From the Archives: A Rare Insight Into Growing Up in Phnom PenhJune 12, 2018
Back in 2013 Khmer440.com had a regular user, Khmerized, a young European that went to high school here in Phnom Penh at the Lycée Français Renée Descartes (LFRD). He posted a very rare insight into the school and the environment as a whole on our discussion forum at: http://www.khmer440.com/chat_forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=29859&p=387338#p387338.
Below are his own words. Visit the thread to see the post in full and for more context and other users’ reactions from the time.
I’m more or less French (by passport, education, culture, cheese-appreciation and mother-tongue, but my family is very pan-European, mostly British / Croatian / Austrian and whatnot) and my mom is a photographer, which was a great thing because she always took me along on her trips throughout the world, mainly Asia.
I was fortunate enough to skip a whole school year when I was 12-13 and traveled from Paris to Saigon over-land via Russia, Mongolia, China, and then back via Cambodia / Thailand / Myanmar / India / Nepal / Tibet / Pakistan and other *stan countries. It’s during that trip that I visited Cambodia for the first time, and to be honest, I wasn’t particularly fond. After 4 months on the road in China, Vietnam seemed like a haven of civilization (they had cheese! and baguette! and beautiful architecture! and strange, white, aerial creatures on bicycles, who troubled me for reasons that I was just starting to grasp) and I was not in favor of leaving it to go to dusty, noisy, and objectively ugly Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh’s charm has to be learned, it’s invisible at first. My first night in Cambodia was quite memorable, but that’s perhaps a story for another post.
In 2002, Angkor wasn’t flooded with bloody tourists yet, and being able to witness a sunrise, in complete solitude, at Preah Kahn and other temples, was a magical experience. I remember something about my mom forbidding me to pee on the side of road because of landmines. And “Red people” who killed a large part of the population for reasons that completely escaped me. But indeed, I immediately noticed that elderly people were rare, and that this country was young, in an eerie way. I also have memories of dusty red roads and hypnotizing prostitutes on the riverside. Ha.
Anyway, after a year of complete freedom in Asia, it was hard to re-adapt to Paris and its grey, stressed-out and sterile lifestyle (or so I saw it at the time) and my mom and I were longing to go back to where we felt we belonged. On the road, or at least not too far from it. Even though I was barely old enough to take simple, everyday life-related decisions , my mom really left the decision of moving back to Asia up to me, which retrospectively seems completely insane. But after a short year of gloom and awkwardness in Venice, we picked Cambodia for Visa-related reasons, and because the French School is decent, life is cheap, etc…; packed our lives into 20KG suitcases, booked a month at the Billabong Hotel to give us time to find a flat, and off we went.
I was almost 15 when I moved to Cambodia, and even though we originally planned on staying just a year, I didn’t leave until I was 18, after obtaining my French Baccalaureate (our version of the IB/A-levels or whatever). My mom stayed three more years, using Phnom Penh as a hub to travel back and forth between S.E. Asia, Pakistan, and Europe.
Compared to Parisian schools, LFRD (Lycée Français Renée Descartes) is (or was) very small, and the atmosphere was very easy-going. Quite a change from the hyper-competitive factory-schools I was used to. Everything seemed incredibly easy and simple. Wake up, have breakfast on the riverside, ride to school on a tiny Honda Wave, attend classes with surprisingly decent teachers, flirt with girls, flirt a little more, eat a ridiculously cheap lok lak for lunch, attend more classes and spend the rest of the evening at Howie’s, flirtin’ on through the night and practicing my English, a language that I knew few rudiments of, but that I was very eager to practice.
I think LFRD would not have been the same without its share of emancipated, westernized and, I must say, lethal Khmer hotties. Let’s cut to the chase, girls were obviously the most interesting thing about being a a fair-skinned teenage god in Cambodia. I was lucky enough (or not) to date the grand-daughter of an infamous Minster (who shall remain nameless, and no, it’s not him, duh) resulting in a relationship that suddenly propelled me into a world of bodyguards, villas that impressed more with their phenomenal lack of taste than their attempts at grandeur, and overnight trips to Bangkok just to buy the newest LV bag, a sort of parallel universe, completely separate from the real Cambodia that I was learning to know and love. The girl in question became a tad too eager to embrace French culture for her parent’s comfort levels, i.e. freethinking and feminist, so they decided to send her abroad to study away from all those French perverts and crazy teachers who actually expect Khmer students to learn about French (de)colonization of Indochina, the Vietnam war, and uh.. the Khmer Rouge (she was bound to ask “grandpa, is that you on that picture?” if she ever reached page 87 of our History book).
