We interviewed Gabrielle Yetter last year on LiveWorkAbroad about living and working in Cambodia. Since then, she has had two books published: The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia & The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia. This week we catch up with Gabrielle about her life and her books.
1. Gabrielle, you kindly completed an interview for us last year, has anything changed in your home or work life since last October?
Living in Cambodia, things change constantly! The biggest thing for me was that in January, my first book was published on traditional Cambodian desserts – The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia and it is now available in English and French (and soon in Khmer). My research provided me with a wonderful opportunity to see the real Cambodia as I travelled around the country in a minivan with a chef, a driver, a Frenchman, an Italian woman and Cambodian NGO worker to meet with dessert makers whose recipes were handed down from their grandparents. We squelched through muddy villages in torrential rain, walked across fields filled with buffaloes and sat on grass mats underneath wooden huts while old women stirred boiling pots of palm syrup — and had many other adventures that exposed me to life in the countryside.
The title of the book is The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia, and while it sounds as though it’s for people moving to Cambodia, it’s really for anyone who comes here – whether for three years or three weeks.
There are chapters that deal with the nitty-gritty of living here (how to get a work permit, where to network, how to find a language school), but much of it deals with basic information that anyone would need. I provide information on pricing for basic items (toothpaste, pizza, bananas), tips for dealing with local people (seniors are respected and westerners are highly regarded), safety information (don’t walk home carrying your laptop after a dozen shots of tequila), what to bring (leave behind the socks and sweaters) and what to do if you get sick.
3. Your book has attracted a number of great reviews, has its success surprised you?
I’m thrilled with the comments I’ve been reading about the book – particularly from people who live here now as well as people who have visited for a short while. My favourite comment is “I defy you not to read Gabrielle Yetter’s comprehensive and conversational guide without wanting to at least visit, if not move to Cambodia”.
I’d say it’s finding a niche and filling it. Cambodia is becoming a popular place for tourists and more and more people are moving here and wanting to know basic information about the country. While there’s plenty of good information online, it seems many people want all the information in one place where they can refer to it when they need it. For the past three years, I’ve been receiving questions about Cambodia from people who found me online so I’m hoping this book will answer some of those questions.
It is designed to help visitors and residents cut corners when they get here as it’s based on my three years’ experience of living in this country and learning where to go, what to do and how to make the most of being here.
I’ve also been extremely fortunate in working with the wonderful team of Jessie Voigts and Ed Forteau at Wandering Educators, the company which published this book.
5. Any more books planned for the future?
My husband and I are working on a book about people who have left their home countries and made lives for themselves in other parts of the world, or are living nomadic lives of travel and experiences.
We’ve interviewed dozens of people – single, married with kids, gay, straight, old and young – who have discovered there’s so much more to life than struggling to pay the rent, settling for a mediocre job or scrimping on retirement income. Our book is designed to enlighten, entertain and inspire people who may be looking for something more in their lives as well as provide examples of people who have picked themselves up at the age of 30, 40 or 50 and never looked back.
Absolutely. Almost everywhere I go I see people working from coffee shops or out of their homes with a laptop, headphones and notepad. There are new coffee shops constantly opening up around Phnom Penh, all of which have good wireless access and provide air-conditioned havens for people who want to be around others when they work, and all the hotels and guesthouses (even those which cost $10/night) have wifi.
7. What could make Cambodia better for everyone?
That’s the million dollar question. While it’s a country that has buried itself deep in my heart with its gentle people, easy lifestyle and plentiful opportunities, there are so many intrinsic problems which will probably not change in my lifetime. There’s also a difference between making it better for Khmer people and making it better for visitors. Khmer people have to live with a corrupt government, enormous poverty, bad healthcare and education and daily struggles to survive while visitors can enjoy the country’s enormous benefits and remain distant from the real issues confronting the Cambodian population.
8. In your interview last year, you commented often on the happiness and smiles of the local Cambodian people. Why do you think people in so called poorer countries are often happier than those in so called wealthy countries?
In Cambodia, I think it’s tied to Buddhist beliefs. People do good, give of themselves and keep smiling though their difficulties because they feel their rewards will come in their next lifetime. I’ve heard it said that materialism equals misery, and that simple values and traditions serve people better than competing for a bigger house, fatter wallet and faster car (though, unfortunately, those are now becoming part of this culture).
Almost 70 percent of Cambodians earn $2 or less a day which is the amount many westerners spend on a fancy coffee drink. Our tuktuk driver tells us his break-even point is $9 per day and he rarely makes that amount. Yet we are constantly humbled in seeing him and other poor Cambodians reach into their pocket and give money to a beggar. I think we’ve become too cynical in the west and tend to rationalise our giving. In Cambodia, people help one another because nobody else will do so.
Also, present day life for Cambodians is a stark contrast to the devastation they experienced during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It is a time of peace and prosperity compared to 30 years ago and many people are just happy that they can get on with their lives.
9. What can we all take from your book and travels that can help us live life in a more fulfilling way?
The book mostly deals with tips on living in Cambodia — how to meet people, find work, travel and discover lesser-known spots. But it also demonstrates the personality of the wonderful people who live here.
One example I write about describes a westerner visiting the home of a Cambodian family who noticed their young son was kicking a sandal around the street with a group of friends.
“Isn’t it sad he doesn’t have a ball to play with,” commented the westerner.
“I don’t see it that way at all,” said his grandmother. “I think it’s wonderful that he has so many friends to play with.”
That sums up so much of what we see here every day — gratitude, graciousness and humility — and makes us realise we have so much to learn from a population which has so very little, yet chooses to share it with other people.
Gabrielle Yetter is a freelance writer who moved to Phnom Penh with her husband, Skip, in 2010 to volunteer at an NGO in Cambodia. She was born in Bombay to British parents, raised in Bahrain, worked as a journalist in South Africa then went to the U.S. on “holiday” where she lived for many years. She has worked in the corporate world, run her own small businesses and, since moving to Cambodia, has written The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia and The Definitive Guide to Moving to Southeast Asia: Cambodia (available on Amazon)