Reflections of a Returning ExpatAugust 22, 2013
There are a number of aspects of life in Phnom Penh that those living here may take for granted, but which are seen through new eyes once you have been away for a long time. Having recently moved back to Phnom Penh after three years out of the country, I thought I knew what to expect when I returned, but I found there were a few surprising elements of life in Cambodia that it hadn’t occurred to me to consider.
Firstly, the pollution: living in a busy city day-in, day-out, your senses become accustomed to all that Phnom Penh has to throw at you. You barely register the scents that invade your nostrils, let alone stop to think what else is clogging your every breath. But that first tuk-tuk ride into town from the airport reminded me just what kind of environment we’re living in.
As we breathed in the alluring aroma of exhaust fumes, with a (not so) healthy dose of burning garbage and open sewage mixed in, I began to understand why the first reaction of previous visitors to the city had often been to the pollution. Before, I hadn’t batted an eyelid when tuk-tuks would angle themselves as close as possible to whichever large vehicle was spewing fumes in your face; this time, I felt like I could barely breathe. Even the durian smelled acceptable in comparison.
Of course, that didn’t last long. It’s amazing how quickly your lungs acclimatise to constant congestion and short of re-thinking your decision to live here in the first place, there’s isn’t much to be done about it.
A more visible sign of time spent out of the country is the construction explosion that has occurred over the past few years. It’s still Phnom Penh, but leave for too long and you feel like you’re returning to a different city. I’d been expecting a few changes, but I don’t think I had sufficiently prepared myself for the existence of quite so many air-conditioned coffee shops.
For those here permanently, these things are gradual. You become resigned to the endless sounds of construction outside your bedroom window at the crack of dawn. Navigating the streets has always been a challenge, so an extra pile of bricks or truckload of poles is nothing unusual. But still, the development of Phnom Penh seems to be progressing at an alarming rate. You look up one day to find half the buildings around you have sprouted an extra couple of storeys. A friend recently told me they were away for just a month and returned to find new buildings on their street. Imagine the difference when arriving after years – there are parts of the city that now seem unrecognisable.
One part of the city landscape that does appear unchanged is the amount of kids living and working on the streets. Living here often makes you feel somewhat immune to their stares, but do you see them differently when returning from abroad?
Having spent a considerable amount of time in India prior to my last sojourn in Cambodia, I have to admit I was rather hardened to the constant barrage of ‘buy something, two for one dollar’. Upon my return this time, I was fully prepared to be accosted by hoardes of small children vying for my attention when dining in areas like the riverside. I certainly hadn’t been expecting to be startled by this aspect of Phnom Penh, but my reaction actually took me by surprise.
Spending a few years in the relatively sheltered West, where such sights would certainly not be viewed as acceptable, had softened me more than I thought. Remove the frustration of having to deal with a barrage of pleas yet again and it is much easier to see the tired child behind the box of books they are carrying.
This level of sensitivity was something I used to think only afflicted tourists. However, returning has given me a fresh perspective on things I had started to take for granted before, and it will be interesting to see whether time will change this once again.
I have also found that time spent in Phnom Penh can lead to a certain disregard for personal safety. In a city where motorbikes are so commonplace, it’s easy to become blasé about the dangers you face every time you step into the street.
When I lived here before, I would hop on and off motos all the time, completely comfortable with balancing on sideways in a skirt while holding armfuls of shopping bags and listening to the driver chat away on his phone as he drove headlong towards a truck.
But I have to admit that spending time in safety-conscious Europe changes your outlook on these things. Tearing around town on the back of a rental agent’s bike a couple of days after arriving was less of a thrill and more a fear of a rather painful spill. As we charged down Norodom in the middle of rush hour, straight into an afternoon thunderstorm, I watched in terror as my driver alternated between texting on one phone and talking into another while weaving on and off the pavement. Feeling decidedly vulnerable and aware of my mortality, I wondered how on earth I had been so calm about this before.
Despite this, just a few weeks later I found myself embracing the Cambodian philosophy of just going with the flow, regardless of regulations, rainstorms or road closures. I’m just doing it with a decent helmet on my head this time round.
All in all, returning to Phnom Penh is a curious mixture of revisiting the old and exploring the new, much like the city itself. Look at your feet and you see the same crazy streets, but lift your eyes to the skyline and it’s clear that things are changing fast. Cambodia is a place to expect the unexpected; I guess the most important thing is to never take anything here too much for granted.