CommentaryESLExpat LifePhnom Penh

Forty Four Months in Cambodia

It’s been forty four months since I landed in Phnom Penh.

I remember those first few weeks clearly – spending the days at the TEFL training centre on the corner of smelly river and 360 followed by 4pm walks along ‘tuk s’oy’ with my sacred lesson plan in my bag, and a concentrated determination that I would deliver a successful observed lesson whilst still being wildly overwhelmed by my new surroundings.

When the evening lessons were over I sat with the other member of my TEFL training group gulping beer in thirst and stretching back on chairs as our eyes munched on the surroundings.

I remember my first delight at the ridiculously pleasant taste of iced coffee from Stung Treng. I spent a good hour before the TEFL training started every morning at Stung Treng coffee shop on 360, in the wicker chairs, sipping iced coffee and warm Chinese tea and watching the Phnom Penh morning routine.

Shortly after completing my TEFL training I took my first trip out of the city to Stung Treng province where I was fed the freshest ever local river fish fried up for breakfast, lunch and dinner and served with green mango salad – a taste that I will never, ever tire of.

One whole afternoon of that trip was spent swinging in a hammock and watching a woman massage her husband’s shoulders gently in the slow motion world that is the countryside. There in Stung Treng I spent my first morning waking to the mystical sound of pre-dawn dog howls and cockerels.

Back in Phnom Penh, during the first six months, I would often wander with a friend on a Sunday afternoon from Tuol Tumpoung to lakeside to watch the fishing boats and the encroaching sand as we sipped on cheap beer. We often sat with a youngish guy- I can’t remember his name – but he was in a wheelchair with some physical disability that we never asked him about: oversized head, shortened limbs. He never asked us for anything more than a chat in English and a lift back in our tuk -tuk to Wat Botum pagoda every night but he explained a lot of important initial things about life in Cambodia for us. I wonder where he is now.

I remember clearly that feeling of those first few months- feeling exhausted and exhilarated all at once as I marveled at the calm chaos and the no nonsense way of doing things. I cannot say the ‘land of smiles’ thing hit me really. More like a land of people who were all really busy – carrying, cutting, haggling, packing, driving, touting, selling, buying, setting up, packing up, moving in, moving out -all whilst somehow appearing to look as if they are doing very little.

This struck me in sharp contrast to how people from the West really can and do make a mountain out of a mole-hill sometimes.

I was happy to absorb what I saw around me- to learn from the local people I met who did not have the soul searching, obsessive self-importance thing that many people in the West have. Of course this is a very personal opinion and may stem just as much from my own personal transition – sitting in a cold house in the UK thinking about what to do with my future and then suddenly being in an extremely hot and radically different country, head up, eyes open, without stopping to think and instead just feeling, seeing and doing.

What has shocked me is how some foreigners who live here spend their whole time slating Cambodia(ns)- very strange. However, they have been the minority of foreigners that I have met here and I suppose their petty complaints and childish squabbling amongst themselves is pretty harmless really on the grand scale of things for Khmers as I expect most locals wouldn’t give a shit what they say or do really.

A summary of events since I arrived three and a half years ago explains to me the reason why my personal dramas are overshadowed by those of others around me……

The Dey Krahom and Boeng Kak Lake evictions, the on-going Khmer Rouge trials, the disaster at Kos Pich, last year’s floods, this years’ commune election and the killing of Chun Wutty and more recently Hang Serei Odom.

These events are only major points on the short historical backdrop of my time in Cambodia so far. I know many more foreigners here have seen much more.

Of course I know that I am powerless to have much of a say in the big picture here, but as a foreigner that will spend a considerable part of her future here, I hope to find many more ways than I have so far to give back to this country and help out a few people in whatever way I can.

My own personal journey here involved me slipping from my twenties into my thirties.

I have experienced truly perfect days. One of which was about two years ago when my boyfriend Makara drove me out of PP early one morning to Tonle Bati where we sat bobbing in rubber rings, eating soft shelled crab and watching the sun set over the lake.

I have also experienced some of my saddest days here. More recently, I have swallowed my heart in my throat as Makara worked his 5-11pm bar shift and then spent the night beside his Mum, San, in Calmette hospital.

I had some amazing times with San. I felt so useless and ashamed at my own terror as her life slipped away in Calmette. I will never forget that call from Makara to say they had managed to get her home to Kandal in time for monks to come and bless her passing on to the next life.

It seems that the saddest moments are over for now as day by day, things change and move on.
Forty four months since landing and I have a lot to learn, but I feel calm and at ease that there is time. I feel that I am slowly making sense of my place here in this country that has wrapped its humid palms around me and sways me on – the country that my future children will call their own.

Anna Spencer

10 thoughts on “Forty Four Months in Cambodia

  • You have a rare gift for entwining the practical with the spiritual! lovely piece..

  • andyinasia

    That’s really beautiful, Anna.

  • Bryan Spencer

    Very lovely piece . You have such a mature insight into Cambodian culture you might have been there for 40yrs not fourty months!

  • philip phan

    Absolutely a wholesome read! unpretentiously straight from the heart. You are a natural born writer, Anna. Will novel writing be your side career?

  • Very well written. You managed to convey the experiences of someone new in Cambodia without being trite or relying on easy stereotypes……something that most writers cannot accomplish. Well done.

  • thanks so much…I get so nervous when my writing is uploaded that it will get slated…I would like to pretend I’m thick skinned but I’m not really! Your comments have made my Friday…thanks again.
    Writing is the start of the day for me along with two or three cups of strong coffee…but not much of it has been read by the outside world!

  • You provide a welcome alternative point of view to Andy’s tales of being a lovelorn debauchee, and my just obviously being nuts. That’s probably better PR for Cambodia than anything. Some gov’t official or tourism ambassador can point to it sometime at a conference or media event and say:

    “Look! Nice people, regular like they maybe are sane people, they immigrate here too! Women, even! Or A Woman, I can maybe say. So now we recently update official statistic data for reflect that with her arrival, there at least 1 westerner woman living here permanent. It is not all just Swedish hackers and Australian pensioner like you think. Did you know Phnom Penh is call Charming City? By who? Dunno, by … people … at Ministry of Tourism, I know sure, have heard it said there many times … I dunno, many! So it is just maybe lots? … Okay okay okay – perhaps not said just like that, but I know I see it written there. On lots of many thing. Brochure, for one. Seen it written there very often. Many time. You also know that Cambodia is The Kingdom of Wonder?”

  • Lawrence Chea

    Read like a beutifill novel but I know it’s real. I know because I am a Khmer. Thank you Anna!

  • I can identify with a lot of what you write, even though I am about 38 months behind you.

  • hi anna
    my best friend tony and myself like to move to PHNOM PENH,maybe in few months time,we are french and been living in the uk for years!!lol!!
    i got a dog,both single!!i am 49 and tony 52,but very young in heart!!
    what advice can you give to us!!!
    jobs, renting,travel,visas….
    i forgot i got my 11 years old dog!!!
    thank you if you got any time to answer me back
    your truly


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