It’s been three weeks now since I got off a plane in Siem Reap, Cambodia, feeling pretty run down and wretched, and immediately handed over my passport to an agent to extend my stay for two months.
That has proved to be a wise decision. Though I’ve had one more bout of illness since then (brought about by unwisely consuming five bowls of chili, some tequila and then playing an impromptu three hour New Years’ Eve gig), my health has improved markedly since I’ve been here. I’ve dropped a noticeable amount of weight, which is something that’s needed to happen for a long time. My energy level has increased and I’m walking an average of about 5 miles per day. I’m still having problems with my neck, but a lot of the more annoying symptoms that go with that have abated.
After a few weeks at a hostel in town, I’ve moved to a mom-and-pop guest house with a few long term residents on the outskirts of town near Wat Bo Temple. The room is perfect for my needs, with a large floor space for yoga, an ample desk, and a very comfortable bed. There have been some issues (like the water going off for a full day and the guy in the room next to me having some sort of psychotic break in the middle of the night) but for $230/month including utilities, I can’t complain. I’ve been able to set up shop to mix tracks – abetted by some very thick walls soundproofing me from the other tenants – and the stability should soon enable me to start moving ahead on to some new long-term projects.
In terms of building a new life, of the places I’ve spent extensive time in, Siem Reap has turned out to be the most workable so far. I want to devote the rest of this blog to talking about some of the things that make Siem Reap such a nice place to be and make some comparisons to some other places I’ve lived. Everyone should note that I still love the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and I plan to return to all those places. Each one has a thing. Still, for being able to sustain myself, Siem Reap has turned out to have some pretty significant upsides…along with a few downsides. Here’s my list, then, of things I like about Siem Reap:
1. Less Pollution. Of all the things that I’ve acclimated to living in southeast Asia, this is the one thing that has not worn well. Sanitary standards and attitudes about littering in many of the countries are nowhere near what we have in the U.S. Siem Reap is notably cleaner on many fronts than the Philippines or Indonesia. This is not to say there’s none – there’s still quite a bit of litter on the back streets and the main river through town is partly covered with a kind of green scum – but that’s vastly preferable to chemicals and garbage floating in it, and there’s an impressive commitment to picking up trash on the main streets, with litter bags and cans easy to find. The air quality, likewise, is much less choked with exhaust and particulates than I’ve experienced elsewhere. The Philippines in particular is really bad in this regard, and when you walk as much as I do, breathing that stuff can really take its toll over time.
2. It’s Cheap. One real problem with the Philippines in particular is that it’s a surprisingly expensive place to live. This is I think because there’s not much foreign tourism there so no middle ground for food and board has developed for them. The food the locals eat is, in the main, not that good for you (fast food, the fatty local cuisine, or sketchy street food). This means that if you want to live some sort of western life style you are going to be living like an upper-class Filipino and coupled with that country’s VAT tax, this gets close to western-level expense in some areas (such as food).
Bali on the other hand is pretty cheap (particularly given its status as a tourist destination). If you choose carefully, you can find very good food and nice digs for a fraction of the western price. Siem Reap is similar in that regard, but I think it’s even a little cheaper than Bali. Rents, particularly once you get off Air B’n’B, are comparable. As to eating out, dinner at a higher-end restaurant on Pub Street is going to set you back $6-10 but there are scores of places advertising small meals for under $2. If you get out of the main tourist area you can get 5 kg of laundry done for about $2.
That’s all slightly less than in Indonesia, but if you’re a drinkin’ man there’s a huge difference. Alcohol is taxed into oblivion in that heavily Muslim country, but cocktails here are plentiful and cheap, with many places advertising drink specials as low as $1, or 50 cents for the local beer (which isn’t bad).
In my running tally of my spending, I’ve had no problem staying well under my designated monthly nut and in fact I’m well under last year’s stricter budget that I abandoned because I couldn’t keep to it…and I’m not being all that frugal (e.g. it’s not unusual for me to indulge in two massages a day).
3. Good Food. Another similarity to Bali is how well the local diet agrees with me. Like Indonesian food, Khmer cuisine is heavily fruit- and vegetable-based, spicy but not too spicy, and food preparation is less oily than, say, Thailand and less gamey than in the Philippines. It’s very easy to go into town and get a healthy meal without spending a lot of money. Even the sweet stuff is better – there are fruit shake stalls in abundance. One other big deal to me? The French colonial influence on the culture means there are coffee shops, and good coffee, everywhere. (And wine, too, though I haven’t had any) They even have passable Mexican food here, which is astonishing.
4. Walkability. I like to walk everywhere, for reasons of health, budget and getting to know the area and its people. In most of the other places I’ve been this is a bit of a challenge, particularly in Bali where the infrastructure is old and crumbling and borderline dangerous and the roads are quite narrow. One downside to living near the beach is it means there are only two directions to explore in so I exhausted most of the walking possibilities in Sanur pretty early on.
Siem Reap is landlocked and spread out, with fairly wide streets, so it’s comparatively easy to walk with lots of places to explore in four directions. There’s not really a limit to one’s ability to wander around. It feels, in some nice ways, like a desert outpost.
5. Climate. While it’s hot here just like it is everywhere else (and it is the most temperate season right now), it’s a bit cooler than in the Phils and Indo. The nights in particular are delightful to walk around in. The air is also much drier, so it’s less humid and feels a little more like what I’m used to in California, which is nice on nights that I feel a bit homesick.
6. Vibe. One thing I had really started to miss was proximity to nature. Back in L.A., I live only a few miles from some really nice hiking trails and only a few hours pretty wild and exotic places like the Sierras and the Mojave Desert. This was the biggest downside to leaving and only the fact that I had already explored those places thoroughly made it OK to leave.
Living in Bali and in the Phils, I’ve mostly been in urban environments. This is because as much as I like nature, remote places tend to separate you from people and amenities and at that time I knew that wouldn’t be psychologically good for me. Cities offer social connection and infrastructure…but they also keep you away from nature and getting to it is expensive.
Siem Reap is still a city, but it is much more spread out with a lot of pockets of open space within it. Living in the outskirts as I do, every day I pass some open fields and at night walk home on dirt roads where I can hear the insects and see the stars. It’s nice. The architecture isn’t as stunning as Bali’s, nor as boldly Eurasian as in Laos, but it offers a low-key mix of those Indian, Oriental and Continental aesthetics that’s very appealing.
7. I Can Play. Cambodia has long been known as one of the countries with the most lenient work visa enforcement, and though it’s started to tighten up a bit, it’s still not a problem if an expat wants to get up onstage and do a gig (which will get you deported in Bali, and while it’s permitted in the Philippines, the local talent there is so plentiful and skilled that there aren’t that many opportunities). In fact, there’s a number of expats regularly gigging around town and I have the impression that if I wanted to perform here it wouldn’t be that difficult, and I might even make some money at it (though not much).
8. I Like The Pop Culture. I don’t want to overstate this since you still have the same tiresome new pop blaring everywhere that every other tourist party hot spot has, but I do like Khmer music and I love the older stuff. I’m fascinated by it. Likewise some of the local TV shows are pretty good. The Philippines also has a lot to offer in this way (particularly if your tastes tend toward the wacky), but in Indonesia the visual pop culture is pretty dire and the local music tastes never really resonated for me. It does make a difference.
9. Location. One exciting aspect of being here is when visa expiration time comes around, there are so many interesting places nearby I haven’t fully explored yet. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are all border states, Korea, China, India and Japan are a stone’s throw, and if I get “homesick,” the Phils and Indonesia are also within easy reach. And, of course, Angkor Wat – the Asian Grand Canyon in terms of living up to the hype – is just up the road.
10. Safety. My tolerance for (calculated) risk is more than a lot of peoples’, and I have walked around some fairly sketchy places in southeast Asia without feeling much fear for my safety. That said, this part of the world keeps you on your toes, and though Siem Reap is hardly free from danger, in general it’s a place that feels a bit less risky than others I have visited if you’re, say, walking home in the middle of the night, or just rambling around the non-tourist parts of town.
11. Vibrancy. For obvious reasons relating to its bloody past, Cambodia’s population is overwhelmingly under 40. It’s a country that is slowly emerging from one of the most calamitous periods in 20th century world history, which means that this generation of Cambodia’s youth are the first to fully be able to grasp the possibilities of the future. There’s a lot of foreign money and resources flowing into this country (not all of it for good, unfortunately, but that’s another story), bringing education and some opportunities, which means there’s an undercurrent of youthful energy always pulsing forward here. Couple that with Siem Reap being an international tourist destination, drawing people from nearly every corner of the planet and every walk of life, it makes for a stimulating, cosmopolitan environment.
12. Better Integration Between Ex-Pats and Locals. One of the nice things about the Philippines is how un-touristy it is, so if you are living in that country you are dealing with the culture on the ground level…but it also means you have less access to lower cost western-level amenities that tourism tends to bring to the third world. In Bali and in other places I’ve visited, expats tend to stay segregated from the local population in ways that don’t sit well and make me, in general, want to avoid other Caucasians (there are exceptions; I’m speaking broadly). I’ve noticed that here in Siem Reap, despite the substantial language barrier, there is a much better sense of the long-term visitors being a natural graft into the culture and I’ve also noticed a great sense of social responsibility among many of them to volunteer to help the locals and give back to the community. There just isn’t as much sense of separation or arm’s-length interaction between the visitors and the locals as I’ve seen elsewhere.
