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Another bittersweet expat exodus

Hanging in for the duration: Miranda Glasser (l), Chan Sarath aka Jimmy (r). Photograph: Claire Byrne/Phnom Penh Post

Au revoir, adios, sayonara. This week I say goodbye to five great friends. I imagine we’ll meet again one day, but we’ll never share another bucket, chat over cheap mani-pedis, cycle to the temples on a Monday night, or lose whole days just eating brunch. But such is a life of an expat the world over, and such is the life of an expat in Siem Reap.

In a town chocka with tourists, volunteers, and teachers, all passing through for one week, one month, one year, it can be difficult to build lasting friendships among all the coming and going.

While I can’t complain about my buds moving on – it was them or me – it got me to thinking about how this way of life might take its toll on long timers. As one mate said to me last week, “Every July, I say goodbye to heaps of friends and every September I make a bunch of new ones, that’s just the cycle.”

So I hit up some Reapers old and new to see how they feel about the revolving door of potential pals.

One resident who’s been here 18 months, and didn’t want to be named, said the transient nature of the place can sometimes make her cynical. “Constantly saying goodbye can be draining and frustrating, and I know lots of expats – myself included sometimes – that actively avoid making friends with people who are only planning on being her for a few months.”

She did add that the buds she has made make the process worth it. “I’ve met some amazing people and wonderful friends, which always outweighs how sad it is to say goodbye.”

But for other long-termers, it seems it’s just part of the gig…literally.

Fabien Lesecq is a member of the Cambojam band which has had a revolving line-up since its conception.

And this week the band says goodbye to bassist Bertrand. But for Fabien, the goodbyes haven’t taken their toll. “I am used to it, as at 20 years old I moved from place to place already 20 times, I grew up this way. Even my dad has been living in Siem Reap for five years now.”



Fabien reckons he’s said goodbye to between 20 to 25 friends since his arrival seven years ago. “I don’t keep in touch with all of them, but a few became close, even with the distance.”

For me, living in Ireland, where my entire generation is looking for work overseas, part of the reason I came away was to escape the endless bon voyage parties. No such luck here then.

Given the nature of friendships in foreign climes – a bunch of often like-minded people chucked into an unfamiliar place, with heat, flooding, bugs and culture shock to contend with – it’s no wonder friendships accelerate quite quickly.

For Miranda Glasser, who arrived one year ago, her decision to stay on for a second year has meant saying goodbye to many of the colleagues she started with.

“I feel kind of sad saying goodbye to all my friends, most of them have new jobs in different countries for next year, and I’ve grown really close to some of them. It feels like the end of an era. It’ll be strange coming back in autumn and them not being there.”

For Hotel 1961’s Loven Ramos, there’s definitely a cyclical nature to the goodbyes. “It’s always right before summer or right before the big end-of-the-year holidays,” he says.

Having lived here for over seven years, Loven says he lost track of his farewells after year three. He adds, “Thank heavens for Facebook!”

He does agree that there’s a tough element to life in a tourist town. “The emotional investment you put into friendship is a big commitment and saying goodbye too often is not a good thing. However, after a couple of years we’ve learned to accept that fact,” he explains. “The positive side to this is that those friends who come also come back after learning that living in Cambodia is way better in so many ways!”

And it’s not only us foreigners who face the brunt of farewell. For locals who count barangs among their friends, it can be heartbreaking not to know when your paths may cross again. “I feel so sad,” explains Chan Sarath aka Jimmy. “I miss them. And I miss the time we used to spend together and I still have them in my mind and in my thoughts.”

But for Jimmy, this hasn’t put him off befriending short termers. “I like making friends with tourists because we can learn about our culture, history, tradition, custom and civilisation from each other. It helps me a lot to practice my language skill with them and they can share their lives and traveling experiences with me, too”.

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Byrne at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com

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