Cambodia or Thailand? Comparing expat destinationsNovember 18, 2014
In the wake of Thailand’s most recent coup d’état, the last few months have brought news that the new military regime would begin cracking down on the country’s liberal visa laws in an effort to rid the place of its ribald and unwanted riffraff: illegal workers, wanted criminals, and Australians. Thai visa regulations allow foreigners from visa-free states to enter the country, stay for 30 days, and then make a border-run to obtain a new 30 day exemption. Getting oneself acclimated with the inscrutable visa rules in Thailand can be a complex, convoluted and expensive ordeal. Indeed, one of the reasons I chose to live in Cambodia over Thailand was the relative ease of Cambodia’s visa process.
Needless to say, one consequence of Thailand’s tightening visa laws discussed at length on the Khmer440 is the potential for some of Thailand’s farang to become Cambodia’s barang. There will doubtless be many apprehensive and funereal individuals in the Land of Smiles who may chance upon this article seeking some measure of guidance on whether to relocate to Cambodia. This article is not meant to be a didactic pontification on which country is “better” to live in. But being someone who has lived and worked in both Thailand and Cambodia for extended periods of time, I’d like to offer a pertinent juxtaposition on some of the most relevant categories by which to compare these two countries and, particularly, the two capital cities.
Food: Thailand beats Cambodia
I’m not a food critic: I just pretend to be one on Khmer440. I grew up in a Sicilian household in New York, and it wasn’t until I left for college that I discovered alternative food options to eggplant carbonara, pasta, and pizza.
Thai food is a world-renowned cuisine, pleasing on the palate both for those who enjoy extreme spiciness and those who do not. The care put into the art of cooking distinguishes Thai dishes from the Khmer versions of very similar concoctions. I am always impressed with the variety of uses of coconut milk and peanuts when I find myself eating in Thailand, and the food you can buy from street stalls in Bangkok can rival some of the best kitchens in Manhattan. Moreover, northern Thai food, originating from the Lanna culture, offers a slightly different blend of curries and spices that provides additional diversity.
The one thing I personally dislike about Thai food is that it never leaves me feeling full; after I savage a bowl of tom yum soup, I feel like this main dish was just the entrée to something much more satisfying. When I finish my dinner, I want to feel guilty about the calories I’ve ingested, my prim carnality temporarily tossed out the window.
Khmer food is just lacking that extra special something which I’m not sure is even possible to articular but, rather, something to try yourself. It’s not Cambodia’s fault their food is as bland as it is – many of the country’s recipes, some influenced by French cooking techniques, were lost during the genocide of the late 1970s.
There are some unique things to sample in Cambodia: the malodorous prohok, Cambodia’s national cheese dish which is actually quite tasty, the fulsome baby duck embryo eggs hawked on the street by Khmer men armed with a mobile heater attached to a motorbike and a loudspeaker, and fried spiders seasoned with something akin to the packaged powder you find in a box of Rice-A-Roni. Did I say Khmer food was boring? Maybe I take that back.
Cost of living: Cambodia beats Thailand
There is no doubt that most things are cheaper in Cambodia than in Thailand. Monthly rent costs, commodities at the local markets, beer, and getting appliances repaired are a few examples of this. Street food, eating in a nice restaurant, a cup of coffee in a café, and bar fines are roughly equal. Transportation, while significantly easier in Cambodia due to the sheer size, mass, and density of Bangkok, is also about the same price.
Traffic: Cambodia beats Thailand
I am not saying that Bangkok’s traffic is better to sit in than Phnom Penh’s. Thailand “wins” this dubious category despite having an impressively big and cheap mass transit system encompassing the streets, the air, and the underground. That notwithstanding, I can count on one hand the urban metropolises I have been to where one had to plan their daily activities around the oppressive mass of humanity that passes for a national grid. Bangkok, in my experience, ranks somewhere between Jakarta and Mexico City. Yes, it’s that bad.
This isn’t to suggest that Phnom Penh doesn’t have its own traffic issues. It does, and they are worthy of an entire article in themselves.
