The Un-Bittersweet of Leaving Phnom Penh

It’s not as bittersweet as I’d expected.

It’s been six weeks in Phnom Penh. That’s the longest I’ve sat still anywhere—the longest I’ve spent consecutively in any city other than Oakland.

I’m embarrassed to admit that; I feel like I should have lived abroad, should have studied abroad, should have spent a summer somewhere, should have should have should have. But the truth is, I’m still a relative newcomer to the travel game, and for the first few years I was stuck in the going-going-going of it all: ticking off lists, counting countries and cramming in as many destinations as possible. It seemed like a waste of time to stay anywhere any longer than necessary.

Sure, I’d entertained elaborate fantasies about moving abroad. But really, if I couldn’t sit still in another city for more than 10 days, how could I really know if I could be happy, could have a life, abroad? Or, hell, even out of Oakland?

Part of the reason I got an apartment in Phnom Penh is that I wanted to feel like I lived there, that I wasn’t just passing through. I wanted a little glimpse into what that life would be like. I wanted keys; I wanted to shop for toilet paper; I wanted to “Sua s’dei” the neighbors and have a cafe where they knew my order. I wanted to feel little roots sprouting—the beginnings of being grounded, like the wind could blow and I wouldn’t fall over, be blown over with it.

When my bus arrived last week, bringing me back from my three-day visa run/refugee camp search, I hustled down the steps. I booked it past the cluster of tuk-tuk drivers, crossed the street without looking (the Cambodian way), dove between the tents of the night market, walked directly to my favorite food stall, kicked off my shoes and slurped down a Khmer soup under the night’s haze, the warm breeze from the river. I felt like I’d come home.

So I was expecting to be sad to leave. I was expecting to go around doing my silent rounds of “last times” with twinges of melancholy, that little lonely longing that you can almost fall in love with, more than the thing itself.

But it wasn’t as bittersweet as I’d expected.

Sometimes it comes to this: Nescafe from a plastic mug. And plastic flowers. Classy as shit.

Saying good-bye to the people was sad. I’d made some rad friends, had gotten close to a few cool girls. People tend to be on a three- to six-month rotation in Phnom Penh, and in a few months, almost everyone I know here will have moved on. And it was definitely sad to leave my apartment, with its metal table and one chair, its thin mattress and fuzzy TV, the plastic kitchenware I’d purchased at the market down the street—where I’d go to eat soup and the women would squat down and stare at me, giggling. I’d giggle back, and I’ll miss that too.

But still, it wasn’t as bittersweet as I’d expected.

I’ve taken to comparing cities to people. Boys, to be specific. Because cities have personalities the same way people do, and you have relationships with cities the same way you (I) have relationships to boys with (well, no, they’re actually much healthier).

So Rome is a really sophisticated, well-groomed and worldly guy that I like to keep track of, that I like to get lunch with from time to time, and talk about art and culture and history, but who I could never actually be with—we’re just too different. Tirana is the fun one, the one I met one crazy night at a crazy dance party, who I connected with under the lights—the one I felt like was made for me, as though anyone could ever really be made for anyone else, as though you could ever really know anyone after a week, or a month or even a year, years.

Buenos Aires is the one who got away, the eyes exchanged between subway cars, or maybe the one whose number you got and lost and still catch yourself thinking of, years later, looking for some scribbled scrap of paper in old jeans pockets without even realizing it. San Francisco is the neighbor boy you grew up with, who you know is really attractive and cool and who you really get along with, but you just couldn’t ever date.

And Phnom Penh?

Phnom Penh’s not terribly handsome or debonair, not the stuff of little-girl dress-up fantasies. He’s not super cultured and he’s got some obvious flaws. He’s a little beat-up; he’s been through shit. And there are things about him that drive you nuts. If you were to write a list of the perfect mate, there’s a lot of things Phnom Penh wouldn’t have. But the big ones, the ones that are really important and that really fucking count, when you’re up against the wall and the wind is blowing and you need something firm, some kind of roots to hold you down—he’s got them.

