Many people, when entering a new environment where little is familiar, will feel a bit disorientated or lost; but flexibility, modesty, open-mindedness and humor will help you a lot. These may have even been the qualities that led you to volunteer in the first place, so it should not be too difficult for you.
In the following section, we would like to share some information which will help you to understand Cambodians better, reduce misunderstandings and enjoy your experience here in the country. Please note that these are not rules – observe the behavior of the locals, of other foreigners who have been in the country for longer, ask questions and talk to the people.
Cambodians take extremely good care of their guests. They will sacrifice a lot for their guest and often give up a bed and prepare the best dishes for their guests. Most Cambodians are very eager to please the guests, especially “western” guests. As guests receive special treatment and are always the priority, hosts will be very willing to provide guests with whatever they need. If that makes you a bit uncomfortable, be careful when voicing your wishes or ideas as a lot of effort might be taken to fulfill them.
Three generations often come together and live in the same house. Grandparents, aunts and uncles help with housekeeping and raising the children; nieces and nephews might live with the family because they go to school near the house. But in a nutshell, Cambodians just love to be in big groups and with their family.
As families are very big and very important in Cambodia, it is sometimes hard for them to understand why volunteers travel by themselves and are willing to be away from their family for such a long time. Some Cambodians may also wonder why older volunteers decide to go abroad instead of finding a spouse and having kids.
Bring some pictures of your family, and tell your hosts about them if you like, they are very curious about family life in other countries. If you want to participate more in Cambodian family life, you can join your host family at celebrations (such as weddings), on daytrips, or - if you are into cooking – learn how to prepare Cambodian food from your hosts or prepare a dish from your home country for your host family.
Meat is more expensive than fish, it is usually only eaten a few times a week. Pure vegetable dishes are less common here; mostly there will be pieces of meat in those too. If you are a vegetarian, but not a super strict one, maybe it is best to just eat the meat or put it aside. Refusing or leaving big amounts of food is considered rude, so we recommend to at least try a bit. Saying that you really like vegetables, can also be a nice way of saying that you don’t want to eat (a lot of) meat.
Taking it Easy...
Cambodians do not have the same sense of time as many westerners have. Few things start on time, and there is seldom any rush in getting things done. In general, you should not expect things to follow a plan or structure, which is known or obvious to you. This can be very frustrating and annoying, so a great deal of patience is very helpful in Cambodia. Westerners and Cambodians have a different perspective of waiting, while it might make Westerners uncomfortable and nervous for a Cambodian, it can be relaxing and sociable.
Relationships between people, family members and colleagues are extremely important and might influence decision making. These relationships and the sense of community is often more important than the effective decision making westerners are often aiming for. Understanding these relationships will help you to adapt to Cambodian way of work and life and you will see ... things work out anyway, maybe just not in the way you expected them to.