We arrived in Cambodia with mixed emotions, sad that our travelling was over for a while, but also excited and a little nervous at what lay before us – living and working in Siem Reap. As we stepped off the plane at Siem Reap International Airport the excitement took over. We were hit by the familiar hot, humid air and the smell of South East Asia. I think this unique smell is a combination of close, muggy air infused with incense, spices, cooking, gasoline, and in the rainy season, wet grass, leaves, and mud.
Andy and I are now nearing the end of our first-month living and working in Siem Reap. Therefore I wanted to update you on our roller-coaster of an introduction to expat life here, and our first impressions. A pre-warning…this is a lengthy post – I’ll try to keep future posts on a little but often basis.
When we first arrive somewhere we normally conduct what we call íntegration and assimilation’. This is normally done over a couple of days after arriving in a new place. It involves finding our bearings, discovering how things work and generally getting into the swing of things. This time it’s been different. I think this is partly because we’ve both been to Cambodia and Siem Reap several times before. It’s also because we’re not just travelling here, but living and working too. Here’s our ‘Living and Working in Cambodia – One Month Update’; talking about house and pet-sitting, and running our friend’s guesthouse.
Cambodia visa on arrival in hand we easily passed through immigration to be met by our usual friendly tuk-tuk driver from Rosy Guesthouse. He whisked us straight there where we were welcomed by our friends and partook in several obligatory Cambodia draft beers, before getting settled into our favourite room for a few nights. We then spent an enjoyable evening at our friend’s house, where we had dinner and a good catch-up. We also got a tour of the house we’d be living in for the next 4 weeks and met the pets we’d be looking after. The following day we were given a thorough handover of the day to day running of the guesthouse. We also got a grand tour of the important places in town that we might need such as the bank, money exchange, wholesalers, markets, malls, petrol station etc.
A Tourist Mecca
As we drove around town it soon became clear that Siem Reap has changed significantly since our last visit 4 years ago. Its tourism industry has boomed since we first visited eight or nine years ago, which was inevitable given the proximity to the famous Angkor Temple complex.
During our first visit, the roads were mainly dirt tracks, with a distinct lack of pavements and just a smattering of guesthouses. Now there are guesthouses, hostels, and hotels everywhere you look. Pub Street which was once home to just a few restaurants and bars; is now a heaving tourist mecca. It’s lined with a wide range of eating and drinking establishments. They all have menus in English and signs advertising various happy hours to tempt the tourists in. As the evening approaches and into the early hours the noise can be deafening and the crowds overwhelming.
If you prefer something a bit more low-key, the alleys off Pub Street, have more of the same, but with a more relaxed vibe. There are several markets in and around town, some aimed at locals, some at tourists and some at everyone. Most were here before and haven’t changed much, except for the addition of another night market and the closure of Central Market. Currently, we’re trying to work out the cheapest place for everyday things like food and household products. There’ll be a post dedicated to shopping in Siem Reap when we’ve been here a little longer.
Tuk tuks and Motos
The growing number of tourists has also increased the traffic on the roads. Tuk tuks and motos are everywhere along with cars, vans, buses and other motorised vehicles. Many people also use mountain and street bikes to get around. There seems to be no rules on the road and accidents, collisions and people getting knocked over are pretty common place. You just have to keep your wits about you, whether you’re driving, riding or walking around. Andy has been driving and he says it’s easy, you just have to go slow and keep moving, don’t hesitate. I’m a wimp when it comes to driving and riding bikes though and prefer to walk or jump in a tuk tuk. I’m considering getting a push-bike but at the moment am still too nervous to take the plunge.
Happy Smiling People
Something that doesn’t seem to have changed much is the people. The majority of the local Khmer people are still some of the warmest, sincere, friendly people I’ve met. They always have a happy smile for you and are keen to help. Of course, there are exceptions, as there are in all countries and we have heard cases of muggings and bag snatchings. Luckily we haven’t been affected and have our fingers crossed it will stay that way. You just need to take the usual safety precautions here and not put yourself in risky situations. There also seems to be little in the way of scams here. One thing we have noticed though is you need to be sure not to give the police any reasons to fine you. Andy got hit with a $6 fine in our first week for forgetting to wear his seatbelt.
Humidity, Dust, Potholes and Downpours
There are a few things that are taking a little while to get used to, although we’re getting there. The humidity is one of these. We’re constantly sweaty and often look like we’ve just gotten out of the shower. That combined with the dust (especially out of town where the side streets are still pretty much red dirt tracks full of potholes), means you’re often covered in a thin film of gritty dust. This makes you feel a bit grimy, but everyone’s in the same boat, so I’m sure we’ll you learn to live with it. The rainy season has lasted much longer this year too, which means our first two weeks here were pretty wet. We experienced almost daily torrential downpours, which produced loads of mud, especially on the rough roads away from the town. I was caught out at least twice when walking home and looked like a drowned rat by the time I go home. Could be worse though, at least the rain here is warm!
House and Pet-sitting
House-sitting has been great as it’s given us breathing space to settle into Siem Reap. It also means we’ve had time to look for our own place without having to rush into a decision. An added bonus is that our friends have a lovely Khmer style house located just out of town, which has been a pleasure to live in. We’ve also been pet-sitting for Mango and Darth Vader the cats, Poppy the dog and Rufus the fish. I love animals so this has made me happy as having our own will never be an option. Andy’s slightly allergic to cats and it also wouldn’t be fair for us to have animals if we may be moving around. Having pets even for this short length of time has been lovely and they’ve been entertaining. Poppy, the dog has a shoe fetish, she buried my only pair of nice(ish) shoes under a bush. Vader the cat chases geckos and frogs and has taken to creeping into the bedroom to sleep between us and licking our faces to wake us.
