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Cambo Life: House Hunters

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to go house hunting in Phnom Penh? Of course you have! Exciting highlights from the search for our just-good-enough-to-inhabitat home!

First item of business in Cambodia? Finding a place to live.

For months, we’ve heard horror stories about finding a rental in Phnom Penh. The city’s developing at a rapid pace, and many aspects of construction are unregulated.

Central planning? Ha! Zoning? Forget about it. Public Safety? What’s that!?

The green light’s been given for Chinese developers to have their way with the nation’s capital, and make as much money as humanly possible in the process.

No strings attached.

Low-density housing is evaporating faster than you can say Tsingtao, and high-rises are shooting up like firecrackers on Lunar New Year.

What does that mean for foreign renters like us? Fewer available Western family-sized units, higher rents than other cities in the region, and lots and lots of construction.

In Laos, our housing was covered by Lori’s employer, with a cap based on number of dependents. In Cambodia, we’ll be paying for housing ourselves. So, there’s definitely an incentive to find the best possible deal.

And, to make everything just a bit more interesting, Lori’s office happens to be right smack in the center of three of the most desirable (and most expensive) neighborhoods in town.

Commuting in Phnom Penh is not something we want to mess around with, so we have a 2 km radius from her work that we’re more or less locked into. Fortunately, included in that radius are some of the city’s best coffee shops and eateries, as well as our top picks for the boys’ nursery schools.

Still, knowing all of this before moving to Phnom Penh did not adequately prepare us for the reality of finding a 3-bedroom unit somewhere in the that 2 km radius.

We’re flexible people who don’t need a whole lot of creature comforts to live on, so we figured that that, alone, would help us find something that ticked most of the boxes.

We quickly learn, however, that flexibility only gets you so far in Phnom Penh. In reality, everything comes down to luck.

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So the question is, do we feel lucky?

If we’re feeling anything on Day One, it’s confidence. I’m feeling pretty confident we’ll find a reasonably priced place that met our needs by the time our current reservation runs out on our temporary housing (in just under two weeks). Lori’s confident we’ll secure a place by Friday.

We’ll just see who’s closest without going over… Let the hunt begin!

Nursery School

Monday morning, we get the boys ready for their first day at their respective schools. Noe’s pretty stoked. Riley’s feelings, on the other hand, are more along the lines of “BABABABA-BAHH.”

The boys’ morning commute to school starts with a magical glass elevator ride. Swank. It’s easily the fanciest part of the building and regularly tries to eat our children. Double swank.

Noe’s school starts earlier than Riley’s, so we decide to drop off Noe first.

We assume, as with Noe’s previous schools, that drop-off is between 7:30 and 9am. Arriving just before 9am, we are informed that, in fact, the bell rings at 8:15am.

Sorry, Noe for making you tardy on your first day of school. Mommy and daddy are still on Laos time, apparently.

On the subject of nursery schools here in Phnom Penh, they’re expensive! Quite a bit more expensive on the whole than Vientiane. And, even worse, most don’t even offer a full day option!

Phnom Penh’s most popular schools for Westerners cost at least twice as much as the same quality of school in Vientiane, but for a half day!

Which, means quality nursery school options run at least FOUR TIMES as much.

Fortunately, Lori was able to find a very good school near her office offering full time care/instruction for about twice as much as we were paying in Laos, which we could stomach. Not sure how she does it (I prefer not to ask).

The only major downside (besides the cost) is that, because Cambodians have more than TWO DOZEN paid public holidays every year (you read that right), the school is closed an insane number of weeks out of the year.

On average, the school is closed an entire week out of every six. Which means, depending on the flexibility with the work I’ll be doing, we may also need to find a nanny/babysitter to fill in some of the gaps.

Ugh.

None of which seems to be a problem with other expats we’ve encountered here, because, of course, they all seem to have full-time nannies, IN ADDITION to sending their kids off to nursery school for a half day or even a full day.

That was also the case to an extent in Vientiane. But in Laos, a lot of the same people that employed full-time maebans (housekeeper-nannies) also had huge villas to maintain.

