No Country For Solo Ladies

Sr3C0OGv_400x400How many solo females do you know in Phnom Penh?

And I don’t mean unmarried. I mean alone. I mean, Western women who’ve wandered into Cambodia with no connection to any NGO, government, volunteer program, research project or other human being. During my nine months living in Phnom Penh, I only knew one. Myself.

I didn’t think it was that strange at the time. I still don’t, and perhaps that should have been my first sign that things would not go well for me in Phnom Penh.

I originally came to Cambodia in 2011 on a self-directed, self-funded writing project that examined the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Which is academia-speak for: I grew up with the children of Khmer Rouge survivors in California and wanted to understand what the hell I’d seen. Insomnia, whispers, beatings, a steady trail of violence that ended in murder-suicide: I came to Cambodia seeking a context for the tentacling PTSD I’d observed in my best friend’s family. Confronting a hugely traumatic childhood experience should have been my second clue that things would not go well.

I stayed for two months, researching and reading everything I could on both the Khmer Rouge history and its effects on the younger generations. There was plenty of information on the former, but when it came to the latter, the present-day effects, I kept hitting roadblocks. During my project, I got a few glimpses—reports of how the Khmer Rouge history had only recently begun to be taught in schools, and how some young people didn’t believe the Khmer Rouge had actually happened and I wanted to learn more, go further, dig deeper. I also noticed that, with lax visa requirements, English widely spoken, and Western goods readily available, expat life was astoundingly easy in Phnom Penh. All I had back in California was a rent-controlled apartment and a twelve-year-old car. I decided to cash both in, and after spending a few months back home wrapping up loose ends, I returned to live in Cambodia indefinitely.

The plan was to freelance while I wrote a book. Given the state of the publishing industry, this should have also been yet anothersignof impending failure. But I kept going. Without an employer or program to assist with logistics, I found my own apartment and slowly learned the ropes. I had some invaluable friends helping me. When my bank account edged close to zero, I also went DIY in my job search. I carpet-bombed the city with CVs, which interestingly did not include teaching experience, and was hired at a kindergarten without even having to go in for an interview. (Another sign.) The pay was poor, but enough to live on if I counted my riel carefully. I settled into a comfortable, if modest, life.

Here’s where I’m supposed to complain about how hard it is for Western women to date in Southeast Asia. Yes, it was tough being a single white lady in Cambodia, and no, I didn’t get asked out once during my time in Phnom Penh. But for me, this was a good thing. I was emerging from a long pattern of unhealthy dating back in the States and was quite frankly due for a good step-back from the romantic world. Being sweaty and heat-rashed didn’t help my self-image any, but it did serve to breakdown a preoccupation with make-up and clothes that I hadn’t known I’d had. Plus, the flip side of the dismal dating scene and my newfound unattractiveness was that I received very little street harassment. To be honest, most days I’d take silence and celibacy over the catcalling, kissy noises and can-I-hollers of the Western world.

The social scene was what I found harder to reconcile. Being a solo woman in my late twenties put me in an odd camp. I wasn’t a bright-eyed Gap Year kid out for an authentic cultural experience, but I also wasn’t settled with a family. I found the NGO crowd largely patronizing and self-congratulatory, plus I didn’t have the income to keep up with their swanky ways. I liked the music played at Sharky’s better than any wine bar, but enter another oddball component: I’m a sober alcoholic. None of this is to say that I was a total loner in Phnom Penh. I found the gems in the rough and clung to them like life preservers on a sinking ship, but it wasn’t the summer-camp experience a lot of other people had.

I also discovered that Phnom Penh wasn’t as safe as I initially thought it was. I grew up in one of the US’s most violent cities — not exactly Ciudad Juarez, but still saying something — and before moving to Cambodia, I’d traveled solo to over thirty countries on five continents, and had never once been fucked with. I liked to think I had a pretty keen sense of safety and how to not make myself the biggest target in a crowd. And at first, Phnom Penh seemed so mellow. Sure, there were home invasions and bag snatchings, but that was pretty tame compared to the gun violence and homicide rates I was used to.

But slowly I discovered that my danger detectors were all off in Cambodia. I knew how to sense threats within a Western context, the same rules didn’t apply in Phnom Penh. There was such a premium placed on maintaining face that I couldn’t tell when people were angry or when tensions were escalating — one minute everything would seem fine, and the next there was a knife fight going down. As a woman alone, the only thing I had to rely on was my own ability to detect danger, and I began to feel I couldn’t trust this ability. The longer I stayed in the country, the more stories I heard about Western women unwittingly getting into trouble and incurring threats, sometimes even violence. Violence against women occurs everywhere, and you can say that being a woman alone in any country is dangerous, but realizing that I didn’t know how to sense that danger was unsettling.

