I can’t figure out how to pronounce the words “Phnom Penh,” which is problematic because it’s where I’ve been living for the last 23 days.
Some people say it with a hard P (“Panom Penh”), some people say it with a Ph (“Fnom Penh”) and others say it with an N (“Nom Penh.”). Personally, I just avoid saying it all together… But when it comes to Cambodia, that’s the least of my problems.
Every morning starting at 4:30am, I wake up to the sound of birds flying onto my roof. Actually, it would better be described as “slamming down at full speed” into my roof, because it is so loud that my boyfriend, James, has started sleeping in noise canceling headphones. Our electricity (and with it, our air conditioning) goes out constantly, and the Wifi — even when it works — is spotty at best, which made watching 13 Reasons Why a seemingly impossible task. It’s 90+ degrees every day, and no matter how many showers I take (did I mention there’s no shower curtain?) I never, ever feel clean. My clothes have all taken on a weird yellowish tint because of how much I sweat in them, and I find myself reapplying deodorant at least 6 times a day. Four of my friends have been robbed walking down the street, and 40(ish) of them have had some sort of “surprise cleanse” from the food.
Cambodia is not an easy place to live. I’ve had a really difficult time adjusting to being here, and have been forced to grow in ways I didn’t necessarily want to, and definitely didn’t see coming. I’ve cried on the street, holed myself up in my room for days on end and had more moments of asking myself “what the actual fuck am I doing here?” than I’d like to admit.
But then I look around the city. And I see children with no shoes on and grown men begging for money and dogs and cats who are starving to death. And I remind myself that showering without a curtain or being sweaty for a few hours a day really, really isn’t that big of a deal. My #FirstWorldProblems have never felt so inconsequential as they have since I’ve been in Cambodia. When you consider what this nation, and its people, have been through, nothing else can really even compare.
Before I got here, I didn’t know much about Cambodia, the genocide or why, exactly, the nation felt so developmentally behind neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam. But as I’ve learned more about what happened here, and the atrocities that were inflicted on the people, the more I’ve started to understand why things are the way they are.
It’s not my place to try to give a full history lesson, but here’s a little bit of background so you have some idea of what I’m talking about: In 1975, a dictator named Pol Pot took over governmental control and forced the nation into extreme communism. His vision of a “pure” Cambodia included only working class farmers, so nearly 3 Million people were killed (intellectuals, people in cities, people with soft hands — basically anyone who didn’t fit in the role of an agrarian farmer) as a way of cleansing the nation. His Khmer Rouge army tortured and murdered men, women, and children in prisons and at the “Killing Fields” all over the country, and 1 out of every 4 people died at his hands during his four-year reign. Today, 70% of the population is under 30-years-old.
Before Pol Pot took power, 85% of Cambodia’s population lived in extreme poverty. When the Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979, the majority of Cambodians who survived were only trained as farmers because most of the highly-skilled workers and intellectuals were killed. Because of this, it has been difficult for Cambodia to rebuild itself without a strong educational base. Tourism and investment from foreign governments have helped with the nation’s rebuilding, but it’s a long, slow process nonetheless.
This morning, I went to the Killing Fields — a mass grave where 300,000 people were murdered in cold blood during the genocide. I walked around in a daze, listening to a headset that detailed exactly how and where people were killed. There were bones, teeth and clothing still in the ground, and a 17-story memorial filled with the excavated skulls of people who had died at the camp. I’ve also been to the Tuol Seng Prison, which is where “prisoners of the state” were tortured and killed. Both experiences have put into perspective for me just how much this country went through, and made me seriously take a step back and “check my privilege,” as we like to say on Remote Year, before complaining about anything while I’m here.
Considering it’s been less than 40 years since the Khmer Rouge were in power, it’s actually incredible to think about the progress the nation has made between then and now. There are sections of Phnom Penh that are modern and burgeoning with life, and places that do give some sense of the growth the country’s undergone in the last four decades. It still has a long way to go, but the fact that my biggest complaints are spotty WiFi and loud birds says something about how far it’s come.
The second day we were in Phnom Penh, one of my friends had her phone stolen out of her hand while she was walking down the street, as is known to happen here. When I found out what had happened, I sent her a message telling her how sorry I was and asked if she needed anything.
“It’s shitty,” she responded, “But on the plus side, I now helped support a Cambodian’s life for a year.”
Her optimism about the situation struck me, and is something I’ve tried to keep in mind every time things here have gotten tough. The idea of getting a phone stolen may seem like the end of the world, but the fact that we even have phones to be stolen means we’re exponentially more privileged than the large majority of people around us. It’s easy to forget how lucky we are when our baseline of comfort is so far above what we’re currently living in, but it’s an important lesson in trying to understand the world from a different point of view. It doesn’t mean that every day here is easy, and there are still moments when I absolutely hate it and just want to go back to my air-conditioned apartment in New York where my toilet and shower are two separate entities. But I promise, I’m trying.