Cultural Differences in Health

May 7, 2009

Hailing from a city nicknamed “Winterpeg” for its frigidly cold weather, it is with great pleasure that I have been soaking up the heat here in Cambodia. My body hasn’t really had time to acclimatize (which I think is partly why I became so ill), but I adore the temperature regardless!

Living in Phnom Penh has allowed me to observe what I believe to be a few crucial elements of lifestyle healthcare that I sorely lack back in Canada. I’m used to a fairly dry climate, and thus I typically need to reapply moisturizer several times a day to prevent my skin from resembling the cracked features of a statue at Angkor Wat. Since arriving in this gorgeous country I think I’ve moisturized maybe twice, and that was out of habit rather than necessity. The humidity is nature’s beauty product.

The Canadian cold also has the result that I take very hot showers. The steamy, skin-turns-red-from-heat type of showers (oh- that could be why I need to have a bottle of moisturizer glued to my hand at all times). I know that those kinds of super hot showers are not healthy and that they are terrible for the skin, but I take them anyway to combat the cold in winter (it snowed just a few weeks ago in Winnipeg, if that helps put it into perspective). With the days so hot in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I’ve been taking cold showers just to cool off. It’s refreshing, it’s good for the skin, it’s good for the hair, and it saves on hot water. Win-win all around!

As we drove the 4.5 hour commute from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap so that we could tour the temples for a couple days, we got a fantastic view of the countryside along the way. The farmers are tough people! They’re out ploughing rice paddies and strapping life, full-grown pigs on the backs of their motos to take to the market as part of their everyday life. That’s lifestyle activity and productive work. No gyms required.

I was also really fascinated by how skinny the cows are with ribs visibly showing. They don’t look that healthy, but when I think about a lot of the cows I’ve seen in Canada, just how healthy are they? We always have these gigantic barrels of a cow, surviving on a diet of goodness knows what. The beef here might be a little tough and chewy, but it is super lean and I find it really tasty. Moreover, the meat is all locally grown and fresh to the day.

Staying trim and fit is also possible (and essential, with all of the physical labor that needs to be done) in a climate that makes it too hot to eat. Loving food as much as I do, I was eating exorbitant amounts in Winnipeg. I’d actively try to limit how much I ate because my portion sizes were getting completely out of hand, but I was having a lot of difficulty controlling it. I don’t have to tell myself to stop, now, because it really is far too hot to overeat. The comparison would lead me to think that I was eating so much to try to stay warm. Definitely not applicable these days! The only downside to this heat is that because I personally am not making my living through physical labour, it’s also almost too hot to move very much! I’m still logging my minimum 10,000 steps on the pedometer each day but now it’s quite a task to accomplish (still going strong on the Burpee Challenge though ;)).

As far as food goes, even though there’s still some fried food here, it’s a hell of a lot healthier than our version of fried in Western countries because most of the stuff here is natural and real food. Some of the dishes here are a little questionable to Western eyes, but I’ll take unusual dishes any day over the processed stuff and fast food. Speaking of which, I met a young guy about my age last week from one of the villages near Phnom Penh, and he had no idea what McDonald’s is. They’ve only got a couple of fast food restaurants in Cambodia and no McDonald’s at all.

I’m in paradise.


  1. Sounds like a great place to live! except for the heat of course :).

  2. Really interesting observations and comparisons, sounds like in intriguing place! I often feel the same way about the cows in Brazil and I do agree about the fried foods. There are a ton in southern Brazil, but they are fixed old school style and generally there are a lot less additives. Unfortunately, McDonald’s has made it to the town we live in. 😦

  3. I wonder if people in the tropics are generally thinner than people in colder climates?

    My sister in law lives in Taiwan and she says that the food is so much healthier there than here. Mostly because it’s so fresh, but also because they don’t process their foods so heavily.

    I’m really enjoying your posts about your experiences in Cambodia.

  4. Such an interesting post! I think the part about the cows is a really interesting observation. What DO we feed cows?

  5. We feed our cows hay in the winter and grass in the summer. And grain (oats or barley, usually). In the States, they are often fed corn.
    One thing to remember is that they have different breeds of cows in Cambodia than we have here.
    (and perhaps, just perhaps, the heat there affects the cows’ appetites, too?)

