On my last full day in Cambodia, I had a little moment.
I had left the house in a tuk tuk to get some final gifts and we had to weave our way through a busy market street in Phnom Penh.
It was bustling with local shoppers and stalls offering everything from lush tropical fruit to children’s clothes, to household items.
I was deep in thought about what I would miss about this city and its people, as we negotiated traffic and shoppers.
Then my eyes were drawn to a moto that had pulled alongside us.
I was startled, because there’s been a spate of bag snatches recently from women in tuk tuks by youths on motos.
But the face that met mine had a huge grin as he leveled alongside and looked into my cabin.
“Sue s’day” he called out, as he continued to overtake. “Sue s’day,” I replied. Smiling back. “Hello / hello.”
That was the moment that got me. Right there. Chest tightened, eyes prickled, lump formed in throat.
It was the pure joy of a simple, split-second connection with another human being, mixed with knowing that it’s time for me to leave this wonderful place that means so much to me.
As with other countries I’ve visited since my redundancy earlier this year, I’ve been trying Phnom Penh on for size.
Could I live there? Could I work there?
In previous visits to Cambodia (four of them), I’ve been very much the tourist.
This time around, doing volunteer work for a month, it’s been much more like real life. Get up and go to work, go to the gym, buy the groceries, start to make some new friends, catch up with old and new friends after work.
The opportunity to spend time with local staff and learn more about them, and their customs was the highlight.
I also enjoyed conversations with expatriates from across the world – including Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Europe, the United States. I wanted to hear first hand from them about the pros and cons of expat life in Cambodia.
One of them was an Australian woman who has spent 17 years in various South East Asian capitals, with the past few in Phnom Penh.
Her experience has been that life is easier in Phnom Penh than other Asian cities. It’s relatively low-cost, it’s not too big, it’s safe (just don’t do anything stupid), the expat community is open and friendly, and there’s a thriving live music scene.
She admits she added that last bit because she knew it would tempt the singer in me. It can get lonely and you do need resilience, she warned, but her overall advice about a possible move to Cambodia: “just do it.”
The simple answer is that I could live and work in Phnom Penh.
The pace and style of life is great. It’s a fun place, but it’s also a place where you feel like you can make a difference to the lives of others. I can see now why some people get hooked on development sector work.
The past few times as I’ve left Cambodia, I’ve confidently – and as it turned out each time, wrongly – declared: “I think that’s Cambodia done now.”
Over the past couple of days I have happily settled back into life in Melbourne and as I reflect on my experiences over the past month, here’s something I’ve learned:
I don’t think I’m done with Cambodia.