Review: The Definitive Guide To Moving To Southeast Asia: Cambodia
Once upon a time, a couple in America decided they wanted to move to Southeast Asia.
It was only a vague idea, a glorious daydream. But, being go-getters, they decided to pursue their dream.
The first step: research. But Jessie and Ed couldn’t find the information they were looking for. So they did what go-getters do: they commissioned a book. This book evolved into a series called The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia.
The first book in the series, the Cambodia edition, is now available and it is truly fabulous. (The second book, the Vietnam edition, will be equally fabulous, I hope, because it’s being written by yours truly.)
Now it’s time for me to channel Michael Parkinson and interview the author of the Cambodia book, Gabrielle Yetter.
Michael Parkinson, or Parky, is a suave English talk show host who has been on television in the UK and Australia for about 150 years. He used to get all kinds of interesting people on his show to chat about their movies, books, television shows and their lives in general. It was fascinating viewing … but he recorded his last show in 2007.
So now it’s up to me to kick of the virtual chat show circuit of Asia’s hottest new author.
Dear readers, meet Gabrielle Yetter, author and American expat in Cambodia.
Hi Gabrielle, and welcome to the (virtual) show.
Thank you Barbara, it’s lovely to be here, if only virtually.
You’ve just released your book about Cambodia and it’s become an instant best-seller on Amazon. Tell me, who is the book for?
While the title is The Definitive Guide to Moving to SouthEast Asia: Cambodia, it’s really for anyone who comes here – whether they’re moving or just visiting for a couple of weeks. There are chapters dealing with the nitty-gritty of setting up home for people who move here (what to bring, how to get a work permit, where to network, how to find a language school) but a lot deals with basic information that anyone would need.
In the book, I list the prices of basic items (toothpaste, pizza, bananas), provide tips on dealing with local people (seniors are respected and Westerners highly regarded), safety information (don’t walk home after a dozen beers with your iPhone in your hand), what to do when you are invited to a Cambodian wedding (no need to have a sequined gown made) and what to do if you get sick after getting all your shots and meds (many of which are not needed).
The book is designed to help people cut corners when they come to Cambodia so they don’t have to stress about where to find a decent neighbourhood, where to buy a motorbike helmet or how much to pay for a hair cut. In the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve received emails from people around the world asking for help (how to find a job? how to mail stuff home?) and this book answers as many of their questions as possible.
I still email people personally since no book can provide all the answers and I love to share my personal tips (such as the Japanese salon where you can get a fabulous cut and be treated like royalty), but it provides a great insight into how life works in Cambodia, how to best deal with the small stuff and how to find your way around.
It sounds like a lot of work went into the book. Was it also fun to write?
Writing about Cambodia is one of my favourite things to do! Since I moved here with my husband, Skip, almost three years ago, I’ve fallen in love with the country and want to share its wonders with everyone else who visits. I’m naturally inquisitive and keen to immerse myself in a new place so I hit the ground running when I arrived (after recovering from the initial shock of realising I was living in a place that was hot, dirty and confusing).
Once I became familiar with my surroundings, I embraced everything that had first appeared challenging and gravitated toward local spots and people instead of going to expat hangouts (which are becoming more and more plentiful).
I’ve been writing freelance articles and blogs since I arrived so I’ve been exposed to all sides of the country. I’ve attended elegant cheese and wine soirees at five-star hotels as well as eaten meals at roadside stands where you pull up a plastic stool and chow down on bowls of noodles costing less than a dollar. So it was great fun for me to put everything into a book and show all the angles, areas and resources available to people who are new to the country.
What’s your favourite thing about living in Cambodia?
It sounds clichéd but I have to say it’s the people. I’ve travelled a lot and lived in many countries, but Cambodians are the gentlest, most childlike and endearing people I’ve ever met.
I also enjoy the fact that I can get a massage for less than $10 and I’ve become addicted to the pampering that comes so cheaply and readily in this part of the world.
I love Asian food and also love the fact that I never have to think about being cold! Granted, the temperatures are sometimes so sweltering that you don’t want to spend much time outside, but I’ll take that any day over snow, sleet and frost.
What is your must-do/must-see/must-experience thing that you make sure people who visit you do/see/experience?
There are so many, but I’d probably emphasise spending time with local people, and doing things in local neighbourhoods. While Angkor Wat is a must-see and the islands are beautiful, it’s the little slices of life that make Cambodia come alive and live on in your memory.
I always encourage visitors to spend time walking through the streets and in taking their time. Spend a couple of hours poking around a local market, interact with a tuktuk driver (instead of the common response of ignoring them which many visitors do), play with a child on the street, give a dollar to a cripple, make eye contact with locals and say a few words in Khmer. Don’t be a “typical” tourist and ignore the best part of Cambodia – the people!
It’s a pet peeve of mine to see Westerners shun service people and street people when they’re usually doing their best to get their attention. One of our favourite things to do is stop and talk to the severely handicapped man who sits on the pavement near the riverside every day weighing people on a bathroom scale to earn a few dollars. He’s an amazing man with a gorgeous smile and it always makes us feel humbled that someone who has so little can radiate such joy.
Skip is the best off-the-beaten-track host I know as he takes our guests across the river in Phnom Penh on bicycles and exposes them to a side of the city most people don’t see: tiny children running on dusty roads shouting “hello”, cows crossing the path, street vendors selling local food and the gentleness and playfulness of country folk who are far removed from the city life of Cambodia’s capital even though it’s only 20 minutes away.
How did you and your husband end up in Cambodia?
It happened by accident as we thought we’d be going to Thailand! After we spent our honeymoon there in 2006, we fell in love with Southeast Asia and decided we wanted to come back and live in this part of the world.
We applied for volunteer posts through Volunteers In Asia and ended up getting jobs with NGOs in Phnom Penh. We sold our home in the U.S., got rid of our cars, put some personal stuff in storage and bought a one-way ticket, trusting that it would all work out. We knew nothing about Cambodia at the time and, almost three years later, we’re still here and have never for a moment regretted coming here. In fact, we’re grateful that fate intervened and sent us here or we’d probably have missed out on experiencing this amazing country.
What’s the best memory you have of your time in Cambodia so far?
About three months after we arrived, our tuktuk driver, SomOn, showed us a tiny plot of land and told us his dream was to build a home on it. He needed about $4,000 and estimated it would take him two to three years to save enough.
Skip and I put out an email appeal to our friends and family, asking them to donate money so we could make SomOn’s dream a reality and, on December 26 that year, we built a gingerbread house with him and his children and presented him with a check for $4,100.
A little more than three months later, SomOn invited us to his housewarming party. He’d decorated the house with dozens of balloons, rented chairs, tables and dinnerware and invited his family and friends. His wife was dressed in a long sparkly gown and SomOn and his kids were outfitted in crisp new clothes and slicked back hair.
It was one of the most moving experiences of our lives – seeing how the kindness of our friends and family around the world had such a great impact on a poor tuktuk driver they’d never met. The gratitude his family showered upon us was humbling and embarrassing and the memory of that day will remain in our hearts as one of the most incredible days of our lives.
So, why do people move to Cambodia?
I’d say for a variety of reason – but nobody ends up in Cambodia by accident!
There are many NGO workers since Cambodia has one of the highest number of NGOs in the world – so a lot of people come here for work opportunities in development. There are some who choose to retire here and a lot of backpackers and young people come for a short time (sometimes to volunteer), fall in love with the country and stay (or return after a trip back home).
The reasons for living here usually include the low prices, easy lifestyle, job opportunities, a desire to help and a change of pace from the western world.
Is Cambodia a good base for someone who wants to explore SE Asia?
Yes and no. Yes, because it’s an easy place to travel from if you want to take bus rides (Vietnam, Thailand, Laos are relatively close). No, because there are few direct flights from Cambodia to anywhere in the world. However, there’s so much in Cambodia to see that it’s worth spending time exploring the provinces, beaches, jungles and far-flung regions first. And it’s also a good place to settle for a while, take advantage of cheap travel and explore the region at your leisure.
Gabrielle, thanks so much for being on the show.
Thanks for having me, Barbara. It’s been a pleasure.
To buy a copy of Gabi’s fabulous book from Amazon (which delivers world wide), click here:
You can also visit Gabi’s Facebook page to keep up to date with what’s happening in Cambodia.
I realise this interview has left some questions unanswered. Questions like: what happened to Ed and Jessie’s dream of moving to Southeast Asia? Well, they’ve been sidetracked by building a publishing empire but they are under strict instructions that they must at least visit me in Vietnam.
And the other unanswered question: is Gabi’s book any good? Hell-yeah! When I finished reading my copy, it was all I could do not to jump on a bus for the six-hour trip to Phomn Penh. If I didn’t already love Cambodia, I would after reading Gabi’s book. It is interesting, informative and very well-written. I highly recommend it if you are planning a trip to Cambodia, no matter whether it’s just a week or a couple of years.
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