Archive for the 'Transition' Category



News Flash: Cambodia Is Hard

And apparently this is only news to me.

Actually it’s not. I knew coming out here that, as a Westerner, Cambodia is simultaneously an incredibly easy and incredibly difficult place to live. That seems to be the jam with developing countries.

On the one hand: the almost ridiculous ease of getting a visa; the nonexistence of work visas; the number of other expats; the way they throw English teaching jobs at you; the way they cater businesses to your rich, Western ways. I mean, I can buy peanut butter in the grocery store here. I can’t even do that in most of Mexico. I hang out at swimming pools and get shoes special made; I have house cleaners and I pay other people to do my laundry for me. I can buy whole fucking coconut for 50 cents.

But then… There’s all the other, developing country stuff. There’s the lack of reliable things you don’t really realize you depend on: health care and a postal system and electricity that doesn’t randomly cut out. There’s how I can’t buy clothes that fit me, how all the towels are made of some nonabsorbent material that leaves a trail of linty residue across my heat-rash-ridden torso (the $90 doctor visit achieved nothing on that front). There’s how far I am from home—about as far as you can fucking go—and how that makes setting Skype dates a pain in the ass, how it means I don’t get to pop home every six months the way friends living in Latin America or Europe do.

I knew that. I knew all that shit coming in. But as I’m edging up towards the six-month mark, it’s starting to wear on me in a way I hadn’t suspected. There’s the forestry activist that was recently murdered. There’s the terrible accident I saw coming home last week—broken brains on the pavement.

There’s the shitshow of the schools here, how no one seems to care—not the administration or the teachers or 90% of the students—but how there’s that 10% that do care, that are sacrificing to be in your classroom and are getting fuck all out of it. There’s the slow, steady way that disheartens you. There’s how shit the pay is in those easily gotten English-teaching jobs, how you start to feel yourself becoming one of those people who doesn’t care. It’s how there’s NGO workers making more than I did in the Bay Area, and how this is the brokest I’ve ever been in my adult life; there’s the little sense of failure that comes with that.

There’s the social scene here—how I’m too much of a fucking alien to really relate to the Cambodians but how I don’t really vibe with most of the expats either. Cambodia is still a place where people come to go off the rails. And it takes me all the energy I’ve got just to stay on the rails. There’s literally one other sober girl under age 50 here. That shit is hard.

All of which I also knew. But I guess what I didn’t know was the way all that accumulates in you, starts to eat at you. I don’t really notice it in my day-to-day; it becomes normal. I’m so busy trying to stay hydrated and keeping my tattoos out of the direct sunlight and trying to eat right and get enough sleep and still exercise (even though it’s so hot I feel like I’m gonna vomit most of the time) and how there’s a part of my brain that’s constantly thinking about the next spot with AC that I can duck into. That becomes normal, and I forget how much energy I’m spending just taking care of myself.

So you know what happened to me? I left. I went to Malaysia for Khmer New Year and rode glass elevators in the shopping malls and pretended to sea kayak. It was great. But before I even left, when I was at the airport in Phnom Penh, I was browsing the magazine rack and holy shit, I saw an issue of Juxtapoz. Which I don’t even read often in the States, but for the novelty factor, I picked it up. The issue was two months old and $11. I stood there flipping through the pages and skimming the interviews and looking at the silly pictures of silly hipster art and outta nowhere it hit me with this insane sense of homesicknesses. It’s funny, you know, what makes you homesick.

And it occurred to me in that moment that there’s whole conversations going on that I’m no longer a part of. Sure, I follow the blogs and since I’ve only been gone six months, I can still kinda fake it—but it’s starting to slip. I can feel it slipping.

Which I guess is to say that I’m starting to realize how much I’ve given up to be here, how much I’m sacrificing. Again, I knew it coming in. I just didn’t know how it would affect me, the way it would feel after six months.

And you know what? That shit is hard.

None of which is to say I’m ready to give up and toss in the towel on Cambodia. But it is to say that I’ve thought about it. It’s an incredible experience, to live in a developing country—not just any developing country, but fucking Cambodia, with its fucked-up history and centuries of corruption. Where I’m about as much of an alien as a person can be.

Of course there’s things I love. Those are harder to vocalize, because they’re not rational; they exist in these random-ass moments, walking at dusk with the pink sky and the traffic, when I suddenly feel like my heart is gonna jump outta my chest, like there’s this feeling my body physically can’t contain. But I guess I just don’t know if that’s enough. Like, in the long run.

