What to wear in Siem Reap.

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Take it from me. Here’s one reason why western visitors might wear long trousers – the glaring white-leg effect.

Cambodia is quickly embracing the 21st Century and very accepting of tourists however it is still a conservative nation with strong beliefs about modesty. So think twice before packing your suitcase. The question isn’t just: what will be weather appropriate, but what’s culturally appropriate.

Men.  For general touring about the temples and daytime walking around town, shorts are more comfortable than long trousers, but be careful about insect bites (those tiger mosquitos pack a punch) and sunburn.  Most local guys wear trousers rather than shorts. At night, or at any place remotely formal (a temple, visiting a home, a business meeting) shorts are really not appropriate, though locals are too polite to comment. It may pay to pack not just shorts and jeans, but also a slightly conservative pair of trousers that don’t scream “cargo pants.”

T-shirts are commonly worn by locals and visitors but again for any occasion remotely formal or where showing respect is required, locals will wear long or short sleeved button-up shirts.

Women. Many female tourists react to the hot temperatures by going around in spaghetti-strapped tops. These are considered risque or simply disrespectful and locals are frankly offended by such disrespect – though again will generally be too polite to comment. In the countryside, or when visiting temples or people’s homes, wear a t-shirt at least, or blouse. Cover your shoulders.

Skirts or jeans? Again, in more formal settings or when you are visiting a home or temple, think “somewhat conservative” and wear a dress or skirt. When out doing day trips by tuk tuk, then you can dress more casually.

The next consideration is temperature. With temperatures typically in the low to middle 30s, cotton trumps synthetics, but be prepared to have two or even three changes a day. Typical strategy: a morning outfit, come back to the guest house at midday, have a shower, get changed and get ready for the afternoon. That will mean lots of changes of clothes on a two week journey, so consider your laundry needs. Local services clean laundry at $1 per kilo of laundry (next day delivery) or be prepared to wash undies and t-shirts in the sink at your guest house room.

Footwear.  TEVA open sandals are ideal for exploring temples in: and their slip-on/slip-off quality is handy when you need to take shoes off at the door.  For the same reason, high-top sneakers can be a real pain. (Same at the airport.)  For more formal occasions (business meeting, restaurant etc) then normal closed shoes are more idea. Rubber flip-flops are good for wearing inside your hotel/ guest house room if you don’t like going barefoot.  In wet seasons it pays to have more than one set of footwear, just in case the TEVAs end up getting super soggy (or muddy) while out exploring.

Summary:  Do think about culture. After several journeys to Siem Reap, this writer has heard many times from locals how they really feel about immodest dress. It may suit the tropical climate, for sure, but it reflects poorly on the sensitivity of the wearer. Show respect.

For more travel advice – if you’re thinking of volunteering at an NGO.

Teaching in Cambodia is different, different – but same.

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Monks in the classroom – they add another dimension to the Cambodian teaching experience.

Yesterday Savong sent me a dozen lovely photos taken recently at the school near Siem Reap.  These photos reminded me of the cultural collisions that subtly occur when a volunteer like me stands up in the Cambodian classroom.

At first, (for 45 seconds) culture shock threatens to overwhelm the experience, but as soon as you start asking questions as well as answering questions from the students, the ice is broken. For any volunteer the first few minutes are spent answering questions about your age, your family, your marital status and your country. I pointed to New Zealand on a map, last time I was in the classroom, and told the students that I swam all the way to Cambodia. There’s an international look on young people – a kind of polite “aww bullshit” expression which I recognised, and at once the ice was broken and the students knew not to take anything I said at face value.

There are little cultural tips about teaching here. Don’t point at students with your forefinger (as my mum always told me: it’s rude to point), and take your shoes off at the door.  Again, last time I was there I took off my sandals and this revealed that one of my feet is missing, thanks to a wayward lawnmower, two toes. A girl in the front row nudged her classmate. “Landmine,” I heard her whisper. I felt a bit humbled, because my accident was such a first world problem by comparison. Later when students asked me about my foot I explained that “this big tiger had attacked me.”  Again I got that familiar “aww bullshit!” look.  I clearly lack credibility.

As the photo indicates, there are likely to be monks in the classroom also, and at Savong’s school this is likely because of the local monastery 1km away at the Rolous temple, site of the first of the Angkor temples, almost 1,000 years old. Many of the monks are teenagers, though some are older guys.

At first I wasn’t sure how to relate to them. One expects a kind of Zen-ness about the demeanour, but actually they proved to be just a group of teenage boys: conspicuously sitting in the back row (like I used to do at that age) and not above writing on their desks. For female volunteers there is simply the added instruction: don’t physically contact a monk – either by shaking their hand, or – worse – patting their head. 

After a few minutes in the classroom I’m overwhelmed by the sense that really, this is the same as teaching in a local school. A few years back I wrote a young adult fiction novel, The Whole of the Moon, and this occasioned me to to visit several dozen schools in New Zealand to discuss writing and offer students encouragement. Really those classes were the same as the Cambodian classes. Smart girls sit up the front and whisper. Bad boys sit at the back, legs kicking, eyes gazing out the window.  Students everywhere laugh at the same jokes and take especial delight in proving the teacher wrong.

In Cambodia I taught one class hangman, the word game, and they took special pride in beating the gallows, two guesses away from their fateful end. My word was a biggie: VOLLEYBALL but the moment one boy asked the letter “L” the whole class could smell the teacher’s doom.  They jeered knowingly.

Later on I felt awful for another reason. Was “hangman” a little too close to the Pol Pot experience? Was it culturally insensitive?  Not to worry, Savong assured me. In Cambodia they have a similar word game where you draw steps that, lead, step, by, fateful, step, to, a, crocodile. Snap snap.

I miss these students, and I can’t wait to swim over to Cambodia once more.