Phnom Penh is sure to stick with me

Phnom Penh is one of those cities that, like my old-time colleague once wrote about my own city of Kathmandu, sticks to your skin. You come home with it. You carry it under your nails, in your nostrils and in the pores of your skin. If you know what I am talking about, hello friend, yes, this city is like the home you and I know.

The traffic? Yup, it too sings the old Eddie Vedder song, “I know all the rules but the rules do not know me, guaranteed!’. What about the food, you ask? Mmmhmm, it is all over the streets and sidewalks – steam blowing or smoke rising, fire crackling, hot oil in big pans, noisy food – food you can smell from across the street, and mostly cheap – especially for our kind who can read and write this language.  

But of course, it’s different too, because you will only find Phnom Penh in Phnom Penh. The small room I will call ‘home’ for three months is 12 minutes walk from the place I will call ‘office’ for the three months. Every morning around 7:45 when I make my way to work and every evening after 5 when I usually head back home, I am almost always the only person walking on the street, sometimes very literally on the street as the sidewalks often take shape of parking lots, showcase decks for roadside shops and street food corners. It is too hot to walk anyways and there are plenty of tuk-tuks, autos, motorbike taxis and there is PassApp (Cambodian app similar to Uber). This walking alone on the streets is especially apparent when at the stop light right before I reach my office, 99.9 percent of the time, I’m the only one waiting for the green man to come on. When he does, I stroll in front of a fleet of passengers, some of whom have stopped halfway inside the zebra crossing strip, and make myself a rare spectacle, that a few in the frontline follow with their eyes, slightly amused.  

It is not like this everywhere in Phnom Penh. There are streets where you can actually walk, but again, the ones walking are either locals on a short stroll, tourists, or people like me, here to intern or work in the booming NGO sector or the numerous schools always in high demand of English instructors.

About the people here, the welcoming spirit of the East that is known to go out of its way for their guests is present here in the Cambodian capital as well. On my first day of office, I get there way too early.  As I wait in the lounge area, a tiny smiling woman walks in, sits down with me, welcomes me and keeps me company throughout, till my assigned supervisors arrive just so I am not alone. A few days after, this same woman, instead of heading home after 9 hours of work, will hold my hand as we cross the street in mad traffic sans stop lights and guide me to a local market and as a bonus to a thrift store too, all this  because I nervously asked her for directions to a nearby market where I could buy a lunch box.

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Why I needed a lunch box is part of the Eastern culture story too. For lunch, most people bring food from home, generous amount of it because they all share food with each other. What that means for me is, every day is a feast. I’ve had the chance  to try a variety of authentic homemade (and mom-made) Khmer food – dishes I don’t remember the names of so I’ll call them Khmer style river water fish, pork, salmon, bacon, chicken, frog (Yup, frog! I wouldn’t have known had I not asked; it tasted like chicken) and other veggies. I’ve even tried Prahok, straight out of a bowl (Prahok is a dish made of fermented fish and the odor is so strong it is has earned a name of Khmer cheese). While I loved some of the food, about some I will have to say, I am only slowly getting used to the fish sauce and the hint of sugar they put in everything.

The feast continues after lunch when one person or the other will brings in snacks – steamed pork buns, deep fried sweet potatoes, fried bananas, roasted bananas, steamed peanuts, some durian or avocado or an assortment of fruits. I was the most excited when the group gathered around a plastic bag full or unripe green mangoes and variety of other sour fruits they eat dipped in sweetened chilli paste or tiny dried shrimp mix with sugar and salt or fish sauce based hot chilli sauce. I didn’t think I would meet a group of people who loved the combination of hot chilli, sweet, sour and salty as much as the titaura loving teenage Nepalese girls. Well, now I have.

There is so much more to talk about (like about its beautiful sunsets), but this blog is already too long and I should tell you a little bit about the work.

I’ll admit that even though I liked the organization I am interning with, I had chosen this particular placement for more personal reasons. I was afraid I was compromising my internship. After only a few days at work though, I was relieved that I had made a good choice.

The work has mostly been desk reviews and reports as of now to prepare the new education framework that will guide the organization’s education programs for next five years. Somedays I feel confident about this responsibility and on some, I question my capabilities. On most days though, I sit in front of my computer with 15 open tabs, next to the Head of Program (who is amazing at simplifying complex concepts) and a really sweet supervisor (always ready to teach me new Khmer words) in a bright glass room overlooking three of the many tall buildings coming up in this fast-growing city against the backdrop of racing white-grey clouds and bright blue skies. I listen to the clamor and discussions from the adjoining room with a team of passionate program officers and young Cambodian interns in this wonderfully feminist office. I look up from my computer several times a day with numerous questions as I try to grasp all this new information and am so very thankful for colleagues who value my inquiries and take the time to explain or share all they can. I listen and learn and try to make sure I deliver what I have been tasked with while also taking the opportunity to explore this new place and new relationships.


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