Adjusting to life in Cambodia

This is the land of majestic temples. A land of Som Pas, kramas and defiant tractors struggling through intersections. A land of smiles and a people who – on the surface at least – appear unphased by one of the most horrific tragedies inflicted upon humanity.

Beyond the glory of Angkor; beyond the terrors of Pol Pot, exists a people with a culture so vast, a mentality so complex, it can bewilder those who are new to the country. The cultural difficulties a foreigner encounters while living here would never be experienced by a tourist enjoying a three day temple pass, or a glimpse of killing field museums in Phnom Penh.

I’m an American who has lived in Asia for two years and I stand behind this maxim: Traveling is not a vacation. Life in another country is not a tourist experience.

Before arriving here, I tried to find out what life was like for foreigners living in Cambodia. I stumbled onto a few blogs; mostly English teachers in rural villages, saving the world types who posted pictures with cute brown kids, happily ending their adventures after several months.

I purchased a book about moving to Cambodia. It had factual information, but it said nothing about the mental transition needed when moving here, and it didn’t speak on Cambodian culture.

Several months after I arrived, I found Cambodian people and their culture extremely perplexing.

I settled down in a place called Serey Sophorn. Monks chanting over loud speakers at 5am every morning was odd, but tolerable. The behavioral patterns of Cambodians caused most of my confusion.  Why weren’t my Cambodian coworkers ever direct? Why do locals gossip so much? Why was it so difficult to establish an relationship with a Cambodian woman? Why do Cambodian women go to extremes to keep their skin pale, wearing suede jumpsuits, knit hats, gloves and scarves when it’s 32 degrees Celsius?

There I was, in a dusty little town, surrounded by houses that had either naked babies playing in dirt or sickly dogs who barked at me no matter how polite I was.

It got to me. I became a bitter Westerner. I started complaining on several Facebook groups. There were heated discussions with and some support from other foreigners. My reasoning adjusted when I received a question from a Cambodian: “How long have you been living in the Kingdom?”

I remember being momentarily paralyzed while digesting the severity of the question.

Cambodia isn’t a random country; it is more than a page in my passport. Considering its history, it is an epic saga, an ongoing film of sorts. A people recovering and rediscovering who they once were; simultaneously inundated with foreigners who don’t want or care to understand them.

For the duration of this causerie turned film, I’m a player, an actor accompanied by a cast that includes foreigners from all walks of life and starring role from a patient Cambodian.

During my initial daze, I met Alan. He’s a 60 something year old Australian; soon returning to the land down under. He’s spent nearly 20 years in Cambodia. He has worked in several professions and has a grasp of the Khmer venacular. I asked him about Cambodian behavior: Specifically what appeared to be a lack of honesty and a propensity for gossip.

“I don’t think it is specifically Cambodian. It’s a South East Asia thing. This attitude of not speaking the truth if a good lie will do. It’s an attitude of don’t confront an issue, we want to keep the peace” said Alan.

What I perceived as gossip and backstabbing are likely linked to behaviors inherited from earlier generations. “It’s a legacy from the Khmer Rouge. There was a culture that was developed of spying on neighbors and people you considered to be your friends. Then you would report to the authorities what you thought of them. This was prevalent throughout the whole Khmer Rouge period, which is why a lot of people died. So you have a whole generation of people who were brought up to lie, to save their lives. And that’s been passed down through the generations” said Alan.

Alan was an invaluable resource and he knew I wouldn’t like Serey Sophorn. The locals were usually cordial, but I had difficulty making friends. From a Western perspective, there wasn’t anything to do. This led to the discussion of which location foreigners should consider when moving here.

“Probably Siem Reap or Battambang. Battambang, has always been slightly more sophisticated than other cities. Slightly better educated, even going back 50 years. When you talk to people, you will find out that the education system in Battambang was well respected, people in Battambang had a higher income, but that was generated by their educational advantages, rather than people in Phnom Penh whose income was developed by business acumen, combined with corrupt or semi-corrupt practices. People from Battambang have a slightly higher level of morality. When you talk to people from Battambang, you find them a lot more Western, a lot more pragmatic. They are better read, better informed.”


