I came to Cambodia in September or early October of 2006, but thought it was just a stopover on my way to Thailand. I made the obligatory trip to Angkor Wat. I loved it, but was stunned by the numbers of tourists and the Disneyland-style entrance.
I returned to Phnom Penh with plans to take a bus to Thailand. I bought a pirate edition of the Lonely Planet guide to SE Asia from a hawker at a riverside cafe in Phnom Penh and looked up Sihanoukville. The writer didn’t have much good to say about it, so I decided to check it out. Little did I know it would soon become my home.
I liked Sihanoukville. At that time of the year it was quiet. I found a nice guesthouse with a pool near Ochheuteal Beach and took a walk to the beach after lunch. I thought I was going to see a bunch of hippies smoking weed because that was what Lonely Planet told me I’d see. Instead, I saw monks having a day off at the beach.
I didn’t want to take a tuk tuk to explore the city, so I rented a motorbike. That was a good call. I’d read about all the thefts in Sihanoukville, so was a little paranoid when I went for a swim on an empty beach. My motorbike was there after my swim even though a couple of motorbikes with three young men rode up to watch me swim in the balmy water. I decided to take Lonely Planet with a grain of salt after that.
Then I met Sopheak. I tried to leave once. I went overland to southern Laos. It was beautiful there. It was a bit of an adventure. I changed cars about three times because there were no ferries for cars, but the man who organized my journey for me did a brilliant job. There was always a car waiting for me on the other side of the river. When I crossed the border, I was stunned. The Cambodian side had been cleared for grazing or (I think) rubber plantations. On the Laos side, it was all jungle and the road was a rutted dirt road. You can read about it in my Deforestation in Cambodia blog.
My plan was to travel through Laos and then move on to northern Thailand, but I decided I didn’t want to be a sightseer. I returned to Phnom Penh just in time for the Water Festival. I called Sopheak and invited her and her family to come to the festival with me. That sealed my fate. I went back to Australia a few weeks later and returned on January 10, 2007. I had no idea I’d stay 10 years, but fate arranged things so I couldn’t return to Australia.
Before I left, I took Sopheak to Kampot and we went up to the top of Bokor Mountain. Back then it was a bit of an adventure. There was only a dirt road and only 4-wheel drives could get up it. Occasionally there was an accident. Fortunately, this wasn’t the car we traveled in.
On the way home, we stopped in Khmeng Wat, the village where Sopheak’s family lived. This was their house.
Then it was time to go back to Australia and get my affairs in order. When I returned, Sopheak threw a birthday party for me at the hotel where we stayed. Since we didn’t know anyone, she invited the hotel guests to come. They were happy to sponge free food and beer off of us and we had a great party.
10 Years in Cambodia
Then it was time to get serious. I wanted to buy land and build a house. After looking at a land, we finally agreed on a long, narrow block of land on a cul de sac near downtown Sihanoukville. I chose it partly because a couple of neighbors spoke English. Then work began on our house. There were no cement pumps in Sihanoukville then, so we hired a bucket brigade to pour our second-storey slab.
We finished half the house in 2007 and managed to squeeze a trip to Svay Rieng in while we were building. It was the dry season then, but it was still beautiful and quiet. Sopheak’s family came from a tiny village in that province. We were surrounded by rice fields, but they were dry. When we returned the following year, everyone was planting rice.
I may have made a fatal mistake in 2007. Our next door neighbor was devastated because he was losing his job as director of a little NGO. He wanted to start a new one for the people on the Sihanoukville dumpsite. We agreed to help him and I became the secretary of his little NGO. We got enough donations to pay his salary and get a doctor to visit the villagers occasionally. Sokha wanted to start a business and one donor gave us enough money to go to Siem Reap and learn how to make paper from scraps.
Our NGO logo
It sounded like a good idea, but it never got off the ground. I got so wrapped up in the NGO, I barely noticed I was running out of money. Just when things were getting critical, one of our supporters rented a home for the children, sent them to school and fed them. It was time for me to think about our future, but one good memory remains. I learned that the dumpsite residents were like the rest of us. They were a village in the true sense of the word. True, the conditions were terrible, but they made the most of what they had.
I loved rural Cambodia and we went to rural locations whenever we got the chance. We had a car in 2008, so we could indulge. We also got married in 2008. Between that and finishing the house, my money was getting seriously low. I was still imagining I could get a job teaching English. I had a great recommendation and there were a few English schools in Sihanoukville. I never bothered to find out about the pay rate, though. I never got a job, but learned from a friend that they paid $3 per hour. Fortunately, the same friend had returned to the United States where he got a job for an SEO company.
Setting up our wedding party
In 2009, I ran out of money and we had to sell our car just to survive. Luckily, I got an online job through my friend that paid $10 an hour. That didn’t last long, but I discovered freelance writing. The first couple of years were hard, but I’m doing alright now.
Running out of money wasn’t as tragic as it may sound. I was freaking out, but Sopheak told me, “I never have loi (money) before, not dead.” She was right. We found ways to get by, some of them fairly miraculous. She started playing the lottery behind my back. She used her dreams to help her choose numbers and won far more often than chance accounted for. That’s just a taste of the “magic” I’ve seen in Cambodia. I just finished a book that was published in 1997, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, that recounts many similar stories. It was a great find because I was a little afraid no one would believe the stories I tell in my book.
By 2011 things were going more smoothly. I had steady work and a routine. Things would change over the years, but I’ve never regretted a minute of my time in Cambodia. I love it here. I can’t quite put my finger on why I love it so much. It’s not always easy, but it’s always real and the challenges keep me going.
I wanted to celebrate my 10 year anniversary with something special, but fate had other plans for me. Sopheak started a bar/restaurant her employer set up for her. She was going to throw me a big party, but I had an ache in my side that got worse on my birthday (the 9th). We went to the doctor, who told me I had appendicitis. He recommended Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital in Kampot, so Sopheak drove me there in her boss’s car. On the 10th, I celebrated my 10th anniversary by getting my appendix removed.
In a funny way, it was perfect. After 10 years and a changed relationship, I learned the relationship we have is still solid. What happens next, I don’t know, but I do know one thing. I’ll never regret moving to Cambodia. It’s been a wild ride, but an exciting one. What more can you ask for?