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First thing each morning I curse, I curse that yet again I’ve been woken at the crack of dawn and not by my alarm! We’re woken daily by rinky-dink wedding music, by chanting monks, or by the chirping gecko and warbling unknown bird outside our bedroom window. That’s on a good day…on a bad day, it’ll be the loud boisterous Khmer children downstairs or jackhammers on a construction site. Once I’ve gotten over my rude awakening, though, I tend to smile or chuckle to myself…“Only in Cambodia“. We wanted something different, something different is what we’ve got!
It’s been a while since my last post on living and working in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had planned to write a three-month update of our time here but things have been hectic and time slipped away from me. Never-mind it just means I have more to share…here’s our ‘living and Working in Cambodia – Four Month Update’,
At the end of November it was time to hand back Rosy Guesthouse to our friends, along with their house and pets, when they returned from England. We both really enjoyed our stint at the guesthouse and met a whole bunch of great people, many who we can now call friends.
We moved into our Khmer style house, which basically resembles a huge wooden shed on stilts. Renting a house in Cambodia was very easy with the help of a friendly local estate agent in Siem Reap. Our Khmer landlady lives on the lower level with her family. We have the top floor, which boasts three bedrooms, two shower rooms each with a toilet, a spacious living room, and a separate kitchen. We also have the added bonus of a large balcony, and several geckos, along with the yard cats and kittens below us.
Living in a house on stilts, has always been on our to-do list and we do love it, yet it does have its downsides. It’s dark, gets very dusty, attracts lots of mosquitoes (which drive us mad), and has the odd twilight visit from a rat in the kitchen. There are other inconveniences that we’re learning to live too. There are no kitchen mod-cons, no bath, no sofa, shocking wifi, and you can’t drink the water, instead, we buy it in big blue 20 litre containers for $1 USD (£0.80 GBP ) a pop.
On the plus side the rent and bills are cheap, less than $400 USD (£322 GBP) per month between us. That includes rent, electric, water, gas and a cleaner to help keep the dust at bay. Our Khmer landlady is amazing, she doesn’t speak a word of English but is so friendly. She often brings us food parcels ranging from a banana or mango, to chicken curry, to a bowl full of offal – yum! Bless her, she still hasn’t quite got the hang of knocking before entering, she regularly lets herself into the house, and has caught Andy in his pants on more than one occasion!
Throughout December and part of January Andy continued to work at the Rosy. It was time for me to move on, to a new part-time job as Digital Marketing Strategist for a luxury tour agency. I chose to work part-time to give me time to work on this blog, pursue some freelance work and to try to do some wildlife and conservation volunteering. At the moment, the freelance and volunteering are proving elusive, but there’s still time.
We also dabbled in setting up a gift delivery service. It was to enable families of Siem Reap expats to order gifts from our website which we’d deliver to their family members here in Siem Reap. The thinking behind it being this could be useful as the postal service is pretty dire. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off so we drew a line under it in early January. A shame but oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Towards the end of January, Andy secured a full-time TEFL job teaching English and other subjects to young children in a nearby school. It’s something completely different to anything he has done before. It involves early starts and long hours but it’s a challenge, brings some cash in and so far he seems to be enjoying it.
After much deliberation, we bought a pushbike each as we needed something to get about town. Although tuk tuks are cheap and convenient, at $1 to $3 USD (£0.80 to £2.40 GBP) a trip it soon adds up and becomes expensive. Andy found a second hand one for $50 USD (£40 GBP) and mine was a complete bargain at $20 USD (£16). Bikes here are often prone to opportunist theft so we bought locks to be on the safe side.
With my safety-first head on, I also invested in a helmet and lights. Despite my initial fear and reluctance, I wouldn’t be without my bike now. I love the freedom it affords me and having my independence back again. With no means of transport, I’d started to feel a little penned in and claustrophobic. Now I can go wherever I want, whenever I want which is wonderful!
Whenever I travel I like to try and learn at least a little of the language. Given that we plan to be here for at least the rest of this year we thought some Khmer lessons would be a good idea. We signed up for eight 1.5 hour long lessons with two other people, but in all honesty, we timed it badly. We were so busy with work and generally settling in that we didn’t have the time or inclination to practice as much as we should have.Working with Westerners and Khmer’s that speak great English, also meant we didn’t get the opportunity to converse in Khmer. That coupled with the fact it’s a pretty hard language to learn, meant we’ve only picked up the very basics. It’s enough to get by though and make haggling at the market and for tuk tuks easier.
Food and Cooking
Some of the greatest challenges we’ve found here are grocery shopping and cooking. Gone is the convenience of the monthly Tesco delivery that we had in England. Now we have to physically go and buy our food. With only bikes for transport, this means buying groceries in small amounts when we need it. Fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and household items can be bought cheaply at the local markets such as Phsar Leu. You just have to be a bit careful with meat and fish, buying it early in the day is best, before it sits out in 30-degree heat for too long, covered in flies. Providing it’s washed and cooked properly you’re normally safe.
Most western food is available here in supermarkets and corner shops, at a price. Cheese for example, which was once a staple and favourite of ours is now an expensive treat, as are crisps and chocolate. Not such a bad thing though as we’ve both lost an inch or two from our waists. One thing we can’t get here is ‘real’ mushrooms; as one of my favourites I am now missing these very much. PG Tips teabags are also near on impossible to come by. So far we’ve kept stocked up, as friends have bought some from the UK and Andy’s Mum also sent us some. Surprisingly they actually reached us in the post.
Cooking is most definitely one of the biggest frustrations here for me. We only have two gas rings, no oven or microwave, and only the crockery, cutlery and utensils that came with the house. There’s little point in buying items that can’t go with us when we leave, so we try to manage with what we have. Having said that, we did finally cave in a couple of weeks ago and treat ourselves to a kettle. Andy had nearly scalded himself with a pan of boiling water, and I’d also had a couple of near misses, so it was worth the investment.
Due to the distinct lack of kitchenware, we’re quite limited to stir-fried food, pasta and one pot wonders such as vegetable curry. We’re getting more inventive though and our home cooked meals are improving, although often it’s easier and cheaper to just eat out. Not to mention the fact that we’re spoilt for choice here with eateries of all types from all countries. Some of our favourites are the local restaurants. You can buy some great noodles, rice or soup from as little as $1.50 USD (£0.80 GBP). I always eat lunch out on a work day in one of the little restaurants near my office.
Following the first month or six weeks ‘honeymoon period’ here, we were feeling quite tired and ‘beered out’. Everything had been new and exciting and we’d been socialising ALOT! I decided it was time to reign in the partying (a bit), and make a conscious effort to get fit. So in a moment of madness, I signed up for the 16km Temple Run in the Angkor Ultra Trail Run at the end of January.
Training for the run here was very hard. A combination of the temperature, dust, and the traffic and road conditions make running here a tough and sometimes dangerous task. Despite this, I managed to fit in a couple of training runs a week and completed the run, raising over $400 for Volunteer Building Cambodia.
I also joined a new gym. It’s the same price as the one back home, but it’s nice and big, with good equipment and classes, both of which are rarities here. I generally manage to go two or three times a week and am starting to feel much fitter and healthier for it. Andy has been working more hours than me so hasn’t had much chance for climbing but I know he wants to start again when he gets in a bit more of a routine.
In our one month update, I mentioned Andy and I had been experiencing some irritability and mood swings with each other. Thankfully that’s all blown over now. A combination of keeping each other fed, working separately, making new friends, and doing our own thing on occasion has done wonders.
Meeting new people and making friends here has been relatively easy. There’s a great expat community and for the main part, most are approachable, friendly and helpful. The only downside is this is a transient town, so often you’ll no sooner have made a new friend than they’ll up and leave which is always a shame. Best not to get too attached to or reliant on anyone.
Settling Into Expat Life
We’ve noticed there seems to be a definite process to settling into expat life here. The first couple of months were very fast paced and everything was a novelty. We found we soon became very tired, partly from too much socialising, but also because when you move somewhere completely new your mind is constantly active. You try to take in and learn everything, as you need to be aware and alert the majority of the time, it’s pretty draining.
There’s so much to experience, understand and make sense of when you try to immerse yourself in a new culture, especially in a developing country. Initially, there’s something different (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to take on board or deal with every day. The local traditions, festivals, and celebrations. The noise, the rubbish in the streets, rubbish being burnt, the different climate and the dust. The mosquitoes, the friendly local people, the temperamental power and water supply, and erratic wifi. The lack of animal welfare, the poverty, the beautiful Cambodian countryside…I could go on and on!
Four months in and everything is becoming more familiar. We’re no longer so surprised or taken aback by things. The traffic is just part of life now, the smells (of Asia) that we loved, we no longer notice so much. Everyday things such as shopping and cooking are becoming easier, and we’re falling into some semblance of a routine. At the moment we still love the weather – no need for the air-con yet, but with the hot season that could change. The temperature may also impact how we get to work. It could be too hot to bike, meaning we may need to consider getting motos; I’m not keen on this though so we’ll have to see.
There have been the occasional pangs of homesickness, but it’s only fleeting. It’s mostly when we miss things with family and friends at home. Things such as celebrations like Christmas and birthdays, or my youngest nephew starting to walk and talk. We do try to keep in touch via social media, email and the occasional video call, which makes things easier. Having friends visit over at New Year was lovely and we’re hoping to have more visitors later in the year too.
Another time we missed home comforts was when we got sick. We both had a nasty cough and cold for a week or two and all we wanted to do was snuggle up on a comfy sofa under a blanket.
Never a Dull Moment
Despite the growing familiarity, there’s still rarely a dull moment here in this lively town. For those that want it, there’s regular live music around the bars in town, along with frequent fundraising events like quizzes, craft fairs, and farmers markets. These are often held to raise money for one of the many NGOs in town. Cambodians love to party and there’s many public holidays and festivals throughout the year. Last month it was Chinese New Year, two weekends ago, whilst eating lunch in a restaurant, a big procession for the Buddist Festival, Meak Bochea passed by. Then last weekend saw the start of the three-week long Chubmet Music and Arts Festival, a giant puppet parade and the VIP invite-only premiere of Angelina Jolie’s film, ‘First They Killed My Father’.Wedding season is about to start too, weddings are big, noisy affairs here, which span about three days. We’re looking forward to attending our first one in March. Then in April Khmer New Year will be upon us and from what I’ve heard that will be a crazy few days!
With all that has been going on, we don’t seem to find ourselves with huge amounts of spare time. When we do get a few hours free, our preferred ways to spend it are either a bike ride into the countryside (I’d love to cycle round Cambodia at some point) or some pool time. There are many hotels and guesthouses in town that allow you to use their pool for a small fee or in exchange for buying food or drink!
Itchy Feet for Travel
Things have been somewhat lacking on the travel front recently. A week exploring the Siem Reap area, and a weeks trip to Kampot, Kep, Otres and Koh Ta Kiev Island with friends in the New Year, and a day trip to Kulen Mountain has been it. This wasn’t such an issue for the first few months as it has still felt a bit like we’re travelling here. However, once we hit the three-month mark I noticed I started to get rather itchy feet. I miss travelling and being on the road. Andy doesn’t get this so much but we knew from the start that would be the case.
To deal with that itch we’ve agreed to try and do something, or go somewhere together at least once a month, either in Cambodia or a nearby country. Where we go will be dictated by cash flow and availability of cheap flights. I may also take a trip or two by myself, as I do enjoy my solo travel. I’ve already made a list of ‘off the beaten track‘ places in Cambodia I want to go, (several including trekking) along with countries I want to hit nearby.
I’ve also made several inquiries about participating in some wildlife and conservation volunteering. A couple of those leads are looking promising so I have everything crossed that it happens. This could be quite exciting as it may involve some travel to some more remote parts of Cambodia.
For now, it feels a little like we’re in some kind of in-between stage. We’re not travelling, yet we’re not at home…but that’s how we like it. When we start to feel too comfortable and at home, it’ll be time to think about moving on to our next destination.
Have you ever moved abroad to live and work? How did you find the first few months settling in? What were the best bits, and what challenges and frustrations did you experience?
P.S. If you’re wondering how to get a Cambodia visa on arrival you can read all about the process and requirements via the following link: