The Reality of Daily Life in Cambodia – What You, As a Traveler, Should Know
Last updated on August 18th, 2022
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 the 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 the 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. There is so 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 anymore to argue in comments with anyone who is trying to justify all the chaos that is happening in the country. More so, I am not going to respond to (or even 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.
Wow. You have such a different impression of Cambodia than we do. We have visited several times (about 7 weeks total) and really love the country. Yes, there is trash, but there is trash all over SE Asia. Yes, there are scams, but there are scams all over SE Asia. Yes, there is extreme poverty, but that is true in many countries. Outside of PP (which we don’t like), we found the majority of the people to be absolutely lovely. So interesting how different people can have such different experiences.
This post is not about impression but about actual facts and experiences. Yes, there is trash all over SE Asia and yes, there are scams and yes, there is poverty. And I clearly state that in my post. Besides trash, scams and poverty there are other negative but important issues that have to be addressed. Children and sexual exploitation and abuse, extreme corruption, robberies, malnutrition do not even stand close to nearby Thailand and Vietnam, not to mention other countries.
It’s great you loved the country and thought the people were nice. We also thought some people were lovely. But the reality is not based on our likes or dislikes, it is based on facts.
I completely agree with the previous comment. We’ve visited Cambodia 5 times and lived there for 14 months and will return to live again this year. I think the terribly negative way you’ve portrayed it in this post doesn’t give a true reflection!
Yes what you say is true in some places, some of the time but the same can be said for many, many countries in South East Asia.
In the nearly 18 months in total that we’ve travelled, lived and worked in Cambodia we completely fell in love with it and it’s people.
You just need to spend more time there and really immerse yourself in it and get to know the people and culture to fully understand it.
Of course there are bad things, some times but overall it’s one of the most welcoming countries we’ve visited. Which given their recent horrific history is pretty amazing!
With the exception of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville – which I concede are pretty nasty and we avoid – it’s a wonderful country. Although of course it has its problems as do all countries!
Each to their own though!
Oh, how fascinating it is! Thank you for your comment, Tanya.
I think I am getting tired of giving the same answers to people who barely read my post. But I’ll leave it one more time hoping that future readers will pay more attention.
So annoying to see a generic “we loved the place,” “we completely fell in love with it and people,” “the same can be said for many, many countries in Southeast Asia,” etc. Is there anything else to add really?
First of all, NO, the same cannot be said about the rest of Southeast Asia (which I wrote about in my post, but you didn’t bother to look!) We have also lived in three other countries in Southeast Asia, traveled to many other places extensively and haven’t seen or experienced even similar things to those we experienced in Cambodia. Bangladesh is even worse than Cambodia, that’s true. Parts of India are pretty intense too, some of the islands in the Philippines and Indonesia are pretty horrific but other than that, other countries do much better. And it’s not only based on my own opinion but based on global statistics.
Second of all, there is a difference between portraying a place and sharing my own experience. I shared details of what we personally went through and how much it affected us, and yes, we didn’t like it so much! Sure, there are people in this world who encourage corruption, abuse, child labor, who don’t mind living in trash, who don’t care about the environment and love free sex and abuse. If you personally accept those things about Cambodia it is too bad but it makes sense now why you want to return! We personally do not accept them, do not want to be anywhere near and will not recommend traveling there unless they start improving and getting better!
There are millions of people in this world who are like you, but there are also millions of those who are like us. And this post was for them. For people who don’t associate themselves with cheating, corruption, abuse, disrespectful attitudes (what Cambodia resembles) and many other things I mention in this post.
And what really amazes me, how some people like you come to other blogs, read a post between the lines and then drop a comment on how a writer portrays a place in a terribly negative way!
I personally get always captivated by the stories of others, what they’ve been through and how their experience was. At the same time, if people have those negative experiences, it means that they do take place indeed. If I have been to Afganistan and found that people there were lovely, and nature there was mind-blowing, and food was great (taking into consideration their history!) still, I will never go to someone’s blog that writes about horrific realities and say how terribly negative they are. Because Afganistan is a pretty rough place for sure, even if I thought it was not that bad! Cambodia for many people will be a rough country too and they deserve to know what to expect!
And what I also mentioned in my post was that yes, others can have positive experiences in Cambodia. The hotels they stay in, the food they eat and the people they meet (there are good people in Cambodia too, for sure!) can have a positive impact on them. Each of us has his own experience. But it does not take away the fact that a lot of negative things are happening in the country and travelers should be aware of that too, and decide if that’s a good place to travel at all or not!
I have been living in Cambodia for 3 years now and can’t wait to get out. My contract is ending in 3 months and I really look forward to leaving soon.
I love how honest and straightforward you are. I was giving Cambodia 3 chances extending my contract and staying here a little bit longer. And with each year more and more negative and saddening experiences were happening. Like the last one happened a few months ago when someone tried to break into my apartment in Phnom Penh.
