Each time I travel, I’m reminded of how long it takes to really learn a new place and a new people. I’ve found that my personal response is one of layered engagement.
When I first arrived here, I hardly left the flat without friends to guide me. I sought out coffee shops and groceries that felt familiar and safe. Little tasks like getting a SIM card or navigating the market on my own seemed like huge undertakings, and I prepared for them as if heading into battle. Until I felt that I could trust this new place, I sheltered myself. That’s always how it goes at first.
The next stage in this adventure seems to be adapting to what expats here like to call colonial life. It’s incredibly easy in developing countries to live life entirely separate from the culture surrounding you. Money goes a long way here. It buys luxury flats with posh furniture, aircon, wifi, and maid service. It buys $3 coffees in expat-filled cafes. It buys $6 imported cereal and $14 Brooklyn style pizzas and $5 drinks at rooftop bars. But it also buys a comfortable distance from the poverty and a blind eye to the inequality of a system you yourself are now a part of. The colonial life affords expats the comforts of home and the excitement of expatriotism, but with none of the guilt. It’s like permanent tourism on crack, where local life is more novelty than normal.
Until I find a way to truly invest in this culture, through work or volunteering or something, I am living in a colonial world. For me, a day here is fairly simple. I work from home, hunt for jobs, email contacts, and smile at the maids. I explore the neighborhood within walking distance.
My neighborhood is mostly centered around a large semi-covered market. From the first time my friend led me through the narrow lanes, weaving in and out of nooks and alleys, I made it my goal to learn the maze of stalls by heart. I’m proud to say that one month later, I can confidently navigate Russian market. It’s maybe my proudest achievement yet, to dive into the market by the tiny-Buddha stalls, weave around to the scarves and tourist trinkets, past the beautifully decorated opium bowls, past the glittering jewelry in glass cases. Turn by the tailors and wander through the knock-off clothing brands piled well over ten feet high. There’s the luggage section, the household section, the office supply section. Once while looking for a can of Raid to kill some bees that had taken up residence on our laundry balcony (yes, we have a balcony specifically for the washer), my friend and I discovered an entire section of stalls devoted to selling gallon sized bags of glitter. Bags of glitter towered all the way to the ceiling. I have no idea what Cambodians do with so much glitter, but now I know where to find it: just past the car part section.
My favorite section of all, however, is of course the make-shift cafeteria tucked away in the very center of the market. It took me by surprise the first time I found it; I was walking through narrow lanes only a few feet wide, then suddenly a bustling semi-spacious room appeared lined with counters and stools. Towards the center of the sort-of-food-court is my favorite part of this whole city: the iced coffee man.
Traditional Khmer iced coffee is everywhere and uses sweetened-condensed milk rather than fresh milk as apparently there are very few dairy cows in the country and imported milk is too expensive for most. It was on the Phnom Penh Expat facebook page that I first heard of him: a Cambodian man who had been running an iced coffee stall in the market for over 30 years. Somewhere along the way, the expats awarded him the reputation for best iced coffee in the city. His stall is lined with flags from countries all over the world and hand-written notes of appreciation from expats. I was a little skeptical about this “best iced coffee” nonsense, but one sip and I was a believer. I still have no idea what makes this coffee so good, but a huge part of it has to be the man himself.
I was having a terrible day the first time I found him. I sat down at his counter alone and I knew it was visible on my face that I was a little beaten down that day. He smiled and held up one finger, either to say one order or just one second, who really knows. Then he went about his business making me an iced-deliciousness. He’s a quiet man, probably in his late 50s or early 60s. He smiles with his whole face and his eyes convey some sort of mythical kindness and empathy that transcends language barriers. He left me the can of sweetened milk, somehow knowing I needed it that day. Then after I had finished my drink, he silently set down an extra shot of coffee and a to-go cup. All for a single dollar. Since then, I visit him each time I’m in the market. In fact, I’m drinking his take-away coffee at this very moment.
Another part of colonial life that I particularly enjoy is the prevalence of cheap spas here. For $8, I can get a 60-minute massage any day of the week. The first massage I had here, however, was certainly a learning experience I would recommend to anyone: the traditional Khmer massage. While visiting Siem Reap and Angkor Wat on a weekend holiday, two friends and I opted for the traditional massage, rather than the familiar western “oil massage.”
The three of us were led to a small dark room with three mats on the floor and handed clothes to change into. We wrapped our pink and purple fisherman pants around us and dawned lime green t-shirts bearing the slogan “keep calm and gangnam style,” and lay down on the mats. Two women and one man entered. It quickly became apparent that the Khmer massage is very similar to a traditional Thai massage and involves a lot of yoga-like poses, as well as a whole lot of strategic slapping. Really it’s more like a cross between being slapped and lightly punched with a cupped hand. Massage, massage, massage, and just as you’re feeling relaxed, BAM- punched in the leg. Massage, massage, BAM BAM BAM- punched all along your spine. Head massage, BAM- punched on your forehead. My traditional massage ended with me being pulled into some sort of pretzel and lying entirely on top of my masseuse. Since then, I’ve switched back to the oil massage, which still includes the occasional slap here and there.
While the colonial life is easy and fun, I’m hoping that my next phase of life here will move beyond the comfortable world of expatriotism. I have a few leads on my next steps and am slowly beginning to learn more about the tangled political history of this country. The value of this experience is not lost on me and though it’s incredibly hard at times to be so entirely out of context, I am learning and that is one of my favorite things to do. There is so much more to learn here, and I am excited for whatever comes next.