After stumbling into Cambodia 15 years ago, long-term expat Horace has made the country his home. Marissa Carruthers talks to him about the highs and the lows and how Cambodia has changed over the years.
“I much preferred the Cambodia of old than the Cambodia of now,” Horace says with a smile as he reminisces over the grittier days when there were less Westerners, fewer luxuries and much more of the crazy chaos that had him instantly hooked when he first crossed the border from Thailand in 1998. “Cambodia has lost its charm and its edge. It’s not as interesting as it was back then. It used to be so exciting.”
It was by chance that the 46-year-old Londoner set foot on Cambodian soil. Set for Australia for a friend’s wedding, Horace decided to explore South East Asia on his way.
Unimpressed by Thailand, he headed for Cambodia and as soon as he passed the border he fell in love. “The moment I crossed the border at Poipet and saw a huge lorry, and I mean absolutely huge, loaded with second-hand clothing I knew I’d love the place. There was something about the chaos of Poipet that I liked and thought ‘this is right up my street’. I never made it to the wedding.”
Armed with a supply of drugs, Horace headed straight for Siem Reap and spent his first month in the country taking a more hedonistic approach to exploring the temples. “I crossed the border with a load of drugs and spent the first month at Angkor Wat,” he said. “I visited one temple a day just doing acid and partying.”
After four weeks, Horace went to Phnom Penh to extend his visa and carried on to Sihanoukville, where he was offered a job teaching English – a profession he remains in today. “There were only about 30 expats in the whole area back then. Everyone knew everyone and you would walk into a bar and see the same faces.”
After a two-year stint in Sihanoukville, Horace made his way to Phnom Penh with plans to visit the friend in Australia whose wedding he had missed. “I was making my way to Australia again because my friend had had a child. I never made it out of Phnom Penh.”
Since then, he’s been back to England three times and said there’s not much he misses about home – a place he has no plans on returning to long-term. “It seems to be at about five years that people realise they can’t go back home. This can send some people a bit crazy but most of them come round and accept it.”
For Horace, the biggest changes he has seen have been the rise of fashion, the roads and the infiltration of Western commodities catering for the rising number of expats. “There was no fashion back then. There were no girls wearing those t-shirts with the slogans on, all they wore was their school uniforms and that was it. The roads now are nice and have been Tarmaced. There was a time when you had to drive down Street 51 on the pavement because the road was so bad with potholes that you couldn’t get on there. There were a lot of roads you couldn’t drive down.
“I remember when they first introduced those traffic lights that count down and have arrows. No one knew what to do, everyone just sat at the traffic lights watching them. It was absolute bedlam, it was beautiful. Phnom Penh now has too many Westerners. Back then there was no Western food available in the supermarkets and there were no Western restaurants. Now there are too many.”
While Phnom Penh and other urban areas have seen huge changes in infrastructure, sanitation and development, Horace said progression in the countryside has been much slower. “I cycle in the countryside every day and that hasn’t changed as much but it’s changing. They now have roads, electricity and toilets. This is progress and it’s good.”
Another change Horace has noticed is the shift in the range of expats choosing Cambodia as their new home. “There seems to be a lot more accountant types moving here these days who all learn to speak Khmer very quickly. Why would anyone want to speak Khmer? It’s a stupid language and makes no sense. If people can speak it it’s only because they’re married to a Khmer woman or because they think it’s trendy. There’s no need to speak Khmer in Cambodia and they would rather speak English with you anyway. As an English teacher that means we’ve done our job. Now the middle-class can speak English. Mission accomplished.”
For the moment Horace plans on staying in Cambodia before exploring the world on his bike. “ I’m planning on moving when I’m 50. I’m going to travel the world on my bike. Maybe spend a year around Cambodia then do South East Asia. I might even make it to Australia.”