The Phnom Penh files: June recap

I thought I would start a series of posts called the ‘Phnom Penh Files’, which will be a monthly recap of my time in—you guessed it—Phnom Penh. The following is just a stream of consciousness, so please forgive my babbling.

I really cannot believe that a whole month has already passed and that I am one-sixth of the way through my South-East Asian sojourn, particularly as the first week after the hubby left was tough. I felt a flood of emotions, from feeling out of place as I tried to navigate life in an unfamiliar place to second-guessing my decision and wondering what I was even doing here. I felt homesick, or at least that’s what I think it was, because truth be told I have never felt homesick in my life. Usually, you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to come back home. So, yes, it was slightly overwhelming having to deal with all of these emotions.

But then, a week into my moping, I had to give myself a serious dressing-down because it isn’t me to paint myself as a victim of my circumstances. At the end of the day, nothing makes me happier than exploring foreign pastures and having new experiences, so, really, I am in my element right now. This is an experience and it is up to me as to how this experience will pan out. The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude, right?

So while the next 6 months seemed like an eternity at the beginning of the month, now, I can see how this time is going to pass by at the speed of light, and I’m already getting worried that I won’t be able to fit in all of the things that I intend on doing. A girl I met lamented the fact that she was leaving after a year in Phnom Penh, as she only found her feet after being here for 9 months. And here I am attempting to establish a life and to get to know this city intimately within a mere 6 months. Hmmm.

It seemed that I was settling into the Phnom Penh’s erratic rhythm of life before I boarded a plane to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a week. I had high expectations for Chiang Mai; however, the city didn’t quite hit the mark for me—although I would have happily stayed for the street food and coffee scene. Still, I returned with some incredible memories, particularly of my day spent at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai.


So, here are a few random observations and conundrums that I’ve been mulling over in my head.

I’ve forgotten how easy it can be to make friends and connections when you’re abroad. I am an introvert by nature and, truthfully, a bit of hermit, so I’ve had to make a conscious effort to say yes to invitations rather than staying at home and Netflixing, which is my preference these days. I’m old and married, guys, give me a break. It’s funny how much more extroverted I am when I travel, though.

When you travel, you meet so many people with fascinating lives and stories (although it’s also true that we present our best version of ourselves when we travel, free from the stresses and obligations of everyday life), and in the most peculiar fashion. I struck up a conversation with a girl in a cafe, who happened to be a Sydneysider who had also recently moved to Phnom Penh. The next thing you know, I’m heading to her house and she’s making me rice paper rolls for dinner. You just don’t do that at home—you don’t go to a stranger’s house for dinner. In our familiar bubble, unfamiliar people and situations are approached with wariness and watched with suspicious eyes. When your security net is taken away, you inevitably become more receptive to new people and foreign experiences. This is why the best adventures often happen away from home—because we remove our barriers and open ourselves up to the unknown.

I thought I would have a terrible diet while living here but fruit bowls have become my breakfast staple and are not difficult to source considering the abundance of vegan and organic cafes that Phnom Penh has to offer. Phnom Penh has a thriving cafe scene and there have been no shortage of cafes to work from during the day (I love, love, love the Russian Market area).

However, this healthy eating is probably offset by the alcohol consumption. Drinking sessions are not reserved purely for weekends, it is a daily occurrence, which is understandable when you’re only paying a few dollars for beers and cocktails. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not binge-drinking every night—like I said, I’m a stay-in-and-Netflix kind of gal at heart—but I am definitely drinking more than I would at home and going out is no longer just a weekend activity. Every day is a weekend if that is your choice.  You can see how some people have surrendered to this lifestyle and I can even understand how some people can spiral out of control given this environment that essentially encourages it.

Everyone here (expats, I mean) is either a teacher, works in NGO or a journalist. Seriously. I actually feel a bit out of place because I feel like I’m  not doing any meaningful work. Yeah, I replace hyphens with en dashes—that’s making an impact on people’s lives, right? I will be doing some work with the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival, so hopefully this can be my contribution back to society.

Phnom Penh isn’t exactly a walkable city due to the lack of footpaths, traffic and pollution, so, for the most part, I’ve been taking tuk tuks around if a place isn’t within walking distance. This gets expensive—fast. Expats ride their own motorbikes and scooters because it is simply more economical. I wouldn’t feel confident riding a motorbike because accidents here are a dime a dozen, but I’m considering getting a bicycle, which means the only issue I would need to address would be my sense of direction—or lack thereof. However, there are tuk tuk drivers outside my brother’s apartment, who I’ve come to recognise, and I would feel bad about taking away some of their business, because these drivers would be making USD$10 on a good day.

And then this takes me to the expat conundrum whereby I can throw away money on these lavish western meals at fancy western cafes and yet I don’t want to shell out a couple of dollars on a tuk tuk. I haven’t tried any Cambodian food or bothered to learn the Khmer language except for basic tuk tuk Khmer—left, right, straight, stop, thank you! You can’t help but think about how to best navigate the winding roads of western privilege when you are privy to the poverty and endemic problems that surround you and simply can’t be ignored.

I have definitely sunk into the expat hole in which all of my interactions are with expats in expat venues, and my only interactions with locals are through service staff. In one sense, I suppose you try to cling on to any kind of familiarity to back home to combat feelings of ‘outsiderness’, but alternately, shouldn’t you embrace the culture that you are living in? I don’t have the answers, but it’s something that I’ve been weighing up in my mind.

I’m also building my impressions of Phnom Penh. From speaking to people, it seems that it is a place where you either stay for 2 years and decide that you’ve had enough, or 20 years because you’ve finally succumbed to it. It does feel like the Wild West out here and there is an undercurrent of lawlessness that makes it in equal parts thrilling and dangerous. It is highly corrupt and every expat you meet will have a story about having been mugged or even being held at gunpoint. It is supposedly a multi-party country on paper but this is questionable in reality. There are serious community mental health issues, particularly with PTSD, that is not being dealt with in an effective manner. Compared with other South-East Asian countries, it is evident that Cambodia has progressed at a slower pace, but how exactly do you rebuild a nation where a quarter of the population perished under the hands of its own people?

So many questions, so few answers.

Okay, that is my brain dump for now and an insight to the thoughts that whirl around like a hurricane in my head. I hope some of this makes sense…

Cammi x

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