“How would you feel about living here?”
Skip tossed this question to me in our hotel room in Chiang Mai. Surprised and a little bit shocked, I replied “Sounds good to me”.
And so our next journey began. One which started in a guesthouse in Thailand during our honeymoon in Thailand in 2007 and ended (or began) three years later when we boarded a plane to Cambodia with a one-way ticket and no plans for returning home.
Something about the magic of Southeast Asia compelled us to make this move. But there was also something about the timing and our readiness to step away from our existing lifestyles to
dive headlong into a new, unknown adventure. We weren’t unhappy, unemployed or dissatisfied. We had a beautiful home, wonderful friends and a full calendar of events. We just longed for something more.
It took three years and hundreds of hours of online research, discussion, contemplation and planning before we hugged our friends and family goodbye. It took a couple of weeks once we landed in Cambodia (less for Skip), to know we’d made the right decision.
“You’re so brave,” said some of our friends.
“You’re crazy,” said others.
“Aren’t you afraid?” asked one.
But – to quote a dear friend who left a high-paying job at the age of 55 to move to China and teach English for a fraction of her former salary – ‘’I was more afraid of staying in the same place and remaining stuck than stepping into a new world.”
We arrived in Phnom Penh with no idea of what to expect. All we felt was exhilaration for what lay ahead. The volunteer agency we’d signed up with (Volunteers in Asia) took us by the hand for the first couple of weeks, introduced us to the NGO posts where we’d be working, showed us around the city and put us into language classes to learn Khmer. After that, it was up to us to design our new lives.
At first, our social circle consisted of fellow volunteers and we’d spend our days struggling over the alien sounds of the language, and nights huddled in small restaurants, downing cold beers and spicy noodles as we dripped with sweat in the searing heat of the early summer months. We bonded over our common situation even though there were decades between us: Skip and I were in our 50s and the others were almost 30 years younger.
Every day tossed something new in our direction. One moment we’d be dumbfound, watching tiny brown-eyed children scrabble in the dirt for food; the next we’d be moved to tears by the kindness of a tuk-tuk driver who returned money when we overpaid him. One day we’d be laughed at (and with) when we struggled to buy vegetables at an open-air local market; the next we’d watch in awe as Phnom Penh’s resident elephant lumbered along the riverside on her way home from the park.
Everything was different and new. Everything evoked emotions in us we’d never felt before. Not all were good, but every experience made us feel involved, engaged and oh-so very alive.
Days, weeks and months flowed by as we became more and more immersed in life in Cambodia and we knew with every passing moment that we could never go back.
We became friends with our tuk-tuk drivers, SomOn and Tony, and were invited to their tiny one-room homes for dinner. Seated on straw mats on the floor, spooning mounds of rice onto our place and chewing on scrawny roast chicken, we couldn’t have been happier if we’d been sipping champagne in an elegant nightspot. There was something about the quality of life, the embracing warmth of people who had nothing and the joy which permeated our days that was infectious and we knew we didn’t want to give it up.
As one more layer of gratification, living in Cambodia cost a fraction of life in the western world. Our lifestyles improved and our expenses plummeted.
We learned from people who had no education and no money about how to accept, how to love and how to give. We learned there was a better life than staying on the proverbial treadmill, working 9 to 5 and remaining stationary.
After three and a half years in Cambodia, we decided to pack our bags again and explore magic in other parts of the world. We are now house-sitting throughout Europe, soaking up the pristine beauty of Italian lakes, quaint villages in the English countryside and rugged coastlines on the Croatian shores.
However, a large piece of our hearts remains in Cambodia. We miss the rubbish-strewn streets where smiling motorbike drivers reach out and shake your hand. We miss the musical sound of the street vendor calling out to sell grilled eggs from his bicycle cart and the chanting of monks from distant temples. We miss our tuktuk driver slapping us on the back and laughing when we try to learn a new word in Khmer. We miss the gentleness, the quirkiness and the warmth.
Here’s some of what we’ve learned during the past five years:
1. Don’t wait.
When change is calling to you, just do it! In our book, we interviewed many people (all ages, married, single, with or without kids, with money and with no money) and they all said the same thing: If you want something different in your life, do it now.
2. Go slow.
When you take your time, you see more, learn more and encounter people you’d probably not find if you moved fast. We’ve met some extraordinary people around the world while sitting in coffee shops, interacting with customers at markets or striking up conversations with shop owners and people on a buses and trains.
Living in Cambodia taught us how people who have nothing often give the most. It humbled us greatly to see our tuktuk driver (who earns less than $10 a day) give to a beggar or hand money to a street musician.
4. Accept help.
Don’t think you know it all or try to do it all. Sometimes you meet the most interesting people when you ask for help. And almost everyone loves to reach out and be a helper, so give them the chance to be a giver.
5. Keep an open mind and your sense of humor.
Things go wrong. Buses break down. Schedules change. You’ll find weird food, strange characters and uncomfortable situations along the way. Embrace them. Every one of them teaches a lesson or opens your world to a new adventure.
Changing your life means taking a leap of faith. What holds you back? I’d love to hear about your obstacles and how you’d like help overcoming them. Please share in the comments section and I’m happy to lend a hand to assist you moving through them.
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