As wise and diplomatic as he was, he complained occasionally but he seemed to be able to deal with his problems. I asked him about the mentality a foreigner must adapt or develop in order to keep their sanity here.

“Be pragmatic, understand that relationships on any level will not be on the same even-keel as in the West. To live in South East Asia, having been brought up in a Western country, you need to have a fairly pragmatic attitude about things like morality, sexuality, women’s rights, gender issues.”

Alan gave me the low down on the typical Cambodian female mentality.

“Look at women in the workforce. There are many women out there, but they are primarily motivated by the idea of getting married and having children. That is what most women in South East Asia see as their destiny in life. Whereas most Western women wouldn’t see marriage and children as the primary reason for existence on Earth, ” said Alan.

His response led our discussion towards a subject matter that I discovered while living elsewhere in Asia: Western women and their difficulty establishing successful relationships with Asian men. There are exceptions, but overwhelmingly, it is a problem that foreign women experience in Asia.

Clare is a thirty something Aussie who’s lived in Cambodia for nearly two years. She spoke on the difficulties of Western women in relationships with Cambodian men. “There’s a lot more Western men getting with Khmer women, rather than the other way around. Khmer men couldn’t handle the way Western women would be.”

Ben manages several restaurants in Siem Reap. After a decade in Vietnam, he moved to Cambodia with a Vietnamese wife and child. “I’ve found that Western women have lost their femininity. An unspoken rule in Asia, the home is the woman’s domain. Outside the home is the man’s domain. A Western woman isn’t going to take that. They’re not going to understand that the husband is angry when there isn’t food on the table when he comes home at 12 o’clock at night.”

Ben seemed very sincere and I didn’t get the vibe that his relationship was some sort of imbalanced power trip. We both agreed that we were in favor of gender roles in relationships, not necessarily equating to patriarchy.

Alan further elaborated on Western women and their difficulties dating Cambodian men. “The relationships broke down primarily because of the Asian man being more controlling, wanting to control his European girlfriend, more than she thought was appropriate or would expect from another European.”

mixed asian couple

Ben has the life that foreign heterosexual adult males in Cambodia should seek: A family, lucrative business ventures and a positive attitude regarding Cambodian culture. I wanted to understand what it took to be successful here; not necessarily financially, but holistically.

“The biggest problem foreigners have in Cambodia is culture. They don’t get the culture and they don’t want to. They want to bring Western culture here. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are a lot of positives to Western culture and there are definitely positives to Khmer culture, it’s getting them to fit together.”

Ben further elaborated on what I believe is the most essential factor for success in Cambodia. “Patience, I believe it is the most important thing on this side of the world. Hiding your feelings. When your brain and your feelings are telling you to explode, swallow it, walk away and take deep breaths.”

Patience, pragmatic thinking, concealing your feelings; these are qualities that can be developed. If you spend time on various forums and Facebook groups, it seems like the majority of foreigners here aren’t interested in changing or developing another mentality; we’re set in our ways.

Alex is a 20 something year old Frenchman about to leave Cambodia after successfully owning and operating an art gallery in Siem Reap for two years. His advice for foreigners who don’t want to change or conform:”Cambodia is so simple, if you’re complaining, then go back to your country… Enjoy the situation! You’re living in a wonderful country!”

He didn’t trivialize the experience of living here, but provided an interesting perspective, “I’m talking as a business owner. If you don’t have that much connections and qualifications, it is not easy. It is a country that will allow you to do things, if you are creative and have a little bit of money.”

Who should consider making Cambodia their home? Is Cambodia a place for the inexperienced traveler?

I presented this question to an Englishman called Patrick. He is well traveled and has lived in several countries. His advice for novice travellers is that “Cambodia wouldn’t be my first choice.  I find with the expats it is very easy to be drawn in and indulge in things you probably shouldn’t be doing, especially when you consider how cheap things are, like alcohol and drugs. The majority of expats I know, they’ve been drawn into that web. If you’re coming here to teach, you’ll find it difficult. Teaching actually goes on the back burner.”

