Thoughts on Cambodia

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When I came home from Southeast Asia, everyone wanted to know what I thought about it. And it was mostly easy to tell them: Hong Kong was crowded and very tall; Vietnam was beautiful in every sense of the word: Thailand was tropical and relaxing.

But then I would get to Cambodia, and describing my experience there wasn't so easy.

Angkor Thom, Cambodia

It's not that I disliked Cambodia; far from it. I loved exploring the Angkor temples, had fun riding the bamboo train, and was even amused by watching people eating spiders. But I was also deeply saddened by visiting the Killing Fields, and disturbed to see how much the country struggles with corruption and poverty.

Cambodia is poorer, less developed, and in general in more trouble than almost any other nation in Southeast Asia. And, because of this, I was really conflicted about my time there.

“It will break your heart”

I've been reading up a bit on Cambodia and its history recently, in hopes of being able to better wrap my head around it. Throughout my reading, I've come across a quote from a former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia more than once. The quote goes:

Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.

And he was absolutely right.

Seeing stark economic disparity broke my heart. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, for example, is immaculately well manicured, with buildings covered in gold and filled with valuables. But then you walk out into the city, where there is trash all over the streets and people living in extreme poverty. 

According to the United Nations' Human Development Index, Cambodia only ranks #146 out of 195, with 46% of people living on less than $3 per day.

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Driving through garbage-riddled villages on unpaved, pothole-filled roads broke my heart. Neighboring countries like Vietnam and Thailand are also increasing in popularity among tourists, but development there seems to be keeping apace, with decent roads and modern amenities found all over.

Cambodia, meanwhile, is lagging far behind, with a struggling economy, issues with hunger, and a lack of education.

Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia
Tonle Sap Lake

Learning about the corruption in Cambodia broke my heart. I paid $20 to enter the country, and another $40 to get a 3-day pass to the Angkor temples. That amount right there is more than most Cambodians make in a month — no small sum.

So where does that money go? Well, the border fee no doubt goes right into someone's pocket (and it's not uncommon for border guards to intimidate even MORE money out of tourists). According to the Corruption Perceptions Index from 2017, Cambodia ranks in the top 20 most corrupt nations in the world, and it's painfully evident if you look for it.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

And there are plenty more heartbreaking examples: kids begging on the streets (many of whom do this “professionally” instead of going to school); touts pestering tourists inside religious sites; locals — including tour guides — throwing rubbish on the ground.

Add to this rampant exploitation of the poor and the weak (Cambodia has one of the worst reputations in the world when it comes to child sex trafficking) and it's beyond heartbreaking.

Cambodia has a lot to offer, but if you open up your eyes to the reality playing out in this country, I'll bet it would break your heart, too.

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A Cambodia history lesson

To understand part of Cambodia's current plight, you really must visit sites like the Killing Fields and talk to the people who survived the Khmer Rouge era. In the 1970s, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia with an iron fist, killing millions of educated people and sending the rest to collective farms and labor camps — where millions more died of starvation and disease.

The Khmer Rouge years — still remembered vividly by anyone in Cambodia over the age of 40 — took a severe toll on Cambodia and have undoubtedly affected every person living in the country today.

Killing Fields in Cambodia

After the genocide in the '70s — which strapped many Cambodians with severe cases of post-truamatic stress disorder (PTSD) that studies have suggested is now being passed on to their children — the country was divided.

The Soviet-backed Vietnamese were running a puppet government from Phnom Penh, while the Chinese still supported the Khmer Rouge armies hiding out in the jungle. The U.S. was largely trying to stay out of the mess after the whole debacle in Vietnam (which also included bombing parts of southern Cambodia to bits, too). Meanwhile, the average Cambodian continued to suffer.

After the fall of the Soviet Union (and once the genocide could no longer be ignored), the United Nations actually stepped in and tried to run Cambodia from 1992-93 in attempts to make up for the decades the West spent ignoring what was going on there.

