Expat Culture Shock - Cambodia Style

By: Nick Kellingley

The joys of culture shock are often left unexplored until they become the miseries of culture shock. Many expats don’t even spend 5 minutes investigating the condition until they find themselves deep in the throes of it.
Cambodia’s not the first country I’ve lived in. In fact across the past decade I’ve lived in China, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain too. In all of them I’ve had varying degrees of culture shock. So how is Cambodia shaping up?

The Honeymoon

The first stage of culture shock is lovely. It’s rather like taking a warm bath on a Winter’s day except instead of water you’re doing it in someone else’s beliefs, languages, traditions, etc. This is much drier and requires less soap.
It’s this beginning that makes being an expat such a wonderful thing. You find yourself endlessly fascinated with the beautiful things; the cheapness of the Cambodian lager, the majesty of the Angkorian temples, the smiles of the local people and their friendliness and how tasty the food is.
You don’t see the horrors of poverty here. You look at people living in a tin shack who work for $60 a month in the outdoors doing hard labor and think; “How blessed they are to live in a society that isn’t obsessed with consumerism.” In essence you’re a bit of an idiot. You see the upside to everything and willfully ignore the downsides. You can’t speak to those people – who just like you would rather drive a Porsche than a donkey and would prefer to live in a house with a roof – so you make up an internal dialogue to match their smiles.

Everything Goes Dark

Then your happiness evaporates in the same way that Tonle Sap dries up in the summer. Welcome to culture shock round 2. Now everything is shit. That tuk-tuk driver who takes you to work every day; “he’s a conman”. Applying for a work permit; “I can’t believe the time it takes and the bribes you have to pay.” Even Angkor Wat becomes; “Distinctly unimaginative and doesn’t compare with the finest cathedrals of Europe.”
You’ve gone from being a happy but delusional idiot to being a complete ***hole. When you’re not raving about local incompetence, you’re weeping like a child and wishing you could go home. You start to annoy the heck out of anyone you come near. Nobody wants to hear you pour rain on their parade particularly if they’re in their honeymoon stage.
Cambodia is no longer your friend; it’s your worst nightmare. It’s a squalid third world horror and no-one wants to hear you scream.

Back to the Light

This doesn’t last forever. The truth is that in many ways Cambodia offers a lot that your home country doesn’t and in some areas it simply can’t compete. You can buy a pack of cigarettes for a $1 and smoke them in a bar. You can travel from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh (hundreds of kilometers) for the same as you’d pay to take a bus into town at home. The food is still wonderful.
But on the flip side medical care is terrible and expensive. You can’t always find people who share your interests and passions. You might even find that it’s too darned hot to visit Angkor Wat for much of the year.
Most of us find ourselves facing this at some point or another. For some the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and they enthusiastically embrace Cambodian life, they learn the language, marry a local and settle down. For others, they’ll never really fit in 100% but they choose to stay too because they still know deep down they’re happier than they were at home. The final group packs their bags and goes home; they come to a realization that Cambodia is no longer where they want to be.
All of these reactions are fine. We’re all different; we all get to say we’ve experienced Cambodia and if our experiences aren’t the same that’s all well and good.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingNick Kellingley is a British expat living in Cambodia. Blog description: Cambodia Creatives an insight into living in Siem Reap and Cambodia at large. Tips, reviews, personal stuff and more.
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Contest Comments » There are 17 comments

Regan wrote 11 years ago:

Nick great work, cracking article. You vividly describe this place in great detail, which makes Cambodia come to life, especially for those of us who are yet to frequent such a place. Although I haven't been there, what you have described is very reminiscent of my life in China, and for me, the honeymoon-effect wore off a long , long time ago. Good luck with the competiton Cheers E.K (Regan)

Charlie wrote 11 years ago:

Nice read.. I am an expat, though not in SE Asia, but Europe.. the changes you map are also valid when applied to within the same continent, though in many ways to a lesser degree. I visit SE Asia once or twice every year on business and for me personally, I swing between the first and second stages even though officialy classed as a tourist, and as such should not be entitled in many expats opinion to even take a step outside of stage 1, but alas, if you take the time to learn about a culture and accept that not all the smiles are real and not all the things you take for granted as a tourist passing through need to be accepted at face value, you can peep into what lies beneath the thin veneer of what you are presented with and take a look at some of the ingredients that make up the dish known as global tourism. nice read.. thanks

Nick Kellingley wrote 11 years ago:

Thanks again to everyone who has commented. @Harry - Sorry you feel that way. I really like Cambodian food - I'd take a beef lok lak over anything I've had in Thailand. @Val - Yes, I have a feeling that if I ever return to the UK the adjustment will be dramatic. Sorry, you're having a hard time of things in France. On the bright side - culture shock doesn't last forever - though it might feel like that at times.

Philip Clarke wrote 11 years ago:

Tickled Pink,well written,good reading,i'm packing my bags to experience Cambodia. Good luck my Friend doesn't Labor have a "U" in it somewhere?

Shakira wrote 11 years ago:

Sounds like a brilliant yet completely bi-polar adventure. Interesting read, thanks.

Albert Ross wrote 11 years ago:

I've been through the same stages in Nigeria, Brazil and Argentina. I've also noticed, to a greater or lesser extent, that some people are prepared to accept that cultures are different and mould themselves to the culture. The ones that fail try and mould the culture to themselves.

Paul Soldner wrote 11 years ago:

Brilliant! I absolutely love watching expats go through these stages, while I sit back and chuckle.

Keith Hancock wrote 11 years ago:

Fantastic piece. I lived there for a while and like to hope that I didn't reach the arsehole stage of round 2! I loved it and your piece certainly captures the honeymoon period that I experienced and the round 2 that I witnessed in others. Tired expats moaning about everything when the sun is hot, the swimming pool cool and the beer cold and cheap as chips didn't sit well with me. Great piece of writing though. Good luck with the competition. I look forward to readingg more of your stuff in the near future.

Richard Crowley wrote 11 years ago:

What a great read. Nick is a great writer.

Nick Kellingley wrote 11 years ago:

Hi Everyone, Thanks for your kind words. Albert - I agree that those who expect the world to bend for them can find expat life very, very traumatic indeed. I once wrote a very long (probably too long in retrospect) analysis of culture shock early in my expat life. Here I wanted to focus on just the very high-level side of things. But I think there's a whole lot more to be said regarding culture shock for everyone. :-) Thanks again, Nick Kellingley

Crystal Goes To Europe wrote 11 years ago:

"You can’t speak to those people – who just like you would rather drive a Porsche than a donkey and would prefer to live in a house with a roof – so you make up an internal dialogue to match their smiles." This is just how I felt during a recent trip to Thailand (my first time in SE Asia). The people were smiling all the time, and because I didn't stay long enough to get past the honeymoon phase, I didn't see the poverty and sadness that can lie hidden behind those smiles. Nick, this is a beautifully written piece and an interesting read.

E.S. Sharp (Cynic) wrote 11 years ago:

From an expat in Thailand who also lived in China, I've also gone through those stages. Thes best way to realize how good you have it, is to go home for a bit. It doesn't take lonng before your looking for flights back to SE Asia. Best wishes my friend!

Harry wrote 11 years ago:

The food is definitely not wonderful, most of the time it is bloody awful.

Mademoiselle Val wrote 11 years ago:

Nice blog, Nick. I'm sure all expats have experienced those feelings, in that order or a different one, sometimes more than once, sometimes all at the same time. It seems like you will probably never write anything about reverse culture shock. Good for you, because it is probably worse than the culture shock. I guess death must feel somewhat similar...

Charles Kirtley wrote 11 years ago:

Nice piece. Good luck.

Daniel wrote 11 years ago:

Your blog has illuminated just how much the country has to offer - so in the words of Jello Biafra perhaps it's time to take a "holiday in Cambodia".

Digiteye wrote 11 years ago:

I must second Harry's opinion. Food is awful in Cambodia, mostly if someone has ever tried Thai and considers Thailand is just a few hours drive away. Khmer "cuisine" is like cooking of elementary school girls who try to surprise Mom on her birthday with some Thai food. Another thing: food is expensive - at least in Siem Reap, and I am not talking about the tourist feeding establishments. The dirtiest run down places charge over a dollar for a fried rice that contains nothing but a few chicken bones and some green leaves, otherwise tasteless. The same money buys you a nice dish in Malaysia. While the Philippine "cuisine" is particularly tasteless and lacks flavoring apart from Ajinomoto, at least its pretty cheap. In the countryside you can buy a fried chicken piece and rice below a dollar. Try that in Cambodia.

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