Experiencing Local Cambodian Culture on Bamboo Island

bamboo island cambodiaLast week, I took my own advice about not wasting time and spent my last few days in Cambodia on Bamboo Island. I’m glad I did—it turned out to be the highlight of my trip, my first glimpse into Khmer (Cambodian) culture.

Bamboo Island is an hour off the coast, near the town of Sihanoukville (where I’ve been the last month). It’s a small island that you can cross in 10 minutes and has only two beaches. There isn’t a lot of snorkeling here. Only ten bungalows. There’s no Internet. No power except from 6pm to 11pm. No hot water. No fans. It’s just you, the beach, a good book, and a handful of other people.

I spent my days on the beach, did a freestyle poetry night, limboed, and caught up on my Family Guy. After a few stressful months of writing, it was just what I needed to relax.

But what I enjoyed most was my night with the Cambodians on the island. I had come to Bamboo with two friends because we knew the manager of the bungalows and he was having a “bungalow warming party” to celebrate his newly built bungalow. It would be him, the local staff, and us.

After the kitchen staff had served the tourists, they shut down early and we all went over to the new bungalow for food and drinks. I ate—and ate some more. They kept putting food on my plate and drinks in my hand. Curry dishes were poured onto my plate, filling my mouth with fire, spice, and unknown chicken parts. Savory BBQ fish was passed to me. There was no fillet—I just picked what I wanted off the bones. There were also grilled squid, shrimp, and vegetables.

As we ate, I was struck at how different cultures outside the West always seem to eat. Like much of the world, the locals in Cambodia enjoy communal eating. A tarp is put down, dishes are brought out and placed in the middle, and everyone sits crossed legged, eating and grabbing what they want. There’s no my plate or your plate. It’s a shared communal meal in a society where community is important.

bamboo island beach and volleyball

I was struck by not just how they ate, but what they ate as well. Like many poor, rural communities I’ve visited, nothing here is wasted. The squid is cooked whole, the shrimp head is eaten, and no part of that chicken goes unused. This isn’t unique to Cambodian culture; it happens throughout the world and is in stark contrast to the wastefulness of the West. Everything we eat is super sized and thrown away.

I could wax on poetically about this, divining great meaning about society, culture, and values from how people eat. I won’t though; instead I’ll simply say that sitting down, watching the Khmers eat, talk, laugh, and bring me into their community was a blissful and joyous experience, even if I wasn’t so keen on that ink-covered squid.

After dinner, when the plates were cleared away, the music was turned on, cranked up, and the locals performed traditional dancing. Khmer dancing involves a lot of slow hand movements, finger turning, and grace. Everyone was pushed up off the ground and my friends and I were made (taught) to dance. We followed the Cambodians as they gave us instructions; unable to speak Khmer, we simply learned by following along. There was no one there to say do “left, right, left” so we did our best to keep up. Editor’s note: I’m really bad at Khmer dancing.

sunset on bamboo island

As night continued, I learned some basic Khmer phrases, became buddies with one of the boatman, and did a shot of some really bad Khmer liquor with one of the cooks.

Thinking back on my time in Cambodia, I realized I hadn’t wasted it after all. Had I followed my original plans, I would have been on the island weeks ago, but I wouldn’t have come to know the manager, having only recently been introduced to him through my mainland friends. Even if there’d been another party, I wouldn’t have been invited. Getting stuck in Sihanoukville allowed me the chance to spend time with the locals in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

One of the questions on this month’s video Q&A (I do a video Q&A on Facebook—more reason to become a fan!) asks if people should spend added time in a destination to get to know it.

Unequivocally, yes.

the bamboo island party

Because my time on Bamboo reminded me of what I learned in Greece, Bangkok, Amsterdam, and countless other places where I got stuck: culture only shows itself over time.

As travelers, we move around a lot. We scratch surfaces but never peel back the layers of the onion. There’s only so much you can do in a few days. If you really want to understand a place on a deeper level, at some point, you need to just stop, stay put, and soak in your environment.

Even if it means missing other places you wanted to visit.

So I guess in that sense, the month that I spent locked in my room wasn’t a waste of time that cost me my trip to Laos and Malaysia. That month was part of the journey to getting to know Cambodia in more than a passing way.

And in that light, I leave Asia not sad at what I missed but happy at what I got to see.

For more Cambodia travel tips, check out my Cambodia travel guide and start planning your trip today.

  1. Wow! Great post. Cambodia is amazing, one of the first countries I suggest for people to visit. They’re so smiley and embracing.