  6. Interesting comparisons…much like the difference in climate here, winter to summer. In the summer, I have trouble getting enough calories in, and in the winter, I have to watch those portion sizes, too!

  7. I’m really enjoying your posts from this trip!

    By the way, my 35 year old horse is very trim! I feel that and his good breeding have kept him kicking for all these years 🙂

    When I lived in France, there was ONE McDonald’s in the city. (He had a farm 🙂

  8. Thanks for your posts – very interesting to hear from other parts of the world! I too tend to eat less in the summer, maybe because I tend to be outside enjoying the weather.

  9. “but I’ll take unusual dishes any day over the processed stuff and fast food.” I’m so with you on this one, Sagan! It sounds like you are having a great time and learning a lot!

  10. Loving these posts!

  11. Hanlie- I’m sure that people in warmer climates tend to be thinner than those in colder ones.

    Bag Lady- we know that you treat your cows exceptionally well! And yeah, they do seem to be different breeds; you’re right, that could make a difference. Didn’t think about how their appetites might be affected too!

    Dr J- I bet your horse gets excellent care 🙂

  12. Sounds like you are having a great time, ahhh that heat, I love it too.

  13. it’s eye-opening for sure! but i like things that make me think 🙂 sounds like you’re having a wonderful time!! hope you’re feeling better, too!

  14. Reminds me a bit of Maui, though a lot less commercialized. When I visit Hawaii I never use lotion; conversely, where I live now I am constantly complaining of dry skin. I’m like you, I’d much rather have the naturally moist skin.


  15. INTERESTING and I was so glad to see the Bag Lady responded as well.

    I wonder if that breed of cow is naturally skinnier??

  16. Not that I’m obsessing or anything, but there are over 800 different recognized breeds of cattle in the world, falling into several different sub-categories.
    There are two main types – those bred for hot climates (Bos indicus) and those bred for cooler climates (Bos taurus). The cattle bred for hot climates have humps on their shoulders, large dewlaps, droopy ears and MORE SWEAT GLANDS than taurine cattle.

    Just thought you should know. Not that I’m obsessing or anything.

  17. Are you feeling better? Hope you are!!
    You know, I don’t like beef here, I don’t like the way it tastes and I’m convinced it comes from the feeding of the cows. Maybe they rely too much on processed or not-fresh foods as a consequence of the winter. I don’t know what it is, but all I know is that back in my tropical home, the cows were skinnnier but the beef was SO much tastier. Free-grazing cows are the way to go!
    It snowed in Calgary last week… no comment!

  18. Interesting observations, Sagan, but coming from the American South, where it is HOT and very humid with lots of fresh food available at least 3 seasons of the year, I think that some of your observations are cultural. Certainly the South still has a problem with obesity, though I do wonder if that was the case when people were required to be outside working the land more – required to be active to live.

  19. I think most cows are fed grains, they should be eating grass (thus the funky digestive system). It’s actually a very unhealthy system, and that’s why they get fed so many antibiotics (and poot so much methane). If you can get grass-fed beef (very expensive around here), it’s much healthier, though personally I don’t like the taste sometimes.

    When I go visit the parents in Colorado, I need both chapstick and moisturizer, neither of which are familiar to me. I always figured it was the altitude, but it’s probably also the dryness.

    I’m glad you got your tummy bug under control, I hear it’s a familiar experience with people exposed to new bacteria.

  20. Bag Lady- ever the wealth of information! Thanks so much. That’s really interesting. Who’d have thought?

    Marta- am feeling much better, thanks! I agree about the free-grazing cattle. And apparently it snowed in Winnipeg just a couple days ago too- what’s going on with Canadian weather?!

    Cathy- excellent point. Thanks for your input!

  21. A year or so ago, there was a traveling petting zoo that visited the day-care center in our building. One of the cows was skinny, with its ribs showing (much like the ones you describe, I think). A few of us asked about its health. The owners assured us that they get that question all the time but the cow was perfectly healthy. It was the breed, which was naturally skinny like that. Plus, the cow was used for milk, not meat, so it didn’t need to be fattened, I think?

  22. That was really, really interesting. So what should/can we do differently for those of us that live in a foolish climate?

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