More about Cambodian mentality

Dear volunteers, I would like to give you some recommendations and notes to work with Cambodian people, especially with students and staff.

The Cambodian culture and traditions is difficult to understand for Western people, so it is necessary to know some principles that would help you to coordinate your work with them.

I appreciate very much your contribution and I am sure that Cambodia need the transference of knowledge, skill and ethics if it wants to develop its society. At the same time, we need to protect and promote the best of the Cambodian culture and traditions.

Good elements that you will enjoy

Cambodians smile all the time, even in the worst moment. It has to see with the Buddhist and Hindu principle of cosmic harmony. It means that the Cambodian smile does not have the same connotation of the Western smile that means friendship. In fact, if a Cambodian smile to you, they want to be kind, but the smile can have many purposes. The most simple one is that a smile is a way to say “hello” or “hi”. It intends also to keep your face, to make you feel comfortable at the site. In this order of things not everyone smiling to you want to be your friend, although it is always kind.

Cambodians are tender, they see life with happiness, they appreciate small things, beauty, harmony, art… If you want to win the heart of a Cambodia, you don’t need to spend a lot: just give them a flower makes them deeply happy. It includes men. You can see boys wearing a flower or a pink T-shirt just because they think it is beautiful.

Cambodians can be very much protective. When you have a good number of Cambodian friends, when they really love you, they can give their life for you. It means that they can arrange to keep dangers from you or things they consider dangerous for you, including other people or places.

They share you with their dear ones. If you get a good and honest Cambodian friend, they will share you with those persons they love more. They will bring you to their home, they will introduce you to their friends. It means also that the others will respect you in the same way. It demonstrates a very rooted tribal principal. When you become the friend of a Cambodian, you become the friend of all their family and friends. It is a collective friendship. If you try to isolate your Cambodian friend, you will kill the friendship definitively. It applies with love relations: If you marry a Cambodian, you marry their family too.

They are very simple. Even rich Cambodians are simple. Their houses have right the needed, very little furniture, no rooms, sitting on the floor, sleeping together (including with animals)…

They laugh for everything. They enjoy life and then they look for funny things and they see fun everywhere. When they see you working in your computer, they don’t think that you are working or writing a personal letter to your lover… they think you are having fun. As they are tribal, they don’t understand that a person can have fun alone, so they joint you and they stand behind you looking to your action until you will include them… just get fun.

What will be difficult for you

Education is very low. Even in high and middle classes (by the way, very few Cambodians are in the middle and high classes), get a very low education. In my 15 years in Cambodia I have met only very few high qualified Cambodians and all of them were studying abroad. Cambodians do not read books, for example. The ones coming from the Royal University of Phnom Penh are in general good, but still need more attention.

This fact means:

They don’t get Ethics from kindergarten to University. Most Cambodians find difficult to distinguish some good actions from bad actions. Ethics is replaced by feelings (remember that they look for fun? so, they can conclude that something funny is “good” and something boring is “bad”.) They conclude that a very kind person, gentle, humble, helpful is “good” even if he is corrupt and a tough and unsmiling person is “bad” even if he is a real professional and honest man.

If you are a volunteer and you concentrate in your work with a professional attitude as you do in your Western country, you could end as being seen as a “bad person”. Then you must show kindness, smiling, low voice and reduce your velocity… your plans must be reduced in time. Some years ago I got bad comments from my students about a lady volunteer just because she never smiled and answer greetings. She was efficient, honest and really sincere to support her Cambodian students…

They don’t get trained in a culture of safety. Mothers do not train their kids to cross the road with safety measures such as look to the right and left before you step on the road; you can see very small kids at the side of roads without any attention of adults, many parents don’t say to their children they should not talk with strangers like we do in our countries, they ignore things like electricity can kill – just two years ago a boy of Kep died because he wanted to fish with electricity: he entered the water with two cables and put them inside the water… his assumption was that the electrical shock would kill fish and bring them to him… he did not know that he would be killed also… nobody told him at the school. They drive motorbikes, bicycles and cars ignoring the traffic laws, because anybody can buy a license, children can drive motorbikes and even cars.

Following Buddhism and Hinduism, they think that people die or are wounded in accidents because the KARMA… it means, if a person got an accident, it is because that person did something wrong in a previous life, so even if that person cared too much about safety, the DESTINY will take him anytime.

They don’t know about hygienic because they were grown in Cambodian farms that are poor, lacking services like clean water and many things. When small children are sick or die, they understand it as a Karma or as a bad omen… even many rural villagers have killed people they accuse of witchcraft.

The Cambodian culture of work is based in rural life. 80% of Cambodians are farmers! It includes people living in Phnom Penh as they were in the rural villages. Many people in Phnom Penh City keep animals such as cows and chicken with them. Now well, the rural life is very much different from the INDUSTRIAL TIME:

In the farms you keep your own time, you don’t follow schedules and nobody supervise your work.

In rural life you have much free time, for this reason, you have enough time for music, dancing and art, but also for gossips, games like Poker and drinking alcohol!

In rural life you work hard for a time… then you take a long rest.

In Cambodian rural life you don’t have appointments and you don’t make reports.

The authority of rural life is the village. It has a council with a chief of the village. When there is a problem, all meet and take a common decision. The decision could be good or bad one, but if the majority is agree, they take it as a true. I knew a village where there was not a single toilet. Suggesting to them that they could build toilets, they answered that the elders of the village forbade it, because it was a damage to the Nature!!!!

The power of the PROMISED WORD is more important than a written contract.

In resume: Cambodian societies are pre-Industrial people. In many things they behave as people in Europe before the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution.

Sense of belonging to a company or organization is very low. In the West people joint a company, factory or organization and they think they hope to be in that company for many years. Then they spend time to know the mission, vision and identity of the company and they try to work hard and good for the best of the Company…

In Cambodia:

Most Cambodians joint a company only to get MONEY. They don’t mind about the mission, vision and identity of it. The best part is that they want to get a lot of money DOING VERY LITTLE WORK.

They don’t think they will be in that company for a long time. They want to work there for sometimes and then move to another place. Why? Remember the “looking for fun”? Well, after a time they get bored, so they need to move to a new place “to look for new experiences”, they use to say. It creates a future problem: there will not be Cambodians in pension in the coming years, because they change job very easy, so no pension can be provided for short times people. Another problem: they don’t really have a good and deep experience, because moving so from one place to another, you cannot do a career.

They don’t need to work. Contrary to what happens in the Philippines, Vietnam or Thailand where young people look for job, Cambodians are 80% rural. It means most of them have a piece of land in their village. It means that if they lost their current job, they still can go back to home, work at his farm and get relax… It means there are not in hurry to look for a job like in Philippines, Vietnam or Thailand. It means also another future problem: Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thai will come to Cambodia to take the best jobs, while the Cambodians will go back to their farms to relax or go to their countries to get low rank jobs… in fact, many Cambodians are going to countries like South Korea to work as farmers, constructor workers, while in Phnom Penh you can see many Koreans working as officers…

This situation makes that a Cambodian stops very easy in any job, because they don’t have sense of belonging, they don’t really need to work and they don’t see contracts as real laws.

Reasons to stop in a job can be strain in Western countries like: “my mom told me to resign, my brother is getting married, we have a problem with a neighbor at the village and I need to go to attend it, I have a problem with the supervisor, last week I had headache”…

Little creativity. In other countries creativity is trained since kindergarten. But as we have a very low education, teachers do not get much salary and formation, this is not in the Cambodian blood. It is a pity, because the Cambodian ancestors were highly creative – look at the Angkor temples and the beautiful pagodas. They love art, but when working, they show very little creativity to resolve new problems, to look for solutions…

Little initiative. As for initiative, it is complicate. There is a strict social pyramidal relations. As you know, Cambodia is a Monarchy. It means that the King is at the top. But there is a king or queen everywhere:

In the job Cambodians obey only the one who pays them the salary. It is difficult for other positions to work with many of them, for example managers, supervisors, etc. They do not see them as real superiors, only because they are not the ones paying.

If nobody tells me, I do nothing. This is a global problem and it goes against the Industrial Society. You can hear things like “This is not my work”, “In my job description it is not included” or “he is not my real boss.”

There is not vision. There is not an idea of prevention of a problem. Everything is centralized in the current moment. If we can avoid a situation for tomorrow, it does not work today, just because they don’t see problems for tomorrow.

There is racism and xenophobia:

Most Cambodians hate Vietnamese people without reason, but all think there is a reason. You can be suspicious in geopolitics, but you cannot blame an entire nation and it is what happens here. They blame all Vietnamese people, even children, the lost of Cambodian territory more than 100 years ago. It puts in danger Vietnamese people in Cambodia. Many Viet-Khmer people deny their real ancestral blood. Even Khmer Kroam, a Khmer minority living in the south of Vietnam with much persecution in that country, when they manage to migrate to Cambodia, they are looked down by their own Khmer relatives. The bad word against Vietnamese is “Yuun”.

Many Cambodians mind the color of the skin. If they see an African, some Cambodians can laugh in the street. Very little education against racism. Many Cambodians who are dark, can suffer discrimination. If you see Cambodian TV, you will find only white Sino-Cambodian people… Strain because most officials of the government are dark – and dark in many senses 🙂

They call Westerns “Barang”. Barang means French. The way to conclude that a foreigner is Barang is the side of their nose. Long nose means Barang for them. Now well, in general you feel welcome everywhere if you are a “Barang”. But in reality there are discrimination in these cases:

When you want to buy something, they rise the real price three, four and even six times, because they think that everyone with a long nose is rich.

If you want to visit any tourist place, for example archaeological sites, museums, national parks, you have to pay a fee – locals and Asians do not pay!

If you speak Khmer, many Cambodians do as they don’t understand you. In this case I have done several tests to prove that it is not that some of them don’t understand, but it is only an assumption that “a Barang cannot speak Khmer.”

There are many things and you need to open your mind to understand this culture, especially if you want to let a contribution to Cambodia. There are also many things to learn. You have to look for the right point to open the cultural inter-change.

Welcome to Cambodia.


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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 (

10 responses to “More about Cambodian mentality”

  1. 10110 says :

    I don’t think “Barang” has anything to do with nose.

    Barang seem so close to what Thai Westerners “Farang”. This word comes from the Persian word “Farangi”, meaning “Frank, European”. This in turn comes from the Old French word franc, meaning “Frank”, a West Germanic tribe that became a major political power in Western and Central Europe during the early Middle Ages, and from which France derives its name.

    In the old days SE Asian didn’t have any contact with Westerners, but they traded with Persian and India for century. That’s why they adopted this word.


    …If you want to visit any tourist place, for example archaeological sites, museums, national parks, you have to pay a fee – locals and Asians do not pay!… >>> It’s called price discrimination and It’s basic economics. It practices worldwide. That’s mean even in the States, Europe and Australia. There are reasons behind it, not just about profit, but I would not explain it since it would be to long.

    A sample of price discrimination in the western world. Just one. There are more but you can search for yourself.

    …In my mind, Kama’aina rates are economic discrimination. Economic discrimination happens all over and in close to every sort of business. Airlines and hotels are obvious businesses that do it, but so do grocery stores, cruise lines and even universities. The market and government accepts most economic discrimination as a standard business practice…

    Frankly I don’t understand why many don’t understand it and blame all to the Asians. It’s in every basic microeconomic textbooks I’ve read.

  2. Danny Chan says :

    Interesting observations about the Khmer mentality. As a Cambodian American who has spent considerable time Cambodia, I’d have to say that they’re quite accurate. I’ve created a blog that focuses specifically on the destructive aspects of the Khmer mentality and how they’re contributing to the challenges that Khmer people face. You might find it interesting:

  3. Anonymous says :

    I am Cambodian and I agreed. To help Cambodians, we need to state it as it is!

  4. Paddy says :

    Although much of what you said is true, this does not define Khmer people. Khmer people are very diverse. There are many people that sad out of the box you just described. One thing about Cambodia is that at the surface people follow the rule of what is expected of them. But underneath it all they are their own person or people.

    Khmer people don’t have short memories, actually they have very long memories, but they don’t process memory like Western people do. They prefer not to bring up things that will break the equilibriam.

    Sometimes when people write blogs like this it is based on their own experiences but one experience is very different from another’s. You will get very different perspectives and understanding of people. I think we have to remember that the Western Expectations should be disregarded when in Cambodia. It is very typical of Western people to expect things here and expect people to be a certain way. Rather instead of letting go of all the baggage that you bring and rebuild your own sense of self. Put yourself in the shoes of Khmer people from birth and see how you would see their world. You would probably have a better understanding of what you described.

    The issue of gender for gay and lesbian people will take you on another path and journey of understanding Cambodia. There are huge lessons we can learn from Khmer people if we learn to put aside our own expectations of people and let it go.

    • Albeiro Rodas says :

      Of course, Paddy. It is not a final elaboration about Cambodian mentality and there are many essays about, not only from Westeners but from many other cultures in conract with Cambodians. As you suggest, there are Cambodians, not a Cambodian. By the way, inside Cambodia there are many ethnics with thei own mentality. Thanks for your comment.

  5. olgacostany says :

    Interesting. Good job writing this.

  6. philipcoggan says :

    Hi Albeiro, a very long and interesting post. I’ve reblogged it.

  7. philipcoggan says :

    Reblogged this on P.J.Coggan.

  8. Henry Nguyen says :

    You neglected to mention that Cambodian has short memories, misguided sense of history, culture of betrayal and terrible inferior complex:
    . Short memories: Khmer-Rouge forgot Vietnamese helps to expel US domination, Hun Sen forgot Vietnamese helps to save his country from Khmer-Rouge genocide and Chinese as the second biggest murderer of his people (Cambodian is the biggest).
    . Misguided sense of history: until the Chinese and Vietnamese mass-migrations and development of what is now southern Vietnam (1500-1900’s), few Khmer people even lived there due to inhospitable landscapes and dangerous wildlife. They never exercised sovereignty but yet, claimed it was theirs. Meanwhile, they’re perfectly comfortable with the fact ancient Khmer kingdoms lost 1/2 of territories to Siam which is today’s Thailand.
    . Culture of betrayal: for hundreds years, Vietnam generously include Cambodian in the prosperity of the new land (1/4th of Khmer people are Vietnamese) with current cabinet members in Vietnamese government, more Khmer temples in Vietnam than in Cambodia and even Miss Vietnam 2014 was Cambodian Vietnamese as well as Hun Sen and 1/2 of his government were educated in Vietnam… yet, every now and then, Cambodian finds different reasons to discriminate against Vietnamese to the point of mass-killings (the word “Kap Yuun” or Kill Vietnamese is a popular vocabulary)
    . Inferior complex: well exhibited is when Cambodian only becomes aggressive a large pool of people and passive when they are minority, they talk proud but defer to light skin tone or Caucasians… today, they even incorporates their inferiority into politics of racism to motivate their people and artificially, makes them feel better…
    Unless and until Cambodian can overcome some of these deficiencies, they continue to be at the bottom of their neighborhood.

    • Ananas says :

      I have visited Siem reap several times and especially the orphanages including the one run by catholic sisters!
      To me a huge , huge dose of proper education is the only way out to all these cultural or rather even unhealthy prejudices of Khmer people. But before we forget, much of similar prejudices are present in every other race and culture, but that does not excuse the human race ! I am dark-skinned and have good friends who lighter-skinned or white-skinned and I care two hoots for their skin color. I prefer to see that they are appreciated for their loyalty to friendship, and natural love for human beings, otherwise I avoid them. Even if they are eating food that I abhor, I respect their choice. I pity them because the government is not helping them to improve as it should. The corrupt Immigration Officers can give a tourist a very poor impression of Cambodia and its people !

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