Three cultural crushes with Cambodian Mentality

  • To many Western visitors, Cambodia is a very attractive country, although its poverty and problems such as corruption. But is it really easy to live in Cambodia?
  • How much you know about the country you live in?

I call the three cultural crushes to the process of adaptation of Westerns in Cambodia. The first one is the enchantment, the second is the disenchantment and the third is the true adaptation. It is true that language is a very important element to know a culture. If you intend to live for a long in Cambodia, but you don’t mind to learn Khmer, it is like if a Cambodian lives in your own country and does not mind to learn your language. The assumption that English is an international language and that “everybody in the world must learn how to speak English” in order to be a “globalized citizen” and have success in the modern market society, it’s clearly a sophism, a distraction and a excuse for intellectual laziness. It is also a lack of respect for the identity of a nation. Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese don’t speak English and they are successful in the economies. The solution for the Cambodian development is not to learn English to facilitate the comfort of some expatriates. Those who are really interested in the transfer of knowledge to Cambodia, must learn Khmer or must cause the way to translate knowledge right inside the Cambodian Mentality.

The enchantment

students of social communication Kep 2012

The enchantment is the honey moon and this one is lived by the short time Western tourists. They come to Cambodia and feel admiration and love for the country and its people. They find Cambodians beautiful, humble, easygoing and always smiling. They feel pity of their recent pass of wars and the Khmer Rouge regime when they know the museum of the genocide. They get in love with the wonders of the Angkor temples. They get enchanted by unending views that could feel thousands of postcards, the greens of the rice fields, the beauties of jungles and mountains, the wonderful sunsets or sun rising in the Tonle Sap or the Cambodian beaches and islands.  Everyday is a day in Paradise…

They leave the country letting behind a good friend, normally ta motorbike or tuk-tuk driver who brought them through the places. Many even knew the poor houses of their motorbike drivers and decided to joint charity by promising to send funds so the poor guy, father of uncountable children, could build his chalet in a more dignified way.

Then… they promise to come. Back at home, they cannot forget that permanent smiling attitude everywhere, anytime. In contrast, their own country starts to look like a place of sadden and furious people… “I miss Cambodia, I feel like in a great jail in my city, with unsmiling people…

This first step of enchantment is very important for the development of  Cambodia as international tourist destination. In this phase, it is important that Cambodia keeps those values of friendship, welcoming attitude, simplicity and smile. These values can be threaten by a general intention of certain tourist agencies, hotels and others to imitate Western customs. Those who do so, think that preparing Western environments to tourists will make Cambodia more attractive to international visitors. Far from that. Westerns who come to Cambodia are not often looking for more Western environments. Maybe they would be grateful with certain comfort, but they want to see an exotic and oriental culture. They want to enjoy the traditional markets, the Cambodian customs, the language and the originality of the Cambodian people. It is why they travel from their far Western countries.

The disenchantment 

PREY NUB, 31 August 2012. Container turned over on NR3 in a problematic spot on Prey Nub. Photo by Bass Saylowna (Tula)

When Cambodia starts to reveal its chaos.

The disenchantment is a second step and it is passed by those Westerns who intend to settle in the country for a long or those who return to the “discovered Paradise.” It is the height of the cultural crush.

They start to see the limits and obstacles of communication with the Cambodians. One thing is to be a tourist and ask advice for a hotel or for a tour. Normally you will find the tourist tracks and thousands of recommendations by locals and expatriates. But another thing is to live in a country with a very difficult language and a very different mentality to your own society.

In this step, you discover that many Cambodians on the streets see you as a walking wallet or an ATM’s regular user.

To overcome this step, you need to be mature and tolerant. It is different to live in a hotel designed for Westerns than living in a Khmer village where people behave as they are. You have to remember that Cambodia is not a Western culture. It is an Asian culture and something more, it is a millennial culture.

In the disenchantment phase, the Western discovers for example that the everlasting smile is really everlasting and that even in a big discussion Cambodians smile. Then the Western starts to suspect that smiling has a deeper meaning than simple a kind attitude for tourism. It has to see with the culture of harmony and to keep the face of the other.

The Western discovers that he is very often misunderstood and that he misunderstands the Cambodians most of the time. That ‘yes’ does not mean necessary a positive answer. That Cambodians say ‘yes’  to most of the things. That they say yes to a negative question, as in Khmer: – Don’t you like coffee? – Yes (meaning that yes, I don´t like coffee). This particular fact of the affirmation of a negation brings alone several daily misunderstandings in Cambodia between locals and Westerns.

The Westerns discover for example that Cambodians follow a strict protocol that takes time. If a Cambodia has to tell you something, he will take time waiting for the right occasion to speak out. Cambodians do not shout. They do not show anger easily. They can keep their feelings until the right time. If you ask them an opinion, he will measure his words in order to keep your face, rather than speaking frankly.

They discover that Cambodia lacks for trained personnel. If you want to start an enterprise in the “golden age” for foreign investment, you will not find professional staff, even in the most simple jobs such as a guard, secretary or someone dealing with the post office. If you have some good CVs, you will discover that many so called professionals come from very low level universities where corrupt practices bring out fake professionals. The worse: they will ask you high salaries without showing effectiveness.

The True Adaptation

Don Bosco tree 6

The adaptation is the third stage and it takes time and several crushes. It is reserved for those who are constant and have the courage to go beyond. Those who are able to abandon assumptions, speculations and many things of their own culture and mentality to open the mind to a new world. Those who reject the idea to convert the Cambodians to their own principles or to teach the Cambodians what to do or how to think, while admiring the essence of their own.

It is the time when the Western accepts Cambodians like they are. After all, it is you who are living in their country. It is you who are expected to follow the Cambodian customs. It is you who have to speak Khmer language, to eat Khmer food, to listen Khmer music. In that moment, the communication with them will be easy and happier. In that moment you start to be a little Cambodian. Only in that moment, Cambodians will get interest in your own history and probably will try to understand you more than what you can imagine.

Updated on March 8, 2015

Are you a Western living in Cambodia? Tell us your cultural crushes in the country.

See also the 10 basic principles of the Cambodian Mentality by late professor San Sarun.


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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (

2 responses to “Three cultural crushes with Cambodian Mentality”

  1. Diana Gift says :

    I am in what you say second step and thanks you give an idea how to reach the third.

  2. Rob2 says :

    my cultural crush in cambodia is always to see garbage everywhere. Holy God! There is not conscience of public service? Clean the cities!!!!

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