A stranger named Jerry slipped into the driver’s seat of my car and pulled away from the curb. I felt a lump in my throat as I watched my shiny black Toyota convertible disappear from sight. It was the last of my possessions to be sold or given away.
Cambodia image from Shutterstock
Before that was the pine hutch. And before that were our kayaks and our snow blower.
Other than a couple of other items, I no longer recall a thing we used to own. All the furniture, clothes, kitchen supplies, appliances and other stuff that’s part of our lives in the West are but faded memories.
I do, however, recall the reason for the purge.
The seed was planted in 2009 when Skip and I went to Thailand on our honeymoon. We fell in love with the gentleness and simplicity of Southeast Asia and, one evening in Chiang Mai, Skip asked me a question that changed our lives: How would you feel about living in this part of the world?
That was the turning point.
It wasn’t that we were unhappy. We had lots of friends, an active social life and a beautiful home near the ocean. But Skip was in a high-level corporate position that left him drained and unfulfilled. And I was happy to close my home business, pack up and explore another part of the world.
So we started pointing our lives in a new direction. After our Thailand trip, Skip spent months researching organizations operating in Asia and came upon Volunteers In Asia. We were accepted into posts in Southeast Asia. We sold our big house and moved to a small condo. We quit our jobs. We gave away or sold most of our belongings.
Within three years of returning from our honeymoon, we were homeless and unemployed — by choice. In place of a home and a job, we had one-way tickets to Phnom Penh, suitcases packed with shorts, sandals and hand sanitizer and hearts filled with anticipation.
Once we arrived in Cambodia, I didn’t find it easy at first. I found Phnom Penh hot, dirty and smelly. The road from the airport to our $10 a night guesthouse was crowded and dusty Pandemonium reigned with motos, tuktuks, cars and bicycles churning up dust, honking horns and driving on pavements. It was hard to find anything sophisticated, quaint or pretty. There were rats outside our guesthouse.
Skip, on the other hand, slipped into the experience with a combination of delight and eagerness. Keen to explore life in another culture, he cajoled me into accompanying him on city explorations, crossing chaotic trafficked streets and rambling along dirt-strewn roads in blistering 35-degree heat.
He was the Energizer Bunny of new experiences. I was a slug in search of air-conditioning. But we’d signed on for a year (at least), sold our home and had nothing to return to. I was determined to make it work.
After a couple of weeks, something changed. Perhaps it was when I started work and met my Cambodian NGO co-workers. Perhaps it was when I discovered an air-conditioned coffee shop with a wraparound balcony and orchids hanging from the roof. Perhaps it was when we moved into our own apartment. Maybe it was because I changed. Regardless of the cause, gradually heat became laughable, the unkempt hotel room my air conditioned refuge, the dusty streets home.
Whatever it was, I never looked back. Before long, I became comfortable with the uncomfortable. Skip and I made new friends. Cambodia started to infect us with its charm.
We both volunteered at NGOs in Phnom Penh, providing English support (helping re-write reports for English-speaking donors) so we quickly became exposed to the typically Cambodian “no boundaries” lifestyle.
“Oh, you look fat and sweaty today,” Skip was told by a colleague when he turned up to work on a hot day.
“How much you pay for your apartment?” asked one as he stared over my shoulder at personal email messages. “How much do you weigh?” asked another. At first we were offended, but soon became enchanted by the awkward social habits of our new friends and entranced at the wildly different lifestyle we’d adopted.
We made friends with SomOn and Tony, our Cambodian tuktuk drivers, who invited us to their tiny homes. We spent time in local restaurants where we paid less than $13 for dinner for two. We learned humility from people who earned less than $8 a day yet gave money to blind beggars. We caught long-distance buses to other regions of Cambodia where we watched the sun set over Angkor Wat and lazed in hammocks on sandy beaches on the southern coast.
Other than the people we love from back home, we missed nothing.
Life was simple, unpredictable and never boring. On any day, we’d see chickens pecking on dusty roads beneath BMWs and Range Rovers. We’d drink cocktails in glamourous rooftop bars then eat fried dumplings in hole-in-the-wall cafes. We’d watch saffron-robed monks bearing orange umbrellas walk through pagodas in blazing sunshine and gaze at the reflection of the moon in the water of the Mekong River.
We discovered that happiness could be found in simplicity. That days spent among rice paddies with people who didn’t speak our language were fun and stimulating. That people with nothing often had more to share than people with material wealth. That eating snake and crickets wasn’t as bad as it sounded. And that our move to Phnom Penh changed the way we looked at the world and at ourselves. We no longer cared as much about “stuff”; we cared more about extraordinary experiences and figuring things out one day at a time.
Life in Cambodia is simple. It’s a country where you can get by on very little. You can rent a nice apartment for $400 - $700 a month, catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City (seven hours away) for $16, have an hour’s foot massage for $8 and take a tuktuk across town for $4.
It’s also a country where you can make a difference. Much of the expat population works with NGOs, teaches English or runs social enterprises so it’s easy to find friends who have something to offer. It’s a place that inspires you to get involved, since the government provides little by way of social services and the majority of the population is desperately poor.
After living in Cambodia for three years, we found ourselves more at ease with the chaos of Phnom Penh’s streets than the traffic of our own hometown. We negotiated street crossings, weaving between meandering motos, tutkuks and cars. We learned to live with the heat and enjoy the uneven footpaths. We welcomed the ambient sounds as soothing anthems: the bread man, announcing his arrival on his bicycle; the chanting of monks from nearby pagodas during special occasions; the cacophony of music from nearby weddings.
And we learned to trust our instincts, as we did almost nine years ago, when something spoke to us and beckoned us to Southeast Asia.
Now, our possessions fit in two suitcases and two backpacks and we have learned the new dance of the wanderer. Different languages, customs, food and culture are welcome indications that our home has forever changed. Gone is the convertible, but here to stay is the world of the unknown and all the magic it has to offer.
Gabrielle Yetter is the author of Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure you can check our her blog here