Living on "Cambo Time" as an "On-Time is Late" Person

Sometimes, the cultural struggle is real.

You’re checking your watch, watching the minutes tick closer and closer to the deadline, passing the point where you could have made it if you had hailed a Passapp taxi, past the time where you still could have made it had you abandoned your waiting and hopped on your bicycle, and past the time where even “apparating” couldn’t get you there on time… ten, twenty minutes beyond the arranged time and still, your Cambodian friend hasn’t arrived on their moto to pick you up.

Learning to live and navigate a culture where time is almost aggressively flexible has been one of my more consistent and frustrating challenges. How do I manage it? Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. Here are some tips for you to commiserate with, laugh at, or internalize, and hopefully help you (and me!) cope better in future travels.

  1. “Don’t wait outside.” A friend shared their simple-yet-effective coping strategy. Rather than sweating and batting away mosquitos while you wait for a seemingly infinite amount of time, stay inside, and make your ride call when they actually arrive. In the meantime, keep doing whatever it is you would do if you didn’t have plans, whether that’s watching netflix, practicing different hairstyles from Pinterest, getting in some online work, listening to music, or reading this month’s bookclub book.

  2. “I’m just showering quick and then I’ll be there” = you still have 60+ minutes to wait. This one always baffles me — how long does it take to shower?? But what this usually means is your friend is finishing up a project at home (laundry, tasks with the animals, cooking dinner for the family) and is nowhere near showering. If you use this phrase to mean you have an hour left to get ready, you’ll make the best of your time and still feel fresh by the time your well-scrubbed friend has arrived.

  3. “We’re eating now, I’ll be there after lunch” — make sure you budget in nap time (2 hours) with “lunch.” And then a shower, since after a hot Cambodian afternoon nap you undoubtedly wake sticky from sweat. To be safe, if lunch is at 10:30 am (I know, isn’t that brunch?), just consider “after lunch” to be around 2:30 or 3 pm.

  4. Last, but maybe most important to me: Don’t wait to eat. I can always eat twice, but if I’m already hangry by the time my friend has shown up at 3 for our lunch meeting, it will not be a pleasant lunch for either of us.

And try to embrace the leisurely approach to time! The flexibility can allow you to have lovely interactions with neighbors, without concern for a ticking watch. Try to set accurate expectations, and trust your local friends won’t mind if you’re a bit late too.