How to Move to Cambodia

Craig Bowman, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Craig planned to go on vacation to Cambodia for about three weeks. While he was there, he was having such a great time he extended his trip by a few days. He was only back in the United States for a few weeks before he decided he was going back for good. Two and a half weeks after he made this decision, he was living in Cambodia.

Here is a bit of his story.

What made you go back?


I met a lot of good people while I was here. When I went home I had an interview scheduled. I walked into the interview and saw a room of cubes and thought, ‘This is a prison.’ I was still in touch with people I met in Cambodia. I thought, ‘They are doing it. They found jobs. I can too.’ I lived in Detroit my whole life except for when I went to college. I needed a change. I decided to sell all my shit and now I am here.

What were you doing in Detroit?

I was working in publishing for 9.5 years and advertising for 4 years before that. They let me go in August of 2010. I was looking for work and I was like, ‘Screw it I am moving.’

You sell all your stuff and are moving to Cambodia. How sure are you that you are going to get a job?

I was pretty sure. I saw other people doing entrepreneurial things when I was there. I knew with my business sense I could find something. I knew I could at least bartend or teach English. But, I did not have a real plan or idea.

How did you get legal rights to live there?

It is really simple. When you land in Cambodia you have a choice – tourist visa or business visa. A business visa is $25, only $5 more than the tourist visa and you can renew it as much as you want.

What is your job in Cambodia?

I am working for a global advertising agency, Mindshare, owned by Ogilvy as a Media Director.

They speak English at your job?

Yes.

How is working in Cambodia different than working in the US?

When I was in the US, the last time I did advertising was 12 years ago and I was a media planner which is about three steps up from entry level. Now I am a director. There is a lack of experience here. It is a little behind the times here. The other part is I have to learn a lot of patience. I am in charge of two people. There is a difference in business savvy. Some things that seem obvious to me are not obvious to them.

How do you feel that is received? A Westerner telling a local person what to do?

I don’t think there is any resentment. The Khmer people are very nice and very receptive. They do not have the ego. There is not a sense of, ‘You are coming in here and telling us what to do.’ I have not felt any negative feelings or feedback.

What about cultural differences in work?

When they first come in, they turn on their computer and then go in the kitchen and eat breakfast. Also, once I was sitting at a table with four tables and there were these little small ants running around. I was taking paper and killing them and people were looking at me like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And I was like, ‘Oh I guess the ant didn’t really do anything to me.’ Or if you are in a meeting and their cell phone rings, they just answer it and talk. Right there in the room – they just sit there and talk on their phone. Maybe a little more quietly but they are still in the room talking on the phone.

How did you find this job?

I reached out to a beer company I liked. I sent the CEO my resume. He interviewed me and saw my experience in media and said that I had to work for the advertising agency he worked with.

How are the salaries?

They vary. It is a sad truth, but you get paid more if you are a westerner than you do if you are Khmer. There is a Khmer woman that works at a bar I hang out at a lot. She gets paid about $200 – $300 USD a month. Some Khmer people make $50 a month. Some expats can make $4000 – $5000 USD / month. I do not make that much. I have a two-bedroom apartment that is nice with air conditioning. I pay $250 rent. For $300 total I get my house cleaned and my laundry done too.

What about other costs of living? Groceries?

It depends on what you want to eat. You can live on $600 a month. If you go to a Khmer restaurant, you can get rice, chicken and vegetables for about $1.75. Today I had dinner at a more western restaurant and had cordon bleu with vegetables for $6. But you can also get ribs at some restaurants for $20. Western brands cost more in the grocery store Frosted Flakes cost $4.50 because they are imported. You can live at $600 a month or at $3000 a month. I hang around the places where beer is $1.25.

What about meeting people? Is that hard as an expat?

It is not. There are certain bars and certain places that are good mixes of backpackers and expats. It is easy to meet people because it is such a backpacker town and the expats are really friendly.

Where are the expats from?

There are a lot of French people here as they colonized Cambodia. A lot of Australians and British. I have been hearing there are more Americans now. There is a Korean and a Malaysian population as well.

How does the legacy of the genocide still exist there?

The Khmer Rouge killed anyone with a trade or an education so there is not a lot of educated people here. I also think people have a tendency to live for the day. There is a bit of loss of family culture. It is a very young country. A huge percentage of people are under 25.

(A Delicious Day note: One of the best books I have ever read and an extremely well-told story about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge is First They Killed My Father . It greatly enhanced my understanding and my experience while in Cambodia. It is a must read for anyone interested in visiting, living in or understanding Cambodia.)

Do people talk about the genocide?

I try not to bring it up because I do not know how that is going to affect them. A lot of people try to take you on tours to the killing fields or S-21 the school used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge. I have not had a conversation with people about it because I do not know how to bring it up.

Have you been in any situations where you felt unsafe?

Not exactly. There were times I felt a little paranoid. When I first got here I was leaving a bar and it was really late and I was walking down the street and maybe just a little paranoid. Being a westerner everyone thinks you have a lot of money. I have never been robbed. I have heard of stories where people get their purse snatched. It is never violent, just getting your purse stolen. You have to watch yourself. You have to be smart like you need to in all other situations. There is a little bit of danger but I have never heard of anyone getting hurt. You want to be careful in dealing with relationships with Khmer women. They are somebody’s ex[-girlfriend]. I am very careful when I am talking to Khmer women because I do not want anything to happen.

You are careful with Khmer women because you think there might be some sort of aggression or jealousy directed towards you?

Yes. I had a friend that was dating a Khmer woman and when they broke up he went and stayed in a hotel for a week. He was afraid to go back to his house because she threatened to come back with friends. He might have been a little paranoid. There is some violence that I have heard women do to each other – throw acid at each other’s face. There is a new law that if you are caught having or selling acid you go to jail. This is only something that I have read.

