After a short stopover in Bangkok to have lunch with friends, I caught a flight to Phnom Penh and reunited there with a friend from Melbourne. She’d been travelling in nearby Vietnam, and we arranged to share a room for two nights at a wonderful guesthouse called Boddhi Tree Aram. It was actually perfect timing to connect with her straight after Chiang Mai, given what I wrote in my blog post. Seeing her again in this part of the world made Chiang Mai feel far less surreal, since that’s where I first met her — a bit like that scene at the end from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes, “But it wasn’t a dream…it was a place…and you, and you, and you, and you were there…and I remember that some of it wasn’t very nice; but most of it was beautiful.”
On our first night in Phnom Penh we covered a lot of ground on foot, and the main tourist areas were attractive and full of life…which caught me by surprise because I’d expected the city to be much more rundown, maybe even a bit hopeless. Walking past one of the public parks, a large group of people were learning dance moves en masse to what sounded like a k-pop song, and led by what looked like a foreigner. Whatever it was they were doing, they were having a great time and I love these sorts of scenes of street life in Asia, particularly at night — the dancing, eating, drinking, socialising, canoodling. Stuff we’ve taken indoors in places like Australia.
When I was living in Chiang Mai, part of my work was producing brochures and communication materials for international NGOs and agencies, and I mostly wrote copy based on documentation and reports. A few of these brochures included descriptions of work happening in Cambodia so I knew a little bit about the country — but mostly I knew about the contemporary problems like war, poverty, corruption, human trafficking, HIV, drugs. Finally seeing what the country was like in its totality reminded me what a great privilege it is to be able to travel in order to form my own independent opinions about the world and not just rely on other’s accounts.
One of the main drawcards of Cambodia was actually a friend I hadn’t seen in a few years…and it was great to spend some quality time together. I’ve long been interested in her work around women who’ve survived sex trafficking so part of my visit to the city included a trip to one of the organisation’s centres — and that afternoon excursion ended up being a real highlight. The staff were wonderful, and I was able to witness firsthand how these young women are being retrained in sewing, among other things. I’m actually writing an article about this for an Australian women’s magazine so will save most of my thoughts for that, rather than here. In any case, the centre visit provided something of a counter-balance to the unimaginable horror of what I’d seen that morning at the Tuol Sleng Museum, which demonstrated the senseless killing of the Khmer Rouge.
Going to Phnom Penh, I realise what an easy trap it is to see poverty-stricken places in a one dimensional way, as disempowered places — rather than living and breathing societies that are resilient, vibrant and full of generational change. I guess that’s what hope is all about.