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What I Learned While Living in Cambodia

What I Learned While Living in Cambodia

Picture of Marissa Carruthers
Updated: 9 January 2018

It was little more than five years ago that I packed up my life and jumped on a plane from the UK to Cambodia to start a new chapter in the capital of Phnom Penh. In that time, the Kingdom of Wonder and its quirks have worked their way into my heart. Here’s what I’ve learned while living in Cambodia.  

A smile goes a long way

A smile is never far away in Cambodia, with a wide grin seemingly etched on locals’ faces, and it’s surprising how uplifting these smiles can be. Hailing from England, where it’s almost forbidden to flash a smile at a stranger, in Cambodia, I’m often greeted with them, accompanied by cries of “Hello!” and “Susaday, soksaby?” from random passers-by. When I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, a walk down my street brightens me up, with the row of tuk tuk, moto drivers and stall holders greeting me with a grin as I pass.

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A smile goes a long way | © Bannafarsai_Stock/Shutterstock

It’s OK to talk to strangers

Again, my British background has taught me to be reserved, and since childhood, it has been ingrained in me not to speak to strangers. Of course, this was to prevent me from getting into a car with a potential murderer as a kid; however, I feel this message spilled over into adulthood. While striking up conversation with a stranger at a bar or restaurant in England is guaranteed to get you a few strange looks, it’s quite the opposite in Cambodia. And the paralysing fear that accompanied talking to a random stranger is something I had to quickly get over when thrust into the midst of a new country with no friends or allies.

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Sometimes, it’s OK to talk to strangers | © ingehogenbij/Shutterstock

Don’t take things for granted

While I’m not trying to belittle the woes I regularly hear from my friends back in the West – health care is appalling, education is shocking, unemployment is rising, pensions are being cut and the roads didn’t get gritted this year – I have to stop myself from screaming, “At least we have access to free education, health care, pensions, the NHS and a welfare system!” Living in a country where these basic things we take for granted simply don’t exist really makes you sit up and think about how lucky you are.

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Life is hard for many Cambodians | © theskaman306/Shutterstock

Life is a shake of the dice

Poverty is rife in Cambodia, and it’s simply something you can’t avoid. Following on from the above point, I often think that life really is a shake of the dice. I was born into opportunities. I was given a free education and access to medicine, doctors and hospitals – which are the fundamentals in life. I think how lucky I am and how by simply being born in the UK, I was given a head start. I wonder how many geniuses are living in Cambodia unable to ever realise their potential because they are sent to work at a young age rather than to study for their future.

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It’s important to realise how lucky we are | © Stephane Bidouze/Shutterstock

Stress less about the small things

First world problems really are trivialised in the face of third world worries. I no longer get frustrated if my hair straighteners don’t work or if I can’t access the latest season of whatever TV series I’m into that has just been released. It’s a little difficult when you’re confronted with children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from or passing by slums with kids wading in sewage.

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Slums are a common sight in Cambodia | © OlegD/Shutterstock

True kindness

It is among the most abject poverty that I have stumbled across the purest kindness: poor communities who have nothing, welcoming me into their village like a long-lost relative, or lavish feasts being laid out by families who have very little and refuse to take no for an answer. It’s rare that I’ve witnessed this kind of warm-hearted behaviour in my homeland; however, it is a regular occurrence in Cambodia.

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True kindness is common in Cambodia | © CarGe/Shutterstock

The wrath of humidity

OK, OK, so I said first world problems wane, but getting to grips with Cambodia’s stifling humidity is hard – and it really does wreak havoc on my hair. My one piece of advice to anyone is to avoid visiting in April when hot season is at its peak and walking outside involves wading through the thick air – utterly unpleasant.

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Prepare to rock humid hair | © Kanashkin Evgeniy/Shutterstock