A 2014 Review – Highlights of Living in Phnom Penh.
It is now close to 7 months since I first left Kuala Lumpur for a job abroad, in Phnom Penh city of Cambodia. There were many challenges that came with the move however there were also the parts that have become memorable throughout my stay here. As we reach the end of the year 2014, I count my blessings to have had the opportunity to embark on a new adventures, something that was out of my comfort zone especially this was my very first time living and working abroad. I have been in Malaysia most of my life (not forgetting the 2 years schooling in USA), and Phnom Penh is the major highlight of my 2014 followed by other trips that were made abroad for the holidays.
For this post, I’d like to share some of the good, funny, miserable and personal moments spent in Cambodia with the locals as well as visitors who came from different parts of the world. I am solely touched by the countless effort in keeping the relationship/friendship alive despite the distance and it is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life here on earth.
1. That time when we finally found ‘the home’.
It couldn’t be just any home, it had to be THE home that called out to us and made us feel comfortable when our feet touched the floor, our backs against the wall or when we stare up at the ceiling before the lights go out. It took some time to find a good home here especially when you don’t know anyone and have to rely on the internet and local property agents. There were homes that was just too high up (with just stairs), home that were not maintained well, homes that looked like a small room for one person and homes that was just too far away from the city. Finally at the end when we looked at each other in disbelief at this challenge, we came to this particular home, located within the city, with good space for two people and friendly neighbors.
2. Friendly neighbors in a cool neighborhood.
My neighbors are mostly families with children with few foreigners but this was not a problem with us as we preferred a neighborhood that had a friendly environment. Every time we stepped out from the house, we would greet the old lady below us, a grandmother feeding her grandson Nurul just outside, the older kids would say ‘Good morning’ in their American accent (because they go to International School) and the tuk tuk drivers would smile at us. The man who rides the large motorbike would smile and say “How are you today?” or “Have a good day.” and on most days another neighbor would bring her cute son for a ride with Barts’ tuk tuk driver in the evening when he goes to pick him up after work. When we first needed to change the cooking gas at home, the neighbor downstairs helped us to call the gas company and waited until they came to the house to replace the gas. Such is kindness and warmth of the people in our neighborhood.
3. Watching children play.
A scene in KL at this century means children playing with gadgets or sending text messages to one another in school. In Phnom Penh, despite social media and gadget being part of the locals life but come evening, we observed a majority of them playing outside, running around at the park or the playground with their families. The park is even crowded during the weekend and there’s just so much laughter and screams of joy as they swing about or attempt to touch the sky on the see-saw. At the riverside, we saw kids playing soccer and other local games in the evening. I’ve never seen so much life and appreciation of simple joys in life.
4. Blending in well like a Khmer.
The locals in Cambodia are called Khmers and due to our Asian similarities, it is easy to understand how we blend well in the city. Wherever we go, we would seen a Khmer and spoken to as a Khmer even though we had no clue what they said. Having these same features also got us Khmer prices at certain places and tuk tuk fares (which I’m not complaining by the way). During those moments, they would know we’re not Khmer when we started speaking English. Due to the subtle American slang in our English, we are sometimes perceived as Khmericans or Khmer Americans who are born here in Cambodia but do not speak the language. Other times, they would know we are not local once we break out into our Malay language. Blending in has helped us be part of the local scene and not stand out that obviously among the crowd.
5. Learning to be MORE patient than ever.
There were times I wanted to bang my head to the wall in disbelief when I was misunderstood or when someone cuts the queue at the cashier counter in the supermarket. But because we are in a country which is progressing and moving forward steadily, we have learned to be more patient and less of a control freak when it came to certain scenarios. I’ve encountered children coming up to me in the tuk tuk asking for money and when I declined, they would get angry and cursed back (thank goodness for a good tuk tuk driver),
6. Money can buy happiness (among other things).
Now this is where I need to share with you carefully that there are 2 groups of class in Cambodia, the ultra-rich and the poor. Although the middle class citizens are slowly rising to close the huge socioeconomic gap, there are times when money proves to buy you a lot of things including respect. We’ve learned that having more money gets you on the social ladder fast and allows you to do good business in this country. The more money you have, the more convenient.
7. A smile means ‘happy’ AND ‘angry’.
Phnom Penh and Cambodia in general is still a conservative country where public display of affection is still an uncomfortable thing and understanding the local custom can be tricky. I’ve had moments where I misunderstood the facial expression of someone who is angry versus someone who is happy. This is because it’s the same expression. Seriously it is! They smile when they are happy and when they angry they smile too and add a few laughter in. It was quite confusing and made me more angry whenever they smiled when I was upset. I’ve adjusted to this over time and do the same when the situation arises.
8. Eating local food and freaking loving it.
My gosh, the food here have lots of similarities back home like the ‘pulut durian’, ‘kuih lapis’, fried ice, noodles that it is impossible to not love the food here. I am fortunate to have Khmer colleagues who brings me to the local restaurants where I could try some delicious local food at a cheap cost compared to the touristy restaurants that charges $5 and above for a simple dish of fried rice. There’s also the sellers who go around the street with their food carts yelling out for customers in the morning and the stalls at the road side selling fruit juices, sandwiches, grilled seafood with its tantalizing aroma. Oh yes, I almost forgot about the exotic snacks of spiders, silk worms and snakes that can be found in the markets. Not a fan of them though but it makes for an interesting photo.
