Cambodia: Too Many Eggs in the Basket

I don’t think either of us would say that this trip has been quite what we originally had in mind. When we left for the trip we were hoping to get immersed in local communities and get to know the specific locations we visited. I imagined going to the local market and buying my eggs from the same egg guy who always made the same joke about “Chicken or the egg?” and I always smiled even though I didn’t get the joke because we were sort of acquaintance-friends, now, ya know? And I’d get meat from the butcher woman at the same market whose hands were covered in blood, but whose heart was big and warm. I’d get bread from the mean baker with a dark past of heartbreak that explains his meanness, which I’d heard about one night over drinks at a bar when the butcher woman got drunk and announced their history to everyone at the bar (embarrassing!). And then I’d put my haul in a cool messenger bag, grab a cup of local coffee or tea and head home guided by a ray of sun that essentially spotlit me the whole way--and I looked awesome. Some part of me was hoping to feel more enmeshed with the communities we visit.  And it’s not that we aren’t doing that—ok, we aren’t doing ANY of that market nonsense, but we are getting somewhat immersed in cultures--, just not to the extent that I had originally envisioned. It’s not on the local scale, it’s on the country scale. Those interpersonal connections are shorter, but our relationship with the country is still there.  

Matt and I both get distracted by all of the places we want to explore in each country. While 4-6 weeks in each country may seem like a long time, it really isn’t. And there’s always this little nagging concern whispering in the back of your head that you might miss something if you don’t keep moving. So, we tend to cram as much of a country into those 4-6 weeks as we can. I won’t say the trip has been “quantity over quality” because we still have quality experiences, but it’s not too far off either. We usually just get to scratch the surface of the communities we visit.

We decided that Cambodia would be different. Rather than cramming everything we could into our 3 weeks there, we would pick 1 city and stay there for the whole time; completely flipping the script. At first, we thought we’d stay in Siem Riep so that we could ensure we would get to visit Angkor Wat. But it is notorious for problematic WiFi, which we need for our digital nomading and Game of Thrones watching.

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After some discussion, Phnom Penh was the clear and only choice because it had good WiFi, was close to Siem Reap, and was a big city that would surely keep us entertained. I actually remember sitting in the Mona Lisa bar in Tam Coc, Vietnam when we made this decision. Matt and I cheersed our cocktails as we booked our flight to Phom Penh. The sun was setting behind us after a day of motorbiking through rice fields and we were happy to have checked this big “To Do” off of our ever-looming and magically never-shrinking list. Shortly after, the one other couple at the bar interrupted us saying they couldn’t help but overhear that we were going to Cambodia and rattled off a list of amazing places to visit, where to stay, what to do, etc. All in all, a nice gesture that made my wanderlust tingle at the prospect of what we could see, but we had to stay resolved. I told her that we were flipping the script, trying to get deeper into one location rather than cursorily seeing many. I told her about my dreams of eggspeople, bakers, and meat men BFFs. I then asked her opinion on Phnom Penh, our soon to be home for 3 whole weeks (longest on the trip!), and eagerly awaited a response as equally appetizing as her description for the other places. Eyes wide I watched her mouth say, “Oh, Phnom Penh? It’s a city built on garbage. That they then set on fire. It is a literal dumpster fire.”  

Matt and I talked about changing our plans again, but we both really wanted a break from the constant moving and see if maybe our pace was the barricade to the connections we had envisioned originally. We entertained a few other cities, but none of them really made as much logistical sense as Phnom Penh. Plus, we had already booked the flight! And that’s how we ended up in Phnom Penh for 3 weeks, which, while it isn’t a dumpster fire, it does have a ton of garbage all over it and is the hottest city we’ve been to so far. How much garbage, you ask? A lot. So much that when they do clean it, you can see a wet outline of it on the asphalt when you walk down the street for the following week. This permanent shadow of garbage is where the sun has baked the sweet, burning odor of sour trash into the ground. Yum, right?

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Yet, it’s also a surprisingly beautiful city. Cambodia was part of France’s Indo-china along with Laos and Vietnam and a few other countries; however, unlike Vietnam, the cities of Cambodia weren’t destroyed by wars. The result is a tropical environment littered with French architecture moments. Beautiful European parks face intricately and wholly Asian temples creating a unique city feel at times. It’s along the Mekong river and there’s a beautiful boardwalk that is well maintained. This melting pot of architecture makes it hard to identify anything that is uniquely “Cambodian” in style. From our experiences—and many would say otherwise—this lack of a strong identity was present in the food as well. We always try to eat local dishes, but there were only a few things that people would claim as “Cambodian”: Luklak, Amok, and Khmer Curry being the three biggest standouts. Everything else, it seemed, was slight twists on another country’s claim to culinary fame. 

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Looking back, Phnom Penh was probably not the best place for us to try our “deep dive into culture” experiment. The part of town we were in looked good on paper, but just wasn’t the best fit for us. We were by a lot of bars, but most of them seemed to be covert sex trade locales, and even the ones that weren’t so lascivious never really felt like home. We went to the first openly gay bar in Phnom Penh one night, Space Hair, and chatted with the owner, but never seemed to really get past the superficial stuff. I went back to get a haircut and dye job, since this particular bar doubles as a hair salon during the day, but still didn’t really feel what I thought I would. The owner asked if Matt and I were coming back that night, but we had to work. And maybe that has something to do with it? Ok, I know that I had overly romanticized expectations of how enmeshed in communities I would feel on the trip, but I think the combination of our “see as much as possible” hunger and working 40 hours a week makes the realization of those initial hopes even more difficult. Difficult, but not impossible; I think that we would just need to really slow down, stop trying to “see everything”, and spend a few months in a place to accomplish the types of connections I had envisioned. I’d be able to say, “I can’t make it to drinks tonight Mr. Awesome Gaybar/hair salon owner, but I can tomorrow!” All of this is a long-winded way of saying that our Phnom Penh experiment underscored the sacrifices we are making to travel how we do. We are sacrificing connections and I am someone who always has and will continue to yearn for them.