I Expected Cambodia to Be DangerousJuly 1, 2007
I first came to Cambodia in March 2006, as a young 40-something female traveling alone. I was on alert. By the time I reached the border from Bangkok via Trat, the sun had fallen behind the horizon. This was my first time crossing a border over land between two countries…and deep inside I was thrilled! I stuck close behind a fellow traveler, whom I had never met before the mini-bus ride from Trat. This in itself can be risky, but at least he spoke English. The Thai agent stamped my passport. It was time to walk past one gate, across “no-man’s-land” and past another gate into Cambodia.
It didn’t take long to get my passport stamped in Cambodia. I paid for my visa at the embassy in Bangkok days before, so there was no attempt to overcharge me. I was suddenly faced with choosing a moto to take me into Koh Kong; I realized I knew nothing of the language or money exchange. Since I heard that Cambodia does not accept Thai baht, I brought some U.S. dollars with me. The moto said he would only accept riels and took me to a moneychanger. Somehow I made it safely to a guesthouse and survived my first night only getting cheated for about $10 USD.
The next morning I wondered if the bus (mini-van) would really pick me up at my guesthouse or if I had been lied to about this detail. I opted to catch a moto to where I purchased the ticket the night before and started my daylong journey there. I spent the rest of the day shuffled in and out of the mini-bus as we crossed a river by ferry four times. Would I ever make it to Phnom Penh? I was so satisfied that wherever I ended up, I was living an adventure getting there!
By nightfall once again I arrived at my destination exhausted and in the dark. But now I was in the care of the friend I came to visit. Within a week I had fallen in love with Cambodia, extending my stay to a full month. A year later I moved to Phnom Penh.
Life as a female expat is everything I expected it to be. I meet a variety of interesting individuals, albeit most of them are men. There could be worse situations in life! In Cambodia I don’t have to prove anything to anybody or live up to Western society’s materialistic demands. I had wondered if I would encounter a majority of “sexpats” and “losers,” but all in all most people I meet are decent, even if they might not fit a Western mold. There is the occasional cynic, the “do-gooder” types and people who start “drinking before noon.” One thing my friends all have in common is a sincere love for Cambodia.
After two months, I have been able to find everything I need. This fact is the only surprise of living here. I thought I would have to do without a lot of things like nice shampoo, chocolate, a coffeemaker and computer supplies. All these things are readily available. I can get a massage for $10, a manicure for $3 and spend only $4 for a haircut with a wash and style. I can buy a box of Fruity Pebbles cereal for $3.50, less than in America.
By far, the best thing about being a single woman in Cambodia is the ability to enjoy such a diverse group of friends. They come from all countries, are all ages, and all backgrounds. I guess something about the structure of Cambodia levels the playing field. I consider myself very fortunate that no matter what language others speak, they usually also speak English. I expect that living here will allow me to learn conversational amounts of many languages.
I know people who are always busy and people who never work. When you pull up a chair at a bar or café it doesn’t matter what you were doing before you sat down (good or bad!). Conversation can be about anything: politics, religion, current events, history, entertainment, local gossip or family living elsewhere in the world. It seems we have someone who lives somewhere else.
Some people tell me I haven’t lived here long enough to see the bad side – that I am still in the “honeymoon” phase. Others are refreshed by my optimism. I think I am realistic about “the bad side,” but I know that everywhere has a bad side – even America. I am reminded of Daisy Miller in the novella of the same name by Henry James. She was determined to live her life the way she wanted whether or not society approved. She had no regrets. I feel the same way.