For Individuals of Cambodian Heritage Being Sent from the United States to Cambodia


This Guide is a work in progress and is based on the experiences – successes and failures – of hundreds of courageous men and women who have been forced to make this challenging transition since 2002. The Guide has been prepared by the staff of KVAO (formerly the Returnee Integration Support Center) in Phnom Penh. For more information, see, visit, or contact

How am I going to survive in Cambodia?

The answer is entirely in your hands. You may need to make some adjustments in your expectations and lifestyle – and we don’t mean to make light of these as some will be traumatic to you and others – but you will survive. Hundreds of returnees have preceded you and help is available. You will not be alone!

What can I do to prepare myself for the future?

If you face deportation, one of the hardest parts of the process will be the uncertainty. There is no way to know when your case will move. Some returnees were already in custody prior to deportation but others were picked up from their homes or jobs without notice. So here are some tips to help with the transition:

  • Save money for your future. Whatever happens, having access to a little extra cash won’t hurt. If you are deported, a few thousand dollars could go a long way toward getting you set up in a small business.
  • Consider setting up a power of attorney so some trusted friend or relative can manage any legal affairs if you are suddenly detained for deportation. A power of attorney would permit someone you designate to dispose of any property you own (car, motorbike, etc.), gain access to any bank accounts you have so the money could be transferred to you and handle any other outstanding legal matters according to your instructions. A power of attorney agreement can be quite narrow and specific (e.g. authorizing the disposition of a vehicle) or quite general. You and your legal advisor should carefully decide what is best for you, but the documents should be written up, signed, notarized and put away in a safe place long before they are needed.
  • You should also consider developing skills that might be in demand in Cambodia. For example, certification as a barber, mechanic, electrician, plumber or computer repairman or experience as a web site designer, database programmer, audio-visual technician, cook, waiter, receptionist or telephone operator would make you more marketable than experience as a fork lift operator or work on an assembly line.
  • If you have a good basic education and have good language skills, consider getting a certificate in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or accounting or bookkeeping. There are always jobs available for people with those qualifications – especially those who are also bilingual.
  • Brush up on your Khmer language skills (both oral and written). Many Cambodian-American communities have Khmer language classes available or you can use free online Khmer language materials. You can also listen to Khmer language broadcasts over the Internet and watch Cambodian TV shows.
  • If you already read and write Khmer, you might want to improve your vocabulary by going to the Internet and reading contemporary Khmer newspapers and magazines. Good translators and interpreters are always in demand and are well paid.

Is it true that the US government (or the Cambodian government or some other agency) gives each returnee some amount of money for resettlement costs?

No, that isn’t true. No cash is given to returnees by either government or any other agency. Funds made available for resettlement assistance can only be used to provide needed services directly related to integration into Cambodian society (e.g. temporary room and board, employment services, some transportation expenses, emergency medical care, etc.). These funds cannot be used for cash payments to returnees.

How will I actually get to Cambodia?

Those being deported to Cambodia are usually gathered at a holding facility in the western or southwestern US. Groups being deported to Cambodia usually consist of more than 10 individuals. You will travel to Cambodia on a commercial jet or charter. Deportees are accompanied by US Marshals including a medical officer. You will be restrained in flexible (nylon) handcuffs during flight and will not have access to any personal belongings. Some groups of Cambodian deportees have been flown to the Philippines with deportees to that country, then on to Cambodia. The flights are long and boring but otherwise unexceptional.

What happens on arrival?

When you arrive at the airport in Phnom Penh, you will be met by officials from Cambodia’s  General Department of Identification and personnel of Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization. There will be heavily armed security personnel in the area but this is routine at an international airport – no reason to be nervous, it isn’t for your benefit. You will be transported to the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization office. Those with known relatives in Cambodia can be picked up there after processing and those who do not have known family or relatives will be provided with temporary housing of up to 3 months until they are able to locate relatives in Cambodia and/or move on independently.

What sort of identification documents will I have?

The Cambodian government will process your birth certificate and national ID card on or shortly after arrival at the KVAO office. In a much-appreciated change from earlier times, these documents are now provided free of charge.

KVAO can also assist you in applying for a driver’s license, passport, etc.

Is it true that returnees are discriminated against by local Cambodians?

