karma?

Of course I offered to pay for my share for the time I’m staying with them but Kathy wouldn’t let me. She barely let me pay for her lunch the first day I arrived. I told her today, “It doesn’t seem like a fair exchange for me to stay here for two weeks when I just took you around for two nights and she said, “Don’t worry about it.”

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The villa’s pool

The generosity people have shown me the past week keeps me motivated to also be generous with other people without expectation of anything in return. When I asked my  friend, “Why are Cambodians so generous?” She simply replied, “It’s in our culture. We like to give from our hearts.” This will motivate me to pay it forward.

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Yep, these are pet ducks. “Who let the ducks out?”

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Outdoor kitchen where I will attempt to make curry next week.

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Living room #1 of 2

Bussing from Siem Reap to Bangkok

I highly recommend booking your ticket through Sopheak Na Travel agency if you are looking for a trustworthy agent while you’re in Siem Reap. Her services are frequently used and recommended by expats. If you are going down Sivatha road from National 6, turn left where you see ABA Bank and her office will be on the right hand side. Just ask around.

There are three price options (US dollars) to bus to Bangkok:

  1. $9 to leave at 8:00 a.m. with one transfer at the Poipet border and arrive around 6:00 p.m. in Bangkok
  2. $13 to leave at 6:00 a.m. with one minivan transfer in Poipet and arrive at 2:30 p.m. in Bangkok
  3. $25 for a direct bus to Bangkok. I’m not sure what time this bus leaves.

I chose the $13 option because I wanted to arrive in Bangkok early afternoon. We went by minivan the whole way, which is a lot faster than the bus.

Just so you know, there is a 20-minute stop in Kralanh where you can use the bathroom “for free” when you buy a snack.

Some travelers on the same bus look for each other because they’re worried about losing their bus after they cross the border. Before you cross the border, the staff will give you a sticker to put on your shirt so someone can spot you when you have entered Thailand. After you’ve gotten your stamps, just keep walking ahead and someone will spot you and tell you where to wait until everyone on your bus or minivan is ready. Then you will likely take a tuk tuk with the other passengers to the other minivan or bus.

For the $13 option, I was happy that the BTS train station was only a 5-minute walk away from the final stop in Bangkok. So don’t waste your money on a taxi if you can take the BTS train first.

Customer service comparison between countries

After living in Vancouver, Canada for most of my life, being in Cambodia for 8 months and seeing Laos for two weeks, it’s interesting to compare how many of the services treat customers or visitors depending on the culture of the people or the organization itself.

Customer service is so highly valued in many Western countries and it often fuels a sense of entitlement when we travel to other places. When I arrived in Cambodia I wasn’t sure what to expect from services but I kept an open mind. There are simply some cultures where the concept of customer service is not existent. And that’s fine, it’s just different.

When I went to Budapest, Hungary for a few days, there was little to no customer service and you just have to find your way around. While this can be frustrating for many travelers, I found the honesty somewhat refreshing than having underpaid retail staff in Canada asking how you’re doing in the name of “customer service.”

Non-existent service in parts of Laos

I went to Luang Prabang and Huay Xai (Northern Laos) and after coming from Cambodia, it took sometime to get used to needing to wave or find people to ask a question about their guesthouse, transportation or food. I’m sure people have this experience in Cambodia depending who they’ve interacted with, especially the tourist areas. The experience in very different when you stay in one place for a long time.

I don’t want this to sound like a rant, it’s just a different culture of interaction and the differences between countries is apparent. Keep in mind, I was only in Laos for 2.5 weeks and only saw the tourist towns. The friends that I met, one of them is Laos, was an exceptional host and showed our friends around town.

This was a common conversation with people running services in Laos:

Me: Hi, I was wondering what time your bus goes to Huay Xai

Staff: We have one tomorrow at 8:00 a.m.

(A few seconds of pause)

Me: Do I have to come here at a certain time?

Staff: No, you go to the bus station

Me: How far is the bus station?

Staff: 5 km from here

Me: How much is the tuk tuk and what time would I have to be there

Staff: It will be 30,000 kip for a tuk tuk and be there 7:30 a.m.

When I signed up for The Gibbon Experience ziplining in Huay Xai, I was as their office door with my big backpack and instead of taking off my shoes just to put my bag eight meters in their storage, I asked, “Do you mind taking my bag to storage so I don’t have to take off my shoes?” He replied by pointing to the storage and said, “It’s over there.”

After I got used to these interactions, one slightly frustrating conversation was when I wanted to rent a bike for the night and return it the next morning. This was the conversation after I leave them my passport to rent the bike:

Me: Can I rent the bike for the night and return it tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.? I have a tour to go to

Company: We don’t open until 8 a.m.

Me: Ok, my guesthouse is just less than a block away right there, can I leave the bike by the guesthouse and one of your staff and return it. I don’t need my passport for two days when I get back from the tour.

Company: We don’ have staff available to do that. (Every time I’ve passed that office, the office is empty and the have two to three staff doing very little)

Me: It is literally a 10-second walk, one staff member can stay here and another can just get the bike.

Company: Ok I will ask my friend next door if you can drop off the bike at her shop

**Bangs head on wall**

Service in Thailand

I was only in Thailand for a few days. The first day was just taking the bus from the north of the country to Bangkok. But there was a difference in service the minute I leave Laos and come to the immigration checkpoint in Thailand by the river.

After two weeks of passive attitudes at businesses, it was refreshing to have the guide and driver at the immigration checkpoint take my bag and give me clear directions for where I needed to go. For the few days, I was able to get around with very few problems.

Back to Cambodia

It’s been so good to return to my Asian home in Siem Reap after being away. I really enjoyed the people I met along the way and seeing beautiful scenery. But deep down I felt pulled to spend two weeks with good friends before I go off for a few months again.

As soon as I come to Siem Reap, I felt right at home. I went to my friends’ restaurant Phai San BBQ for my quick comfort food and chat with good friends. I know the food comes fresh and fast. Afterwards, it was so great to have top-notch service when I went to check my email for a few minutes, my friend at the hotel, as usual, asked if I wanted a coffee. I was asked if I wanted some tea and peanuts while I checked my email. I haven’t had this level of consideration for a few weeks except for my friends in Laos and Thailand.

Finally, I was most excited to surprise my adopted Khmer family since they thought I wasn’t coming back until April 2014, which was my original plan. But when I came back, they were very happy to see me and instantly offered their apartment for me to stay at for the two weeks  I was in town.

It’s good to be home.

“You look fatter”

Sometimes it’s funny to watch Western people look mortified when they are called fat by some Asian people, many of whom are notorious for being very direct when it comes to commenting on people’s weight.

When I came back to Siem Reap, I was walking to the market with a friend and she just turned around to me and said, “You look fatter.” I started laughing and asked, “How can you tell? From my stomach or my face.” And she said, “Your face.”

Just last week, I had the following conversation with my close Khmer friend:

Friend: “Do Westerners not like to be called fat?”

Me: “No”

Friend: “Why?” I laughed.

Me: “When Cambodians say it, it doesn’t mean fat is a bad thing right?”

Friend: “No no no. For Khmer people, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It can mean they look healthy or eating well. It’s the same as saying healthy.”

Me: “Oh ok. Because in our countries, when someone is called fat, it’s usually negative and associated with people being unhealthy or lazy.”

Being called fat by Cambodians is not meant to be an insult. Small talk conversation also includes asking about your age and if you’re married. It’s funny to me more than anything.

Even before I came to Cambodia, I never really understood why people take age so seriously. Aging is part of life and there is a natural beauty and wisdom that comes along with it. Plus, I know plenty of people in their 50s and 60s who are way more fit than me and people in their 20s that are dumber than some 14-year-olds I’ve met. Age is really just a number and I think there are more important things to worry about than our age.