How to Make Cambodian Friends and Influence People: Expats Parallel Lives in Phnom Penh

Are expats in Phnom Penh willfully segregating themselves from the locals? That’s the thesis of French journalist Frédéric Amat in his new “Expatriates Strange Lives in Cambodia,” a critique of the life-styles and attitudes of Cambodia’s many foreign residents.

From the Phnom Penh Post’s interview with Mr Amat: “They [expatriates] don’t really open the window to Cambodia. They don’t try to speak the language. They are not interested in the culture. When they finish their job, they just go to the foreign bars, have beers with friends. They live in Cambodia, but they don’t really live with Cambodians.”

The new book quickly stirred up a storm of Internet indignation and soul-searching among Cambodia’s expats (and some locals, too). Not that this should surprise anyone. Most expats in Cambodia notice pretty quickly that the social scene in Phnom Penh is strikingly divided, with local Khmer and barang living largely parallel lives.

I definitely noticed the parallel universe thing quickly when I moved to Phnom Penh. For many Western expats, relationships with locals don’t extend much beyond work, shopping, restaurant wait-staff and perhaps work-related social events. Expats rarely just went and grabbed a beer with locals, and the reverse was true.

A Western expat might have a nice relationship with that Cambodian guy or girl he or she sees everyday at the office, but the two are pretty unlikely to run into each other in the Java Cafe morning latte line, or at the neighborhood Cambodian beer-and- roasted cow joint.

Locals are usually in rather short supply at expat parties, popular expat restaurants, and at bars that are commonly frequented by foreigners (with the exception of hostess bars that have a certain intrinsic reliance on local labor).

Hell, the fact I even feel the need to add the qualifier “expat” to a list of public locations indicates that something is amiss.

Why is this? Are foreigners in Cambodia inherently neo-colonialist jerks, re-enacting the bad old days of total French domination, forced labor without pay, and the wanton consumption of gin n’ tonics? Do we secretly wish we could still run around Phnom Penh in the back of a hand-pulled rickshaw while wearing a pith helmet? (Some middle-aged tourists apparently never got the memo on that one.)

As with most things, the truth about social segregation between foreigners and locals in Cambodia is a lot more complicated then that.

It’s worth pointing out here that most expats who move to Cambodia aren’t stereotypical, unenlightened racist pigs. Aside from the ever-popular sexpat crowd, most permanent foreign residents of Cambodia are educated, intelligent, and exceptionally open to new experiences.

Think about it:  it’s a hell of a lot easier to be an abhorrent racist from the comfort of your own pleasingly air-conditioned and clean Sydney/Indianapolis/Birmingham flat, than it is to willfully choose to live in a rented closet-sized Phnom Penh apartment with a persistent giant spider problem. So, we’re not looking at a demographic group that has serious intrinsic problems with cultural differences.

Than why is there this obvious, striking divide between foreigners and locals in Phnom Penh?

Probably because it really isn’t that easy to make local friends in Cambodia for various reasons, which we’ll get to later. And once an expatriate new in town finds a comfortable group of foreign friends who speak her language, understand her culture, and can totally sympathize with those never-ending gastrointestinal problems, putting forth the effort required to make local friends becomes a much less attractive prospect.

Take me. I felt (and feel) guilty as hell about my lack of local friends. I wanted to have local friends. I just couldn’t seem to translate intention into action, and once I had a healthy group of foreign acquaintances, it became that much harder to step outside my bubble and put forth a concentrated effort to overcome all those cultural and language barriers. (I think I did do the right thing by learning some Khmer, but I’ll get to that.)

I felt especially bad about my lack of local friends because I’d had a totally different experience while staying in India. When I was interning in Bangalore, almost all my friends were Indian, my co-workers were (mostly) Indian, and I had no clue where expatriates hung out – nor did I feel a pressing desire to find out where. I was deeply suspicious of expats and tourists who refused to associate with anyone who wasn’t a Westerner.

Then, I moved to Cambodia.

