Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (1)

Posted on by Andy Ahmed


I’ve lived in Cambodia for seven years now. I’m settled here – I have a good wife, good job, property and prospects. And yet, as with many expats living in fairly fortunate circumstances, I’m aware that I sometimes see my current home through tired, cynical and jaded eyes.

It wasn’t always like that; when I first arrived in 2005 I was wide-eyed, naïve, optimistic and full of positive curiosity and wonder for the country that subsequently came to be officially known as The Kingdom of Wonder.

My memoirs record how I slowly found my feet – and slowly found love (or it found me) in this land.

On the surface the country and the capital city have changed considerably since those days, but at a deeper level it has hardly changed at all; therefore, much of what I wrote is still eerily familiar. I am aware that a fair number of readers of these articles are people who have never visited Cambodia and considering a long-term visit or even permanent relocation, but are undecided whether or not it would be a wise move.

Maybe my experiences will give some of them something to think about. Furthermore, it’s possible that my recollections might trigger some fond nostalgic memories in fellow grizzled long-timers like me.

First, a little context: what on Earth was I doing in Cambodia anyway? There are a whole range of motives that bring outsiders to Cambodia; these are mine.

I’d had a long and distinguished career teaching in England when, after years of growing unease with the way I perceived Western society and in particular the education system to be going, I decided in 2001 to abandon the rat race. I gave away all my possessions, sold my house and entered a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland.

Twelve months later I felt ready to make a bigger move so I took myself off to Kathmandu. There I used the savings from my house sale to build and run a school for a hundred street children. It was the most rewarding time of my life.

Alas, after two years of success, the local guy I had to appoint as director for legal reasons duped me and took over the school (and overseas donations) when I had to leave the country due to my visa expiring. I spent some time in India before I could return to Nepal, and when I did it was fait accompli so I had to move on.

I was looking for an experience as similar as possible to Nepal and Cambodia was on my radar. In those days the internet barely existed in Kathmandu and so I could do only extremely limited research. I found myself learning about baby-selling orphanage scams and paedophiles which gave me the impression that going to Cambodia to work with vulnerable children without a supporting organisation would be too risky, so when I got an offer from Thailand I figured it would be a good vantage point to examine Cambodia more closely.

That was how I spent eight months in north-east Thailand working in a voluntary capacity as head of the English faculty in an international college. The purpose of the college was to take poor local school-leavers and give them a free education that would enable them to apply to universities in Bangkok. This was my first experience of education in south-east Asia, and it shocked me.

Given that during my stint in Nepal a civil war was raging, I rarely saw fellow foreign volunteers, and the few I did meet were good-hearted idealistic people. What I found in this college was that the foreign volunteers fell into two camps – the teachers and the administrators. The teachers were worthy sorts, there to give something of themselves to poor Thai youth. The administrators were there to build lucrative careers whilst lining their pockets by devising side-schemes when they were supposed to be raising funds for the college.

I honestly had never realised that voluntary NGO personnel could operate in such a way. In what was to become a recurring pattern, it pained me to leave the students who were wonderful, but I couldn’t stomach the attitudes and behaviour of the management.

The little town where I was based was acquiring a global reputation for being an ideal place for Western men to retire to, and increasing numbers were arriving with their Thai wives whom they found further south. It was an ideal life for many, but not for me.

What my experiences in war-torn Nepal had shown me was that I wasn’t born for heaven; hell is where I need to be, and impoverished rural Thailand was too comfortable for me. By the time I’d fulfilled my contract I’d done enough research on Cambodia (including lurking on K440) to consider it the right move.

By this time, having worked in voluntary capacities and sunk all my savings into schemes for over three years, my reserves had dried up and I realised that I wouldn’t be able to dedicate myself full-time to worthy activities and that I’d need to seek a job.

And thus it was that I first arrived in Cambodia with my worldly possessions in one bag, a desperately depleted bank account and worthy ideals at least half intact.

I’d started a journal when I first left Britain and had kept it going all those years. There are volumes of it; I shall just share a few brief cherry-picked extracts concerning my early months in Phnom Penh, starting with my next article.

Andy Ahmed

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9 Responses to Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (1)

  1. ribblerat says:

    Looking forward to the next instalment Andy , good stuff !

  2. Jay says:

    Nice read, but nothing really noteworthy. Isn’t it the typical story of someone who is going through a midlife crisis, packs up and heads for distant shores? The writer must have been 40 or so when he left the UK. Apparently he was pretty much unattached which makes it a lot easier to just up and leave. I just don’t understand how one can be in a rat race teaching philosophy/religion. There must be a darker side to the story too, now mustn’t it?

  3. Gerard says:

    Quote: “I’m aware that I sometimes see my current home through tired, cynical and jaded eyes. Maybe my experiences will give some of them something to think about”.

    These comments kept me reading but disappointingly now have to ‘tune into’ the next article!

    Nevertheless, an interesting read.

  4. andyinasia says:

    “I just don’t understand how one can be in a rat race teaching philosophy/religion”. I don’t understand that – can you explain? I ‘left the rat race’ in 2001 and arrived in Cambodia in 2005. For the purposes of this website, I’m only covering my early days in Cambodia. It’s a short series of memoirs, not an autobiography! The ‘darker side’ in 2001 amounts to divorce/pain/finding inner strength in a monastery/relocating to Nepal. But that’s a whole other story!

    • Jay says:

      Maybe I am ill-informed, but I don’t associate ‘rat race’ with the ‘struggles’ of a university professor. In the corporate world, my world in my younger years, 60% of the time is spent fighting off the backstabbing attempts of people eyeing your desk, 40% is actual work. So one scurries like a rat to be better and the first at everything; it’s so nicely called a ‘competitive’ work environment – not to mention the struggle of all regular people trying to make ends meet all the while fearing that their job might fall victim to downsizing.

  5. Shizzle says:

    Always a pleasure to read your stories, Andy – and I am very much looking forward to the next installment.

  6. Bren says:

    This is just an echo, but I am also looking forward to reading more.

  7. Sateev says:

    Interesting that you were sucked into “the Great Man’s” “International College”, as was I, and dozens of others over the years, in that quaint Northeastern Thai city. Didn’t take long to figure what the deal was there, and the revolving door of idealism in, cynicism out.

    See you in PP.

  8. Phil says:

    “the local guy I had to appoint as director duped me and took over the school (and overseas donations) .. before I could return to Nepal, and when I did it was fait accompli so I had to move on.

    I was looking for an experience as similar as possible to Nepal” — that’s rather baffling ;)

    “and Cambodia was on my radar” — good call, I guess..

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