Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (1)May 20, 2012
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.