This was the first (and only) time the UN ever did anything like this. Afterwards, the country was supposed to become a prospering democracy.

But that didn't happen.

Ta Prohm temple in Angkor, Cambodia
Ta Prohm temple in Angkor

The UN didn't have the money, the troops, or the influence to really affect any real change in Cambodia. Yes, the organization pumped $3 billion into the country and WAS successful in setting up elections in which 90% of eligible voters participated. 

But, after the election, things went right back to the way they had always been, with different political leaders vying for control as if the people had never spoken at all.

One of the at-odds leaders was Hun Sen, the communist leader who had been appointed to run the country when Vietnam liberated it from the Khmer Rouge. After the UN elections, Hun Sen helped “run” Cambodia in a semi-coalition government with the royalist party until 1997, when his army led a small coup and took control of the country back.

Hun Sen has ruled the pseudo-democracy ever since, but with frequent reports of rigged elections.

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Some argue that the cycle of corruption and human rights failures is just intrinsic to Cambodia as a nation. Dating back to the ancient Khmer Empire (800s-1400s AD), officials and kings were lining their pockets and getting rich while the poor remained poor and slave labor was the way to get things done.

One author suggests that Cambodian culture on the whole lacks a drive to succeed, and that this, coupled with the Theravada Buddhism belief that people should be pleased with the lives they have and not aspire for more, has molded Cambodians into a passive people; victims of their own shortcomings.

Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia

I'm not so sure I agree, however. Subject a people to horror and repression and poverty long enough, and of course they will accept it as the status quo. What would happen, though, I wonder, if Cambodians were more empowered, both from within their country and from without?

Recent protests by garment factory workers demanding better pay and working conditions suggest that not all Cambodians are willing to accept the lot in life they've been (perhaps unfairly) dealt. And many Cambodians I spoke with gladly shared their opinions with me about the current corrupt government and how they (along with many others) would like to get rid of it. Post-election protests in 2013 support this opinion and prove that not all Cambodians are happy to passively sit by and observe any longer.

Unfortunately, however, as long as the Prime Minister wields absolute power, it's unlikely that anything will change.

So what does this mean for tourism in Cambodia?

As I mentioned above, Southeast Asia is emerging as a popular tourist destination. Nearby countries like Thailand and Vietnam are enjoying the economic boost that tourism provides, and Cambodia, being placed in between the two, is also seeing an influx of visitors.

In fact, tourism is Cambodia's fastest-growing industry.

Angkor Wat crowds
The crowd for sunrise at Angkor Wat

But in Cambodia, development is outpacing infrastructure. The country is so desperate to catch up that people are ignoring how completely ill equipped Cambodia is to deal with such an increase in tourists.

The people have not been educated enough about tourism development or sustainability. Things like waste management, food safety, and historic preservation are largely ignored, even in areas that are seeing lots of tourists.

For example, more and more people (millions of them) visit the Angkor temples each year, but the infrastructure in Siem Reap — not to mention the preservation of the temples themselves — remains quite basic.

I enjoyed my time in Siem Reap, but it's actually sad to imagine what the city and temples will look like 10 or 20 years from now due to over-visitation and unsustainable development.

Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Pub Street in Siem Reap

And then there's the crime. In places like Phnom Penh, you are advised to always hold tight to your bag, and NEVER have things like iPhones or iPads out in your hands when you are walking around or riding in a tuk-tuk. Even the drivers will warn you about this. Tourists, unfortunately, are becoming easy targets here.

I will not tell you to avoid Cambodia because of any of this, though. There's a reason so many people fall in love with it, after all. But this should all be food for thought.

What can we do?

Ask Cambodians how their nation can be improved, and they will say that Western powers need to step in, get rid of Hun Sen's corrupt government, and help them develop the country and economy.

Easier said than done, of course, especially if we look at recent history. Historically speaking, Cambodia has been quite averse to help that doesn’t also line the pockets of officials. The UN couldn’t affect any lasting change, and the thousands of NGOs operating in the country have not yet helped the people get rid of a government they no longer (and really never did) support.