Trash is real problem in Cambodia, that’s so true. Cambodians are like pigs who don’t care about themselves and their neighbor, how they can care about the environment? They live, cook, sleep, breathe in trash. It’s not about money. I have been to many destinations around the world where people live poorly but they take care of their homes, backyards and neighborhoods. In Cambodia (as in other SE Asia countries) it doesn’t bother them.
He can have money and big house but keep piles of trash on the backyard, have too many rustic old things, doesn’t clean his house etc. it’s probably part of their culture but a definition of having something clean in Cambodia or Australia or USA is totally different.
This is the first post I find which honestly describes all realities and truths which are happening here, not just saying the same phrase over and over again oh how much we liked it. Can they give more information on bad and good, not just good and how awesome they felt?
Writer, you did a great job writing something not to please others but actually to speak the truth.
But I could probably add a few more realities that didn’t make your list. One of them, the new thing, is how sellers don’t return all change assuming a foreign buyer won’t check. It’s happening now everywhere and something to be aware of.
Hi Daniel, thank you for investing your time in writing such an informative comment. I know there are people who exalt Cambodia (or any other place) and pretend like what’s happening in the country is not a big deal, and at the same time, there are others who appreciate hearing about different types of realities, including the negative ones.
Thank you again for your input and time. I am sorry to hear about the robbery and hope everything is well with you.
I was in the cruise ship port city this Spring. Soon it will be dotted with high end hotels, restaurants, and shopping. The local people are reaping no benefit from this, even the labor is imported from outside the country. No one knows where the money is going that is coming into the country from this development. The local people will all be displaced to who knows where It was heartbreaking to see the poverty, trash and environmental destruction. This country totally got the short end of the stick after the Vietnam war. It is just baffling to me how the surrounding countries (maybe not Laos) seem to be thriving so much better.
Hi Jennifer, this is very sad indeed. We observed a very similar picture in Phnom Penh but with different reasons.
Many new beautiful apartment complexes being built each year but no one ever moves in and lives in them. When we wanted to rent an apartment in one of those buildings, we were told that they belong to the Chinese and no one else can buy or rent a flat there. But those entire complexes stay completely empty and there is no sign of life. Sounds really strange and more like money laundering.
I don’t think the construction really benefits anyone in Cambodia.
I arrived in Siem Reap in mid May 2022.
I did read the entire article and sadly, I agree with virtually every word. Yes Angkor Wat and the many, many other temples are a marvel to behold however, the poverty and lack of infrastructure is visible everywhere. For those who have made comments such as “we found the majority of people to be absolutely lovely”, well that is simply a word salad. Such a generalized statement means nothing.
If I were trapped in a country of poverty, neglect and corruption, I too would treat any foreigner with warmth and friendship in order to better the situation of my family and myself.
The reality of the situation for many Cambodians is a bleak existence with little signs of improvement. I find it difficult to enjoy the natural beauty and ancient temples when contrasted against the impoverishment of the citizens. I leave in tomorrow and am very happy to do so.
Hey Paul, thank you for stopping by to share!
I’m a highschool student writing an essay about my family’s history when I got slightly off-track. I wanted to thank you for writing this article.
I haven’t really seen a lot of the negative side of living in Cambodia in my google searches. A lot of them seemed to label Cambodia as a “must-see” because of the low housing cost and abundance of tourist spots and ruins. All of a sudden, the articles describing Cambodia as an amazing place began to feel spoiled and mislead.
In addition, all of the comments that sound like, “What are you talking about? I loved here for (insert number) months and it’s nothing like you described!” sound extremely fake in contrast to what my family says.
It really irratates me to see a place’s reality get covered up with such blatant ignorance. I really hope the ones who write these kinds of comments spent some of their months outside actually documenting what that place is like rather than staying at the tourist’s hotel/beach cafe. Just saying.
Thanks again, it was relieving to discover someone who doesn’t sound fake.
Thank you, Ridden, for your input! I appreciate stories that highlight the reality no matter how uncomfortable it may be to hear them.
I also have acquaintances from Cambodia who moved out from the country and they agree with each of my words.
Thank you again for stopping by and taking some time to share your thoughts!
thank you for sharing your thoughts. My wife and I have been a couple of times in Cambodia and we have now also local friends there. I agree with most of your comments. If you go there as a tourist, in a protected and sealed off environment…of course most things are nice, impressive and yes people are friendly, as in most places in SE Asia.
Covid is one of the factors that have had huge impact on the income of the common man, as tourism has declined and still today has not recovered. The other factor is political, as the ruling family pulls all the economic benefits to themselves and their friends. With the help of China they are getting richer and richer, at the expense of the population.
Cambodia is being sold out to China, as many other countries in SE Asia and Africa.
Hi Hugo, thank you for your thoughts as well!