Originally posted in February 2015.
I arrived in Phnom Penh, all blurry-eyed and baffled, one week ago today. I’d like to think I’m sufficiently less baffled to be able to talk about it now.
Most first weeks in a new country consist of trying – by a mixture of trial, error and guidebooks – to prove that you’re not a stupid tourist, and gradually failing a little less at this every day. Cambodia is no different, though I’ve been lucky enough to have local help and a few pointers from other volunteers.
This said, I have nearly been run over by a speeding moto more times than I can remember, tried to barter with market stall vendors over imported fruits and attempted to eat three crabs with my bare hands (they gave me a nutcracker in the end).
I’ve also managed to successfully source a bowl of $1 noodles, negotiate a reasonable tuktuk ride or two and try my hand at silk-weaving. My Khmer currently consists of the usual gold-dust phrases: thank you (ah-kung), sorry (sohm-tho) and that’s too expensive (thlay pek). So you know, winning and losing at the same time. Pretty much a normal week.
Some things I’ve seen in no particular order:
The er…walk to the shops.
A Cambodian bride & groom. We don’t know them, but she was nice enough to want a photo with fellow volunteer Sarah and I.
And a monk with a iPad. (He’s now my Facebook friend).
This eclectic jumble of first impressions is just that, but it also represents perfectly how Phnom Penh feels.
The air is a cocktail of lemongrass, grilling meat and motor oil. Everywhere you look are clashes of the modern and the ancient. Evidence of the Khmer Rouge destruction is still visible, in burned-out temples, construction sites and the sadness of those who remember the genocide. But so too in evidence, is the irrepressible vivre of the Khmer people, whose warm, generous spirit is often as startling as the recent history that threatened to break it.
It’s going to be impossible to live here and not remain a little baffled. It’s a confusing, maddening place but no less inspiring for it.