I don’t think of myself as a racist – I know, famous last words –  but I also have very few Cambodian friends, despite 15 months living in Phnom Penh, my work directly with Cambodians as a reporter, and my attempts to learn some of the Khmer language. This could be because I’m a douchebag, and God knows I won’t attempt to deny that — but it’s also true that a lot of my fellow Western expats, if not most of them, were in the same boat.

So whose fault is it? I think blame can be laid on both Western and Cambodian attitudes.

Many expats in Cambodia don’t work too hard at cultivating Khmer friends, especially because it isn’t easy to do. Now that that’s been established, it’s hard to discount that long-running and deeply held cultural and social differences between expats and Cambodians have something to do with the divide, too.

Traditional Theravada Buddhist teachings taught most Cambodians that higher education and persistent curiosity about the outside world weren’t much good – and the draconian anti-intellectual policies of the Khmer Rouge in recent history only reinforced this concept. Couple that with a culture that tends to value reticent, secretive public behavior – again, reinforced by the paranoiac Khmer Rouge – and you’ve got a recipe for parallel lives.

I suspect these cultural attitudes could also explain why most Cambodians don’t go out of their way to make foreign friends. When I was in India and China, having foreign friends was considered something of a status symbol among locals who had any command of the English language. You’d get stopped on the street by locals eager to practice their English and to find out more about you.

Although this eager solicitation of foreign friendship could get rather annoying at times – I started power-walking rather angrily through Beijing because of this, in fact – I realize now that it was a pretty easy and low-stress way to meet and interact with locals, that didn’t require me to put forth a ton of effort.

There is a real language barrier between foreigners and Cambodians, of course, but I don’t think this explains everything. Although Cambodians have pretty good English skills in general (especially when compared to locals in many other non-English speaking nations) you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody who just wants to shoot the shit, as is commonplace in some other developing nations.

Maybe Cambodians just don’t want to approach foreigners to improve their knowledge – or, alternately, they think it’s plain rude to rock up to a barang and ask if he wants to get a coffee and talk about grammar, the latest Jennifer Lopez song, and the pros and cons of Barack Obama.

It’s also worth noting that huge economic disparities exist between foreigners and the vast majority of Cambodians. You may work at the same office and do the same job as your Cambodian counterpart, but it’s likely you’re making considerably more money than he or she is. Furthermore, most Cambodians have all sorts of complicated  family financial obligations, whereas most foreigners in Cambodia don’t have children, aging relatives, an extended family, or an ailing water buffalo to support.

Family obligations, the expense of drinking, and social norms also mean that most Cambodians are disinclined to bar-hop until 3:00 AM on a regular basis – and I’m guessing that many of the Cambodians that do bar-hop until 3:00 AM on a regular basis would probably prefer to be hanging out with their Khmer friends.

Then, there’s the education thing. Most Cambodians haven’t had much access to education, and that’s in stark contrast to the foreign crowd, who are often highly highly educated (and would like you to know about it).

This does matter when it comes to conversational topics and cultural touchstones, even if we’d all like to pretend it doesn’t – after all, so much of conversation among the over-educated classes revolves around what-music-do-you-like and what-do-you-think-of-Syria-anyway and did-you-read-that-book-on-giant-squid. This is not anyone’s fault (other than Cambodia’s dismal education system), but it does create serious cultural and conversational roadblocks.

So what can a hapless foreigner looking to break out of the expat bubble to do?

I’m absolutely no role model, as I’m still trying to figure this one out myself. Also, I am writing this from a small town in Southern Iowa. Seriously.

Now that these caveats are out of the way, here’s some ideas.

– Every expat in Cambodia needs to learn some Khmer. No exceptions. I don’t care if you’re “really busy” or “bad at languages.” There are language tutors everywhere. They will charge you $5 an hour, they will likely come to your home, and they will probably provide with you all kinds of interesting insights into Khmer culture.

My Khmer is lousy, but just being able to hold a simple conversation with Russian Market Underwear Lady or That Guy Who Makes Keys On My Corner made my life in Cambodia that much more pleasant. Not to mention that Cambodians are almost always flattered that you’re trying to learn their language, are happy to help, and will only make fun of you a little bit.