It’s like a person. More and more, I think of places as people and living here is like being in a relationship. It makes sense, right?—the initial buzz has worn off, the honeymoon is over, and the first big conflicts are showing up. I’ve gotten to sit and watch this place, how it really is, and I’ve gotten to watch myself in this place and how I really am in it. And I’m thinking to myself—can I really do this? Can we really be together?

Well, I don’t know. At least not yet. This whole expat thing is new to me. But what I can say is that while it’s incredible and amazing and eye-opening and I’m privileged as hell to be able to do it in the first place, it’s also fucking hard. And it’s even harder to admit it’s hard.

But, you know, whenever it gets too hard, I can always just go chill out by the poolside with a smoothie and some wifi. Cause that’s what being a Westerner in a developing country is all about.

Glitter and Consumerism in KL


Let’s just say that my mind is blown.

Back in November, when I landed in Phnom Penh, there was a sale on Air Asia. I looked into my crystal ball and determined that come April—Cambodia’s hottest month and when the biggest holiday of the year shuts down virtually everything for a week—I’d be ready for a vacation to the developed world. So I booked tickets to Kuala Lumpur.

I really can’t remember the last time I was so excited for a trip. Riding the tuk-tuk to the airport, I was literally vibrating (I’d also had a ton of coffee). The idea of a city with sidewalks, a Metro and Western fucking shopping malls was as exotic to me as… well, Cambodia is to some people.

One of the incredible things about living in a developed country for me is how quickly things become normal, how quickly you adapt to your surroundings. I really don’t feel like Phnom Penh is that ramshackle; when I return from a trip the provinces, in fact, Phnom Penh feels like the glittery big city.

Are we starting to see where this is going? Are we starting to see how wildly impressed one would be any Monorials and overpasses, by international chains and consumerism, by diversity and hipsters, air-conditioned walkways and traffic lights people actually obey?

I am not in any way ashamed to admit that I spent my first day in Kuala Lumpur completely inside shopping malls. I didn’t sweat all day, and it was glorious. I rode glass elevators and ate Krispy Kreme donuts and reconfirmed that I really just don’t like Starbucks coffee. I heard “Pumped Up Kids” inside a Forever 21; I heard Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros in a Topshop. I passed women in burkas and women in booty shorts, both clutching Coach bags. I ate in a motherfucking food court: I had sushi and Turkish coffee and some kinda weird Taiwanese shaved ice that was really not that awesome. I tried on pants that fit me and bras that fit me, that weren’t three-inches thick with padding.

I bought some nice-ass work clothes and paid for them on a credit card and signed my name and got one of those itemized receipts with the credit card digits blocked out with little stars.

I was dazzled, and utterly unashamed by how dazzled I was.

There was a time when I would have been mega critical of the malls of KL. I would have deemed them inauthentic, not real cultural experiences. Well, they aren’t—everything is imported, corporate, packaged, temperature controlled. And that’s what’s so amazing—how inauthentic they are.

Cause you know what I’ve realized? In Cambodia, my most “authentic” “local” “cultural” experiences have been really uncomfortable. I’ve been hot and confused and unable to communicate and unsure of how to bathe myself and mildly-to-extremely sick to my stomach. Which isn’t to say that they haven’t been important, valuable experiences, just that they haven’t been easy. Not like, say, a corporate shopping mall.

We’re obsessed in the West with authenticity. Travelers are always looking to get off the beaten path, away from the tourist circuit. We scour Yelp to find the best local restaurants. And remember that Lana del Rey thing? People were so pissed off because she tricked us—we thought for a minute, you know, with a shitty youtube video, that she might be “real” and not some music executive’s wet dream of indie.

Maybe those are anecdotal, but I kinda don’t think so. Living the last 5 months in a developing country, the majority of what I buy and what I do is non-corporate—I buy produce at the market, top-up cards at roadside stalls, bottles of water from mini-markets set up in a family’s living room. I guess that’s pretty authentic, when you think about it.

But still. I was so fucking excited to be in a shopping mall I couldn’t take it.

Cause it’s in you, you know? Consumerism such a deeply rooted part of American culture, such a deeply rooted part of myself, that I’m often not aware it’s there. You’re constantly interacting with it—even if you shop at local mom-and-pops and go out of your way to support small businesses, you’re still interacting in opposition to it. You’ve been marketed towards since you were a toddler; you’re a unit of consumption and you consume. In one way or another.