Running Rosy Guesthouse
Getting the chance to run Rosy Guesthouse has been a brilliant opportunity and experience, which we’re grateful for. It’s enabled us to see what it’s like to run every aspect of a guesthouse, something we’ve considered doing ourselves at some point. We also got to prepare and host a Pub Quiz and raffle in support of Life Project. I was nervous about doing this as I hate talking in front of people. Luckily Andy’s an old hand at being quiz master so he took the reins on this one and did a fantastic job. It was a busy, successful evening with a good quiz, great raffle prices and generous entrants who helped us raise a nice amount for Life Project. Good teamwork from the Rosy crew both front and back-of-house! There has also been the 2 day Water Festival going on right on our doorstep. It’s been a busy, crazy, noisy, crowded fun-filled couple of days. Khmers love their festivals and a good party; Khmer New Year is coming up next April and we’re really looking forward to that.
“One More Beer?”
Working the bar and restaurant at Rosy Guesthouse has made it easier to meet other people living here in Siem Reap, which has a lively expat community. Rosy Guesthouse has expat bar staff and regulars who have all been welcoming, helpful and sociable. It’s made settling in a much more enjoyable process – if a little boozy! “One more beer?” should be Siem Reap’s motto. At $1 (75p) a pop, it’s hard to say no, especially if you have the willpower of a lemming, like us. Many a night after work has been spent trying out various bars in town, mainly away from Pub Street. Whilst all that socialising has been fun and there’s no denying we both love a good party, it’s also tiring and has resulted in a dent in our meager savings.
Irritability and Mood Swings
I don’t want to dwell on this too much but thought it important to share, as I promised this blog would be frank and honest and I want to deliver on that promise. Painting a false picture that travelling or moving overseas as a couple is a bed of roses is something I don’t want to do, as, at times, it most definitely isn’t.
After nearly two months of travelling and one month working together, we’ve both experienced some irritability and some mood swings. Inevitable given we’ve been in each others pockets nearly 24/7 since we left the UK. Before we’d be lucky if we got to spend two hours a night together.
During the first week in Cambodia whilst we were figuring out how best to work together, was when we began to grate on each other a bit. Both of us tend to think we’re right and can be quite stubborn in conceding in a disagreement. The solution was to split the tasks and shifts, so one person was responsible for each at any one time. It’s become obvious that the main times we get on each other’s nerves is when we’re hungry (hangry), tired or both. An easy solution to that is to keep both of us fed and watered and to get enough rest. It’s also key for us to have some ‘me time’ without the other. Andy has started climbing again at a climbing wall up the road and I’ve joined a gym. We’ve also met some fellow expats here and have been out with them separately. Given how independent we both are I think it’s going to be important for us to keep that independence on this adventure.
We knew from the start that travelling, living and working abroad long term as a couple was never going to be plain sailing. Highs and lows were expected from the start. Now we’re starting to identify the disagreement triggers and learning how to diffuse them, so I’m 100% sure we’ll be fine. In fact the past week or so, we’ve not had a cross word with each other and have had a pretty good time.
Even though we’ve been busy looking after the guesthouse we’ve managed to fit in some activities and outings. We attended a blind wine tasting evening at the Footprint Cafe, which was a fun and sociable event. Another evening we had an enjoyable and educational evening at Tangram Gardens watching their interactive Temples Decoded presentation. It was an interesting and cleverly done master guide of the Angkor temples, followed by a delicious dinner. One rainy Monday night several of us took tuk-tuks out to see the Phare Circus show, Eclipse. This was an entertaining and talented performance based on a Cambodian folklore tale about rejection. Another hot, sunny afternoon a group of us went out by boat to explore Tonle Sap and it’s floating Vietnamese and Khmer villages. This finished with sunset cocktails and dinner on Queen Tara, the biggest riverboat on the lake. Andy and I also took a quick drive out to West Baray. This is a huge manmade reservoir where local families go swimming, and to relax and laze in hammocks. Due to the recent large amounts of rain, the water levels were very high and the usual lakeside hammocks didn’t seem to be available.
Despite being a bit of a rollercoaster, in general, our first month of living and working in Siem Reap has gone pretty well. Soon it will be time to hand the house, pets and guesthouse back to our friends when we’ll move into our new house where we’ll live for the next year. It’s a large three bedroom Khmer style house on stilts (well the top part of it), in quite a central location, that we’re looking forward to living in. We’re also going to have to cut back a bit on the going out, at least the drinking. we need to give our livers and wallets a rest.
Finding some paid work is also be a high priority. It’s crucial that we’re able to support ourselves here. We need to replenish our dwindling pot of cash to be able to fund some side trips to neighbouring countries and onward travel. I have a couple of meetings lined up with local companies about potential jobs. Then there’s the possibility of some freelance work (trying out being a digital nomad in Siem Reap) for a company back home. Lots of proposals for freelance work will also be winging their way to potential clients. Andy’s setting up an English speaking club and looking into online English teaching. Fingers crossed we’ll have some money coming in soon.
On top of all that we’ll be taking some Khmer lessons twice a week for a month. Learning the basics will help us with everyday things like getting tuk-tuks and shopping. If after all that we have any spare time Andy will do some more climbing, and I’ll get my bum down to the gym, and may also start cross-fit classes.
We’re also very keen to get out and about and do some travelling around Cambodia, although this will probably wait until we have some friends visit for a couple of weeks over the new year. It’s going to be a busy month or so, but we’re looking forward to it with anticipation.
Have you moved overseas to live and work? How did you find your first month and what were the challenges?
P.S. You can read our four month update on living and working in Siem Reap, via the following link: