New Yorker Jake Wolfe, 65, is at his happiest when exploring ancient temples in Cambodia’s remote countryside.
“There is a saying that you should ‘see Angkor Wat and die,’ which means it is an amazing place to visit at least once in your life. It is actually the biggest group of temples in the world and nothing compares to it,” he says of the Southeast Asian country’s most famous ruins. “Well, after spending a week touring the different temples of Angkor Wat, I was hooked on the idea of exploring the hundreds more ruins in faraway provincial areas. It was like an Indiana Jones-type of epiphany. This is what got me hooked on Cambodia.”
But unless you happen to come across Jake at his favorite coffee shop in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, working on his laptop, you might not realize that he is as much a city boy as he is a rural adventurer. When not climbing remote mountains in search of hidden ruins, Jake supplements his Social Security money by working part-time as a graphic designer. He uses his laptop to work anywhere he goes.
“Living in Phnom Penh, my Social Security is okay to get by on. So I no longer spend time doing things unless they really excite or interest me,” says Jake.
“If I find something fun to do, then that is what I will focus on. This is the main reason I still work part-time, having fun while making some money through freelance design work online. I set aside a month or two to focus on getting new customer projects, then once the money comes in, it’s time for a different type of fun, visiting off-the-beaten places in Cambodia.”
Phnom Penh is home to 2.5 million people, including over 100,000 expats from around the world. Despite being a bustling metropolis, Phnom Penh still retains much of its colonial charm, says Jake.
“In parts of the city you can see some beautiful old French mansions that take your breath away. The main boulevards were all built when Cambodia was under colonial rule, so Phnom Penh has an almost Parisian feel, with its wide streets lined with blossoming trees. When I’m not working, I often spend my time just driving around the city on my motorcycle and checking out the different sights that each district has to offer.”
Jake spent much of his career working in graphic design. Though he prefers sketching or painting, he is also a professional logo and artwork designer, using the latest software to develop new projects for several freelance clients.
A major reason for his move to Cambodia was its low cost of living. Jake made a reasonable income from design work in New York. But he realized he could massively slash his monthly expenses in Phnom Penh, since things like rent and groceries are much cheaper than in the States.
“Most of the customers I work with are either former colleagues, acquaintances, or people who heard of me by word of mouth. So it is really simple to keep in contact with everybody using email. All I need is my laptop and an internet connection, so I can pretty much work anywhere I want. I manage my projects so that I don’t get overwhelmed or overpromise something I can’t complete in time.”
Since moving to Cambodia in 2015, Jake has met and married his Cambodian wife Samnang. She has been his steady companion during his forays to temple ruins scattered across the country.
“We recently visited the second-most famous temple, called Prasat Preah Vihear. This is at the very top of an almost vertical mountain cliff and is viewed by some locals as the mystical soul of Cambodia. The temple is a major point of national pride for Cambodians and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. We sat on the edge of the mountain gazing at the awesome views of countryside beneath us for hours.”
Although Jake is a self-confessed worrier, he admits that, between his Social Security and design income, he is very secure financially in Cambodia.
“My wife takes care of the household budget, and it is amazing how she can feed not only us but her extended family on such a limited amount of money. We budget exactly $800 per month to pay our rental of a house with two bedrooms and a big living room, all our utilities, cable TV, private garbage collection, plus a never-ending stream of rice and noodle dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our standard of living is pretty good, and we don’t have to scrimp on anything—unlike in New York, where I was spending three times as much and still having to cut corners.
“Since Samnang manages the household, I am left with plenty of free time to work on my design projects, or read up on new trips I want to take. In the morning, I head to a swish little coffee shop that has great WiFi, but I’m always back home to enjoy the excellent meals my wife cooks.”
Jake believes he is fortunate to be able to relocate to Cambodia and live so comfortably. It’s why he makes a special effort to give back to the community as best he can.
“The Cambodian people are great. But for those without money, there aren’t many training opportunities. I wanted to do something to help, so I started teaching design skills and techniques to a group of enthusiastic folks in my neighborhood.
“Moving to Cambodia allows me to live well, so it is easy to recommend the expat life as a great option. Keeping busy by exploring and working freelance has worked well for me, and I get a lot of fulfillment teaching design. I feel privileged to be doing all this stuff I love so much.”