Culture shock


Having spent two weeks in Cambodia, here are a few things that were striking for a French guy.

Keep in mind I never visited another Asian country but Hong Kong (probably the most western place in Asia), and it was a long time ago (1999-2000). Closest would be Mauritius two years ago probably. I won’t be talking about nature, cultural heritage or history here.

First off, of course, this is a poor country. We passed many very simple houses on the way, made of wood, straw or steel. It doesn’t get better around large cities, as the poor are crammed together in small areas. The people are dressed very simply in these areas, and even if most seem supplied with electricity, they collect rain water, and seem to have very crude living equipment. I have seen or heard very few electronics (TV sets, radios…) outside of cities.

Even if most people are clearly very poor, a large part seem to live much more decently, at least seen from the houses. And what is unsettling is that everyone is mixed together : large, impressive, modern houses, side by side with wooden huts. In the west we have the decency to reject the poor in the suburbs where no one can see them :/ I suspect I have missed rich districts, or maybe there isn’t yet enough around.

Cambodia also appears to remain very heavily a land of agriculture. In the countryside, many of the houses were linked with farmland, mostly rice fields, visible everywhere. This requires a lot of manual work, and we passed a lot of people working on the fields. Lots of animals around too. Families were living with a collection of chicken, dogs, cows, and the odd cat or buffalo. Most farmers though were using engines to plow the land, not too many work with animals.

Another striking point, clearly demonstrated in the photos, is the abundance of children. They were everywhere (less so in large cities), smiling, waving, welcoming. There are also schools everywhere, with morning and afternoon shifts, to be able to accommodate all of these kids, with mandatory uniforms! Waving back to children was the delight of this trip.

Riding on a bike, we have seen the traffic up close, and it is a joyous mess. Everyone moves at once, and priority is given to the boldest, or the biggest, which are usually the same. This means the cyclist is a negligeable quantity, just above the pedestrian and the chicken. I’m wondering what is the mortality rate on the roads. People do not seem to drive excessively fast though. It’s often a necessity, as road conditions range from catastrophic to excellent, but average around dangerous!

Motorbikes are the predominant form of transportation. With super long seats, they can accommodate three people, even four or five including children. Very few users have helmets, much more have medical masks to protect from the dust. Motorbikes are the ones able to get anywhere and around any obstacle, like a van trying to turn left or right at a crossing. Right after them would be cycles, but they are more frequent in the countryside, and mostly used by kids.
Another regular surprise is the number of political lawn signs. At first I thought they were marking party offices, but they are everywhere. 90% are for the Cambodian people’s party (most political parties want to be “of the people” anyway), then the Rescue party (?), or Linpinchek, and I’m missing another one. The people’s party often displays the three notable VIPs, and I’ve seen quite a few signs for the prime minister.
Right after lawn signs come the beer commercials! I don’t think there are as many even in Germany. Angkor beer, Anchor beer, Cambodia beer dwarf commercials for farm engines or about anything else by a factor of 100 to 1 – literally. It might be mandatory to drink beer in the country. And as all three brands use the same logotype : strong red background, gold letters, they are easily confused.

These commercials are usually linked with shops or restaurants. You can find a small shop about everywhere, even by highways. Most of the time, it’s a table, a few products, a few bottles of gas, but it’s a shop! When they are more “brick and mortar” versions, they get their beer commercial to be more visible. In the southern part of Sihanuk, where all the tourists are, the streets are a long line of small restaurants, bars, souvenirs, mini marts, massage parlors, mini hairdressers, a few hotels, casinos, etc. Not a single residential home.

A complement to the huge number of small shops are street vendors. Whether on food, cycle, motorbike, they pop out of anywhere to sell snacks, raw food, even ice cream. They are the true equivalent of the NYC hot dog vendors, complete with repetitive music.

When entering a town, one surprise is the number of electric cables hanging around. It’s just as if each new home got a direct line to the town generator, adding one cable to the mass already in place for kilometers. Thing is, I’m almost sure it’s exactly what happens. There are hundreds of cables hanging from each post, some of them so loose they can be reached from the ground. Probably a maintenance nightmare.

Another such surprise is the scaffoldings. In Hong Kong they make them out of bamboos, even for 30 or 40 stories buildings. That was very surprising to me at the time! Here they are made of wood, but extremely simple : the areas where workers can walk is only one long branch, exactly the same as the ones used for the structure of the scaffolding, meaning they are always balancing over the void.

And after a trip to the US, my list wouldn’t be complete without a note about obesity. There are a few overweight people in large cities, but you have to find them. The official obesity rate is 3%, lowest in the world (ok Ethiopia or Bangladesh are lower). To be compared to 33% in the US, meaning one in three adults, ranked in the top 3 of actual countries (not autonomous islands). France is at 18%, in the middle of the charts. 


4 thoughts on “Culture shock

  1. R Ngo

    I remember seeing you ride your bike through Long Beach during your bike tour across the US. I’m not sure if you know, but the City of Long Beach possesses the highest Cambodian Population outside of the capital of Cambodia. Unfortunately, Cambodian immigrants face a similar situation in the U.S. Among, the many asian nationalities living here, they are ranked lowest in high school diplomas and higher education degrees BY FAR, according to recent statitics. There are exceptions, but this info is based on the whole. They are also have the highest rate of government assistance programs. Many point to the destruction of their society under the rule of Pol Pot. But I think there must be other factors that include cultural that contribute to the poor state of their societies today. Vietnamese immigrants faced horror in their own war around the same time, around the same region, but have faired far better abroad and are ranked among the fastest to prosper amongst statistics of the different Asian nationalities. Why have Vietnamese people fared so much better than Cambodians in the U.S. even though they are from a similar vicinity and immigrated around the same time? The reasons include the strising differences in the two cultures, their different ethnic origins (Viet:Chinese::Cambodian:Malay), their religious differences (Viet:Mahayana Buddhism::Cambodian:Theravada Buddhism), and even skin color (fairer skin people are granted better treatment and opportunities in the U.S.). All of this is fascinating to me and I love coming across studies, articles, and even first hand accounts like yours. Thanks for sharing.


  2. What a fascinating post. A close friend spent a couple of years in Thailand and Cambodia. Her blog rarely talked about the details of everyday life for Thais and Cambodians. (I love her now discontinued blog but the focus was different.) This was really an eye opener and brought to mind my ten days in India. Keep writing!


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