Although quite westernized in many parts of the city, Phnom Penh still retains and respects traditional Cambodian culture. Highlighted below are certain aspects of the culture, societal norms, and the way of life here that may help a volunteer become more prepared for his or her experience in Phnom Penh. (Written for the GSC volunteer orientation packet)
Even though the temperatures are often blindly hot or humid in Phnom Penh, the dress does not call for beach attire. It’s normal to wear pants or a skirt that covers the knees and a shirt that covers shoulders. Yes, you will see that even locals occasionally wear short shorts or skimpy dresses (for women), but maybe save these outfits for a night out. It’s best to try to fit in as much as possible, you’ll already be sticking out far enough. And of course, there’s unwanted attention to consider.
Working with Cambodians
Even the working situation is going to be different. From bureaucratic Cambodian-run organizations to foreigner-friendly ones, predicting your working experience may be impossible. One helpful tip is to be culturally aware at your workplace. This means be on time for work/meetings, during meals do make an effort to converse but know that Cambodians don’t usually talk too much while eating, greet people respectfully, pay attention to your appearance, and know that Cambodians are generally known as some of the nicest people anywhere, so return their generosity. If you do find yourself in more of a bureaucratic environment, try to be patient. Some NGOs have reported struggling in Cambodia because of their attempts to complete an agenda that otherwise never gets done. You will have to rely on yourself to get your work done and be persistent if you experience issues in the workplace.
The most convenient way to travel is by tuk-tuk or moto. Not only is it probably pretty dangerous to walk in Phnom Penh, but also it’s also not very normal. Of course, if you’d like to walk somewhere, hopefully a near-by location, it’s up to your discretion. Keep in mind however, that you will be consistently bombarded by motos or tuk-tuks offering rides. The locals usually do not walk anywhere. Though there is somewhat of a standard for the payment of tuk-tuks, some drivers will certainly inflate the prices for a foreigner, but not all are so greedy. So, try to keep your cool while negotiating – just be politely persistent. The most you’ll pay is $6 for a 20min trip to your destination and back, unless you keep the driver for a whole day or whole night, which can get pretty pricey – up to $12-$15. Short rides usually cost $1-$3.
Travel around Cambodia is typically pretty straightforward. If you’d like to explore other provinces, there are bus companies all around the city, one of the most popular being Sorya. It’s best to buy a bus ticket a day or a couple of days in advance. Booking hotels online has always worked for me and you can ask the hotel about how to get from the bus station in town to their property. Crossing the border is a whole different situation. I highly recommend doing your research before committing to a trip that involves a border crossing from Cambodia. Many border-crossing locations are, in my experience, corrupt or at the very least, confusing. If you plan on leaving the country during your stay in Cambodia, make sure you have a multiple entry visa or only extend your visa up until the day you leave for your trip because you’ll have to buy a new one upon re-entry back to Cambodia. You can extend your visa at a travel agency ($25 per month for a tourist visa).
Tourists, or foreigners in general, have a peaceful relationship with Cambodians. It’s true that some are not fond of the late-night partying scene or bars, but really other than that, if you are polite than Cambodians really do appreciate your travel. They like tourists for the money it brings to their country and also because they know that tourists will go home and talk about their experience here. Locals have even told me that the dress tourists wear (usually inappropriate by Cambodian standards) is acceptable because, “it’s their culture.”
Cambodian food is exotic and most of the time, very delicious. There is a huge variety of unusual and tropical fruits, which are a common snack and dessert. Dishes range mostly from soups to meat or seafood dishes with rice. One of the most typical meals is a soup with vegetables and some kind of meat (sometimes liver or other innards) eaten with rice. Here, only a spoon and fork or chopsticks are used to eat, no knife. There are abundant international and western restaurants as well. Mostly all restaurants are totally safe to eat at (you won’t have to worry about something like the ice), except maybe think twice about eating at a sketchy street vendor – not that you should cutout this option completely.
As far as vaccines go, you may want to get the Cambodia specific ones (i.e. Japanese Encephalitis) when you arrive in Cambodia. First of all, the vaccines are significantly less expensive here. In addition to this, if you receive one JE vaccine in the US and plan on getting the other two or three while Cambodia, it’s often the case that the shots’ brands won’t be compatible and it is important to get them on the exact dates that the doctor recommends. Finally, the hospital here may have some vaccine recommendations that your doctor in the US did not consider. The Rabies vaccine, for example, is encouraged here. The most popular foreigner hospital is International SOS. It’s very well established and has English-speaking and also foreigner staff. You’re also likely concerned about stomach problems. Drink filtered or bottled water (brushing teeth with tap is fine) and be wary of some street food. You’re probably going to get some stomach bout here or there, but unless it is deathly painful, it will pass in a matter of days. Otherwise start on antibiotics or see a doctor.
Definitely try to learn Khmer. You will be rewarded with more Cambodian friends, lower prices, and certainly more respect. Even though a lot of people speak English here, they really appreciate it when foreigners can speak some Khmer (“K’mai” in Cambodian). Learn the everyday phrases, like how to speak in a restaurant or when you’re negotiating prices in a market. Don’t worry too much if it’s difficult for you, usually only a few phrases will earn you respect and English is the second language here.
One thing that you should know is that in Cambodian culture, it is not cool to lose yourself publicly. In general, Cambodians believe in “saving face,” which means not showing that you are very upset or angry. It’s also normal for Cambodians to kind of avoid confrontation. If there’s a problem, it might go ignored and if someone has a problem with you, you might go ignored (unlikely but good to know). For example, after I had accidentally paid for our bi-weekly water supply, our landlady told us that she had already paid too, thus paying double for the service. We thought, Oh we’ll just talk to the water people and tell them so we can get our money back. However the landlady insisted that we do not discuss this matter anymore and just forget about it.
People here are very patient and one of the most popular sayings I hear daily can be translated to, “it’s not a problem.” Cambodians, though tough and busy workers, are very willingly to do things for you and offer you food or a ride. They’re generosity is endless, so don’t be a fool taking advantage of it.
Public displays of affection are a big no-no, unless it’s friendly or with someone of the same sex (homo-sexual relationships are not really recognized). Even holding hands is an offence, so don’t think about trying anything else.
Cambodians have a prominent work ethic. They tend to wake up very early and work six days a week (Monday to Saturday).
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new things. One of these things is the snacks that are on display at food carts on every street. You should know that Cambodians are overall extremely nice people who want to help you, and they’re very curious about foreigners. Say “hello” to the “hello ambushes” you’ll be confronted with daily. Like many travel writers before me have written about Cambodia, if you’re having a bad day, just smile at anyone on the street because you are sure to receive a big, warm smile back.
– Bridget T, Cambodia