Why I like living in Cambodia

When I set out to explore Southeast Asia in 2006, Cambodia was going to be a brief stopover on my way to Thailand. I left Australia with all the cliches about Southeast Asia running through my mind. Cambodia was poor and corrupt. Thailand was beautiful. Thailand was the “Land of Smiles.” Imagine my surprise when Cambodia turned out to be the land of smiles. I never made it to Thailand. Here’s why I like living in Cambodia.

ngo smiling faces

Yes, Cambodia was poor, but not as poor as the India I visited for a year in 1971-1972. When I got off the train in old Delhi after a long overland trip through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, I turned around and ran. The random beggars in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap were not nearly as soul-destroying as those in India were.

I soon started hearing stories of corruption in Cambodia. Some were accurate, some embellished. I was told how the police always stopped “barang” (foreigners) on motorbikes and took bribes from them. That was nothing new to me. I stopped a motorbike on top of the white line in Bali once and a policeman called me over to his station across the road. Lucky for me I was carrying about $10 worth of loose money in my breast pocket, because he plucked it out of my pocket and waved me on. If he had looked in my wallet, he would have taken much more.

ochheuteal beach-far-end-2006

I’ve been in Cambodia nine years now. I live in Sihanoukville, a city that has a terrible reputation. Bad stuff happens here, but it’s easily avoided. I know the police now and they never stiff me. Some even wave and say, “Hello Papa!” Barang still complain about the police here, but that’s because the police remember those who race past them in order to avoid paying a fine. When they catch them, they make them pay dearly for the insult. Try racing away from the police in America and you probably wouldn’t live to tell the tale.

I met a guy the other day. He’s lived in the Philippines and Thailand, but is thinking of giving Cambodia a try.

“You know why I like it here?” I said.


“I know it’s a corrupt country and I know bad things happen, but they happen everywhere. Nothing’s hidden here.”

Before I had a chance to say more, he said, “America’s the most corrupt country in the world.”

That may have been a slight exaggeration, but it wasn’t too far off the mark. Americans don’t think their country is corrupt because the media does such a good job of focusing on corruption in other countries. Bad stuff happens in Cambodia and when it does, you hear about it. Why isn’t everyone up in arms about what’s happening in Flint, Michigan? What about Donald Trump?

When President Obama came to Cambodia in 2012, he criticized the government for having rigged elections. Speaking of rigged elections, even the Arizona Secretary of State admitted the elections were rigged there and the media has been ignoring Bernie Sanders in spite of his popularity. Isn’t that a form of “rigging.” Oh, and don’t get me started on the “super delegates.” Bernie Sanders probably doesn’t have a chance because of the media and the super delegates, who will back the corporate sponsored Hillary Clinton.

When Obama went to Vietnam, he didn’t mention the fact that they don’t even hold elections there, by the way. That’s because he wanted something from Vietnam. Cambodia gave him his chance to show how morally superior the United States is to Cambodia. I guess it slipped his mind that the U.S. funded a coup that ousted Norodom Sihanouk and then dropped 2.3 million tons of bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge said if it wasn’t for that, they could never have risen to power.

When Michelle Obama visited, she carried on about her “Let girls learn” initiative. What was that all about? Both girls and boys go to school here and girls often go on to get better jobs than their male counterparts. They don’t rise to the top, but there’s a “glass ceiling” in most parts of the world, too, including the United States.


Cambodia might be corrupt, but at least it’s honest. Western countries preach democracy and equality, but turn a blind eye to it when it suits their purposes. “Assad must go,” but there’s nothing wrong with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Thailand has a coup, but Cambodia is more corrupt than Thailand? China is doing a bad thing in the South China Sea, but America didn’t steal Hawaii from the Hawaiians or parts of Texas and California from Mexico? Not to mention the genocide of the native Americans.

Most Western countries have a shocking record of human rights abuses, but many of them take place in countries like Cambodia when they want to exploit their resources, which include “human resources.” We don’t hear about it on the news, but it happens on a far larger scale than human rights abuses occur in Cambodia.

Corruption is rife in the world. Western media gets around it by pointing the finger at other countries and ignoring the corruption inside their own borders. We get a skewed image of the world. That’s not healthy. Cambodia may be corrupt, but most Cambodians go about their daily lives without government interference. Maybe the government’s corrupt, but the majority of Cambodians are decent people. That’s what really counts.