“Everyone who lives in Cambodia ends up going mad; that”s why you have to leave.” I”ve heard this piece of lore a fair few times, and whilst finding it intriguing, I always had some lingering doubts. The first person to bring it up in my presence was a young American; he said it knowingly as if it were axiomatic, though he wasn”t referring to me going crazy (at least not on that occasion). Of course expats were the subject, rather than Khmers going mad in their own country – that’s another matter entirely, and something for another day.
He was determined not to fall into the same trap of losing the plot in Cambodia, so he decided it was to be a year that he would spend in Phnom Penh before leaving with his mental faculties fully intact. Something told me it was always in the back of his mind, and sensing that it rattled him I delved a little deeper. He was convinced that insanity was a direct consequence of staying too long in this land and with a sweep of his arm gestured along the riverside, whereas I felt quite contented and had no plans on leaving (to where? I asked) without going so far as to say I wanted to live here ‘forever.’
But perhaps there was, as they say, something in it. I suppose we need to try to corral this ‘madness’ – I mean what kind or degree of madness is supposed to eventually afflict all foreign residents? I guess there are a number of variations, so let’s start with the sad types who bottle it all up until the cork pops, or splutters with an emotional breakdown, particularly socially damaging if this occurs in public places: in a bar, at work, at Lucky Burger, in the classroom. Maybe they weren’t of the right stock for life in Cambodia, with all its ‘stranger than fiction’ everyday contradictions playing havoc on a tender brain seeking rational explanations.
Of much greater personal interest and amusement is the steady trickle of would-be entrepreneurs; usually a little older and having clocked up decent expat mileage, these chaps invariably have no capital, little practical business sense, and flit from one hair-brained scheme to another. Almost weekly they catch up with you somewhere where they trap you for quarter of an hour, these chance encounters become something to relish, wondering just what deluded plot would be the latest incarnation of the one that was ‘sure to take off.’
Despite being penniless, rarely with any wealthy or influential contacts rolling off the tongue, six-figure sums would be mentioned to start up clandestine sausage factories, bringing in pigs for slaughter under the cover of darkness so as not to arouse the neighbours’ suspicions, jetting off to Siem Reap twice weekly for meetings to supply the top hotels and finest eateries, then reeling off a list of all the sausages he knew – ”baloney, and – many other kinds. Baloney.”
Uh-huh. More imaginative than setting up a copycat guesthouse or hole-in-the-wall, it was the seriousness and apparent conviction that worried the most. Yet within a calendar month the range of ludicrous, and to my mind quite unrelated plans could easily encompass establishing a Harvard-standard university in Phnom Penh, ‘growing’ diamonds, a recruitment agency, or buying up vast swathes of rural South Africa to be annexed as a sovereign nation.
But do these examples count as madness? Rather less mundane and less frequent are those who express themselves more spontaneously; creatively torching their belongings and running naked and free; or rather less creatively using themselves as target practice at Phnom Penh’s renowned firing range; or with unprovoked violence and bar-trashing shenanigans. Such vibrant outbursts seem to be more the preserve of those passing through or the occasional visitor, rather than the ones in for the long haul.
So is there something about the place that stands out as a beacon for impending nuttiness? Obviously the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll might just have some bearing on this, but more specifically it’s the unrestricted living that attracts many, though the undetermined passage of time wading deeper into debauchery goes somewhat unnoticed, until you’ve gone way beyond your depth and one sweltering day suddenly it is proclaimed by all who once knew you: you’re a nutter! A loon! Lost the plot! Mad! The sheer assortment and availability of naughty-but-niceties, combined with the scarcity of anyone disapproving plus ‘being bored’ or having little to do can all become too much, and it takes a strong will to keep an even keel and retain some kind of grip on yourself and how you perceive life. Perhaps more rock’n’roll would even up the equation. That said, whether you do regularly or rarely choose to indulge in gratifying pleasures, it’s at least comforting to know that they’re there, readily available and waiting for your call.
And what of the people who come here and stay and never leave? Is there something in the psyche of those who ‘become’ expats that leaves them more susceptible to going a bit loopy? I can’t really see much less sanity in Phnom Penh (or is it just me?) than anywhere else, and when you consider the life that people consider to be ‘normal’, ‘sensible’ and un-insane, whether it be in some sprawling metropolis in the West or in Southeast Asia, Commuter Zone, Ninetofiveland, then the question of perspective raises its head when making comparisons and judgements. Just who’s on which side of the plate glass two-way mirrors and the bars on your windows?
While this has nominally been about going crazy in Cambodia as a whole, the focus has necessarily been on Phnom Penh, as certain other ‘environmental factors’ will be explored another time: how to spend a year in small town Cambodia without going mad; the seemingly ubiquitous lunacy of many of the natives that drives many an expat up the wall; and just what is it about Sihanoukville? No time for any of these now though.
And what of the young American who initially revealed, or rather recited the prophetic idea that living in Cambodia drives you mad? Well, things didn’t turn out as planned; he kept on postponing his departure way beyond his self-imposed 12-month limit and maybe that was his curse, compounded by drinking. And being an asshole.
His affable Jekyll turning split second into an atrocious Hyde saw the gradual but steady elimination of friendships, drinking partners, welcoming bars, even late-night drinks stalls had enough. With persistent deluded claims of no memory of any of it, or that he’d been set up, conned, followed, he ended up barred from practically everywhere. Nobody would rent him a flat or give him a job and not even a drunk would have a drink with him, getting his comeuppance with a sound beating after one too many provocations. It was the lying to himself that toppled him. Maybe he just wasn’t cut out for a 3-year stint in Cambodia. It can drive you mad, so they say.