He fits. He’s not perfect, and neither are you.

And so it wasn’t so bittersweet to leave him. The same as when you leave for a trip and you just know the person you’re leaving behind, that you’re coming back to eventually, isn’t going to cheat on you or be shady. You don’t even have to think about it, worry about it. It doesn’t occur to you to worry; you’ve just got that confidence, you know? That you’ve got them and they’ve got you, whether you like it or not—like you were picked for each other, matched to each other, though you’re not sure by who.

But does it matter?

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13 Responses to “The Un-Bittersweet of Leaving Phnom Penh”


  1. 1 Dianne April 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Well I will be sad not to be reading about your travels lonely girl, where to next??

  2. 2 Rob April 11, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Lauren
    How did the Cambodian genocide project go?
    Also, I enjoyed this read a lot. Makes me think about if Vancouver were a girl. . .shiny, young, rugged, beautiful, unlike anyone I’ve ever met and sometimes too small-townish.
    Rob

    • 3 laurenquinn April 11, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      Comparing places to romantic partners is a really handy device that I recommend for everyone.

      I think the number one thing I learned during my time thus far in Cambodia is that you need a helluva long time to really explore this kind of stuff—a lot longer than I have. I’m not even sure a lifetime would be enough. The more I learn, the less I understand. But given the time constraints, it went well. Now I’ll just have to come back. ;)

      Hope your project is going well too!

  3. 4 Naomi April 12, 2011 at 5:50 am

    Girl. You are one of my favourite writers ever.

    And that’s all I can really say about that ;)

  4. 5 Ekua April 17, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    I don’t think you need to feel ashamed about not having studied abroad or whatnot! I’m definitely becoming more of a fan of slowing down my travels, but I know there are places I am meant to take my time in and others that are not for me.

  5. 6 Joya April 18, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Hey Lauren! Long time no talk. I love this post not only for your comparisons of cities to boys :) but you captured Phnom Penh so well. Its always the little mundane things I miss about a city (London for me) and that make it feel like I fit in just right.

  6. 7 dave April 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Kind Greetings Lauren, WOW how inspiring… I have never ventured overseas, freinds recommend Cambodia @ your post is the first i’ve read on my research jounery. Thanku. Any pointers whatsoever would be greatly appreciated.

    • 8 laurenquinn April 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm

      Cambodia for your first trip? It’d be a lot like throwing a kid into the deep end to teach them how to swim. SE Asis was a shock to the system for me, and I’d traveled a fair bit before. I’d say get a good guidebook, “double your money and half your luggage” and dive in. Good luck.

  7. 9 Tommy September 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    love those last two paragraphs. never quite got there yet, Chiang Mai is my wholesome looking girlfriend who wears Levis,likes to go swimming in lakes with a life preserver on but when the moon is full, her red fingernails seem to grow longer and her eyes seem deeper and you realize that there is much more inside than you ever realized.
    And your description of Buenos Aires reminds me of my hometown of Boston where i am always missing the train so I decided to fly instead.

  8. 10 afajun November 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    I was sitting at the lobby this morning, looking at your article, while waiting for my Cambodian hosts for the past week and friends for the past 3 years to finish their meeting before they bring me to the airport, and the phrase “you’ve got them and they’ve got you” struck me. I think you have an apt description of Phnom Penh’s character.

  9. 11 Tommy January 4, 2013 at 5:08 am

    You write as the wind… a warm wind … passing by and leave you shivering… I´m going there in a couple of weeks, leaving all the comforts of home… for at least two years… when I read this, I´m getting sobby and tearful… wish you could have stayed for a bit longer… we coluld (and probably would) have some serious fun together… but good luck with whatever u set your mind to in the future… but keep writing… you´re a gem!

  10. 12 Tommy January 4, 2013 at 5:27 am

    Shit… there´s two Tommy´s… well… nothing I could do about that…


  1. 1 Cities Like Boys: Vela and the New York Edition « Lonely Girl Travels Trackback on October 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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