Patrick wasn’t suggesting that there aren’t legitimate English teachers in Cambodia, but in a city like Siem Reap, where everyday feels like Saturday, it’s easy to get influenced by the party atmosphere and entangled in a web of dysfunction.

Patrick’s advice for travelers determined to make their way here was this, “Don’t do any research before coming to Cambodia. The things that I found online, Internet forums, they made me not want to come here. The expats focus on the negatives.”

I agree. My online research filled me with unnecessary anxieties. He spoke in jest about not doing any research, but I’d equally advise future travelers to stay clear of any threads or discussions that concentrate on the negative aspects of life here.

So far, I have neglected to tell you my story. Let’s just say that I’m African American and unlike the movies from the 80s, the black guy doesn’t die first. Well that is a lie; on occasions my soul has died. South East Asians have an aversion to dark skin. This is partially attributed to a perception that only uneducated workers who toil in the rice fields have dark skin.

Other generations of Cambodians’ introduction to black people have been brothers from the motherland, and unfortunately many haven’t been on their best behavior.

As far as black people are concerned, there is a negative stigma that goes beyond rice-field-racism. Soumy, is my 23 yearold homeboy; he kept it real.  “Actually it is kind of stereotype of black people. We thought [sic] that black are uneducated and we think black people are poor. Even though you are educated, we still think that you don’t deserve respect as white people” said Soumy.

Truthfully, after several months here, I didn’t get the impression that Europeans were polluting the minds of Cambodians; the negative press of my black brethren stemmed from first hand experiences.


“I think the reason is that, some of Cambodians, when they see black people, they only thought that you are from the African continent. Black people in Europe, America or Australia, they never know that. They only know Africans from Africa. A group of black people, they did something bad and they destroy the whole reputation of black people. In Cambodian, there are many Nigerian people, they might have done something wrong in their country, or they are being wanted, most of them are drug traffickers. This kind of information spreads throughout the country and people kind of have negative effect towards black people” said Soumy.

The advice I’d offer to other black people, regardless of nationality: In South East Asia, you have to have love for yourself, lean on your ancestors; and as writer Greg Tate said, when referring to Frederick Douglas “… stand black and proud in isolated situations where nobody else black was around to have your back.”

Okay, enough of sounds of blackness — we have to move into the climatic part of this film, the most complex part of Asian culture, a concept that I was introduced to in China, tasted briefly in Taiwan and realized it took on its own interpretation in Cambodia: the concept of “Saving Face.”

Soumy did his best to explain the concept, “For Cambodians perspectives, we try not to feel embarrassed in front of people… Keep yourself look perfect.”

I understand the concept. However, I find that most Asians have no problem either embarrassing or being disrespectful to foreigners; the moment you confront them or publicly treat them with a similar level of disrespect, they’ve lost face.

Hypocritical? Absolutely. While in the Kingdom, don’t expect your colleagues to admit that they’re wrong or made a mistake.

Before I was checked by Soumy, one of my Facebook rants pertained to not understanding Khmer women. I perceived them to the friendly and at times flirtatious, but I couldn’t get with them. A number of white men messaged me directly, admitting that they had experienced similar difficulties.

Looking back, we were the problem, ignorant and unable to understand “face value,” and it being an integral component of relationships with Cambodian women.

“Having sex before marriage, it is really sensitive for Cambodian society, if your parents found out you had sex with someone. The parents of the girl will try and get you guys to marry. For Cambodian society, when the girl lost her virginity, she’s like nothing, she has no more value. They [the parents] are afraid if the news spread out to the neighbors, the girl will not be able to get married.”

Alan, the wise old wizard in this story, provided sound counsel regarding attitude adjustment: “Understand the South East Asian mental, emotional and intellectual processes, but looking in the mirror, and recognize where our responses are coming from and generated. Why do we think the way we do? Is there a right or wrong? Or are we different? And to accept the differences!”

