1 August 2016

Melissa Chungfat - Expat in Cambodia

Melissa Chungfat - Expat in Cambodia

We’ve had the chance to talk to Melissa Chungfat, an African expat who has moved alone to Cambodia from Canada, where she had primarily lived.

Ms. Chungfat first came to Cambodia when she accepted an assignment at a charity organisation. There is little red tape, plenty of social groups to join and general cost of living was about one-fifth of Canada’s – all these plus points have kept her at the town of Siem Reap for about a year now.

“Between them and my close expat friends, whenever I'm sick or need help, my Cambodian friends are the ones who will leave their house immediately to bring me a rice soup and coconut. I also gained an adopted Cambodian family who let me join them for meals anytime and feed me every time I entered their house,” Ms. Chungfat described her interaction with the locals.

Ms. Chungfat, who works as a tour coordinator, now frequently blogs and travels around Asia. Read more about her experiences as an expat in Cambodia in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you originally from? 

A: I was actually originally born in Mauritius, Africa and then I moved to Vancouver, Canada when I was two years old.


Q: What made you move out of Canada?

A: I have grown up, studied, and worked in Vancouver for 27 years of my life and never really lived anywhere else. I had travelled a lot around Europe, US and Mauritius, but I felt this irresistible urge to make a big change, take a risk and integrate in a different part of the world. I knew there were so many cultures and vibrancy to experience.

I had two great jobs before I left and they were the best people I have worked with in the 10 years I had been working. So, I wasn't "running away" from anything like some people presume when they meet me while I'm travelling.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: Siem Reap, Cambodia. I accepted a 6-month volunteer position with the educational NGO PEPY in Cambodia, which I first knew about when I did a fundraising bike ride for them in 2009. So, when I went, I knew I was working for an organisation I could trust and I had people who could answer any questions I had about living in the city and travelling.

I'm glad I chose to do the volunteer position first before traveling around Asia, a continent I wasn't as familiar with, because I met travellers in Siem Reap whom I became friends with and visited in my travels later.


Q: How long have you been living in Cambodia?

A: One year.


Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in Cambodia?

A: I was actually never really homesick and have found so many things and people to love in Cambodia pretty quickly. The hardest thing is pushing yourself to join new groups and events alone to make new friends. Once you find the people you can connect deeply with, it's worthwhile.


Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance were particularly difficult in Cambodia? What was your experience with these?

A: It's very easy for expats to settle in Cambodia that's why there are so many of them here. A one-month visitor's visa that most people can get on arrival costs US $30. When you work for an NGO or employer, they can get a work permit for you before you arrive or, you can do what I did – get the tourist visa while they help you get a 6-month or one-year working permit in the country.

International health insurance depends on the laws in your country. For me, as a Canadian, to get health insurance, I need to be eligible for basic health coverage in Canada first. But if you do, you can buy comprehensive insurance from sites like worldnomads.com.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: I live here alone but was living with a local Cambodian family for a few months.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Cambodia? How did you manage to find a social circle?

A: Siem Reap is extremely easy to make new friends, especially local Cambodians. I'm different than most expats here because most of my friends are Cambodian. I connect with people who are very open and not clique-y. The local people are extremely helpful and welcoming to newcomers. When you take the time to get to know them and learn about the culture, they will do everything in their ability to help you and spend time with you.

Besides the locals though, there are so many meetup groups in town from the running club to food and beverage group and soccer group. People just have to push themselves to try a few groups until you find your people.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: It depends on your preference. Siem Reap has something for everyone, whether you want to cycle in the countryside, go hotel pool-shopping at affordable prices, try a new restaurant every meal or go dirtbiking. People often can go to Angkor Wat for free after 5:30 p.m. to enjoy the food and scenery.


Q: How does the cost of living in your host country compare to your home?

A: I can easily live on $300 US in Siem Reap compared to a minimum of $1500 in Vancouver. That's just to cover costs. Basically, I can easily live on $5 a day in Cambodia if I really make an effort.

  • How much is a cup of coffee?

You can get a coffee for $1-3.50 depending on the restaurant.

  • How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

You can get a big plate of rice or noodles for $1.50. Some places will knock off $0.25 if you don't order meat. I get a vegetarian street sandwich for $0.30 sometimes. There are also all-you-can-eat buffets for $7.

  • How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

You can get a nice meal at a higher-end restaurant for $10-16 (great quality French food, for example).

  • How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

You can get a bottle of wine for $7 to $20 depending on the brand. Cigarettes are cheap at $1.50 a pack.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: The local people are some of the best people I have met in my life and I consider myself someone who has amazing friends in Canada. Between them and my close expat friends, whenever I'm sick or need help, my Cambodian friends are the ones who will leave their house immediately to bring me a rice soup and coconut.

I also gained an adopted Cambodian family who let me join them for meals anytime and feed me every time I entered their house.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Cambodia?

A: The social issues in the country can be distressing at times and I feel helpless on how I can contribute, particularly with the burden and status of women in the country.

At the same time, I constantly meet inspiring Cambodians who work so hard to achieve their dreams and have a huge drive to study. The most positive aspects of living here are the warmness of people here and their generosity. There is always something to do in this small town from trying local street food and dancing to going for cocktails and joining a social group.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes?

A: Of course I miss my family, but I never really felt homesick from Vancouver because I've spent most of my life there and it will be there when I go back. I felt more homesick when I left Siem Reap to travel to other parts of Asia.


Q: How do you cope with homesickness?

A: I keep in regular contact with my mom on Skype and want them to see where I live and take them to the beautiful parts of Asia.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: I do plan on going back to Vancouver because I'm an only child and my parents are getting older so I want to be with them.


Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: When I first came here and didn't have many friends, it was challenging having to deal with some clique-y people and that was hurtful. But, that experience actually pushed me to keep finding my own friends. Now, I have great circles and always have people to hang out with.

Whenever there are newcomers to Siem Reap, I make sure to invite them to our social events so they can find their place and friends as well.


Q: What tips can you give other expats living in Cambodia?


  • Make an effort to try different social groups.
  • Take the initiative to invite people to your home to hang out.
  • Whenever someone invites you to go to their home town, go. Their families are very happy whenever they have visitors.

Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Cambodia?

A: I share tips about living in Siem Reap on my own blog.