Surviving, nay, thriving in small town Cambodia

Whilst expats proudly let slip how long they’ve been living in Cambodia, they most likely mean the capital city, and there’s a whole country out there, not just to be explored on away breaks or pointed to on maps and wondered about, but realistic options to park yourself and call home.

The back cover of Ray Zepp’s first travel guide has this enticing line: ‘Cambodia – only 10 minutes from Phnom Penh!’ It’s as true now as a decade ago, perhaps more apt these days given the ongoing changes in architecture, retail, hair colour, traffic flow, popular culture and drug crime. The skewed economies from heavy tourism in Siem Reap and elusive tourism in Sihanoukville mean these two towns could perhaps fit the Zepp quote too. Living outside these three white man’s havens offers quite a different experience, undoubtedly more Khmer, some might argue in consequence more ‘real.’

A ten-minute sprint in any direction from PP won’t get you far, but a quick visit will turn up minor gems of the subtle charm of everyday Cambodian life. Nonetheless, taking up residence there would inevitably result in some variation of the commuter lifestyle, though across the Japanese Bridge people find a different pace of life in Chhroy Chung Va and further out on Mekong Island and around.

Escaping the clutches of the big city is however surely a big part of the draw of living in the provinces. This here piece is not to point out the pros and cons of being based in Phnom Penh, nor for that matter Siem Reap or Kompong Som; you can work them out for yourself, and have probably mulled them over especially when the big holidays come around or the times city life Khmer style begins to grate or the latest bender has unarguably begun to go sour.

Unless you set up camp in the woods or move in with the in-laws and go feral in some godforsaken part of the badlands of Prey Veng or Svay Rieng, you’re not going to be that far away from it all, and besides, it’s not like you’d be giving up proper affordable broadband, cinemas, fantastic medical or educational facilities, a booming music scene or Tesco Metro by leaving the city behind. The cheese selection is indeed likely to be more limited in a provincial town, dining options fewer and all-night drinking will be with close friends or for solo drunkards, but what you leave behind can be appreciated all the more when necessity calls you back to some service obtainable only in the big smoke.

Cambodia isn’t a huge country and some may say not that varied either physically or culturally, though it would be daft to simply up sticks and relocate anywhere or pick the name of a provincial town out of a hat. Spend any considerable time in the towns of, say, Kompong Thom or Sisophon and you may indeed regret it. Poipet is surely the asshole of the Kingdom, but I know a guy who spent a year there and swears he thoroughly enjoyed it (and came through it no madder than before). Kratie and Stung Treng have their proponents and a definite out of the way feel, but Kompong Cham further downstream did little for me; decent folk but lacking any real edge or pulse.

The same can’t be said for Battambang, it’s sense of individual identity being boosted by its isolation from other parts initially by war then in peacetime by the appalling road (finally fixed in 2003 and in superb condition). It’s a sizable place with a vibrant yet cruisy feel, super friendly people, shady side streets and more open roads with plenty of big colonial buildings (inducing the odd daydream of some rundown town near the Med) and a pleasant riverside area to take a stroll then stop for a few beers. There’s a wide variety of properties for rent, plenty of eating options and really decent fare to be had if you go local, a proper watering hole in the Balcony Bar and a couple of commendable western comfort food places too.

Mind you, Battambang does get stinking hot, the thermometer creeping ever higher until the breeze from a fan becomes rather like the fierce blast when you open the oven door to check on your hash brownies. The same can be said of any settlement on the plains of Cambodia and even the northeast can get damn hot in the parched months. A waterfront property helps, but so many rivers become a trickle compared with their monsoon levels and it may be a fair hike down steep banks to get to the wet stuff, so that in the season you need it most much of the cooling effect has vanished.

You could reach for the remote control and rack up a monster electricity bill, or head to the coast. Sea breezes and the temperature regulating effect of all that water mean that despite the weather forecast listing Koh Kong, Snooky or Kampot as a mere degree or two lower than pretty much everywhere else, it’s the ‘wind chill’ that takes the edge off it, lessens the giddying sensation of April and May heat and makes life much more pleasant, not just for the hot season but year round. Kompong Som is an odd place, a new town where even the locals are outsiders, historically avoided by the Chinese for its suspect feng shui or bad vibe (seemingly most prominent when it continues raining for half the year), and together with all those bars and what-not, it’s not really in the frame as far as provincial living goes (and the title ‘Krong’ Preah Sihanouk does indeed designate it as a city).

Koh Kong and Kampot (and to some extent the rather smaller port town of Sre Ambel) though boast even better climates with their tidal rivers constantly wide and green hills all around helping to keep things bearable, and like in any Cambodian town you?ll find it far more likely to engage with the natives and as such easier to pick up the language, observe the way people go about things, learn there is edible food to be had. In fact it’s hard to avoid contact with Khmers and impossible to live the secluded existence of western-oriented supermarkets, pubs, restaurants, girly bars and/or St 240.

Rents are cheaper, putting a two-storey colonial shophouse, a traditional wooden house or even a walled villa with gardens within budget, though utilities cost more than the capital. Ah, money, bills? Making ends meet in the provinces means either an income that allows working from any location, a tidy sum stashed away, an NGO salary or stumbling across rare antiquities or magic beanstalks. Well-paid teaching jobs and private enterprise are less likely options, though some decent operations do good trade in the service industry, but you’d better do your homework.

The quieter lifestyle in the provinces means you’ll spend less time and money getting messed up, leaving you with far more time to actually do something, and it’s amazing how many hours in the day become available and how much gets done (though not by itself of course), particularly if you ‘convert’ to rising with the sun, enjoying a short siesta to reinvigorate for the afternoon shift. Even devout night owls can make the switch, even a real Arizona cowboy like myself. The poor liver may get a sabbatical and soon feel born again, and you might also find you eat better by cooking more often not to mention eating more regularly.

Some choose small town life to smoke vast quantities of dope (try Koh Kong for this), while others might benefit from a more peaceful existence to write that book, or to kick an addiction, learn advanced yogic breathing, get away from the hedonism of Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville or just to try something else. It certainly may not suit your diehard city dweller or sexpat, but many find they not merely survive but begin to really thrive living in the provinces.

Jack Stevens

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