Miles from Monday: Expat Living in Phnom Penh


March 11, 2013, Washington, DC: As someone constantly on the move, it's strange to suddenly be the member of the family staying put. In the last year or so, several of my relatives have packed up their belongings and made a new place home, including my brother-in-law Bill. Bill and his fiancé, Laura are nomads who met in Kabul, Afghanistan working in the field of international development, and they've been eager to live abroad together -- albeit somewhere a bit safer -- ever since. In Bill's words, their reasons for doing so were "partly for the professional experience and partly to get away from the bureaucratic malaise that comes from working in a home office for too long -- and maybe partly to prove that we could." Southeast Asia appealed immediately, and Laura was recently transferred for work to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They moved overseas just after Christmas and promised a Neighborhoods Nomads update in expat living once they settled in.

Phnom Pehn
Phnom Pehn

Photo Credits: Bill Gallery

What were your first impressions of Phnom Penh?

Right away I was amazed at how easy it is to live in Phnom Penh as an expat. It’s a small city, so you don’t get the nightmare traffic or air quality problems of some other cities in the region. And though it does sprawl a little bit, the vast majority of places an expat might live, work or play are pretty centrally located. I can get pretty much anywhere I want to go in the city in 10-15 minutes by hopping on the back of a motorbike or in a tuk-tuk for a dollar or two one-way.

There is also a ton of infrastructure targeted at foreigners, which is a bit surprising given that the vast majority of tourists in Cambodia are heading to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. There is a great selection of restaurants, bars and guesthouses, and pretty much anyone working at one of them will speak reasonable English. There are dozens of Western-style coffee shops and boutiques, all somewhat overpriced but clearly marketing towards a combination of expats, tourists and wealthy Cambodians. And most useful for someone like me who's "working” from home/trying to find work, literally every hotel, restaurant or coffee shop I’ve been in anywhere in the country has free wifi.

At the same time, though, as an expat/white person (barang in Khmer), I don’t feel like I stand out too much. In Bangkok, you constantly feel like someone is trying to sell you something and/or rip you off. Even in Siem Reap you can’t walk 10 feet without being offered a massage or a dip in one of those weird tanks where the fish nibble on your feet. Here, with the exception of tuk tuk drivers, people largely leave you alone.

tuk tuk
tuk tuk

Photo Credit: Bill Gallery

All of this has made the transition really easy, which is something of a mixed blessing. I can build a pretty good imitation of my life back in DC, which of course raises the question of why we would move halfway across the world if the only differences are the cost and the weather. But we’re making an effort to take advantage of what’s here, either through work/volunteering or just getting out of the city as often as possible to see a little more of the country.

At the same time, it’s also been shocking how bad things are from a development standpoint. The economy is doing ok, but the politics are oppressive, corruption is everywhere, and poverty is still a huge problem. The contrast is depressing, especially given how little you hear about it in global news.

Tell us about your neighborhood within the city.

Our neighborhood, BKK1 (Boeng Keng Kang 1; I have no idea what that means) is very expat-oriented, with tons of higher end guesthouses and hotels, NGO offices and nice apartment buildings alongside big mansions for wealthy Cambodians. Picture relatively quiet, tree-lined streets with a coffee shop on every corner and lots of Lexuses and, surprisingly, Priuses.

We are in a big, serviced apartment building that caters to business travelers and expats, so it has a beautiful garden, big pool and gym, and a lot of other amenities you’d get in a hotel. The location is fantastic, on one of the main boulevards through downtown, about a block from a big promenade area similar to the Mall in DC. We can walk to stores and restaurants, or take a 5-minute tuk-tuk ride to the riverside, where a lot of the nightlife is. The main downside is that, because it’s mostly meant for temporary business travelers, and probably also because we’re the youngest people there, we don’t interact much with our neighbors. I actually don’t think we’ve formally met any of them.

How does Phnom Penh compare to other parts of the region?

Phnom Penh has a reputation for being quieter and more laid-back than most other cities in the region, and it definitely feels that way. I remember reading a blog post before I came here trying to compare the nightlife in Phnom Penh and Bangkok (in particular the go go/hostess bars, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like), and the author was disappointed that Cambodia couldn’t provide the level of debauchery you can find in Thailand. There’s still a little of that here but thankfully it’s pretty contained.


Photo Credit: Bill Gallery

Was there a specific moment you began to feel a bit more comfortable and settled in?

There hasn’t been one moment, more of a constant ebb and flow. The first few days were unsettled, but then I started to figure out basic things like how to cross the street, and the excitement of being able to create a life in a new place kicked in. It sounds lame, but one of the high points for me was successfully picking up a package at the post office a few weeks after I got here.

But once I got a better grip on the basics that excitement of discovery wore off a bit. It’s not quite homesickness, more just a feeling that we don’t quite fit here yet. And that comes and goes depending on how my job search is going or whether we’re actually going out and meeting people. It’s on an upswing right now, and I think things will smooth out over time, especially as we get more integrated socially.

Any local finds, restaurants or gathering spaces you've recently discovered?

On the cheap/local end of the spectrum, my favorite so far has been the night market in Phnom Penh. It runs every weekend night along the riverside, and they set up dozens of food stalls where you can get a big plate of fried noodles and grilled kebabs and great smoothies for just a few dollars.

For something higher end, our go-to place is a Latin American restaurant called Gastrobar Botanico that does great cocktails and tapas. It’s tucked onto a quiet side street a block from our apartment, set in a beautiful garden with super comfy tables that are almost like sofas, and great music and atmosphere.

Share your impressions of the people you've met in the city.

Generalizing wildly, there are at least two groups of expats. The first are the lifers, who have been here for years and are better integrated into Cambodian society, often with Cambodian wives (they’re almost all men). A lot of them own or manage restaurants, bars or shops, and they’re in it for the long haul, for better or worse; A month or so ago I had breakfast next to a hungover, unemployed American bartender who had clearly been living that kind of life too long.

The second group is the NGO/development community, where we spend most of our time. There’s probably some overlap, but even the NGO workers who have lived here for a long time have a more temporary feel, maybe because they’re here more for the work than the lifestyle. It’s a diverse group by nationality; we’ve met a Dutch-Belgian couple, a Serbian-Scottish couple, an American-Kiwi couple, a South African, plus a bunch of Australians, Americans and Canadians. There’s also a small expat business community that would probably fall into this category, plus the occasional missionary group.

Among Cambodians, there is a very obvious, wealthy elite that you can see everywhere in downtown Phnom Penh. They drive big SUVs and live in big mansions, and are a little bit intimidating, mostly because you assume they’re related to someone powerful and are hanging out with armed bodyguards. Then there are all the other Cambodians, who I mostly get to interact with at shops/restaurants and on the soccer field. They are as friendly and welcoming as any people I’ve ever met.

Laura getting creative with framing.
Laura getting creative with framing.

Photo Credit: Laura Grace

Do you feel a sense of community yet? How have you gone about finding one while abroad?

This has been the area we’ve struggled with the most. We arrived at a bad time, because a lot of people were either busy with end of the year work or heading back to their home countries for the holidays. So we didn’t really meet other people socially until about a month after we got here. Since then we’ve hung out from time to time with various coworkers and friends of friends, but we haven’t really managed to build a regular social circle yet. It’s surprisingly tough getting back into the habit of meeting new people.

That said, the expat community here is tiny and generally very welcoming. I put out a call on Facebook and got introduced to a few people, and managed to track down a soccer team with some creative Googling. Laura has a few coworkers who have shown us around, and we’ve even met one or two people just out at bars.

Beyond friends and family, are there elements of home that you surprisingly miss?

Right now I’m missing the winter a little bit. We’re just about to get into the hot season, when temperatures average around 95, and every time I see someone post about snow on Facebook I get a little homesick.

Oddly, public transportation. Phnom Penh doesn’t have a bus system yet so the only way to get around is by moto or tuk-tuk, and being driven around starts to wear on you after a while. At some point we’ll probably have to get our own moto, but I’ll need some practice before I’m willing to navigate traffic here.

Laura has been desperate for some good drip coffee. Most of the stuff you can get here is super rich, often with chocolate mixed in. Plus they tend to serve it with super-sweet condensed milk, which is fine if you grew up drinking Dunkin’ Donuts like I did, but apparently not good enough for a California girl raised on Peet’s. We finally found somewhere we can get American-style beans, but at $30 a pound it might be more of a luxury.

Related Posts on Neighborhood Nomads: