“Will eating this make me sick?”
It’s a question that rarely comes to mind.
I gladly run the gauntlet when it comes to eating questionable food, and amazingly enough, I have only contracted a food born illness twice. Once was off of seafood paella in Barcelona the night before flying back to DC (the plane ride home was about as much fun as you can imagine…). The second time was either off a Japanese buffet in Halong Bay, Vietnam or something from the Cruise ship salad bar that had me hurling on Christmas and landed me in isolation on the ship for 2 days.
Looking at the meals I have gladly ingested from shady street food vendors in dirty areas, I’m quite frankly amazed by my impressive record.
Given my usual lack of concern as to what the sanitary conditions of the food might be, when I do have to think twice about consuming something, you know it’s bad. And that’s exactly how I felt in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
A quick google search of this Cambodian city will reveal beautiful beaches and stunning resorts, and it’s a great example of why you shouldn’t always trust the internet. Despite the snapshots of picture perfect pristine beaches, Sihanoukville is a dirty, impoverished city where you can expect to be hounded by kids wanting a dollar and tour guides shoving maps in your face offering tuk tuk rides. The air reeks of garbage, trash is splayed out everywhere, and there’s no doubt that you are in a 3rd world country.
Chinese investors have been pumping billions into Cambodia given the cheap land, cheap labor, relaxed gambling and money laundering laws, and a tax free economic zone agreement. The Cambodian government has welcomed them with open arms at the prospect of bringing development and wealth to the country. Sihanoukville became a target for said investors in 2016, and they have been buying up land, tearing the city down, and building up massive resorts and casinos to create a Chinese vacation destination.
While Cambodian construction workers and property owners have benefitted from the influx of wealth, the majority of the money is staying within the growing Chinese community. The Chinese stick to being served by the Chinese, from food, to taxi drivers, to hostesses, and racial divides are blaringly evident. Cambodians are facing a jump in the cost of living coupled with lost jobs, and the government isn’t equipped to handle the incurred issues; an impoverished community is being further driven into the ground.
On this past trip, all the streets were torn up, making the entire city look as though it was hit by a bomb. Jeremy and I hired a Tuk Tuk to do a beach crawl of sorts, and it was quite a bumpy ride as we hit countless potholes and were blinded from dirt blown up by passing cars. I posed of the question of which is worse for your lungs, smoking a pack of cigarettes or riding around on a Tuk Tuk in Sihanoukville for 4 hours.
Our driver informed us that some investors have pulled out given changes in online gambling laws. The vision of beautiful beach resorts with infinity pools, shopping, spas, and casinos is nicely presented on billboards in front of metal frames resembling a building and heaps of dirt and garbage.
We hit five sub-par beaches, and at the final one, our growling stomachs were a bit louder than questioning minds as we walked the strip of seafood restaurants. There were tanks of slow moving fish, trash on the ground, flies buzzing about, and a few Chinese groups lounging around eating food and drinking beer. A few “pancakes” went by, making it seem like a safer choice than seafood hotpot or chicken stir fry. Ten minutes later and we were served a thin, omelet-like pancake stuffed with a seasoned meat mixture alongside a bowl of greens and a sauce. We ate to the music of various groups of Cambodians singing Karaoke, and were taken aback by how good it actually was. Once the plate was empty, I asked, “so how long does it take for food poisoning to settle?”
I am happy to report we were both fine.
Sihanoukville, Cambodia is a shock to the system, and that why I love it. Seeing three young girls in school uniforms piled onto a motor scooter riding through the filth offers a grounding perspective on my own life. My “problems” are trivial in the grand scheme of things. What a luxury it is to worry about what type of health insurance I should get, when I’ll have time to get to the grocery store, and whether I want to live on the East or West Coast. The amazing thing is that most of the people I have encountered in Sihanoukville seem to be relatively happy, and don’t appear to be nearly as miserable as 75% of the people I see in New York City every day.
The beauty of travel is experiencing cultures and ideas that make you rethink your own life, opinions, and choices. Would I want to live in Sihanouville? Nope! But am I happy to have been there? 100%. The best part? I didn’t get food poisoning after all.