After living in the UAE for many years, Clare and her family decided to move to Cambodia. In this interview, Clare shares the perks and challenges of relocating to this unique and culturally rich expat destination. Follow Clare's adventures on Twitter: @ClareinDxb.
Learn more about living in the country with our Cambodia guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Q: When did you move here?
A: December 2016.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: With my husband and son who is 10.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: We needed a change of scenery after six years living in Dubai UAE, and somewhere with a low cost of living while we take a career break and have a mid-life gap year. My husband works in oil and gas construction logistics and will be looking for a suitable role in SE Asia or the Far East in due course, and we have always wanted to spend time in this region. The Cambodian visa system allows for longer stays on an ‘ordinary’ visa which you can renew locally, making it easy for people like us to come and settle a while, and make it their home.
Living in Cambodia
Q: What do you enjoy most about Cambodia? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the UAE?
A: After the desert and harsh climate of the UAE we all really enjoy the beautiful tropical plants, trees and greenery. The rice fields punctuated with palm trees, wooden stilt houses and grazing cattle make a pleasing change from the slick cityscapes and eight-lane highways we had become accustomed to. The locals have been incredibly helpful and friendly, often despite an almost impenetrable language barrier. We appreciate this as we adapt to a totally new way of life. My husband’s bike brake froze on his way home, and he was looking around for a garage or repair shop. A local chap came to his aid and made a rudimentary repair, enough to enable a safe ride home, on the spot. This is just one example of many random acts of kindness we have experienced since our bewildered arrival a few weeks ago.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about the UAE?
A: If I could wave a magic wand and eradicate mosquito bites, that would certainly be a great help! We’ve all succumbed to a tummy upset, too. The heat and humidity is something we are adjusting to. Although the mercury sits significantly lower than the Middle East’s stratospheric temperature, we’ve found we’re outside a lot more, and air conditioning is something of a luxury.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Apart from the obvious language issue (we will have to learn some conversational Khmer as a family) and the tropical climate, we have had to emerge from the virtually crime-free bubble that was Dubai. Pickpocketing and opportunistic theft (mostly wallets, phones and handbags) are a well-known downside to the bustling tourist market scene here, so we have to remember to only take essentials out with us and not to flaunt any valuables or leave them lying around.
For my son, his moving ‘milestone’ was his first day at school. He has been at school in UAE for his entire school career so this change represented a giant leap in the life of a ten-year-old. Luckily, I established contact with a few schools in the city before we arrived and was quickly able to identify the one I felt would be the best match. The staff were welcoming and supportive of our move and arranged a meeting and show-around a few days before term started, to ease the settling-in process. It really helped. Classes are much smaller, and the school has a relaxed and open feel to it, making the transition more comfortable for my son.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Cambodia? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: You can have a really nice lifestyle on relatively little here, which is one of its biggest draws. Everything from rented accommodation to hotels, eating out and transport to fish and local produce at the market is extremely inexpensive. Our three-bedroom villa with a garden and pool is $900 per month including cable TV, WiFi and water. It’s possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment for $200 per month without compromising on quality. Street food is readily available for small change, and a tuk-tuk journey is usually around $2. Buying imported goods at the supermarket will set you back more than you’d expect to pay at home, but sticking with locally produced beer, for example, means you can order a pint and have change from $1. My favourite muesli is almost $6, so I will forgo that in favour of the French-influenced breakfast that’s popular here; freshly baked baguette and a good coffee.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Cambodia? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: As there is no public transport within the city, most tourists get around by hailing a waiting tuk-tuk in the street and negotiating a price. City residents tend to use mopeds or scooters, very small cars or even bicycles, as the terrain is flat and traffic is not fast. Cars are all imported, so even a second-hand car will be more expensive than you’re used to. Car ownership involves switching your licence to a Cambodian licence (fees vary but going direct costs around $60) then you have to factor in tax, annual inspection and petrol.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Cambodia?
A: Insurance is a must for anyone coming here. Healthcare is renowned for being sub-standard and poorly equipped to handle anything serious. Insurance needs to cover you for medical evacuation to the nearest decent hospital (Bangkok is the best bet) that can handle your emergency. Clinics staffed by Singapore-trained medical professionals are starting to pop up, as well as some European doctors, so perhaps the quality of medical care will soon improve. Somewhat surprisingly, however, good opticians and dentists seem to be plentiful.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Cambodia?
A: The main issues we all face (not just expats) is theft. In a country where an iPhone’s value represents more than a year’s salary for most of the population, perhaps the temptation proves too great. The advice is clear; only take out what you can afford to lose. Leave the Cartier and Amex card in the hotel safe or locked up at home. Take enough cash for what you need. Ladies, wear your bag over one shoulder and across your body to make a sneaky snatch less likely. Homes have barred windows and most hotels or condos have a security guard on duty. From my own experience, being out in the daytime has felt very safe, and everyone I have met has been polite and respectful, although some of the local ladies have enjoyed a giggle at my expense, as blonde, plump and inelegantly overheating ‘barangs’ (foreigners) are a source of comedy in some cases.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Cambodia? What different options are available for expats?
A: There is a huge choice of accommodation here, depending on your budget and your needs. You can find a room in a shared house, a studio flat, a modern one- or two-bedroom apartment in a complex with a shared pool, or rent the whole house. Houses are generally either traditional wooden Khmer villas or a modern house built to Western standards – of varying sizes. Expats can’t buy property here, but I am told there are legal ways around this if you’re looking to stay long term.
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats in Siem Reap?
A: The city is small enough that you can be almost anywhere in 15 minutes or less. This makes house hunting easier as you’re not tied to living in the same area as your workplace or your child’s school, for example. The best option is to look at as many different houses as possible before making your decision, and get a feel for each different area as you go. Expect to pay more if you’re keen to live in the midst of the action in the very centre, and less the further out you go. Security is a consideration, so most expats prefer not to be too isolated.
Meeting people and making friends in Cambodia
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: The locals are very welcoming of tourists and expats alike. Siem Reap boasts one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world, largely thanks to the nearby ancient temple complex at Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world (162 hectares of spectacular Khmer architecture). Many locals’ livelihoods depend on income from tourists, either as tuk-tuk drivers, guesthouse owners or farmers. There are also a number of English language schools in the city, making it a very multicultural mix of people from all over the world – it seems to be working well and thriving.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Cambodia? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: As we’re still new and have only just moved into our villa (and still awaiting the arrival of our container!) we haven’t had much opportunity to mingle socially. However, now my son has started school, this has opened up an opportunity to meet other parents. It’s next on my list to find out where the good places to hang out are!
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: Facebook pages for expats and locals in the area have been an invaluable resource. It’s a great platform for finding out about local events or deals, as well as seeking specific information or advice.
About working in Cambodia
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Visas are readily available at the airport on arrival. You can extend the visa in person at the city’s immigration office, but most people enlist a travel agency (these are prolific), and they do it for you in a week. Work permits are required if you are working here in Cambodia, and you’d also have to set up your tax account. There are plenty of agencies that can these things for you.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Siem Reap? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The country as a whole is a tough nut to crack in terms of making any money. Most expats come here with a NGO or as a volunteer for a short period. Teachers, it seems, are able to earn enough to sustain a decent standard of living, either in a school or as a TEFL language teacher at the numerous language schools here. I would advise people to make sure they have a job lined up before they come, as finding one is likely to take a long time, if at all. Salaries are low and hours are long. It is a great place to base yourself if you are looking for work in the wider region, however, as neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam are an hour’s flight away.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals in Cambodia?
A: Come with an open mind, and do plenty of research before you come.
►Interviewed January 2016