Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

First Cambodian Impressions

with 4 comments

When pressed by my friends to write about my first two weeks in Cambodia, I was reminded of a scene in the excellent film “L’Auberge Espagnole” (“The Spanish Apartment”), which anyone who’s ever been an exchange student/expat understands all too well. Xavier, played by Romain Duris, is sitting in his hippie mother’s kitchen, eating his lunch, on his first day back after a year on an exchange in Barcelona, Spain. He’s silently chewing on his steak, trying to grasp the enormity of all he’s just seen and done. His mother tries to fill the silence with idle talk when, finally, she asks the dreaded question: “So, how was it?”

Friends, if I haven’t written yet, it’s not that I don’t wish to share and appease your curiosity. I can’t even blame the relative difficulty of finding an Internet connection. It’s simply that I wouldn’t know where to start. If I thought I knew culture shock, I was mistaken. (And if I think I know it now, it’s only because I haven’t been into the countryside yet.) Just about everything I do and everything I see every day is entirely different from all I did and saw in the United States or in France. Still, I will try to share what I can.

The “shock” in culture shock, for many Westerners I think, comes from the intense poverty that hits you like a slap in the face the second you get off the plane. It’s nothing like the occasional homeless person you meet in the West or the pockets of poverty isolated in ghettos carefully hidden from view to all who do not wish to see. Here, you can’t miss it. Many people sleep on sidewalks at night, or live in shacks made of whatever scrap material they could find. Some inhabit buildings that bear the marks of bombings or fires, gaping holes in their facades, like a three-face dollhouse displaying its residents’ homelife to the crowded streets below. And like in a feed-a-kid-for-the-price-of-your-daily-coffee commercial, half-naked children share the sidewalks with skinny chicken and even skinnier stray cats.

But it’d be too easy if it were so one-dimensional. Amid the motorcycle taxis that seem to have withstood hundreds of crashes and been taken apart and rebuilt a dozen times, you also find shiny new SUVs on Phnom Penh streets. And 1-grand-a-night hotel rooms, glass and aluminum office buildings and teenagers into J-pop. From the air, the juxtaposition of shantys and modern developments was the first thing I noticed. Even modern malls, such as Sorya Market’s eight air-conditioned floors of consumerism heaven, have made their entry, with the plastic grandeur of a country that is just starting to discover mass consumption. It flashes, it glitters, it pops and it shimmers. It’s pink, it’s blue, it’s a freakin’ rainbow. It’s Hello Kitty and Santa Claus on acid. Yet, it’s a Cambodian market with its tumbling piles of pots and pans, and its $1 reproductions of Angkor temples next to the 52-inch flat-screen TV and the roller rink.

In a country that has only been standing on its two feet (and still, it wobbles) for barely a decade, the need for infrastructure and government intervention is obvious everywhere. Although I have seen garbage trucks driving about, for instance, the waste collection leaves something to be desired. Litter is everywhere, sometimes in neat piles when the street sweepers or homeowners have bothered, but most often scattered on the sidewalks and streets. The stench of the city — a mix of trash, piss from the men urinating on the streets, exhaust from age-old motorbikes, fish markets and stagnant waters, all macerating in the heat — is at times unbearable. Yet, sometimes, the hot air carries the overpowering smell of jasmine flowers, which are laid at the foot of Buddha statues in the city’s many pagodas. Then it’s a blessing.

Musee NationalThe courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh is typical Cambodian architecture.

Speaking of government, I should say a word of it. Cambodia has gone through many hurdles since the end of French colonial rule in 1954, not least of which was the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The country has now been somewhat stable for about 10 years and relatively democratic compared to what existed before, although the governing style of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party often raises eyebrows (at least to outside observers, if not always to the people itself). The prime minister graces us with priceless quotes that need no embellishing. The hot topic of the day is land grabs: the real estate market is booming in Phnom Penh and elsewhere, and the price of land has skyrocketed (in fact, inflation is in the double digits in all things). Many farmers who have been on their land for generations don’t have titles to it, or they’re not powerful enough to resist the businessmen and friends of the powerful who grab the land for expensive developments. Public land has been sold to private developers, too, but the people has seen little of the money.

Yet, for all its flaws, I’m starting to love this country. The people have been extremely welcoming, and although my Khmer lessons only start in a few days, I’ve been able to communicate. The expat community is even larger than I had expected, and all Western amenities can be found fairly easily, although to keep a budget on a non-profit salary, it’s good to get used to a Cambodian lifestyle. I’m slowly but surely finding my marks: the restaurant by the office where I can have lunch for less than 2 dollars and watch BBC World, the motodop driver who can help me find anything, the swimming pool not far from my house where I escape the heat, and the cafe where I can blog while munching on fresh vegetables. I’ve even found the cockroaches’ point of entry in my room and promptly taped it shut. I’ll be ok here.


Written by Isabelle Roughol

Saturday, 7 June, 2008 at 10:45

4 Responses

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  1. PS: More, better pictures coming next weekend.


    Saturday, 7 June, 2008 at 11:53

  2. I’ve enjoyed this post. I believe you will be ok.

    Danielle Barkhouse

    Sunday, 8 June, 2008 at 02:30

  3. Damn, my sis really has a talent with writing. Nice post…


    Monday, 16 June, 2008 at 11:12

  4. […] but she’s starting to do some first hand commentary about her experiences in Cambodia, titled First Cambodian Impressions, and makes for a really great read. She’s French but studied at an American university and […]

    The J-Junkie « Escape Indifference

    Tuesday, 17 June, 2008 at 10:01

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