A Tale of Dust and Sidesteps (Phnom Penh)

A street scene near the Royal Palace

A street scene near the Royal Palace

I have been here now nearly one week. Phnom Penh’s streets are still dusty, still cracked, and still beautiful. The motos buzz by with their rattling, the tuk tuks not far behind. The heat is everywhere, is upon everything.

What will it take to get to the ATM?

What will it take to get to the ATM?

I live in a building that is under renovation. The manager of the building, a man named Roshan, lives across the hall from me, with his friend, another man, both from northern India. They are friendly. There is no one else in the building, which stands in the center of the Duan Penh neighborhood. The building is four stories high and will have 8 apartments once it is completed. I am the first one. I am on the ground floor, but will be moving to the top floor soon, where there will be breeze. There is a Cambodian restaurant called Meng Meng next to my building. Early in the morning the charcoal seeps through the window where I sleep and makes me ill, gives me a headache. It is the same type of headache as when you wake up from being next to a campfire the night before. It will be good to move to the top floor. Even though it will be higher and harder to get to at the end of a long day, it will be worth it, to be away from the charcoal. I will continue to pay $200 per month, and it will include WiFi and the occassional cleaning from Roshan’s friend, who is apparently the de facto house cleaner.

The sun goes down behind the Royal Palace

The sun goes down behind the Royal Palace

I write this sitting in My Friends Cafe eating a raisin pastry while a wedding blasts music from across the street. The pastry is underdone despite the place being owned and run by a French man and his Cambodian wife. I will not complain. It is still tasty, even in its doughy state. I drink an Americano with ice and milk, probably overpriced, but I don’t care, I will indulge. Cambodia, for the visitor, tourist or worker, is still cheaper, even if the prices are getting more and more inflated with every day. Having spent time in Vietnam, now, it’s so easy to see how ridiculously expensive things in Cambodia have become. Whereas most snacks in southern Vietnam cost between 50 cents and a dollar, here you can expect to always pay more than a dollar–even when the food is worse. I was at a Vietnamese restaurant getting a Vietnamese coffee for a dollar fifty the other day, and looked at the food menu: $7.5 for certain Vietnamese dishes. Seriously? How does the market get this way? Is this what the “middle class” of sellouts and the corrupted buy? Or is it marketed toward tourists? How long will an empty restaurant like that, with so many staff, stay open? Who will be happy? The Vietnamese coffee was good, by the way.

More uncanny clouds (from Wat Botum Park)

More uncanny clouds (from Wat Botum Park)

I start work in 45 minutes. I am working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). I am based in their Phnom Penh office. I am going to be working at one of their sites, Keo Seima, a protected forest, soon. My first visit will be in a week and a half–arguably one of the greatest adventures I will have encountered as a solo traveler in Cambodia.

A new coffee seller (this wasn't here during my first time in Cambodia)

A new coffee seller (this wasn’t here during my first time in Cambodia)

I stir in liquid sugar. I look at the tile floors. I see the breeze upon the ferns outside.

The work itself is quite difficult, quite challenging. It is not over my head but nearly so, a situation where one has to stand on their toes to keep from drowning. I have seen many different jobs with many different responsibilities in my life. This 8-week information management contract might be the most independent I have been in a role, despite there being a significant support network within the organization. Cambodian rules still apply: I have to get on everyone’s side. I am still the outsider.


Natasha will be coming at the end of the month, if she can raise money. It is so hard to be anything for anyone. From personal life to work life to romantic life. I struggle. I look at the sky and wish for it to rain, to cause me some constraint, to relinquish its long arms of endless heat. I know everything will work. I know everything will be significant. I know everything will be. I sit and wonder how I can share this place. I have shared it before. With loves, with friends, with strangers. I have taken people and shown them. My body, hot, knows it can happen again, but where is the energy I had two years ago? Where is the spark? Where is my engine, my internal machine, to keep pushing me forward?

With my friend and old coworker Pinkie, at Motor Cafe

With my friend and old coworker Pinkie, at Motor Cafe

I have done an okay job meeting friends from my previous time here. I have met with James whose photography once inspired me. I have met with Pinkie and KC, who were some of my closest friends. I have met with Antoine for a dip at the Teahouse pool next to my apartment. I have met with Tana, for an exchange of gifts. I have met with Sokunthea, my previous collaborator. I have met with Scott and Warren, my current collaborators. There are many friends left to see, but I have so many weeks left to see everyone.

As I continue to write here, I will try and focus on new aspects of life in Phnom Penh that I hadn’t thought of before. I certainly have stared to think in many new ways about what it’s like to live here, especially short term, especially with a pre-established relationship to the city, and my romantic relationship in Seattle. Before I arrived, I had many questions about how I would spend my time here. I divided time between: work, friends, travel, photography, reading, and watching movies. I brought too many books. I brought too many movies. I have to take a course while I am here, as well. Life is packed, taxing, challenging. Busy. Some people don’t understand this. But I don’t need them to. I will live my life with the gains and the losses. There will be beauty, creation, suffering, destruction. Let us think of accountability.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s