Which was my ultimate undoing in Phnom Penh. It wasn’t the grim dating scene, the $800/month salary, the loneliness or the food poisoning or even the heat. It’s that I never felt safe in Cambodia. There was always an uneasiness, an underlying tension that I don’t have living now in neighboring Vietnam. Whether this is due to the fact that I was a woman alone, or that my first exposure to Cambodian culture ended in violent tragedy, I don’t know. I don’t really want to know. Every time I read about some crazy shit going down in Cambodia, like the recent murder of the Dutch woman and her infant, I’m glad I’m no longer there.

I’ve got a lot of love for Phnom Penh and I wish I’d been able to make it work for me, but I couldn’t. It may be a great country for Western men and entrepreneurial couples and save-the-world white ladies, but it’s no country for solo sober women. Or at least this one.

Lauren Quinn

29 thoughts on “No Country For Solo Ladies

  1. James Reply

    Great article, and refreshingly honest.
    I find Phnom Penh has a brooding sense of malice when you start to delve below the smiling veneer.

  2. Jo Reply

    Great article. I moved to Cambodia as a solo female when I was in my late 20s, working on a research project under my own direction. I first lived Battambang then to Siem Reap and later Phnom Penh and much of this article resonated with me.

  3. WA Reply

    It is is not a great place for couple wishing to start a normal family life either. I should never suggested going there with my husband but I was so full of hope to restart our married life that I overlooked all the pitfalls that indirectly pushed me to the sideline by those pushy Cambodians. I hope other couple(who may be going there to settle long term or short term) would think twice about going there or be extra cautious that their other half are not snared away while having to cope with all the harshness and ugliness that Cambodia has to offer.

  4. DRK Reply

    I’m a single guy in my late 20’s and absolutely love my life here. I can totally see it from a womans perspective and have always pondered the question – Why would any single white woman come to Cambodia? I couldn’t think of a worse place for them and this article definitely reinforces my opinion.

  5. Dom Reply

    Thank you for this post! Moving anywhere so different from home is such a brave and beautiful risk… and sometimes you have to move on to the next place. I wonder if Lauren would enjoy Vietnam half as much if she hadn’t first lived in Cambodia? These experiences change you. Throughout the post I see her perspective shifting. She challenges the ideas she grew up with all over the place e.g. violence happens to women everywhere/ gun violence doesn’t have to be a normalized part of the urban experience, etc – checking that American privilege? She says she’s glad that she’s no longer there, but it seems only half true. The deep formative connection to Cambodia remains. I would be very interested to read any of her follow up posts.

    • Cody Reply

      Spent last August to November in Phnom Penh. Actually I spent September in Vietnam. Vietnam was a country I’d always dreamed of visiting since childhood. Anyway, after spending a month in Cambodia I couldn’t get over how boring Vietnam seemed. I stuck it out the whole month visiting different cities riding buses and trains all over the country so I wouldn’t feel guilty about wasting any days on my visa but at the end of september I couldn’t wait to get back to PP. On Nov 28th I had to get a ticket back to the states because I got addicted to ice really bad. Now I’m teaching in China. After a couple years I’ll take a vacation to Nepal, Thailand, maybe another country, before finally settling back down in Cambodia or the Philippines. Can’t wait. No place like Cambodia. Vietnam is pretty intresting but like I said if you go to Cambodia first it will be drab in comparison.

  6. Louise Belhavel Reply

    A second reading conveys the impression that we are not told the truth, the whole truth and nothing-but-the-truth of the writer’s experiences.

    Instead, we are invited to feel sorry for her for having enjoyed what sounds like a pretty decent existence in Phnom Penh on $800 a month in a stress-free occupation.

    She’s a good looker and need never have been denied male attention, assuming that she desired such attention.

    We are living in an era in which a disturbing number of women enjoy whining about the misery of their lives and expecting the rest of us to sob and snivel in sympathy.

    • WA Reply

      Sure, tell their Asian women to stop seeking pity or support from Foreign White Men.

    • Binko Reply

      Sure doesn’t sound like whining to me. Life is full of inner and external conflict, and to not share that would be dishonest (and boring).

      As for the claim that we are not getting the whole truth—any reader of non-fiction knows that is part of the deal. We have to weigh what we have read against what we think the actual reality may have been. Everyone is subjective, especially regarding their own experiences. But it’s clear the writer is aware of that and offered up numerous criticisms of herself. In fact, the entire article is basically a dissection of her unrealistic expectations and regrets about her time in Cambodia. But she still gained some positive things from her time there and she knows that other foreigners have experienced Cambodia much differently.

  7. Anonymous Reply

    Funny how when white women come to Asia, they all complain that no men want to date them. Well, why would they? White women are inferior to Asian women. White women are brainwashed by feminism, whereas Asian women are sexy, submissive, thin (many white women are fat).

    Asia is the reverse of the West. In Asia, a white man holds all the cards in the dating game, and white women who have been brainwashed by feminism to hate white men hate the fact that white men are perfectly happy with their Asian girlfriends or wives and don’t NEED or WANT white women.

    American women suck.

    • GonzoBobH Reply

      “…hate the fact that white men are perfectly happy with their Asian girlfriends or wives and don’t NEED or WANT white women.
      American women suck.”

      You jumped from White to American.

      I’m a white American man married to a brown American woman. Did you catch that? Not all American woman are white; they come in all shapes (thin) and colors.

      If you think you are all that, all white and such, you don’t realize that woman know a jerk when they meet one. Perhaps that is you. Perhaps not. But if so… don’t think they are being respectful when they are talking about you/in front of you in their native tongue.

      Cheers,
      GBH

    • jim tomka Reply

      Anon, I’ve met many barang ladies and there are some stunners,but when you are an old man, who is interested in you. Kmer ladies find many barangs hansome (oh come on, if you believe this, Ive got a bridge in Brooklyn for you). It’s all about money. Western ladies look for romance, respect,fidelety,compaionship, etc while Kmers are only in it for the money. Pretty easy for Kmer to play the part you like. In reality, Kmer ladies are anything but submissive. If you think you control the dating game with Kmer ladies you are delusional or just plane dumb.

  8. CY Reply

    I’m a non-white Asian woman expat in my forties and English is my first language. Believe me, it’s not better for me either. I’m trying to find places where I can go have a drink/meal and speak to someone without them thinking I’m trying to pick them up or be picked up. I don’t see many white expat women around to talk to and I also wonder if they would talk to me without them thinking I’m trying to gain anything else other than a conversation and hopefully, a friend. I’ve lived in Vietnam for 8 years before moving here two weeks ago. I’m giving myself time to adjust. But, damn, I miss Saigon. And no, I do not need pity or support from any Foreign White Men, especially those who are attached.(And being on an “internship” means I’m out of pocket as the pay doesn’t cover all my expenses.I think I can be comfortable with $800.)

  9. Geoff Lorimer Reply

    Good article, I know a single lady who has lived in Phnom Penh many years now and she seems very happy with her lot. She’s Canadian and full of fun. I’m sure the writer chose her lifestyle to suit her research and book which obviously hindered her social opportunities. I’m not knocking this decision, we must make our lifestyle as we choose. I don’t think I could survive on $800 a month but I know lots of Khmer’s who would love the chance.
    As for NGO’s, the word arse and up their own comes to mind. Good luck in Vietnam

  10. Joon Reply

    Superbly written and honest piece. It’s balanced, intriguing and a fair, surface glimpse of Cambodia. Just like there is a Deep Web, there is a Deep Cambodia that you either don’t want to explore or that you explore at your risk and peril.

  11. Cement Mixer Reply

    “But slowly I discovered that my danger detectors were all off in Cambodia. I knew how to sense threats within a Western context, the same rules didn’t apply in Phnom Penh. There was such a premium placed on maintaining face that I couldn’t tell when people were angry or when tensions were escalating — one minute everything would seem fine, and the next there was a knife fight going down.”

    Not knocking the “article”, if that’s what it is, but having a best mate’s family suffer PTSD (they (one might assume) being KR survivors/escapees), having previously lived in PP for a couple of months and having grown up “in one of the US’s most violent cities”, the thrust of your article betrays a little naivety, particularly with your purported knowledge of Khmer history.

    I’m a bloke, so not quite analogous to your experience, but used to knock about in boozers where disgustingly brutal violence could kick off with far less warning than over here, notwithstanding the subjectivity of a “sense of danger”.

    Good luck anyway with everything.

  12. James Ricketson Reply

    A good and refreshingly honest piece, Lauren. Good luck in Vietnam and with your writing.

  13. Dan Reply

    Congrats for being sober alcoholic it’s truly good to hear in Cambodia. I have lived here 9 years and frankly have had very few chance meetings with western women unlike in Thailand and that’s a pity because I reckon the visitors to Cambodia are braver types. I think a few of us expat western guys have had that uncomfortable feeling sometimes that western women assume we are all the worst kid of expats because there are quite a few dickheads that get around and burn out here. Good luck and keep an open mind.

  14. Josh Reply

    1. It’ll always be less safe for a single female anywhere, unfortunately.

    2. “Danger” is very subjective. You can’t convince someone a place is unsafe who’s never had anything bad happen and you can’t convince someone a place is safe, who’s just been robbed.

    3. I have always found the Vietnamese to be more aggressive than the Thai or Khmers, so I am surprised how this post ended.

    4. I also feel the writer left out crucial info that would have helped understand her better.

    5. Happy to see that VN is working out for her much better.

  15. bigprinz Reply

    Single white 20-something female here.

    I think Phnom Penh is a great place to be a single woman. Sure, all the expat men here are sexpats/druggies/’a bit odd’, but if you’re not looking for a long term relationship that’s not a problem. If you’re feeling sexually frustrated, simply head down to a backpacker bar and pick up a 22 year old Swede.

    I feel safer here at night than I do in my English home city, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be terrorised into moving away – I value my freedom to live where I want. I have a million times more job opportunities here than I do back home too – you can start anything you want here. There’s pools, cheap waxes and cheap cocktails – its an unappreciated girl heaven!

  16. Bozzo Reply

    A refreshingly different perspective on life in SE Asia. It’s interesting to read about the Cambodia-Vietnam comparison. I spent a few years in Saigon and a few in Phnom Penh. Overall I prefer Cambodia, and like the fact that the Khmer are easy going. But I do prefer the expat community in HCMC. Few NGOs. Few sexpats. It’s just less extreme.

  17. Vic Matthews Reply

    Lauren,

    Come back! As long as you’re looking good you can stay in my guesthouse with me and maybe we can even go out in public!

  18. Marco Reply

    Thanks for the article, I came here as a single male also not tied to any organization and I share a lot of your experience, so I think a lot of it is not because you’re a woman. As for danger, like others said it’s subjective, Cambodia’s dangerous for traffic but violent crime against foreigners is really rare. I feel perfectly safe walking around middle of the night, which I couldn’t say for many other places. Even if they rob me, I don’t expect to get knifed or killed for no reason. Of course you get all the crazy expat stories but that’s because a country like this is a magnet for loonies. Coming by myself to a new place was very difficult for me, and after the first year I’m living a much better life now. The first six months were especially lonely and hard. It took a year of being here to have a group of friends who will not leave, to learn some of the language and even make ties within Khmer society. It was a lot of hard work that’s paying off in a major way now. I totally understand everything you wrote and think you’re very brave for trying this experiment!

  19. Darya Reply

    I am Cambodian and I know why. Maybe during the nine month period, you have not met Western men often, 🙂 but if you expect Asian people, especially Cambodian men, to ask you out, it was hopeless. No Cambodian people would ask strangers out. It’s either naughty or embarrassing if rejected. Moreover, Western people are not really attractive to Cambodian people, probably because of behavior or appearance itself (My guess or my bad). My advice is if you want to know someone, go to work in an organization, study or go somewhere which involves other people doing things as team because it’s a warm way of getting to know others in Cambodia. And it’s a sure way to get rid of being “A solo woman in Phnom Penh”.

  20. Irfan Reply

    I live in the UK and have been Cambodia 3 times now over past 5 years or so and really liked it a lot.

    Definitely agree with Darya, as I quickly found you cant just try and chat someone up in public, unless you have some reason for interaction already e.g. mutual friend or shes working there and your a customer etc.
    I once made mistake of asking a Cambodian I had become good friends with, to ask for the number of a girl that knew I was checking her out. And quickly learned that you cant do that kind of thing as it ‘bad behavior’ and not acceptable. I made him embarrassed and upset.

    Also I found the locals are apprehensive of foreigners (probably stereotypes) as well as not really being attracted to the looks. Kind of figures as if you look at young Cambodian’s they all try to look like Korean’s. I had some success in dating, but only because I would have Cambodian wing men who would introduce me and basically give the girl a clearer picture of who I am and vouch for my character and unique qualities (so in essence not a standard foreigner as they would think at first sight).

    Now I actually have decided I really want to move out there. Having procrastinated on this for ages, an existing long term relationship only complicated this (Vietnamese gf). But even that is now over and now feel no reason to hold back any longer (besides it will help me start again as the relationship ended in a very unhealthy way and left me knocked for six).

    My big problem though is about where to start in terms of job hunting out there (previous trips taught me that the living out there is no problem for me, not even the danger element). The only thing I know of it English teaching, but when I read articles such as this it always comes across that there is much more opportunities for foreigners out there than just that.

    Personally I have run my own business and have vast experience as a Senior Software Engineer and Team Lead.
    I would love if anyone here would be generous enough to give me a shout, be it the author or anyone who has the experience or knowledge of this.

    Even sharing experiences or passing contact details for when I come out there, so can have some friendly faces would be awesome.

    Thank you =)

    • Mike Reply

      I actually had a similar experience but I found a few stock phrases that would usually get a khmer giggling and from there they’d be happy to chat though my khmer is pretty basic. That along with being a pretty friendly guy and only 25, I didn’t have too many problems socializing. The khmer are no different to anyone else, if you’re cold or a bit of a creep, they aren’t going to react well to you.

      I think it probably helped that I met this absolutely amazing girl my first night there and instead of doing the bar scene like my friends, I abandoned them to that and just went around phnom penh with her for a month. I absolutely loved it.

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