Butternut Squash and Sex: Cambodian Customs, Culture & Curiosities

IMG_0887We are learning so many fascinating things here. Cambodia’s religion is mostly Buddhist but with its own blend and strong mix with Hinduism. They seem to celebrate everything: Chinese New Year, their own and a few others… Smart. After years of warfare and hardships, this country needs all the celebrating it can get.

IMG_1399It is incredibly important what your birth sign is. For instance if you were born in the year of the rabbit you might not be able to marry a girl who was born under the ‘wrong’ sign for you. Our guide, a wonderful, cheerful young man, had to move heaven and earth and really talk his parents into letting him marry the girl he loved because he is “wood” and she is “fire”.

Couples born in a certain year can also not have a baby in a year that is not ‘good’ for them. So they are told to make sure not to have a baby that year. Children often get a ceramic piggy bank in the shape of their sign: a piggy, a rabbit, etc. Our guide was very excited to find out that I am a ‘dragon’ – apparently the most desirable sign to be born under.

IMG_1261Family is very important. A young man does not really want to date a girl who lives in a far-away city because neither of them would be able to move away from their parents and grandparents. Sons listen to their mothers (!) and value their elders.

Families here tend to be larger, with 6 or 7 children. Some birth control is being taught. My favourite story is of people explaining birth control in a small, northern village. They demonstrated the use of a condom by putting it on a butternut squash, just the right shape. However, something got lost in translation… One couple went home, bought a butternut squash, put a condom on it and put it on display in a prominent place in their home. They were most upset to get pregnant despite their precautions….

We were happy to attend an evening of traditional dance. Cambodia Cycling, the company that organized our tour (http://cambodiacycling.com) arranged this for us. They drove us to a restaurant in Siem Reap where we were served a very good traditional dinner while watching the amazing dancing in traditional costumes. One dance was called the Peacock Dance and both dancers had enormous peacock tails. My favorite was the coconut dance, with coconut shells used like Spanish castagnettes. The girls have long fingers that can bend backwards. Each hand gesture is an integral part of the dance and has many meanings. They stretch their hands for many years to achieve these unusual positions. The dances, like the sculptures and statues in the temples, tell stories of the past and of the beliefs.

The women on the street wear either western clothes or sarongs and t-shirts. The most common Cambodian wear is a pant suit that totally resembles our pajamas. You know those old-fashioned flannel pajamas of pants and a button-down jacket? That’s what most women wear in bright, busy patterns. I hope that they are not flannel – I think it is synthetic.


Bringing incense to the temple, the red bracelet protects her from evil spirits.

We’re told that robes of monks are bright orange because this is the natural color of leaves on a tree, in the best part of their lives. Not light green when they start growing, not withered away brown but bright orange.


Spirit House with incense and food offerings

Most people here have a spirit house in front of their home – a small kind of temple on a stand. In it they burn incense and leave offering to please their house spirit – drinks, fruit, etc. Some houses have several. If a business man is successful, he buys more elaborate, larger spirit houses or statues.


From Red Wool Blessings to Rubber Plantations

IMG_0924We visited a new temple rather than an ancient one. Bright orange robes of monks and a shiny gold altar sparkled amid the green of the jungle. We gave some money to a monk and in return he tied a thin red wool bracelet to our left wrist, chanting prayers, blowing on the knots he made, we felt blessed with his well wishes. I certainly hoped his prayers would help me as we climbed about one thousands stone steps to the top of Kulen Mountain. Once at the top, we walked beautiful flat trails in the cool jungle. We heard many birds and met one person searching for bees so that he could locate a hive, smoke out the bees and collect the honey which would fetch him $25 per liter. IMG_0951We walked to a small jungle village with scrawny chickens and dusty dogs. Homes are all built on stilts, for the monsoon season, and have a lower platform where people sit or sleep. Upstairs the room has a roof and sleeping space. The “kitchen” is underneath the house or next to it – a simple coal or wood fire with a few pots. Clothes hang on a strong between the posts under the house. As I watch women on their hunches, stirring a pot on a fire, I think back to my kitchen at home. A world away. IMG_0959

We reached the entrance to a National Park and walked along a small river where, 800 years ago, people diverted the water to run from south to north. They paved the river bottom with one thousand ‘linga’s’. A linga is a spiritual symbol: a square carving is a female stone, a round one symbolizes male. IMG_0931

These linga’s, together with a god image and lotus motifs, still decorate the river bottom. Amazing that 800 years of water has not eroded them. The river is thought to be a gift from Buddha and, once you see the river’s source, this is not surprising. It simply comes bubbling out of the earth: a crystal clear spring in a small blue puddle that grows into a powerful river.


Downstream we saw many people who come out for the Sunday to rent a small wicker platform with a roof. They were all cooking food, having a picnic, playing games and splashing in the river.

Even further down stream we came to 3 enormous, 30 meter high waterfalls. I loved cooling off in the cold water. We are often the only westerners and little children call out “Hello!” waving enthusiastically.

The next day we walked through a rubber plantation. Rubber trees were planted here in long straight row. The trees have about a 4’ section of bark removed with a shallow line which ends in a small bowl catching the rubber, which is collected daily. But the price of rubber has dropped so it isn’t very viable right now.IMG_1057

Cambodian Wildlife

IMG_0905Every market in the major cities here offers baggy pants made from a cotton with elephant prints. They look very comfy but also make each tourist stand out since the locals don’t wear these pants. Elephants are depicted on bags and shirts and skirts and pillows. There are life size stone elephants at the entrances to temples. But no more wild elephants. In fact we have only seen one or two working elephants.

IMG_1384Tigers, too, and even rhinos we’re told, used to roam the jungles but no longer. We see plenty of dusty dogs sleeping along the roads and in the shade of roadside stands. Very skinny cows graze here and there in grassy fields. Apparently they are kept for milk and beef although we don’t see much meat on them. They are also kept for pulling wagons as are water buffalo. If someone owns a moto – a long handled motor that pulls a flat wagon – they can switch the wheel to blades that plow the fields. The wagon can also be pulled by the water buffalo.

IMG_1335We hear and see a fair number of birds, including white egrets.  And lots of monkeys hang around temples and in the jungle. IMG_0838

There seem to be plenty of fish in rivers and lakes to provide food and livelihoods. But it seems to us that a huge threat here to all wildlife is the unimaginable amount of plastic waste. Fields and roadsides are covered in plastic bags, plastic bottles, straws and pieces of styrofoam. The litter is found in the jungle and along all city streets. The river banks, the fields outside the towns, everything is a vast wasteland of plastic, at least near populated areas. As we travel north where there is less development, there is also less garbage. Here and there we see large bales of plastic and pop cans collected. We are told these are hauled to Vietnam for processing because Cambodia does not yet have the equipment to recycle. Unless they educate people about the harmful effects of this plastic waste, both wildlife and tourism might suffer.


We have visited remote villages where lots of pigs run underfoot – fat mammas followed by a whole slew of piglets.

Today we saw some pretty large spiders in the jungle and several geckos, one of which was molting. I didn’t know geckos molt like snakes. I have a pretty funny story to tell you: we walked out of our room in a courtyard hotel. Very close by there were loud, strange sounds – a cross between a barking dog or a honking duck, with the rhythm of a cat coughing up a hairball. It echoed and sounded alarming so I asked the girl at the desk what in the world that sound was. She waved nonchalantly, saying “Oh, just a spider.”

“Holy #$@%, a spider?! How big is it?”

She shrugged and spread her fingers, “Maybe the size of my hand. It weighs a kilo.”

I contemplated not leaving my room for the remainder of our stay. I knew Australia has killer spiders but now Cambodia too, apparently.

Then the girl scratch her head and added, “Oh, maybe not spider, maybe called gecko in English.”

My breath slowly returned. Geckos I can handle. Even if they bark like a duck/dog.


Road Side Stands and Cambodian Gourmet


Fish anyone?

It is amazing to see the variety of road side stands – that is, for us they are road side stands but here they are the shops. I love seeing how people use their specific skills or whatever resources their immediate area offers.

sticky riceIn a stretch of about one kilometre along the main road you might see stand after stand offering vegetables, or just coconuts and pineapples. The next stretch offers foot long length of bamboo, all standing up straight in baskets. At first I thought they were baskets of french baguettes (Cambodia was long under French occupation). But these hold steamed sticky rice with beans.

Someone sells chickens, live ones trying to scratch the dirt under the basket that holds them captive. Her neighbour offers fish for sale – small live catfish huddled in a plastic tub of water with a piece of wood on top to keep them from jumping out.

There are carvers of amazingly beautiful teakwood chairs and beds. Or people who build ornate stands with spirit houses on it. Each household needs one or more of these small altars so there must be a brisk business in spirit houses, often painted golden or orange.

IMG_0940Some women sell fabulous deep fried bananas or pineapple pastries.

A haircut costs one dollar, also in a roadside stand.

Perhaps one of the most innovative sellers is in the towns too far from a gas station. Everyone needs gasoline to drive their motorbike but it is too expensive to drive to the city. So someone goes to stock up and then sells it in small portions in empty pop bottles.


Not oil but gasoline for sale!

At one point I asked our tuk-tuk driver to stop at a roadside stand selling round green things. I wondered what they were so we bought one bundle. Turned out the be the fruit pods of the lotus flower which we saw growing along the roads in shallow water. The green pods have round holes. You break open the pod to take out a green ‘nut’. Then you break open this nut to reveal a white inside which you pop into your mouth. It didn’t have much flavour but is an interesting texture, somewhere between a berry and a nut.

IMG_0942We enjoy experiencing new Cambodian foods. We’ve had things like

  • fried bananas with papaya sauce
  • river fish amok, a stew with rice served in banana leaf
  • banana blossom salad
  • pineapple spring rolls
  • fried glass noodles

Our lovely cheerful guide Po asked me if I’d like to try some deep fried tarantula. Hhhmmm…. I have to think about that one. He also laughed as he told us about frog sausages. Or would you prefer some chopped up tree ants in fish paste? Dog is on the menu, too. We see tall lines with bunched up plastic sheets along the road. Their purpose? To catch crickets at night when a light attracts them to the plastic. Another deep fried Cambodian delicacy! You can wash it all down with rice wine with scorpions.

IMG_1039And just in case you think everything is fabulous: we had lunch at a very interesting hammock restaurant. I loved the experience. As we walked over, all we saw was enormous wooden platforms with hammocks. Someone came over and spread a large woven wicker mat for us on the wooden platform. We climbed up and swung in a hammock until a pot of soup with cut up chicken pieces arrived. I ate some fried morning glory and we had rice (no chopsticks in Cambodia). Then we relaxed in the hammocks again as families around us did the same. It was fun until something hit me, about a day later. Severe food poisoning. I really don’t know if it was here, or something else I ate but I was sick as a dog and couldn’t eat a thing for three days. Had to cut down on hiking as it left me drained of all energy. I am just grateful we brought plenty of medicine and gravol.


Fried morning glory

Angkor… whát?!

IMG_0695When we leave the hotel with our guide at 8 AM it is still relatively cool. By noon we will be sweating buckets… On our first day of hiking, we drive into the vast area of Angkor Wat. During the 12th century, this was the world’s largest religious area encompassing some 400 square KMs. There were many villages in the area and people would come to worship at the elaborate temples.

Many of the stone buildings have now collapsed and the jungle is winning the battle. Stone carvings surrender to tree roots, some trees towering a hundred meters on top of an old wall. IMG_0781

With the new technology of lidar (laser imaging radar) they are discovering many more old roads, walls and buildings hidden by jungle.

We entered the ancient capital area at the South Gate of Angkor Thom and hiked through beautiful shady forest on a pleasant sandy path. This major attraction may be inundated by tourists, but théy are not hiking! We walked around a tranquil lake and listened to birds. At one point we reached a busier gate where endless throngs of traffic arrived. Walking through the woods, we had no clue there were thousands of tourists nearby! IMG_0704

We walked through Bayon Temple and heard about the many stories depicted in the endless stone carvings around the temple walls. This is ancient storytelling at its best: facts and myths intertwine in stone, leaving a legacy of stories and morals about Hindu gods and Buddhist beliefs. Stories of battles won and battles lost, of a sea turning to milk, of snakes and gods. IMG_0742

We continued our walk on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the compound, for many kilometers until we arrived, via the Terrace of the Elephants, at Cambodia’s main attraction: Angkor Wat. It was constructed in the 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.

IMG_0825This most important temple towers 65 meters from ground level. Since the temple represents heaven, no buildings in the vast area of Siem Reap are allowed to be taller – a wonderful way to keep high rises from taking over the landscape.

All Cambodian Buddhist hope to visit this temple at some point, much like Muslims trekking to Mecca. The temple itself is gigantic and you can easily spend an entire day walking around, climbing the towers and watching the sun rise or set on this national landmark. My favourite moment was seeing flame orange robes of monks, as they walked by, against the blackened stone of the ancient temple. Like in other Buddhist countries most people serve their country as a priest for some time in their lives. This can be for a few days, for a month or for several years. While serving, the community provides for the monks, bringing them food. Unlike other countries, like Burma, I haven’t seen any girl monks/nuns yet.IMG_0804

Floating Villages and Lotus Farms


Siem Reap

When our bus arrived in Siem Reap, we took a tuk-tuk to our hotel. It turned out to be a lovely quiet oasis near the river in the heart if Siem Reap. This city is much, much bigger than I had imagined. But the hotel is very quiet, with a huge bed and a lovely little pool in a court yard. We strolled along the river, across one of the wooden foot bridges and to the old city market.

The main reason we ended up in Cambodia this time, is because we wanted an active holiday. Kees loves hiking and we like exploring new places. We wanted to go somewhere warm during the winter and sitting on a beach is not for us. One night Kees came across the website of Cambodia Cycling and Trekking. He found a good sounding program for a 15 day trek in which we would see much of the country, have some home stays or use small hotels, and walk about 100 KMs. The online responses were efficient. We read some good reviews of the company and so we booked our trek: http://cambodiacycling.com


Lotus Farm

This morning we were met by Po, the tour guide who will stay with us for the next two weeks. He speaks English quite well, although we need to concentrate. It is great to have a local of whom we can ask any question! He took us by tuk-tuk to Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in south-east Asia. Some 80,000 people live on the lake and a further three million depend on the lake. Water streams into the Tonlé Sap during rainy season and drains out during the dry season, which is now. There’s up to 10 meters difference so the trees we saw today are underwater in the fall!

Once we got to the lake, we boarded a long narrow wooden boat and made our way to the floating village called Chang Kneas. I had known about these villages for so long… showing kids in schools photos that others had taken. Now I finally was able to take my own photos and visit the floating school! I kept pinching myself at being here.


Floating School of Tonlé Sap

We climbed into the school and gave them books, pencils, stickers, pencil sharpeners AND my book that their school is in!! These kids come from Vietnamese families, living in very primitive floating houses anchored to the lake bottom with bamboo poles. They paddle to school in anything that floats: wooden boats or plastic tubs. We even saw kids paddling in styrofoam boxes, like old cool boxes…. IMG_0623

Education is free in Cambodia and all kids go to school according to our guide. Because of the number of students, they go to school either in the morning or in the afternoon. Instruction includes English starting in the lower grades. Can you image living in a small house that floats on a lake, paddling everywhere…. Toddlers learn to swim by age one!

I knew these lotus pods from dried flower arrangements. Here they are a delicacy. When fresh, you pop out the seeds and eat them. They taste a bit like chestnuts…


Wild Ride Across Cambodia


This was NOT our bus!

To get from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep in the northern part of the country, we had done some research on the internet. You can fly, but then you don’t see a thing. We opted for a bus: Giant Ibis busses take 6 hours to drive at a cost of 15.- p.p.. We had ordered our tickets online and were lucky that, a month ahead, we were able to get front row seats. Their website is easy to use: http://giantibis.com

A small bus picked us up in the morning and drove us to the bus ‘station’. Our front row seats were great. While most people dozed or read, we had a great view and did not have enough eyes to take it all in. IMG_0512

While the seats and the service were good, the driver drove like a bat out of hell and the bus’ tires were so bald that metal wire shone through the smooth rubber. The company advertises with wifi onboard but that did not work for us at all. The guide said it depends on the server provider of each area we drove through, but for us it did not seem to work anywhere. There is also no bathroom on board – a good thing to realize ahead of time. The bus stops once for a bathroom break and once for a half hour lunch break at a local open air restaurant. It’s a good idea to carry paper because there is none in more bathrooms here.IMG_0523

The road out of P.P. was lined with stalls. Some sold fruit, other sold buckets or chickens or clothing or TV’s. Little children walked barefooted along the road, dogs dozed in the red dust. Cambodia feels to us as a mixture of Laos and Myanmar. As we left the city behind us, green fields replaced shacks. We spotted the occasional very skinny cow. And the bus gathered speed. Even as we passed through towns and people crowded along the road, we must have done 120 KPH while passing kids, cows, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Honking at everything that moved, we managed to avoid hitting things although one deaf dog had a very narrow escape and I kept expecting a motorbike loading with entire families to swerve in the path of our speeding bus.


Us western woozies think of a motorbike as transportation for getting from A to B. Here it is obvious that owning a motorbike means you are well-to-do and that you need to help out friends and neighbors. In this one day alone we saw motorbikes transporting:

  • entire families including babies, toddlers and grandmothers.
  • a wicker cage with 6 live pigs
  • armloads bamboo, including one dragging 10 meter poles
  • large flats of potted mums
  • loads of bricks
  • a rack with steaming pots of food
  • enormous bales of rice piled high
  • large baskets, on either side, full of bananas or eggs
  • lumber
  • haybales
  • shoes for sale
  • piles of bottles of gasoline
  • terra cotta charcoal burners
  • large loads charcoal
  • fruits and snacks for sale
  • stacks of about 20 wooden tables (!)
  • teak carved bed frames
  • towering piles of mattresses
  • rolls of fencing
  • dried fish
  • firewood
  • coconuts and mangoes
  • tires
  • a cargo bike with a cow