Living in Phnom Penh
As soon as we arrived we knew that living in Phnom Penh was something we wanted to do. After 6 months, 6 countries and more than 50 hotels/guesthouses, it felt great to arrive somewhere and know we would not be packing up again in a day or so. Backpacks were emptied, clothes were thoroughly washed (some were deemed beyond redemption and went in the bin), the fridge was stocked with food. Oh the simple joy of not having to order every single meal. We figured we had eaten more than 500 meals from restaurants, cafes, markets, street vendors, food carts on trains or dodgy tin shacks on the side of the road.
Cambodia is a poor country. The UNDP’s Human Development Index – which looks at health, education and income – ranks Cambodia 139 out of 187 nations.
According to the World Bank, in 1994, 47% of the country were living below the poverty line. By 2007 that had been reduced to 30%, however Cambodia’s Gross National Income sits at $1800 per person. By comparison, Australia’s GNI is around 20 times more.
This means Cambodia has a very cheap labour force. People living in Cambodia are desperate for work. More than 400,000 people work in garment factories in Cambodia – it is the nation’s largest employer. But many of the workers are paid no more than $100 a month. Minimum wage is $61 a month.
China’s economic boom has led to higher wages, and now companies are beginning to move on in their search for the cheapest fingers they can find. A quote I read from a factory owner sums it up well: “Cambodia is just like China was 20 years ago”.
So Cambodia is poor, corruption is ingrained and its truly wretched history lies in the very recent past. But its a good place for us – it feels like a place of resilience and hope, there are plenty of opportunities for us to work with NGO’s that are helping to build, as corny as it sounds, a better future for Cambodians.
It seems to a new arrival that Phnom Penh is booming. From our apartment in the south of the city – near the Russian Markets – there are no less than 15 large buildings in various stages of construction observable from our balcony. In fact, as you make your way around Phnom Penh, it seems that 90% of the tallest buildings in the city are currently under construction. Fifteen years ago it was only the most intrepid western journalists and aid workers living in Phnom Penh. Now there are a lot of foreign workers who have been drawn to the Phomh Penh, to work in business or for one of the 1000+ NGOs that are said to be established in the country.
It has everything that we want as expats – plenty of local culture to discover, markets to shop at, festival to attend, but also all of the comforts we soft westerners long for when living in such a different place – coffee shops, airconditioning, bars, good restaurants, supermarkets and cinemas. The balance is just right.
Now you only have to open the newspaper here to see that the rapid development of Phnom Penh means the powers that be are evicting people from the homes they have been living in for decades by way of baton and bulldozer. In a place where corruption is ingrained into everything, you know that such rampant development is lining the pockets of the few. But despite the massive chasm that exists between the rich and very, very poor, its hard not to be optimistic about the future. Its a poor country that faces many great challenges but in the city at least things seem to be going in the right direction.
I’ve heard travellers say “there’s not much to do in Phnom Penh”, and if you are here for a couple of days it might seem that way. Aside from its bloody history, Phnom Penh has very few major tourist attractions. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the infamous Killing Fields on the edge of the city are probably the two “must do” things for tourists, and they don’t leave many visitors with a positive feeling about the city. But despite the lack of big tourist drawcards, Phnom Penh is easily one of the best places we have been in south-east Asia. Once you stop looking for the big “things to do”, and try to get a feel for the place, it easy to fall in love with it.
There are sunsets over the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, wide european boulevards and old french-colonial architecture, huge and bustling markets throughout the city. Hot days and monsoonal afternoon relief. Walking down one street will provide romantic indo-china charm, alarming poverty, modern development, friendly locals and cheeky tuk-tuk drivers. People work hard, but life seems slower here.
It seems to be the perfect place to spend a year or two living as expats. While only a few years ago there were very few bars and restaurants aimed at westerners, the city seems to be booming in this area as well. Food is cheap and the quality is very high. Whatever cuisine you are after – Cambodian, American, Thai, Indian, Australia, Lebanese, Japenese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, Spanish – you can find it in Phnom Penh. And the bar scene is just as healthy. Cocktails bars overlooking the river, local micro-breweries, upmarket wine bars, sprawling Karaoke beer-gardens full of boisterous locals, friday night drag shows, thumping nightclubs as well as the seedy hostess bars frequented by Phnom Penh’s many dodgy old white men. We are already compiling lists of our favourite places to take our friends who come and visit.
So after 6 months of travelling around south-east Asia, the ‘travel tales’ part of this blog will be put to rest for a while. Now our blog will focus on “Living in Phnom Penh” – what its like to be an expat in the ‘Pearl of Asia’. Lots of restaurant reviews, activity reviews, finding new and unusual things to do in Phnom Penh, tales of what its like to live here, how much things costs, what to do and what not to do. Hopefully it helps people who are coming to Phnom Penh to travel or work, and maybe it might just persuade someone to include this wonderful place on their next overseas adventure.
Working in Phnom Penh
Asha has found work at the Cambodian Children’s Fund – an immensely impressive organisation started by a former Fox film executive. I’m sure she will write a lot more about this, but if you are interested, here is the Australian Story episode about the organisation.
Ryan is still doing online work for clients back in Australia, but is hoping to transition into the workforce over here, and stop being a ‘kept man’.
A place to call a home in Phnom Penh
We found a brilliant apartment outside of the main part of town, near the well-known Russian Markets. Its a new apartment – with two bedrooms (so we can have visitors – yay) – and even though it has all the mod-cons of a apartment in Australia (a few more actually), living in this area feels a lot more like we are really living and working in Cambodia. Asha can even walk to work. It seems most westerners flock to the downtown suburb of BKK, but we are out of town a bit in the Phnom Penh suburbs. Our quite street fills with a big gang of local children at around 5pm, and the bike riding, football, running around, screaming, yelling, chasing and hugging begins.
Walking home past the kids in the late afternoon heat, after joining hundreds of Cambodian markets at the Russian Market to buy veggies for dinner, I know that we made the right decision coming here. Some things are going to be a challenge, but I feel really good about this.
If you want to know more about the challenges facing modern Cambodia, there is no better place to start than this New York Times article on the Prime Minister who has clung to power for more than 30 years, and who shows no signs of letting go.