How is Craig in Cambodia different from Craig in Detroit?

The little things do not bother me. There is no judgment on how you dress [here]. It is not about what you do. It is not about who you are [here]. You are stripped down to basic conversations here. I feel a little bit more, I wouldn’t say free spirit, but I feel like there is not a leash on me anymore. I feel more relaxed. I feel a little happier. And my job is teaching me how to be patient which is something I definitely needed to learn. I am also getting a greater appreciation for other cultures. I do not know if I am any different, but after taking the initial plunge and selling everything and moving here I think, “I can do it again. It is not that big of a deal.” The hard part would be moving back to the US.

Why is that?

There is so much going on there. It is a very structured environment. There aren’t real strict rules [here]. You kind of go with the flow. If I land back in the US I have to do this and that. I have to cable, I have to have this phone, these clothes, this Internet connection not to mention trying to find a job. There is more of structure in the little things [in the US] than in the substance of what you are actually doing.

When you say you sold everything. Did you sell EVERYTHING?

I didn’t sell my house. It is rented. I have a large suitcase, a medium sized backpack and two computers in a computer bag I brought. I had a small shoe box of things I gave to my parents that had things like my birth certificate and pictures and things like that. I got rid of my couches, my tv, my PlayStation, you name it. I donated all of my winter clothes. I had clothes that cost me $100 and I thought, ‘I don’t need this in Cambodia. It is going to The Salvation Army.’

I think some people think doing what you are doing is a total impossibility. Do you have any advice for them?

If there is somewhere you want to go, then go there first and let it call you. Follow your heart. Follow yourself. There is nothing wrong with even going somewhere for a few months. Emotionally though it was tough.

Why is that?

It was 2.5 weeks from when I decided I was moving until when I moved.

So you sold all of this stuff in two and a half weeks?

Yes.

So from decision of ‘I am moving,’ to being on the plane was two and a half weeks?

Yes. I was only home for about a month. I sold a lot of my stuff for cheap because I had to get rid of it. I didn’t want to find a reason to change my mind. If I was going to leave and live somewhere that was cheaper I did not want to spend time and money being in the US – cable bills, car insurance, things like that. I did it quickly and there was no turning back.

Is there any kind of terror involved in this? In selling all your stuff and moving to Cambodia?

It got more serious every time I sold something. When I sold my couch for $400 as the guy was taking it out of my house, I thought, ‘Wow, so if I change my mind I have to spend $800 to replace that couch. There was no turning back.’ It got so real. I realized I was actually doing this. Now, I can’t hang out with my friends [from home] and that is the part I didn’t appreciate at the time. How much I was going to miss my friends. They are not coming out to visit. That is the hardest part. I still struggle with that a bit.

What is the biggest frustration about living there?

There are the little things – mosquitoes, the constant heat. Then there are things like the Khmer people try to get more money out of you because you are westerner.

What is the best part about living there?

Being so close to so many places to travel in Asia. I can hop on a plane and go to Bangkok. Laos. I am also meeting a lot of cool people. Everything is so much cheaper and easier to do. I got a suit made for myself and it cost me $65. There are markets you can get things really cheap. Sometimes cheap in quality too.

What about language barriers?

It is something I need to learn more. When I go to the market they do not speak a lot of English so they show me a calculator to talk about prices. I am getting used to it. It is not really a barrier. It just becomes how you communicate.

How long did it take you to find a job before you found one in Phnom Penh?

2 months.

Seems like the same amount of time to find a job in the US?

I think it takes longer to find a job in the US. It was easier for me to find a job here than it was in Detroit. There are definitely jobs here.

What is the biggest misconception about what you are doing?

Not every westerner walking around is a pedophile or looking for a prostitute. That is the one thing that is always kind of dodgey. When you see an old man with a girl you think, ‘What is this guy doing?’ The culture is used to having people looking for prostitutes. Being a US citizen, there is the reputation we have around the world. I have never had anything serious thrown back at me. But you talk to people and they are like, “Oh yeah we know about you Americans.” In a joking way.

In a joking way that they are not joking.

It hasn’t been really negative. Everyone [locals] thinks we are rich which is not true.

What about the problems facing Cambodia?

They are still dealing with a lot of corruption in their government. The king runs things. You have an education gap. They are behind the western world in business.

Do you have any idea how long you will be there?

I don’t. I think I am going to play it by ear. This is a great job I have. It might be a good idea to not get rooted here. I am taking it day by day, month by month and enjoying it for now.

A friend wanted me to ask you if the women in Cambodia beautiful?

Yeah, they are beautiful.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you or that you think is important to add?

I think people should be open minded about coming to Cambodia. Not a lot of people know about Cambodia. I couldn’t have even told you the name of a city or a place before I came here. There are so many things to do. The people are wonderful and will be really nice to you. You might just fall in love with it.

Read More Perspectives on Working, Traveling and Living in Cambodia:

Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder



25 thoughts on “How to Move to Cambodia

  1. Really interesting piece – I’m looking to move to Cambodia in September (2012) with my girlfriend – We’ve had enough of the London rat race and are going to buy a small hotel or hostel. Great interview! Thanks

  2. Hey Rob! Keep in touch. It would be great to hear how you like it over there. It is a wonderful country! Good luck.
    Cheers,
    Linda

  3. Fantastic report, glad it’s worked out for you.
    I don’t think I’ll be too far behind ya! Love Cambodia, fed up of the rat race as Rob says above.
    Best of luck, maybe we’ll meet over a beer some time!

  4. great post and with pictures. hope write more about Cambodia. Hope to read more from your article.

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