Cultural differences aside, Cambodians are amazing people: Resourceful, resilient and optimistic about the future; restoring the nation to its former glory.

At the end of the day, the majority of the foreigners in Cambodia are nothing more than opportunists, enjoying a lifestyle, we wouldn’t have elsewhere.

Whether you’re in Cambodia or on your way, the role you play – hero, villain or fool – all comes down to you and your willingness to adapt a new mentality, one that includes pragmatism, patience and abandoning your understanding of what is moral, fair, righteous or just.

Those currently living here, if you’re not willing to change your perspectives, you’re free to leave. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself in jail, deported or in the bottom of the Mekong river. Or you could find yourself in the situation I was in – 2am in the morning, detained in a police station, bruised and battered after fighting three Cambodian pizzaiolos. But that’s a story, I’ll save for the sequel.

Cheers. Here’s to living in Cambodia.

18 thoughts on “Adjusting to life in Cambodia

  1. Kalakala Reply

    Excellent piece, Clarke. Well thought out and written. I’m sure you’ll get many compliments on it. Thanks!

  2. IK Reply

    It resonates. I’ve lived in Sri Lanka for 14 months, now coming to stay in PP. The mentality of ‘keeping face’ and not calling the spade a spade seems very pronounced in general in Asia, I recognise it from your article, Clarke.

    Perhaps, no need to ‘adjust’ per se, but awareness of these issues helps. A lot of what takes place is often excused with the phrase ‘It’s our culture’, something I’ve heard countless times while living in Lanka.

    I feel there are bigger human questions at stake here. Easy to give a nod to ‘culture’ in favour of absolving personal human responsibility for own life. And fear of expressing own individuality, conformity to ‘the cultural norm’ is not unique to Asia. The west is not immune to that either, just takes other, more covert forms of expression.

    Good observation, thanks for that.

  3. SCC Reply

    That’s the best article I have read on Cambodia for a good while. Honest, sincere and full of interesting detail. Thanks

  4. Obama Reply

    Nice article. One of the better pieces on 440 in a long time. The race and other perspectives were interesting. What do u think Cambodians are really thinking when they see Michelle Obama visiting their country?

  5. Farm boy Reply

    A very thoughtful article.

    Ironic that it is published on Khmer 440, a forum that houses a very nasty – and mostly unknowledgeable – private club of disaffected expats. From their postings, It appears that many in the Khmer 440 club could learn the thoughtfulness displayed in this article.

    But I would guess that is wishful thinking, because most of the Khmer 440 club will not identify or understand this piece.

    Disclaimer. I’ve been in Cambo for years, and am pretty certain I do not know any Khmer 440 types. At least I hope not. To paraphrase American comedian Groucho Marx, “I would not want to be a member of any club that would have me.”

    • wpadmin Reply

      One of the joys of Khmer440 is knowing that even though people like Farmboy profess to hating Khmer440, they can’t stop themselves from reading it. It’s your guilty secret sin . . .

  6. Glenn Reply

    Excellent insight and so well expressed.

    One item I have huge difficulty with is ” Face”

    When living in China I had a huge row with some very important people. My local Chinese mentor at the time said ” Do not worry about their faces because they are not going to give a stuff about yours.”

    On my recent trip to Cambodia I made the mistake of having a prearranged chain of activities. The Cambodian culture I ran headlong into had no respect for my plans at all and that cast a shadow over my whole visit. Shame because I can see many pleasant and warm people there.

  7. Tanner Kingsley Reply

    Great article. Hits home and resonates. I’ve had some problems with adapting to Cambodian culture myself. Helped me evaluate my thinking. I’ll definitely bookmark this one and pass it along to anyone new to Cambodia.

    Cheers Clarke!

  8. Boonard Spell Reply

    “Patrick wasn’t suggesting that there aren’t legitimate English teachers in Cambodia, but in a city like Siem Reap, where everyday feels like Saturday, it’s easy to get influenced by the party atmosphere and entangled in a web of dysfunction.”