Shopping and availability of goods: Thailand beats Cambodia
While things may be cheaper in Cambodia, there is a significant contrast between the infrastructure of the two countries, with Thailand scoring a major edge. The haute couture scene is a major economic engine in Thailand driven by an expanding middle class and mainstream transnational corporations establishing boutiques in the many upscale malls.
Cambodia has AEON mall, where the Khmer are content walking around in the air conditioned premises resigned only to window shopping. The Khmer prefer to shop at their local psar (market), buying clothes and food from the “pajama mafia,” middle aged women whose nickname is earned based on their inimitable outfits more befitting dental assistants.
There’s not a lot that you can’t buy in Thailand. Sourcing the same items in Cambodia can often be problematic.
Motodop intelligence: Thailand beats Cambodia
I wanted to make sure I threw this in there as this is one of the banes of my existence living in Phnom Penh. The motodop drivers in this city are some of the most imbecilic morons to inhabit this planet. They sit around on their bikes for most of the day (when they aren’t sleeping on them) shouting at anyone with white skin walking by if they want a ride. Then, when you want to actually use their services, they haven’t a clue where to go besides the various psars or wats peppered around town. Ask them to go to the moon, and they’ll eagerly accept the fare, nodding their heads with vacuous ineptness only to stop within ten seconds of you hopping on to ask one of their similarly deficient mates where to go.
Motodup Safety: Cambodia beats Thailand
I went with a motodup in Bangkok once; mercifully, it will be the last time. Somewhere between going airborne over an overpass on Rama VI, and a head-on near miss with the #15 bus by Democracy Monument, I had a premonition of a photo of my decapitated body showing up on the Bestgore or LiveLeak websites as the latest tragic farang death on the streets of Thailand. At least the Khmer motodops have no pretension of being Mario Andretti.
Women: Thailand beats Cambodia
I mean no offense by employing this category as a way of comparing the two countries, but the reality is that many men travel to this area of the world seeking companionship. Khmer women won’t ask you for as much money as a Thai hooker would but they will expect you to provide financially for them and, in all likelihood, their families as well. If it weren’t for matters of economics, the average Khmer woman would probably choose to be with a Khmer man.
The average Thai woman tends to be a little more sophisticated than that. There are many well-educated, intelligent and gainfully employed Thai women who seek foreign men for husbands with strenuous determination, as adduced by the various dating apps I have come across in the country. It helps to know the language to some extent and having a strong financial footing is necessary in most cases. Genuine relationships can be formed more easily and with less drama than one might expect.
Cambodia, however, is a much poorer country and love is expressed predominantly in terms of money or material possessions. It’s possible to find a Khmer girlfriend or future wife here who does not look at you as if you were an ATM machine, but it’s difficult. I know of too many horror stories of foreign men becoming involved with Khmer women and getting entangled in a sordid web of deceit and duplicity which, in addition to causing untold headache and heartache, also leads to a significant reduction in personal net worth.
Language, Culture, and Happiness: Cambodia beats Thailand
In contrast to Thai, Khmer is not a tonal language. As someone who struggles with languages, I find basic Khmer easy to pick up. Even the prosody of the language is not that difficult to understand compared to other Southeast Asia languages. I also find it more fun to use when haggling on the streets or in the markets, with the students in my class who can’t get enough of the silly terms I employ, to the Khmer staff at the bars.
In general, Thais seems to be more serious, cold and impatient with foreigners. This partly has to do with each country’s historical narrative. Thailand was the only nation of the so-called Global South that was never colonized; Thais have been spoiled by decades of tourist capital, and a quick rebound from the financial crisis of the late 1990s. Cambodia only gained independence from France in 1954; its era of self-determination was interrupted by one of the worst genocides of the 20th century to be followed by a civil war which ravaged the country until the early 1990s. The Cambodians learn to get on with only the very basics, relying on their family units and religion for support.
Both cultures can be xenophobic and ethnocentric to “others,” but I have never felt threatened or feared for my safety in either country. And this is despite being shaken down by the police in both places at various times and ask to make a donation to some official looking slob in order to secure a revised opinion of whatever my innocent actions were.
In the end, it’s a matter of different strokes for different folks. Both countries have quirky idiosyncrasies that can either endear or annoy different expats. And with flights between the two capital cities taking only an hour, you may even be able to enjoy the best of both worlds.