Nations from around the world have been pumping billions of aid dollars into Cambodia for decades, and yet people outside of the cities live and work exactly as they would have done 300 years ago.

Rice paper in Cambodia
Drying rice paper

Some may say that volunteering (or, God forbid, starting up yet another non-profit) is the way to truly help in Cambodia. But I would be very reluctant to suggest this route.

Many volunteering schemes in Cambodia are scams — many orphanages, for example, exist purely as tourist attractions, and parents actually SEND their children there to make money. Pumping money into Cambodia, in some cases, could actually do more harm than good.

In my opinion, the only way to help Cambodia as a tourist is to be conscious of your decisions while there, and to be aware of how your presence is affecting the country.

Be a “good” tourist” in Cambodia

Small gestures — like going to a local restaurant that helps street kids or shopping somewhere that employs people with disabilities — can go a long way. Here are some things to keep in mind:


Whatever you do, don't give money to child beggars you see on the street. These kids are purposefully kept out of school to try to sell you postcards and bracelets. They may be cute. They may be charming. But I promise that none of that money is actually going to help them go to school. They are employed (or enslaved) by someone, and they will see none of your money at the end of the day.

Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia

It's often harder to ignore beggars who are missing limbs — many of them were innocent victims of land mines that the U.S. left behind during its war with Vietnam, or of the acts of the Khmer Rouge. However, many of them ARE offered help and even artificial limbs by local NGOs. But many of them realize that they can make more money by begging on the street than working a regular job.

Whether you give them anything is of course up to you, but just keep in mind that people with any sort of disability — be it one they were born with, or one they have acquired — should be treated the same as everyone else.

Instead of giving people money, offer to buy them a meal. It's the easiest way to sort out who is truly in need from those just trying to play to your sympathies.

And, if you really want to support disadvantaged kids, do some research before you go to Cambodia about local restaurants and programs that train street kids as cooks and wait staff and teach them English and business skills. Some places I personally visited included Friends in Phnom Penh, Jaan Bai in Battambang, and Genevieve's in Siem Reap.

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Set a good example. DO NOT throw rubbish on the ground, even if you see the locals doing it.

Driving through the countryside in Cambodia especially is depressing. The poverty is difficult to see, as is all the trash and pollution. Much of it can be blamed on a simple lack of education — people who once wrapped up their food in banana leaves and then discarded them in the river haven't been properly taught that plastic doesn't work the same way.

Set a good example by at least disposing of your garbage properly.


Pick your battles when it comes to haggling. I got quite angry one day in Siem Reap when I saw someone arguing over 50 cents with a tuk-tuk driver. Unless you legitimately feel that you are being ripped off, don't do this. These guys are not begging on the street corner or trying to exploit a disability or misfortune — they are trying to make a living the best way they can.

Does it really make a huge difference to YOU whether you pay $1.00 or $1.50 for a ride into the city? You can probably part with the money.

Too many times travelers in this part of the world lose sight of reality and become obsessed with spending as little money as possible. Sure, saving money feels good. Sure, haggling is expected in Asia. And sure, the locals will always quote a foreign tourist a higher rate. But that doesn't mean that it's worth getting stingy over 50 cents.

Sunset at Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia

Most of all, just go to Cambodia with open eyes. Talk to the people. Try to understand what has happened there.

And then come home and tell everybody you know. Because, sad as it is, I really do believe that spreading the word about the plight of Cambodia is the only way to truly help it.

Have you been to Cambodia? What was your experience like?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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117 Comments on “Thoughts on Cambodia

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  1. Such a beautiful written post, very thought provoking. In a similar vein to you not knowing how you felt about the country, I’m not sure how I feel after reading your article. It’s a great reminder to be a responsible and ethical traveller though and I’ve got a feeling your words are going to stick with me for a long time.

      I hope they do stick with you, Catherine! If this post made you think, then I did my job right!

