Tammy on the Move – Expat in Cambodia

Ever wanted to be an expat for an NGO? Tammy On The Move answers our questions about how she got her job, and living in Cambodia.

volunteer placement Cambodia

1. Tell us about how long you’ve been in Cambodia and what you do there?

I have been in Cambodia for 1.5 years now. My hubby and I initially went for a 6-month voluntary placement, but loved it so much that when we got offered a paid job in international development we jumped at the chance. We are both working for an American NGO that deals with human rights issues.

Would you be able to say a bit more about how you went from volunteer to paid work?

I went from volunteer to paid work by working quite hard actually. A lot of volunteers take the mickey to be honest and think that volunteering is a ride in he park and cant be bothered to do any work that isnt glamourous. Reality is that not a lot of work you get as a volunteer is glamorous and why should it? You are there do help where help is most needed at the time and if that is proofreading a local colleagues’ email then thats what you will have to do. So I worked hard, did work I didnt like doing and proofed that I can do a good job at helping making the organization more efficient and trained up in comms and fundraising. I must have done something right, as I was asked to stay on longer, not the other way round. :-)

If you work for a local NGO salaries are usually lower, but you can live comfortably. You might not be able to save that much but it depends on your lifestyle really. If you can land a job with a foreign NGO than jobs are much better paid and you can live very comfortably and put enough aside for a retirement fond for example. Of course your salary does depend on your experience. You will get less money if you are only starting out in the industry. If you have 5 yrs plus experience then you get a lot more money of course.

2. Have you traveled anywhere off the beaten track in Cambodia e.g., the North East of Cambodia?

I have been lucky enough to see many off-the-beaten-path places during work trips, as most of our projects are run in fairly remote villages in the countryside. I often combine these trips with a bit of time off afterwards to do some touristy stuff. My favourite part in North East Cambodia is Kratie, which is famous for the Irrawady river dolphins and also Mondulkiri, which is the perfect place for a bit of jungle trekking.

Cambodian Jungle.

3. For digital nomads who might be considering spending some time in Phnom Penh, what would you recommend – Were you able to rent an apartment or was that difficult? How much is rent?

It is very easy and cheap to rent apartments in Phnom Penh. You can either go through an estate agent or you do what we did, which was to roam the streets in the area we wanted to live in and look out for houses that have a phone number displayed on their door. That means that they have an apartment for rent. You can usually view the apartment straight away. As per the rent you can pay anything between US$100 p.m. for a room in a shared flat to $3000 for a villa. We are renting a small studio flat in a serviced apartment block. Services include cleaning, washing, ironing, water and internet and apartments like that usually cost between US$450-$1500 plus electricity, depending on size and location.

expat kitchen cambodia

– Any recommendations for SIM cards etc (and practical info someone staying in Cambodia for awhile would need)?

Getting SIM cards is also really easy. There are hundreds of mobile phone shops in Phnom Penh and staff usually also speak English. A SIM card costs about US$1 and then you can top it up in most corner or mobile phone shops. Phone rates in Cambodia are very cheap and even phoning abroad usually only costs a few Dollars for 20 minutes or so. Internet is also widely available. Most cafes, bars and restaurants offer free wifi and it is usually advertised outside as well. There are also plenty of internet cafes about. Wifi in normal cafes is usually faster than the internet connection in internet cafes though.

4. I’m a vegan. If I was traveling to Phnom Penh as a vegan, what could I eat?

Unlike their Thai neighbours, not many people in Cambodia are vegan and most local food will include some animal products (i.e. fish sauce or oyster sauce). Having said that there are more and more vegetarian and vegan restaurants popping up. My favourite vegan restaurant is called K’nyay on street 268. They offer really unusual meals and drinks, such as banana or jackfruit curries. Another really good vegan restaurant is ARTillery, which is run by a couple of Brits who specialise in organic, raw, vegan and gluten free foods.

– Any tips for shopping at the food markets ? e.g., buying fruits and vegetables, tofu etc. (I’d like to get a sense of how you do your shopping there)

There are also plenty of markets in Phnom Penh with a large choice of vegetables. Vendors don’t tend to speak English though, so you will need to learn a few phrases in Khmer to haggle. If you don’t like that sort of thing you can also go to a Western supermarket (Lucky supermarket on Sihanouk Blv. is very good). Prices are somewhat higher than those on markets, but vegetables are clean and fresh and you can also buy tofu or vegan oyster sauce there.

5. What’s your favorite place you’ve been in South East Asia?

I am a huge fan of the Cambodian Islands. They are not very developed yet, which means there are not overrun by tourists either. The sand is white and the waters are warm and clear. Without electricity at night it is possible to live your perfect cast-away dream in bamboo huts right on the beach. My favourite three islands are Bamboo Island and Koh Rong off the coast of Sihanoukville, and Rabbit Island off the coast of Kep.

Cambodian Island

6. What approach would you recommend for other people who want to volunteer in Cambodia? Anything to be wary of?

Finding voluntary placements in Cambodia is fairly easy, but you need to do your research well, as there are more and more dodgy voluntourism placements coming up, which don’t benefit the locals, but only fill the pockets of the people who run it. Orphanages are particularly prone to bad practice. In terms of what’s available you can do anything from teaching English, to building schools or work for NGOs if you have the right qualifications and skills. I would recommend a placement of at least three months, as it is hard making an impact if you are staying for any less than that. You can get placements by contacting an NGO, orphanage etc. directly or you can go through placement agencies for long-term placements, such as AVI in Australia, VSO in the UK or Peace Coprs in the US. We went with a British organization called 2Way Development, which I can highly recommend.

7. What are your upcoming plans?

We will be staying in Cambodia until October this year and then the world is our oyster. We haven’t got any plans of what we want to do afterwards really, so will keep it exciting for us by not planning anything and deciding nearer the time what we want to do.


Tammy from Tammy & Chris on the Move blogs about her voluntary work, travels and misadventures across the globe. Follow her journey on her blog, on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. //

    What an unforgettable experience – enjoyed learning more about Tammy!

  2. //

    Thanks for stopping by to comment Andrea.

  3. //

    Fantastic interview, filled with lots of great information! It’s true that Cambodia seems to be overflowing with volunteer opportunities, but I agree with Tammy that it is important to do one’s due diligence to ensure one is really helping rather than hurting!

  4. //

    Thanks for commenting Steph!

  5. //

    Nice post, and Tammy’s blog is worth reading too. We while in Canada, my wife were able to join Greenpeace as an expat after volunteering for few months for them.

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