Cambodia, The Kingdom of Wonder, stirred up a lot of wonder from friends when Marissa Carruthers announced she was moving there three weeks ago. Now she explains to K440 how she ended up living in this land of opportunity.
You’d be forgiven for thinking I was moving to a remote tribal village in the deepest depths of Africa judging by the reaction I received when I revealed I was leaving behind my settled life in Blighty for Cambodia.
“Is it safe?” “Will you live in a shack?” “Who will you be friends with?” These were just a handful of the questions fired at me – and pretty much every other expat I’ve spoken to – by concerned friends ahead of my departure.
It turns out not many people know much about Cambodia, and what little they do is misguided, out-of-date and quite simply so off the map that if they were flying the plane I arrived on, I’d have been dropped off somewhere in the middle of bloody Timbuktu.
To them, Cambodia conjures up images of poverty, war, injustice; it’s bursting to the seams with sleaze, sex, wasters, dirty old men, lost backpackers who still haven’t managed to make their way home decades later so it’s little wonder they were concerned.
To be fair, if someone had asked me about the country 18 months ago I would have looked at the floor and muttered something about Angkor Wat, Pol Pot and The Killing Fields being a good film – oh yeah, did I mention David Puttnam was my university chancellor – before changing the conversation because I really didn’t know much.
It wasn’t a country I’d ever encountered. It wasn’t a country that even ranked too highly on my list of must-see places, and it was only down to destiny that I ended up here. My husband and I had booked flights for our honeymoon to Thailand. I’d never been and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
It turns out the fuss evaporated years ago and we heard horror story after horror story about the dreaded tourist lurgy trashing Thailand’s magical allure. With non-refundable flights to Bangkok booked, a couple of friends begged us to bag our Thailand plans and hop over to neighbouring Cambodia instead.
Reeled in by their enthusiasm, tales of an unrivalled gentle and warm nature, food that sends your tastebuds into the wildest of frenzies, warm weather and the chance to explore the alleged eighth Wonder of the World (depending on which website you’re on), Angkor Wat, we decided to give it a go.
Being one of those who didn’t know, I didn’t expect much. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in India where I’ve seen people living in squalor like never before, where poverty hides itself in every single nook and cranny and there’s no escaping it, and I expected Cambodia to be worse. Much worse.
What I didn’t expect was every street of Cambodia’s vibrant capital to be lined with quirky boutiques, restaurants serving up not only sumptuous Khmer cuisine but foods from across the globe: Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Indian, Korean, Spanish, Moroccan, the list goes on.
I didn’t expect to be able to watch the sun set over-looking the Tonle Sap from the rooftop terrace of one of many classy cocktail bars –why didn’t I pack those heels? – I didn’t expect to be able to get free Wifi in pretty much every single shop, restaurant or bar I ventured into.
I didn’t expect there to be trendy Khmers sporting the latest designs; I didn’t expect to meet life-long friends in some of the Khmers I met. I didn’t expect it to be, well, so normal; somewhere I could actually see myself living. I certainly didn’t expect to fall head-over-heels in love with Cambodia.
With the seed planted, I returned to grey and gloomy England and launched Operation Move. With concerns about having to give up my treasured friends to hang out with dirty old man echoing in my head, I very quickly discovered a new breed of expats have settled in the city.
There are young professionals who aren’t just here because they’re escaping some form of scandal back home, there’s musicians, film-makers, journalists, lawyers, businessmen, teachers galore, and there’s a wealth of people doing some pretty shit-hot stuff.
Then there’s the cost of living; the quality of life. I was tired of working long hours in an extremely high-pressured environment and getting very little reward. The years of pay-freezes were rapidly racking up and the constant rounds of redundancies were gnawing away at everyone’s morale.
I was sick of spiralling prices, of spending what little I earned on the mortgage and bills and not much else, of hearing about the credit crunch, economic crisis, double-dip recession, I mean, Jesus, talk about depressing. I was sick of never seeing the sun, of every day merging into one.
It wasn’t much of a decision really. So destiny dealt her hand and she won; here I am, in Cambodia living a life I could ever only have dreamed of back home. The sun shines, people smile, the cost of living is damn low and every day is definitely a new adventure.
Photo by Darren Wilch
More of Darren’s photography can be found on his facebook page.