Not the case in Phnom Penh, unless you live in the far flung suburb of Tuol Kork where everyone lives in spacious walled compounds and expats’ dreams of urban adventure and local living go to die.

Lori has done a ton of research on schools, and today it is obvious it’s paid off. We immediately like Noe’s school when we arrive — the staff, the environment, the philosophy.

To us, it feels a lot like his previous nursery school in Vientiane, which we loved. Nothing fancy, no tech gadgets, just good old-fashioned hands-on instruction and activities using local materials, balanced with a healthy amount of outdoor free play.

Noe was a bit overwhelmed and apprehensive on the morning of day one, but a happy boy when we pick him up later in the day.

While our boys have their share of shy moments with adults, they’ve rarely had issues with us leaving them with new people.

They’ve both had a lot of exposure to a diversity of friends, caregivers, and people in general, and seem more than happy to get to play with a new friend or teacher, and new toys, of course. Especially right now, when they don’t have a lot of toys at home and have been on the road with mommy and daddy for the last four weeks.

After some initial hesitation, Riley was off and running (or crawling, in his case) as well. He’ll be at this particular place until the end of the year before joining his brother at “big boy school” when he’s 15-months old.

 

Let the Hunt Begin!

With both boys settled in their new schools, it’s time to get down to business.

Our Phnom Penh house hunt officially starts at 10am, with a full day of viewings scheduled until we need to pick up the boys.

Today, we’re set to view a half dozen properties in the morning with one agent, then a handful in the afternoon with another.

Depending on how things go, we’ve got more viewings scheduled for later in the week. But not tomorrow, because tomorrow is, you guessed it! A national holiday!

In the U.S., we’ve never used an agent to find a rental, having found all of our places via Craigslist and friends. But finding a place to rent long-term in Cambodia (and Laos) is a bit different.

There’s a lot of advice on the interwebs to avoid using an agent in Phnom Penh if you can, as they say you’ll end up paying more, and we get that.

If we didn’t have a one-year-old and three-year-old and were looking for a one or two-bedroom unit in a Western/ serviced apartment, we could probably get by fine on our own.

But with our criteria, we know we’ll be better served having an agent who has a solid handle on the market, the different neighborhoods, and what is available.

Three bedroom units with no significant flaws are in low supply and high demand in the areas we’re targeting, so any decent properties get snatched up quickly — by clients of agents in the know.

We simply can’t compete with that on our own and we know it.

So why not go with a two-bedroom and call it good? After all, our boys are small and can easily fit in the same room (or closet, let’s be honest), and we’ve had plenty of experience staying in close quarters while traveling.

Well, that’s our hope for the future. And maybe we’ll end up in a two-bedroom this time around in Phnom Penh. But if the past month on the road with the boys has taught us anything, it’s that our three-year-old can sleep just about anywhere with anyone…

…but our one-year-old can’t. He’s kind of a diva in that respect.

And, I guess Lori and I are kind of divas in the sense that we’d prefer to have more than a couple hours of sleep each night in the coming months.

Currently, Riley is sleeping in our bedroom, and nights are rough, to say the least.

When he’s on his own, in his own room, he sleeps as well as can be expected for a 12-month-old. But, around others, he’s distracted. With or without other people around, he still wakes up crying once or twice in the middle of the night.

He’s getting better at self-soothing, but regardless, all that racket wakes Noe, who then has difficulties sleeping, who in turn distracts Riley, who then can’t fall back asleep because Noe’s distracting him.

Lori and I don’t need a pool/gym, or a yard, or a lot of square footage, or an updated apartment, or an elevator, or a fancy kitchen, or a neighborhood with a lot of expat services.

But three-bedrooms, at least for this season of our lives, is kind of a priority.

So, here’s our main criteria for our house hunt:

  • 2 km radius from Lori’s work near Independence Monument
  • 3-bedrooms
  • Some sort of outdoor balcony/terrace
  • No major construction sites (or empty lots, as we’ve been warned) adjacent to the property
  • No late night clubs, bars, or karaoke parlors adjacent to the property
  • Within budget

Some long-time expats tell us we’re nuts and wish us luck, while others tell us we shouldn’t have a problem at all. Our agents seem optimistic, but they have to be if they hope to receive a commission, I guess.

Who to believe? We’ll find out, I guess!

All the real estate agents we’ve utilized throughout our search have been great, but Bobby Peoples from Phnom Penh Real Estate has really gone above and beyond. We’ve found him to be highly knowledgeable, approachable, communicative, flexible, accommodating, and honest. Can’t ask for much more in an agent. If you’re in the market, we can’t recommend him enough.

Our search begins with Bobby showing us four properties in Daun Penh (Riverside), a Khmer-style apartment in BKK1 and a Western apartment in 7 Makara.

The first property we view is an older Khmer-style townhouse of sorts, spread over three levels (with a spiral staircase). It shares an entrance with two local families with kids, and is at the upper end of our budget. Not really our bag.

The second, is in an older colonial-style apartment building (white building, below) that is in the process of being updated by a local French-Khmer developer with a flair for the avant-garde.

The unit is spacious but surrounded by other units being actively renovated, and requires ascending several flights of stairs to access.

The building is located on a busy street in the most congested part of town, and outside of a reasonable walking distance to Lori’s work or the kids’ nursery schools.

We’re not crazy about this one either, but it has potential.

 

Property #3 is the first to go on our shortlist.

I really like this place, but we’re having trouble getting past the several non-toddler and baby friendly aspects of the property, such as the very congested road, four flights of stairs to access, and the not-so-baby-friendly stairs inside the unit. The unit is also on the upper end of our budget and would be costly to cool.

But the two wrap-around terraces are awesome, the unit is very spacious and modern, spread out over two levels (called a duplex here, which means something very different from a duplex in the U.S.), and offers a strong sense of place.

This isn’t simply a Western apartment in a soulless high-rise, but an updated older Khmer building in the heart of the city.

This is Phnom Penh living at its best, in my mind, and the type of place I envisioned us living in.

And if Lori and I were sans wee ones, it would be perfect. But then again, we wouldn’t be springing for a three-bedroom if it were just the two of us.

Could we make it work? Would walking a toddler and carrying a big baby up and down four flights of stairs every day be so bad?

On to the next one…

In addition to having a funky staircase and no bathroom upstairs (or windows), this next place is just plain stuffy and weird. And very far north near Wat Phnom.

It does have a pool. But we decide to pass.

This property is in the heart of the popular BKK1 neighborhood and within walking distance of Lori’s work and the boys’ schools.

It has a gigantic terrace, but is weathered and dated, a bit wonky, up a number of stairs, and requires walking through the landlord’s family compound to access (complete with vicious guard dogs).

Another pass.

Viewing this place in 7 Makara district, we instantly thought we had found our home for the foreseeable future.

It is spacious, well-furnished, has multiple functional balconies, and gets an amazing cross breeze up on the eighth floor.

However, two things make us a bit hesitant about the 7 Makara unit: the vacant lot next door (vacant lots quickly turn into construction sites in Phnom Penh), and the neighborhood doesn’t seem to offer much beyond a couple of Chinese restaurants and minimarts.

But it is a short walking distance to a number of Western cafes and bars, not too far to Lori’s work, and a bit under budget. All of that puts the 7 Makara property squarely on our short list.

By the time lunch rolls around, we’re feeling pretty good about the morning’s outing. We’ve got two solid leads and more properties to view in the coming hours and days. It is looking likely that we may have this hunt in the bag by week’s end with time to spare.

After lunch, we meet up with an agent from IPS, perhaps Phnom Penh’s largest real estate company. They hand us a packet with printouts for the properties we’re going to see this afternoon.

The first two are established Western-style apartments in BKK1 with a bit more going for them than a lot of the brand new cookie cutter block apartments found around the district. The first one we’re shown is well above our budget and southwest facing (very hot!!!). Pass.

The second goes straight on our short list. It’s got a large outdoor terrace, lots of space, a nice kitchen, a gym in the building, great location, and just barely in our budget.