Until you move to Cambodia. And you can’t. Because, aside from KFC and a Mango, there’s just not the option. And you don’t miss it. Or you don’t think you miss it. Until you land in KL and you wander through the pristine malls, floors glittering and piped-in music playing, with stars in your fucking eyes cause it’s so goddamn impressive.

But, now the third day, something else has happened—I’ve begun to get sick to my stomach. That’s probably because I’ve been stuffing my face with every thing I pass that catches my eye, because who knows when I’ll get another chance. It’s like a sleeping beast has been unleashed—the problem being that I’m now indigestive and constipated and gross-feeling.

Which is metaphor of course for consumerism. Not that I’ve even been buying much stuff, other than some work clothes, but just that I’ve been around it, been in it, so startling and dazzling. And so soulless. All the manufactured identities you’re supposed to buy in to; all air-brushed models; all the feelings of not having, of not being good/thin/rich/beautiful/cool enough; all the subtle alienation—the inoffensive, comfortable, sparkling clean wanting-more-ness.

All the bras that fit me.

All my favorite make-up.

All the brands I like.

Which I guess is just to say—man, you don’t realize how complex and conflicted a relationship you have with consumerism until you’re out of it and then you’re plunged back into it. And you don’t really know a place until you leave. Cambodia was becoming so normal to me; I was forgetting what made it special, different, fuck-up and amazing and and exactly where I’m supposed to be right now.

The World’s Most Amazing T-Shirt!

About a year ago I blogged about the utterly unironic English language t-shirts in Cambodia—nonsensical phrases, constant-clutterfuck non-words, uncouth slang beside hearts and smiley faces.

Well down at the Russian Market recently, I found the shirt to end all shirts:

First off, you’ve got the letters: glittery gold. You’ve got the allusion to gangsta rap (at least I always think of NWA), which is literally and culturally on the other side of the fucking planet from Cambodia. Then you’ve got the fact that a sizable number of the people who’d actually buy and wear this shirt would have no clue what the words even meant, let alone the potent cultural references.

But that’s not all. The brilliance of this shirt, what elevates it from just another joke shirt to The World’s Most Amazing Shirt, is its juxtapositions. It works on so many levels! It’s multi-fucking-dimensional!

Let’s take a closer look:

Okay, so we’ve got a Philadelphia police emblem—cool, at least we’re in the right country.

Wait… Is that… Sting?

Why yes it is.

Oh, but why should we stop there? Gangsta rap versus new wave, UK versus USA, anarchistic anti-authority versus just not liking a band—what do the words “Fuck The Police” really mean? Can any one group claim ownership to the phrase? What does the phrase mean in different contexts?

There are no easy answers. Like any great work of art, the shirt merely raises the questions, leaving the audience to determine their own answers, revelations, resolutions. If in fact there are any. Perhaps the shirt is actually a statement on cultural relativity. Or maybe on the unifying, equalizing distaste for the police so many of us share.

You can’t be sure. So is the world we live in.

But is it possible, is it conceivable, that inside the glittery block letters, wedged between the emblems clustered around the words, there’s yet another meaning? A third and possibly more sinister layer of context?

Let’s get Crass involved:

Well now I’m really at a loss.

As you can see, we no longer have any fucking clue as to where we are or what any of this means. We’ve got an English-language t-shirt making references to three English-language bands that were all trailblazers in their given genres and decades. But that’s the only cohesive thread I can find (other than the snazzy black stitching along the shoulders). Do we hate Sting or are we trying to stir up revolt? Are we making references to racialized police brutality or a more class-driven variety? What fucking continent are we even on? What decade—scratch that, what century? Why is this shirt in Phnom Penh, at the fucking Russian Market, a sweat-bomb of stalls overflowing with bootleg H&M clothes, sacks of rice and touristy trinkets? Why is it $6? Why am I buying it? And wearing it around town?

And why do I not know if I’m wearing the shirt ironically or unironically?

Well, so is my life these days. An Oakland girl living in Phnom Penh—why should any of it make sense? Why should I even try to make sense of it? Better to just pay the $6 (“Really? $6? Why so expensive? I pay $4? $5? Ok.”)—better to put on the shirt, enjoy the glitter and the juxtapositions and relax in the fact that I’m not ever gonna figure any of it out.

But I can still look fly in the meantime.

Naked Like That (Kep Bungalow)

Tonight I miss America
at night.

