Keeping Cool in Cambodia: Sweating in Southeast Asia

Spoiler alert: I failed at this entirely.

Cambodia was so many wonderful things. It was beautiful, all flat fields full of sharply-angled cows and towering palm trees. It was chaotic, with road rules similar to Laos (aka none) but at much higher speeds. It was heart-breaking in its poverty, with beggars in the streets and small children begging you to buy things at the temples.

And it was one of the friendliest places I’ve been, with smiles and giggles from everyone and little kids waving to you from passing scooters (sometimes they were passengers but occasionally they were the drivers, which was a vibe).

A solo female traveler sitting and smiling outside of a temple at Angkor Wat in Siem Riep, Cambodia.
Me, sweaty but blissful at an Angkor temple

But insistently, constantly, blindingly, it was hot. It was the hottest place I’ve ever been, hotter then my old unairconditioned apartment in a Boston heatwave. Hotter than a guy rolling on molly all day at Coachella (those dudes are very sweaty).

It was so hot and the sun was so strong that I got sunburned in the SHADE. Even for my pale ass, that is a first.

And yes, most of Southeast Asia is varying degrees of very hot. Right now I write this from Bangkok, which has a sweltering humidity that draws sweat beads onto my upper lip at 9 am in the shade while doing nothing more strenuous than lifting a spoonful of cool yogurt to my mouth and chatting to a friendly Australian woman.

Hot child in the cities

But in Cambodia, there’s no escaping the heat.

My first night in Phnom Penh, my air conditioning in my room didn’t work, and none of the windows in my fanless room opened. It was like sleeping inside of someone’s mouth. After much ado, it worked reasonably well for the following two nights, but all our other activities at the yoga retreat were outside, and thus I sweated through breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two yoga sessions a day.

In Siem Reap, it was about two degrees cooler but my whole life was hotter. I decided to economize and take the fan-only room at my guest for $9 per night, instead of splashing out for the AC room for an extra $13 (hey, my daily budget is only $50 and Angkor Wat is expensive!).

Hot take: take the AC or you’ll be hot AF.

And like most of Southeast Asia, life takes place outside in Siem Reap. Eating, socializing, drinking coffee, doing yoga, even getting around takes place by tuktuk (a little cart pulled by a motorbike) so you have no brief respite. No malls or 7/11s to dash into for a break. Just constant, sweaty heat that I swear has weight and thickness to it, like it is its own entity.

My Angkor Wat visit, for example, was incredible.

Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia at sunrise.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat, the main temple in the huge complex.

It’s been a lifelong dream of mine and it was even more beautiful than I expected. And at that point, it was also the sweatiest I’d ever been in my life.

That was, until crossing the Cambodia-Thailand border at Poi Pet.

Thanks to the smiling but exquisitely cruel sluggishness of the Thai border officials (this border is notoriously awful for insane wait times) my bus mates and I stood for three hours in the peak of the Cambodian heat in line with no hope of water or toilets and only the briefest movement of air from the paltry fans. In a room full of hundreds of people with exactly one open window, I’ve never come so close to fainting in my life.

Feeling the heat

This is not all to whinge about being hot in the tropics (quelle surprise!) or to bemoan the lack of AC in one of the poorest countries in the world.

I actually didn’t quite realize how much of my time in Cambodia was spent sweating until I headed to a mall in Bangkok today and realized about an hour into my visit that I felt… odd. Good. Different.


So I spent five full hours soaking up that glorious AC on one of Bangkok’s hottest winter days, looking at my friends’ Insta stories of today’s snowfall in Boston and feeling like a new woman.

I have a new-found gratitude for so many small comforts these days: a non-squat toilet, a comfy bunkbed, a very tall iced coffee in a shady corner. And I am grateful for this gratitude, for being present and so in tune with my body, for the shock of feeling different which is after all the beauty of travel.

And for the heavenly aircon in a 7/11, now one of my favorite feelings in the world.

More Southeast Asia posts

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