This was one of my biggest pet peeves about Cambodia right from the start. In most restaurants (translation – all restaurants, except from upscale, splurge style establishment for extremely rich), you will be breathed down your neck throughout your stay as a patron. I’m saying this without slight exaggeration. Cambodians take excessively wrong approach towards tourists in most instances and waiters in restaurants are no exception. I found it truly hard to accept from the beginning and still can’t get myself to feel easy about it, but I grew to accept it as necessary evil.
Awful Experience Placing Orders
This is what it looks like when you walk into a restaurant with intentions to get something to eat:
A waiter or waitress follows you to the table (or escorts you to it if she got to you before you could seat yourself), hands you the menu and stands there right above you staring at you as you browse through your menu. If you tell him/her that you will take a minute to choose, it will be ignored and the waiter will simply stand there, breathing down your neck, forcing you to make hasty decision just so you get rid of that uncomfortable feeling of having someone stand over you, staring at you while you’re trying to make a decision.
Awful Experience Eating
Once you have placed an order (9 out of 10 it will be a hasty order as you will feel pressure having someone breathe down your neck while you’re choosing), unless you are in an upscale establishment for extremely rich, you will be stared at from a distance. Your waiter will stand nearby with eyes fixed on you, staring you down nonstop. Occasionally, if it’s slow and there are few servers at the restaurant, they may engage at a conversation with each other giving you the room to breathe. But it is very common to have your server stand a few tables down facing you and looking at you non stop. You will feel their breath on you, you will have them within your peripheral vision which makes it really hard to cope with. But this is the way they do it in Cambodia.
Awful Experience Paying
Once you’re done eating and ask your waiter for a bill, you will be brought a little folder with your bill that lists the total for what you have consumed. I have never had any unexplained charges on my bill which is a very positive experience, however… your waiter will wait right there by your side, staring at you as you pull your wallet out, browse through the bills inside and pick what you wish to put inside a folder. The feeling of being pressured and having a person breathe down your neck is unbearable but again – this is the way they do it.
Cultural Differences in Dining Services
Apparently the reason why waiters at Cambodian restaurants put you as a patron through such unpleasant experience is because this is the way Khmer (Cambodians) like it. Khmer people want everything now so servers are always at the ready, never close by, but rather right there.
It is difficult to hold this against your waiters. They actually believe that they are doing you a favour and are providing you with exceptional service by being there for you at any given time. Unfortunately this belief is so deeply embedded that any attempt to try to explain that this makes guests uncomfortable is futile. You will be deemed a weirdo if you express your feelings and ask not to have anyone breathe down your back. Khmer people believe this is quality service. They do not realize that for us westerners this is rather rude and feels like you are not given the room to breathe.
You are likely to experience this type of treatment in one form or another. While Cambodians slowly grow to become a little better behaved, unintentional, yet ill treatment is very common. Unless you are staying in upscale establishment and eat in high class restaurants where western owners train their staff appropriately and maintain standards acceptable by westerners, expect to feel uncomfortable by having your waiter stare you down and breathe down your neck during your stay at their establishment.