So yes, being 16, having your mom be away most of the time, and therefore being completely free, lost and careless in the giant social maze that is Phnom Penh was quite awesome. I became very fond of rock’n’roll and was part of a band that would regularly play at Sharky’s, and boy did we make fools of ourselves, just tragic. Perhaps there are a few polite souls still lingering around this forum who might remember us, the band that sucked, the frogs who tried to sing in English, and failed at it just enough to entertain a couple of freelancers, so it’s wasn’t all for nothing. Drugs were so cheap and so easy to obtain that they (almost) weren’t fun nor exciting, but add your crazy-nouveau-riche-khmer-kids friends to the mix and events take strange, exciting, and sometimes slightly insane turns. I have vague memories of being completely hammered in the back of a ginormous SUV, being chased down by another ginormous SUV on southern Monivong and onto the other side of the Vietnamese bridge and wondering if I’d be ever able to hear anything again after the two shots that were fired, inside the car, for some reason that I still prefer not to know about.
I must say going to school here was quite interesting, in retrospect, for the simple reason that there were absolutely no boundaries between barangs like I, and our Khmer counterparts who also attended the school. Be it in love or in friendship, I think we were completely free of any social, cultural, or financial differences that might have separated us outside the school. Of course we tried to emulate social classes and political parties that were present outside the school’s walls, but in the end we were just kids who didn’t really give a fuck about anything besides sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (if you had good taste, otherwise it was bloody hip-hop) even though we were VERY different from each other. A true pot-pourri of globalized teenage hormones.
You might be curious to know what kind of students you’d find at an international school in Phnom Penh. The following are a few categories you could use to classify them, and all the anecdotes mentioned here are true, with perhaps some small details changed – caricature or not, judge for yourself. Just remember, there are exceptions to every rule, by no means do I say these profiles to be universal, nor are they very serious.
WARNING: Any resemblance to yourself, your women and daughters or your bar-buddies is probably NOT coincidental.
- The Expatriate Kids:
Their family gets paid a huge bonus because Cambodia is a difficult place to live in, or so an HR rep decided. Their house, car, various staff and school tuition are paid for by the NGO, embassy, or company that the parents work for. The kids never leave their safe, sterile and germ-free AC bubble. AC in the house, AC in the car, AC at school, and so on. They don’t live in Cambodia, they live in a ghetto called Toul Kork, and what they see through their car’s windows on the way to school just looks like one of those boring, pseudo-intellectual movies on indochina that their parents love so much – every French kid here has seen “Indochine”. Some of them are the teacher’s kids, and nobody really trusts them because everyone knows they’re snitches. They’re usually boring and not very curious, at least not about the stuff that it’s worth being curious about. They try to organize spelling bee events and study-groups. They’d ask you if you could fetch some those yummy spring-rolls you always eat at lunch, and then hand you a 20$ bill, sincerely asking if it’s enough. They don’t know how to say anything else than “hello”, “thank you”, and “one coke please” in Khmer, nor do they know what BKK1 or Sihanouk Blvd are. Most of them have lived in various other countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, but have no stories to tell about their time there. Their parents are members of the Cambodia Parent Network and Phnom Penh Accueil, and they think that St. 51 is a place of evil and immorality. They are convinced that their kids will be kidnapped if they leave them alone for a split second, even in front of the American Embassy, where the French School is. So many stories about human trafficking, you know.
Their goal is to make their lives as similar as possible to the ones they lived in the west, with the added perks of good weather and obscenely cheap staff. Stay-at-home moms will kill time by organizing cooking clubs, charities, and breastfeeding gatherings. Finding a nice piece of fabric at the Russian Market will be the highlight of their week, their pinnacle of excitement. They read Cambodge Soir and L’Echo, and watch TV5 Monde religiously every evening, mostly for “Questions Pour Un Champion”.
