Expats moving to Cambodia may experience elements of culture shock, especially those who stray further than the capital, Phnom Penh. The country is steeped in history, and has experienced many hardships, which is still evident today. Expats may be shocked by the level of poverty and corruption Cambodia still faces. 

Cultural differences in Cambodia

The greeting in Cambodia – the sampeah – is similar to the Thai wai. The greeting is done with a bow while pressing one’s hands together as in prayer. It is used as a sign of respect and politeness.

During a meal, expats should only start to eat after the most senior person at the table has begun to eat. Expats should also be aware that it is seen as disrespectful to make eye contact with anyone who is older or considered to be of a higher social status.

Poverty in Cambodia

The country is no stranger to struggle, but expats may be shocked by the level of poverty that still exists. Poor sanitation also means that the country suffers from a high infant mortality rate.

Outside of the capital, the majority of the population lives in rural areas, often as subsistence farmers. In the cities, the poor live similarly to those in the countryside, which is juxtaposed against the rich middle classes that live in urban areas.

Bureaucracy in Cambodia

The political system in Cambodia is officially a multi-party democracy – however, in reality, it is a one-party state. The government has been frequently criticised for ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.

Cambodia suffers from corruption and is often ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Expats may encounter corrupt practices in ordinary activities such as obtaining medical services, dealing with alleged traffic violations, and pursuing fair court verdicts.

Expats should also be aware that companies have to deal with extensive red tape when obtaining licences and permits, especially construction-related permits, and that the demand for bribes is commonplace in this process.

Gender in Cambodia

In terms of gender roles, Cambodia is still very traditional, with women not being considered equal to men in Cambodian society. Expat women should dress modestly, covering their shoulders and knees. In the capital, people are more open minded and Cambodian women do hold jobs outside of the house.