Archive for July, 2009

Coming Home In A Strange Town

I’d gotten off the bus near Psar Thmei and waded through the touts while most of my fellow bus passengers stood in huddled groups, consulting their Lonely Planets, bombarded by calls of, “Motorbike? Tuktuk? Good clean cheap room?”

It wasn’t until I’d actually grabbed my backpack and hefted it onto my shoulders that it had dawned on me that not one single tout had said a word to me. How is it possible that I could arrive in Phnom Penh by bus, be dropped off at the most common arrival point for Westerners (besides Potchentong Airport), and not be hassled?

I almost laughed and cast a glance back at the other barang[1] who seemed a little flustered, confused, overwhelmed by the onslaught of touts[2], seeking solace and direction within their travel guides. The guys all wore t-shirts and long shorts, most of the women wore singlet tops and shorts or loose skirts.

Then it hit me; my obvious Western-ness (or barangitude) could not be hidden, but I’d made a conscious effort to at least dress like the locals. Cotton short-sleeved collared shirt and long pants. And instead of standing 5 meters from the bus with a Lonely Planet in hand and gazing around as if I’d just landed on (or from) Mars, I’d barely broken stride from the time I got off the bus. Hopped off, grabbed my bag and headed towards Monivong Boulevarde. Maybe the touts thought I was an ex-pat returning from a short trip to Vietnam.

As I headed south along Monivong towards “home”, my mind flashed back to a comment I’d made almost 4½ years previously. I don’t honestly recall if it was something I’d said while caught up in an emotional moment, but in the ensuing years it evolved from a comment to a commitment.


On February 6 2005, while at a dusty stop somewhere between Siem Reap and Poipet, stretching my legs and trying to realign my skeleton after the first leg of a punishing and slow and dusty bus ride, my then girlfriend and I sat on a bench, surrounded by local children who had been mesmerised by our impromptu drumming session.

We’d stopped at this outpost for a break, and were instantly surrounded by children carrying trays loaded down with drinks, snacks, postcards, etc. Jen and I broke away from the group, sat on a nearby bench and began absently tapping away on our drums. We weren’t really playing anything at all, just letting the rhythm drift randomly…

The children had momentarily forgotten their imperative to sell candy and drinks and instead were enjoying the makeshift show we’d put on. They stood in a semi-circle around us, smiling. I looked around the group while remembering all that I’d seen in the three months prior to that moment. I’d spent that time in four different Southeast Asian countries. And yet it was Cambodia that had really gotten into me. From the wonder of the temples at Angkor to the horror of Tuol Sleng. The spirit of the people was something I found inspiring, the will to rebuild their nation out of the ashes of the Khmer Rouge years. Here was a country that had quite literally lost everything; their past, their families, their homes, their history and culture, and in too many cases even their lives.

Amid the group of drumming aficionados, and with these memories swimming through me, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I have to come back one day and do something. Something real, something… useful.”

“Back to Cambodia?” she asked.

I nodded.

She looked up at the children and then over them, past them, to the dusty desolate countryside beyond. This was apparently farmland, but I could not see how anything could possibly grow out there.

I don’t know what was going through her mind at that point, or what she was seeing with her thousand-yard stare. But I remember her giving a slight shake of her head as she said, “Good luck with that.”[3]


Just before Christmas, 2008, after 4 years of letting my Cambodia experience[4] filter through my heart and soul, I finally set about putting a plan into action. I did a Google search for housebuilding cambodia and learned of the existence of Tabitha Australia. This is an organisation that raises funds for numerous projects designed to assist and sustain desperately poor families. As well as raising funds for houses, wells and livestock, the Tabitha Foundation also assists families with implementing savings schemes. Of particular interest to me, however, was the way in which Tabitha put together teams of volunteers to go over and put houses together.