    I think you might be onto something with the food analogy…

  2. Sagar

    “As travelers, we move around a lot. We scratch surfaces but never peel back the layers of the local onion. There’s only so much you can do in a few days. If you really want to understand a place or life on a deeper level, at some point, you need to just stop, stay put, and soak in your environment.”

    Amen to this! I always scratch my head when people say that traveling is over-rated and it does not change a person for the better. Yes, if you go to Paris for a week and spend all your time in the local McDonalds and visiting tourist traps then travel will not change you. On the other hand if you go to Bangkok for a month, befriend some of the locals, eat the local cuisine, try to learn the language then travel will make you a better person. If you want travel to change you then don’t be a tourist.

  3. Seems awesome, Matt. The idea of travelling to Cambodia actually popped into my head yesterday and here your great post appears. Maybe it’s a sign?

  4. That sounds amazingly relaxing! I also really like how you look at the food–I’m currently living in Korea, and sometimes I get grossed out by the parts of the animal that end up on the table. I need to remember that this is my wasteful Western mindset, and that most people in the world have no problem with shrimp heads! Thanks for a great read :)

  5. So true – you cannot see everything, and go deep everywhere. Travel slower, see fewer places, and take (and give!) what you can while you are there. Work hard to get everything out of it.

    Shawna and I are in the ‘last half’ of our own RTW journey, and with so many options out there we know we cannot see it all…not even close. And so we have decided that we will simply make those tough decisions, and really get the most out of one or two countries as opposed to flying through 6 or 7.

  6. Interesting point Matt. I’ve a small amount of experience of both types of travel and I feel that, more often, it’s best to keep moving. I’ve stuck around in Kos, San Francisco and Montreal (about a month in each) with the hope of getting a feel for the place and becoming a bit more of a local. But it’s difficult – I find it’s still hard to meet and connect with locals in that amount of time and there are a lot of boring days that could have been interesting days out on the road.

    Also, sometimes when you stick around to see what a place is like for a local, you realise that you went travelling to get away from ‘life as a local’ – the daily grind has its similarities the world over. I did gain experiences and insights in these places that couldn’t be had in just a few days, but a month’s travel time can be a high price to pay for those experiences.

    That said, it is great to get under the skin of a place and see what’s beyond the tourist facade. I think the ideal scenario might be if you already happen to have a local friend that lives where you’re going. Then most places will open up to you more, even in a day or two, than they ever would have in a month or two on your own (or with other tourists).

  7. Colleen

    Really good post. That, for me, is the heart of travel. Next time I get to hit the road I plan to travel s l o w l y. Less countries, more country.

  8. Carole

    I was wondering if anyone can go there and how we contact the people in charge. I will be there next week and I would like to maybe head to this island paradise.


    • NomadicMatt

      All you need to do is show up in Sihanoukville and book your ferry ticket! Say Hi to Brian, Jamie, Sofia, and Vida for me! (Also head to JJs and Sihanoukville and send the staff my regards. Ask for Tom, Alice, or Anna)

  9. Sounds like such a great place to hang out. I agree with you on the wastefulness of Western countries when it comes to food. Imagine how many more people would be fed with each animal if we weren’t so picky about eating the “good bits”.
    Great photos by the way! Cambodia looks so picturesque.

  10. Christine

    My good friend is travelling to Cambodia for extended holiday with her brother who lives there. What British gift would be appreciated by the locals, do you think? Something light, easy to pack? Your advice appreciated. Thanks

  11. KJ.Morrow

    Great story! I have spent much time in SE Asia, mostly in Thailand and Viet Nam. Next week I leave for Bangkok and immediately return to Issan to visit my “Thai family” in a small village, as I do at least twice a year.
    3 or 4 days with these wonderful people will set the tone for the following 2 weeks as I travel South, exploring Cambodia for the first time. Downshifting and taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and culture is the only way to enjoy your time and guarantee an amazing experience in SE Asia.
    My final destination is Sihanoukville, before heading back to Phnom Penh for a flights back to BKK and to Beijing, where I live and work. I hope my trip ends with that same peaceful easy feeling that it will start with in Thailand and that you felt on Bamboo Island.

  12. Baker

    Was there surfing there? Also the name of the bungalows? Heading there tomorrow for my last week in Cambodia and a little underprepared… Would really like to surf, dive, snorkel and relax… Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  13. Kendra

    Bamboo island sounded like a perfect get away, although now in March of 2015, it is now closed and only open to construction workers as they are supposedly building more bungalows, guest houses, and possibly hotels!
    It’s so sad to see these islands being sold and developed.

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