Cambodia or Thailand? Comparing expat destinations

Posted on by Tim LaRocco


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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.

thai street food

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.

aeon mall

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.

 

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23 Responses to Cambodia or Thailand? Comparing expat destinations

  1. Horserider says:

    Motodop intelligence? Interesting category to rate two countries on…

    What about employment opportunities? What about the quality of expats in general. Some glaring omissions if this comparison is to be taken seriously…which I don’t think it is.

  2. Ed says:

    Quote: “In the end, it’s a matter of different strokes for different folks.”

    Really? Who could have seen that statement coming? Nothing new was conveyed here.

  3. Bert says:

    I lived in Thailand and now in Cambodia, but I prefer to live in Cambodia, because Cambodian people are, in general, far more friendly for foreigners than Thai people.

  4. Vic Matthews says:

    Interesting insight into his personal experiences but there is a little bit more that to add on his comments about motodopes and motodope safety.

    I share his sentiment about lazy jackasses shouting down foreigners. Deuschebags preying on foreign tourists is quite common in Thailand but the particular tactics used by Cambodian motordopes seems to be unique and particularly annoying.

    But Thai motodopes piss me off too. They have probably obtained basic literacy (unlike their mostly illiterate Cambodian hillbilly counterparts) but they aren’t much better. For them sidewalks aren’t for people. Sidewalks are another road when traffic is too difficult for the lazy bastards.

  5. pete w says:

    Am I the only guy on this site that actually likes the motodops? Personally, I think Cambodia will be worse off when they are inevitably replaced by more expensive, sanitised forms of transport. And it’s not their fault you don’t know where you’re going…

    • Fullstop says:

      Spot on. Always find out where YOU’RE going first. I’ve only been here 3 weeks, but on day one I learnt to pull up directions on Google Maps on my phone. Then give the moto directions. (By pointing straight, left or right). Just presume that every moto you meet is totally clueless.

  6. Benda says:

    “illegal workers, wanted criminals, and Australians”

    What about a comparison of numbers of the British? Yes I get aussies have taken over Phuket and turned into the Thai version of Bali…

  7. Marco says:

    I always enjoy these articles, I think both are great countries with extremely friendly people. Thailand to me is easier and more comfortable, but I often feel like I’m part of an industry there, especially at the beaches. I don’t get the exotic feeling like I do in Cambodia and Philippines. My other problem with Thailand is I have yet to find a city I would like to live in. Bangkok is too big with all it’s problems. Chiang Mai has way too many foreigners and no beach. On the other hand I like Phnom Penh. So the lack of a good city is probably what keeps me from moving to Thailand, which otherwise I think is better than Cambodia.

  8. Hot Korean says:

    I think in many parts of the world, modern women had became to materilistic and seek for rich men and possession. But lifestyle, wrong exposure, media and education is to be blamed for this i feel.

  9. I think what Marco says, is very valid: once you have found ‘your’ city, it shouldn’t make much difference which of both countries it is in.
    When I read the article, it mainly compares Bangkok with Phnom Penh. I’m missing a reality view of other cities. I find living in Siem Reap most comfortable, although not that cheap. But hey, it’s a small price to pay for the western comforts it has to offer, thanks to millions of tourists visiting Angkor.
    It’s true that shopping power is rather limited compared with Bangkok. But then, Bangkok is only one hour flight away, and ordering by post in China (read dx.com and aliexpress.com) is pretty easy. I haven’t yet lost any shipment arriving in the post office in Siem Reap, despite the general horror stories I keep reading about the Cambodian postal service.
    While the free monthly visa in Thailand might look attractive, making a monthly visa run can turn it into a heavy burden. I rather pay for the year and live quietly in Cambodia.
    While I have never actually lived in Thailand – but visited several times – my personal preference is clear: Cambodia wins (but clearly limited to Siem Reap).
    I find food in Cambodia really good. Not as spicy as Thailand, but the fare my partner is cooking, is an excellent variety of what Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam seems to offer. I find the home-cooking excellent, certainly a level higher than what the restaurants are dishing up. To extend the level of variation even further, Western restaurants in Siem Reap open up your window to world cuisine, extending up to Turkish pita wraps and Brazilian specialties. Just love it here.

  10. Richard says:

    What about getting work?

    Work permits required?
    Special visa ?

    In Thailand it’s a painfully long slow and expensive process

  11. Derek Vink says:

    Very quirky and funny article, but helpful as well. I do have to say I prefer Cambodia for its wild west atmosphere though. Thailand is a little too structured for my liking.

  12. Johan says:

    I have heard more horror stories of foreign men becoming involved with Thai women. But maybe there’s not that much difference. And caution should be taken anyway in both countries.
    Like Alfons, I like the food in Cambodia. Especially when not as spicy as in Thailand, and never had problem with undersized portion.

