Last Updated January, 2020
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 1000 words long, so at 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 was basically belittling my negative experiences and insisting that I portray the country in a 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 is trying to survive on a daily basis. 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 a 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 a driver, always voluntarily paying more for groceries at the market and not saying anything when sellers didn’t give change, etc. But unfortunately, locals were too focused on making an 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 to pay attention to those things is so ignorant. Saying how beautiful and charming this country is, is simply wrong. What is beautiful? That people are trying to survive? 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 enjoy your fried rice chicken and 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.
I wish I could find a similar post before going on my trip. Then I would have known what to expect.
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 on 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 sort of weird 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 day time 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.
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.
If somehow on your travels you are not noticing how much crap is happening in the country, please do not automatically assume this is a picture-perfect place.
Planning a trip to Cambodia? Take a look at this one-week itinerary. It highlights only the best experiences.