Tonight I miss tambourines and harmonicas.
I miss the low whistle
of a train through the dark.
I miss fog-soggy sidewalks
and boys with stubbly beards
smoking cigarettes,
windshield shards
glittering beneath their sneakers
like that:
stars.

I miss driving home—
Bay Bridge jaundice,
hungry tunnel howling,
ears ringing
and headlights
like a lonesome pair of eyes.

I missed cracked windows
and cup holders,
the arch of 580
to 24,
the moment before
the highways touch

And I miss that city
laid out beneath me
and glittering

For one still moment

Like that
Like how I miss that—
Something I could almost touch
At night.

Tonight I’ve got the jungle.
Tonight I’ve got
Cambodia’s muggy black
of birds crying and geckos belching,
the low drone of insects
trying to get in.
Tonight I’ve got the world
behind a mosquito net
and the sea somewhere—
I can hear it.

I’ve got sheets and the shape
of some still body;
I’ve got a lonesome pair of eyes
probing in the dark
and all the goddamn stars in the world,
glittering like that

Naked like that

Like how I’ve always been—
Splayed and waiting

And breathing in the dark.

How Do You Write An Expat Blog, And Other Life Questions

Here's my terrace, for lack of a more relevant picture

So… you may have been able to tell by the infrequent and half-assed nature of my recent posts that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here anymore. With this blog, I mean.

Well, okay, I guess my life too.

I know how to write a travel blog. Not a super successful monetized one, but the kind of travel blog I want to write. I know what kind of material to look for and write about: snippets, character sketches, first impressions, cultural clashes, bizarre moments—the other-worldly, almost out-of-body moments that travel affords, that I’ve been craving and chasing for years now. I can even write a good informative, service post from time to time, and not feel totally smarmy about it. And when I’m not traveling, I know how to write travel-themed posts that manage to be relevant.

But I don’t know how to write an expat blog.

I’ve been in Phnom Penh for a little over two months now. I’ve left the city once, for 2 days; I’ve got a couple little trips planned, including one to Malaysia over Khmer New Year. But for the most part, I’m staying put. I’m focused on establishing a life here—getting a job and friends and more furniture and houseplants, a routine and rhythm to my days. It’s not dynamic, exciting stuff; there’s no a big wow, must-see factor. It’s kind of just my life, and I’m not sure how to write about it here.

I’m not sure of a lot right now. I’m new at this—my first time being an expat. I’d always been intrigued by them, as a traveler. You could spot them, you know—the ease, the breeziness, the comfort with which they walked down the street, talked to vendors in the local language, went about their business with the kind of self-possessed air of a person reading a book on the train, when you just know it’s their commute home and they’re thinking about dinner or what TV show they’re going to watch or whatever—mundane shit.

Now I’m one of them, and there’s a lot of shit that feels mundane, uninteresting to write about. Which isn’t true, of course—it’s just that I don’t know how to write about it.

And I’d always wondered what expats thought of travelers. I’d talk to friends, whose feelings ranged from indifference to embarrassment; one girl I knew, living in Santiago, would avoid eye contact with other gringas, she wanted to badly to not to be associated with tourists.

But for the most part, for me, they seem to exist on this other plane, walking up and down the riverside in their flip flops and tank tops, and they kind of fade into the static of life here, right along with the construction noises and metallic audio recording of the egg vendors.

But it’s funny, cause sometimes I notice them, just kind of watch them, and it’s a strange, unexpected feeling that comes up. It’s not jealously, but a sort of wistful longing. They have a kind of structure, a context and definition: They are travelers. They are passing through. For the most part they have book ends for being here—return tickets and lives waiting, houseplants being watered by friends in their absence. They have closets, I imagine, where all those zip-off pants and Tevas will return to.

And for the first time, I don’t have that. I don’t have the security, the knowledge of a life that’s waiting for me somewhere. Here’s my life, but I’m not exactly sure what that life is yet. I’m discovering it, and it’s exciting and scary and lonely and exactly where I need to be right now.

But I don’t know how to write about that.

But inbetween-nees seems to be the theme these days. I’m 29: I’m not old, but I’m also not young anymore, and there’s wrinkles where there didn’t used to be wrinkles. I don’t know what clothes to wear; I’d go to shows back in the States over the summer, and the band would look like they were 12, and everyone would be young, so young, glowing with young in a way that seems ravaged and obscene. And not me.

