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. Me and a friend are currently in Vietnam, and are travelling into Cambodia tomorrow. After a quick search on Google, this popped up! This has been EXTREMELY helpful and given me a real good insight on what to expect! This is the first time I’ve really ventured out of the UK, so I Had no idea what to expect. Thankyou very much, and I’ll let you know my opinion after! 🙂

      So great to hear that this helped prepare you, Craig! Definitely let me know how your experience goes.

    This is such a wonderfully written article. Thank you for sharing such depth of knowledge about Cambodia. It is rare to find travellers who don’t just travel for self-gratifying purposes. Will take note of the tips you’ve provided.Your article has really moved me!

    I agree with you strongly on this eye-opening post. It really breaks my heart turning down those beggars in Cambodia, but at the same time, realizing that by giving irresponsibly we could bring more harm than good by contributing to the root of the problems. Sad to hear that even the volunteering and NGOs way is not helping much. =(

      Not saying that ALL the volunteers and NGOs are bad. Some definitely ARE doing good things. But the vast majority actually do more harm than good. 🙁

    Really eye-opening post – thanks so much for taking the time to write it.

    Hi Amanda – Thanks for bringing these issues to light. I’m glad that you mentioned orphanage tourism, because it’s something that really surprised me. One of the writers on my Boomer Women Travelers website has written about this. I’ve linked to the article. Hope you will find it interesting.

      Yeah, it’s a really disturbing trend! I would be very, very wary of visiting an orphanage anywhere after learning about this in Asia.

    Cambodia absolutely broke my heart. It really hit me when I found myself crossing the street in order to avoid the child beggars coming at us from the other direction, and again seeing the bloated, limbless beggars at the temples.

    This is a really thought-provoking post Amanda and I like it! I like the fact that you’re not afraid to talk about the issues of importance not only about the wonderful time that you had, but also the things that worried you too.
    I haven’t been to Cambodia yet as I chose to go to both Vietnam and Thailand only, the last time I was in the region was seven long years ago. Thinking about why I didn’t go to Cambodia was pretty much because it wasn’t on my radar at the time.
    It is now.

      Thanks so much, Victoria. I’m not one to write a lot of negative stuff on my blog – I’m usually one of those people who can find positives in nearly every destination. But in Cambodia, it was different. I felt like the “negatives” – the things that worried me and made me sad – were really important to talk about.

    Thanks for the amazing words you have here. As a Cambodian myself, I’m very happy you love Cambodia while also don’t know what to say about my feeling when you say you hate it,too. Yes, I admit that my country’s still not democratic and developed compared to our neighboring countries and we try to find solutions to get rid of the corrupted government.

      I appreciate that you can kind of understand where I’m coming from. I really hope your country can find the solutions it needs!

        “Orkun”. I hope you and all the other travelers who had bad experiences here will soon come back to visit our better Cambodia soon.

    what an excellent post on Cambodia! I find it kind of annoying when Travel bloggers go to a country that is very low on the socio-economic totem pole so to speak and then gloss over the real hardships of the country. Or only talk about the good stuff they experienced. Not only did you talk about your experiences but you also provided a brief HISTORY of the country and WHY it is the way it is now and challenged your readers to think beyond the pictures or news articles or even their own experiences.. Bravo to you! this is probably one of my favorite travel blog posts ever!

      Wow, thanks so much! It’s very easy to gloss over things sometimes – I’m guilty of it, too, because I really like to look at the positive aspects of any place I visit. But it was impossible for me to ignore the reality in Cambodia. And I felt that it would be irresponsible of me to not share what I saw and learned there with my readers.

    Very nice to read this article. We are struggeling to make up our mind about cambodia after our second visit last month with our 1 year old baby (first time in 2006). I seems like the country hasn’t changed to much. People are really friendly, nature is lovely and the food is great. But then there is to short sightedness, corruption, theft (some stuff got stolen) and the litter. Amazing beaches like koh rong getting ruined in front of your eyes. Happy too see we are not the only ones with mixed feelings.

      No, you are definitely not alone in your feelings. A LOT of people I’ve talked to who have visited or re-visited Cambodia recently have expressed similar feelings. 🙁

    Great insight and very comprehensive. Really enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

    This is the best article we’ve read on Cambodia in a long time. Good job. Most travel bloggers choose to only write about how difficult their trip was without trying to understand what is happening there it how they can contribute to positive tourism. It’s good to see somebody educate themselves so much on the places they travel.

    There are rich investors who want to build the larger skyscraper in the world in Pnom Penh on a street bettor unpaved slums. The gap between rich and poor is huge!

      Thanks so much, Alex! I was really conflicted while I was in Cambodia, because I couldn’t tell why I wasn’t enjoying it as much as Vietnam. It took me weeks – months, even – to do a lot of reading and reflecting to figure out my feelings about Cambodia and what influenced them. I’m glad I put in the effort, though.

      And I know what you mean on the HUGE gap between rich and poor. There are lots of foreign investors who want to build resorts and casinos and stuff in Cambodia, and of course the government is going to say yes to all of them, even if it’s not at all sustainable. Sad.

    I knew very little about Cambodia! But this made me think of it in a completely different way. I will keep it in mind if I can visit it as planned.

      I’m glad that you learned something from this post!

    Spectacularly done darling. Thank you for giving people a very real view of the history of Cambodia and the problems that plague it today. As you know I’ve struggled with these same issues, and am spending some time considering what exactly we can do about it. Of course it all comes down to empowering people to help themselves. x

      Thanks so much! I’ve followed all of your Cambodia posts, too, and we are definitely on the same page. And I agree that empowering Cambodians as a people is the only way that things can change. But how to do that is a whole ‘nother question!

    Really thoughtful and well-written post. I felt the same way when I visited Cambodia in 2012. Not giving money to the child and disabled beggars is so hard, although you hope it is for their own good in the long run. I remember we had 2 children come up to us and ask for money while we were eating lunch in Siem Reap. We declined to give them money, but instead offered them some of the fruit off our table. They took it and devoured it hungrily on a step beside the cafe we were eating at. I felt that we had done something a lot better for them by directly benefitting them, rather than giving them money that may be taken from them by a parent or other adult. Cambodia is such a lovely country with many beautiful and giving people, it just has a long way to go still.

      You definitely did the right thing giving the kids fruit instead of money! At least that way you know you helped, even if only in a small way. Small gestures like that are still important.

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