"Romance," says Geert Caboor quite simply. That's what led him to turn off, tune in and drop out of his comfortable life in Belgium for the cozy Cambodian guesthouse he now lives in.
In February 1999, Caboor set off from Brussels on what he thought would be a six-month-long, $35-a-day backpacking trip around Southeast Asia.
Three years later, the 35-year-old former chemical engineer owns and manages The Red Piano, a guesthouse in Siem Reap, a picturesque northern Cambodian town perched on the Siem Reap river near the legendary temple ruins of Angkor Wat.
A renovated colonial building in the Old Market part of town, The Red Piano boasts a café and a restaurant where sun-soaked travelers dressed in the lightest linens and casual cottons linger at wicker tables while Cambodia's lush green foliage peeps in through the airy balconies and wide windows.
In this Southeast Asian tropical paradise, Caboor says he enjoys playing host, serving up anything from lok lak, the local-style beef strips with onions, to river-fresh Mekong fish fillets.
With a thriving business and a growing family that includes his girlfriend, Chea Ley — a Cambodian — and their 5-month-old daughter, Centina, Caboor says he does not see himself heading back to Brussels any time soon.
Last year, when Caboor and Ley returned to Siem Reap after a brief visit to Belgium, Ley wanted to know why he had left the comforts of home for life in Cambodia.
His response was simple and yet complex: "I love it here," he says during a phone interview from Siem Reap. "I love and respect the culture and the people. Cambodia still holds a romance for me. I don't feel the romance elsewhere."
Looking to the East
Caboor is part of move by a growing number of Westerners opting to leave the stresses, schedules and chills of the Northern Hemisphere for the laidback charms of a life far from the rat race.
The search for a personal utopia, a Shangri-La where humans can live in harmony with the environment — an environment more likely to be tropical than temperate — is not a new phenomenon but it appears to have new impetus.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Italian Marco Polo traveled to distant lands before penning one of the most influential travel texts on the exotic East. But it wasn't until the European colonial quest for terrain was well under way that Europeans got to taste the delights of foreign lands while still on the payrolls of colonial mega-corporations trading in tea, rubber, ivory and spices.
Dropping out got a shot in the arm in the 1930s when British writer James Hilton published Lost Horizon, an escapist novel of love, lamas and ancient learning set in Shangri-La, a mythic kingdom of astonishing beauty and eternal youth.
Then the quest for Shangri-La got a karmic imperative — and an often drug-induced boost — in the turbulent '60s, when "the high priest of LSD," Harvard professor, Dr. Timothy Leary urged young people to "turn on, tune in, drop out."
The Age of the Internet Meets a Timeless Quest
But unlike their hippie predecessors, the new set of modern-day frontiersmen and women have proved adept at balancing the Age of the Internet with an ageless quest for the Promised Land.
What's more, many of these successors of the '60s hippies insist it's neither karma nor ganja (marijuana) that compels them to eschew their old worlds.