    This is so true. I originally came to Cambodia in July of 2013 with the intention of getting a teaching gig after a couple months of vacationing around. It never happened. Even though I’d never tried it before, I got hooked on ice during my first week in country. After four months I only had $8 left. My grandmother had to bail me out with a ticket back to the States. After so many benders I just couldn’t bring myself to buy a pair of closed toed shoes and look for a job. The drug kept telling me, “You still have $1,000 left. It can wait another week. For now, just keep getting high.” $1,000 quickly became $500, which became $200, and so on.

    I’m finally coming back to Cambodia on Monday and I can’t wait. I’ve learned my lesson from the first time around. This time I’m gonna find a position out in the provinces away from all the distractions.

  9. Jay Reply

    A brilliant piece with one flaw: it was written by a relative newcomer to the country. I lived in the country in the early 90ies, went back and forth I can’t count how many times after that, and settled here permanently with my Khmer wife of 20 years in 2010. I have been doing business here,invested heavily, overall have been successful with it, speak Khmer sufficiently, but I am still Western and whichever way you look at it I can’t become Khmer, even after some 20 odd years. You may understand the culture, have the greatest tolerance for their ways, but in the end the disparity between a Western upbringing, education, and outlook on life in general is so great it can’t overcome the differences in mentality, thinking, and understanding. (And I have been living only among Khmer, no Western contacts, except for the business contacts.) There is, of course,a huge difference between Khmer with a quality education and the regular people who make up about 95% of the population, in my opinion, and who are mostly uneducated. The lack of education is the greatest obstacle in this country’s development and for the people. That doesn’t have anything to do with their traditions; a people can still keep those for a certain time. The west had its traditions, mostly steeped in Christianity, too. But our capitalist economic system changed that within a relatively short period of time in history. Women’s and equal rights in general are a result of a human’s striving for getting an equal piece of the pie. The same is happening here in Cambodia, and all over Asia, thanks to our capitalist outlook on life, which we exported very successfully under the nice mantle of economic development and the furtherance of human rights, not to say that this is the worst thing happening, with a few downsides, e. g. global warming, etc. (Smile).
    What you have to see as a long-timer is that people, because of their recent history, just don’t understand, don’t want to understand, and to a certain degree don’t care, that whatever they do is not only for the present but for future generations. They believe that maybe they will have a better life next time around after their reincarnation. Religion has always been the greatest roadblock to progress. In this light, the entire perplexity and confusion that Westerners like Clarke feel is easily explained. Cambodia is unique in that it retained its traditional values, whether good or bad, because of their isolation from the outside world for some 25 or so years.
    They just don’t grasp that it is dangerous for them and others to pass a vehicle at breakneck speed without seeing whether the road ahead is clear or not. This is an example par excellence of the Cambodian state of mind. Yes, I know there are many more facets to this but it sums it up nicely in a nutshell.

    • Tanner Kingsley Reply

      Yeah, he’s new to “The Kingdom,” but I think that is the reason he talked to experienced expats. One guy lived in Cambodia for over 20 years. He didn’t formulate these thoughts on his own.

      • Jay Reply

        I just meant to imply that Cambodia through the eyes of a newcomer looks quite different from the one you see when you have live among, repeat among, and not just with Khmer. Most of the long-time expats here still look at things from the outside. People talk so much about their Khmer culture. I dare say that this culture has largely disappeared after the Sihanouk reign. Khmer still define themselves by the old Angkorian period. That was 500 years ago and in the meantime that culture gradually declined until the day the French were called in to protect them from the Thai. The Communists did their best to eradicate it altogether, although they could not obliterate Buddhism, and that’s about the only tangible that’s left of their culture. 70% of the population lives in the countryside where is still routine practice that people marry their cousins. In fact, there are villages where the entire village population is related to one another in one form or another. Khmer culture nowadays is one of survival; just look at the broader picture. 60% or so are under the age of 30, there are not enough jobs, education is dismal, health care is practically non-existent. The government doesn’t tire of invoking Khmer culture when forbidding things, like the Kazantip beach party, topless (Photoshop) pictures of Japanese women in Angkor Wat, or real works or art that depict topless Apsara dancers. At the same, these same government people go to Karaoke parlors, enjoying the company and more of their hostesses, prostitution is virulent, as it is always the case in a poor country, military and police run prostitution and drug rings, engage in illegal logging, graft and corruption is a way of life, where freedom of speech is curbed. Now is that what you call an admirable culture? I don’t.
        Most of the long-term expats here didn’t choose this country because of the exoticism, they came here because it’s easy and cheap, with the literal exception to the rule, of course.