9. Visitors from back home.
We’re also lucky that Phnom Penh is just 2 hours flight from Kuala Lumpur making it a convenient city to visit for Public Holidays and vacations. We’ve had close families, friends, ex-colleagues, friends of friends who came to visit us and also to see the city through our local experiences here. We catered to each visitors interest before taking them around Phnom Penh as well as the outskirts. For families who come to visit, we took them around the riverside area, cruising on the boat, eating at local restaurants and shopping at the traditional markets. For friends, we took them to the Killing Fields, the best coffee place in Phnom Penh and the roof bars. Most importantly, we sought help from our friends to bring a little something from home like ‘kicap manis’ (sweet soy sauce) or ‘ikan bilis’ (anchovies) which are hardly found in the city.
10. Then there was that huge birthday surprise visit to Kuala Lumpur.
My parents hit the retirement age this year after working since they were 21 years old. It was the first time I’ve come to realized how much of an adult we’ve all become as siblings and that from this year onward, it is important to stay connected, continue to love each other generously as well as be there for one another until we get older. So when my mum mentioned her interest in celebrating her birthday in Melaka, we hitched a plan to surprise her in a city that’s 2 hours away from Kuala Lumpur. We pretended that we were busy and couldn’t make it back home which made her slightly upset yet being a mother and a parent she understood our busy schedules. My sister and I booked tickets secretly, while my brother told my mum that he would join her to Melaka with my sister-in-law. We all landed in Kuala Lumpur that morning and drove separately to the historical state, all the while still keeping this secret. As soon as my parents walked into the hotel room and opened the balcony window, they shrieked in delight and started crying only because they were too surprised or too happy. You can see why this was my personal favorite highlight of 2014.
11. Not ignoring the reality of life in Phnom Penh city.
Sure the city has had a tragic history of the Khmer Rouge and is still undergoing development process these past few years but when you have lived here for some time, you will understand and see what actually goes on beneath the surface of tourists spots and cultures. Street children are seen begging for money at the traffic lights armed with a feather duster to clean the cars or tuk tuk, the recent strike from the waste management company saw rubbish in heaps along the roads in the city and snatch thieves pop up once awhile from nowhere. Despite this, I can sense an urge of wanting to improve their lives as I observed them earning a living by being sellers, drivers and tour guides.
12. There’s the hot season, very very hot season, rainy season and cool season.
When we first arrived here we made the mistake of not knowing the weather forecast or current season in the city. It was not only hot, but super hot, making us spend more time indoors from the heat of the sun. We would spend the early mornings out of the house, back at the house in the afternoon then out again in the evenings. Then came the rainy season which brought high floods to the city centre (the Royal Palace area), making it a traffic congestion nightmare. But my favourite weather has got to be in December (current) where the climate is cooler and the wind is breezier then ever. I wish this season would last throughout the year but that’s just wishful thinking.
13. “ja” for females and “baat” for males.
The Khmer language by far is the hardest for me to grasp when we moved here. The greetings was easy to remember but when when it came to numbers or directions, it took some time for me to remember and take in the words. I can only describe the language as a mix of French, Asian and local as some words were similar to ours back home. Even the word “yes” is pronounced differently for male and females while words such as “bobor” means “bubur” in Malaysia. Despite not being able to converse in Khmer (yet), I’m able to slowly understand what is being said in conversations or over meetings especially when the words have been repeated. I was thinking of learning from a teacher but then realized that if my tuk tuk driver was able to learn English by speaking to his customers, I would be able to pick it up by speaking to him and my local friends. That plus a good English-Cambodian dictionary would be useful in speaking Khmer.
14. Traveling slowly in Cambodia.
Cambodia is not just about Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. There’s so many provinces in this beautiful country that we have yet to explore during our move here. We decided to explore our backyard more starting with Kampong Cham, Kep and Kampot before moving on to other parts of Cambodia such as Kratie, Battambang, Sihanoukville or Mondulkiri up north. Traveling slowly allowed us to discover new places in Phnom Penh as well as other parts of the country. My personal favorite traveling experience so far has to be the crab market in Kep where we ate a lot of them which were caught fresh from the sea. The beach in Kep was also underestimated because it was so blue, clean and full of people having picnics or just sunbathing. I can’t wait to take the weekend off to a new province area to see what they have to offer.
15. Making new friends.
This of course was one the main reasons for the move, to establish new connections and foster new friendships while living abroad. It is also the best way to get to know the city and understand the many layers of its’ reality underneath the general surface. It has also made me experience a local wedding reception, playing trivia quizzes in a boutique hotel and watching the local film festival on Diamond Island. When I first explained to them why I don’t eat pork or drink alcohol, they never found it to be a difficulty and would often accommodate to my food or drink preferences. They’ve also been helpful in translating words, making sure I have a ride home when we finish late at night and inviting me out for the weekend. They want me to experience the local life as much as possible while still living here.
What were your major highlights of 2014?
About Yafieda Jamil
A Malaysian girl currently working abroad in Phnom Penh city. I love a good road trip, hot cappuccinos, spicy food and staring at old buildings. My mission is to inspire people to see the world differently before we all get any older. Oh and giraffes are the most beautiful creatures on earth.