  13. Ghdtreb says:

    Pretty spot-on article. I work/worked in both counties. Local food way superior in Thailand, although great western food in Phnom Penh. Yes the cost of living is cheaper in Cambodia..food & drink especially, excellent affordable wine here..Thailand..forget it.
    Standard of accommodation in Phnom Penh pretty sub-standard, ranging from acceptable to downright disgusting.
    Women..I also mean no offense, in my opinion, Thai women are simply more attractive.
    Motodops..arrogant bastards in Thailand. Cambodian.. the guys are cool.
    Happiness..easily Cambodians. As often, those with less give more.

  14. lirelou says:

    Great article, and thanks. Just a minor point: Cambodia was a protectorate rather than a full colony. The French controlled the currency, foreign relations, and military affairs, but up until 1949 they recognized Cambodian sovereignty over Khmer Krom communities. So while it is true that Cambodia became fully independent in 1953, it helps to understand that the Royal Cambodian government did exist and function prior to that. To be sure, Cambodia did not enjoy the full powers that Morocco did as a protectorate, but they did rule to the point that they could even draft soldiers for the Cambodian Royal Army in places like Soc Trang.

  15. Mark says:

    Why do you guys say food is cheaper in Cambodia? Seriously what do you guys eat, because no way that’s true.
    Food in Thailand is significantly cheaper. Here in Phnom Penh it’s become impossible to find a decent meal under 3.50-4 dollars, and yes you can get a dish of fried rice for 2.50 but it will usually suck. I’ve been to numerous restaurants and it gets old really fast. After a year and a half I still don’t know a restaurant where I can have a good meal for around 3 dollars. In contrast, I visit Bangkok and there are numerous places where I can get an awsome meal, much better than Cambodia for 2-2.50. In the supermarkets, the exact same products cost 1.5x the amount in Cambodia as in Thailand. The yogurt I buy, here is 2.00+, while in Thailand it’s around 1.50. Same with milk and everything else EXCEPT alcohol, which really is cheaper here. Not to mention 7-11’s where you can eat yourself full for 2 dollars in Thailand, nothing to compare in Cambodia, except a couple mini marts selling hot dogs, but again, it gets old really fast.

    • hinduMensch says:

      Agree with you on the food in Thailand. It’s much better, and it’s cheaper, but you need to know where to go. It’s all too easy to find food that’s oily and deep fried. And the spaghetti sauce is often heated ketchup.

      The Dukes is light years ahead of anything similar in Cambodia like Cadillac Bar.

  16. Mat Mat says:

    Cambodia is expensive because you the foreigner end up buying from OTHER foreigners! Add to that taxes on imports and Thailand is cheaper and better for living.

    On the other hand if survive on a local diet and go around the EXPAT MIDDLEMEN you can live like a king!

    Agreed the local diet is pretty grim. And meat is expensive here because of backward farming…

  17. Joe Hartman says:

    Although a good idea to compare, it limps in several topics.

    1. Thailand has a 30 day visa exempt rule for tourists, but the comparison is supposed to be for expats. No expat can stay long time on a tourist visa, so the way is marry a Thai, work with work permit, retire (if above 50) or buy a 5 year visa for 500K baht (or 10 year for 1 million baht). That is the legal part and a complicated matter. Each 90 days one has to report, each year one has to prove his income or capital (800K) in the bank. Treated as someone working illegally is no fun. I’m retired, have enough funds so working would be the last thought I had, still I have to prove, prove, prove. My reason to investigate moving to Cambodia.

    The break-down on visas relates to illegal stayers and illegal workers, that is fine, illegals have screwed the whole thing for legal expats, so let them leave now.

    2. Women are the same in Thailand or Cambodia. They seek to improve their life, through marriage with a financially stable farang man. No difference here. That you talk “hookers” shows not too much respect for women that search for farang husbands without being a hooker.

    3. Last, but it is mentioned, a comparison between big cities might be nice, but it is not between Thailand and Cambodida as countries. If talking about upcountry, traffic can be forgotten, crimes, transport are not a huge part, food is the same but less than half price, women are just women, no hookers, although they are found everywhere, just in smaller numbers and concentrated in a few areas.

    Good points are safety (roads, private) and friendliness. For me, after 8 years Thailand, I came to the conclusion that Thais hate farang, farang are accepted or tolerated for their money, but that’s it. Thais look down on farang, on their neighbours, they call it pride, I call it arrogance. I start this months visiting Cambodia and will return on a regular base. If a better existance is possible I will choose for Cambodia, I’m tired of Thailand and it’s xenophobia.

  18. Billy Corr says:

    Thailand had a complicated World War Two history.

    At Japanese insistence, Norodom Sihanouk, the French-selected king of Cambodia, declared Cambodian independence on 13th March 1945.

    One sincerely hopes that the 70th anniversary of this First Declaration of Independence will be commemorated in some way, rather than being tactfully ignored.

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