You can’t understand a city without using its public transportation system.
For two countries sharing the same border, Cambodia and Thailand have much in common but just as many differences. Both are Buddhist countries overrun with motorcycles and street food vendors, both face growing pains related to tourism and populations. But Cambodia's pace feels much slower than Thailand's, with tuk-tuks and bicycles moving in slow motion along dusty roads compared to the furious din of motorbikes cutting through Bangkok's gritty air. And while Bangkok may be the world's hottest city, the heat in Cambodia's cities wasn't as oppressive thanks to more trees and breezes. Or Phnom Penh's Lexus SUV fetish. And then there is the inescapable fact that while Thais enjoyed peaceful life under King Bhumibol in the 1970s, Cambodians suffered at the hands of Pol Pot and the brutal Khmer Rouge. It was interesting to visit Cambodia and Thailand together so I could compare notes on the two, and here are nine urban observations I came away with. Enjoy!
1. Concrete buildings rule, older buildings not so much
After reading this great article on how Japan manages its older buildings, I suspected Southeast Asia may also feel apathetic about preserving its historic architecture. That, in addition to growing populations, rising tourism, a devastating genocide, and simple capitalism, mostly explains the rampant use of concrete in Thailand and Cambodia's urban areas (and even Vietnam). Unlike Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, Bangkok was littered with massive high-rise buildings, sucking up giant parcels of land once occupied by low-rise commercial buildings or private residences. I'm no fan of skyscrapers because they have a tendency to ruin vistas, add to urban heat islands, and create physical (and social) barriers, so I'll keep this in mind when planning future urban destinations.
2. There is very little infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists...
In Southeast Asia, motorbikes and cars/taxis are king; pedestrians are merely left to fend for themselves. With the exception of a few halfhearted attempts I saw to make cities easier to navigate on foot, I noticed very few adequate sidewalks (aka wide enough and well-maintained with curb cuts) and found myself walking amidst fast-moving traffic most of the time. Because there is so little infrastructure for people walking on the streets, vendors and pedestrians spill onto the busy roads. Unfortunately, officials are reacting to this phenomenon, known as 'the dire need for adequate sidewalks', and banning food vendors in attempt to reduce pedestrian congestion that (gasp!) might slow down vehicular traffic. (Clearly these officials don't grasp the concept of supply and demand, or by supplying more space for cars results in more demand for driving, aka congestion.) As for cyclists, in Bangkok I saw no protected bike lanes, or any signs of biking come to think of it. Outside of the city, and all over Cambodia, biking is much more common.
3. ...But somehow everything seems to flow seamlessly
Despite the craziness of buzzing motorbikes, sputtering tuk-tuks, and speeding taxis, walking with traffic on Thai and Cambodian streets felt fairly safe. Entering the largely ignored crosswalk near Bangkok's Chinatown, to get to the other side of the road pedestrians must thrust themselves into traffic and weave through slowly-approaching cars; while I felt a little uncomfortable doing this at first, I quickly realized that cars would stop for me and I felt more comfortable. Of course, I'm not advocating for running into traffic or ignoring traffic rules, I just think if people move about the city cautiously and aware of their surroundings, a bit of chaos is perfectly acceptable.
4. Trees make a huge difference
With the exception of smashing through a bedroom window during a storm, trees can do no wrong in my eyes. And since concrete is so ubiquitous in cities all over the world, especially in Thailand and Cambodia, keeping or adding trees not only keeps temperatures down and improves air quality but it makes a place so much more inviting. Just look at Angkor's Ta Prohm Temple, where elegant trees grow out of ancient ruins and roots reshape walls. Or city streets with and without natural protection from the elements. Again, trees can do no wrong.
5. Plastic, plastic, plastic
Thais are officially addicted to plastic bags, with more than 600,000 plastic bags used by this city of nine million people every day (that's 1.5 bags a person, a surprisingly low figure); Cambodians are unfortunately no different. While bags are cheap for vendors, their disposal costs local governments millions of dollars annually. And because Thailand is a major producer of plastics, plastics aren't going anywhere. Heck, I even saw special hybrid plastic bag handles for drinks to go in Asia (see photo below), so plastic packaging continues to expand in crazy ways. But while Thailand and Cambodia try to rectify the plastic bag issue, Styrofoam, plastic bottles, and over packaging are also caught up in Southeast Asia's love affair with plastics. And even more tragically, recycling seems non-existent with the exception of a few bins in Cambodia. Sigh.
6. Cheap & plentiful transit options
The fastest and cheapest way to get around Thailand and Cambodia's cities has to be by motorbike taxi. Although the drivers can go fast and helmets are optional, motorbike drivers are experts at weaving through stagnant traffic and rides are generally just a few dollars. Taxis are plentiful and cheap, with prices so low that you wonder how the drivers makes money. And of course the most fun and pet-friendly form of transit in Southeast Asia is bumping along in a tricked out tuk-tuk. (I didn't go so far to try a betjak/rickshaw in Cambodia, although those looked like a lot of fun.)
7. Unlimited (and limited) public transit in Bangkok
Bangkok has more than its fair share of local transit options, with boats, buses, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, taxis, a metro, and even truck beds serving the masses. I managed to try most of the city's transit offerings, and I found Bangkok's metro (MRT) to be interesting and the cleanest system I've ever used. First, single passes come in the form of special tokens and the line to get them can be long (a bit stressful for those in a rush). Then, elaborate door/wall systems keep trains out of view from riders, perhaps a safety precaution to prevent people from falling onto the tracks. Lastly, the metro system seems extensive but not extensive enough, so I rarely took the metro because the stops seemed so far from my final destination. To ride the metro, it costs about $.83, or 28 baht, fairly expensive considering a one-way train ticket to Ayutthaya is only 20 baht.
8. Traveling around the country
While I'm no expert on traveling throughout Southeast Asia after spending a month there, it was interesting to take the train to/from Bangkok and Ayutthaya and a private bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (sadly, it was the off season to take the Cambodian speedboat). Both trips proved that traveling in this area is reliable... and incredibly inexpensive, at $1.20 and $13 respectively. Yes, the air conditioning may be spotty on the bus and tickets/schedules aren't available online, but the scenery along the way more than makes up for it.
9. Religion & the urban landscape
Spirit houses resembling miniature shrines and temples auspiciously dot businesses, driveways, and yards all over Southeast Asia, and colorful temples act as magnets for locals and tourists alike. Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia what most Thais practice, a fact visitors quickly pick up on. In Thailand, the country is in mourning over the passing of Buddhist King Bhumibol last year (meaning images of him are everywhere) and a large park in downtown Bangkok near the Grand Palace is being turned into an elaborate funeral pyre and ceremony grounds for his final farewell on October 26. This temporary ceremonial ground is no joke, with a 165-foot cremation tower, nine spires, and elaborate pavilions decorated by master artists (read this great article for more information, and this bit of news made me laugh).
10. Pace of life
Compared to Europe and even the Americas, Asia has a decidedly faster pace of life. There is little need for patio furniture and happy hour menus, because people in Thailand and Cambodia seem to be too busy working and hustling to sit outside with a beverage and relax. Being Southeast Asia, food carts with iced coffee catered to tourists, while most locals seemed to forgo the luxury of store-bought coffee and down time.