Home to a booming international community, Cambodia is constantly waving goodbye to those moving on to pastures new. Editor Marissa Carruthers finds out how to take some of the stress out of leaving Cambodia. Photography by Enric Català.

Surrounded by piles of neatly piled boxes and mountains of junk, Sara Stewart lets out a huge sigh. “These have been some of the most stressful weeks of my life,” she says.

This month, the 36-year-old freelance designer and her husband will relocate back to the US after living in Cambodia for four years, and they’re feeling the stress, despite starting their preparations four months ago.

“Moving is one the most stressful situations anyone can experience,” says Andrea Gastaldi, general manager of relocation and removal company AGS Four Winds Cambodia. “Plan your move in advance to avoid any bad surprises.”

For many, the long slog starts with sifting through belongings – a process where tough love is essential, advises Stewart. “My husband is a hoarder but even so, I was surprised how much useless stuff I’d acquired,” she says, adding it took six rounds of whittling down to the absolute essentials before they were finally done. “You have to be ruthless.”

Adele Peers, who recently returned to England after living in Cambodia between 2008 and 2011 and 2012 to 2016, recommends using a removal company, if within budget – and shopping around. “Don’t trust the advice of one person or company. Just because something worked for your friend three months ago doesn’t mean it will work now.”

Juggling the figures is also essential, to both keep costs down and help steer decisions on what to take and leave. Cost analysis proved critical for Peers, who weighed up what was cheaper: shipping or buying items at her final destination?

“This was invaluable,” she says. “Remember, most things you can get anywhere. That said, it was cheaper for me to ship my pictures and artwork in their frames than to take them out and get them reframed in England.”

Getting paperwork in order well in advance is also advisable, as well as checking what documents are needed in your new country, such as visas and work and residence permits. Even if using a removal agency, there are often boxes that need to be ticked for items to be shipped.

“The problem of visas at the destination is common,” says Gastaldi. “It is very important to get your visas done as soon as possible.” Visa issues can cause delays in delivery as cargo usually cannot be shipped without receiving the green light from their office or partner in the receiving country, he adds.

Some countries, such as Indonesia and Brazil, have local regulations and it can often take up to three months to get all the documents for the process. Other countries have stringent import regulations, meaning some valuable items must be left behind. For example, Buddha statues cannot be shipped to Thailand and most countries do not allow the import of food.

As a teacher, for Peers, one of the most challenging elements of her move was securing the police check essential to work in the UK. Despite receiving help from her former employers, it took several months, with her having to trace all previous landlords to sign off on the check, as well as all rental agreements.

Families have the extra organisation involved with children, such as finding new schools and suitable accommodation.

“A removal to a new country is always a stressful experience,” says Gastaldi, whose company offers relocation packages for families. “Even more for the kids, who will have to get used to a completely new life; starting all over again with a different school, home and friends, and usually a new language and cultures.”

To get young ones used to the idea, he suggests having boxes delivered in advance so children can become involved in the process and pre-pack some toys. He recommends taking a suitcase with favourite toys and clothes so they are available on arrival. “Having these personal items with them will help them feel safe and home quicker,” he says.

Peers was 32 weeks pregnant when she flew home, meaning she had to secure a medical certificate from her doctor to fly. This had to be presented to the airline between five days and 48 hours before flying. “When I did this, the agents at Vattanac Tower looked a bit confused about why I was there but I’m glad I did because at check-in they asked for my certificate again,” she says.

While the Stewarts may not have children, they do have cats and arranging to get them back into the US was no mean feat. “The restrictions vary from country to country and can take months for paperwork and blood tests, so you need to start early,” says Stewart.

Peers also took her cat back to the UK, despite the “numerous hurdles and frustrations”. Her main challenge was finding an airline that would take her cat out of Cambodia. Despite other friends using Qatar, she was informed they did not have a license to take animals out of Phnom Penh and instead had to use Cathay Pacific and ship her as cargo at double the price, with a 15-hour layover.

Having settled into life in England, Peers’ most important advice to those leaving Cambodia is – “make the most of massages and mani and pedis.”