Discover French-Inspired, Low-Cost Cambodia

The great wonders of the world are often underwhelming. Hordes of snap-happy tourists swarm Rome’s “smaller than you thought” Coliseum. At the Pyramids you’re dogged by hawkers and The Eiffel tower is—let’s face it—just a pile of elegant girders.

I know of one exception. The temple cities of northern Cambodia. The vast sprawling complex of Angkor will take you days to explore properly. Escaping the crowds can be done. Vine-clad and mysterious ruins lie deep in the jungle and you’ll never quite forget the mysterious and playful smile of the Buddha statues at the Bayon.

The gateway to Angkor is the town of Siem Reap. Many expats call it home. It’s an arty place with galleries, a colourful mix of passing tourists and an international airport that belies the size of the place. You can rent a comfortable home for $250 to $350 a month and many expats run businesses here…B&B’s are a common one and restaurants too, which cover the whole gambit of world cuisine.

My fondest memory of the town is sitting by the river as dusk fell and the old cast-iron lampposts lit up. It had the feel of a small provincial town in France. No wonder. The elegant bench I was lounging on and the lampposts came from France, made during the time the French ran the show in Cambodia.

The French drew on Paris to inspire the wide boulevards of the capital, Phnom Penh. They created a park-lined riverfront promenade and stylish buildings. I discovered all those things and more when I walked the city. It’s not Paris, but it is unique. You’ll spy orange-robed Buddhist monks toddling around beneath blossom-covered trees. The city’s history makes it an unusual and sometimes poignant place. The dictator Lol Nol had magic dust sprinkled around Phnom Penh to ward off his enemies. It didn’t work. The Khmer Rouge arrived and forced all 3 million people from the city into the countryside.

Those dark years have shaped the nation. They came close to destroying it. In an effort to rebuild Cambodia the UN made the country the world’s first and only UN protectorate state. Non-governmental organisations flooded in. These NGO’s are still there, and the presence of thousands of foreigners has given Phnom Penh trendy restaurants and a happening nightlife. Costs however are among the lowest anywhere on the IL beat. Our Cambodia Correspondent, Steve King lives in the desirable Boeung Keng Kang 1 district for example, and rents a two-bedroom apartment for $400 a month. We know of expats who report living comfortably on $1,426 a month.

Despite its past, Cambodia does indeed have a future. It’s among the most short-listed retirement destinations on our beat for a reason.

Poor quality healthcare was once a barrier for prospective expats. That’s changing. A new private hospital offering top-notch care has opened in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is developing. On my next visit I expect to find even more new buildings, more international flights, more foreign retirees…the visas are easy…the people are friendly…and that next visit is fast approaching.

I arrive this Saturday. I am going back to explore the country’s “Lost Riviera”, with its sandy beaches, forested hill stations and castaway tropical islands. I’ll be meeting expats in Kampot and Sihanoukville and taking a close look at rentals near the beach going for $250 a month. I’m especially interested in what’s commonly called “the St Tropez of Southeast Asia”: the small town of Kep.

I have a special liking for the Cambodians. They have been through a lot, but you’re still likely to be flashed the famous Khmer smile when you go. As for the food, fish amok is my favourite dish from all my travels in Southeast Asia. And the national beer Angkor is good too…

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