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Letter from cambodia


The Cambodian government recently announced that arrivals at the country’s two international airports (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) have returned to 2008 levels. Arrivals at Phnom Penh have already surpassed pre-recession levels, and authorities expect Siem Reap arrivals to pass previous levels by year-end. Guest houses and many hotels are full, with most visitors coming from Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.
The local economy is growing at a respectable clip, and while there are very real and very obvious problems in the country – high levels of poverty, corruption, and disturbing numbers of sexual crimes – things are definitely looking up compared to the past 3 years.
I recently received emails from two Trader readers, both asking very similar questions: We have lived in Thailand for several years, they wrote, and think it may be time to move on. How is life in Cambodia for a foreigner?
letter from cambodiaAlthough not a large country by any measure, Cambodia is best understood by separating the major tourist/expat areas – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville – from the rest of the country, which is still largely rural and by and large, not appropriate for expat living, with substantial language and cultural barriers.
Each of the three major expat destinations above is also quite different from each other. Phnom Penh is by far the largest city in Cambodia,  and, as such, offers many more amenities than do the others – shopping, museums, cinemas, night life, etc. That said, Phnom Penh is, for the expat living there, Bangkok without the charm.
Sihanoukville is the major seaside destination, with several very nice beaches, good fresh seafood, and a somewhat raunchier nightlife. Street crime is more common in Sihanoukville than we find in Siem Reap, probably because it is less densely populated and more spread out , offering more opportunities, particularly, for young men on motorbikes who do drive-by purse-snatching, camera bag grabs, and the like.
Siem Reap is, to my mind, the most appealing of the three for expat living, a town, really, but with many hotels and restaurants, some shopping, several bars, and of course the world-famous Angkor temples. Many families visit Siem Reap, and authorities here insist that sites offering shall-we-say, adult entertainment, while certainly available, remain out-of-sight and discreet.
For farang (we are called barang here) with experience living in Thailand, the first important issue will be resident visas. As to that, with a tip-of-the-hat to friends from OZ – no worries, mates. A tourist visa costs US$20 for a month, and may be renewed only once. However, a business visa (which permits but does not require ownership of a business) costs just $25/month and may be renewed for up to a year at a time, no questions asked.
Land ownership by foreigners is not permitted in Cambodia, but single rooms, apartments, and houses may be leased for as long as is mutually agreeable to landlord and tenant. Rents run from about US$50 a month for a single room to about $500 for a 3-4 bedroom house in a nice neighbor-hood.
Street crime is more-or-less nonexistent, with the notable exception of some quite aggressive katoys who work the streets late at night. I have heard of burglaries of foreign residences, and I trust the sources of those reports, but I do not actually know anyone who was burglarized. Certainly my wife and I have never felt any concerns about personal safety in the year since we moved here.
We get cable TV from Thailand, for which I pay $5/month. My son tells me that his landlord offers it for $2. Since it seems that the cable providers here don’t actually pay for the service, the cost is in any case minimal.
The police we have dealt with have been friendly and reasonable in their requests for support. Business licenses are readily available, and vary in cost depending on location. I have heard prices of as low as $50 for a license in Sihanoukville; we paid $300 for our license in the tourist area of Siem Reap. Licenses for tour companies are very high, reflecting the reality that those are the money-makers here.
There are cinemas in Phnom Penh, and I think there is one in Sihanoukville but none in Siem Reap. DVD (pirate) stores are everywhere. 
Shopping requires a bit more planning here than it did in Pattaya, and I know some expats here who regularly cross the border for that purpose, but we have been able to find anything that we needed here, either in stock or available for order from Phnom Penh or at worst, from China. Certainly an expat living in PP would have no need for concern about shopping.
There is terrible poverty here, and some of it intrudes on expat living; the occasional beggar, the many, many landmine victims (most of whom work notwithstanding their disabilities); and the very basic life in the rural countryside – all are evident and in stark contrast to our comfortable lives.
Both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh have modern medical facilities managed by the Bangkok Hospital, not as plentiful or as reasonably priced as is found in Thailand but much, much better than the situation that existed here before they opened.
The political system is topped by a king who reigns but does not rule, with power in the hands of one party (the Cambodia People’s Party) which is regularly re-elected with minimal opposition.
I mentioned corruption above, and it is very real for poor Khmers (all land titles were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, so land-grabbing by the wealthy and connected can and does happen) and for foreigners wanting to do big business here. For our small restaurant, it is a non-factor.
The cost of living for expats is a bit lower here than in Thailand or the Philippines. Housing seems a bit higher, food costs are lower. Electricity is bought from China and Vietnam, and reflects world prices. We don’t drink water from the tap. The US$ is the de facto currency for expats living here. ATMs dispense US$, and the local currency – the riel – is used mainly in place of coins.
In sum, we like it here and plan to stay.