A friend of mine says my Instagram makes Phnom Penh look like a quaint hipster town… It’s not.
Yes, I know, all I show you are the pretty waterfronts, the delicious coffee, the magical architecture… And these places really do exist here. But if this is the story I keep telling you, there’s going to be a huge dissonance between expectation and reality when you come visit.
Here are some of the not so pretty things about this place: the real city of Phnom Penh as I live, see, and unfortunately breathe it.
- It’s so hot. And so humid. Think of it as a sauna that never turns off. Never have I feared as much in regards to my eyebrow game, mustache sweat, and body odor.
- Mosquitoes are rampant during rainy season. They sure do love the sweet nectar of my O-type blood. (Special shoutout to the ants that eat my breakfast before I do, the cat that leaves its pellets down the hall, and the rats that are… eh, enough said.)
- Parks? Sidewalks? What are those?! They don’t exist here. Oh, how I miss you Golden Gate, Presidio, and Lands End…
- Construction means infrastructural and therefore economic growth, right? It actually probably means an oversupply of condos, unsightly green tarp littered in the skyline, and ridiculously loud booms and clacks that you can’t dance hip hop to. And lots of traffic.
- Hide your kids, hide you wife, and especially hide your purse. RIP iPhone and crossbody bag that got snatched off my colleague by a moto driver after dinner.
- Ahh, a breathe of fresh air (pollution). Top that off with rush hour traffic on a bicycle, and you’ve got yourself a dizzying, smoky, and balmy adventure! (Non sequitur: I once dodged a tractor while making a left turn, then averted an SUV but managed to graze its bumper. Cue adrenaline rush.)
- Sometimes the wind blows in the wrong direction, and you regret being alive. There’s nothing like getting hit the face with the smell of trash and human waste to get your morning started. Bonus points goes to St 105 for looking like fresh blue water on Google Maps but really being a sewage canal with plenty of litter to boot.
- Today, I saw a sign at an apartment complex that said, “No sex tourism allowed here!” Last weekend, I went clubbing and danced alongside prostitutes who were scouting their next customers. It’s easy to overlook or even miss what’s happening before you, and it makes you uneasy when you see it and don’t know how you should respond.
- The income disparity is very visible. You traverse down the main road and see a giant Hummer next to beat up moto with four passengers on it. And, I have a unique positioning in Cambodia where I look and live like a local but have access like a foreigner, so I get to see a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. There was a night where I rode in my neighbor’s worn out tuk-tuk alongside his two daughters whose clothes were torn and dirty; then a few hours later, I popped into an acquaintance’s shnazzy Range Rover, equipped with a driver and LV pillows. Oh, the juxtaposition.
- Education is improving, but it has a long way to go. In 2012, attendance rates for primary school were in the mid-80s, dropping to the mid-40s for secondary school. In 2014, with new anti-cheating measures enforced for the national high school exit exam, pass rates dropped to under 26% versus 84% the previous year. And while reforms are in place to minimize teachers taking bribes from students, “tutoring fees” are rampant and replacing the old “time-honored tradition” of bribery.
With all that said, I still really love this place. At Harpswell, I interact with some of the brightest and hardest working women in Cambodia. Their modest backgrounds in contrast to their unbridled ambitions to elevate their country is beyond inspiring.
Additionally, I can’t complain about how my foreign pockets allow me access to so much food and coffee, something I couldn’t participate in when I lived in SF.
And when you do get out into nature, like in Kep and Kampot, it’s pretty damn unbelievable.
This place is in constant growth, always evolving. It’s a world of extremes. As the next generation of leaders take hold, and stability and infrastructure ripple through the city, you see Khmer people leaning less on aid and more on each other. While this place is not without its moments of frustrations and difficulties, it’s also bountiful in hope and passion for a future anew.