The Phnom Penh Pyramid of Judgment

Cambodia Rolls Royce
People love to look down on each other. Even those at the lowest of the low finds someone else to judge. Hell, when I was addicted to heroin I looked down on the alcoholic who lived downstairs.  “The poor bastard is destroying himself,” I’d think after waking up to find myself face down on my keyboard having typed 232 pages of “mmmmmmm.”

In Phnom Penh a similar dynamic is at work. Here is the definitive list of Phnom Penh prejudice.

Top of the Pyramid are… Khmers

“When the foreigner try to speak Khmer it is very funny for us,” said a local friend of mine having split his sides laughing at my attempt to order coffee with milk.

“J’moi tuk lo go” – blank stare. “Tuk low goh” – still nothing. Raising my eyes skyward in despair I tried a third time, “Tuk lo coh.”

Khmers are at the top of the chain not just because they completely understand the dangerous and mystifying contradictions of life here but they have survived it. Having endured hardships most foreigners can only imagine they need only look at the latest arrival of tanktop-wearing, elephant-panted foreigners and shake their heads in good-natured condescension. And fair play to them.

 Khmers look down on… Old Timer Expats

These are the older ex-pats who first came to Phnom Penh in the 1990s and lived through the 1997 coup. While us new arrivals marvel at the lack of public transport and ramshackle markets, these sensibly-dressed old timers sit back, sup their beer and remind everyone that when they first came here Phnom Penh resembled a malfunctioning version of Tatooine – the town Obi Wan takes Luke to in Star Wars. It’s an impressive look that could only be improved by the introduction of a pipe. These guys have earned their stripes.

Old Timers look down on… Professional Expats

bkk1 apartment

Also near the top of the judgment pyramid are the professional expats. These are the guys who are skilled enough at their jobs to be provided with full western pay and benefits in Phnom Penh. They are executives, accountants, lawyers, NGO directors and fully-qualified teachers. Sure, they exist in a bubble and generally know fuck all about Cambodia outside their high-walled villas and BKK1 apartments but why the hell should they? They are here because they are good at their job and the Cambodian economy needs them.

Professional Expats look down on… TEFLers

The back-up plan of every western wastrel is to teach English in Southeast Asia. Due to a lax education policy and a culture that deems failing an exam to be an unacceptable loss of face, teaching English is a job that requires only that you show up. Hires are made on the basis that the teachers can speak their own language and are the right colour. After six months, working six-days a week, these gadabouts are utterly exhausted and disillusioned. They take their meagre savings and scarper somewhere else like Korea, China or the Middle East only to be replaced by the next traveler who has run out of money but still can’t face up to their responsibilities and return home.

TEFL Bums look down on… Voluntourists


Nearing the bottom of the pyramid of judgment are the voluntourists. Driven by bad conscience at having been brought up in middle class suburbia back in the US, UK or Australia and an ignorant wish to “help the brown people,” these types are not interested in a normal holiday. Instead, their fragile egos demand they make a difference. Unfortunately, there are few genuine opportunities to make a difference seeing as gangsters and cynical NGOs funnel these guys into a source of free labour. The most damning indictment of this kind of thing was given by legendary educator and activist, Ivan Illich who addressed the latest batch of US Peace Corp volunteers with the following scathing indictment: “Suppose you went to a U.S. ghetto this summer and tried to help the poor there ‘help themselves.’ Very soon you would be either spit upon or laughed at. People offended by your pretentiousness would hit or spit. People who understand that your own bad consciences push you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly. Soon you would be made aware of your irrelevance among the poor, of your status as middle-class college students on a summer assignment.”

Voluntourists look down on… Backpackers

 Backpackers are an easy target because they are young sophomores. Sophomore, in ancient Greek, means “wise and foolish” referring to that period when a young person first discovers Nietzsche and Chomsky and thinks they totally get the world’s problems. Such nincompoopery is tolerated by older people only because of the knowledge that they were once like that. And these guys, with their ability to think, are the cream of the backpacker community. The less said about the rest the better.  Suffice to say we’re talking about people who heat clipper lighters to a thousand degrees and give each other “smiley” burns for fun.

Backpackers look down on… Sexpats


Gathering at Sorya Golden Mall like lecherous, pot-bellied denizens of some mad realm, sexpats are those foreign men who come to Cambodia to take advantage of its cheap whores. While the actual ethics of prostitution is a confusing area, there’s nothing like the sight of a flabby old man melting over a poor Cambodian girl to turn your stomach and attract the entirely justified contempt of those higher up the pyramid.

Sexpats look down on… Deathpats

death pat

Say what you like about sexpats at least they have made enough money somewhere down the line to afford flights, hotels, endless supplies of wifebeaters and litres of lube. They haven’t completely failed at life. You really have to wonder at the guys (and they’re usually guys) who come to Cambodia –  a country with an unparrelled ease of life for foreigners  – only to fail so hard they are found swinging from a noose in a riverside hotel room.

And everyone looks down on… the French

The writer AA Gill once said that, while the English have a barnful of words for “sorry,” the French, “have a mouthful of facial expressions for ‘I don’t care what you think’.” Hell, even the French don’t like themselves. I once had lunch with a laconic Frenchman in Chinese Noodle on Monivong and asked them why the French community doesn’t mix with the rest of the expats. “Because French people are assholes,” he said, with a shrug.


19 thoughts on “The Phnom Penh Pyramid of Judgment

  1. Harry Reply

    Very intelligent piece, anyone who writes what he did about teaching obviously has an extensive knowledge of his subject. Brilliant!

  2. Jean Reply

    Being French, I was a bit confused by the latest part of your article. “French are assholes” is a vague statement. I wouldn’t consider this as an interesting statement. it’s pretty lame. But on the other hand, one thing is true most of the french stay with with their own kind here and its boring for me as a french person. Its not a sign that demonstrates a healthy state of mind and it says a lot about France.

  3. Albers Reply

    As a non-French expat who belongs to the lower classes, I have laughed a lot with this article. Great job. Among the Khmers, by the way, there’s also a social pyramid which would deserve another analysis.

    Once I told a Filipino that Khmer people were really really nice with foreigners and he told me that I should specify “foreigners who are not black nor Asian.

    That made me think.

    P.S.: To sum up, to Khmer people we are all “Barangs“. In other words, we are all assholes.

  4. ahsoul Reply

    He got it wrong at the top of the food chain but right at the bottom…..

  5. Raya Iglesias Reply

    Whilst this post of looking down on who and who looks down on who made me laugh a bit i have to say it’s quite judgemental and childish too, i for one don’t want to look down upon anyone unless i am helping them up, i have no right to judge a fat sweaty sexpat, druggy or anyone because it is their life and it is totally up to them how they want to live it, i think also this post is very rude, i might have to be one of the so called TEFLER’s everyone looks down upon, do i care if you do? I might need the job so i can eat and pay for my living whilst over there, that is if i can’t find any other job, i am open to jobs so i can enjoy and explore the kingdom of wonder, this post you make it seem more alike the kingdom of fake people and judgemental bastards who don’t even want to give anyone a chance over there because they’re to busy having fun making nasty remarks, or because they have seen it all before with every traveller trying to make a life or a living, not everyone is an irresponsible teen or sophomore, or whatever! Some people just want to go see something new on the planet that they live on in the one life they have and enjoy it to the fullest, but need a job to be able to do that, so what if i become a tefler, judge me all you want dont be my friend if you please, how bitter can people really be? christs sake what a life, a life of judging and bitching 🙂 so sad! why don’t you just forget all this bullshit and be nice to one another like a good person should eh? give these people you so judge below you a chance, you never know they could be a really nice person despite their habits or hobbies or dad always said to me that you always learn something from someone, anyone, even an asshole, even the most annoying person, you can learn one thing from them….rant over, phew, after readin this i can’t wait to come to asia! hahaha….

    • Somsak Ban Reply

      Not once did the writer say HE was looking down on anyone – he was explaining the chain of who looks down on who.

  6. Raya Iglesias Reply

    also the french thing, not every french person is an asshole, my partner is french, and he’s lovely thankyou, stop putting all of them in the same bubble! because in every country and every race, there are always assholes, but not all of them! so quick to jump to conclusions, you think you may know it all, clearly not 😉 oh and no neither do i! everyday is a school day, and today i learnt something new form this whole thread, wow!

    • Yank Reply


      You are probably right, not all French may be assholes but 99% of them give the reat a bad name.

  7. khmerhit Reply

    Pretty good piece; plus ca change. The last bit about the French is quite wrong, however. They do mix with others, but it does help if you know some French. Not necessary though. the challenge is up to you to make the most of your time there, meet different people, and learn not to put them in pigeon-holes.

  8. Boonard Spell Reply

    What about ice heads? I’m one of them. What do people in Cambodia generally think of Western ice heads? I’m independently wealthy, so it’s not like I’m scamming anyone for my next fix, but I do spend about four days a week inside my guesthouse tweaked out of my skull. The other three days I spend passed out.

    • Falcon Randwick Reply

      Cambodians totally respect ice heads. It’s a difficult job carrying around those blocks of ice balanced on a wrapped up krama on the top of your head. Well done to you sir, well done…

  9. Partenis Reply

    It should end with
    “AND, the french look down on everybody…”

  10. bif Reply

    Raya, I can’t take seriously anything someone who has a “partner” says. Is that so wrong?

  11. jixiang Reply

    I find it funny that you should put the Khmer at the top of the chain.

    I imagine that, just like in most Asian countries, the locals look down on foreigners in some ways, but look up to them in other ways (especially if they are rich Westerners). Furthermore, I’m sure that said foreigners also tend to look down on the locals in certain ways.

  12. Gaudente Reply

    This article is wrong. We sexpats are the ones at the top because we have plenty of money and know how to spend it wisely. Everybody kisses our asses, and not just metaphorically.

  13. Marco Reply

    Funny article and there’s a lot of truth in it. I just don’t get the part about putting the Khmers at the top, I don’t feel like they look down on us barangs. Also I think the sexpats-backpackers looking down each other goes both ways. As for the French, good joke, I’ve met some really nice French though too and some arrogant ones too.

  14. Wirldpeas Reply

    A good piece, I laughed outloud at the first bit, I wasted my share of years as a devout dope fiend and thought crack heads and speed freak were well below my station.
    I probably have you beat on the keyboard I must have typed 400 pages of M’s and J’s at a single sitting more than once.
    It’s all too true people just need someone to look down on.

  15. garytogary Reply

    Falcon randwick love your reply to the ice head, dry humour love it, need more of this type of reply’s to a post like that, not bad language.

Leave a Reply

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