I found a contact email address and fired off a preliminary inquiry off to Jude, who got back to me fairly quickly with a basic outline of what was involved. The builders were asked to contribute at least AU$500 towards the cost of materials for a house (which is essentially a 6m x 4m one-room cottage on stilts, with either wooden slats or sheets of tin for walls). One house costs AU$1500. The really hard work such as building the frame and the floors and so on was done by a team of Khmer builders. The overseas volunteers then came over to attach the walls and secure the floorboards.

Jude told me there was a two-day build kicking off on August the fifth.

I said, “Count me in.”

I then got a good friend of mine, Karen, on the case. Karen is a travel consultant, a damn good one. I remember walking into her place of work on January of 2009 and saying, “Can I book a flight to Phnom Penh?”

I’d done this before, with the destination changing. When I was involved with someone from Canada (in fact, the same someone I’d been through Cambodia with in 2005), I’d often present myself at Karen’s workplace with a pisstakey request for a one-way ticket to Edmonton.

“Ha-ha, nice one,” said Karen. She knew of my love of travel and my special fondness for Cambodia (and was also being mindful of the jocular requests for overseas tickets from the past).

“I’m serious,” I told her. “I’m going to Cambodia in August.”

I’d thought about how I wanted to approach the trip. I’d want some time to myself as well as getting involved with the building project. Plus, I liked the idea of arriving in Cambodia with a sense of occasion. Jetting in, while convenient, didn’t quite feel auspicious enough. Besides, there were no direct flights to Phnom Penh. Karen gave me a few options and I decided on a flight to Saigon with a overland trip to Cambodia’s capital.

I then told Karen, “I’m keeping this under wraps for a while, so if you could keep it quiet that’d be cool.”

“Okay,” Karen said, possibly without really understanding why.

The reason I’d had at that time was based on a superstition. I’d had big plans before, and told many people. Those plans often did not end up taking place. It was irrational, but I still felt the desire to keep it quiet.


Traffic shuffled past me as I sweated a lugged my backpack south along Monivong. The footpaths on most streets in Phnom Penh are very wide. So wide, in fact, that you could park on them. Cambodians, being practical-minded, tend to do exactly this. It’s therefore necessary to spend more time walking along the edge of the road than on what would normally be a footpath. I was not the only pedestrian on the road, however. People pushing carts fitted out with gas burners and woks and fresh ingredients shared the edge of the road with motos and tuktuks and the occasional cyclo, as well as one Westerner lugging a 12.6kg backpack in 36°C degree heat.

“Tuktuk, sir?” was asked more than once, and they’d seem puzzled by my knockbacks (always delivered with a smile and a shake of the head). The tuktuk and moto drivers would beam the most pleasant smile back at me, but I could imagine them thinking, Crazy bloody Westerner! Why would you walk? In this heat? With that backpack?

I’d done all my map consulting on the bus. All I had to do was head south, turn due west on Street 310 and then take the next street south. There, comfort and quiet would await. An oasis in the somehow laid-back pandemonium of Phnom Penh.

It was an old French colonial villa on a corner block. A group of very chilled-looking tuktuk drivers lazed in their vehicles. They saw me and before they could ask I pointed to the villa and smiled. They smiled back, nodded and went back to their siesta.

As I checked in, I was presented with a cold glass of water with a slice of lime in it. This was a heavenly gift after the half-hour trek from the bus stop. The staff greeted me as though I’d lived there for months. I then realised that I’d not stopped smiling since I started to recognise parts of the city on the bus on the way in.

Not for the first time, I felt truly at home in a foreign city.

[1] – Khmer word for ‘foreigner’.

[2] – Though you’d think that Vietnam is a baptism of fire re. tout hasslement.

[3] – Much later, she’d told me that Cambodia “did (her) head in” and that she could not go back.

[4] – It was a very touristy experience, to be truthful. We saw Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, and then got on a bus to Siem Reap to see the temples there. All the same, there was something about the country and the strength of the people that had really gotten into me.