But I’m not totally sure what “me” is anymore. Or I suppose I should say, where me fits in this new life, that has yet to form. It’s slowly taking shape—I can feel it and I have a faith, which might be a blind faith but is a faith nonetheless, that it’ll all gonna work out.

I just don’t know how to write about it yet.

A Morning Ride Through The City

The morning is cold.

Well, not cold, but cool—breezy and clouded, which for here is Arctic. It’s 8am and I’m getting in a tuk-tuk a friend had arranged. He’s waiting outside of the French restaurant on the corner, holding a piece of paper with my name on it, and it reminds me of leaving an airport’s gates, all the men in cheap suits holding signs of tourists’ names, and how I’ve always kind of wanted to be one of the names, to be Arriving, instead of just wandering off with my too-heavy backpack towards the local bus.

I step in my ballet flats into the tuk-tuk, smoothe my blouse as I sit down. I hold the plastic file case, filed with copies of my resume, down in my lap. We start off.

My friend arranged for a tuk-tuk to take me to 10 different schools, where I’m going to drop off 10 resumes and hopefully get called back—a kind of carpet-bombing, I’m-out-money-and-a-need-a-quick-job technique. The tuk-tuk driver knows the route; he’s done it often, for foreigners like myself. Or not like myself—I imagine them younger, in nicer clothes, with a TEFL certificate on their resumes or at least some teaching experience.

We move through streets fresh with bustle: children in school uniforms, people in baby blue shirts driving their motorbikes to work, old men eating pork and rice at the food stalls. The monks are out, doing their barefoot rounds, and when they chant it sounds like bees buzzing.

Mornings are kind of magical in Phnom Penh—cool and alive, cleaner feeling, not yet bogged down in the heat or exhaustation. I don’t usually get to experience them, since they start at dawn; by the time I’m usually out of the house around 10am, it’s mid-afternoon by local standards, and the pork and rice stalls are shutting up shop.

And it’s cold this morning—the sun is hidden and there’s a cool breeze. It’s exciting, to feel chilly here, and I suddenly remember my dream: that I was somewhere cold and drizzly, like London, and that the air felt crisp on my cheeks, almost stinging to breathe. It’s funny—I’ve been homesick for fog, for foggy mornings, when the dense mist rushes past and the world feels quiet and still and small.

And it doesn’t feel that way this morning, but it feels close. Close-ish. There’s something almost Italian in the weather—the way the clouds sit in the sky, a feel to the air—crisp but twinged with exhaust—that reminds me, not of an ancient quarter, but of the industrial outskirts of a Italian town—Grottaglie, or that cheap hotel we stayed out way outside of Venice, with its gravely road and teenagers and 40-minute bus to the tourist canals and massive train station.

Which is ridiculous—there is absolutely nothing Italian about Phnom Penh. The smells are of fermented fish sauce and trash, steam buns instead of fresh-baked bread; the old women wear pajama suits instead of dresses, the men loose button-up shirts that hang off their sharp limbs, instead of sweaters over their big bellies and those old-school newsie caps. There’s a chaos to the street—welding shops and electric lights and women in face masks weaving between SUVs—that you wouldn’t find anywhere in Europe, even in Italy.

But there’s something in the morning that makes me nostalgic for something I can’t quite name, that reminds me of a place that isn’t quite here. We stop in front of schools—big broad buildings with mounted emblems and security guards, receptionists who take my resume disinterestedly—and I’m in and out in under 2 minutes, in most cases.

We crawl out of the city center—past gas stations and narrow pitted roads, shops with rows of potted plants—and I think of how big this city is, and how I only ever see a very small part of it. I watch, observe the sort of dance of it all that I can’t see when I’m walking in it, or snared in traffic, or sweating in the mid-day sun. And I’m kind of in awe, I realize. It occurs to me that I haven’t been in awe at all, this whole time—been so focused on not being fazed, being blasé and un-culture-shocked, that I haven’t just sat back and reveled in it.

I Skyped with a friend the day before, the familiar posters on the wall, flannel shirts and winter coats scattered across the room. I was telling him some ridiculous story—something about a chicken and a street dog and a hand-tractor full of staring eyes—and he laughed and said, “Yo, do you realize how cool that is? That you just get to be there, and have these experiences?”

And it didn’t strike me in that moment as naive; it didn’t strike me as something said by someone who hasn’t gotten to travel much, hasn’t ever left the Western world, someone who’s easily impressed by my stories, for whom even the mundane details of my daily life seem like adventure. His comment struck me in that moment as true.

