Travel to Asia to Experience How the Other Side of the World Lives

It was our honeymoon trip to Southeast Asia that hooked us.

Two weeks traveling around Thailand melted the Massachusetts winter snow from our shoes, relaxed our work-stressed muscles and opened our eyes to a new way of living — one that focused more on a “What can I do for you?” approach instead of the “What can you do for me?” attitude we’d experienced for so long living in the western hemisphere.

Having been raised in the Persian Gulf and South Africa and having traveled extensively throughout my life, I was always open to experiencing change but I was not prepared for my husband to be so affected by this trip.

I’ll always remember the moment. Sitting on the bed in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai, my husband, Skip, turned to me and asked: “How would you feel about living here?”

From that point on, it went like this. In September 2009, we sold our house. In January, 2010, Skip quit his high profile (and high pressure) job to the great surprise and shock of his colleagues and friends. Over the next few months, we sold our cars, gave away most of our belongings and put the rest of our stuff into a storage unit.

And in June, we boarded a plane to Cambodia, with a one-way ticket to Phnom Penh.

We’re now volunteering at a couple of Cambodian NGOs, living in a lovely apartment and soaking up the experience of peeling back layer after layer of this fascinating country.

Since the trip to Thailand almost four years ago, Skip had made it his mission to find a way for us to return to Asia and, after months of research, came upon VIA (Volunteers In Asia) which places volunteers in various positions throughout the continent. While our first choice had been Thailand, VIA had other plans for us, and Cambodia became our destination. It was a country we knew very little about and had never visited before but we were open to the adventure.

It wasn’t easy for me at first. Skip slipped right into the experience while I became stuck in a very different state of mind. Phnom Penh was not what I’d expected. It was hot, dirty and smelly. The road from the airport to our guesthouse was crowded and filled with motos, tuktuks, cars and bicycles weaving in a senseless mess of disorder and chaos. There was nothing sophisticated, quaint or pretty. We saw a rat outside our guesthouse. Everything felt difficult, unpleasant and uncomfortable.

It also didn’t help that our organization had planned an outing for us the day after our arrival which took us to the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh. While still reeling and overwhelmed from landing in this alien spot, I found myself walking around in blistering 90 degree heat, surrounded by the devastating reminders of a country which had been torn apart and tortured in every way. But then something changed. I’m not sure if it was the presence of other people with similar experiences. Or discovering some of the gentler sides of life. Or meeting some of the delightful people who make up this country.

It was about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and, now, just a couple of months into the experience, Skip and I continue to be fascinated, amazed and impressed by this interesting country which we have made our home.

One thing that helped me to shift my perspective was going with a colleague to a cafe on a beautiful, leafy balcony where I settled back into the wicker couch and realized there actually were places that could be havens when the heat and dust became too much to handle.

But, funnily enough, it didn’t make me seek more expat havens. It gave me more of a perspective on the city and a realization that I had flown thousands of miles from home to learn about another culture, not one that I could get at home.

Bit by bit, I started to see through different eyes. I found delight in racing across town in a tuktuk observing orange-wrapped monks with umbrellas and multiple passengers piled onto motos with huge panes of glass, leafy trees or live chickens. I noticed the shimmering roof of the palace as we walked home at night. And I was no longer fearful about looking into the sidewalk food stalls selling unidentifiable dishes as we strolled across town.

Most of all, I found myself drawn to the people who must be among the most beautiful race in the world – both inside and out. Having been raised in this war-torn country – most of whom have lost family and friends during the Pol Pot regime – they are incredibly resilient, gentle and without self pity. Their smiles are enough to brighten my day and every doe-eyed child melts my heart when they wave and beam from the back of a moto or the side of the street.

As we started feeling more comfortable with the city, we found an apartment in a quiet part of town which, happily, possessed the unusual amenities of a bathtub and a stove (not normal in most apartments in Phnom Penh). And, bit by bit, we ventured farther and deeper into the streets of the city and the lives of the people.

While we were often in the company of our fellow volunteers, we also sought out local friends, one of whom appeared in the shape of our tuktuk driver, SomOn. A friendly and amicable soul, SomOn ferried us back and forth every day to language classes and Skip decided he wanted to invite him and his family to our home for dinner.

Sunday evening arrived and SomOn rolled up in his tuktuk, smartly dressed and escorting a wife, two adorable children and two of his sisters whom he’d decided should come along too. Thirty minutes later, SomOn’s brother came as well…and so did his brother’s friend! And as we scrambled to find additional plates and silverware, the women took over our kitchen and cooked more dishes to add to Skip’s chicken curry, then cleaned everything from top to bottom

It was a perfectly wonderful evening. SomOn and his family sat, beaming widely, unable to speak much English but saying volumes in their smiles and their gratitude.

It is experiences like those which are enriching our lives. Sure, it’s lovely to go to the upscale jazz lounge and sip martinis while nibbling on $1 tapas. It’s also nice to have dinner in the rooftop restaurant at the FCC (Foreign Correspondent’s Club) overlooking the river.

But Skip and I both agree we are more stimulated by the contact we have with the people who live here.

Like the night his cycling guide, Bontree, came to our house (with two friends in tow, of course) and they all ended up sitting on the living room floor with Lillian, the volunteer coordinator singing along as she played “If I Were A Boy” on the guitar.

Or the evening we went to karaoke with six of Skip’s office mates and they had no hesitation in singing loudly and tunelessly to the songs on the screen. We soon discovered that karaoke is very big here and very different to the karaoke we know in the west. Here, you rent a private room and have a couple of attractive hostesses dressed in sequined gowns pour drinks and bring fruit as you direct them to the song you would like to sing.

Living in Cambodia, we have found, tends to be an easier way of life than living in the west. At home, we’d sometimes make plans with friends several weeks in advance. Here, immediacy is the key and it’s not unusual to bump into someone (or meet a stranger) and have them invite you to their home that same evening.

It’s also so much cheaper to live and play here. Meals generally cost between $5 and $20 for two and the most we have paid for an incredible, gourmet dinner (without wine) was $52.

As far as living costs go, we’ve found everything to be cheaper than back home (with a possible exception of postage) and the food in most cases is tasty and varied – ranging from the ubiquitous Cambodian rice and noodle dishes to such interesting western dishes as Mint and Aubergine (eggplant) Burrito and Goat’s Cheese Sandwich with Pesto and Grilled Eggplant on Anadama Bread. There’s also more of a selection of luscious fruit drinks than anything I’ve ever seen including mango lassi, ginger presse, coconut, pineapple and banana smoothies, papaya, watermelon and carrot fresh juices. And, in contrast, you’ll also see such delicacies on offer as goat, tarantula, fried bowel and “cavorted rooster” (we’ve still to learn what that is!)

It’s a way of life that is worlds away from that which we’re used to and, while there are bumps along the way, there are more things that make me grateful for pulling up roots and planting them here.

To get up in the morning, jump into SomOn’s tuktuk and weave across town to work. To visit the Russian Market with ream upon ream of shimmering silk, bootlegged DVDs and carved wooden Buddha statues. To hear the eggman and the breadman walk past our apartment chanting their wares every day. To watch hundreds of peoples’ nightly exercise regime at the Olympic stadium where anyone can teach an aerobics class if they have a big set of speakers and a pair of sneakers. To see black clouds roll across the sky and run for cover as the heavens open and torrents of water drown everything in sight.

It’s these things and many more which make me happy I’m here.