    What a very thoughtful post! I’ve only been to Siem Reap so I haven’t been to the Killing Fields. Based on what I’ve read about it, I don’t think I ever will. I loved Thailand and Vietnam, but I didn’t like Cambodia. If it wasn’t for the Angkor Wat, I wouldn’t have gone there. Maybe in time, that will change.

      I think the Killing Fields are definitely worth a visit, especially if you really want to understand Cambodia’s recent past.

      But yeah, I know a lot of people like you who love Thailand and Vietnam, but did not enjoy Cambodia at all.

    Amazing article Amanda. Well written, thought provoking stuff. I don’t normally leave comments like this, but I had to this time 🙂 Nice job!

      Thanks so much, Laurence! Means a lot that you found this post good enough to comment on. 🙂

    Best thing I have read in a long time Amanda. So well written, thought about and researched. I’ve only been to Siem Reap and feel like it is sheltered in a way from most of the bad in the country because it is such a massive tourist spot. I’ve learnt a lot from reading this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Thank you so much, Jen. That means a lot!

      I know what you mean about Siem Reap being a bit “sheltered.” I mean, there’s still poverty there, and the street-corner touts can be really in-your-face. But I felt the safest walking around on my own in Siem Reap, probably because of the very touristy feel of the city.

    Great post Amanda. You are spot on with everything. Cambodia was a very difficult place for me to visit and I think about it often. I’m looking forward to returning one day to see if I feel differently the second time around.

      It was really difficult for me, too, Tracey. I would probably be willing to re-visit Cambodia someday, but I have a feeling it would just break my heart all over again.

    Hey Amanda,

    We were in Siem Reap and PP just a couple of months back and reading your post stirs up a lot of emotions. We couldn’t have said this better. Completely agree with whatever you have listed, but that said, it’s a sad truth that corruption is rampant and even though tourists shell out quite a lot of money, you don’t see much development. The same can be said about India. For that matter, Vietnam too – Saigon was cleaner than Siem Reap, but you could still feel the poverty and the corruption. I think it’s bound to happen in developing countries with surging populations.

    Love your advice – go their with an open mind and talk to the people. That’s one thing we always tell our audience too – that’s the best way to experience a new country.

    We thoroughly enjoyed Siem Reap beyond the Angkor temples too – which one did you prefer? Siem Reap or PP ?


      I agree that these issues are likely to plague any developing country with a surging population and a (new) focus on tourism. I saw much more development in Vietnam than in Cambodia, however, even though the countries have similar histories that have intertwined quite a lot.

      Glad you agree with the tips I gave. They aren’t much, but if everyone followed them it might just help a bit.

      As for which city I preferred… Phnom Penh felt more “real,” while I found Siem Reap to be more touristy. However, I felt much safer wandering around on my own in Siem Reap, perhaps because of that touristy focus. (It also may have helped that I was a woman; I didn’t get any offers for drugs or hookers from dudes standing on street corners…)

    Amazing post Amanda. I was just recently in Cambodia, staying mainly in Siem Reap, and the night I arrived I already wanted to leave. Not that I will not ever return, but I had heard so many great things from people on tours and such, and then when I arrived I was smacked in the face with the reality. Every step I took while walking through town was followed by a “Tuk yuk sir! Cocaine? Marijuana? Boom boom?” and after I’d pass them, another would be in my face. And then the small children with rotting teeth carrying babies and swarming me pleading. And most every driver or person I met along the way demanding tips before they even did anything. Many other things. It was just really in your face and a terrible first impression and I was exhausted from getting there — so all those elements made me want to pull my hair out and run away. I don’t doubt the people of the country are warm hearted and they have suffered so very much, and struggle to survive. And I hear so much about what the country has to offer as well, but I will have to go back another time in the right (prepared) mindset for the barrage of emotion and intensity.

      I can imagine Siem Reap being a shock to the system if that was your introduction to Cambodia! I promise that there are other parts of the country that are a little less in-your-face – though no less heartbreaking.

