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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Cambodia

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Life in Cambodia

At a Glance:

  • The vast majority of Cambodians are practicing Buddhists, but the nation is also home to members of many other faiths and backgrounds.
  • The cost of living is extremely cheap in comparison to that in the majority of Western countries.
  • There are certain restrictions on foreigners buying property in Cambodia, so many expats find it easier to rent. Either way, the internet will be your best friend while house hunting.
  • The education system in Cambodia is severely underfunded and so the teaching quality is not of a high standard — international schools may be the best option for expat kids.

Getting to Know the Khmer People

Today, there are about 15.9 million people living in Cambodia, 90 percent of them being of Khmer origin. The remaining 10 percent is made up of Vietnamese, Chinese, and other minorities. Cambodia is a country of rural dwellers. The majority of the population has settled down in villages and small towns in rural areas near the rivers, while just over twelve percent of the overall population lives in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Local tribes and peoples living in Cambodia also include the Khmer Loeu and the Cham. The Khmer Loeu are highland tribes who live in the northeastern provinces of the country. The Cham are made up of two groups based on their religion, the traditional and orthodox Chams. Orthodox Chams live mainly around Phnom Penh, while the other group is largely scattered across the country.

Respecting Religion

Similar to the population in Thailand, Myanmar, or Sri Lanka, a majority —approximately 95% — of the people living in Cambodia are practicing Buddhists. In addition, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, and Confucianism are also practiced. The latter two are particularly common among the Chinese minority.

While living in Cambodia, you should be respectful of the local culture and religion. This includes dressing in modest clothing when you visit religious sites. Make sure to always cover your upper arms and legs, and remove shoes and hats before stepping inside. It is also customary to make a small contribution when visiting a temple.

Staying Healthy

The average life expectancy at birth is 67 for males and 71 for females. The median age of the people living in Cambodia is 24. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS is among the highest in Asia. In 2016, around 71,000 people in Cambodia were living with HIV. However, in the last decade, a lot has been done to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, and to reduce the number of deaths caused by the disease.

The country’s traumatic and war-torn history has left a lasting impact on a massive number of Cambodians. In fact, there is a high prevalence of PTSD and other stress-related conditions among Cambodians who experienced the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Cambodia’s recent history of war and political instability has affected the country’s ability to develop a good healthcare system. Government expenditure on healthcare is particularly low, at around 1% of the GDP, which is much lower than its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. There is a massive disparity between the quality and availability of healthcare in Cambodia’s cities and its rural areas, where many are forced to travel long distances to get the treatment they need. Currently, Cambodia’s social security system only covers employment injuries for formal workers. In most cases, as an expat, your employer will provide you with healthcare coverage.

Necessary Vaccinations and Precautions

Before you move to Cambodia, you will need to take a few health precautions to avoid contracting any diseases. The following vaccinations are recommended for everyone who plans on travelling to or living in Cambodia:

  • hepatitis A and B
  • typhoid
  • measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
  • tetanus, diphtheria

If you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors and in high-risk areas, you should also get vaccinated against rabies and Japanese encephalitis. Cambodia is a country with a high risk of malaria, so you should take an antimalarial drug. Make sure to talk to your doctor about possible side effects. If you cannot take enough medication with you when you move, or plan on staying in an area without sufficient medical care, you should also pack medication for emergency self-treatment, in case you develop any malaria symptoms.

As of 2016, the Zika virus — which is spread through mosquito bites — is endemic in Cambodia, and has been categorized as posing a moderate risk. The risk to travelers is unknown and because of this, women who are pregnant or who are planning on trying for a baby should discuss their travel plans with their doctor, as Zika infection has been found to pose a risk to the baby. There is currently no vaccine for the Zika virus.

As always, make an appointment with your family doctor prior to your move to discuss all your healthcare needs.

Housing in Cambodia

Cheap and Cheerful: The Cost of Living in Cambodia

Expats from Western countries will soon find that living in Cambodia is comparatively cheap. In fact, those who work for an international company and are paid according to “Western” standards may suddenly be able to afford luxuries they have only dreamed of in the past. For an average 3-bedroom apartment, you may pay between 1,209,000 KHR (approx. 300 USD) and 4,025,450 KHR (approx. 1000 USD), depending on which area you decide to settle in, as well as the style of apartment — modern Western-style apartments will cost you more.

Expats with children often decide on hiring a nanny or a housekeeper, which can cost roughly between 150 USD and 300 USD. Other luxuries like dining out are very affordable as well, and rarely cost you more than 16,300 KHR (4 USD). This, along with the hassle-free visa application process, is one of the main reasons why expats like to move to Cambodia. Keep in mind, however, that Phnom Penh, while the most popular expat destination, is also the most expensive one.

