Living in Asia: What’s it really like?

During the almost three years I’ve called Asia home, many friends, family members, acquaintances and well-meaning strangers have asked me lots and lots of questions about what life here is like. They range from the really general and sometimes hard to answer “so, what’s it like?” to the just-don’t-get-it “but what do you EAT there?!”. Then there are the skeptical questions like “you had a baby in Bangkok, what was THAT like?!” (with nose screwed up). I’ll do my best to clear up some of the myths and misconceptions about life in Asia (as an expat), though this is by no means an exhaustive list of the questions I get asked (or other expats) get asked:

Q:Are there many other expats there? (By the way, these qs pertain to life in both Phnom Penh and Saigon)

A: Yes – thousands and thousands, from all over the world! So many no-one ever seems to know the exact number (and of course, it’s ever-changing). Phnom Penh has many, many foreigners working for NGO’s (from outrageously high paid staff at the UN etc. through to volunteers at grassroots organisations). Then there are embassy workers, English teachers, bar owners, and a growing corporate/business community involved in all sorts of industries from hospitality and tourism to banking. In Saigon there’s a hugely diverse mix too, though the expat community seems to be more business oriented than Phnom Penh’s. So basically, no, I’m not a lone western female eliciting curious stares and I’m not considered special or unique – there are many of us!
Q: So, what do you EAT there?! (one of my favourite questions – hilarious don’t you think?)
A: Um, what don’t I eat?! It’s Asia – not another planet! For starters, I still cook at home alot and make similar things I used to make at home (but take advantage of the great local produce so lots of things using coriander, lime, lemongrass, mint etc.). In both PP and Saigon there are restaurants of every (well, almost) cuisine under the sun, plus an abundance of local eateries from cheap street eats through to classy, high-end restaurants showcasing the best of Khmer or Vietnamese cuisine. There are western-style cafes, French restaurants, pizzerias, kebab shops – you name it! And no, it’s not all food poisoning and tummy troubles (the once or twice we’ve ever been sick living in Asia was from western restaurants, not local! And never from street food!). Which brings me to my next point…
Q: You can’t drink the water there, can you?
A: Well, I don’t drink the tap water but I’ve heard of a few brave souls who insist the water in PP and Saigon is absolutely fine to drink and don’t seem to be any worse for wear for it! Most people (myself included) have a water cooler at home – the kind you find in offices – and get refills delivered. Others just boil and cool the tap water and this is fine too. You just get used to it and when you go to a western country it actually feels strange pouring a glass of water out of the tap! Oh and as for the ice question – that you should be wary of ice in restaurants is rubbish – ice is made in factories in Asia from purified water, it’s totally fine! Trust me!
Q:What about going to the doctor? Is it safe?
A: It depends where you go. There are western standard (and trained) doctors in Phnom Penh and Saigon and it’s just like going to the doctor at home. Then there are some dodgy local clinics that are rife with misdiagnosis and shoddy hygiene etc. but only the stingiest of expats would put their health at risk by going somewhere unreliable for health matters.
Q: You had a baby in Bangkok – what was THAT like?!
A: Yes, I did and it was great! Well the childbirth part was no picnic but the medical facilities, great staff and level of care were amazing! I had my baby in Samitivej Hospital, Bangkok, which not only has hotel room-like recovery suites but shops and cafes in the lobby – you can even ring and order Starbucks and dim sum (and more) and have it delivered to your room. If it wasn’t for the having a baby part, it would have been like a holiday. Oh and the other question relating to this I get asked is, “So is your baby Thai now?” No – while it’d be cool if she got dual citizenship she was only eligible for Australian citizenship (the rules!).
Q:So what’s it like there? (the ultimate question!)
A: How to sum up?! It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s enjoyable, it’s sometimes frustrating and challenging, it’s sometimes cheap, it’s sometimes expensive, it’s chaotic, it’s peaceful, it’s close to lots of other great places to travel, it’s an adventure some of the time and it’s mundane and ‘normal’ at others. It’s also what you make of it and often about the people you meet and spend time with (one of the absolute best parts). It can be addictive, and it’s something I’m really glad I’m doing – I totally recommend it to anyone considering a move to this diverse, crazy, amazing continent called Asia!
Do you (as an expat or long-term traveller) have any questions about your life you’re always answering? And for non-Asia dwellers, is there something you’ve always wondered about what life in Asia is really like?

