6 Reasons to Leave the Expat Bubble and Live in a Khmer Village

You Will Have Realizations

In the village you will not have air conditioning and this means that mattresses are a menace to a good night’s sleep. Cambodians sleep on a straw mat on a wooden floor or cot. So say, one sweltering night, you try it and find it works a treat and you realize that there is little difference in the quality of your shut-eye that night or any other.

It turns out all that stuff about having the “perfect mattress” is hype. A mattress is one of many supposed essentials you can learn to do without and your life in the village becomes a process of freeing yourself from the conditioning years of advertising has inflicted on your brain.

Underserved Positions of Privilege

Cambodian society is very hierarchical. Everyone has a place and they stick to it with characteristic stoicism. As a guest and foreigner you are afforded quite high status in the village. Which means that chairs are quickly found, the best food is cooked and you will sit nearest the statue of the Buddha during communal meals – which is the Cambodian equivalent of being head of the table.

At first it’s a bit weird; you have all this respect but are not sure what you have done to earn it. But then, in village life, the idea of needing to earn a high position is moot. Some rare people rise through the ranks but places in the hierarchy are dished out at birth and stuck to like the old British class system or Indian Castes.

However, unlike the British Class system, there is no resentment/guilt complex around societal positions because Cambodia never flirted with the idea of being a meritocracy. So you can enjoy your privileged status responsibly.

You Will Really Get to Know Serey Mun’s Back Catalogue

It’s easy to dismiss Khmer pop music as substandard J-pop but one man defies such dismissal: Serey Mun. Effortlessly combining the smoothness of Peter Andre with the moves of a half-decent Jacko impersonator, Serey Mun has sung and rapped his way to the top.

Backed by a crew of obese, recorder-playing bouncers, Serey Mun is the best music you will hear in the village where any ceremony (and there are many) requires music to be blasted from a speaker stack that would make any Full Moon Party like a cake-sale for the Kington Choral Society.

You will learn to love his music through merciless repetition and your life will be enhanced in three key ways. Firstly, you get to listen to Srey Mun and he is genuinely good. Secondly, you are now officially “down with the kids” in Cambodia. Thirdly, you will be able to do the hand-flipping wedding dance-around-a-table better than ever.

Free Non-Snoozable Alarm Clock

While we’re on the subject of music played at a needlessly extreme volume we should talk about early rising. When you live without air conditioning, early rising is essential as it is impossible to do anything between the hours of 12-3pm. During these hours the wise man hides inside while fools gasp and collapse under the atomic sky.

Therefore, the earlier you get up the more you can get done. That’s if that pesky snooze button doesn’t interfere with your good intentions. But you don’t have to worry about that in the village. When ceremonies are being conducted, they play folk music at 5am very loud; this, combined with your lack of mattress, means that sleeping in is not a pleasant option and you can achieve that sleep pattern you always (ahem) dreamed of.

You Will Get Healthy

Once your guts have adjusted to the bacterial environment you will develop a stomach of iron – then you will find yourself actually feeling healthier and more energised from your food. Why? The massive lack of sugar and fat in the Khmer village diet. All the foods advertised in the West as “guilty pleasures” are not available hete so a healthy lifestyle is impossible to avoid. Their food is home-grown and organic and the ubiquitous soup aids digestion. Anxious label-reading and boring conversations about making the “right food choices” are absent because, well, what food choices?

In a world where you eat rice and soup 90% of the time, the ironic thing is you get healthier… after being roundly trounced by the local bacteria. Fear not though, bacterial stomach upsets can be dealt with by a local doctor. One such doctor prescribed me – a male – antibiotics that turned out to be designed for treating vaginal infections. It fixed my stomach infection fine and, I’m sure, if I had a vagina, it would be in excellent shape. Badly prescribed medication aside, living in the village will probably make you healthier.

Cultural Binge-Drinking

Cambodians have a saying which, badly translated, goes something like: “if you drink and are not drunk, why drink?” I hear it’s funnier if you speak Khmer. They have drinking rituals that would put any first year student to shame.