And by the way – I’m just plain offended if your excuse is “Khmer is a small language, and this is a really small country, and I’m probably not going to be here long anyway so why bother?”

This is just a duplicitous way to say “This country and its language are crap. Why am I even here?”

Which begs the question, do Khmer people want to be friends with you?

Spirit houses for sale on the road to the airport in Phnom Penh.

– Read books on Cambodian stuff. You got a job in a foreign country, I’m assuming you’re capable of reading a book. Books on Cambodian happen to be really cheap and available everywhere – thank you, nonexistent copyright laws! – and reading as many of them as possible is a really good way to familiarize yourself with Cambodian culture.

Understanding Cambodian history  – and that means stuff that didn’t happen during the Khmer Rouge era or in Angkor’s heyday – is another excellent way to contextualize day to day life in 2012 Phnom Penh.

A working knowledge of Theravada Buddhism will also go a long way towards helping you understand why Cambodians do some of the stuff they do. Also, you’re much less likely to look like a total blundering idiot next time you wander into a pagoda.

– Never turn down a Cambodian invitation. Get invited to a wedding/Khmer New Year party/family get-together/beer garden fest/Pchum Ben celebration? Awesome. Go. This does not happen everyday, you’ll almost certainly have a good time, and the Guinness at Paddy Rice will still be there tomorrow in case you were worried.

– Re-evaluate how you talk about and to “the natives.”  If expats aren’t talking about nightmarish gastrointestinal problems, the latest Totally Shocking relationship drama, or big important world events (less common), they’re likely complaining about Cambodia and its denizens.

This is part of human nature in small doses, but “small doses” does not describe some of the virulent language I’ve heard from my fellow Western adventurers. Knock it off. I do not want to hear your trenchant observations on how lazy, stupid, and foolish Cambodians are. I bet that girl at the bar who speaks way better English than you realize isn’t getting a huge kick out of it, either.

And then, there’s the more subtle language of exclusion. Not talking about locals at all, as you sit in a Western-owned bar over a bacon cheeseburger and a Fosters, or dismissing most Cambodians as some sort of ineffable, inscrutable Oriental stereotype, is demeaning as well.

The most tragic car scribbles in Phnom Penh.

– Talk to locals, instead of talking down to them. It’s easy to assume that the locals around you are a bit dense because you have to simplify your language somewhat to talk with them. This is intellectually lazy as hell, of course, but it’s something a lot of people do. Don’t do that.

Talk to people. Strike up conversations at the market, at the grocery store, at the bar, or at a party. Ask questions about day to day life in Cambodia, ask about the kids, ask about the family farm, ask about music, whatever.

I know striking up conversations with strangers is really difficult to do in Cambodia, but it’s certainly worth trying.

This goes double for your coworkers. Make a real effort to befriend them and include them in whatever it is you’re doing. Even if they don’t or can’t accept your invitation, I imagine they appreciate being thought of.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’d appreciate more suggestions. Maybe we can make a longer list.

That’s the Western side of the equation, but of course, there’s more. Ultimately, it falls to Cambodians to write about how Khmer people might do a better job of reaching out to the foreigners in their midst – or at least write about how better a smart Cambodian might tolerate the Western deluge.

What’s the single most important thing an expat in Cambodia can do? Stop thinking of Cambodian people as a mysterious, inscrutable other race, even if it’s difficult, even if it gives you a headache. Even if working really hard to befriend and understand local people kind of sucks, and you’d really rather be eating sushi at Rahu while complaining about your neighbors 2-day-long epic wedding.

It’s extremely difficult to understand or identify with or befriend people from a totally different culture from our own, who exist in a different cultural paradigm, who speak a different language. I get it.

But isn’t that understanding why we live in a foreign country in the first place?

