Cambodians are some of the most mysterious and difficult to understand people on the planet. Virtually every concept and principle that guides Cambodian life is different from those in the West. This can be both incredibly frustrating and quite enlightening. In general, Cambodians are an incredibly kind and open people. It really is a land of smiles, and in general it’s difficult to find anything that they take seriously, except maybe their cell phones.
Cambodia is one of the best examples of a capitalist utopia on the planet. The government exists only enough to maintain control of the country’s boundaries and to reap extensive profits from corruption and organized crime. The rest of society is left to fend for itself, and it shows clearly in the national character.
Cambodians are at best unreliable, at worst completely inept. A deeply anarchist current runs throughout society and is only checked by the authority of the family unit. Take, as one example, the flow of traffic in Cambodia. Driving or cycling down the road in Phnom Penh is an extreme sport. Everyone goes wherever they want, with no consideration for anyone else, except in as far as they wish to avoid damage to themselves. There are no right-of-ways, lanes are nondescript, and in general the biggest vehicles go wherever they want, including against traffic, forcing motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians to rapidly evade impending death by running off the road. The irony is that the driver is usually a police, military, or government official.
Individualism and immediate self-interest are the primary objectives of most Cambodians. There really seems to be no thought of the future. This is perhaps one reason why every good or service available in Cambodia is of utterly poor quality. The notion of doing a good job so that customers will come back is quite rare here, at least among Cambodians. This total lack of concern for the future is perhaps why no one seems to mind that the government has sold one third of the country to foreign interests in the past few years. The economic boom in the short term is bringing the standard of living up, and more people are able to afford cell phones and motorbikes, so all is well.
During the Khmer Rouge, almost all educated people were killed or fled the country. This incredible loss of human resources is still being deeply felt. There are virtually no qualified educators in the country, and professionals such as doctors are badly lacking in quality and quantity. In a cynical mood, after a frustrating day trying to get something done, one might reason that the gene-pool of the country had been damaged by the carnage of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
At the same time Cambodians are admirable in their ability to not take anything too seriously, not even themselves. Grown men kick each other and play around like adolescents. Relationships seem more inspired by popular romantic ballads than real-world experience. As in other Buddhist countries, the Cambodians don’t see much point in getting too worked up about an impermanent existence.