    You’ve written a very good, thoughtful post. It reminds us of the predicament we encountered when visiting Burma (Myanmar) several years ago before it opened up to tourism. Should we go? Or should we boycott the country because of its political situation? In the end, we went. But we spent a lot of time talking with the local people to learn about the country, who told us they were glad we had visited. We were also advised to not give money to any begging children, but to donate directly to the local Buddhist nunnery (which we visited) – the nuns operated a school for children. We ultimately hoped that in some small way we benefitted the local people (though recognizing that some money no doubt went to the military regime too).

      It’s really good that you were conscious of your actions in Burma. Its situation is even worse than Cambodia’s, but that definitely doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t travel there. They just need to travel smart and aware in Burma, and it sounds like you did that.

    Amanda, this is an incredibly well thought out, insightful and informative post. I know it was not easy to write and Cambodia has been a hot topic lately. I have spent time traveling through the country and seen things that broke my heart. I have traveled to small villages in the country and seen poverty that made my cry. Puppies tied to stilts supporting bamboo huts that would be dinner. Babies and children covered in dirt and snot, but still with smiles on their faces. Entire villages pushed aside and land slashed and burned to make way for military, for government and new “villages” constructed to move people to when kicked off of their land. I’ve seen bribes (to the tune of $2 during an elephant rescue I was on), I’ve seen an interior of the country burning, highways made of dirt, corruption … but I have also seen beauty and love and happiness. Cambodia is one of those places where you can’t let that initial impression be the one that settles in your heart. You have to give it time, explore, embrace, learn and learn some more. There are stories in the sadness, stories in the corruption … I wish more people would take the time to learn about the country like you did and then share their thoughts on it. Thank you for helping to open peoples hearts and minds to this country.

      Like many developing nations, I found Cambodia to be really complex. I, too, saw the smiling dirty kids and the little glimpses of beauty in the simplicity here and there. I wouldn’t say that I fell in love with Cambodia, but I did my best to open my eyes and mind to it. And this was the result. So glad you liked the post!

    All one can do sometimes is to simply affect change through their actions, and to spread the word about it – that is what you did here. Thanks for that, as there are not enough engaged people these days!

      I completely agree, Meghan. Sometimes small actions are the best we can do – but we should definitely do them.

    Great post! I am heading to Asia next year for a 6 month trip and I hadn’t planned on visiting Cambodia but you may have just changed my mind! It sounds like a very interesting place with a tragic history. Thanks for the advice 🙂

      Awesome to hear that this post has intrigued you! I was afraid that it might actually scare some people away from Cambodia. You should definitely add it to your Asia itinerary if you can!

    Interesting and important–I like that you look at reasons and offer some suggestions. I have not been there but have had Cambodian students who were some of the nicest people to have ever been in my classes (and that’s saying a lot because many of my students are just sweeties). One of them was a journalist in Cambodia and fled as a political refugee. The last I heard about him was from his wife, who told me that he he was suffering from a delayed result from Agent Orange exposure. So sad.

      Many travelers who have been to Cambodia will tell you about the people there – I think the travelers who fall in love with Cambodia really fall in love with the people! But yeah, it’s sad what so many of them have been through…

    Wow, this is such a thoughtful post. I think you eloquently explained the current state of their tourism and politics without being judgmental while still encouraging people to visit. Beggars, poverty and corruption are often things we encounter when traveling and don’t really know how to process them. Everything is so different from our usual world. Thank you for this. Great job!

      This was not an easy one to write. On the one hand, I really wanted to write an honest post. But, on the other, I didn’t want to make it seem like I was telling people to skip Cambodia. I’m glad I was successful!

    This is a great article. I’ve never been to Cambodia but I know a bit of their history. I didn’t know much of their current state; it’s quite sad. Thanks for showing all sides of this country. I agree about picking your spots for haggling; is it worth it for a few cents or dollars? Very heartbreaking country.

      Very heartbreaking indeed. But I think it’s important, as a traveler, to acknowledge this side of things, too.

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