"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.
It's a comparative weighing of the drudgery of living in a wet, cold and overpriced country where people grind themselves down for 10 hours a day with an idealized 21st-century lifestyle that combines sun, sea, cultural advancement and the odd beach party.
"Why should I pay a third of my salary for housing, parking and work clothes, when I can actually save more by just teaching English and living in a place where I can afford a simple, but comfortable lifestyle?" asks "Bill", alias AsiaBill, an Iowa native who has lived abroad for almost 20 years before putting down his roots in the Philippines.
Although Bill, 48, started his adventures abroad by taking recourse to the de facto traveler's safety net of teaching English to survive abroad, after a truncated stint with college back home and seven lucrative years running an export business in Hong Kong, he decided the Philippines, the so-called forgotten islands of Southeast Asia, would forever be his home.
Along with his wife of Philippine descent, Lorna, Bill has invested in a hotel near the airport in the capital of Manila and a beach-house resort in the central Philippine island of Boracay, where sapphire waters lap at coconut palm-fringed virgin white beaches and romance, as he puts it, "is a reality, not a dream."
A Smaller World
With an economic downturn setting off a landslide of mass layoffs, cutbacks and spiraling savings, many Westerners are realizing the value of life-enhancing experiences over possessions for a more fulfilling lifestyle.
Definitive statistics on this group though, are hard to come by. Although the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs estimates there are about 3 million U.S. citizens living abroad, the figure includes diplomats and military personnel.
In Britain, statistics show that long-term migrations abroad are on the increase. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1995 there were 193,000 people leaving England and Wales for a year or more; by 1999 that figure had gone up to 250,000.
Today's gypsies though still enjoy a hippie lifestyle with a jetset, cyber-savvy flavor.
"The world is a much smaller place today because globalization is a fact," says Caboor. "I'm in contact with everyone on the Net, I'm not cut off from the world."
Unlike their anti-capitalist hippie ancestors, most of the new breed of drop-outs are seeking alternatives lifestyles with their American Express cards firmly in their wallets.
While the developing world is painfully aware that a few dollars can go a long way in most parts of the globe, for the new breed of cyber-saavy hippies, their personal Shangri-La rests on a solid foundation of favorable foreign exchange rates.
"Bill" estimates that in countries with local average annual incomes below $2,000 to $3,000, Americans need between $400 and $800 a month to lead a very comfortable life.
He, however, recommends that Americans should ideally have between $50,000 and $200,000 of capital — about a fourth of it liquid and transferred to a U.S. dollar bank account in one's newly adopted country — to really experience expatriate bliss.
Resources for well-heeled drop-outs on the Web offer a host of investment opportunities — from real estate deals in Boca Del Toro in Panama to industrial free trading zones from Japan to Iran.
It's a 21st century dream of juggling your money while sipping Bacardi on the beach.
A Moral Quest
A less economically demanding route would be the option Clare Ward, a 27-year-old Briton opted for in 1999. After a year of working with a film production company in London after school, Ward took an English teaching course before going off to teach in a remote village in China's Sichuan province.
The experience proved so soul-soothing that though her stint in China ended in 2001, Ward is garnering office experience in London, which she hopes she can leverage for another overseas posting in the voluntary sector.
For many of today's jetset gypsies, living abroad is also fueled by moral compunctions. Roger Gallo, a 61-year-old American who lives in Panama City, says he's part of a growing number of Americans who moved abroad to "escape America."
In 1995, when Gallo wrote a book titled Escape From America, he was forced to self-publish his work on the Web. Today, he runs an expatriate Web site — escapeartist.com — which offers a host of services for expatriates.
According to Gallo, there are currently 200,000 subscribers for a magazine also called Escape From America, which he publishes every month from Panama City.
"There are people who have a moral will to live abroad," says Gallo, adding that some U.S. policies, especially foreign policies, have so disenfranchised Americans, that the United States is becoming "an emigrant as well as an immigrant nation for the very first time since the Civil War."
But Americans, says Gallo, still lag behind their European counterparts in their urge to live abroad. "For Americans, the act of expatriation is not as simple as for other people," he says. "Americans tend to have small horizons and expatriation is problematic because we have no real history of it."
While Bill would certainly not disagree with Gallo's bleak assessment of American adventurism, he says it's the very factor that urges him to live abroad.
Although Bill and Lorna run their properties in Philippines, they moved back to the United States to put their 15-year-old daughter in an American high school. The minute she gets into college, though, Bill says they will be ready to head back to the Philippines.