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FAQ (and not so FAQ)


Most recent update: May 17, 2010

1.) I would like to bring some gifts for the children, what would be best?
2.) I want to help Cambodia. Maybe work for an NGO or something like that, what can I do?
3.) Those children are so cute. Can I take one or two home with me?
4.) Can I talk about the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot years with the locals?
5.) What's the weather like and how might it affect my travel plans?
6.) Is there much of a language barrier in Cambodia?
7.) I'd like to learn to speak Khmer. Is it easy?
8.) Is it possible to sponsor someone's education in Cambodia?
9.) We are a mixed couple (white man, Asian/Asian descent woman), will we have any problems in Cambodia?
10.) What's the drug scene here?
11.) I feel so sorry for these people, what should I do?
12.) Things move rather slowly here, huh?

Q: I would like to bring some gifts for the children, what would be best?

A: Nothing. Bring nothing. Give nothing. Oh, that's a harsh answer, I know, but... This country is already on the dole. With huge amounts of international aid pouring in there's already too much of a 'why invest our own money and energy when some foreign government or NGO will do it for us?'. This trickles all the way down to the little kids who, as the recipient of small presents from foreigners, will only come to see foreigners as a source of free handouts. You might think you're doing something cute and nice, but such actions have a lot of negative repercussions which you will never see.

And what are you trying to accomplish anyway? Appease some sense of guilt because you're well off and they are not? Bestow gifts upon the little people? If you want to make some kids happy, just spend time with them. Joke around, play some games. If you have a digital camera, take some photos and play them back to the kids. There are many ways to put smiles on faces that don't require the dispensation of material goods. So, please, while there's nothing wrong with bringing a basket of fruit if making a home visit, as is a local custom, or helping out an individual who demonstrates a genuine effort to help themselves, don't be a patronizing twat and turn up somewhere with a bag of candy or pens or whatever and start tossing them out to expectant little hands... Santa Claus isn't real.

Q: I want to help Cambodia. Maybe work for an NGO or something like that, what can I do?

A: Quite a few times I've been asked this very general question. My first response is the obvious... what do you want to do and what are your skills? If it's your desire to come and work for an aid organization, then find one that does something *you* are interested in doing. Do you want to teach? Do you want to work in human rights? Women's rights? Health care? Poverty? Consider your skills and decide what you want to do and then find an organization that's doing the same. If I were the director of an aid organization and you came to me with a very general "I want to help Cambodia", I would not give you a job. Be specific and look for an organization that does what you want to do, not the reverse. Give yourself a specific goal, then look for a way to put it into action. Find an organization that fits your objectives rather than trying to fit yourself to the organization.

Time for another reality check. Cambodia is full of idealistic individuals with lofty ideas coming to save all the Cambodians from whatever it is they need saving from. Be prepared for a lot of frustrations. Be prepared to watch people you want to help shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity. Be prepared that as you do the right thing of teaching a man to fish rather than giving the man a fish, he only turns around and steals fish from you instead.

But there are a lot of good folks here - a lot more good than bad, Khmer and foreign, but there are also a lot that will frustrate you no end, again Khmer and foreign. For the past decade there has been a revolving door of do-gooder NGO workers coming here who only turn around a year later and go home full of disillusionment. If you're coming here thinking you can make a difference I suggest two things - one, think small. You know the old saying, "think globally, act locally"? Learn it. Live it. And two, be realistic about the people and world around you. You can't save them all and no matter how much you try, a lot of people are going to crash anyway.

And what is your agenda? Is it political? Then stay home. Is it religious? Stay home again. The Cambodian political system is not one that welcomes foreign interference and there is no reason why it should. And religion, well, Cambodia is a Buddhist country and quite happy to be so. Leave it alone.

Q: Those children are so cute. Can I take one or two home with me?

A: Well, yes. Cambodia is a popular country to adopt from these days. Unfortunately there have been a lot of issues about the origin of the children as to whether they were really orphans or was the mother paid for her baby and paid a small fraction (like 1 or 2%) of the total money the adoption agency collected. As a result, a few years ago the US embassy stopped issuing visas for these children, leaving a number of would-be parents stuck in Phnom Penh in a state of limbo. And I do believe that other nations have followed suit. Of course, the US embassy in Phnom Penh is rather useless anyway, so it would come as no surprise to anyone that they'd get all screwed up over baby adoptions.

In any event, yes, there are a lot of orphans here, and with the growing HIV-rate, it is expected that this number will increase. If you are looking to adopt an Asian child, than Cambodia might be worth looking into, but be prepared for frustrations, especially if you're American.

Q: Can I talk about the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot years with the locals?

A: Most of the time, yes. I've found many Cambodians quite willing to talk about their experiences, sometimes quite candidly. However, as this is not universal, should you be talking with a Cambodian and want to know about his or her personal experiences during this time, you might want to dance around the issue a little and see what their reaction is. More often than not, they'll tell you. My former landlord, who went through horrors most of us couldn't even imagine in our worst nightmares, will rattle on for hours (especially if he's been drinking) about the Pol Pot years and the subsequent civil war he had to endure. There are some horrific stories out there and almost anybody over the age of forty can relate one. I think they're worth listening to.