- The Military Kids:
Their parents are in the French army and on a mission to train Khmer soldiers and officers in the scope of a cooperation effort between Cambodia and the French embassy. Most of them had never left France before, and many have trouble grasping the fact that they left their tiny inbred village behind, and that they can’t go around singing the Marseillaise and saying that France is the best fucking country on earth, and still expect people to take them seriously. They are very surprised to learn that France is actually not that popular. Most of these kids will follow their parent’s footsteps and join the army as well, or become policemen if they can’t get into an academy after graduating. They live in a gated community in the North of Phnom Penh, which they basically use as a giant bb-gun range. They think that if you don’t know the latest French rap song, you’re a gay pro-american, anti-army pacifist asshole. They are absolutely useless at English, and suck at pretty much everything except P.E. and math, with a few, odd exception of course, like that dude who got the best musical theory grade in the Asia-Pacific region, which blew our minds, because he acted and behaved like a primitive brute.
By the way, they’re excellent rugby players and won the Cambodian championship 5 years in a row, if I remember well. This group probably matches the caricatural ideas that many Americans have of the French, but they do remind me of the rednecks and teabaggers back in America, who happen to be the most vocal French haters I know of, quite ironically. Anyway, for some reason, girls absolutely love those guys, which might have something to do with the fact that constantly running around one’s neighborhood, shooting at rats with BB-guns in +30º temperatures does help maintain a pretty nice body.
- The Rich Khmer Kids (RKK):
Their parents own the country, politically and financially. They usually come from families that are either remnants of the pre-Khmer Rouge elite who fled to Russia, America and France in 1975, or they are simply offsprings of ex-Khmer rouges that managed to cling to power through the years, sometimes thanks to marriage with the Vietnamese. One of my exes was a good example of that, being half-Khmer and half Vietnamese, she felt alienated in both countries and constantly longed for France or America.
Interestingly enough, during my time, the RKK were divided into two sub-groups; the royalists and the nationalists. Royalists were usually from the families that fled, nationalists were from families whose history they “just don’t know anything about” between ’75 and ’79. Apparently belonging to one group or another is a big deal, and there are serious tensions. Just imagine a bunch of ignorant kids playing grown-up politics in the schoolyard with all the seriousness and bitterness that they are capable of, learning the ropes directly from their experienced parents.
Whether royalists or nationalists, they often have bodyguards who wait in SUVs parked outside the school. Blame those guys for creating jams around the international schools, they just won’t move. The RKK typically take notes with Mont Blanc pens on Hermes planners, because they’ll learn better that way, obviously. They are also gun-nuts. My girlfriend’s 12-year old brother would carry a 9 millimeter in his bag to school and brag about it on FB by taking pictures of 100$ stashes, car keys to an expensive SUV and a couple of hand-grenades. Female RKKs get their hair done at London Salon on Monivong and get lunch from Fresco (which was the first place of its kind to open in PP, as far as I remember). Most of them travel first-class to France during the summer holidays and frequent 5-star hotels, but are completely happy with tiled-walls, neon-lights and the widespread tastelessness of their surroundings when they’re back home, in their 15-bedroom mansion. They think that the Barang kids at school are fucking ridiculous with their cheap bags and non-diamond-encrusted, non-Vertu, sub-$1000 phones. Fucking hippies.
The RKK don’t know who Hitler, Mao Tze Tung, Stalin, Mozart, Einstein, Neil Armstrong, Christopher Columbus, Galileo, Bismark, Darwin, Plato, Pasteur, Bach, Picasso, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Dumas, Dickens, Freud, Nietzsche, Kant, Voltaire, Habsburg, Martin Luther King, JFK, De Gaulle, Marx, Bell, Tesla or Leonardo Da Vinci were, but they don’t care, because cheating at tests is the more efficient approach to getting decent-enough grades. And anyway, these dudes are all dead, so why waster their precious time learning who they were? They also sometimes outright refuse to do P.E., for mysterious “cultural reasons that you can not understand because you are not part of Khmer culture”.
