Love and money, two concepts that often go hand in hand in a place like Cambodia. The latter is a limited resource in the third world and the former is often used to obtain it. Every year many a men come to Cambodia looking for love but the truth of the matter is very few find it. They can find varying degrees of it at times in the form of companionship, and other times they will get scammed outright. But then again, the men in this scenario are not always innocent players either. The point of this article is not to point the finger nor assign blame, but rather to discuss the situation honestly as it exists. I have run the full gamut in my six years living here from first time visitor, to experienced single man to a family man with two children. Having experienced just about everything I question whether or not our Western concept of "love" can exist here, or whether it exists anywhere at all. Nonetheless, the experience of these past few years is one I would never trade in for anything nor everything.
So is it love or is it money? There are plenty of young girls in this country who love to have fun so the opportunity to hook up for an evening or two is certainly plentiful. But for anything long term it is doubtful that any woman in Cambodia is willing to be with a foreigner who cannot support her financially. This is not to cast the Khmer woman as some sort of evil gold digger, but rather because money is a resource that is in limited supply here. A Cambodian female that is looking for a foreign man simply cannot afford to be with one out of love only. There are of course those that marry out of love but in the majority of these cases they tend to marry their own. Foreigners often underestimate how strong ethnic bonds are in Cambodia, thinking that every single woman would prefer a foreign man. All things being equal, I think a woman would prefer to marry and build a family with a fellow Khmer. But when given the chance to be with a foreigner, the opportunity to have a better life, for themselves and their family, becomes the paramount issue. For us foreigners money will always be the thing that opens the door. Whether the open door is to her heart or something else is often a complicated issue.
I have been with my wife for four years, married the last two with two beautiful children. As much as I have no doubt that she truly loves me now, I have no doubt that she did not the first year or so that we were together. I often tell a funny story in which during the first few months that my wife and I lived together she tried to call me to ask if I can get her something from the kitchen. But when she opened her mouth to call out my name, she realized she had no idea what my name was and just froze. After a few awkward seconds she simply blurted out "brother" and then proceeded with her request. I laugh about it now but admit that I was bit offended at the time that a woman who I had been living with for three months did not even know my name. It just goes to show how these types of relationships initially come about. I am a fat hideous C.H.U.D. in his 40's and have no delusion as to why it was my then 22 year old wife initially came to be with me. But four years later we are still together and have two wonderful daughters. This is to say that true love can develop as neither one of us has any doubts presently about how the other feels. But the road to where we are now was a rough one and in many ways continues to be a struggle.
After our initial year together, my wife and I took a bit of a break as I had to return back home to the States. Once I returned I fell upon a financially beneficial situation and our lives seemed very secure. But that did not last forever as I fell on some difficult times about a year and a half later. That time was heart-wrenchingly difficult as there were weeks where I would struggle to buy a single can of milk for my daughter. To her credit my wife refused to leave my side during this entire episode and altered her lifestyle drastically in order to accommodate our new situation. There was a time when she probably did ask for too much, but money was plentiful at that time and I was glad to give it to her. But when all this changed she asked for nothing and even asked her family to stop asking me for money as well. For a period of time I lived in the city of Kampot, basically having begged my friends to let me help in their $0.25-$0.50 game so that I could earn some money. My friend was nice enough to give me a free room on top of his Sports Bar where I would stay with my wife and youngest daughter. All three of us were living together in this one room, but I remember the time fondly not only because my friends were all gracious enough to help me but also because my wife stuck by me during this entire time. Suffice it to say I have dug myself out of that situation and we live very comfortably now. But for what we went through I love my wife dearly, know that she loves me and will never leave her for it.
I do not want to comment on the relationships of others, but for myself it was impossible to truly know whether or not my wife truly loved me until we went through this episode. Now that our lives are much different I find myself struggling as I encounter many women who would want some of what I have for themselves. Once again I am not attempting to portray any of these females in a negative light. They often have their own children to support and give money to help their parents. And for uneducated but young and attractive women they have very limited resources from which to draw from in order to gain a foreign man who can support them. But as much, and often times more, than it is about love this is really a game of resources. As my wife has pointed out to me several times, every time I go out to a bar at night or buy drinks for a girl I am taking resources that could have otherwise gone to her or our children. And herein lies my greatest fault both as a husband and a father. Anyone who has ever hung out with me on the riverside can attest that I am nowhere near perfect in this regard. I contend that it is nearly impossible to stay faithful and true as a foreign man with money in this country. Girls are simply available everywhere and whether you go to a bar or meet a waitress at a restaurant, there are girls at every corner who are more than eager to meet a man who can potentially help them financially. Once again I do not wish to speak for anyone else, but the longer I live here the more I discover about myself that staying true in the past was more about lack of opportunity than anything else.
But I would not do anything in these past six years differently if given the chance as everything has led to the blessings that are my two beautiful daughters. In many ways both the joys and struggles of being in a relationship are similar here as anywhere else. But the issue of money is amplified to a great degree and colors every aspect of relationship life. Since the financial gap that exists between foreigners and many young women in Cambodia is potentially great, it can be difficult to enjoy a relationship with a similar paradigm as those back in our home countries. But at the end of the day you find someone to love, hope they love you back and then travail through both happy and trying times to live a life of true meaning that presents itself to you every morning when they wake you up early screaming for milk ;)
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