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Lara Dunston

Who are you?

I’m an Australian travel and food writer. I have a popular travel site called Grantourismo, which I publish with my photographer husband Terence Carter, that started as a travel blog eight years ago. That’s my main focus these days.However, I’ve written for some of the best publications over the years, from newspapers such as The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent, countless travel magazines, including National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller China, Wanderlust, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian and so on, food magazines like Australian Gourmet Traveller and Delicious, dozens of in-flight and hotel magazines, and scores of travel sites. Plus my photographer-writer husband and I have authored, updated and contributed to dozens of guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Thomas Cook, Fodors, and so on.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

We moved from Sydney, Australia, in 1998 to Abu Dhabi in the UAE, as I had a three-year contract teaching filmmaking, media studies, and writing to young Emiratis at a women’s colleges of the country’s largest tertiary education institution. Before that I was teaching filmmaking, film history, and screen writing, directing and producing classes. We’d made films, including our first feature film.

I did my Master’s degree, which took me to South America to research Latin American cinema — for what was meant to be a year, but I returned early as I ran out of money! We initially moved so we could travel, but also to make money to pay off our student loads and save money to move back to South America — I had wanted to move to Buenos Aires. But we fell in love with the place, the lifestyle, the ability to travel all the time, with the Middle East and Europe. I guess we fell in love with the world.

What challenges did you face during the move?

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For me, it was deciding how many books and videos to take – there were no kindles/e-readers and you couldn’t download movies from the internet back then! — and for Terence, how many guitars to take with him. He’s a musician as well. Although many of my videos were confiscated at the time — which was very frustrating, particularly when I saw them sold on the shelves of the Virgin mega-store years later.

We were actually very lucky in that I had a government contract so they paid well and they paid for our relocation. Someone picked us up from the airport and took us to a five-star hotel for a few nights, handed us an envelope full of cash, showed us our lovely new apartment the next day, and took us shopping to buy furniture for it. They did everything for us, from take me to get my liquor license to take Terence to get his drivers license — a simple swap of his Australian license and no need to even do a test. The idea of them doing all that was so that we wouldn’t get culture shock. And we didn’t.

We absolutely loved it. We lived in Abu Dhabi for five years and then Dubai for almost three years when I was promoted. Once I resigned we both began writing virtually full-time for Lonely Planet — my husband had already been writing for them for a while; we did many of the earliest travel guidebooks — so we maintained a base in Dubai for some time as we bounced around the Middle East and Europe, doing guidebooks initially, but then stories for newspapers and magazines as well.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Well now we live in Siem Reap, Cambodia — so we’ve gone from one of the richest countries in the world to one of the poorest! — with about 7 years in between living out of suitcases as we bounced around the world as a travel writer-photographer team. There’s a large expat population here, and they seem to fall into four categories. There are the NGO workers and volunteers, who range from being very young, fresh out of uni, and they don’t stay long, then there are the older volunteers, many of whom have retired.

There’s a sizeable population of expats working in and around tourism and hospitality, who own or manage hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars, and boutiques, or work as architects, designers, jewellers and so on. There are the retirees who have come for the low cost of living — they can live much better than they can at home, renting an apartment for as little as US$150 a month for a studio up to US$500 for something very nice, and eating out at restaurants every night. And then there are freelancers who tend to either work in the media or write or shoot photos for NGOs or are digital nomads, running their own online businesses.

What I love about a lot of the expats here, particularly those who own small businesses, is that they have huge hearts and many are giving so much back to the community. I’ve never been in a place like it where everyone I know seems to be doing something to help pull the locals out of poverty, whether it’s starting foundations to raise funds for a particular cause, sponsoring their staff to continue their education, offering scholarships, holding fund-raisers or starting initiatives to promote reusable water bottles to reduce the monumental number of plastic bottles that are littering the city and countryside, or to plant trees or clean up the city.

And we give back to, especially with the trips and retreats I curate and host. We arrange sponsorship for and mentor young Cambodians who want to write or create or develop travel products that will help their communities. We use small travel businesses that are giving back and are ethical and sustainable. We send travellers to hospitality training restaurants to dine at, and to sip coffee at social enterprise cafes, to shop at NGO workshops or the ateliers of small independent designers, and encourage people to buy Made in Cambodia souvenirs. All of these things make a difference to the lives of locals.

It’s a very different type of expat community to that we knew in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and right across the Arabian Peninsula. Everybody was there for two reasons — either to travel and see the world, as we were or to save money. From the UAE it was just a short flight to Istanbul or Cairo or Beirut. My husband would to keep a close watch on the weather reports in winter and hop on a plane at the last minute to go snowboarding in Lebanon. Or it was a slightly longer flight to Europe, and we had a ridiculous number of holidays — I had almost two months in summer and two weeks in winter, plus many other national and religious holidays. Or people were there to save money to buy a house back home and retire well. Those people didn’t travel as much and some would leave having never been to Jordan or Oman or Turkey, which we thought was crazy at the time.

What do you like about life where you are?

It’s a very beautiful country, with lush rice fields fringed by sugar palms, coconut palms and banana trees, with sleepy villages of traditional Khmer wooden houses on stilts, with a couple of cows in the yard and scrawny chickens scratching about, and adorable children who just love screaming out “hellooooooo!”. But I love the local people mostly. Cambodians are extraordinary human beings. They are always smiling and joking. They’re very hospitable and warm and would do anything for you. And they’re incredibly resilient.

Life has dealt them many blows over many centuries – there was the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge period when millions of lives were lost, either executed by the Pol Pot regime or through death from starvation, malaria, disease, or sheer exhaustion, as so many of them were put to work to build dams and canals and roads and harvest rice. After that the country was occupied by the Vietnamese for ten years. Before the Khmer Rouge it was occupied by Thais and Japanese during World War 2, the French before that, and the Thais again before that.

And yet these people are so proud because they are descendants of one of Asia’s greatest and richest empires that built the majestic temples at Angkor and sculpted fine statues and intricate carvings. As a result we are so lucky to have Angkor Wat about 20 minutes from our home and we try to get there whenever we can. The culture is very rich and I love the cuisine, which is highly underrated and greatly misunderstood — and I love it so much that I’m writing a cookbook about Cambodian cuisine, and interviewing old cooks to preserve the culinary heritage and make it better known.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

I don’t really get homesick — ironically, until I’m in a plane as it flies by the magnificent Hawkesbury River and all that beautiful Australian bushland, and then I get very teary as we fly over the heads at the entrance to Sydney Harbour and I cry at the sheer beauty of my home town. Sydney is easily the most gorgeous city in the world. And then I miss the city and I develop the urge to see and do everything and I wonder why the heck I’ve spent almost 20 years living abroad.

But above all else, I desperately miss my mother and my sister. And my best friends. I think about them every day and that can be difficult at times. I also miss the rest of my family, some of whom, like my aunt and uncles and cousins I haven’t seen in many years, and I’d love to see them again. Yet I have to say that my parents are to blame for my nomadic existence! The thing my parents most loved to do was travel. It was my mother and father, who took my sister and I travelling around Australia in a caravan for five years, who gave me the travel bug. And it was probably in my genes. My Russian grandparents were World War 2 refugees who apparently thought they were headed to Argentina but ended up in Australia in displacement camps. And their sons, my uncles, travelled all over Asia and Europe. One uncle lived in Russia and Paris as a medical student and doctor for many years, sending me postcards and books.

But I also dislike other expats sometimes, especially the expats who live in a bubble and only socialise with each other and don’t take time to get to know locals. What’s the point of moving overseas? They should have stayed home. I also dislike the expats who don’t appreciate their life and how privileged they are to be living it but mostly I dislike the expats who don’t appreciate the place they’ve chosen to make their home and the people who live there. I saw them in the UAE and I see them here.

In the UAE, there’d always be expats whining about how the place was artificial and had no culture and the locals were unfriendly, all of which was completely absurd. They simply didn’t spend enough time away from their air-conditioned villas, shiny shopping malls and glam five star hotels. If they took the time to get to know Emiratis they would have learnt that they have a rich culture of traditional storytelling, poetry, music, and dance, and for many it’s still part of their everyday life.

There are expats in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia who are the same, very cynical and negative. They just whine about different things. Those kinds of people will always find something to complain about, whether it’s the garbage collection service (or lack of!) or the loud wedding music (which I love). I think some expats need to do some serious reflection and if they find themselves moaning about everything every day then it’s time to go home.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

Well, I’ve lived in many countries. Our longest stints have been in the UAE and Cambodia, however, in between we’ve lived in places like Amsterdam, Brussels, Antalya in Southern Turkey, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Hoi An, for anything from a month to three and six months. And I say ‘lived’, because we were in those places working, research and writing guidebooks, renting apartments, shopping the markets, cooking at home, meeting the neighbours, and having a social life. It’s not quite the same as being expats and moving to a place for years, but you develop much more of a connection than, say, a digital nomad does, or someone on holidays.

So every place I’ve lived in has been different. I’ve lived in the Middle East, Europe, South America, and Asia. in democracies and autocracies, in Muslim countries and Buddhist countries, and in big cities and small towns. And the thing about my home, my birthplace, is that I’m from one of the most multicultural countries in the world, Australia. And multiculturalism in Australia has worked. Immigrants have integrated yet still been able to maintain their rich cultural heritages and rituals and languages and cuisines.

So when I travel, I don’t really notice what’s different. Because differences set us apart and against each other as human beings. Instead I try to look for how we are the same, because it’s those similarities that unite people. And if anything, the world needs to be more united than ever. What I’ve learnt over almost 20 years as an expat is that intrinsically we are all the same. We want the same things — we want to be loved by family and friends, and have friends and family we love, we want to be able to afford to eat and drink and wear nice clothes, and we want a home where we can feel secure and safe, whether that home is a solid house or that home is the world.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

They’ll be doing a complicated dance around the world if they try to follow in our footsteps! My best advice is to just go and take a risk. If you get the urge or the opportunity to live overseas for a while, just go. Don’t overthink it. It will be the most extraordinary, most transformational experience of your life. It will work out and if it doesn’t you can just go home. But you do need to give it time. Not every one is like us. We’ve never had any problems settling anywhere —probably due to those nomadic genes! — but many people do suffer culture shock and quickly scurry home before giving a place a chance. The best way to get over that is to be accepting of the people, culture, everyday life, and place you’re in, to take it on its own terms, and accept it for what it is and not compare it to ‘home’.

What are your plans for the future?

After many years of working for other people we are finally focusing on our own projects — we are writing and publishing some books and creating new websites of our own; we have been developing a Cambodian cookbook for a while, and I’ve been researching a culinary history book on Cambodia, so 2018 is the year to finish those; we occasionally host travel and food writing and photography retreats, and I host the odd Cambodia Culinary Tour and craft bespoke itineraries. I am essentially a curator in that I am selecting activities and excursions that other travel companies specialise in, and choosing the best Cambodian guides, and I host the trips to provide some context and provide a bridge of understanding between foreigners and locals. It can be tough as an expat who be completely self-reliant and financially it’s stressful at times. But I think it’s worth taking risks to be truly happy — happy with yourself and happy in the world.

You can keep up to date with Lara's adventures on her website, Gran Turismo Travels, and find out more about her trips and retreats on Siem Reap Retreats.

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