        • Tanner Kingsley Reply

          Yeah, I think that was his point in the end. He mentioned that most expats were merely here for own endeavors. I don’t want to judge the Khmer government.

          They’re no different than any government in Europe. The corruption is more overt.

          Plenty of problems here, but what are you and I doing about it? Nothing? We’re going to enjoy the cheap and easy living and alcohol.

          • Jay

            My friend, you should have read my initial comment thoroughly. I am not here for the cheap life. Believe it or not, I am doing something about it in my own way.

    • Marco Reply

      Jay, I would be really interested in an article written by you about how a long term expat living among Khmers perceives their culture. You say that the author of this article is a newcomer and sees it differently than you do, but you don’t really specify how you see it after living among the Khmers for so long. If you have a little time, I’m sure a lot of people would be very interested. Thanks OP for the interesting article, finally some quality stuff here.

  10. wendell Reply

    I can vouch for Jay’s comment about the Christian beliefs being an expat’s predominant filter in Cambodia. I am a bicultural, first generation, Cambodian-American. So I grew up in both Cambodia and the States. As such I grew up in both belief systems, the Judeo-Christian belief system as well as the Khmer belief system.

    For me, a belief is just our own perception and interpretation of reality. It does not necessarily mean it’s the truth of reality itself.

    The Judeo-Christian beliefs that I recognize in an expat’s filter about Khmer culture are 1) the one life belief 2) the savior complex 3) the concept of original sin.

    Even Joseph Campbell remarked about this in his trip to China. What fascinated him about China was that 1 billion Chinese people have no concept of original sin because they were never taught the belief. It is not possible to reconcile the Judeo-Christian belief in living only one life with the Khmer belief in reincarnation. I think the Church Fathers designed it to be that way so there would leave no doubt.

    While the beliefs above are difficult to reconcile between the two systems, there are some beliefs that I recognize as reconcilable, saving face and race.

    In the States we have the saying, “speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil”. We also have the more colloquial idiom, “perception is reality”. I think both are about saving face. Basically in the workplace no one wants to be outed for anything other than praise. It is also customary to address any grievances in private between the supervisor and subordinate. These are American cultural norms. Americans are known for their first impression of politeness as well as discretion or indirectness. A while ago, I cohabited with a Finnish woman and got to learn firsthand how foreigners see Americans.

    She pointed out how Americans were not direct and straightforward when they speak to someone because they were afraid of hurting the person’s feelings. Partly because they don’t want to be blamed and judged as un-Christian. As a Finnish person, this annoyed her about us. Lutheran is a state religion in Finland (baked into the constitution), so she does not have the same relationship to Christianity as an American Protestant/Baptist. This is how I can relate the Khmer cultural practice of saving face as also an American cultural norm.

    As for reconciling the cultural beliefs on race, I dated an African-American woman from the deep south some years ago. I honestly thought her family would be in acceptance of me. We both have similar dark brown skin complexion, both are minorities, and both are highly educated and accomplished professionals.

    Yet her father remarked to her, “so I hear you are vibing with a Cambodian guy.” This took her by surprise. It turned out, her family was against her dating or marrying anyone outside her race other than a black man. The family believed in keeping the race pure. If you Google Asian male dating black woman, you will see that it is one of the rarest interracial couples in the world. Dating within your own race is not just a Khmer or Asian thing. For me, it is also a very African-American thing too. This is how I reconcile the expat filter on race in Khmer culture. It is a common cultural belief in both societies, American and Khmer.

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