For newcomers, landing in the frenzy of the Kingdom can be overwhelming. Thankfully, AsiaLIFE has you covered for a smooth arrival, with a guide to everything from finding good friends to securing a home. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Moving to exotic Cambodia – with its picturesque pagodas, eclectic eats and captivating culture – may sound romantic to the friends and family that expats leave at home, but the reality upon arriving is often very different.
Starting from exiting at the airport, newcomers are blasted with the country’s warm temperatures and dusty, crowded streets. “My first impressions were, ‘Oh my god this place is crazy, and it’s really hot’,” says Olivia Hough, 24, who transplanted to the capital from England in January. “Overwhelmed is the best way to describe it.”
Followed soon after can be frustrations with the language barrier, alarm caused by the seeming lack of traffic rules, bouts of sickness from a host of tropical ailments and other unanticipated stresses. “First impression – concrete chaos,” adds Karen Myrene, who moved with her husband and three kids at the beginning of the year. “We moved from Norway where we had the fjords in front of us, the mountains behind and the forest beside us. Suddenly we had cars and motorbikes everywhere, people everywhere and noises everywhere.”
Yet despite first appearances, life in Cambodia has its many advantages – and can make for a rewarding long-term home. But starting out right will go a long way in accomplishing this.
For those making the move to the Kingdom, universal basic needs – such as shelter and food – are a good place to begin. Finding housing is often the primary concern for anybody moving to a new city, let alone a foreign land.
“The realisation that I now live in Asia, and don’t know where I’m going to live yet was a bit terrifying,” says Hough, adding she made the mistake of not even having a hotel room booked for the first night. “You feel a bit vulnerable, because you don’t know the place.”
Luckily, the housing market – particularly in Phnom Penh – is booming, with rental options to cater to a variety of preferences. “There is an apartment for everyone’s budget,” says Independent Property Services (IPS) general manager Grant Fitzgerald, adding that two bedrooms start from $550 to $2,800. The city also boasts a nice range of Western-renovated Khmer apartments, as well as French colonial apartments, he says.
The easiest way to find a house or apartment is working through an estate agent, such as IPS, Expert Realty and Elevated Realty, at no cost to the tenant. “Using a professional makes the renting process here much easier and will save you from future headaches,” says Fitzgerald.
Particularly for shared homes, Facebook groups can also assist with the house search. Phnom Penh Housing lists sublets and short- and long-term stays, as does Siem Reap Real Estate. However, beware that with the growing market, prices can range greatly, and take the time to do adequate research.
Fitzgerald recommends keeping a keen eye out for construction or potential construction, as many tenants are currently breaking their leases due to unbearable noise, and carefully checking contract details, such as electricity rates and included services. Whereas some countries in the region necessitate large up-front payments from renters, such as Indonesia and Myanmar that require a year in advance, in Cambodia you simply need a passport and usually one- or two-month deposit.
Using the Facebook page, it took Hough only five days to find a home. “It’s such a transient place. There’s always someone moving out,” says the Brit.
Beyond housing, getting oriented and securing a basic setup causes stress if not approached strategically. Apartments can come pre-furnished, and setting up a house is made easier with numerous furniture options on offer. In Phnom Penh, Sothearos Boulevard has a hodgepodge of low-cost rattan stores, which will also make custom couches and dressers. And stores such as Beyond, Alchemy Design Co. and Indulge Interiors cater to higher-end tastes. On Facebook page Phnom Penh Buy and Sell, browsers can secure items, from the most basic to the bizarre, on sale.
For stocking the fridge, there is a range of easy and expensive to exciting and economic approaches. Supermarkets Lucky, Thai Huot and Bayon have international products at a premium; neighbourhood marts such as Russian Market’s popular Angkor Mart sell mid-range Asian and Western items; and burgeoning specialty stores offer organic produce. But the most rewarding buys can be found while navigating through the narrow passageways of the country’s markets – though with raw meat hanging from large hooks, this is not for the faint hearted.
To get around, cheap transport options abound in the capital, with foreigners usually unable to take more than a few steps before being swarmed by tuk tuks and motodops. Though crime in the Kingdom is low, women in particular need to beware of bag snatchings while on the roads. For those brave enough to drive a motorbike themselves, Cambodian licenses are no longer required for small motos, but note that other laws have also recently changed, with higher penalties for transgressions, such as riding without a helmet.
Once the dust has cleared on initial transitions into Cambodia, newcomers can focus their energy on plugging into the daily grind of work. While previously expat jobs focused on development work, there is now a wide array of business, technology and education opportunities. Increasingly, foreigners are migrating to the Kingdom without a job secured – choosing instead to explore options once in country. For these, websites such as Bong Thom (bongthom.com), Relief Web (reliefweb.int) and Cambodia-jobs.com are a good resource for the latest opportunities. And associations, including BritCham and AmCham, offer regular networking events.
In addition, co-working spaces provide an opportunity for the jobless to make connections, and for the growing number of freelancers to have an office. “The concept of [a] co-working space is rapidly spreading in the city and beyond,” says Alberto Cremonesi, co-founder of Impact HUB Phnom Penh, a co-working space that provides mentoring and training for social ventures. “In a dynamic co-working space, connections happen all the time – people meet, talk, start new businesses together.” Cremonesi adds that it also provides a social dimension for newcomers, to meet friends and join events, and that he has seen many members secure employment as a result of contacts in these spaces.
For those with kids, settling in brings with it different priorities. While Myrene and her husband had lived with their children in the Philippines, she says they still had to weigh the repercussions of moving for their kids, aged four to eight-years-old. “We [had] to think about how their lives would be so different here,” she says. “Issues of safety and freedom mainly.” Though adjusting to a new culture can be difficult for kids, Myrene holds it can also be rewarding. “Our boys will gain a perspective that will shape their lives now and in the future. They will appreciate multi-cultures, learn the importance of thriving in a different environment [and] learn empathy in building friendships and relationships.”
Parents also need to think through practical aspects, such as schooling options. Myrene and her husband opted for Christian school Hope International. Other expat-friendly options in the capital include Northbridge International on the high end (nearly $19,000 per year for grades 11 and 12), followed by non-profit International School of Phnom Penh (ages three through grade 12) and iCAN British International School.
One advantage to life in Cambodia, particularly for those managing a family, is the low-cost of house help, including nannies, cleaners and cooks. Socially conscious company, Maid in Cambodia, is an easy way to get connected with reliable and highly-skilled cleaners. For nannies and cooks, advertisements are often posted on list serves Cambodia Parent Network or the International Christian Fellowship’s InfoFlow, a weekly noticeboard. Otherwise, newcomers can rely on the old-fashioned approach of getting recommendations from long-termers.
Perhaps more important than how to arrive well is how to stay well. As with anywhere, the best ways to do this are to get connected – with both Cambodians and other expats – ensure you have support networks, and plug into exactly what’s happening.
“Having really good friendship groups is what would make me feel at home somewhere, or at least relaxed and happy with my life,” says Hough. She found that despite the huge number of expats, it took her longer than expected to find reliable friends. “That was probably the hardest part.” For singles such as Hough, finding good housemates can be a gateway into meeting others, as degrees of separation are relatively few.
Newcomers can also get connected through work, sports – with rugby, netball, Australian Football League, ultimate frisbee and even dodgeball happening – or through the swathe of other events, such as salsa dancing, life-drawing, Nerd Night, yoga classes and at the city’s many international churches.
Beyond helping make local friends, learning Khmer will pay off regardless of whether you are staying in the Kingdom long- or short-term. While in Phnom Penh, foreigners can mostly get by using English, or at least a handful of creative hand gestures, investment in the language is still helpful in understanding Cambodia’s context and being a respectful guest. Tutors can be enlisted for as low as $5 per hour, or learners can sign up in groups at Khmer Friends or for courses at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Logistically, staying also requires valid visas. For added ease, it’s best to work through travel agents to secure extensions. (In Phnom Penh, helpful outlets can be found on streets 278 and 240.) Foreigners also need to be aware of the recent crackdowns on work permits, and liaise with employers to ensure these are adequately arranged and in place.
Those in the capital will be pleasantly surprised by the myriad of activities occurring each week, not to mention a plethora of cool restaurants and bars opening their doors. “The social scene is really good,” says Hough, adding she has attended diverse events encompassing everything from live drawing, ukulele circles and documentary screenings. Phnom Penh is also small enough that happenings in the city are easy to keep abreast of and attend.
Child-friendly activities can be a bit harder to come by. “There isn’t much for kids that doesn’t cost quite a bit of money,” says Myrene, adding they prefer the outdoors to indoor play centres and hope to explore the countryside. In Phnom Penh, Kids City offers novelty indoor climbing, laser tag and a toddler play centre, Monkey Business boasts a large children’s playground and swimming pool, Phnom Climb indoor climbing gym caters for birthday parties for kids age six and up, and Wat Botum Park has an impressive – and free – playground. If all else fails, AEON Mall provides an air-conditioned escape for parents needing to cool off.
Even when following the best of guides to prepare, such as the highly popular Move to Cambodia book and blog (movetocambodia.com), expats can struggle to make the drastic adjustment from their home countries to Southeast Asia, and this is often heightened by isolation. Seeing a professional can help in the process, and Phnom Penh-based Indigo International offers counselling for everything from anxiety and stress to trauma. Or, if it is just a simple dose of homesickness, the city’s ever-growing repertoire of Western chains – Krispy Kreme, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Coldstone Creamery and Starbucks – can give a helpful taste of home.
But despite possible bumpy beginnings, many foreigners end up happy to have made the move, and are quickly captivated by the country’s charm. After just three months, Hough extended her stay from six months to a year. “That says a lot. You kind of fall in love with Cambodia.” Adds Myrene, “We have so much to experience living here.”
Overall, even given the differing context, life in Cambodia is much the same – with work, play and wifi access. “It won’t be as mad a move as you might think. Everything will work out,” says Hough. “People are lovely; the place is cool. You’re going to have a good time.”