Travel Tips: 5 Do's and Don'ts in Cambodia {Part 2}


On Monday, I shared 5 do's and don'ts for travelers to Cambodia (read part 1 here). Today, I'm sharing the rest of my list.

If you have any tips yourself or any questions about Cambodia, leave a comment below - I'd love to hear from you!


Inside Central Market in Phnom Penh

1. Do bargain with a smile.

Market shopping is one of the highlights of Cambodia - some of my favorites are the Old Market in Siem Reap, and in Phnom Penh, Central Market and Russian Market. And you have to bargain - it's just part of the experience!

Bargaining is supposed to be fun - a way to interact with the seller and find a price that makes both of you happy. What can ruin the experience? Bargaining aggressively, being rude to the sellers, and expecting to get something for nothing.

Remember what I said in the last post about losing face? I've seen a lot of foreigners do that by offering ridiculously low sums for a souvenir, then acting angry when the seller refuses. It's important to be respectful and friendly towards the seller. They'll be more inclined to help you out with a good price if you show you value the relationship. Relationships are very important in Asian culture - even if it only lasts 5 minutes between the buyer and seller in a market!


2. Don't expect to get something for nothing.

Don't offer a ridiculously low sum in the market when you're shopping. It is expected that you bargain and offer a lower price than the initial one stated by the seller. But I've seen this happen: The seller says, "$10"; the tourist says, "$3"; seller says "$7"; buyer says, "$2".

Going backwards doesn't win you any friends! Respect the seller and the products, and offer a fair price. They're trying to make a living!

As a foreigner, you will probably pay a little bit more (or a lot) than a local would for a product or service. That is just part of being a foreigner. Is it fair? No. Do you need to get upset about it? No. We  joke that there is a surcharge on skin color here. If you are white, you will automatically pay more.

Even as a foreigner who speaks Khmer and has lived here for 3 years, it happens to me. And I've learned it's just not a big deal. Ninety percent of the time, it's a difference of a few dollars, at the most. If I know the local price, I definitely try to get it. If I don't, I figure out what seems fair to me and don't sweat over the rest.

Doing the same will decrease your anxiety and increase your enjoyment of your time in Cambodia!


3. Do hold your schedule with an open hand.

This is one of the most basic rules of international travel. Don't stick to your schedule.

Cars break down. Planes are delayed. Miscommunications happen when you are talking with people for whom English is a second language. It rains, and roads flood. Or the taxi driver takes a nap and is an hour late.

If it makes you stressed out to just read that, you probably shouldn't travel.

Cambodia can be unpredictable - and that's what makes it an adventure. Don't see your schedule interruptions as a nuisance, but as a way to jump into unexpected opportunities. Your bus breaks down on the side of the road? Go buy a soda and strike up a conversation with the shop owner. A hotel reservation gets mixed up? Smile, try to work it out, and find a new hotel if you need to. It just might be better than the first one!

Cambodians have an unshakeable belief that everything will work out in the end, no matter what goes wrong. We do well to take on the same attitude!


Jackie Chan is pretty popular around here...

4. Don't touch someone's head, point with your fingers, or touch anything with your feet.

The head is sacred in Buddhist culture, and the feet are the dirtiest part of the body. You should never touch someone else's head - no patting, rubbing, or touching the hair. The only exception is small children. If you accidentally bump someone's head, immediately apologize to show it was unintentional.

Cambodians rarely point with their index finger - it's seen as rude. Often, they will jerk their chin or point their lips in the direction of whatever they want to point out, or motion with their whole hand. Avoid pointing with your finger.

And finally, don't touch or point at anything with your feet - especially people! It's considered rude to put your feet up on chairs, wear your shoes inside, or show people the soles of your feet. Being conscious of what you're doing with your feet will help you show respect for people.

Photos of Cambodians who died in S-21 prison in Phnom Penh

5. Do read up on Cambodia's history - distant and recent.

Most people know about the genocide of 1975-1979. But Cambodia's history didn't start or end there. Khmer culture has existed for hundreds of years. And even the past twenty years have seen a lot of turmoil and development.

If you want to understand the Cambodia of today, you need to understand its past. Here are a few books I recommend that will help you understand the challenges facing the country now:

  • Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Trouble Land by Joel Brinkley - Written by a journalist, this was one of the first books we read about Cambodia. It describes the recent events of Cambodia's history after the genocide - Hun Sen's rise to power, the multiple coups, and the struggle of young Khmers to make a truly democratic, free nation.
  • The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam - Somaly was a young Cambodian girl who was captured into the brothels of Cambodia. She eventually escaped and became an advocate for freeing girls caught in prostitution. She tells her story in this memoir. Although she is a controversial person, her book gives a glimpse into the terrible world that many Cambodians live in. This is a really popular book on sex trafficking in Cambodia, but in light of the recent revelations of the lies on which the book is founded, I can't recommend it. At best, read it as life-inspired fiction.
  • Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors - Shors has written a historical fiction centered in the time of Angkor Wat a thousand years ago. He recreates the world of ancient Khmer, set in a time of war, love, and spirituality. 
  • Culture Shock! Cambodia by Peter North - This is a fantastic guide book to the culture and customs of the Khmer people. It gives a concise, helpful overview of Cambodia's history, politics, traditions, and main tourist destinations. It helps bridge the gap between Western and Khmer culture.
  • Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short - Pol Pot was the mastermind behind the genocide that killed a million Cambodians in the 1970's. Short met Pol Pot in person and after the war, conducted dozens of interviews with those close to him. To understand how so many people died in pursuit of a failed utopian experiment, you need to understand the mind behind it all.

That's it for now! Which tip was most helpful or surprising for you? Is there anything I missed you'd like to learn more about to prepare for your trip to Cambodia?

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