They think that spending $500 in booze at Riverhouse Lounge or Rock on a Wednesday evening is no big deal. They’re drunk beyond reason after two shots and their barang-friends take advantage of the remaining $490 worth of booze in the private, stuffy “Premium Super VVIP” room filled with 80’s Karaoke music, fake leather and bored hostesses who realize they won’t get a couple of hundreds in their bra as tip, at least not from the stingy Barangs. The RKK are the future elite and leaders of the country, and they don’t give a flying fuck, which might give them some charm. I find them scary.
- The Missionary Kids:
Doesn’t know what the missionary position is, really. They’re mostly Korean, because Mormons would never send their kids to a French school (ew). They have impeccable marks. They ace in physics, math, biology and chemistry, but secretly know that the earth is 10,000 years old, that evolution is the biggest hoax in History, that the big bang theory is just a silly American show and that learning “Critique of Pure Reason” by heart (!) is more than enough to pass the Baccalaureate of philosophy. They see Cambodia as a giant point-based game: every person they convert gets them a point, increasing their chances of earning the favors of a mysterious bearded-chap in the sky. They deeply pity those poor Khmer people who go to the pagoda every week, who are afraid of ghosts and spirits and hold other ridiculous superstitions, because you know, talking snakes, people living inside whales and virgin births make so much more sense. They are genuinely nice people, they’re just very uninteresting and eerily similar to each other, almost like clones. They speak French perfectly and never, ever make grammatical mistakes, but just they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that they can’t just quote the bloody bible in every commentary or dissertation they write. They also speak Spanish, English, German, Mandarin, Khmer and Latin perfectly, if perfectly means knowing all the rules and grammar but never actually using the language for anything else than academics.
During classes in French (80% of all classes), they take notes in Korean, because they’re super-humans who can listen to a teacher, understand what he’s trying to explain, and translate it simultaneously before writing it down quickly enough to keep track. They sink into depression, when you, the kid who just doesn’t need to work to get good grades, gets admitted at the prestigious university and they don’t. Yes, you’ve shaken their faith! But whatever, their Hello Kitty fetish will get them through these times of troubles and make their inner peace come back, eventually.
- The Bar Kids:
Yep, “you can take their moms out of the bar, but you can’t take the bar out of their moms”, as they say on Khmer440. They are seen as lesser beings by the RKK, and largely ignored by the rest, except when they are hot, and female. And trust me, my oh my, they can be surreal. Some of them involuntarily create waves of insanity and despair in large portions of the school’s male population. Their long, dark silky hair, disarmingly innocent lips, perfect figure and glittery Eurasian eyes are just a facade hiding an impressive collection of psychological scars and some serious daddy issues – and if you wait long enough, and play your cards smartly, they will throw themselves at you, hoping for a brief moment of tabooless passion, a reassuring and protective masculine presence, and the irresistible but very Utopian dream of a parent-free future. Which is quite understandable, really, since they are completely aware of the fact that they are nothing more than the by-product of a financial transaction, some sort of unplanned collateral expense that both parties would have wanted to avoid at the time.
The dad is usually a fat fuck, and it really defies reason to think that that sweaty piece of barang failure created the aesthetic wonder that his daughter is. The mom is a broken shell, addicted to ice or booze, destroyed by years of unhappiness and hard, degrading physical work, whose former beauty can still be felt if the room is not too bright and if she doesn’t try to utter a few words of broken English, in a broken voice. They know what they look like, and try to hide it with heaps of golden jewelry, whitening cream and layers of makeup. They try to look “respectable”. They are the proud owners of a bar or a restaurant, their reward after a hard life of sacrifices. After you get to know them, they are by far the most genuine and down-to-earth people you’ll meet at the school, and they can be a refreshing change from the typical Ambre-clothed expat mother who holds the moral values of a 4,99$ self-help book.
Bar kids are fucked up, but they’re fun, lively, curious, and unpretentiously friendly. They don’t care about your opinions on prostitution, your social class, your wealth nor your origins, and would like you to do the same. They just want to have a bit of fun, damnit. Sometimes it goes too far and you can see a drunk 16 year-old girl starting to strip naked at Reggae Bar because she had one too many. But it’s not her fault, she’d prefer to do it indoors, but she’s banned from Howie’s for life!