 

It’s also got an enclosed courtyard for Noe and Riley to play in.

There’s a massive high-rise under construction a block away from the front of the building, but the noise doesn’t seem too bothersome today.

Our third property of the afternoon is down a hidden alleyway a stone’s throw from Noe’s nursery school. It’s a hodgepodge of funky old shophouses divided into single units and updated with modern appliances and Western touches.

The alleyway is quiet, the location is excellent, the price is well below budget.

But, it’s a bit cramped-feeling for us. You can see the entire apartment from the front door, and living quarters are tight — there are tenants above and on nearly all sides, with several units looking into a tiny central courtyard.

We’re told that there is a French family with kids in one unit, a German family with a kid in another, and another Western family…with kids. That’s a lot of kids in a small space.

We love our kids, but don’t exactly need any more all up in our personal space.

The window of the master bedroom looks out into a multi-generational local family’s compound that is bustling with activity, and there is a school across the street.

The kitchen is basic and small with very limited storage space, and the outdoor balcony isn’t covered.

We’re on the fence on this one.

Onto the penultimate property of this jam-packed day. And something completely different.

Allow me to introduce, the Bridge.

45 stories of Chinese styling and ingenuity.

Lori saw the unit that we are about to look at online and was curious. It’s a penthouse duplex (across the 44th & 45th floor) in a brand new tower and just within our budget.

We’ve never viewed anything like this so figure, what the heck.

The agent thought Lori was a bit nutty when she asked to see it, but offered to show us the unit anyway. In fact, everyone we talked to seemed to give us a weird look when we told them we were considering a unit at the Bridge.

When we rolled up to the tower, things quickly started to click.

Casinos, high-end shopping malls, and lots and lots of Chinese writing. And, our neighbors across the street…

“The Peak” by Great Wall Construction.

Alright then, let’s have a look.

Lucky level 13 seems to have it all.

To the 44th floor, good sir!

The first thing we notice when we entered the unit was the heat. It is bloody hot up here! South-facing floor-to-ceiling windows and 43 floors of heat rising up to the top.

The second thing we notice is the view.

I throw the balcony sliders wide open and wait for the wind to come gushing in.

And wait. And wait. And wait.

Nothing.

I try the other three balconies across both floors of the unit.

Dang, it’s hot up here.

The third thing we notice, is…

Hey, where’s the furniture?

Apparently, appliances can be negotiated. Regarding everything else, however, we’re on our own.

It would certainly be a living experience unlike any other we’ve had, but doesn’t really feel like us.

I do have to admit, however, that the pool on the 13th floor overlooking the National Assembly is pretty damn sweet.

Finally, one last property of the day.

Feeling a bit bad about dropping off Noe late, we arrived at his school early. A bit too early, though. No worries, we’ll just take a stroll around the neighborhood to see if there’s anything for rent.

There are a number of apartment complexes in the neighborhood, but only offer one or two bedroom units. We thought we’d check one of them out anyways.

Nice place, right at budget, ticks all the boxes but for one — it’s still a two bedroom.

After a long day of house hunting, we fetched the boys and returned to our two-bedroom temporary abode.

Can we just make this place work for the next year?

No, no we can’t. So the search continues. But we’ve got some solid leads. And…

…A Day off.

Coronation Day

Surprise! It’s the anniversary of the king’s coronation day!

Yep, all that momentum on Day One grinding to a halt on Day Two.

So, the next day, we take a break. And enjoy a nice quiet day in our new adoptive city, just the two of us.

 

…and Riley.

Hey! What’s that guy doing here!?

While Noe’s school (the one with all the days off) is not observing today’s holiday, Riley’s school, on the other hand, is.

Which actually made for a really fun day, given that it’s the first time we’ve ever had a full day alone with Riley.

After picking up Noe from school later that afternoon, we thought we’d treat ourselves to some rooftop dining. But first, we have to get our little brood safely through BKK1.

They don’t really close the construction sites off around here. In some parts of the neighborhood, they all seem to blend together and spill out into busy roads.

