Seasoned expats know all too well how life in the Kingdom of Wonder can leave you frazzled. Fear not, AsiaLIFE is on hand to provide the ultimate guide to surviving 2016 in Cambodia. Words by Marissa Carruthers. Photography by Charles Fox.
Katy Medles buries her head in her hands and lets out a groan as she recalls the weeks leading up to her first holiday home in two years. “I was losing the plot,” she says. “Every single little thing was getting to me. I knew it was time to get out. ”
The usually calm, cool and collected 32-year-old found herself unable to let Cambodia’s quirks wash over her. “I snapped at the incessant tuk-tuk and moto drivers calling me,” says the expat of four years. “The roads were driving me insane, and I was coming home every evening boiling with rage.”
While Cambodia can undoubtedly be the idyllic place to live, attracting an ever increasing number of people from across the globe to set up life here, the Kingdom and its whirlwind of wonders can at times take its toll; its unique nuances leaving even the most hardened expats tearing their hair out.
Despite most of us developing our own coping mechanisms – Medles now swears by leaving the country at least twice a year, AsiaLIFE has compiled a guide to help ease some of those more testing times.
Too Hot to Handle
The suffocating temperatures that soar in April and May bring with them enough humidity to weigh down the lightest of spirits. Barricading yourself in an air-conditioned room is tempting, but comes coupled with crippling electricity bills. However, there are a few other options to help you keep your cool.
Finding a pool to flop around is the obvious choice and there’s definitely no shortage, thanks to Phnom Penh’s diversity of boutique hotels. Most offer free access to outsiders who splash out on a drink or food, with Boutique House on Street 57, Teav Hotel on Street 310 and The Billabong Hotel on Street 158 proving popular.
If you have the luxury of remote working then Singaporean freelance web developer Sam Tan suggests trading in coffee shops for the pool every now and again. The Teahouse on Street 242 and Rambutan on Street 71 both boast an abundance of tables near sockets that sit under the cool breeze of ceiling fans, and can double up as work stations. “Just resist the temptation of falling asleep on the sunbeds,” he adds.
Kimhean Pich, founder and CEO of Discover the Mekong travel company, recommends a weekend escape to Kirirom. Here, the cool canopy of the pine forest boasts temperatures that dip to 10C below those of the capital. About a 90-minute drive from Phnom Penh, in Kampong Speu province, the national park is home to several camp sites and guesthouses, and is fast becoming a weekend escape during the hot season.
If none of these do the trick, you can always stuff your winter woolies in a bag and head to the chilly realms of the skating rink at Aeon Mall for an afternoon ($8 children /$10 adults).
Although prices are rapidly rising, cheap booze coupled with a laid-back lifestyle can often lead to a few too many heavy nights – an early morning stroll past Street 51’s insalubrious Sorya Mall pays testament to this.
“My health has definitely taken a nose-dive,” says Andy Featherstone, who admits to “several” post-work beers throughout the week, as well as weekend booze binges since relocating from New Zealand in 2013. The surge in popularity of high-intensity fitness regimes in Phnom Penh, such as CrossFit, Metafit and Insanity, has meant Featherstone and other expats can redress the balance and inject some health back into their lifestyles.
Forced sobriety and tapping into your spiritual side can be found at a number of retreats and detox programmes in the country. Taking time out at tranquil Hariharalaya Retreat Centre on the outskirts of Siem Reap gives the mind, body and soul some downtime. With no WiFi and the use of electronic devices in communal areas a no-no, the centre offers six-day retreats that take in yoga, meditation and other calm-inducing classes.
The quick-fix, morning-after cure for those excessive nights is a packet of Royal D from a mart and a trip to a greasy spoon to soak up the remaining alcohol. Sony Side Up’s English breakfasts do the trick. The Street 278 restaurant offers a plate almost spilling over with rashes of crispy bacon, baked beans, eggs, sausage, hash browns, toast and baked tomatoes all cooked to perfection – and for those near the riverfront there’s always the Rising Sun on Street 178 that’s been the cure of many a young man.
Surviving the Streets
While Phnom Penh is a relatively safe city to live in, as with any capital it suffers from spates of crime, and in Cambodia bag snatches and robberies are the favoured form. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office notes a rise in the number of reported thefts in 2015. A spokesman says, “Most of these are bag snatchings, often by thieves riding past on motorbikes. Bag straps have been cut and bags snatched from those on foot and passengers on moving tuk-tuks and motorbikes, often causing injury.”
While the government says a higher police presence on the streets is helping to curb the problem, there are several steps that can be taken to avoid becoming a target. Ladies can boost their cup size by stuffing dollar bills in their bra when on the move – just remember to keep some in your purse, after all you don’t want to shock the tuk tuk driver come the payment – and dangling necklaces should be tucked inside dresses or tops and jewellery hidden.
In the run up to major holidays, such as Khmer New Year, Pchum Ben and Water Festival, thieves are particularly prevalent, and it is advisable, especially for women, to avoid carrying a bag or walking alone after dark. Aikido expert Lance Jackson, who teaches self-defence classes, advises handing over property if confronted by a thief. “You don’t know if they’ve got a weapon and your life comes first,” he says.
House burglaries are also increasing, with criminals risking their lives to scale up walls to enter apartments. Keeping valuables out of sight and windows and doors locked at night, no mater how high up you live, is highly recommended.
Since being chased by a gang of young Khmers on bikes near Russian Market as she made her way home one evening on the back of a moto, Dutch expat Janneke Hoogstraaten now uses taxis after dark. “I don’t know why more people don’t use them,” the 32-year-old says. “They are safe, come with AC and are about the same price as a tuk-tuk – sometimes cheaper.” Global Taxi (011 311 888 / 092 889 962) is an on-call metred taxi company, with fares starting at $1 and increasing 400 riel per kilometre.