A common scenario is the “my real dad is in Battambang but my mom got married with her sugar daddy and he adopted me, so now he’s my daddy too, but he did not adopt my 5 brothers and sisters, which is why they’re not in this school” situation. That’s often weird and interesting, sometimes fascinating, and one’s curiosity increases exponentially after every 5AM pillow talk, a chat usually filled with human tragedy, darkness, and the realization that the very conversation you are having right now is an anomaly of chance, a strange combination of serendipity, globalization and absurd causality. The Bar Kids are my favorite, and they have a talent for breaking my heart.
- The Others:
They’re from other international schools. Of course NISC kids are arrogant and snobbish yanks while the ISPP crowd hates us because we slaughter them on the rugby field every year. They’re weird, most of them don’t speak French, and we secretly envy their annoying American accents. Some of them go on to study at Ivy-league schools, so they’re obviously too cool to talk to us. They have nice gardens, but we have a nice building. We sometimes bump into each other at yearly formals and galas, but we rarely buy each other beers when we share the attention of a hopeful Howie girl. Don’t ask me why, because I do not know. I enjoy their company, and I often wondered if I’d like to move to ISPP.
- The Weirdos:
They are Barangs in Cambodia, and they don’t have a reason for being here. Notice how everyone is here for a reason? Well, some people don’t really have one, or it’s so complicated and wrong that it’s not really a reason anymore, but an excuse. No, my mom doesn’t work at an NGO. No, my dad doesn’t work at the airport. No, we don’t have a cook, two maids, a gardener and a driver. We weirdos (and yes, I guess I would fit in this group) are here, quite simply because we love it, which is something that most other kids tend to find somewhat disturbing. Who the fuck would want to be here by choice? Whoremongers, junkies, and sociopaths – true, but not only.
We are usually the only ones who have visited the country before settling down. Most of us end up learning Khmer, to some extent. We like to mix with every group and develop Machiavellian strategies to take advantage of our unusual situation: Be friends with the expat kids so that you can enjoy their swimming-pool, be courteous to the military kids so they leave you alone or occasionally take care of dirty business for you, suck up to the RKK because luxury, money, corruption and power don’t leave anyone indifferent, and because in Cambodia, they are addictively fascinating, in an almost scientific kind of way. Be cool with the missionary kids because you’re still a polite chap, and because they might come in handy for homework or group assignments. Just sit back and watch them work, it’s quite entertaining, really, and you’re making them happy as a bonus. Of course, give the bar kids what they want, especially if they’re hot. Take them on a midnight motorcycle ride to the other side of the bridge, to the now-defunct “Blue Bar”, a.k.a. Maxine’s, which was the last true piece of paradise in Phnom Penh, and you’d be handsomely rewarded in their preferred currency, namely broken hearts, bruised egos and sporadic bursts of mind-numbing voluptuousness. But don’t take advantage, which is often easier said than (not) done, you’d regret it.
If you’re a political freak, don’t befriend other weirdos, they are your competition after all. But if you’re just a regular dude, why the hell not. My two best friends at LFRD were brothers whose mother was an amazing, world renowned Swiss-Italian artist, who decided to settle down in Cambodia for a few years because after extensive testing, she found that the Khmer vegetation allowed her to produce a unique kind of paper, on which she drew her art. Weirdos indeed, but still interesting and diverse people, and after all it’s the people that made those few years so… intense.
Mix all these groups together, add a cloud of culture-shock, half a measure of language-barriers, a generous amount of ideological incompatibility, perhaps a hint of racism and a coating of ethnocentrism, add a bit of sex, hormones, competition, arrogance, lies, tradition, religion, History, testosterone, tragedy, over-zealous parental control, love and of course complete and utter idiocy – and there you have it. This was LFRD during my years here, a constant epicenter of drama and a breeding ground for self-absorbed, culturally-split teenagers lost in the giant village clusterfuck that is modern Phnom Penh. The key was to make sure you were in a position to enjoy the show, and perhaps preservation instincts quickly taught be to be a spectator, rather than an actor, when stuff got crazy.