On a more cynical note, there are those who have been known to embellish significantly their histories in the hopes of gaining sympathy and particularly a little extra cash out of you. It's unfortunate, but true.

Q: What's the weather like and how might it affect my travel plans?

A: It's hot. Sometimes very hot. How many ways can you say hot?

The best weather is in December and January when humidity is low, daily highs around 30 Celsius (86 Yankee degrees), and almost no rain. It's practically the best weather in the world. Mid-February it starts to heat up and by April, temperatures of 40 degrees (104 Yankee degrees) can occur. Most people just sit around and sweat. I go to China or somewhere.

Rainy season usually kicks in the end of May and normally lasts through the end of October. The heaviest rains are usually in September and October. Nobody can predict the weather, but the rainy season can pretty much be divided into three possible scenarios:

1.) The most likely occurrence is several brief showers a day, albeit quite heavy at times, divided by periods of sunshine. Rarely is flooding much of a problem and the regular showers bring out all sorts of colors - the bright green of the landscape, the play of light as the sun comes out on moist temples, etc. This really is a good time to visit Cambodia, especially the Angkor temples. Crowds aren't too bad, the jungle is lush, and the lighting can be quite good. If you're really lucky, you might even catch a rainbow over Angkor Wat. Your holiday will not be overly inconvenienced by rains of this nature.

2.) Next is the possibility that it won't rain at all. It's not uncommon during the rainy season to have periods of a week, two weeks, sometimes even a month of almost no showers.

3.) The least likely scenario is that it starts raining on Monday and stops on Friday. Some days may bring as much as 250mm of rain (10 Yankee inches). We had one stretch in July 2001 where it rained for four days straight dropping, I would roughly guess, about 500mm (20 Yankee inches) of rain, with half that falling the first day. My house was completely surrounded by water for weeks afterwards. Fortunately, rains of this magnitude occur some years not at all, and other years at most two or three times. They are not par for the season.

Fear not the rain, while scenario #3 could still happen, it more than likely will not. Just bring an umbrella.

Q: Is there much of a language barrier in Cambodia?

A: In Siem Reap and Phnom Penh the level of foreign languages spoken is quite high. English is the most widely spoken foreign language and it seems everybody remotely connected with tourism (guides, hotel staff, moto drivers, taxi drivers, souvenir sellers, etc.) can speak some English. Many speak English extremely well. English alone can get you around Cambodia quite easily. There are also many Cambodians who can speak Japanese, French, and Thai. Japanese is predominantly the domain of the young and French the domain of their parents. The level of Thai is especially high in western Cambodia. However, out in the countryside foreign languages practically disappear. Korean is for obvious reasons, becoming more widely known in certain circles.

For a country with such a poor educational system the level of knowledge of foreign languages here is quite admirable. Many young Cambodians are very eager to learn English or Japanese.

Q: I'd like to learn to speak Khmer. Is it easy?

A: No. Not that easy. At least I don't think so, though there are some who seem to pick it up quite easily. While thankfully Khmer is not a tonal language like all of its neighbors', there are some extremely complex consonant clusters that are quite challenging to westerners. Also, like most Asian languages, pronunciation must be much more exact than with western languages and the slightest mispronunciation can leave your listener utterly perplexed. Still, many foreigners living in Cambodia have mastered the language extremely well.

Reading and writing is another matter. Khmer is an extremely difficult language to read and write and few foreigners have learned to do so.

For the record, my Khmer is nowhere near what it should be, though I do speak some and can read a little. This is for a variety of reasons, and yes, laziness is among them. If it is your desire to learn Khmer there are plenty of opportunities to do so in Phnom Penh but much less so elsewhere in the country though Khmers are very eager to help you learn anywhere anytime.

Unlike Thailand, where most Thais seem astonished that any foreigner can speak their language regardless of how many years you've lived there, Cambodians do expect expatriate residents to have at least some competence in their language and seem to feel a little insulted, and rightly so I'd say, when you cannot. Tourists of course, are not expected to speak any Khmer.

Q: Is it possible to sponsor someone's education in Cambodia?

A: A lot of people come to Cambodia and decide to sponsor the education of a teenager or at least provide for English classes and perhaps some kind of vocational training. This is a very admirable decision. BUT..... there are plenty of potentials pitfalls as well as scams related to the sponsoring of education. Therefore if it is your desire to sponsor an education please consider the following:

1.) I know someone might get upset with me for saying this, but I suggest the sponsoring of girls only. Boys in this country are already given too many advantages in comparison to their sisters. And in many cases sponsored girls perform far better in class than the sponsored boys. Quite frankly, boys can be lazy. Particularly when given something for nothing.

Still, trying to keep these girls in school no matter how capable they may be is all too often an uphill battle with the parents. "Why don't you educate our boys?" they'll say. Or just as likely they'll agree to let the girl go to school only to yank her out a few months later. Another problem is they may take the money and funnel it to one of their sons.