So why didn’t I come to Siem Reap in the first place? Well, Cambodia has some pretty significant downsides, too. Let’s go into a few of them.
1. Health Care. This is the number one reason I dumped Siem Reap off the A list when I first contemplated this move back in 2016. Health care in Cambodia is notoriously bad and, for the least crappy hospitals, western-level expensive (though, as one Welsh ex-pat living in Japan pointed out over a beer, nowhere on earth is as expensive as the U.S.). Ex-pats have given me the names of some clinics they trust to go to, but in terms of what to do in a real emergency, everyone just kind of shrugs. The blanket advice is to go to Bangkok, but that still requires a plane trip and a wait through the worst immigration queue in southeast Asia when you’re dead sick. I am insured for a medical airlift, but all in all, I’m just crossing my fingers and watching where I step – rather like most Americans do back home. Bali does have some problems here, too – but the Philippines and Thailand both offer western-level health care at bargain prices.
2. It’s A Little Lonely. Cambodians are pretty friendly, but they are more reserved than Filipinos and more conservative than Balinese. My low-key Bill Murray shtick that I use to interact with locals doesn’t fly as well here. Even more so than in Indonesia, dating rituals seem to be fairly rigidly divided between preparation for marriage on one hand and gradations of quasi-prostitution on the other with not much room in between for casual let’s-see kinds of interactions. To the extent I have felt that kind of energy it’s often been from people that are off-limits for reasons of age and marital status. I’d gotten temporarily burnt out on that part of my life so for now, that’s fine, but I can see it being a bit isolating over time. I also don’t really know anybody in Cambodia, nor do I know the language, so I’m starting from scratch in terms of friendships and having a network. All that can be overcome, as it was in Indonesia (which felt this way for awhile too), with better familiarity with the culture and the language. However that brings us to…
3. The Language. I’ve made surprisingly rapid progress learning Khmer over the past three weeks, but it’s still an extremely difficult language, relying on pronunciations and vowel/consonant sounds that don’t really exist in English. There’s no standard romanization, there’s a local script that’s hard for westerners to read, and the resources for learning the language are not that good relative to others. Watching TV and talking to locals reveals that the available dictionaries don’t accurately reflect the spoken language (and often conflict with one another), further complicating matters. I’ve heard tales of people that have lived here for 10 years that haven’t learned any of it, and I’m not surprised. But still, if I wanted to overcome some of the social barriers I referred to above, I would need to get a solid footing in the local language, and it’s a challenge to learn.
4. Visa Fee. This isn’t a huge deal, but for Americans at least, it’s a $30 investment in a visa every time you come in the country. The Philippines and Indonesia (not to mention Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, and several other places) have a 30-day visa free entry. For long stays, this evens out, since you need to pay for a visa extension regardless of where you go and it’s cheaper to be here, but for just hopping around Asia, there’s an entry fee that you might not have to pay elsewhere.
5. “Tourist Tax.” As I already mentioned, one of the nicest things about the Philippines is that because it sees minimal foreign tourism, you have a more authentic local experience with less emphasis on extracting tourist dollars from your wallet. In Bali on the other hand, you’re dealing with vendors, local drivers, massage parlors, tour guides, etc. that are constantly bombarding/guilt-tripping you to pony up for something you don’t really want. Given the financial pressures the locals are under and the dependence on tourism, this is understandable, and I’m very good at saying “no,” but it can get to you over time if you’re living as an expat and you have to watch every dollar. If anything, all these players are more aggressive in Cambodia, with the tuk-tuk drivers in particular propositioning you 20 times a day on the average.
6. Miscellaneous hassles. Cambodia is one of the poorest and least-developed countries of southeast Asia (with a government, now a de facto dictatorship, that’s been labeled one of the world’s most corrupt) with corresponding issues that can manifest in unpredictable ways. The debit card I rely on to avoid fees (which are substantial) was just unceremoniously canceled amidst a bank change. The new card sits in Los Angeles, but the price to get it sent to Cambodia is so sky-high relative to the surrounding countries, and with significant danger of the package getting waylaid in transit, I’ve decided it’s cheaper and safer to just eat the fees for awhile, and let the card stay where it is until I can find a better place to get it sent.
All in all, though, Siem Reap has indeed been the most workable place for the expat project thus far. Were it not for the fairly substantial risks involved with getting sick here, I’d very likely be looking at a long-term rental to make this my base. As it is, it’s given me a lot to think about.