Expat life in Saigon vs Phnom Penh

After recently moving to Saigon after 2+ years in Phnom Penh, I’m now being asked what the differences are between life in the two cities. This got me thinking – what are the pros and cons to living in each? And which is the better place to live? Having only been in Saigon a couple of months I don’t have a full understanding of how this city ticks, so my observations may change after living here a little longer. But for now, these are the main differences I’ve encountered:
Phnom Penh is like a big country town and Saigon, an Asian NYC! In Phnom Penh (let’s just call it PP) everything is close, there’s no ‘commute’ as such, and five minutes after leaving home you’re at your bar/restaurant/shop/market/friend’s house of choice. Assuming you don’t live in Toul Kork or over the Japanese Bridge, that is! Meanwhile in Saigon, the crazy traffic and vast distances mean you can sit in a taxi forever just trying to get from A to B. Which brings me to my next point…
After grappling with motos and tuk-tuks in PP (and having to bargain each and every time – it gets so old), Saigon has a refreshing alternative – metered taxis! Not only is an air-conditioned taxi much more comfortable than a breezy, bumpy tuk-tuk (the fun factor dries up after the first few rides) but I no longer have to deal with the bargaining issue. And unlike Thailand, you don’t have drivers who try and get out of turning the meter on.
There are marked differences between Cambodian and Vietnamese people, but not wishing to offend I’m not going to go there. Instead, let’s talk expats. In PP it seems easier to meet people. Just go to a first Friday party at Elsewhere or prop up the bar at Rubies and you’re bound to form some fast and firm friendships after not too long. In Saigon, though, the sheer number of bars and expat hangouts means the scene seems more disjointed than PP’s. Where to even begin?! There are also a lot more NGO workers, creative souls and wandering hippy types in PP, while Saigon seems to attract a more professional, business -minded breed of expat. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it also changes the vibe of the cafes and bars. Saigon’s don’t have as casual a feel as PP’s.
Food & Drink
Both cities are excellent ‘food’ places. Vietnam’s sheer number of options are overwhelming and there’s much better street food here in Saigon, but PP has some truly excellent cafes and restaurants (that I miss!). More Saigon sampling is required before I can really compare the two!
Both cities are over-priced (in my opinion) – rents can be similar (or more) to those in Sydney, which doesn’t really make sense. In both places it can be hard to find a place that’s not badly designed or ridiculously tacky (think ugly patterned tiles, even uglier chandeliers, kitchens with no windows…). In Saigon there are lots of tall skinny houses that sound great in theory (5 bedrooms! 5 bathrooms!) but may also have 5 levels of steep stairs to contend with and again, no windows in the kitchens or bathrooms. I’ve come to a compromise with the bathrooms (both ours are windowless) but now have a kitchen with lots of bright natural light flooding in via a room length window – yay!
I could go on and on…but basically, Saigon wins in terms of transport (but I wish there was also a subway) and street food, while it’s a tie for other food and housing. And PP wins for people (for now!) and size – although I usually love large cities so perhaps Saigon’s size will grow on me. I think I’ve been spoilt (or become really lazy) living in a smaller place where things are easier to find and get to. At least the two cities are close enough that I can visit PP when I get too homesick for all my old favourite haunts!

What I wish I knew when I moved to Phnom Penh

As promised, here are some things I wish I knew when I first moved to Phnom Penh – those little bits of information that might help save you the time and effort involved in finding things for yourself (and if you’ve already suffered disastrous haircuts, painful pedicures and fruitless searches for obscure groceries you may find this useful!).

