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Moving to and Living in Cambodia

Stepping Off the Treadmill

Phnom Penh's riverfront in Cambodia
Phnom Penh's riverfront.

Stepping from the airport terminal into the oppressive heat of Phnom Penh we saw him: The chubby, shiny-eyed face of SomOn.

A tuktuk driver dispatched to pick us up after more than 30 hours of travel, he stood shoulder to shoulder among dozens of greeters, families and taxi drivers bearing a sign that said “Welcome Skip and Gabi Yetter” and flashed an enormous smile. Hoisting our bags onto his slight shoulders, he piled them onto his tuktuk, buckled his helmet and whizzed onto the street.

“We go now,” he grinned. And we were off. 

Merging into the traffic chaos where motorbikes carrying four people and a basket of mangos swerved around trucks piled six feet high with wooden tables and bales of hay, SomOn expertly negotiated our passage into the city. We passed street-side stands cooking num kachay (chive cakes) and saw open markets teeming with women stocking up on morning glory and scrawny chicken carcasses. We held our breath as cars spewing exhaust fumes weaved in front of us and felt the hot air blow through our hair like a blast from a convection oven.

After three years of researching, planning, eliminating, and anticipating, we had finally arrived in our new adoptive home.

We hadn’t initially planned to move across the world and leave behind everything dear and familiar to us. But our honeymoon in Thailand in 2007 whet our appetites for Southeast Asia and called to us in a persuasive, gentle voice: There is more. Go. Explore.

So, instead of returning home with souvenirs and photographs, we returned with a dream and a goal: To step off the proverbial treadmill and start a new life on the other side of the world.

We researched organizations and volunteer opportunities. We sold our home in the U.S. and moved into a small rental condo. We quit our jobs. We sold, stored or gave away all our belongings. We were accepted into Volunteers In Asia and posted at Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia, a country we knew very little about.

And in June 2010, we landed in Phnom Penh with no plan to return to life in the U.S.A. For us, Cambodia was the destination but it also was the start of a new, expansive journey.

Getting Used To Southeast Asia — The First Weeks

Our move to Southeast Asia started in 2007, when, in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Skip posed a question after we’d spent two weeks visiting rice paddies and elephant reserves, getting foot massages and devouring platefuls of pad Thai: “How would you feel about living in Southeast Asia?”

I didn’t hesitate. “Yes”. Who wouldn’t, after savoring lazy days of foot massages, wonderful food and amazing vistas?

But it was more than the pampering and pad Thai. We were captivated by the energy in Southeast Asia that drew us in. Something gentle, spiritual, and peaceful. Something that beckoned to us.

So, we said "yes" to the opportunity to build a life 10,000 miles from our home and set out into the unknown.

A typical scene in Phnom Penh
A typical scene in Phnom Penh.

It wasn’t easy at first. Phnom Penh was hot, dirty, and uncomfortable. We arrived during the hottest and rainiest time of the year. Our first four weeks were spent in a tiny third-floor walkup $10/night guesthouse with a bathroom the size of a closet. Luckily our room had air-conditioning, so I wanted to spend most of the day inside. The bathroom drain blocked up regularly. Wi-Fi was non-existent, other than in the (un-air-conditioned) lobby. The sidewalks were broken up and littered with garbage, there were rats, and everything just smelled bad.

VIA planned our first two weeks to provide a taste of the culture and lifestyle. Every morning at 9 a.m., a smiling SomOn picked us up and took us to language classes, where we sat in a small classroom with two fellow volunteers. For the next two hours (and two hours in the afternoon), we struggled to learn Khmer, a language whose quirky sounds and guttural tone poses a serious challenge for the western tongue. We toggled between total frustration and complete hysteria as the four of us struggled to say words like t’ngai ni (today), pochaneatan (restaurant) and ch’ngaing (tasty). One of our teachers, a serious fellow named Pagna, hovered over us as we took turns verbalizing alien sounds. He reprimanded us if we had the wrong intonation and we all agreed we didn’t want to learn to read and write. Speaking was hard enough.

Four weeks later, we were able to give basic directions to tuktuks and order a couple of dishes in local restaurants, but we didn’t truly begin to grasp the language until, two years later, we met Dara Than. This gregarious, jovial teacher who’d survived the Khmer Rouge came to our home every week and gave us one-on-one classes on our balcony. Always cheerful and laughing, he taught us to string together sentences that made sense and teased us when we “made up new words”. Dara was a huge influence on our life in Cambodia and the only person who was able to open up the language to us. When he died in 2014, he left a big void in our lives and those of countless others he had taught. We still carry his Khmer book wherever we go.

Settling In and the Lessons We Learned

While Dara helped us find our feet in his language, there were others who helped orient us to life in this fascinating yet confusing place we now called home.

