Siem Reap: 280 miles from the beach

The weather is starting to heat up again in Siem Reap and tourists are jettisoning their garments like snakes shedding their skins. Sartorial defiance is the order of the day as visitors stroll the streets of Siem Reap bare-chested or in bikini tops, oblivious to local mores or universal standards of good taste. They visit Angkor Wat in tube tops and short shorts, confident that the gods, spirits, and security guards will be honored by the sight of their underbutt.

Woman wearing a bikini in Siem Reap

Where’s the beach? Oh, just about 280 miles from here. Photo by Mr. Sam Rachna

Siem Reap is not a beach town (nor is Phnom Penh, for that matter). So it’s perplexing to see tourists wandering the streets of a city that’s a full 280 miles from the nearest seashore — there aren’t even any direct flights — shirtless or in swimming gear.

Cambodian culture values modesty. Khmer women generally keep their shoulders and knees covered, while most men wear long sleeve shirts and pants even on the hottest days. It’s true that Cambodian culture is (slowly) changing, and you’ll sometimes see young Cambodian women in sleeveless shirts. But for the most part, Cambodians dress modestly.

Now before you say, “But I saw a Cambodian man standing in front of his house with his shirt off!” remember that he was standing in front of his own house. The difference between public space and private space is often blurred in Cambodia, where people carry on their lives in full view of tourists. However, you’ll usually only see Cambodian men shirtless if they’re at home, farming, mentally ill, or acrobats at the circus. And you won’t see Cambodian women in bikini tops, even at the beach.

Topless dudes on Pub Street.

Topless dudes on Pub Street. Photo by Hanno Stamm.

Of course visitors aren’t necessarily expected to share Cambodian values. But they are expected to respect them. Skimpy clothes at tourist-oriented bars and clubs — places where no Cambodian grannies are likely to be traumatized by the sight of your pasty chest or butt cleavage — aren’t entirely unacceptable. Prancing around city streets in the equivalent of underwear is; such behavior shows a total lack of consideration for the locals and their culture. Even more blatantly disrespectful is wearing revealing clothing while visiting Angkor Wat, the largest and most revered religious monument in the country.

A recent spate of naked tourists in Cambodia is provoking a backlash. Several visitors have been deported for stripping down at the temples, and three others were kicked out for riding motos naked through Kampot. The Apsara Authority is sick of streakers and skimpy outfits and reportedly will be strictly enforcing dress codes for visitors to the temples starting April 1st.

Screenshot of a CNC tv show about scantily clad tourists

A CNC TV show about skimpily dressed tourists got a lot of attention in the local community.

A report on Cambodian television chastised tourists for dressing inappropriately. Photos from the piece were posted on Facebook and dozens of locals expressed their disgust with scantily clad tourists. One wrote, “Some tourists driving moto by themselves wearing underwear along the road in public. That make local residents feel unhappy with your culture bringing to Cambodia. I hope you understand well about the way of respect one’s local culture and custom. Respect a local culture and custom means you are respecting you yourself too!”

So show some respect for yourself, for your Cambodian hosts, and even for the expats who don’t want to see your sideboob. There are no beaches in Siem Reap, so keep your bikinis poolside and off the street. And, for the love of prahok, please cover your shoulders at the temples!

9 Responses to Siem Reap: 280 miles from the beach

    Mark says:

    It is really disappointing that westerners does not respect other countries culture other than its own .
    How hard is it to respect Cambodian cultural traditions and modesty. I am am westerner , the reason i travel to other countries is to see and experience that counties culture and also respect the local traditions. I don’t travel to other countries to see or to be embarrassed by western bogans who have no respect for anyone.

    Jay Varaman says:

    Previous commenter:

    1. If your students are wearing short shorts, then you’re teaching prostitutes apparently. I’ve never taught at any school in Cambodia where there wasn’t a uniform the students had to wear. Perhaps you’re teaching at the University level? Still prostitutes, or they wouldn’t be wearing short shorts. Are you sure you don’t live in Thailand? Check a map.

    2. I don’t see anyone driving motos with no shirt on in Phnom Penh. That’s just bullshit. You live in Thailand.

    3. Why are there no strip clubs in Cambodia? Why is pornography illegal? Why both of those things even though prostitution is de facto legal? Because what she’s saying regarding Cambodian culture and modesty is dead on accurate and you live in Thailand.

      Vincent says:

      Well Jay,
      Not really sure what your point is other than “you live in Thailand” I can not see who you are responding to but a waste of the purpose of these posts. Have a happy Khmer New year.

    Vincent says:

    Probably bigger issue and not worth the time here. Western habits will take over eventually anyway. Not a Spring break atmosphere though. Just my opinion.

    Adam says:

    There are plenty of scantily glad girls out at night when it’s not so hot and they won’t tan. As well as students in my classes with the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen. Guys regularly drive motos with no shirts on, it’s not just an outside of their house thing (and why does that matter? They’re still outside).

    Not to mention that Apsara is a topless tradition anyway.

    Luke says:

    The locals will happily take there money though

    Anna says:

    Great post Lina – I’m actually doing a talk in Phnom Penh on this next week, as there’s been quite a lot of chat about tourists’ bad clothing choices down here too. Here’s a few thoughts I shared on Igloo – would be great to get your feedback!

    David Lee says:

    Such complaints about Western tourists are commonplace in every country where local standards differ from local ones. I suspect that most Westerners don’t know, don’t notice or don’t care (and possibly all three). We ex-pats can complain that our fellow countrymen as tourists give us a bad name among the locals but short of having a “local customs awareness test” on arrival, with subsequent deportation I’m not sure that there’s an answer

    Vincent says:

    Good advise thanks. I have sort of been blinded by the tourists lack of tact. I do understand they are on vacation but ,give me a break. Yes 100F this weekend but no secret.

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