At the time, this social landscape seemed natural, easy, and actually quite normal – but in hindsight I ask myself how the hell I managed to play that game, for which I was absolutely not prepared, and which I was not even aware of.
Of course, moving back to Europe to pursue higher studies was like a very cold shower for most of us. A harsh awakening from the stimulating mess that Phnom Penh was when we left it. I don’t think I’ve ever fully adapted – or wanted to adapt – to my life in France, and I had this itch that I just couldn’t scratch: I HAD to come back. (I won’t lie, there also was a girl, but whatever, there always is.) Add a depression to that, as well as health issues and a complete lack of interest in my studies, and I had enough reasons to actually justify coming back. Not to mention a bloody broken heart that just wouldn’t heal.
Of course, it wasn’t the same thing. I didn’t have to navigate the weird LFRD ecosystem. For a while I tried enjoying bars and talking to strangers, but it all seemed so dull and boring. I discovered I actually hate alcohol, which was ultimately a good thing, because it let me focus on rebuilding myself physically and emotionally. Perhaps I became too focused on work, or perhaps I sank into a daily routine that just lacked the excitement I was expecting. Not to sound like a junkie, but you could compare the feeling to building a strong tolerance to a drug and not getting the amazing effects of those first few magical hits anymore.
A former classmate, also from the “weirdo” category, moved back last year after getting a BA in Khmer studies & language. He had all the tools needed to avoid fucking up, including serious funds. Now he’s a serial-whoremonger who completely forgot what the real world is like. This place destroys people.
In the three and some years I was gone, Phnom Penh has of course changed. Buildings are a story higher. Cars are bigger an shinier. Traffic has increased by a factor of ten, and Phnom Penh is using more power than the government can supply, resulting in constant outages. A few hideous buildings have shot up from the ground on Russian Blvd, symbolizing a strong and confident government, another symptom of Cambodia’s tendency to dig totalitarian holes for itself. But you already know all that.
I now see Cambodia indulging in an optimism that I don’t really know how to justify – perhaps I’m excessively sensitive to the complete absence of education, elites, ambition, rule of law, ethics, and vision that is so apparent here. I’m certainly also aware of the fact that growing GDP numbers and the construction of a few malls is not the kind of growth that Cambodia really needs right now. Economic growth means nothing if the rich become richer and the poor don’t benefit, forgive me if I sound socialist.
I don’t think Cambodia will find satisfaction in becoming a mere Chinese suburb, ruled by corrupt and vain men who see the country as nothing more than a vast array of cogs and wheels working in unison to fill their bank accounts. Perhaps they will realize that true development and progress doesn’t mean big cars, but the lack of need for big cars, or the respect of the rule of law, or things like healthcare and a solid infrastructure rather than pretty fountains around the independence monument, or the construction of a flyover fueled by the hopes of wowing a few ASEAN leaders who probably did not even notice it. Or filling a lake, simultaneously destroying lives for, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing beneficial to the country. Or yet another bank coming to saturate Cambodia’s tiny market. And so on.
Just because “things are better than they were 20 years ago” (how many times have I heard this?) doesn’t mean they’re good enough. 20 years ago the country was recovering from a genocide, of course things are better now, it’s called the catch up effect and it’s a tool used by ruling elites to convince lower classes that “look, the numbers are changing, so we must be doing our jobs right”.
I wish Cambodia could unshackle itself from the trauma and stigma of the past century without becoming a stronghold of bureaucracy and over-regulation that now defines and paralyzes the west, but perhaps that’s unavoidable.
The Khmer Rouge aftershock is subtle, and it takes time to see it (or at least it took me time), but it’s definitely there and the whole country is acting as if it wasn’t. Khmers are addicted to shortcuts, but there are none here. I think this is where the challenge lies, and this is what makes me pessimistic about the near-and-long-term future.
Before I sign off, I just want to make one thing clear: I truly love this place, and even though I may sound cynical and perhaps even bitter at times, that’s just because I am disheartened by the downward spiral the country is in. Perhaps it also has something to do with me being – dare I say it – mature enough to understand that the utopia I thought I lived in during my Khmer adolescence (what a concept!) was not one at all. It was just one side of the story, the side of the privileged white kid who thought Cambodia was his playground.