Cambodia, fondly known as the Kingdom of Wonder is a country located in the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by Thailand in the northwest, Laos in the north east and Vietnam to the east.

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer and it is the only country in the world with this official language. Over 95% of the population practices Buddhism and monks in Cambodia are usually revered. I had the opportunity to work in Cambodia and this article shares my experiences in this beautiful country.

Working abroad in Cambodia is one of the most memorable experiences of my career to date. Before travelling to Cambodia be sure and confirm the visa requirements. Cambodia has a visa on arrival policy for several countries.

However, I obtained my visa from Washington prior to travel. The embassy issued me a single entry business visa. I am from the Caribbean. Some of the experiences shared will be from the perspective of a passport holder from this region.

Let’s take a closer look at various aspects that would help a smoother relocation to Cambodia.

Greeting

Cambodia has a very polite and respectful culture. The Sampeah is the official greeting. It is used both to say hello and goodbye. It is considered good manners to return the sampeah during the greeting.

There are 5 levels of the Sampeah and its use depends on who is being greeted. The Sampeah is usually performed with a bow and praying hands. The position of the praying hand gesture changes as follows:-

  • Chest Level- used when greeting friends or persons of the same age
  • Mouth Level- used when greeting bosses or older persons
  • Nose Level- used when greeting parents, grandparents and teachers
  • Eyebrow Level-used when greeting the king or monks.
  • Forehead Level- used only in prayer.

Medical

In preparing for your visit, review the information on the centre of the disease control website to ensure that you have all the vaccines required. I was also advised to have anti-malaria medication to take during your stay.

Medical facilities in Cambodia are limited. Royal Phnom Penh Hospital though expensive is one of the best in the main capital and is staffed with foreign doctors.

Church

As indicated above, Cambodia is Buddhist society. I am a Christian and worshipped at International Christian Fellowship which was located near the Tuol Sleng Museum. The church consisted mainly of expats from several different nationalities which provided a community to meet and fellowship with other believers.

Christmas

Christmas is not celebrated in Cambodia as in the western world. Businesses decorate mainly with a Christmas tree but not on an elaborate scale with garlands and wreaths. 

They also decorate much closer to Christmas day than in the Western societies. International hotels do meals for Christmas day; however it is not a bank holiday. Below are some decorations from Aeon Mall which is the biggest mall in Phnom Penh for Christmas.

Banking

Opening a bank account as an expat is relatively straightforward. A letter from an employer is sufficient.  The bank that I selected Phnom Penh Commercial Bank visited my office to complete out all the particulars and later deliver the bank deposit books.

 I chose this bank primarily due to the ease of transferring money to the Caribbean. The challenge that I encountered with other banks was that my country was blacklisted as a destination that wire transfers were sent to.

Be sure to have the wire transfer information with clear intermediary banks from your home branch.

Currency and Transactions

The official currency of Cambodia is the Riel. The exchange rate of the Cambodian Riel to USD$1 is about $4,100. In Cambodia, the Riel is used to for transactions less than USD$1. The US dollar is used everywhere while the Riel is used for small denominations not equivalent to a US dollar.

Comparing the costs of goods to the Caribbean, I would say that the cost of a week’s worth of groceries would be around the same price as I would spend in the Caribbean.

The cost of transportation via the tuk tuks was definitely more expensive when compared to a bus fare in the Caribbean.

Finding an Apartment

Western styled apartments were available in abundance with expats generally staying in areas such as Tonle Bassac and the Russian market. The apartment complex where I lived had persons from Europe, Australia, United States and Africa which provided a great opportunity to make new friends. 

Apartments were available fully furnish with the exception of microwaves and kitchen utensils such as pots, pans, kettles, cups and spoons. These are easy to find both at the supermarkets and at the markets such as Central Market.

Airlift

Several airlines fly to Cambodia such as China Eastern, China Southern and Vietnam Airlines. For international travel, one needs to consider flying to major Asian Cities for connections such as Changi Airport, Singapore or Pudong International, China.

