The Phnom Penh files: November/December 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 am writing this during my last week in Phnom Penh. It is surreal to think that I will be boarding a plane on Thursday and returning to Australia.

The last 6 months have been fast and slow in equal measure. At times, it seemed that time was crawling at a snail’s pace; however, now that I am at the tail’s end of my time here in Phnom Penh, I can’t quite believe how quickly the last few months have flown by.

I have so many thoughts and I don’t think I can write (type?) quickly enough to capture all of them to give them a voice; some thoughts are destined never to be immortalised in a blog post or spoken aloud – which says a lot about the emotions we feel, the thoughts we think. Over the past 6 months, in particular, I have realised just how fickle emotions can be, and how dramatically they can change from day to day. If I were to write this post tomorrow, would I be writing the same words? Most likely not, because who knows what I’ll be feeling 1 hour, day, month or year from now?

At around the 4-month mark, I felt ready to go home. I wasn’t sure if there was much else to do in Phnom Penh, or if I had anything else to gain by being here. I dumped all of my thoughts on to the hubby: I wanted to come home but I didn’t want to feel like I had failed. Failed what, exactly? A test, seemingly, that I had set for myself. The hubby listened patiently as always and encouraged me to stay, because he knew I would regret going home early. And he was right. I suppose I knew this too, but it always helps to have someone else confirm what you already know. I also stayed because I had already booked flights to various destinations out of Phnom Penh and I didn’t want to lose my money, so being a cheapskate also encouraged me to stay. And I’m so glad I did. Because after a few weeks, I didn’t have the inclination to cut my sojourn short; in fact, I felt like I could stay longer, because what is 6 months but a blip on the proverbial radar?

Emotions, as useful as they are, are not terribly reliable. If we acted on every emotion that we felt, the world would be a bubbling, frothing mess—well, even more so than it already is. What we feel one day will not necessarily be how we feel the next, which is why it is important to stick things out, and to add some logic and reason to the equation, as unromantic as that can be. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad I didn’t act on every emotion/feeling I had felt over the course of the last 6 months, otherwise I may have ended up regretting some of my decisions, which defeats the very purpose of my time away – to have no regrets. To have gone and conquered.

Although I’m not entirely sure how much conquering I have done because in all honesty I made a terrible expat. That’s right: I failed as an expat. During my time in Phnom Penh, I remained in a very confined expat bubble and cultivated a life not too dissimilar to my life back home. I didn’t attempt to learn the Khmer language, I didn’t moto or cycle, I didn’t speak to any locals beyond the tuk tuk drivers outside my apartment. I didn’t integrate at all.

I’ve thought about the reasons for this. First, I don’t feel like I ever committed fully to Cambodia. As I knew I would only be there for 6 months, I didn’t quite embrace the city as much as I should have. Add to that the fact that I was away for at least a week every month, and Phnom Penh began to feel like a base more so than a home. This sentiment also extends to people. I have met so many interesting people while in Phnom Penh, a beacon for eccentric characters it seems, but I didn’t put in the time to cultivate any meaningful relationships. A lot of this was due to my mentality of ‘what was the point?’ I would be leaving in 6 months, I was flitting to different countries every few weeks, so why would I put in the emotional energy to build relationships that I knew would end before they really started? I am fully aware that this is a terrible philosophy to adopt and the perfect way to miss out on some worthwhile relationships, but it was how I felt. As unreliable as emotions are, there are times when you have to capitulate. I remember a conversation I had early on with an expat who had been living in Phnom Penh for a few years and wouldn’t befriend anyone staying in Phnom Penh for less than 6 months – because, again: ‘What was the point?’ I get it now, although I come from the opposite side of the spectrum where I knew I wouldn’t be here long term, so there wasn’t an impetus for me to become rooted to anything or anyone.

Second, I think privilege played a part in my failure as an expat, which I’ve touched on before in a previous post. I could afford to take tuk tuks everywhere, so I didn’t need to cycle or moto. I could afford to eat at Western places all the time where the staff know English, so I wasn’t forced to learn the language. My disposable income brought me, or should I say ‘bought me’, privilege which allowed me to live inside a bubble. However, it was eye-opening to live in a place where the poor and rich live in such close confines, where beggars walk up to flashy Lexuses on the street and plead for money. It makes you feel uncomfortable, guilty, helpless and a whole range of other emotions that you need to process, whereby rationalising why you can flippantly spend $30 on a massage but can’t give a street beggar a dollar becomes a daily occurrence. It’s not easy, and I agree with the maxim that ignorance is bliss. Or at least more comfortable. Privilege is fun until you are faced with the harsh reality that unfortunately not everyone in the world has been dealt your lucky hand.

Still, I am incredibly proud of what I have achieved and what I have learned about myself in the last 6 months. I know now with certainty that I have the capability and strength to push boundaries, real or imagined, in pursuit of what is significant to me. Perhaps most importantly, though, I’ve realised that there is never a final destination in our journey. There isn’t a place where perfection is within arm’s reach or where our ideal self resides. We take ourselves on this journey – faults and all – and the greatest lesson, I think, is to accept ourselves for who we are regardless of where we are, who we with and the situation we happen to be in.

So I return home with a whole bag of emotions – excitement, fear, anxiety, eagerness. Knowing that the journey will continue and that I am the same person I was when I left…but also different (insert same same but different joke here). Knowing that I am drawn to faraway places not to escape but in the hope that I will find a better version of myself, but realising now that this is a fool’s errand and that perhaps it is this search in the first instance that is the true test of character. Knowing that there is never an end point and that there will never be a ‘that’s enough’, purely because of the way that I want to live and remember my life by – not as endless days of meeting deadlines and countless to-do lists, but of unparalleled experiences and moments that make me want to throw my hands up in the air and shriek with joy. I recently read a blog post here that seemed to decipher the jumble of thoughts inside my head. Here’s an excerpt:

However, I have a confession to make. I’m scared of commitment — not just to people, how we normally think of it, but commitment to places, to jobs, to contracts of any kind — because I’m scared of boredom. I’m scared to not feel alive while I’m living. ‘Cause I’ve been there before. And I don’t wanna go back.

I am realistic enough to know that mundane moments in life will far outweigh the moments of wonder, but it is this fear of not feeling alive while living that drives me, my decisions and is probably how I ended up at this exact moment in time.

Thanks Phnom Penh for making me feel alive – till our paths collide again.

Cammi x


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A quick guide to Phnom Penh

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  • What a beautiful piece! I’m an expat in Fiji and it’s been a fast and slow 7 months so far so I feel ya. I can’t believe I’m leaving in 5 (or maybe 4!) months…crazy! This post made me miss Phnom Penh <3