The only way to get where we are going on this particular evening is to literally climb under the supports of the cement mixer, dodging welding sparks and i-beams swinging from cranes along the way.

Noe loved it. Mommy and daddy, not so much.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if they’re prepping a building for renovation or demolition. In Phnom Penh, my money’s on demolition.

This is a fun corner of the neighborhood. Three of the four corners of this intersection are active high-rise construction sites. And the fourth? An apartment building plastered with huge banners reading “For Rent” in big red letters. Vacancies? What a surprise.

We somehow manage to arrive at our destination for the evening: Amigos atop Feliz Urban Hotel (not to be confused with Feliz hostel and cafe a block away).

And nope, neither are Mexican restaurants (though there is a good Mexican restaurant just down the road called…Mexicano).

Nonetheless, the food is supposed to be pretty good here at Amigos. But really, we’re here for the 360-degree view.

 

It’s an appropriate cap on the last couple of days here in Phnom Penh — an interesting perspective on the city we’re quickly becoming familiar with by the hour.

It’s a funky trip down memory lane, as we’re able to spot a good majority of the properties we’ve viewed from up here, especially the 44-story Bridge (above, just to the right of the Peak (the three green towers under construction)).

Standing here, taking it all in, I’m also reminded of how different nearly every aspect of our lives will likely be here in Phnom Penh compared with Vientiane. It’s a ton of logistics to sort, but very exciting.

We’ve been looking forward to embarking on a new adventure in a new place for a while, and though only 500 miles away from Vientiane as the crow flies, it looks as though Phnom Penh will deliver.

 

Our time for reflection this evening is fleeting, as the boys seem to conspire to drastically cut short our first rooftop dining experience in Phnom Penh. We pack up the bulk of our Lok Lak for takeaway and flee the premises before the cops show up.

After Hours

After our sweet little thugs go down for the night, we once again review the properties we looked at the day before. And it’s clear, the 7 Makara property is the front runner.

We decide that we’ll submit an offer by the end of the week, pending another look at the unit and another day of apartment viewings (just to be sure).

Which means it’s time for me to do a night stroll up to 7 Makara to scope out the neighborhood’s after-hours activity to make sure there aren’t any surprises. If all seems okay, we’re good to go.

Just after 9pm, I head out for the ten-minute walk to the building. Walking along Route 1, I’m struck by how quiet things seem along the national highway. Eerily so.

Turning into 7 Makara, I’m further struck by how dark and deserted the neighborhood is. I continue walking to the street that the apartment is located on, then stop myself. No, I think I’ll walk around the alley behind the building first.

The alley is even darker and more deserted than the road I’d been walking along. But soon, the glow of neon in the distance catches my eye, along with the sound of music. This is promising, I tell myself.

The music grows louder.

And louder.

And…wow…this is really loud music.

Then, I suddenly realize it isn’t music at all but…

…karaoke?

No. Not quite. Those are drums. But the singing is so bad!!!

At this point, the ear bleeding cacophony of screeching and drums and electric guitar becomes so deafening, I can barely hear myself think. I arrive at the source of the noise and realize it’s a club, a packed club, with a very loud, live band.

I stare in disbelief for a moment. And then, it occurs to me where I am as my eyes follow a white, ghostly form rising above the club.

This ear-piercing, head-splitting night club, is right behind our top apartment pick. The unit we viewed the previous day is the third from the top in the picture above. You could spit off the balcony and hit the parking attendant, or members of the band, which I’d probably find myself doing on a nightly basis if we moved into that place — or probably much worse.

I quickly pulled up the reviews of the club on Google Maps and confirm that live music plays nightly until well past midnight.

Awesome.

I return to Lori who is anxiously awaiting the verdict.

Well, honey, the good news is that 90% of the neighborhood is feels like walking through a post-apocalyptic movie set. The bad news is…

(To be continued…)

29 Oct 2019

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JANICE M FULLERTON
JANICE M FULLERTON

Your adventure finding a place to live is way too adventurous for me!! But I’m loving the vicarious living through your posts!! Thank you so much for telling us all about how you usually go about finding your new homes—so exciting…