2.) If you plan to sponsor someone, be very sure you have full cooperation from the parents and that you have a way to check up regularly to see that the student stays in school and in the case of a girl, to see that the parents don't start sending one of their sons in her place.

3.) Pay the school directly and do not send money to the family, as the money may very well never be used for school. Australian Centre for Education, a language school with several provincial branches, educates many sponsored students. You can pay them directly and you receive two reports per term as to the student's attendance and performance. For more information e-mail info@acecambodia.idp.edu.au or see their website www.idpcambodia.org/ACE. Their main building is on Street 214 in Phnom Penh just east of Monivong.

For additional information about scams relating to the sponsorship of students. Please see the FAQ - Tourism section, What scams should I worry about? (scam #5).

Q: We are a mixed couple (white man, Asian/Asian descent woman), will we have any problems in Cambodia?

A: Highly unlikely. A majority of Cambodians seem to care little about this and will most likely recognize quite readily that you are both foreigners and the relationship is legit. If by chance the woman is an Overseas Khmer, locals will probably be more interested in knowing about her life overseas than caring that she's with a white guy. If she's a local Cambodian (or appears to be), there may be the occasional rude, though sometimes extremely rude, comment made behind your backs by Cambodian men, but you won't understand it, anyway. Though she might and it will be her that it will be directed to. That said, nobody I know loses any sleep over it and I don't know of any cases ever where violence was involved.

The most important thing is to act like a respectable couple - this means no public displays of affection, which by conservative Cambodian standards even eliminates hand holding. If you act like a respectable couple then you can expect to be treated with respect.

Q: What's the drug scene here?

A: Weed is plentiful, cheap and easy to get but is not always of particularly high quality. The better stuff costs about $400 a kilo (for metrically challenged Yanks that's $180 a pound). Do not e-mail me asking for specific help in scoring weed. I'm not going to answer such a question. Go ask a motodriver, though weed supplied by motodrivers tends to border on the unsmokable.

Ecstasy is floating around and regrettably, the ya baa (speed) craze has spread from Thailand into Cambodia. Special K can be bought from pharmacies, as can morphine, though both drugs have recently become much more difficult to locate. For more details on purchasing drugs that, at least in the west, require a prescription, see the Health section of this FAQ. Smack and coke are here but you'll need to take the initiative to find it. Be very careful as the quality/purity of these drugs can be highly erratic and you could end up with useless white powder, or at the other extreme you could end up dead. A couple of tourists do manage to OD here every year. Hallucinogens (LSD, mushrooms) seem to be quite scarce and opium appears still to be more of a Northern Thailand thing.

Also keep in mind that if you're asking a motodriver to score anything that comes in a white-powdered form, what you want and what you actually get may not be the same thing. Be careful.

In terms of law enforcement, things are more lax than in neighboring countries but it is nothing like it was a few years ago when you could easily buy cheap weed in the markets and smoke it rather openly. People still smoke in the open but be careful the odor isn't picked up by a cop needing a few bucks for the upcoming weekend or even a local who knows a cop needing a few bucks for the upcoming weekend. As with many vices, things are getting much stricter now and be very careful with any drug other than weed, and even then, don't feel it's your right to smoke where and when you want because you can't. Exercise discretion. See also the Legalities section.

Q: I feel so sorry for these people, what should I do?

A: You can do any of the following:

1.) Give them all your money. In the long run, you won't do the country any good, but perhaps in the short term it might make you feel better. Probably not the best choice.

2.) Be a bleeding heart. But you will bleed to death. And if you bleed to death, you become a martyr. And if there is one thing martyrs all have in common it's that they're dead. And if you're dead you'll be of no use to anyone. Probably not a very good choice either, though the world could always do with a few less bleeding hearts.

3.) Get over it. Show some dignity and respect. Cambodia wants to be treated like a normal country. So do it. Treat people like you would want to be treated. Treat them as equals. This country is trying to get back on its feet and as harsh as it sounds, sometimes a kick in the ass does a lot more good than a "There, there, it's all right. You just sit yourself down and we'll give you money and do all your work for you."

Do not walk around looking at people's faces for signs of the 1970s, but instead look for signs of the future, of hope, of a better life for their children. Don't give away fish. Teach people to fish. Don't cry for their past. Reward the accomplishments and press for improvement with the failures. Do not be an apologist. Do not excuse negative behavior because of what this country has been through, but encourage positive change.

Cambodia has done an amazing job recovering psychologically from the 1970s internal insanity (I find it amazing that there were Americans running for therapy just from watching the 9-11 attacks on television, what would have happened if Pol Pot was American???), so leave well enough alone and work on fixing the tangible problems.

Q: Things move rather slowly here, huh?

A: They sure do. You can't rush anything. Whether it's marriage, a business start-up, or a simple ride across town, you have to accept that whatever you want to do, it will take longer than you think it should. And this can be a good thing. Because you can sit back and assess things and realize like so many before you, that nothing is what it seems at first. So relax and enjoy the ride and make no decision until it's been at least twice as long as you think it should be because then you'll understand it really wasn't twice as long but just about right. Trust me.


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