From the USA to Cambodia: The Meanderthals
My name is Gabrielle (Gabi) and my husband is Skip. We are both writers – I am British and he is American and we have been married almost 10 years. I was raised in Bahrain and South Africa and worked as a journalist in Johannesburg before deciding to travel to the US with a girlfriend when I was 22 years old. I never went back!
I met Skip many years later when I was living in San Francisco, working for a global newswire company and he was working for the same company in Boston. We got married in 2006 and we both lived in a beautiful little seaside village in Massachusetts.
In 2010, we crossed the world and moved to Cambodia where we fell in love with the country, the culture and the incredible people. We lived and volunteered there for more than three years then hit the road again and are presently house-sitting around the world, writing and taking care of other people’s pets and homes.
I have just published my first children’s book, Ogden, The Fish Who Couldn’t Swim Straight, and Skip has almost completed his first novel.
1. Why did you move abroad?
In 2007, we went on our honeymoon to Thailand and fell in love with Southeast Asia. One evening, in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Skip turned to me and said “how would you feel about living here?” and our world changed. We returned to the States with a dream and a new focus and spent the next three years planning, researching, quitting our jobs, selling our possessions and focusing on starting a new life in Asia.
We were accepted for posts with a small volunteer organization that places people in positions throughout Southeast Asia and we boarded a plane in June 2010 with a one-way ticket and hearts filled with anticipation and excitement.
2. How do you make a living?
We both worked as volunteers (with small stipends) as English Resource Advisors for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). My job was to edit and write reports for our English-speaking donors and I spent a good deal of time travelling around the country with my colleagues, meeting indigenous people, venturing into rice paddies and mining sites and seeing parts of the country most people never see.
Since I’m a writer, I also did a lot of freelance articles for local publications and websites. I was hired to write The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia (a book about traditional Cambodian desserts) as well as The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia, and Skip and I wrote our book, Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure about people who, like us, had decided to move abroad and change their lives.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
We are both constantly communicating with friends and family in other parts of the world. Since everyone I care about is on Facebook and Skype, I’m always in touch. I am also a social media hound and are constantly posting photos and updates so that everyone knows what’s going on in our lives. I’ve resisted getting a Smart phone for years and finally bit the bullet last month so I now have portable communication if I want it.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Cambodia?
I love the easy way of life and the gentleness of the people. Despite the heat, Cambodia is a very comfortable place to live and life is simple, cheap and embracing. I found it easy to find work when I wanted it and Skip was constantly being approached to do consulting projects for companies in Phnom Penh. Food is cheap, massages are plentiful and there are dozens of new dining and coffee spots opening up constantly throughout the city.
Getting around Phnon Penh is cheap and easy and we’d hop on a tuktuk to go around town for as little as $3 per ride. The city is small and manageable and there are long-distancebuses that go everywhere in the country, as well as to Vietnam and Thailand.
But the best part of Cambodia are the people. I’ve never known such kindness, gentleness, fun and warmth in a population and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Cambodia?
The heat and the distance from our loved ones. It’s hot year-round and sometimes excruciatingly so, such as earlier this year when temperatures soared to a record-breaking 42 degrees Celsius. It’s also terribly far from my family in England and Skip’s in the States which makes it challenging as we want to spend more time with them.
6. What do you miss most?
The only thing we miss are our families. Everything else is there.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
Cambodia is a very easy place to meet people. There are expats from all over the world – most of whom are there to volunteer or teach – and the expat circle is pretty tight. I made it my mission to make friends when we arrived so I joined all the online groups (LinkedIn, Facebook) and networked with people online. I also took classes (apsara dance, photography, yoga) and attended various networking events (British Chamber, American Chamber) and we’d often start chatting to people in coffee shops or on the street and invite them to join us for dinner.
We also made a number of Cambodian friends, among them were Tony and SomOn, a couple of tuktuk drivers who became very close to us, and Skip’s former boss, Sarath, who is his best Cambodian friend.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Cambodians don’t pay much attention to boundaries and are pretty childlike in their attitudes. It took a while to get used to having colleagues look over my shoulder at my emails or have someone ask how much we paid for our apartment, and Skip was once told he looked “fat and sweaty” when he came into work on a particularly hot morning. It became a source of amusement after a while as we realized people said what was on their minds and didn’t mean anything harmful by it.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
Before we went to Cambodia, we mistakenly thought we’d have a hard time finding things we wanted. Skip indulged in foods he thought he wouldn’t be able to find and I filled my bags with cosmetic items and light-weight clothes. Once we arrived, however, not only did we discover we could find everything there, we also discovered most things were cheaper and often more plentiful than back home.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
The cost of living in Cambodia is very low and we have been spoiled forever. An average dinner at a nice restaurant rarely costs more than $20 for two and at our favourite lunch spot, the Chinese Noodle House, everything on the menu is $1.50. Bus transportation to Siem Reap (about 6 hours away) costs $12 and massages are around $10 per hour so we are regularly travelling and regularly pampering ourselves.
We find it very hard going home to England or the US as the cost of a cup of coffee is often more than the cost of an entire meal in Phnom Penh.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
If you’re keen on living in another part of the world: do it! In our book, we write about a variety of people – young, old, gay, straight, with kids and without, with money and without – and every one of them said it was the best thing they ever did.
It may sound intimidating at first but you’ll find that people are helpful, kind and friendly everywhere you go. Take a small step first – like taking a short trip – and see how it feels. Make contact online with people who live in the part of the world you want to move to and chat with them about their lives there. Join online expat groups. And, once you have arrived, get involved in something right away so you can meet people. Workaway is a great volunteer website and a good way to get your foot in the door when you arrive in a new place.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
We started our blog, The Meanderthals before we left the States as we were doing a cross country trip and wanted to record it. Once we knew we were moving to Cambodia, it became a way to write about our experiences and keep our families and friends informed about our adventures. We’ve been writing it now for six years and have recorded hundreds of experiences, travels, personalities and escapades that happened along the way – from Cambodia to Thailand to Vietnam to Europe, South and Central America and Australia.
Gabrielle & Skip's Blog, The Meanderthals
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