When I first came to Cambodia, people said I was being very brave, and that it must be hard. I felt like correcting this impression was another form of bragging, but of course I did it anyway. And it was a form of bragging. I told people I could get a toasted muffin anywhere in Phnom Penh – and it’s true. There are even two or three places that sell madeleines and financiers instead. I keep track of them.
Visiting a foreign country is difficult. Living there for a year or so is hard. Many places in Cambodia are not only foreign but devoid of the comforts that makes tourism possible. Most of Cambodia is rural and many destinations are remote.
Phnom Penh is very easy to live in. It’s chaotic in small ways, but much less hectic or oppressive than a larger city. It’s much easier to navigate the streets on foot than in Ho Chi Minh City, much easier to ignore the garbage and open sewers than in Karachi. The smog is lighter.
There’s heat, but there’s also air-con and hotel pools. There are cockroaches and rats, but there are also cleaners. There’s traffic, but there are also moto-drawn surreys that will take you through town for a dollar or two. There’s food poisoning, but there’s the long vacation rhythm of expat life and all the pricey import stores that sell you on hygiene.
Phnom Penh also hosts a lot of luxury, and the options for luxury increase every year. When I first came, there were French cafes and cocktail bars, a patio ice-cream parlor near the best international school, a Belgian bakery that sold cappuccino and coconut buttercream tarts. My best friend in the country loved to get the English breakfast at the restaurant up the riverside with dollar bloody marys. I ate mango-banana pancakes in a patio brunch place near the Royal Palace. We went together to the champagne brunch (all you could eat, if not all you could drink) at the Naga Casino when it opened halfway through the year.
Now there’s a sushi place he visits occasionally, and I’ve seen two new cupcake shops since I’ve been here. There are three new coffee chains since six years ago, each with multiple locations. Two designer burger bars, a jazz club, a children’s playground cafe.
I complained about the heat, got angry with the traffic and the sour smells off the river. I caught lice the first week I was in the country and kept them all year. I had a dead rat in my toilet. I rode past two ‘black rivers’ on my way to work. But I had a cleaner and I spent my free afternoons drinking coffee in a beautiful place on Sihanouk with new linen couches and clean white walls.
I’m not saying this to brag. I wrote a post last week excoriating a woman for her investment in luxury – her own desire to sleep on clean linen sheets like the ones I had washed for a dollar or so. I’m not any less dependent on luxury, or less likely to seek it out. But part of the experience of Cambodia is this tourist infrastructure designed to sell us luxuries at bargain rates. It’s just as present as the signs of fragile infrastructure and enduring poverty – and most expats, tourists, and volunteers spend more time on intimate terms with luxury than either discomfort or want.