Today I'm sharing 5 do's and don'ts for travelers to Cambodia.
After living here 3 years, we've certainly made more than our share of cultural faux-pas. And I'm hoping to pass on some of that hard-earned wisdom to you if you are lucky enough to visit Cambodia - a beautiful country with friendly people and adventures waiting to be had.
Cambodian culture is very different from the American-Western culture I grew up in. Many of our habits and customs, as foreigners, are opposite to what Cambodians expect.These tips will help you get the most out of your trip. And if you want more advice on dealing with cultural differences overseas, check out my post on that topic here!
If you are planning on living and working in Cambodia, I highly recommend reading Culture Shock! Cambodia: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquettes by Peter North. We read this book before coming to Cambodia and still refer to it. It gives a thorough yet concise introduction to Cambodia's history, politics, customs, and belief systems.
Because I have so many tips, this will be part one of two posts on the topic! If you plan on visiting Cambodia and have any questions you'd like answered in part 2, please leave a comment below or send me a private message via my contact page. Or if you have your own tips to share about Cambodia, I'd love to hear those, too!
Some of these photos were taken by our friend; some are mine. If you love seeing photos of daily life in Cambodia, check out my Instagram feed - you can find me at @whitconard!
1. Don't get angry.
As a traveler, you will be faced with many experiences that will not go as you planned. You may get ripped off in the market or by the taxi driver. There will be miscommunications, and service in restaurants or hotels may not be what you're used to. The worst thing you can do is to show you are angry by speaking loudly, yelling, or becoming visibly upset.
Acting that way will not accomplish anything. You will "lose face". "Losing face" means behaving in such a way that damages your reputation and your relationship with another person. And it's one of the worst things that can happen in Cambodian culture. Losing face brings shame on you and on the person you're angry at.
I have rarely ever seen a Cambodian angry. Even in near-death experiences caused by another person's recklessness, the worst reaction is a shake of the head, tsking, and expression of dismay. When you act angry, people will lose respect for you, because they think you can't control your emotions. And it will be beyond awkward.
So - control your anger, and smile in the face of chaos. Get angry later when you're alone - not when you're with Cambodians.
2. Do be prepared for personal questions.
Cambodians are very curious about the outside world and about foreigners. I've been asked about my weight, my age, my education, my income, my birth control choices, my breastfeeding choices...obviously, many things that Westerners would consider too personal!
But in Cambodia, those questions are not offensive. Questions about age and income help them understand what your status is in relationship to them, which in turn dictates how they address you. And they are genuinely curious about your life. So smile, answer the question, or laugh and tell them you're too shy to answer. And remember #1 if the question really makes you upset!
3. Don't touch the dogs.
This may sound like a funny one to mention. But Americans? We see dogs as pets, cute furry things to touch and play with. In Cambodia, they are not.
I could make a lot of money if I got a dollar for every foreigner who saw the dog on the street, tried to pet it, and nearly lost their hand. Dogs here are not pets. They are guards, scavengers, or dinner. And they carry a lot of disease. Andrew and I have both been vaccinated for rabies because of the number of dogs wandering around who carry it. And a few years ago, we had to figure out how to kill a rabid dog when our landlord's dog bit our helper.
When it comes to dogs, keep your hands to yourself.
4. Do cover up.
Cambodians are modest people. Although sometimes I see young girls in skimpy dresses at weddings or outside karaoke bars, most Cambodians will look down on this. Most women here cover up from ankles to shoulders, although in bigger cities, fashion is getting a bit more relaxed.
But I cannot tell you how many foreign women I have seen dressed in skimpy shorts and tops, with underclothing hanging out - and then wondering why Cambodian guys don't respect them. Let me be brutally honest - most Cambodian women who dress like that are prostitutes.
Respect the culture, and cover it up!
5. Don't give money to children or spend time alone with them.
In tourist areas, such as Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, there are an overwhelming number of children begging or selling knick knacks. Unfortunately, most of these children are on the street because their parents are forcing them to work instead of attending school.
Buying from children or giving them money only keeps them on the street. It does not help them have better lives. Countless organizations are working in Cambodia to give these children education and job skills. Give your money to them instead!
Friends International is a fantastic organization working in Cambodia to help these children and educate tourists. Visit their website for a list of child-safe businesses and to learn more about the issue of child beggars.
One more note - Cambodia is one of the top destinations for pedophiles. And even if you have good intentions, you need to avoid any appearance of evil. There is no reason you, as a foreigner (male or female) should ever be alone with a child or children, without other adults. Protect yourself AND the child, and always have another adult with you.
Watch out for part 2 of this post! And leave a comment or send me a message if you have a question about Cambodia or your own travel tip to add!
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