No. Returnees who make the effort to blend into Khmer communities are usually accepted with warmth and respect. Returnees who marry here are often regarded as the virtual head of their extended family because of their fluency in English and the fact that they have had experience outside Cambodia. Most Cambodians won’t know or care that you have been deported unless you tell them or demonstrate by your dress and demeanor that you don’t belong and don’t want to belong here. Having a felony conviction may make it difficult to find certain types of jobs (as would be true anywhere), but your Khmer documents (ID, passport, etc.) will not indicate that you were deported or that you have any legal issues in your background.

I have tattoos – won’t this be a problem for me?

Tattoos are not unusual in Cambodia. Former Deputy Prime Minister and Co-Minister of National Defense General Nhek Bun Chhay is proud of his tattoos, as are a great many Cambodians. Traditional tattoos having religious significance are most common but younger people are seen with more decorative tattoos. Tattoos which are gang / violence / drug related in nature, or otherwise culturally inappropriate, should be kept covered in public. As Cambodian men keep their shirts on in public unless they are engaged in manual labor or sports, there is not much public display of tattoos and, therefore, not much of an issue. One returnee got a job as a pool attendant at a five-star hotel. When his supervisor saw his tattoos, he was reassigned to a new position where he could wear a shirt (but he was not fired). If you have tattoos on your face, neck or hands you may be excluded from some types of jobs as would be true anywhere.

How can I communicate with my family and friends in the US?

If you don’t have one already, set up an email account and learn how to use it. You can also use Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and/or Messenger. You will have Internet access in Cambodia upon arrival.

What should I wear in Cambodia?

In the cities, people generally wear Western-style clothing. At home, men and women often wear sarongs. Men wear shirts unless they are at home or involved in manual labor or sports. A man appearing in public without a proper shirt (at least short sleeves) will instantly be regarded as odd – even threatening – and may be viewed with disgust or contempt. The wearing of shorts, tank tops, baseball caps turned sideways, doo rags, flashy jewelry, etc., in public situations will identify you as odd. The same goes for loud, aggressive, culturally inappropriate behavior. As a direct result of the way you present yourself, you may be charged higher prices, treated rudely, denied service or worse. If you wish to be treated with dignity and respect, adjust your dress and demeanor accordingly. Buy your clothes locally.

How can I speed up my integration process?

The customary form of greeting is the sompiah, and involves pressing the palms together and bowing. If you aren’t already familiar with this, watch carefully how it is done and learn to do it easily and gracefully. Combined with proper dress and polite speech (even if your Khmer is fairly basic) the appropriate use of the sompiah will go a long way toward winning acceptance among your fellow Cambodians. Failure to show respect will instantly identify you as odd or ill-intentioned.

What if I have asthma or diabetes or HIV or some other chronic physical or psychological condition?

Medications and treatment are available, but it is important that you alert KVAO staff to your condition as soon as possible. Even if you are sponsored by family or friends, KVAO will be happy to see that you and your sponsor know what services are available and how to take advantage of them. Western medications (or their equivalents) are available here, but one must be careful to purchase from reputable sources so as to avoid counterfeit drugs.

What about the climate?

Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate with two seasons. The dry season takes place from November to April. In the rainy season between May and October, prepare for high humidity and daily, afternoon showers. Beginning at the end of July and continuing through November, the average temperature range is 70 to 95F (21 to 35C). April is hottest month, with temperatures climbing up to 105F (40C)!

What about traffic?

Your first reaction to traffic in Phnom Penh will be that it is chaotic. In fact, there is an internal logic to it, but it is quite different to traffic in the States and it will take you some time to adjust to the flow. You should spend some time watching traffic from the back of a motorbike before you venture out on your own. Attempting to negotiate Phnom Penh traffic while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is dangerous in the extreme – both to you and others.

I am Cambodian, but I don’t really know much about Cambodian culture. What is “culture shock” and should I worry about that?

You need to prepare yourself for a big adjustment in the way you relate to people and the way they relate to you. Be careful, take it slowly, watch, listen and learn. Adjust your dress, language and demeanor to blend in with your surroundings. You will encounter actions and attitudes you may regard as superstitious, unreasonable or just weird. Many Cambodians have great respect for the supernatural (ghosts, witches, fortune tellers, faith healers, magicians, dreams, numerology, astrology, etc.) Try not to be judgmental. Cambodians are survivors. Along with your grandparents, your parents – and you – they have survived some of the most cataclysmic events imaginable and they have come to rely on instincts, beliefs and strategies they believe have worked for them. The experience of “culture shock” (or cultural disorientation) is usually experienced in four fairly distinct stages:

  • Enchantment – this is the “honeymoon period” when so many things seem interesting and exciting. There is a sense of adventure and exhilaration.


