Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phnom Penh

Note: The literary nerds among you will recognize this as a rip-off play on Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

1. Lisa, American, 1.5 years:
“You get a lot of big egos,
people who think
they’re hot shit.
But you have to remember:
we’re all here cause
we can’t hack it out there”—
points outside,
beyond the street,
to the West—
“in the real world.”

2. Tommy, British, 6 years off-and-on
“Where else could I”—
hand tattoos and a missing eye—
“get a job teachin?”

3. Steven, American, 4 years
“This city’s a dangerous place
to have money
and a drinking problem.”

4. Kate, Australian, 7 months
“People do
what they can get away with:
drinking all day, sleeping
with prostitutes,
saying racist shit.”
Stirs margarita.
“This city reduces you
to what you really are.”

5. Sasha, American, 1 month
“I’ve never been anywhere
where I’ve felt so manic.”

6. Hank, American, 4 years
“In the time I’ve been here,
I’ve quit my job, no shit,
5 times. And each time,
whatever I’d lined up next
fell through. So”—
shrugs—“at a certain point, I just decided:
I’m gonna stay here
until I learn whatever lessons
I’m supposed to.”

7. Clare, American, 3 years
“It’s not that easy,
just picking up and leaving.
I have 19 employees, women
who depend on me
for their livelihoods.
But at the same time”—
looks out the tuk-tuk
at the street—
“I know I need to leave soon.
I can’t get stuck.”

8. Lisa (again)
“The thing about it is,
it all becomes normal.
You realize,
the guys sleeping with prostitutes—
they’re not all creepy and weird,
like you’d expect.
Most of them are totally normal.”
Surveys the bar
in one sweeping glance.
“I guess that’s the strangest thing:
how normal it all is.”

9. Boy in cafe, American accent, time unknown
“I can’t tell you
how many times it’s happened—
I go for an interview;
they ask me
to do a draft of a project;
they never call me back, but
they steal my ideas.”
Tosses pen across the table.
“They’re lazy
and sneaky
and can’t think for themselves.”

10. Martin, American, 6 years
“Whenever I get into that place,
you know,
when all of Cambodia
has got it wrong—
when no one knows how to drive
and every police officer is trying to get a bribe outta me—
that’s when I know I’ve got to sit down
and take a good long look
at me.”

11. Michelle, Australian, 3 years
“I tried.
Of course I tried.
But it’s hard to have Khmer friends
when you can’t tell them
you live with your boyfriend,
and they have be home
by 8 every night.”

12. Lisa (again)
“You totally just blew that guy off.
You do realize
that’s the last time
a white guy’s gonna hit on you
for a loooong time.”

13. Billy, British, 5 months
“There’s a lot of people like you,
moving here
cause it’s cheap
and they can do their art.
It’s not so different
from people moving to different cities
within a country
cause it’s cheaper and easier.”
“I think it’s exciting.
Like Paris in the 20s.
Or something.”

8 Responses to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phnom Penh”

  1. 1 dianne December 4, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    It is like Paris in the 20’s! Nothing is true and everything is permitted! I am in kooky kampot doing my art and feeling like a neo colonial tart!

  2. 3 Nathan December 5, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Nice one Lauren. Telling so much, in so few words.

  3. 4 Kirstin December 5, 2011 at 11:50 am

    There seems to be a difference between the people who have been there for more than and less than 1 year. And, I feel like I’ve met a doppelganger of each of these people in Bishkek.

  4. 5 Jessica December 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    This is hilarious – I’ve definitely run into these peeps during my time in PP.

  5. 6 Jacob I. Evans December 8, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    This reminded me of Hanoi, but it also is different here. I think because of the more conservative nature of Viets, Hanoi has less of a sin city vibe. You can find it easily, but I think it’s still got a certain element of taboo. But, the part about people doing what they can get away with rings really true. There are a lot of drunks, drug addicts and sex pats circling the drain in SE Asia.

  6. 7 Ekua January 8, 2012 at 3:18 am

    Love these insights. Seems like you met quite an interesting group of expats in Phnom Penh! Welcome to that club 😉

  7. 8 Jakob Rauch February 16, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    paris in the 20s? sounds like the place to be. though i remember it a little different..

Comments are currently closed.

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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