Eve Watling challenges Lauren Quinn’s recent K440 article suggesting that Phnom Penh is no place for ‘solo ladies’.
Recently on Khmer440, we heard about how it’s hard to be a Solo Lady in Phnom Penh. Certainly, the majority of the city’s attractions do seem do seem to cater mainly for men. If you’re not having a 2pm beer in the ‘Dollar Beer, Lonely Not in Here’ bars or moaning about your Khmer wife’s family on this website, what ARE you doing? On the surface, it might be hard to see why Phnom Penh would be a good place for us twenty-something Solo Ladies to be. But a few factors have come together to make it a brilliant place for us to live.
Like men of the same age, we reap the benefits of the varied job opportunities, cheap rent, and meeting all the weird and wonderful people who have also drifted over like misshapen, alcohol-dependent flotsam (yep, I bet Phnom Penh is indeed no place for sober alcoholic, regardless of gender). Lady expats also get to regularly enjoy luxuries that would bankrupt us back home: waxes, cocktails, massages, manicures and custom made shoes. Meanwhile, many of my university classmates back home are still living in their parent’s houses eating baked beans and voting UKIP. I don’t at all mind putting up with bi-monthly gastroenteritis to escape Europe’s slump into a grumpy, xenophobic depression.
Despite the good jobs and cheap luxuries, Phnom Penh’s first biggest turn off for most women I’ve met seem to be general indelicacies of life away from the sanitised world in the West. Some people are simply not down with eating food seasoned with grit, arriving to work with hair so drenched with sweat it looks like you just got out the shower, or operating a bumgun. Unless you’re rich enough to live in an air-conditioned bubble, there’s no way you can live here without compromising your delicate ladylike sensibilities. However, is not a problem for me, as I had none to begin with. This is the crux of whether Phnom Penh will make or break you as a Solo Lady: are able to embrace the sometimes unsavoury, unexpected and surreal moments that come with living in Cambodia?
As has been mentioned, there’s nothing ladylike about dating here either. No woman comes to Phnom Penh on a mission to settle down, find a husband and start a family. The sexpats will always be lurking on nights out, snuggling up to dead-eyed 18 year olds like a gummy, de-shelled tortoises (a guilty thank you to the city’s bargirls for taking one for the team and making sure they’re not trying to tell us boring stories about Australia in the 70’s). It’s not hard to find handsome young Khmer guys. Yet missing a) virginity and b) any interest in family life whatsoever means that any romance is doomed from the get-go, even if the half meter long pinkie nail didn’t send you running for the hills in the first place.
Thank goodness for the golden skinned, sweetly naive backpacker boys, always in constant supply for a week, a day or a night of fleeting fun. And will you be judged if you have a predilection for brief encounters in bunk beds and a doing the walk of shame in a ‘same same but different’ t-shirt? Mildly, at the most. The permissive attitude that characterises the expat culture means that in Phnom Penh, women can explore and redefine her own sexuality without being held up to the values of the society that she comes from. A friend in her late 20s tells me that Phnom Penh is also a great place to avoid harassment of the ‘when are you getting married and having babies’ variety that she gets back home. Here, we’re explorers, not baby-machines (or else everyone has given up on any expectations of us to do anything that involves self-sacrifice or responsibility. Which is fine by me, too).
In short, within the expat community there’s such a variety of different people and cultures and lifestyles, that there’s no real pattern of social norms we are expected to follow – it means we have to look at gross sexpats, but it can be liberating for us Solo Ladies, too.
Well, for straight Solo Ladies. Please spare a thought for our Solo Lesbian sisters living in Phnom Penh. My SL ex-housemate lived in here for 5 months without seeing so much of a peep of vagina. “There are NO gay girls here”, she growled after months of involuntary celibacy, before packing her bags and leaving for good.
In her original post, Lauren brought up the safety issue, and in a country with such horrifying rape statistics, perhaps she is justified. However, I find the obsession on saving face something to be celebrated: many sketchy situations, from street harassment to overcharging moto drivers, have been avoided by smiling sweetly and backing away – there’s unlikely to be as the level of persistent aggression you would receive in the West.
The world is not a safe place for women, but it’s your own decision whether you allow yourself to be terrorised off the streets that are just as much yours as anybody else’s. It sucks that we all have to live under the shadow of the potential rapist in every dark alleyway, but I’d rather take my chances, and keep my freedom.
If you want to exist in a well-known, safe world, then Phnom Penh might not be for you. But if you thrive on – rather than shrink from – a bit of dirt and chaos, you can redefine the rules you were brought up with to find out how you want to live your life, without judgement. With an infamous culture of sex tourism and exploitation, Phnom Penh isn’t obviously set up for women. But that’s why it’s important that we use the loosened social norms to stand up and carve out our own space as Solo Ladies.