I mentioned earlier that I moved to Phnom Penh in June. It’s now August and I’m beginning to understand what it is to be an expat or ‘a person who lives outside their native country’.
Having been to Cambodia three times before, I thought most of my ‘firsts’ were already out of the way. First whiff of a durian fruit, first near flattening by a rogue moto, first food poisoning. What I didn’t anticipate was how wrong I could be. First whiff of an amok curry that I actually cooked myself, first falling off the back of a moto (going very slowly, Mum), first food poisoning that landed me in hospital. These new firsts, especially the ones involving hospital trips, have been easy to adjust to thanks to the support network I’ve been lucky enough to land into.
Coincidentally enough, an old friend from high school planned to come over and volunteer at around the same time as me, and we’ve ended up living in the same apartment on a street where most of the NGO volunteers are living. Our place is your average Khmer style multi-level apartment, with tiles on the walls and beautiful baby pink finishes wherever you can find a spot to put a finish aka everywhere. Our balcony is shared with our neighbours and our plumbing seems to be shared with all of Phnom Penh, but it is home and it is perfect.
Everyone’s experience is different but I’ve found my support network to be the key difference between feeling like a tourist and feeling like an expat. There’s volunteers living here from different countries, different lifestyles, of different ages and for different lengths of time. There’s a family with four kids under 11 who get from A – B on two motos and a French architect student who has to speak a third language to get by. When I want to know which veggie vendor in the market won’t rip me off I ask my friend who loves cooking, when I need to learn how to ask for no meat in my food I ask our interpreter. When I need some air for my bicycle tyres I copy my Khmer friend. Having some of the guess work taken out by those who’ve come before me has made the transition into expat life much less bumpy than it would have been on my lonesome, and I can only hope to try to pass on that wisdom to whomever may need it. Even if that wisdom only comes in the form of my expat faux pas.
Faux pas no. 1
Don’t get the local market noodles. Just don’t.
I don’t want to point fingers, but okay yes I do it was at Psar Toul Tom Poung aka Russian Market. Some of our expat volunteers swear by a good market feed but I must’ve hit the food poisoning jackpot. One hospital trip to stop my two-minute-intermittent vomiting, and one insurance claim later, it was probably the worst $101 dollar lunch I’ve ever had ($1 for the noodles, $100 for my insurance excess).
Side note: Can’t recommend SOS Hospital Phnom Penh enough. It’s not for your average flu, with my food poisoning treatment setting me back $488 US ($633 AU) before I made my insurance claim. But it was worth the peace of mind for a clean, comfortable private room while I was bent over a bucket with a drip in my arm and an injection in my butt.
Faux pas no. 2
Learn your English translations from a Khmer local. Not Google.
Sorry Google, some of your advice is great but I spent my first week walking around asking for ‘no crops’ in my food instead of ‘no nuts’. Also make sure it’s a Khmer local you trust, as there’s nothing they enjoy more than watching you say ‘I’m an idiot’ instead of ‘nice to meet you’.
Faux pas no. 3
Bring that foreign cash! I kind of already knew this, since you get a way better rate exchanging cash at a local money stand than you’ll get with an Aussie bank, Cambodian bank or ATM. But now I realize the difference in paying my rent online at whatever rate the bank gives me, as apposed to paying in cash with the 3c better rate I exchange my money at. Sure the difference is only about $7 per rent payment, but I have found a food stall that sells me garlic veggies and rice for 25c so I’ll take those savings in the form of 28 meals thank you very much.
I’ve committed many more faux pas and I’m sure there will be many more, these are just a start. This time 2 months ago I wouldn’t have had a clue about them, so store them in your memory bank for later use if you so desire. In the mean time I will keep compiling my list of expat firsts to expand on later, as I feel ice skating in Cambodia on a 35 Celsius day is something the world needs to know about.
Until then, I’ll see you on the road! (Still has a more Russel Coight than chic blogger feel to it…)