While we were visiting my parents before starting this trip, I picked up a new habit. I would eat fruit and vegetables without washing them first, claiming that the gunk on the outside would help prepare my immune system for foreign lands. I knew this was laughable, since US pesticides are much scarier than the rest of the world’s dirt or ants, but washing is a lot of work, and I’m lazy.
Now that we’re in Southeast Asia, we’re seeing sanitation standards that are very different from home:
- Ice: Each city has vendors that make ice somewhere, either using tap water or filtered/bottled water. (In Phnom Penh, the tap water is fine. In Siem Reap, it’s reddish and not so good for you.) This ice is formed in blocks about 5 feet long, with a 2 square foot face. They load these giant ice blocks directly onto flatbed trucks made out of rusty metal and stored outside beneath the shedding trees. And then they drive from vendor to vendor, delivering them. Delivery consists of sliding a block off the metal truck onto the ground and sliding it inside. All the while, this thing is melting, so maybe some of the ice that’s touched the gross stuff melts off, but I’m not positive.
- Bugs: There are bugs of various kinds everywhere, and that includes the food. If a glass of water has five or six ants swimming in it, that’s nothing. If a tabletop grill for meat and veggies has a few red ants running across it as you cook your food, well, that’s more protein, isn’t it? The cockroaches here are the size of hamsters back home, and while I haven’t seen them in my food, that’s pretty much the only place I haven’t seen them. (Easy to spot and remove before it makes it to me, I imagine.) Plus, Cambodians actually eat bugs on purpose in their meals.
- Rats: I have never before seen rats as large as the ones here, and I lived in NYC for three and a half years! They are so large that I thought one rat’s rustling was the sound a dog was making while rooting around an empty lot. We saw one scurrying across the floor at a fairly upscale restaurant (luckily, after our meal), and I am not kidding when I say I thought it was a cat at first. This is the stuff of nightmares, not unlike the ones little girls might have after seeing the Rat Prince in the Nutcracker for the first time. Except slimier.
- Hands: People aren’t too concerned with what they touch. For example, a man making me a slush touched the ground, the tapioca balls in my drink, his bicycle gears, money, and the tip of the straw I would drink from in a three-minute period.
- The Ground: People at the market will cut their chickens or fish directly on the dirty cement of the market, where fish juices have sloshed before. They do similar prep directly on the dirt ground, which is very dusty. (When I wash undergarments by hand, I squeeze out several rounds of dusty water from them. And believe me, we are not exposing our underwear to the elements.) That said, we often see people sweeping these surfaces, and many public places have brick or asphalt surfaces with not even a leaf on them.
- Utensils: I’ve seen people stick used utensils back in a holder on the table, or re-use straws for multiple customers. When a vendor sells multiple products or dishes, he’ll use the same knife for all of his cutting, without wiping it down in between. Barbecue places only give you one pair of tongs to use for both raw and cooked meat. Clearly, those salmonella warning commercials have not made it over here.
- Trash: The trash here gets spilled on the ground a lot, or into overflowing wooden baskets that are much more rare than trash cans anywhere in the US. By the end of a normal day, the ground is littered with discarded food, containers, and anything else we would chuck. The trucks come around some time during the night and pick it all up, and the process starts over again the next day. The collected trash is placed in ‘landfills’ in the countryside, which are unfortunately not formally run by anyone, so it’s more like moving the heap from the city to the country. (In the last week or so, signs have appeared all over Kampot with instructions on some kind of trash disposal, which seems like a step forward.) Once, I even saw a restaurant emptying an entire bag of (what I hope were) food scraps – followed by the plastic bag they had been in – directly into the local river, where tourists swim.
None of this is to say that things are dirty, per se. Most of the places we go don’t seem dirty, though some of that is habituation. But there is also some tangible proof: we’ve been in Cambodia for six weeks and have only had a few stomach aches. (Locals’ stomachs are trained from a young age.) Ultimately, it feels like Cambodians haven’t yet realized the limitations of resources (e.g. landfill space), and they’re not squeamish about a lot (e.g. food juice mixing).
But on the flip side, I find Americans overly squeamish. One of my favorite examples is how American moms fight millennia of human nature trying to keep their babies from putting a single dirty thing into their mouths – though experiments show that exposure to some dirt, etc. strengthens babies’ immune systems. Maybe you disagree, and that’s fine: we all have our own sanitation standards. Ours have definitely evolved since coming here.