For instance, if you take a sip of your beer without first clinking your glass with everyone else, you are deemed “thirsty” and must down your drink immediately. If anyone wants to take a sip, they must clink glasses with everyone beforehand. Trouble is, when your glass is clinked you must also drink. The result is a very fast rate of drinking.

The situation is worsened by the fact that the beer cans are small and ice is added to the drink. It makes you think that you couldn’t possibly be that pissed and you probably can drive your moto home. You are wrong. It is time to get a sober friend to drive you home, bumping and hiccuping all the way.

Nathan Thompson

6 thoughts on “6 Reasons to Leave the Expat Bubble and Live in a Khmer Village

  1. Steve Reply

    Great article. But I have to ask, how do you spend your days? Do you work there? Why did you chose the village you went too?

  2. Nathan Reply

    Thinking of jumping ship, Steve? I’m a freelance writer and volunteer for an NGO (teaching english, computer skills, bit of organising etc.) which I why I ended up living in a village

  3. barman Reply

    as a true 440 patriot, I would be interested in some commentary about village lasses, and how they interact with barang that live in the village and in what interesting ways you are propositioned

  4. Daria Reply

    “The massive lack of sugar and fat in the Khmer village diet.” – So not true. Its crazy how much sugar and msg they use in every single dish they cook.

    (Trust me, have been living in a Khmer village now for about 8 months.)

  5. runner Reply

    the amount of sugar and fat I see in dishes sold on the streets of sihanoukville doesn’t make me think there’s any less palm sugar or vegetable oil in the villages. for months I ate breakfast in psar leu but I can’t stand the sugary diet anymore. the amount of sugar in rice noodles or short noodles and splashing it all down with sugar cane juice or iced coffee with sweet milk made my teeth hurt very badly. when I came home I had to brush teeth again. are barangs overreacting? no, just look how bad the teeth of locals are, you’ll even see kids with black teeth. and their parents surprisingly asking “you can brush child’s teeth?”.

    and I gained 9kg in a year. the khmer-style shop on the road where I buy rice and water even sells shortening. don’t know what that is but in europe we didn’t buy (or made on a farm) anything less unnatural than margerine, but here they seem to cook with it. oh, and the amount of coconut milk and its fat used…. I got the biggest shock when I weighed on a scale in a hospital. I thought it was broken.

    I tried to sleep on the floor on a japanese/korean style thin mattress but after two weeks of waking up more tired than rested and neck or back pain, I have decided to buy a supersoft italian mattress. if I can weld without eye protection and not get blind like khmer workers do, or sleep on the floor and feel well rested, that would be great but I cannot even drive anymore without polarized sunglasses or stuffing my ears with cotton to prevent hearing loss from wind noise. what? never seen a deaf person? I’ll protect myself cause when I’m 60 I don’t want someone to shout to have a conversation with me.

    and it would be great if the bubble wouldn’t exist at all. after two years an intelligent person like me still cannot speak khmer nor do I know who serey mun is. well the locals are partially responsible too. it’s not like they know the numbers of most popular streets in pp nor do they know who is a Cambodian space project. the mental differences are breathtaking. I open the gates every morning to go out, they think it’s for cows to come in and eat flowers in the garden. yes, I do believe the translations of my trusted friend. a worker comes asking what medication doctor prescribed for his infertility and I read it’s for vaginal infections. don’t know if he ever took the pills. I buy a big bike for strengh, durability and comfort on roads (cause scooters have a crappy suspension), but all I hear from khmers is “how much?”. isn’t anyone interested in horsepower or tubeless tire? nope, a big bike to them is all about showing off. you’ll see khmer kids on KTM race bikes with the rustiest chain you’ll ever see. they don’t mind if it snaps one day, it’s all about showing how rich they are. I spray it regularly with a chain wax and stay modest.

    Cambodia is good for a vacation but if you prefer walkable sidewalks, insulated houses that don’t make you sweaty in afternoon heat and restaurants with clean toilets, then it’s best to stay in your own paradise in the west or down under.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *