By Gabrielle Yetter
My favorite questions in my life are the ones that sent to me different parts of the globe.
“Do you want to work in Club Med?” (one I asked myself as I headed home from a two week Club Med visit to Cancun).
“Would you like to manage our new London office?” (from the CEO of the newswire company I worked for in the US).
“How would you feel about living in Southeast Asia?” (from my husband, Skip, during our honeymoon trip in Thailand)
I answered “yes” to all three.
Every move changed my life in different ways, but the last brought me to a place – physically and emotionally – that made the biggest impact of all: Cambodia.
Skip popped the Southeast Asia question to me in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai after a week of travelling through Thailand, visiting rice paddies and elephant reserves, getting foot massages and devouring platefuls of pad Thai. Under those circumstances, who wouldn’t say yes?
But it was more than the foot massages and pad Thai. There was an energy about Southeast Asia that drew us in. Something gentle, spiritual and peaceful. Something that beckoned to us.
And so our next journey began. One which started in a guesthouse in 2007 and ended (or began) three years later when we boarded a plane to Cambodia with one-way tickets.
It wasn’t just the magic of Southeast Asia that compelled us to make this move. There was also the timing and our readiness 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.
“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.”
Although we both love to travel, nothing prepared us for life in Cambodia. Phnom Penh was dirty, smelly, and chaotic. Our home for the first few weeks was a no-frills $10-a-night guesthouse. We spent our days struggling to learn Khmer, the native language, a task that made our heads spin, and our nights trying to make sense of it all. Everything felt unfamiliar, strange, and uncomfortable.
In the weeks to come, however, we felt ourselves drift farther and farther from the West with its busyness and stress and more and more toward a gentler, slower lifestyle. It wasn’t always easy – Skip got dengue fever twice along with various gastric problems; I found it hard at first to find female friends, and we both were frustrated by the constant searing heat.
We met many others who, like us, had chosen to step outside the proverbial box and we featured them in our book, Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure. While each person had a different story, everyone had the same message: Don’t wait. Do it now.
“Life’s not about living happily ever after,” said one of them. “It’s about living.
Every day tossed something new in our direction. One moment we’d be entranced by tiny brown-eyed children playing in garbage-strewn alleys; 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 market; the next we’d watch in awe as Phnom Penh’s resident elephant lumbered along the riverside on her way home.
Everything evoked emotions we’d never felt before. Not all were good, but every experience made us feel involved, engaged and oh-so very alive. And we knew with every passing moment that we could never go back.
We became friends with 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 plates 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 owned so little, and the joy which permeated our days that was infectious and we knew we didn’t want to give it up.
Additionally, living in Cambodia costs a fraction of life in the western world. Our lifestyles have improved and our expenses have plummeted.
So, over the past six years, we’ve learned a lot of things:
We often prefer being with people who don’t speak English.
We’d rather ride in a tuk-tuk or a bus than drive a car.
People all over the world are kind, hospitable and embracing, no matter what their race or religion.
We need very little stuff (our possessions fit into two suitcases and two backpacks.)
We’ve discovered you can communicate with everyone—no matter what language they speak—with a smile and a camera. And we’ve learned that there’s magic everywhere. No matter what may appear on the surface, all you have to do is dig a bit to unveil the wonders of the world.
Gabrielle has been on the move since she was 11 months old. British by birth, she was raised in Bahrain, was a journalist in South Africa, and in 2010 moved with her husband, Skip, to Phnom Penh and wrote The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia and Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure with Skip. The couple write a blog and Gabi is on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.