SomOn and Tony, another tuktuk driver, soon became friends. SomOn drove us to work every day and often took us places well off the tourist’s beat as we crossed the city. Back-alley clusters of rundown residential shacks, wet markets teeming with produce, meat, and hard goods, their tiny aisles crammed with eager shoppers gathering the day’s food in the sultry morning air. We stared at emaciated chickens pecking in the dirt underneath sparkling new Range Rovers, stopped to give an old beggar woman a few Riel, and marveled at the umpteenth western-style coffee shop opening for the coffee-dependent populace. 

Tony taught us how to laugh at ourselves and embrace the "no-boundary" Cambodian way. This jovial man was constantly making fun — of us, of himself and of Cambodia in general. He’d often pick us up, giggling about a car which had cut him off, and he’d tease other tuktuk drivers when they tried to take his customers.

Unwittingly, Tony and SomOn opened the doors of Cambodia to us. They were the first to put their hand into their pocket and pull out money for a beggar. They’d constantly smile, even when they were hot, tired and hungry. During Pchum Benh, the Buddhist festival of the ancestors, they taught us about their religion and brought us gifts of fruit and soft drinks, though they were desperately poor.

SomOn and his tuktuk in Phnom Penh
Spending time with SomOn and his tuktuk.

As we settled into our new life, we learned other lessons that weren’t so heart-warming. One evening, walking home from dinner, a couple of motorbikes swerved around the corner, leaning perilously close to me. The next minute, my shoulder bag was ripped from my arm.

I was stunned by the speed and aggression I’d just encountered and quickly learned I’d been initiated into Phnom Penh expat life. In a country where poverty is rife, petty theft is widespread and you have to have a sense of awareness. We learned a valuable lesson: Don’t be a target, and you should be left alone. From then on, I carried a fanny-pack around my waist and never flaunted money in a public place.

I learned that almost all our friends had been robbed in one way or another. One had three phones snatched from his hand (at different times), one was pulled down the street by a motorbike driver as her shoulder bag was wrapped around her body and another was a victim of a break-in to her apartment.

While incidents like this were unsettling and threw us off track for a bit, we also recognized them as a part of life in a third-world country and took it upon ourselves to be more aware of our surroundings. Most of the time, however, I had never felt safer anywhere than in this bustling, chaotic city of 1.5 million people. Skip and I walked everywhere, explored the city, and talked to everyone we met.

Expat Life in Cambodia

Caption 2
Riverfront market and views across the Tonle Sap.

There are more than 80,000 expats living in Cambodia, most of whom fit into three categories: teachers, NGO workers, and corporate employees, most of whom live in Phnom Penh. Consequently, there are dozens of activities throughout the city designed for every age and nationality.

You’ll find quiz nights in a number of hotels and bars, English language movies at The Flicks (a small chain of local movie houses), or at the new, flashy Aeon Mall (where you can also go bowling or ice skating), as well as free nightly documentaries shown on the open-air rooftop screen at Meta House. There’s nerd night, go kart racing, dodgeball tournaments, running clubs, drink ‘n draw, comedy night, CrossFit, and umpteen happy hours and expat get-togethers.

There are simple restaurants — such as the Chinese Noodle House — where you can get a delicious meal for less than $5. There are open-air markets where you can indulge in local fare for little more than a dollar. There are upscale restaurants where chefs whip up truffle pasta and seared salmon for a fraction of the cost that you’d find it in the west. There are spas where you can get an hour massage for $10.

Market in Phnom Penh
Market in Phnom Penh.

More than 5,700 Facebook members participate in the Phnom Penh Expat Forum, and more than 600 people are part of Interesting Things to do in Phnom Penh.

So, while Phnom Penh may not be on most people’s top list of tourist destinations, it’s a great place to live as an expat.

Getting Involved

When we arrived, I made it my mission to create a social life, so I started online. I joined every Cambodia-focused LinkedIn group, scanned the bios of each member and sent emails to some who sounded interesting, telling them we were new in town and asking if they’d like to meet us for coffee or lunch. Most responded. Some became friends.

I attended many of the local networking groups — from the British Business Association to the American Chamber of Commerce to the Women’s International Group — to meet others who’d set sail for Cambodia.

I took an apsara dance class, a photography class, a modern dance class and yoga classes. I attended the Phnom Penh TedX conference and a talk on personal growth. Bit by bit, I gathered a group of friends — from England, France, Serbia, Italy, The Netherlands, the US, New Zealand and Australia.

I joined the Cambodia Parent’s Network Yahoo Group which isn’t just for parents (it started that way in 2006). This Cambodian-based online expat community has almost 6,000 members and is a great resource for everything going on around town: places to rent, where to buy stuff, questions on health issues, updates on holiday spots, jobs or internships, and much more. It’s the only place where you’ll see people asking for pony-shaped cake molds and honey baked hams, as well as advice on what to do if you get into a car accident, or need healthcare for your cat.

I also found it much easier to meet people in an expat community than at home. People weren’t so wrapped up in their own circle of friends. Expats came and left at a pretty rapid pace, so everyone was keen to jump in right away. We were all in the same boat — afloat in a country that wasn’t our own and open to meeting like-minded individuals.

The first time we met our downstairs neighbor, Philip, for example, was on the stairwell in our building. We introduced ourselves, chatted for a while and suggested getting together with him and his wife for a drink.

“How about tonight,” he said. So we did.

Back home, we’d all have consulted our calendars, asked our partners, found a convenient date, and scheduled it into our day timers. The immediacy that happened in Cambodia at first surprised us and then became our way of life.

What to Love about Cambodia

Cambodia is a country of exquisite contrasts. One minute you’ll be relaxing on a rooftop cocktail bar drinking Cosmopolitans, and the next you’ll be squatting on a plastic chair in the street eating grilled eggs with tuktuk drivers. On the way to work, you’ll see filthy dogs searching for food next to a chauffeur-driven Lexus SUV. On your way home, will see a brilliant orange sunset over a pagoda, while a dirty barefoot child sleeps under his tarpaulin home on the street.

Coconut vendors on the streets of Phnom Penh
Coconut vendors sell their wares on the streets of Phnom Penh.

There’s something magical about walking at night beneath the sliver of a moon alongside shimmering pagodas and monks wrapped in saffron. And there’s something compelling about a race of people who, despite their tortured history, are smiling, gentle, playful, and incredibly warm.

Cambodians have childlike dispositions. It’s normal to see a group of young men playing ball on a street corner, children playing outside in torrential rainstorms, or businessmen teasing one another in a work setting. People routinely burst into song while walking the street or manning the food stalls. Smile at someone, and they smile back, their faces quickly breaking into a toothy grin. For us, that’s the heart of Cambodia.

We were once told about a westerner visiting the home of a Cambodian who noticed their young son kicking a sandal around the street with a group of friends.

“Isn’t it sad he doesn’t have a ball,” commented the westerner.

“I don’t see it that way,” said his mother. “I think it’s wonderful that he has so many friends to play with.”

Here, simplicity rules, and the focus tends to be on what is, rather than what isn’t. We are constantly overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers and the generosity of people we meet who are more welcoming and gracious than many in the western world.

There aren’t many boundaries in Cambodian culture and it’s quite normal to be asked how old you are, how much you weigh, or how much you pay for your rent. It’s also common to find a work colleague staring over your shoulder into your computer screen, or saying something like, “You look fat today”.

That’s part of the charm too. As is living in a place where nothing makes sense to a western brain, nothing runs on time, and everything is unpredictable.

Now, we love the “rough and ready” style of the place, and laugh at the way traffic goes the wrong way on every street. I find myself discovering something new every time I walk through town. And I love how everyone — from tiny children to wrinkled old men to stylish teenagers riding motorbikes — makes eye contact and smiles.

Advice for Living in Cambodia

There are two important things everyone needs to bring with them to Cambodia: patience and a sense of humor. Know that you’ll constantly be challenged and confused. And that sometimes your heart will break at the same time as it will sing.

Here are some tips for making the most of living in Cambodia:

Spend time with local people. Some of our best experiences have been visiting our tuktuk driver in his home or cooking dinner for him and his nine other relatives who unexpectedly showed up (Cambodians like to bring others along with them).

Go to a Cambodian wedding. Khmers love to include westerners in their celebrations, and weddings are sights to behold. If you know any Cambodians, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be invited to one, even if you hardly know the bride or groom. You’ll be treated like visiting royalty.

Respond to tuktuk and moto drivers. One of my pet peeves is seeing westerners ignoring tuktuk and moto drivers when they ask for a fare. They are rarely aggressive and will almost always reply with a smile and a nod when you say “Ot tay akoon” (no thank you).  Pat one on the shoulder and ask them “Sok sabai?” (How are you?) and chances are they’ll remember you when you walk past two weeks later.

Get out of the cities. The rural villages, back roads, and cultural centers show a more authentic side of Cambodia and you’ll interact much more with locals when you leave town. Most people know about Siem Reap and the gorgeous Angkor Wat temples, but few know about the simple beauty of tiny Rabbit Island, or hiking in the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong.

A typical scene in Cambodia's countryside
A typical scene in Cambodia's countryside.

Learn the language. Even if you can only say a few phrases, give directions, and order in a restaurant, it’s important to know some Khmer if you’re planning on making Cambodia your home.

Slow down. Engage. Go for a walk in your neighborhood. Talk to people along the way. Have a conversation with a tuktuk driver. Play with kids on the street.

Most of all, be open to whatever comes your way. It might, as it did for us, change your life.

Gabrielle Yetter is a British former journalist who has been travelling since the age of one. Raised in Bahrain, she moved with her family to South Africa then headed to the USA where she married and lived for more than 20 years. She moved to Cambodia in 2010 with her husband, Skip, and wrote The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia and The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia (about Cambodian desserts). In 2015, she and Skip published Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure and her first children's book, Ogden, The Fish Who Couldn't Swim Straight , was published in 2016. Gabrielle and Skip are now house-sitting throughout the world, taking care of other people's homes and pets.

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