I sit back in the tuk-tuk, as we bounce through the city, and I just watch. I smile. I don’t worry about being the Tough Traveler; I just let myself revel.

It’s 11am by the time I get back to my apartment. I pay the driver and step out of the tuk-tuk. The fresh breeze is gone; the clouds are heavy; the air is swampy.

The morning is gone and the spell is broken.

Expatification: My First Week Goes Live

So remember what I was saying a few weeks back about y’all having to follow more links? I wasn’t lying.

I had two pieces about my first-week adjustments go live this week on Matador. The first, “How To Rock in Phnom Penh,” is about tromping off to the Dengue Fever show while I was recovering from a stomach flu, and sussing out the very peculiar social scene here. It’s also about realizing, “Holy shit, I’m here.”

The second, “How 12-Step Slogans Helped Me in Phnom Penh,” is a far dorkier account of using program tools to keep myself from totally using losing my cool. (Don’t mention specific programs, so Tradition 11 is safe and sound!)

It was weird to practice restraint and not post my first-week experiences immediately on my blog (sucker for the instant gratification). But it’s something I’ll be getting used to.

It’s also nice to have these go up this week, as I’ve been feeling monumentally frustrated with the freelance process. You know—you pour all this time and energy into pitches and submissions, and you think they’re pretty good, and at least half the ones you send never even earn responses. So it’s not even like you can figure out what you did poorly or how to improve. It can get really demoralizing.

But it’s all part of the game, part of the hustle, and besides—this is the path I chose. And I can always unchoose it, go back to waiting tables in the States. (Or not.) So, yeah, just nice to feel a little gratification is what’s otherwise been a dismal month in the life of a freelancer.

So read away, friends.

Too Legit: The Insanely Easy Process of Getting My One-Year Visa in Cambodia

So, yesterday I got this:

I walked back down to the travel agency, one of the 800 that line the riverside, where I’d dropped my passport off two days earlier. I handed the man the $288 fee, grinning like a jackass. “That was so easy!” I exclaimed.

He gave me a wonky eye.

“I don’t know of any other country where it’s so easy to get a visa.”

“Really?” he smiled that bashful Cambodian smile.

“Totally. Cambodia—very very easy.”

I got my change and left the office still grinning. (I think the man thought I was a little off.)

But it’s true: I’m no expert on immigration, visa and residency laws, but I don’t personally know of another country where you can show up, get a 30-day visa upon arrival and then extend that visa for a year, with no applications or procedures.

It’s one of the reasons I decided to make the move out here. I’d fantasized about living abroad for years. The EU/Schengen Zone was entirely out of the question. And even in relatively easy countries like Argentina and Thailand, you’ve got to make a visa run every 90 days; procuring a work permit is another whole hassle. Cambodia?—as far as everyone I’ve talked to can tell, work permits don’t exist in this country.

“Word’s getting out,” “Lisa,” my go-to lady on all things expat-related, told me. “There’s been a huge influx of expats in the last six months. They do this Thanksgiving dinner every year at this pub. This year, they sold out by 4pm. You should have heard the dudes on Khmer 440!”

“It won’t stay this way of long,” a US Immigration lawyer based here told me. “But for now, yes—it’s one of the easiest countries for foreigners to live and work in.”

It’s tempting to write an article, a how-to-get-a-Cambodian-visa guide. It’d involve very little research, since the process is so fucking easy. But, in my inflated sense of self-importance, I’m not entirely sure I want to help “the word get out.” You know how Seoul just announced that they’re kicking out all foreign English teachers by 2014? Exactly.

So I’ll share what I did: Upon arrival at the Phnom Penh airport, I got an “ordinary” visa. It costs $25, as opposed to the $20 tourist visa. Getting an ordinary visa instead of a tourist visa is literally as easy as checking a box on a form. Both visas are valid for 30 days; a tourist visa can only be extended once, however, for an additional 30-day period, while an ordinary visa can be extended for up to a year. So, a little before my ordinary visa was to expire, I popped into one of the travel agencies on the riverside and gave them my passport, along with a passport photo (they really love those extra passport photos in SE Asia). I came back two days later, paid dude, perhaps made a grinning ass out of myself, and that was that.

Just like that, I’m legit. Dare I say, too legit…

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.”
Grins.
“I think it’s exciting.
Like Paris in the 20s.
Or something.”


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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