Finding a Place to Live: The Internet Is Key

While the housing search can be stressful at times, there are a lot of online resources, classifieds, and real estate agents who speak English. Therefore, it shouldn’t take too long until you find that new home that is just right for you (and your family). While you have lots of choice, from small apartments to grand villas, when it comes to types of accommodation, most expats decide on a standard or serviced apartment.

Standard apartments are cheaper but also less luxurious and leave you to deal with utilities and repairs yourself. On the upside, you will have the chance to get in touch with the locals. Serviced apartments, on the other hand, come with certain amenities, such as backup generators (in case of a power cut) or a security guard. Your neighbors will most likely be other expats who have moved to Cambodia for a few months. Unfortunately, serviced apartments can easily cost twice of what you would usually pay in rent.

Finding a House Online

As mentioned above, the internet is the first place to turn to for expats on the housing search in Cambodia. It might take you some time to search through all the classifieds and listings of real estate agents, but you may be able to find some hidden gems there. Remember to compare prices: some agents raise their prices considerably with the hope of making a little extra cash off some naive foreigners. The following is a selection of some helpful pages:

The Lease Agreement

Once you have found the apartment or house of your dreams, it is time to sign the rental agreement. Make sure to ask for a contract in a language you understand. Moreover, you should make sure that the contract you are about to sign includes the following specifications in order to be legitimate:

  • address of your new home
  • your name and that of the landlord
  • a list of all payment dates
  • a full inventory of the furnishing
  • the full amount of the deposit
  • fingerprints of the right thumb of the tenant, landlord, and a witness

While renting a place in Cambodia is relatively straight-forward, you should make sure to rent from someone reliable. If you are going to use an estate agent, you should ask around to find out which agencies other expats have had positive experiences with. If you deal with a landlord directly, ask him specific questions about the property, how long he has owned it, and why previous tenants moved out. If anything seems suspicious, you’d do better to move on and keep looking. Usually, a lease lasts for two months at the very least. Most expats, however, rent their home for at least 12 months at a time. The deposit can amount to between one and three month’s rent.

Property Purchase and Cambodia’s Education System

Buying Property in Cambodia: Rules and Restrictions

If you decide to stay in the country for a few years or even to settle down here, buying an apartment or a house might seem like the better choice. While renting a place is very easy, buying property comes with some restrictions for foreigners. Since 2010, foreigners can own apartments and condominiums. However, they cannot own land in Cambodia. This rule often extends to the ground floor of a building. Moreover, you are not allowed to own property within a 30 kilometer range from the border.

Most expats avoid that problem by taking out long-term and renewable leases. Local companies, the majority of which are owned by Cambodian citizens, are permitted to buy land as well. Despite these restrictions, about 70% of luxury real estate is said to be owned by expats, mostly Chinese and South Korean citizens. North American and European expats are increasingly purchasing property as well.

Cambodia’s Education System: Underdeveloped and Underfunded?

Since almost half of Cambodia’s population is below the age of 22, it does not come as a surprise that there is a dire need for proper education. Prior to the 20th century, education in Cambodia was organized by the Buddhist monks and monasteries, and was only available to boys. The French were the first to introduce a formal education system in Cambodia, but this suffered considerably during the civil war years, when schools were closed, and thousands of teachers were executed. The Khmer Rouge regime left a whole generation of Cambodian children without any education.

Since the 1980s, there have been many efforts to restore and develop the education system in Cambodia. The quality of education has improved significantly since then. However, in comparison to other countries, it is not up to par yet. The majority of Western countries spend between 5.5% and 6.4% of GDP on education, whereas in Cambodia, this figure was only 1.9% in 2014.

There is a vast shortage of teachers in Cambodia, partly because they are sorely underpaid. Many teachers are forced to work additional jobs to make a living. Some resort to offering private tutoring to those who can afford it, or collecting informal school fees from students, which acts as an education barrier to poor students who cannot afford to pay this. Many of the teachers, particularly in very remote areas, have not even completed secondary education themselves. The lack of government funding also means that resources are seriously lacking, with some smaller remote schools even lacking basic teaching materials such as pens and paper.

An Alternative Education: International Schools

As the school system in Cambodia is still in need of improvement, as well as the fact that the language barrier is a major hurdle for many expat children, parents often choose to send their young ones to an international school instead. Although this may cost you a pretty penny, you can be sure that these schools know how to support expat kids and help them through the culture shock. This is a list of the international schools in Cambodia:

Keep in mind that not every school might be the right choice for your child. Compare their curriculum and what they offer in terms of additional activities. You can also ask if you and your child can visit the school beforehand in order to get a first impression.

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