Trampling over sacred ground: managing visits from family and friends

My parents visited me in January 2016. It was great to see them again and helpful for both of them to experience a bit my life in Cambodia. They were (hopefully) reassured that I could live happily and safely in this country. However, there were quite a few moments that I found frustrating and difficult.

So, I’m going to share my few words of advice about what surprised me most about the visit, both for the visited (although that sounds more spiritualist than intended) and the visitors.

The visited

In the weeks before and during my parents’ visit, my mind became a whole crucible of emotions: excitement, anxiety, joy and sheer panic. I put a lot of pressure on myself. You suddenly feel the burden of representing a whole nation to your guests, being responsible for their well-being and also convincing them that your choice to move to some distant land was reasonable and well thought-out. I hadn’t realised how stressful I would find it, but gradually, as my parents’ arrival date grew closer and closer, I felt a strange sense of impending doom.

Until my parents’ arrival, my life in Cambodia had been very separate to my life in the UK. Of course, I shared it with them through phone calls, this blog, Facebook posts and more. But they were snippets and some of them were carefully controlled. Now, my two worlds were colliding and my ability to manage the image I was presenting was limited. Cambodia is unpredictable and things go wrong at the most inopportune or ironic moments (like when you announce to your dad, “the beef here is really good!” for the restaurant to serve, for the first and only time ever, gristly, dry beef).

However, a lot of my feelings took me by surprise and it took me a while to work out why I had them.

You have placed a lot of significance in things without even realising.

One thing that you want to do when you have guests is to take them to the places that are important to you or places that hold special memories. You want to be able to share the significant aspects of your life with people significant to you. However, this can also make the situation slightly fraught and difficult.

Your visitors may not realise that this place is particularly significant to you. Heck, you possibly didn’t realise until you felt as if your memories and feelings with being trampled on. It happened to me.

I took my parents somewhere one evening. I can’t even tell you the name of it as I’ve forgotten. I had been there before with colleagues from the Khmer school I had been working at. I was there for a relatively short time and not much thought about it. However, I didn’t realise that the place had become imbued with importance. I had enjoyed the evening with my colleagues, and there I had felt a sense of connection with them personally, as well as an appreciation for Khmer culture in general. Despite not remember its name, this place was now associated with really positive memories and experiences. I had not realised that, for me, this place had become sacred ground.

I took my parents there. My dad wasn’t feeling well, so spent most the time with a pained expression of his face and making strange noises. They just didn’t seem to enjoy the evening in general. (My dad actually voiced his dislike of the occasion whilst we were there.)

You know in Inside Out, where they play memories in the balls, and Sadness touches a happy memory and it turns blue? Well, I could feel that happening. My parents had inadvertently trampled all over this sacred ground.

My tips for navigating this is to think beforehand why that place may have a special place in your heart. What memories were made there? Where there any particular success or milestones?

Once you have realised why that place may be important, tell your visitors. It is not fair on your guests if you lead them blindly into situations where they could cause unintentional hurt. So, let them know. Even say the words, “This place is significant because…” or “This place holds a special place in my heart as it’s where…” Then you’ve done your bit in communicating what you feel about the place. Also, your visitors might appreciate you sharing about your experiences and will feel like they understand your life a little better.

Make new memories

Another way to avoid the clashing of memories is to go to new places together. Some of the times I enjoyed most with my parents were when we went to places I had never been to before. First, there was no pressure of them enjoying or agreeing with your feelings about something. Second, it’s just great to do new things and to forge memories that you can share. Blooms in Phnom Penh, Preah Vihear in the north of Cambodia, Phare the Cambodian circus in Siem Reap are all now significant places to me because I went there with my parents.

The visitors

My main advice would just be to tread lightly. Even if you are really close to the person you are visiting, you are being invited into that aspect of their lives. Be a good guest.

Ask if they have been there before and ask them about their memories there. Don’t always expect them to always be able to articulate the place’s significance to you. It may be that actually, it is really unimportant to them. But being polite about it won’t do any harm and it would avoid the risk of offence.

Also, quite often people will feel the same way about the country they’ve moved to in the same way that they do about family members. They can moan about them as much as they like, but if someone starts doing the same it’s rude. My dad told me that I hadn’t truly settled in Cambodia as I couldn’t accept any criticism of it. My dad is such an idiot, isn’t he? (Say “yes” and you’re in for trouble.)

Just remember, you are allowed to have whatever opinions of a place you like. Also, I believe in free speech. You can voice your opinions, too. But, I also believe in the saying, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. You have the freedom to jump from a second story balcony unto the concrete below. But you shouldn’t. You also have the freedom to say what you like about the place you are visiting. But it may be better to bite your tongue.

Again, you are being invited into that person’s life. It’s not just another holiday destination for them. If someone invited you to their home, you would be careful what they say. You wouldn’t start rating it like on TripAdvisor. Treat the whole country like the person’s home. Don’t rate it, evaluate it or critique it. Just enjoy sharing in it. If you’re not enjoying it, you better try faking it.

Another thing that could make it easier is don’t act like you are an expert on the subject of the country you are visiting (unless you are of course). That person may have lived there only for some months, or it may be years. Either way, if you are just visiting, they probably have a far better knowledge of the place than you. Therefore, advice may go unheeded.


  • Relax. I think most of the problems were a result of the unnecessary pressure I was putting on myself to be Cambodia’s ambassador.
  • It’s a privilege to share in other peoples’ lives, whether you are the host or the guest. Treat it like a privilege.
  • Enjoy it.