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PHNOM PENH: Meet the Expats

After internal conflict caused one of the world's worst genocide's, Cambodia is rebuilding with the help of western nationals.. On a visit to Cambodia's capital I discover the pragmatic optimism of PP's Expats.

Welcome to PP

A boy holds his shirt aloft as he splashes wee all over the pavement. A baby girl lies naked in her own excrement on the footpath. A man enters the wat to piss on a statue of Buddha. The smell of urine is everywhere as it ferments in the 30 degree heat along with the rubbish dumped on the street and the unrefrigerated meat broiling in the markets.

"Everyday you see something that surprises you," my friend who works at the embassy tells me. He's been here 3 years.

What doesn't surprise me is why they nickname the city "Pee-Pee"

Each week foreigners come and go; to and from Siem Reap or Sihanoukville; to and from Laos or Vietnam. But there is a large expat community who stay and I'm hoping the restaurants, bars and drag shows meeting many of them.

Claire is a principle at a local English school, arriving 3 years ago as an English teacher and working her way up. There are opportunities here for capable people willing to stay a while, I'm told.

Kate is newly expat in Cambodia having been evaced from an increasing insecure Bangladesh. She works on a short assignment for a large aid agency. She doesn't know PP well but she's loving the relative free lifestyle.

Matt is between jobs. He also works for NGOs and aid orgs as an administrator in the developing world. Giving up a life in England, he hasn't looked back.

Jennifer likewise. Finding herself redundant in the UK and after taking a photography tour in South East Asia, she kept in touch with the tour operator and now works for him, travelling Asia, her hobby becoming her later-life career.

Zoe is a lawyer working with the ECCC tribunal. She's been here a year with only one more to go (she cheers happily). But seriously, PP has been hard for her to get used to. At first, she didn't like it at all, now she accepts it and maybe by the time she leaves she won't want to, she says. Though honestly, her job dealing with victims of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime must be one of the more emotionally difficult around.

"It's good to help, to be seeing positive things occurring," she tells me. But the reasons why they are doing it is never far from her mind.

In my hostel, Elke is looking for work. Any kind of volunteer work. She's considering joining her Euro boyfriend who lives here but doesn't work at all.

A drawcard for do-gooders

Cambodia's poverty is its drawcard for do-good foreigners wishing to change the world, or those looking to live a decadent lifestyle on the cheap. So is the weather. The heat and sunshine is conducive to a nightly outdoor lifestyle at markets, restaurants and rooftop bars that makes working here not so tough and not working here pretty pleasurable indeed. There are plenty of expats who live that lifestyle and with a generally universal language of English amongst them, it's not too hard to build a social network. Everyone is friendly, always looking for new faces to share their thoughts, ideas and a few drinks or plate of food.

Phnom Penh is a strange city. A laid back vibe with a dusty, wild west edge to it. You're not really sure what you're going to get. It's not particularly dangerous, it's just at odds with itself. A frontier town of passers-through, and the stuck here; the corrupt and the changemakers.

The opulence of the palace clashes with the poverty of the street. Modern high rise and boulevards end abruptly in the squalid grandeur of colonial buildings hanging over alleyways. Luxury cars press tuk-tuk drivers for road space.

Along the riverfront, locals and tourists wander and eat. There is a definite eating and drinking culture, street food vendor after street food vendor, cafe after cafe and rooftop bar beside bar. But you can't sit on any street-level establishment for long before the beggars and vendors show. It's a stark reminder of why many have come here. Some to help and a few to exploit.

Can a troubled Phoenix rise from the ashes?

Phnom Penh is also a city that breaths a sort of old grandeur and legend. Much has gone on in the country over the years and a great amount of western money has flooded in, but Phnom Pehn's own history and uniqueness has not been lost. It's settled there in the streets and perhaps that's why, over the centuries, it has been abandoned and re-populated over again.

And it's struggle to gain back what it has lost, culturally, politically, economically is apparent. Founded in the 15th Century Phnom Penh became the royal Khmer capital for almost 100 years after it was moved from Angkor. The capital moved on, following different kings around the country, and Phnom Penh was abandoned until the mid-1800s when King Norodom established his Royal Palace there and the French colonialist turned the riverside village into a city. But the 1920s, it was known as the "Pearl of Asia". The title didn't last long. In the mid-1970s the Khmer Rouge bombarded the city with bombs and after taking political control they 'evacuated' the city, forcing residents out into prisons, labour farms or to the mass graves for execution. The Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979 and since then, people began to return but the population is still less than it once was.

Along with the returning populace came the western governments, charities and other aid organisations. Cambodia was the site of one of the worlds largest genocides and the ramifications of that are an immense amount of economical and intellectual damage, a shambolic government and people left ill, disabled, poor and orphaned. In the post-modern global era, organisations rushed to help rebuild what they failed to stop being destroyed int he first place.

It's frustrating and scandalous. Progress in this country is often being sucked up by corrupt officials. It's endemic and borne out in the large number of luxury cars on the street and parked outside government buildings. Children are uneducated, unclothed and unhoused. The disabled and sick are left to fend for themselves. Health care is not universal and not even very good and social security is for foreign NGOs to handout. But even that has its issues. The country has been consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world* and there's a tendency for Not-For-Profits to turn a profit for their sponsors. Even orphans are a commodity.

At the same time, and in typically Cambodian contradiction, the locals are kind and friendly and the expats are a tight-knit social group. Those who genuinely desire change - whether local or foreign - seem to refuse to give up and do the best that they can. I've been to countries where years of war and corruption have left the people tired, angry or hopeless. Countries that, flooded with NGOs handing out help, seem to have lost faith in their own initiative. Cambodia is not that. There's a pragmatic optimism in the air.

Royal Palace Phnom Penh Cambodia

I don't know if I could live here. Apart from the endless happy hours causing me liver malfunction; the endemic corruption corrupting my noble ambitions; and the Tuk-Tuk drivers being even less knowledgeable than a Sydney cabbie, there's the language. Even with a healthy dose of expatriate cadres, without the ability to speak the local language I'd feel out of place. I'd miss the nuances that would perhaps help me understand and navigate this city's undertones.

Language gives us insight into culture but the Khmer language is an ancient, complex language written with the bygone flourish of the Angkor civilisation. Grammar is, well, more context than actual grammatical rules and there are hidden sounds that can't be found phonetically in a roman alphabet. The long alphabet of graded consonants and vowels isn't helped by the fact one 'word' carries the vocabulary and grammar of an entire sentence. The pragmatist in me doesn't see me mastering Khmer beyond a few basic phrases, though the optimist in me would really like to try.

And as for the smell?

"Oh, I don't even notice it anymore," says my friend at the embassy.


  • Names have been changed to protect the innocent

  • I have used the term "expat" rather than "migrant" to denote people who are living in a country on assignment, contract or other limited term basis, many have been sent by an organisation in their home or a third country. In this context, the country they come from isn't what determines them as an 'expat' it's the intention that their stay is limited. In my experience "expats" have a different perspective to those who go all in and migrate permanently.

  • I know 'do-gooder' is often used as an insult but I hold it as a badge of honour. I don't fault someone for their idealism in wanting to make things better though sometimes the methodology of aid work is a little flawed.

  • Sources: *





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