The idea to write this post about daily life in Cambodia came to mind after receiving a comment under my post on Biggest Scams and Lies of Cambodia. Originally, I started to write a response but it turned out to be so long that in the end, I decided why not to post it as a separate article.
So here it is.
You know, if you are planning to visit Cambodia through a travel agency or, even on your own, thinking to stick only to hotels, tours, and pre-arranged tuk-tuk rides then you won’t find much value in this post. Seriously. If, on the contrary, you love getting out and exploring how life outside the hotel walls and the main street is, this post is for you.
Nowadays, it’s very popular to visit a place, stay in the nicest type of accommodation, eat only in the restaurants TripAdvisor mentions and then tell how beautifully charming the destination is. In this case, every destination is going to be beautiful.
But let’s face reality. Cambodia’s reality is different.
Daily Life in Cambodia is All About Surviving
The comment under my ‘scams and lies of Cambodia’ post was basically belittling my negative experiences and insisting that I portray the country in the wrong light. The person who left it said that my primary focus was money and that I missed the “real charm of Cambodia” not noticing incredibly nice, friendly, and smiley people. And scams and lies are the same as everywhere else in Southeast Asia.
First of all, yes, scams in Cambodia are very similar to scams that you find in other parts of the continent. In fact, you don’t even need to go to SE Asia to experience them. But in Cambodia, they are particularly bad and come on a bigger scale.
The gap between the rich and poor in Cambodia is tremendous. A majority are trying to survive on a daily basis when their monthly salary for the entire family is often less than $30.
Locals for the most part, when encountering a tourist, try to get the most out of him/her. Perhaps it’s kind of natural when a person constantly lives below the poverty line, I am not sure. But in Cambodia, scams happen all the time. And very often tourists don’t even know about the fact that locals cheat. They get too captivated by smiley faces.
It was not us whose primary focus was on the money, but locals.
In all my posts about Cambodia, I try to emphasize how much we actually tried to help local people out by leaving tips, giving money to beggars (mistake!) buying lunch for drivers, always voluntarily paying more for groceries at the market (also mistake!), and not saying anything when sellers didn’t give change. But unfortunately, locals were too focused on making extra penny on us as tourists. And did it all the time.
Scams and Lies Make Up Only One Side of a Story
Besides scams, there are loads of trash everywhere, child abuse, labor abuse, corruption, and exploitation. You, as a tourist, can notice how children work in some places, how they run on the streets and beg for money instead of going to school. Prostitution in the country is so high. So many clubs and bars have girls on offer. Families sell their daughters to pimps in exchange for a new tractor, cow, or just some money.
Not paying attention to those things is so ignorant. Saying how beautiful and charming this country is, is simply wrong. What is beautiful? That fact that people are trying to survive while you are staying in luxury? Or that the same people are disrespecting nature and environment? Cambodian land makes her cry because of constant waste, pollution, and abuse.
If you are personally having only positive experiences, it does not mean that the negative ones do not take place at all.
If you savor your fried rice chicken and have fun on a guided tour, it does not put this country automatically in a group of “charming and beautiful countries.” Yes, in some ways Cambodia is fascinating but at the same time, it is disgusting, and that’s the fact.
How can you enjoy local nature or country’s temples knowing and seeing the level of poverty and deterioration?
I actually wish I could find a similar post before going on my trip. Then I would have known what to expect and I’d better travel to this destination on youtube or plan it in a completely different way.
Sidewalks and Parks are Almost Non-Existent
A few other facts about daily life in Cambodia include sidewalks and parks. These are not important details but something interesting to know.
Anywhere in the country, including the capital and the second-largest city Siem Reap, there are almost no sidewalks. Actually, they do exist but they are fully occupied by plastic tables from various cafes, parked motorcycles, and piles of rubbish.
There are no beautifully designed parks with benches and spaces where to relax or walk the dog. Just random green territories with garbage, cracked walkways and a few broken lamp posts.
Cockroaches with rats are very common, and bats, very similar to swallows, often swoop in the sky.
Also, in many places, it seems impossible to cross the road. There are almost no traffic lights in cities. Those that exist do not matter since only a few people care. Driving in the opposite lane is the norm.
Another fact to remember – there is no driving culture in Cambodia. Everyone drives as he wishes without caring about pedestrians, passengers or anyone else who shares the road.
“Charm and Beauty of Cambodia” Is Not What You Think It Is
When people are saying how charming and beautiful Cambodia is, it makes me wonder. What do they imply by a “real charm of Cambodia”? What do they define as beautiful?
Angkor Wat? Beaches? Some old temples? A few luxury hotels surrounded by the shacks where families live on $1 a day and live in trash and dirt?
Sure, staying in a nice hotel, swimming in a cool pool, and drinking a vanilla coconut smoothie makes this destination somehow beautiful. But that’s not what in reality this country is all about.
Leave your hotel and walk into the neighborhoods where locals live on a daily basis. And those neighborhoods are actually right around the corner. Or simply walk by yourself through the city in any direction.
Get ready to witness some shocking moments.
During our one month in the country, we experienced all sorts of awful things.
A few times some dirty women in the center of Phnom Penh stopped my husband and our couchsurfer host (Australian who was showing us around) and asked if he wanted to have sex with their kids in exchange for a monthly rent. How charming is that?
Our landlord’s family was throwing trash right from their window in the garden that we shared together. We saw the same exact picture in many other neighborhoods across the country.
Our friend we traveled with was robbed right on the street in the daytime while waiting on us to get back from the store.
The same host I mention above, while walking along the road and talking on the phone, was dragged to the side by two guys on a motorcycle. They stole his phone and tried to steal his bag. This guy advised us not to carry any valuables on the streets.
Naked children and women were walking along the streets. People were defecating and throwing trash in the river.
And trash, trash, trash. Holy moly, how much trash this country accumulates until this day.
Oh, and in the middle of all of that, there were 60, 70 year old western men hooking up with underage local girls.
I am not saying that you will have a bad experience when visiting Cambodia. You may have an awesome one. But the reality of daily life in Cambodia goes far beyond luxury hotels, spa salons, and Angkor Wat walls.
To me, it is difficult to enjoy a place with extreme poverty, injustice, exploitation, disrespect towards nature, and mistreatment of other humans and animals. I am not going to return and recommend anyone to visit until something starts to change.
And I don’t have any desire to argue in comments with anyone who is trying to justify all the chaos that is happening in the country. Especially I am not going to respond to (more so approve) comments of old farts who are going to Cambodia for sex tourism.
If you have similar values to mine when you get deeply concerned about human rights issues, about people harming the environment, offending the law, not following safety rules, engaging in corruption, and trying to take advantage of tourists – you will NOT enjoy Cambodia. As pretty much many more countries in this world.
Otherwise, if everything what matters is visiting a place for Instagram photos or putting a checkmark against a new country on your travel bucket list, then, um, I guess you’ll find it attractive. The choice of luxury hotels is huge and your euro or dollar will go far.