  • Disenchantment – After a few months, a sense of reality sets in and difficulties in adjustment or finding employment begin to mount. Feelings of longing for family and friends in the States may cause mild or severe depression.


  • Retreat – Some returnees slip into heavy alcohol or drugs use or literally retreat into a bedroom or a bar and try to limit their contact with the real Cambodia. They stop looking for jobs or quit jobs they have and break off relations with friends.
  • Adjustment – Over time, most returnees settle into positive, supportive relationships, find employment, adjust to the culture and climate and start new lives here. It is not at all unusual to hear returnees who have been here for two or three years say they would not return to live in the States if they could.

Reverse culture shock – returning to one’s own culture after being gone for some time – also has its unique challenges. You may expect to be able to fit in quickly or you may choose not to fit in or the people around you may be confused that you look Khmer but don’t act or sound Khmer. You may be regarded as an overseas Khmer here for a brief visit rather than a new member of the community. Crossing your legs in a certain way or stating your opinion too directly may be regarded as offensive when the same action by a foreign resident would be quite acceptable because, as a Khmer, it is assumed you should know better.

In some cases, you can actively prepare for the transition (e.g. study Khmer language and culture). In other cases, it may simply be helpful to understand what is happening inside your own mind, to know that it is not unusual and to deal with these challenges as intentionally and creatively as possible. Help is available.

What about the Customs & Culture?

  • Clothing: Casual dress is OK, but typical gang attire or very casual attire will invite negative attention and can cause problems. In short, keep your shirt on (whether you have tattoos or not).
  • Shoes: Remove shoes before entering homes or temples.
  • Bargaining: Common in street stalls, markets, with tuk tuk and motorbike-taxis. Learn to bargain with cheerful confidence and be prepared to walk away – several times – until you settle on a fair price.
  • Toilets: Squat toilets are still being used, though western toilets are increasingly common.

Always be respectful of elderly people and people in authority. Show respect in the way you greet them and the way you stand, sit and speak.

  • Show respect for Buddhist monks, temples, images and statues and members of the Royal family (including their images on display in most public buildings and many private homes). This is extremely important. Any slight – intended or not – against a symbol of the Buddha or the Royal family would be regarded as offensive to all Cambodians.
  • Behavior acceptable in the US may not be acceptable in Cambodia. Loud talk or actions perceived to be obnoxious, aggressive, rude or insulting could provoke violent reaction from locals – including armed security personnel. There have been several incidents in which returnees were beaten up as the result of a misunderstood look or gesture.
  • The carrying of unlicensed weapons is illegal. There are police checkpoints where random checks are done. If weapons are discovered, this will result in a fine and/or imprisonment. Security forces are authorized to use lethal force against anyone attempting to flee a checkpoint – and do.
  • Dates are given in the order day + month + year. September 27, 1978 is written as 27/09/78. April 3, 1978 is written 03/04/78.
  • Cambodian names are given in the order family name + given name. (e.g. Smith John).
  • Khmer is the official language and some older people speak French, but English is Cambodia’s second language. Cambodians are often eager to practice English with anyone who speaks it and many returnees teach conversational English formally or informally.

Is the water safe to drink?

Tap water in Phnom Penh is generally safe to drink, but bottled water is inexpensive and widely available.

What about the food?

The standard diet consists of rice, fish and vegetables but Cambodians love to eat all kinds of food at all hours of the day and night. Vendors selling fruit, sweets, bread and all sorts of snacks wander through the markets and around the streets. Western foods including pizza and burgers, etc., are available in the larger cities and towns and, increasingly, even in smaller provincial towns.

At least until your body adjusts to the different climate and foods, you should follow the well-established rule: “If it’s not cooked, boiled or peeled, forget it.”

What kind of money is used?

In Cambodia, two currencies are commonly used; theUS dollar and the Cambodian Riel. $1 = 4000 Riel.

Riel (Khmer money) is used for most small purchases, and is used more commonly in the countryside, while US dollars are generally used for larger purchases.


Updated September 24, 2018