  • For hair and nail primping head straight to Lucky Salon, above Lucky supermarket on Sihanouk Boulevard. They offer the best manicures and pedicures in town and the most hygienic – how often do you see PP parlours putting their nail equipment in a steriliser? Not often enough, say my friends with the foot fungal infections! And they use OPI brand nailpolish with a huge selection of colours. The haircuts are also excellent – and male friends attest to this as well. I recommend bypassing the local $1-2 haircut joints – while they seem so fun and cheap and cheerful at first, you soon discover they’re just cheap.
  • For obscure grocery items look no further than Thai Huot on Monivong Boulevard. It’s here I’ve found filo pastry, harissa paste, arborio rice, chicken stock and lots of great dairy produce – if you need thickened cream or sour cream (and these can be hard to come by in PP) head to the Huot. Added bonus – the alcohol selection is great and slightly cheaper than the selections at Pencil and Lucky. Oh, and there’s lots of chocolate goodness as well.
  • Fabric street near O’Russei Market has the largest selection of cotton fabrics for getting shirts, skirts, dresses and more tailor made. It runs the southern length of the market (on the street outside that is) and there’s another street that runs off this with more, which is particularly good for men’s shirt fabrics. Bargaining is essential (but easy) and you can usually get good quality cotton for around US$1.50-2 per metre. There’s lots of crazy, glitzy, slinky, shiny (read: crazy) stuff among the finds, but it’s fun to look at! The 2nd floor of Olympic Market has lots of good fabric too, and it’s undercover and a little more orderly.
  • Boom Boom Room on Street 278 is a great way to buy music. While this will sound obvious to PP residents it took me a while to stop buying CDs at Russian Market and instead get with the times and purchase MP3 files at BBR – much cheaper, and they can fit around 9 albums onto one CD which you can then copy onto itunes. Or you can get them to put the music straight onto your ipod. The music selection is updated frequently too.
  • And a few favourite food places: The Deli Bakery for bread, The Shop for lunch and dessert (especially dessert – OMG!), Le Duo for pizza (bar the decor!), Pop Cafe for lasagna, Romdeng for Khmer, Boat Noodle for cheap and cheerful Khmer or Thai, Sam Doo for dim sum, Mekong Village for duck pancakes, Sher-e-Punjab for Indian (go for the tandoor offerings), Cafe Fresco for coffee (illy), Garden Center 108 for burgers, shakes and great service, and finally, one of my favourite ‘secret’ places is a little find called ‘Khmer Thai’ – the food is great, the setting is chic, the prices are cheap and for some reason it’s off the expat radar. To find it – head along Mao Tse Tung (inland that is) and turn left just before the wat near Russian Market. Head upstairs to sit on Thai cushions and feast!
If I think of more will do a Part 2 post but this should be enough PP inspiration for now! Ok, back to Saigon….

A Girl in Asia on

I recently discovered that comprehensive website has a Southeast Asia section containing travel advice, forums and a blog spanning a wide variety of topics regarding travel in the region. Some Phnom Penh advice from yours truly appears in the latest post by blogger and writer Mike Aquinohere. Of course, it’s shopping and restaurant oriented – just doing my bit to spread the Phnom Penh word! Speaking of which – I still can’t believe I’ve left Cambodia. Living out of a suitcase (or 10, actually maybe more) in a hotel room in Saigon is only fun for so many days. I’m really looking forward to finding a real place to live, and soon!

Though we’ve just moved to Vietnam we’re still off to Singapore in a week’s time, a trip we booked ages ago. I found a few ideas about places to check out on the Singapore page, and now I need to find some cool Singapore blogs for more. It’s interesting that a few short years ago mainstream guidebooks were the main go-to source of travel information. These days a combination of in the know guidebooks (like LUXE city guides), blogs and picking up expat magazines or street press on arrival are how I (and presumably many others) prefer to get my travel tips.
And speaking of which – my priority (besides house-hunting, Singapore trip planning and a million other things) is to get my head around everything Saigon has to offer – after knowing where to go and what to do in Phnom Penh inside out, this will be a much more challenging task!

Leaving Phnom Penh

After a whirlwind week of farewells, packing, baby minding, working and entertaining visitors all at the same time we’ve bid farewell to Phnom Penh. We created many memories during our time there, made some amazing friends, had some great travel experiences and developed our careers, though it helps that some of our best friends have left or are about to leave, and that there are exciting prospects and adventures ahead in Saigon!

Pchum Ben – Festival of the dead

Offering food and money to the monks

On the weekend Steve’s staff let us tag along with them to a pagoda to make offerings as part of the lead up to Pchum Ben. Pchum Ben is a religious holiday where Cambodians remember their deceased loved ones, and in the two weeks prior to the holiday Cambodia’s temples and pagodas are packed with people bringing food, money and offerings to the monks. Read more about it here.

Our friends decided to go to a poorer pagoda a little outside Phnom Penh, since they figured that those in the city will receive alot of visitors hence alot of money and food – good thinking! We headed across the Japanese bridge then out of town for a while to reach the temple. We certainly attracted a bit of attention (in a good way) and as usual our baby was a hit! There were people videotaping us and cute little toothless old people taking our photo.

Here are some more photos from the morning (by the way, I didn’t realise females are supposed to wear white so I’m wearing a hot pink t-shirt! Being a clueless barang I think I was forgiven).

An ultimate day in Phnom Penh

Psar Orussei Phnom Penh

One of my favourite kinds of articles to read in travel magazines is of the ‘my perfect day in [fabulous city]’ variety, providing inspiration on the best places to see, shop, eat and drink in a certain place, so I thought I’d share some Phnom Penh ideas before I leave for sunny Saigon.

Here’s what you could do for the ultimate Phnom Penh day (albeit a very girly one). Let’s also pretend that just for one day there’s no rubbish or beggars on the streets, lecherous sexpats lurking around or aggressive Lexus drivers careening down the wrong side of Norodom Boulevard at 100 kilometres an hour – this is make believe remember!


Rise and shine after an uninterrupted 10 hour sleep. No, make it 12.


Head to buzzing cafe The Shop on boutique lined Street 240, with the best service staff in town and the best chocolate croissants – ever. Order two chocolate croissants and a carrot beetroot ginger juice. Eye off their insanely tempting dessert counter but practice some self-restraint – there’ll be plenty of time for sweet treats later on.


While on Street 240 check out the shops. Hunt for quirky jewellery finds at Water Lily, and peruse the clothes at Bliss, Jasmine and Song in search of something inspiring.


Now duck around to Sihanouk Boulevard to shoe store VNC to find some new footwear to go with the Street 240 purchases. If in luck, there’ll be one of their ‘up to 70% off’ sales on and they magically won’t have sold out of your size in the style you like.


The retail therapy is only just beginning. Now it’s time to visit Ambre, an amazing clothing store featuring the designs of Romyda Keth, Cambodia’s most successful fashion designer. Visit each of the colour themed rooms in the spacious colonial house before trying on some of the creations. Do not leave without a purchase!


By now you’ll be in need of a caffeine hit and some air-con, so relax at the riverfront’s Cafe Fresco with a strong coffee and the day’s newspapers to catch up on what’s going on.


Time for a bit more shopping. See if there are any nice silk bags in Orange River a few doors down, then duck back around the corner to Kravan House to stock up on silk scarves. Around the corner on Sothearos, pick up some secondhand reading material at Bohr’s Books (especially the US$3 photocopied ones) and check out the silver shops for chunky rings, cuffs and earrings.


Finally, it’s lunchtime. Make your way to Metro for some Asian tapas and cool drinks in funky, glass enclosed surrounds. How about the Metro Fries, wok fried squid and chilli salt chicken wings, with a lychee and mint shake? Yum! Use the free wi-fi to catch up on emails, news, Facebook shenanigans and of course, blog subscriptions!


After all that shopping in ‘proper’ shops it’s time to get down and dirty at the Russian Market. Jostle the crowds in the narrow aisles for ts and singlets fresh from Phnom Penh’s garment factories. Some might call these items ‘fallen off the back of a truck’. Pick up some latest release pirated DVDs and CDs, and a few more pieces of silver jewellery. Take some fabric to one of the many tailors to get some clothes copied at bargain prices (my favourite is Asia Tailors, run by a friendly couple). And check out the cute bits and pieces (funky toys, bags, wallets and more) at Too-it Too-it, run by the Friends streetkid charity.


Time for more sustenance. Head back to Street 240 to Chocolate by The Shop, set in a charming French colonial building. Belgian chocolate is for sale here in various guises, from flavoured chocolates (I recently discovered their amazing Kampot pepper variety), to truffles, pralines, brownies, ice-creams and drinks. Select some different chocolates, order a coffee (or a hot chocolate – why not go crazy) and take a seat for a breather and a chocolatey feast.


Venture a few doors down to Spa Bliss for a one hour body massage (it’s called Bliss for a good reason) – an antidote to all that traipsing, bargaining and jaunting all over town.


Now go home to have a much needed shower and get ready for a night out. Wear something from the day’s shopping bounty, perhaps a colourful little Ambre number with some Water Lily accessories or silver finds from the market.


Meet some friends at Chow for happy hour cocktails. Head up to the rooftop terrace for river views and a tropical resort feel.


Now it’s onto dinner at chic La Residence, one of the city’s newer dining options with a Japanese, Michelin star restaurant trained chef at the helm. Indulge in gourmet modern French cuisine and a fine bottle of wine (or two).


One could stay out for more drinking, dancing, or even a spot of karaoke or a 6am trip to Naga Casino (don’t ask!), but for my ultimate day this would be enough. Time to go home to bed for a long, well-deserved sleep.

The end!

I heart Phnom Penh

I love PP and I also love this idea – using the I love NY logo in an ode to Phnom Penh. This came about via a new art exhibition by Panca Evenblij that opened on Thursday at Phnom Penh’s Java Cafe & Gallery. It was all about reflections on life in the city with photos, installations and more, plus cool I love PP merchandise for sale, which people were so excited about it may have been the highlight of the opening! We bought a baby outfit for Zara featuring the logo – so cute.

A girl is on the move…to Saigon!

Now I’m glad this blog is called A Girl in Asia rather than A Girl in Cambodia – as a move to Saigon is imminent!

After nearly 2.5 years in Phnom Penh it’ll be sad to leave in some ways, yet it’s onwards and upwards to slightly more dynamic and cosmopolitan Saigon – a city that’s almost unrecognisable from ten years ago. Sure, there are still a few cone-hatted oldies roaming the streets but those streets are also home to glittering restaurants, chic bars, 5 star hotels, shops including Louis Vuitton and Gucci (real ones, not knock-offs!) – even Chloe and Marc Jacobs have opened their doors. But the great thing about Saigon is the contrast – a few metres down the road from the high-end stores might be a local restaurant where a steaming bowl of pho will set you back a few thousand dong. There are fantastic, bustling local markets and cheap finds galore, plus all the western comforts you could ask for too. It’s the perfect blend of old and new, Asian and western, local and expat…ok, you get the point!

Although I have visited Saigon plenty of times, I’m really looking forward to exploring the city further and getting to know it in more depth and attempting to learn some Vietnamese. But before heading off, I really need to do a few more all-important Phnom Penh posts. Coming soon – my ultimate Phnom Penh day, and things I wish I knew when I first moved to Phnom Penh…