“From one day to the next, I had to move house,” states Iain Stephenson, who woke up to find builders demolishing a cluster of neighbouring Cambodian houses to make way for an apartment block in Tonle Bassac. “From 7am every day, including Sundays, it was like they were drilling in my front room. I thought I was going crazy.”
As a rapidly modernising city, this is a gripe most Phnom Penhites can relate to. The sound of construction constantly rings across the capital, and high rise developments wrapped in green netting litter the skyline. And the sound doesn’t look set to stop anytime soon, with the first phases of large scale projects, such as Olympic Stadium, scheduled for completion this year, and others well underway, such as The Bridge and East Commercial Centre – both due to open in 2018 – and The Bay in 2019.
Grant Fitzgerald, general manager of Independent Property Service, suggests looking at adjacent land to potential apartments. “If there’s an empty plot of over 300sqm, the chances are it will be developed, probably low rise,” he says, adding land of more than 800sqm could potentially be a high rise development. “Another key thing is to avoid the earth works and piling. Once this is done, the worst is over.”
Fleeing the city is another option, with nearby locations growing in popularity. An expat exodus to Silk Island sits on the horizon as more quality guesthouses open their doors. Silk Island Guesthouse started welcoming guests at the end of last year, becoming one of the first venues to offer high-end accommodation, Western food and a refreshing pool. “We used to escape there and loved the laidback and friendly lifestyle,” says owner Bob Wiltshire. “It’s an ideal short break from the city because it offers a real snapshot of village life in Cambodia, only 20 minutes from Phnom Penh.”
Avoid the Lurgy
“I’ve never felt so bad in my life,” says Sally Roberts recalling a recent bout of dreaded dengue fever. For 15 days, she was bed-ridden, battling a fever of between 38 and 39.6C, vomiting, and aches in her legs and hip. A rash covering her limbs remained for three weeks and mouth ulcers for eight days.
Living in tropical climates brings with it the dangers of tropical disease, and you’ll be hard-pushed to find an expat who doesn’t have a horror tale to tell. Mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue, are found in parts of Cambodia, with dengue mosquitos present in urban areas at dusk and malaria-carrying insects striking in sporadic rural areas at night.
Dr Gavin Scott, of Travellers Medical Clinic in Phnom Penh, says it is essential vaccinations against typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis A and B, polio and tuberculosis are kept updated. He also recommends inoculations against mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis and rabies.
Worms is another common complaint, and it is advisable to take deworming tablets every six months. These can be bought at most pharmacies and are often taken as a three-day course. Benda 500 is a popular choice.
“I’ve lived in many countries and I’ve never come across anywhere so bad for dating,” says singleton Amanda Glough (*name has been changed). After a string of disastrous dates, which include a guy harbouring an armpit fetish and another who turned up with his girlfriend in tow, the American 26-year-old turned to dating app Tinder as a final option. “That introduced me to the horny dregs of backpacking society,” she adds with a laugh.
While finding the love of your life in Cambodia can be a mean feat – “I’ve resigned myself to the fact it’s not going to happen here,” says Glough adamantly – promiscuity runs rife across the capital. Dubbed the adult’s playground, Phnom Penh can be a great place for fun and frolics, but some expats and those passing through forget to play it safe.
Dr Anna Roslyakova, of Women’s Baby Center ANNA, says, “Using protection is important to not only prevent unplanned pregnancy but also sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which may cause problems with reproductive health in the future.” She recommends people with multiple partners get tested for HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, yeast infections, mycoplasma and ureaplasma every three months. Women can be tested at her Street 112 clinic, while major clinics, such as SOS and Naga, offer STD tests for men and women. Dr Anna also stresses the importance that women carry out a Pap smear annually to check for cervical cancer ($15 to $30).
The Great Escape
The opening of Phnom Penh airport’s new terminal in August will undoubtedly attract a string of new routes, making the world more accessible at cheaper prices. The $100 million expansion project is part of plans to double passenger capacity at Siem Reap and Phnom Penh airports to handle five million people each a year. Sihanoukville’s airport is also undergoing a revamp, and in December welcomed charter flights from China, Seoul and Singapore.
If fleeing the country is the only way to recharge those fading batteries, Jack Bartholomew, Khiri Travel Indochina director, has a string of hotspots in the region for 2016 up his sleeve. He predicts the rural delights of North Vietnam will be on travellers’ radars, with Soon Dong cave a highlight. “It’s the world’s largest cave and was only discovered recently,” he says of the stunning terrain.
Pretty much cut off to outsiders for 40 years because of rebel fighting, Xaysomboun in Lao opened up in 2014, and Bartholomew believes its popularity is set to soar this year. For those missing out on the summer’s festival circuit, he suggests sampling the strange delights of the Sak Yant Festival in Thailand. Every March, hundreds of Thais gather at Wat Bang Phra in Bangkok to receive protective tattoos performed by high-ranking monks.
The Northern Shan State in Myanmar is another up-coming destination, with Khiri’s six-day tours booking up. Edwin Briels, of Khiri Myanmar, says, “It’s off the beaten track and is a good area for trekking.” He recommends taking the train through Gokteik to Pyin Oo Lwin.
In keeping with her mantra of escaping the country twice a year, Medles follows Air Asia on Facebook to keep an eye out for sales. A handful of times each year, the airline flogs a select number of flights for tax-only fees, with Medles bagging a return trip to Manila for $180 and Bali for $88.
“It’s my saviour,” she says. “I come back refreshed and able to take on everything that’s thrown at me; plus I fall in love with Cambodia all over again and remember why I love living in this truly amazing country.