The glass doors slide open in the Phnom Penh airport and a face stands out in the crowd. SomOn’s.
Eight years ago—almost to the day—the same man greeted us with the same enormous grin. We’d just arrived in a country we knew almost nothing about, and SomOn’s was the first face we saw. This affable man became our regular tuk-tuk driver, introduced us to his family, and ferried us to work every day. He also gave us a glimpse into the inner workings of this complicated, magnificent country that captured our hearts.
This month, we came for only a couple of weeks. Here’s what I found: While many things may have changed, one thing remains the same: The way it makes me feel.
Whether I’m picking my way along broken-up pavements, poking around local neighbourhoods, or peering out from a tuk-tuk, Cambodia amplifies all my senses and wraps its tentacles around my soul. