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.