Mussing of an American Expat in a Third World Country

As I sit here sipping a cappuccino at a local cafe in my little town of Sihanoukville, my mind wanders to the strange and unusual things that surround me...
Cambodian expat

As I sit here sipping a cappuccino at a local cafe in my little town of Sihanoukville, my mind wanders to the strange and unusual things that surround me on a daily basis. Life as an expat here in Cambodia is full of juxtapositions. I am reminded of the days I would go to downtown Miami with my parents as a young boy. I would be happily walking along, make one wrong turn and glitzy Miami turns into the straight up ghetto.

Take for example my current situation. Here I am sitting at a fancy cafe sipping on an incredibly tasty cappuccino served in an elegant class with fresh chocolate shavings on top. If I so choose, I can go to a stylish French restaurant for dinner and order a juicy filet mignon followed by a glass of red wine. Yet, just around the corner people are living in aluminum sheds. When I stand on the balcony of my beautiful spacious apartment with all the western amenities, I am looking down on the third world. I regularly see some of my Cambodian neighbors across the street washing with a bucket of cold water pulled from a well.

Living as an expat in a developing nation, you will get hardened to extreme poverty. It’s inevitable. If not, you couldn’t survive in these countries. The guilt of living a lifestyle you have grown up accustomed to will weigh heavily on your shoulders. You quickly realize you can’t change the world. The best is to do what little you can.

I think every expat has their own personal way of handling the beggars and the poor selling useless trinkets. Each expat reacts differently to paying a little more at the market than a local might. You’ll find many westerners here bargaining over every little penny. Believe me, that seller needs it way more than you. That’s not to say walking around getting ripped off left and right is okay either. There has to be a fair line that works for you, too.

As somebody who has been traveling to developing nations for nearly 15 years, and lived overseas for three, I figured I would give you a little glimpse into how I handle it.


How Do I Handle?

The Beggars

Street kid Cambodia

I know that I can’t give to them all and, in truth, at this point there are many who I don’t want to give to anyway more because of things I have seen them do to others. As a general rule, I don’t give to any able-bodied person under the age of about 55. In my eyes, if you are young enough and strong enough to be working, you should be. This includes those pathetic looking young girls with sedated babies. Now I know this next part sounds cruel and you are all going to groan and moan at me, but I also never give to child beggars. I have a long drawn out explanation to my theory that perhaps I’ll examine in another article if I get some comments inquiring, but let’s just say that I believe giving to a begging child perpetuates a bad cycle.

So who is left? Well, I give to the old and the infirm; the ones that can’t work, even if they want to. The ones that remind me of my grandparents who shouldn’t have to work anymore, even if they can. This country has been through war and genocide just thirty odd years ago. Many of them lost any chance they ever had at a prosperous future during those horrendous years. Others lost their chance perhaps while farming or digging and accidentally hitting a leftover bomb from the US. These are the beggars I give to. Their chance was taken away.


Child Vendors

child vendor cambodia

Touching lightly again on my theory of child beggars, I have a much higher respect for the children selling trinkets and things. There is a whole campaign of people who try and convince others not to buy items from child vendors as they should be in school, but I am realistic enough to know that is not a luxury everybody can afford. In the real world, some children in developing nations need to work to help their family. I will regularly buy stupid bracelets, key chains, or good luck flowers for my car from these children. I don’t need these items, but I can afford them and it helps the child and their family. I also believe it helps to reinforce a good work ethic.

On the flip side, I don’t let the children rip me off as they do many of the tourists. We agree on a fair price where they make some profit, I don’t get ripped off, and everybody wins. It helps that I speak Khmer so even the children that don’t know me by now learn quickly not to rip me off. It was amusing having a talk with one girl the other day. I bought a key chain off her for $1.50. I could have bought it for $1 or less, but I didn’t mind. I decided to ask her how much she sells them to the tourists for and she told me they will pay $4 or $5 for them. I did my part, but I ain’t doin’ that much.


Domestic Help

Living in Cambodia

Sounds fancy doesn’t it? Well it’s true. Living in Cambodia I actually have a maid who cleans my house regularly. Yeah, yeah, life is sweet here, I know. Anyways, my maid comes twice a week. Do I need her to come twice a week? No. It’s just me living here, but do I need that extra $6 it costs me to have her come back and clean a second time? Is $24 a month really going to affect me?

It will certainly affect her life. She and her family need that money. Every day she leaves my house, the first thing she does is go to the market to buy food. I know because I regularly offer to give her a lift home so she can save the cost of the moto ride.


Waiters, Security, Etc

Tipping is highly appreciated here in Cambodia as many foreigners don’t do it. Funny enough, most of the rich Khmer do. I treat tipping here the same as I would in America. They have to work for it, but if they do, they get a tip. Albeit my standards of good work and service are lower here so it doesn’t take much, just a little bit of attention. Tipping waiters a little bit will not only get you an appreciative expression or look, it will also get you great service when you come back. My tips in Cambodia are usually between the 5% and 10% range.

Security guards and car park attendants also usually get tipped here. Generally, it is a pointless job as Cambodia is a relatively safe country for vehicles unless it is real late at night in a dark part of town, but the man stands attentively outside , or perhaps sometimes snoozing a little, watching over my vehicle. Then when it is time for me to leave, he runs out into the street blocking the chaotic traffic through daring force of will alone. He is also usually standing in my blind spot within inches of my car making pulling out more difficult than the traffic would have, but hey, how can you not reward an effort like that? $0.25 is a reasonable tip and everybody leaves happy with the encounter.


My Conscience is Clear

Cambodian market vendors

In my small ways, I do what little I can where I can. I reward the behavior of the hard workers that are trying their best to piece together a life in this tough country, without squandering my bank account irresponsibly. I buy the things I don’t need, I tip when I don’t have to, and I try and give a little extra work to the locals when I can. Maybe others do more, I am sure many others do less, but this is how I sleep at night living in a third world country.


Author’s Favorite Travel Gear


Bose Soundsport Headphones – These stay firmly in your ear no matter what you are doing, from riding a motorcycle to jogging on the beach, and they have incredible sound to boot. They are available in a lot of funky colors, too.

Kelty Redwing 32 – I love this thing. It is just large enough to fit all of my stuff, without being too large to lug around when packed full. It’s so durable it even survived being dragged behind my motorcycle for a couple of minutes.

Reef Men’s Fanning Speed Logo Sandals – I am a sandals fanatic. I probably wear them at least 6 days a week when traveling around Southeast Asia. Not only are these comfortable, but they even have a hidden bottle opener. Drink up and travel on!

Brett Dvoretz

A long time traveler and recent expat, Brett wandered through over 25 countries before he decided to settle in the little beach town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. After struggling through the process of setting up a new life abroad, he decided to start Expats and Aliens to help other expats find the info they need before making the leap.

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