From being caught in the vicious crossfire that once plagued Phnom Penh’s streets and stepping on a landmine to being the first person to move into historic Hotel Cambodiana, four-decade Cambodia expat Felgerkarb has seen it all since moving to the Kingdom in 1989. Marissa Carruthers caught up with him to find out what life was once like as an expat living in Cambodia.
As we sit in the comfortable surroundings of the Green Vespa, sipping on a beer and tucking into tasty Western food with the heavy roar of traffic taking the stream of tourists along the riverside in the background, the ex-US soldier, who goes by the name of Felgerkarb, paints a very different picture of the Phnom Penh he first met to the one in front of us.
“For a start, there weren’t any motos or tuktuks,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief at the chaos that has become Phnom Penh’s roads. “There were only cyclos; cyclos and government vehicles. That has to be the most noticeable change. That and the fact you couldn’t leave town after dark. The Khmer Rouge was still operating in places and there were a lot of random bandit groups about with frequent ambushes on the road from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh.
“There were no phone lines and the water system was terrible – you’d get a drop of water on your lips and be sick for days. There were sometimes gun battles on the streets, there was no proper infrastructure and you’d hear about people being snatched or going missing. It was very different to what it is today.”
Landing in Cambodia in 1989 as a member of the POW/ MIA search team with the US Army, Felgerkarb was tasked with striking up a dialogue between America and Cambodia as well as aiding the search for still-missing prisoners of war. After initially being based out of an office in Bangkok, in November 1991, when then Prince Sihanouk returned to Cambodia after spending 13 years in exile, the Americans, who saw this as a positive move towards stability, shifted their base to Cambodia, taking Felgerkarb with them.
“I moved into Cambodia that year and watched Sihanouk drive by in his car waving as he always used to,” he said. “I was the first guy to move into the Cambodiana after it was finally refurbished. I remember they were still taking all of the plastic off the furniture when I arrived and there was a big wall around it. Nobody was allowed on the grounds unless they were staying there.”
In 1992, the United Nations landed in Cambodia, the US Embassy reopened and Felgerkarb was reassigned to the UN headquarters to work as part of the UN Pre-deployment Team. “It was around this time that I realised I really liked it in Cambodia. I enjoyed my job and the work was really interesting,” he said. “I had become a bit of a fixer. I knew a lot of people in high positions and if something needed organising or smoothing over, I was the go-to guy for that sort of stuff.”
When the UN left Cambodia, Felgerkarb stayed on to continue his humanitarian work but a near brush with death in 1994 saw him sent back to the US for nine months after stepping on a landmine in Takeo province.
“It was a really small landmine and I saw my foot going down and thought ‘oh, shit’. I remember it didn’t go off straight away and I somehow managed to get off it, then it went off and got the back of my leg. I remember seeing the ground and thinking ‘my legs are gone’, I looked down and by some miracle they were still there and it hadn’t hit any arteries.”
Despite dodging death, Felgerkarb had become hooked on Cambodian charm and after recovering became self-employed and returned, picking up project management work for government programmes to help improve the country. “I figured I was lucky. I think I managed to convince myself that I’d had my major incident so I’d be ok.”
Since returning, Felgerkarb has made Cambodia his home and has watched the country transform into an almost unidentifiable land. “The backpackers started coming in the late-90s,” he said. “Cambodia was seen as being more adventurous than Thailand and that appealed to them but it was still dangerous and you often heard of people disappearing back then. The restaurants and guesthouses started opening and then it boomed.”
As for the country’s future, Felgerkarb remains unsure but he plans on sticking around to find out. “I’m not sure where Cambodia will be in the future. It’s going in the direction that I expected it to, which is somewhere between the building up of Singapore or Bangkok but still being Cambodia. Sometimes in Asia, their idea of progress is glass towers and sky scrapers and expensive-looking things. They forget about the charm of their culture.”
(‘Felgerkarb’ is a pseudonym)