Life in Cambodia With Michael Carter

Michael CarterOur readership demanded we get Carter and we have. In Ed Gagnon’s second interview with Michael Carter, he invited us to feel free to ask follow-up questions. After getting to know Michael through his adventures and writing, here they are. 

You first moved to Cambodia from Canada, what has changed in the country since then?”

I arrived here for the first time in 2000 and used it as a travel base for Southeast Asia for five years. Then I left for two years before returning in 2007. I will base my response on my first arrival.

While much of the countryside and provincial towns in Cambodia remain quaint, capital Phnom Penh has changed from being dark and backward to like any other major Asian city. In other words, it has lost much of its charm and there are now issues with traffic, air quality, and eyesore development. On the upside, we have a wonderful international restaurant scene (although it has been under strain because of COVID).

How long did it take you to acclimatize and what do you recommend to other expats who are just moving abroad?”

I guess they aren’t expats until they move here, but for me, this part of Asia is one of the easiest places to relocate. By the time I had reached Cambodia, I was relatively well-travelled. There really were no surprises.

But for a less experienced traveller, I would suggest doing a bit of research… but not too much. You don’t want to form images and expectations in your head which simply might not exist. The best advice is to just go for it. If you are looking to work and don’t know anyone — head straight to a bar. Many expats like to go somewhere to converse fluently with someone who speaks their same native tongue. Take their words with a grain of salt, but at least it is a start.

On a scale of 1-10, how fluent are you in the Khmer language?”

This one is embarrassing for the amount of time I’ve spent here. If I am honest, I would have to say 3.5 or perhaps 4. My partner is Khmer and we have our own lingua franca which bastardizes both English and Khmer.

If you order one food in a local restaurant, what should it be and why?”

In general, I find Cambodian food bland. Although this doesn’t have to be the case if preparing it yourself or someone else is preparing it for you who will follow your requests. Most local restaurants serve basic food. It’s definitely cheap and filling. If I had to pick a favourite Khmer dish I might choose amok. You can research it. Basically, it’s fish with herbs, coconut, and banana leaves. If prepared properly, it can be quite tasty.

What do locals order at the bar?”

From my observations the overwhelming majority order beer. It’s cold and wet and cheap. If you want cocktails, you will have to go to a foreign-owned place and if you want wine, you have to do the same or else go to a decent international restaurant. Unlike beer, wine and cocktails are not cheap here.

What destinations in Cambodia should travelers put on their bucket list and why?”

The obvious one is Angkor Wat. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a damned amazing place. 

If the great outdoors is your thing, head to Mondulkiri or Ratanakiri Provinces. These are underpopulated with some hill tribe people (for lack of a more appropriate description) and plenty of as of yet undestroyed forests.

For animal lovers, try Kratié. It is located right on the Mekong and is one of three places in the world where you can see the Irrawaddy dolphins. They face extinction so keep that in mind for the pecking order of your bucket list.

How much should someone budget for a week’s stay?”

That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer because everyone has different wants and needs. Another consideration is whether you want to simply exist or do you want to actually have fun? Are you living here or are you on a freewheeling holiday? But here goes my attempt.

Backpackers roughing it can get dorm space for about $5 a night. A reasonably decent room in a modest hotel or guesthouse will run in the $15-20 range… Street food is cheap but if you want to eat in a modestly priced restaurant, you can find eateries in the $5-10 range. I would say if you want to live modestly but not on a skeleton budget then allow yourself at least $50 a day to cover meals and transportation etc along with your lodging. If you are on a short holiday, you’ll want at least double that.

What’s the average salary for a foreigner?”

Again, that’s a difficult question. What is the job? Unless you are fortunate enough to be working for a foreign company that pays a salary similar to what you would make in the West, you will probably be underpaid.

I know many of your readers are educators. If you are talking about teaching wages, then Cambodia is not the place to come to make money. Depending on your experience and certification, an entry-level teacher would not make more than $1200-1400 a month. It is also a horrible time to consider taking a teaching job in Cambodia during these COVID days. Currently, they are closed more than open. I have school-aged kids and I know. Some places are going the online learning route. This pays much less than actual teaching as it is a sub-par product anyway. I now hear of former teachers struggling to get by on about $500. In many cases, half of that is going towards their rent.

How safe is the country?”

It’s a walk in the park. Two or three decades ago it had a bit of a reputation of being the wild east. Unprovoked violent crimes are rare here now. Pickpocketing and bag snatching is rife though.

I do find your question interesting as I often wonder why someone based in the US worries about safety. I have travelled in about 70 countries and the only one I’ve been to which I would categorize as highly dangerous is the United States.

What do you miss most about Canada?”

Maple syrup, of course.

No, but besides that, I would have to say nature and the sheer beauty of the great outdoors in Canada. My kids have never experienced a camping trip with campfire cooked-food, starry nights, and loons calling on the lake at night. These are my fondest memories of the country.

A gorgeous purple sunset over the water.

Be sure to catch up with Michael Carter in his next epic travel tale when the world reopens. If you enjoy hearing about his SE Asia adventures as much as we do at Dreams Abroad, feel free to say hello in the comments. Let him know what you would like to hear about next and if you’ve been to Cambodia…?

by Leesa Truesdell