11 thoughts on “How to Make Cambodian Friends and Influence People: Expats Parallel Lives in Phnom Penh

  1. I still find it mind-boggling that Kabul, with its blast walls, curfews, exploding shopping malls, and oppressive gender norms, has a less segregated social scene than Phnom Penh, and that Phnom Penh has no equivalent of Kabul’s beloved Afghan-expat hipster coffee house, Flower Street Cafe. But there you go.

  2. Craig Etcheson

    Nice piece, Faine. But southern Iowa? Is that, like, on the way to NOLA, or did you somehow get lost in the cornfields? You’ve still got a few weeks to make it there in time for JazzFest.

  3. One way to start bridging the divide is to stop referring to foreigners in countries like Cambodia as “expats”. Simply, foreigners from Cambodia who live in, for example, the UK, wouldn’t be called expats. It may be nitpicky to pick on only one word, but I believe that this word creates a divide between “us” and “them”.

    Here’s what Andrew Kureth wrote here (
    Westerners don’t like referring to themselves as immigrants because the word “immigrant” has such nasty connotations…An immigrant is an unwanted job-stealer, while an expat is a foreigner who could be leaving any day now. An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure…Our usage of these words reveals a certain double standard. Whether you’re an expat or an immigrant depends not on your residency plans, but on the relative wealth of your native country.

  4. L

    Weh: Immigrant and immigration is defined as moving to a foreign country for *permanent* residence. Most expats in Cambodia are here for a couple of months or years, that’s hardly the same as moving to a country with the intention of staying there forever. So it makes sense to use the appropriate word for these short-term residents.

    Most Asian immigrants to the US also spend more time with other Asian immigrants, and I don’t think that makes them neo-colonialist jerks, either.

  5. pat

    Hi, I do well here without much contact with my fellow foriegners. The secret to getting on well with khmer is to treat them like equals. really! when they try to steal my motorbike I hit them a lot, when motordop says 2000 reil and get to destination and says $2 tell them to go away, when they dont hit them. make a deal with khmer stick to it. when they dont, bad luck for them. num one rule is to always make them lose face. works for me.

  6. Bacon

    I live in Cambodia 6 months of the year (to beat the British winters). I have many Khmer friends, go to Khmer weddings (where I am sometimes the only barang there!) and I eat more often than not in Khmer eateries (better and cheaper than Foreigner cafes/restaurants). I have English and German friends too who live in Cambodia permanently, but I admit they don’t socialise with the locals too often.

    When travelling in Asia, some of my most memorable times have been with locals, especially when travelling alone when Lao, Khmer, Thai, Chinese, Burmese, Malay, etc have invited me to join their tables and share food/beerwith them. If you make the effort with the locals you will find it a rewarding experience – try it!

  7. Jerry St.amour

    i was in Cambodia for 4 months and did not have problems making Khmer friends, not as easy as in Vietnam where I have lived now for 6 years but still the same, I found them very friendly and very interested in making friends with foreigners.

  8. Tommy W

    Godd f**king points there! I´m coming to Cambodia really soon hoping to stay for ages, and I, for one, would follow your advice & learn the language… I´ve got the money to do so, so why not? It´s almost chocking to hear about the xpats that´ll refuse … more of that pointing-with-the-whole-hand-routine… wish all could take this seriously, and in every country… then we could learn something about everything…

  9. Up in Siem Reap here. Nice article. Part of what I’ve noticed is an issue for most people is that we are creatures of habit. It’s easy and comforting to be around cultures we’re familiar with, especially when dealing with the new challenges of a country that has many shortcomings from our intrinsic expectations. However, it certainly takes a conscious effort and persistence, patience and compassion to really make breakthroughs with the locals here.

    What I’ve found is that people everywhere all are the same deep down. Finding that common ground is the first step to learning about them and their culture, and they’ll tell you everything about their culture and then some after you’ve gotten past the initial barriers.

    One other thing I’ve found is that Khmer have a sense of respect for foreigners and our financial successes. Because of this, it’s important that we initiate the interactions. The stronger always approaches the weaker in this culture and not the other way around.

    Also, don’t make the mistake of taking them to expat places all the time. Instead, go to their turf. They’ll feel a lot more comfortable and open.

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