Transportation

Transportation was very easy to access with tuk tuks available at every street corner. Being a visitor may mean that you may pay higher rates until you are aware of the local price from one point to the next.

Be sure to negotiate on prices given as they are almost always overly inflated. While riding in the tuk tuks be sure to hold on tightly as the traffic on the streets are chaotic and the ride could be bumpy.

In addition, if you are carrying groceries, be sure to secure the bags between your feet and the seat as I have heard stories of several persons having packages stolen while riding in tuk tuks.

The average price of a ride on tuk tuks are about USD$3 or USD$4 for around the Phnom Penh area. There are also several buses available for transportation to Siem Reap. I used PSD Express. This was a transport company which collected me from my apartment for transportation to Siem Reap.

This company was new and so were the buses. These buses had free wifi access and bottled water was available for the trip. There were numerous rest stops along the road all with different sanitation standards. Be sure to wear closed shoes or sneakers and have hand sanitizer.

Food

Generally, I was not very fond of Khmer food but there were certain things which I enjoyed. I loved the tea in Cambodia especially jasmine tea which I now drink in the Caribbean. 

The lemon tea and different types of ice tea that the street vendors sold were some of my favourites. I also was fond of sriracha and chilli that was served with chicken and even with KFC. Pocky became one of my favourite snacks.

The main supermarkets in Phnom Penh are Lucky Supermarket and the supermarket at Aeon Mall. The prices are comparable with some items cheaper in one more than the other and vice versa.

Super Duper is also a great alternative which sells foods all imported from Australia. It is advisable especially if you are new to the country that you consume imported fruits and vegetables.

There are many restaurants to choose from with several hotels in Phnom Penh offering buffet styles meals on Fridays. Cambodians love hot pot meals serving soups which are made by guests around the table with various different types of meat and vegetables.

Places to Visit

Tuol Sleng

Cambodia is known internationally for its history under the Khmer Rouge regime. During the famous water festival weekend which is a 3 day holiday weekend used to celebrate the end of the rainy season, I visited to Genocide museum in Phnom Penh. This is a historical memorial spot in the capital city.

It costs USD$6 to do an audio tour. This tour is available in 15 languages for example English, French and Dutch. 

This allows you to do the tour at your own pace and you can start and stop the audio as you wish. You can also do the tour without audio for USD$3.

The genocide museum is home to Tuol Sleng also called S 21. This was the secret centre of network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured under Khmer Rouge.

This was previously a high school before being transformed into a prison by the Pol Pot Regime from April 17th, 1975 to January 7th, 1979.

The tour takes you through the different cells which showed the beds where prisoners were shackled. These cells show clothes that victims worn, chairs which prisoners sat on to take photos once they arrived and object used to take the height of the prisoners.

Objects used to torture prisons and skulls which formed remains of prisoners with details showing how they may have died were also seen.

Prisoners were forced to abide by very strict regulations while at S 21. They were tortured, beaten with electric wire and shocked with electricity for non-compliance. In certain buildings, wire meshes were installed outside to prevent prisoners from jumping.  Many attempted suicide by jumping to their death.

There was also a gallows on the property which was previously used by students to exercise. This was converted into a gallows under the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge regime utilised the gallows as an interrogation room where prisoners both hands were tied behind their backs by a rope and lifted upside down.

This was done until the prisoners lost consciousness. Then the prisoner was dipped into jars filled with filthy water which was normally used as a fertilizer for crops. The prisoners quickly regain consciousness and then the interrogators continued the interrogation.

In the court yard of museum, there are 14 graves of anonymous victims of the genocide. In 2015 a memorial was erected with the names of those who died inscribed in gold.

The words read never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea Regime.

My Tuol Sleng visit was a sober and solemn experience! Between12, 000-20,000 persons were imprisoned there. There were only 12 confirmed survivors.

Floating Village

If you are ever in Cambodia, I strongly suggest that you visit a floating village to take a break from the temples. This was my first time ever seeing a floating village so I was intrigued to see how the villagers live. 

I visited the Kompong Phluk floating village which is a local fishing village about 45 minutes to an hour away from the National Road, Siem Reap.

Tours can be booked at travel agencies in the city. A half day tour was USD$18 which includes hotel pick up and drop off, boat ticket fee, tour guides, insurance and drinking water. 

The tour offers two different times, morning and afternoon. I suggest taking the afternoon tour as you can get to see the sunset .The morning tour can be a lot hotter and walking through the village would be a lot less comfortable especially during the dry season.

The tour took about six to seven hours including pick up and drop off. I strongly advise that you wear a hat and comfortable shoes preferably sneakers.

Visiting this village was such an eye opener as it gave me a deeper understanding of rural villages in Cambodia. There is no electricity in the village during the day with one generator which is used during the night in the community for light.

The houses are built on tall stilts to facilitate the monsoon rainy season.  The villagers earn a living from the sea. The children attend a school in the community.

Cambodia Killing Fields- The Choeung EK Genocidal Center

This is the most famous killing field in Cambodia where graves remain from the polpet regime. This centre which was previously a Chinese grave is about 15 km from Phnom Penh. The tuk tuk was USD$15 and I paid USD$6 to enter.

Prisoners arrived at the killing field from Tuol Sleng during nights. On the audio provided during the tour several stories were shared were people were tortured. One survivor told the story of a person who witnessed the beating of a woman for eating bananas. Another woman shared her experience of being raped.

During this period, families were relocated to the provinces and as a result many families were separated in the mountains. Many people died from lack of food and hopelessness. Prisoners were forced to make up stories and ask for forgiveness.

If you ran out of a story you were executed. Even today, there were few persons who I met who were from Phnom Penh. The majority of persons are from the country side which the Cambodians fondly call their hometown.

In 1988, a memorial was built. To enter, you must remove your shoes which houses 17 level glass cabinets where bones and skulls are stored of those who died. At the end of the tour, flowers were on sale for USD$0.50 where a prayer can be said in memory of those who died. 

In May, Cambodians celebrate Remembrance Day to reflect on life under the Khmer Rouge regime. Many other killing fields exist in Cambodia but they are in the mountains.

Angkor Wat

One cannot visit Cambodia without seeing the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat at Siem Reap. Constructed by King Suryavarman II by hand, this temple is an architectural beauty.

Angkor was initially the capital of the Khmer Empire and was the largest city in the world in the 12th century. Today, Angkor still remains an active temple where citizens engage in daily worship, prayer and meditation.

Angkor Wat is a symbol of Cambodia that appears on the national flag and souvenirs.  The area of the site is over 400 acres. I recommend that you wear comfortable clothes and shoes and adhere to the code of conduct. The following are some of the rules that must be observed at Angkor Wat:

  • Conservative dressing is encouraged at the site as it is an active temple. Revealing clothes such as shorts and skirts above the knees and showing bare shoulders are prohibited in sacred places.
  • Women should not touch nor stand or sit too close to monks.
  • Loud conversation and noise is forbidden at the temple.

Markets

There are several markets in the Phnom Penh area with the two popular ones being the Central and Russian markets.

One can find everything at these markets from food items, kitchen appliances, watches, jewellery and clothing. Everything that you can imagine is sold at the markets.

On Saturdays the markets are usually very busy.  Ensure that you are aware where you entered so that you can get out easily as it could be a bit confusing especially at the Central market. 

Be in the mood for negotiating as there are no prices quoted on the goods. Walking away is a good strategy as the price usually significantly lowers once you do this. The Phnom Penh Night market usually occurs on the weekend.

This night market has cultural activities like a band performing and local foods that you can try. Clothes and several other items are on sale but in this market, prices of goods are quoted on products. This gives you a better starting point for negotiation.

What to expect if you are black

Stares– from children pointing at you to the many many stares, this is something that you will need to get used to. Wearing my hair natural also created another layer of curiosity. Some persons asked me to touch my hair to feel the texture.

Questions– people from so many different nationalities stop you to find out where you are from. Few persons have heard about the Caribbean. This was a great conversation starter.

Pictures– I have never been asked so much in my life for my picture. People also try to take pictures of you without you noticing while others are bold enough to ask for a picture.

Sometimes if I notice that they are bashful, I ask would you like a picture. I remember one day in the supermarket a young lady was looking at me and playing with her phone following me. I knew she was trying to take a picture of me while I was doing groceries. 

One of the weirdest experiences that I had was meeting 3 girls in a ladies washroom in Pursat province. They asked me to pose for a picture then and there. I guess that what it feels like sort of to be a celebrity. Therefore, if you are planning on visiting, know that you will be often photographed.

Connected by colour- black people are excited to meet other black people. I have connected with other black travellers and it was fun. It’s amazing that colour has connected us.

Travel Nearby

Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam so planning a trip is no problem. I had the opportunity of visiting Vietnam via land border crossing from Cambodia. Getting a Vietnamese visa was very easy.

You can deliver your passport to a travel agent in the morning and collect it later on in the day. The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Ming City is about 6 hours. There are several rest stops along the way.

Fun Facts About Cambodia

  • Names are usually written surname first and then first name
  • Writing the names made it easier for me to learn and pronounce
  • Women tend to marry at a young age. It is the exception than the norm that a young lady 25 years old is unmarried. Married women do not take their husbands surname. Children carry their father’s surname.
  • Crossing the street will be a challenge at first. The key is to not hesitate while crossing the street. It is better to cross and stop in the road and allow the vehicles to swerve than to hesitate while in the road
  • Cambodia has a large number of public holidays. For example there were 28 days as bank holidays in 2018. There are three day holiday weekends for festivals such as Khmer New Year, Water Festival and Pchum Ben. Be sure to visit the Riverside for the water festival.
  • Line was the preferred instant messaging app used rather than Whatsapp. Facebook was extremely popular.
  • Carry a water proof shoes and umbrella for the monsoon rain
  • Meals are usually served with chopsticks and spoon especially for soup. Most places I visited did not have a knife when I requested it.
  • Cambodians eat savory food for breakfast such as rice and noodles. Eggs and bread are not usually consumed at breakfast. Eggs tend to be served over rice or noodles. Fruits tend to be eaten half-riped with salt and chili with tea after lunch.
  • Crossing your finger when you say the phrase let’s cross your finger that something happens is considered an obscenity in Khmer culture.
  • From my interactions at the work place, generally the Cambodians are good singers
  • It was difficult to find a hairdresser for my hair type in Phnom Penh. However, I was able to get some recommendations over time.
  • KTV or Karaoke is a favorite past time activity of the Cambodians. Many of the songs at the Karaoke are in English
  • Weddings are usually for two days. You will hear music at several intervals whenever there is a wedding. The groom is expected to pay a dowry to the bride’s family.
  • Orange is the colour of prayer and is worn by the monks
  • Many people do not speak English. However, the Cambodians are not too bad at English in comparison to other Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. I was able to get around just fine around the city.

If you found this article helpful , you may also find the following post about relocating and working abroad valuable. Feel free to click on any of the links below to explore:-

How To Prepare For A Job Search If You’re Relocating

How Working Abroad Can Enhance Your Career Journey

10 Tips For Working In A Country Where You Don’t Speak The Language

Final Thoughts

Cambodia is a captivating country with a diverse history and culture.

Working in Cambodia has really made me appreciate the uniqueness of this country and the resilient spirit of its people. I hope this article helps your relocation to be seamless.

If you found this article valuable, I will be grateful if you share it and leave a comment. For access to our free resource library with career templates, guides and checklists, click HERE to fill in the form. Thank you in advance for your support as I grow this blog.

A helptful expat guide to your relocation to Cambodia

 

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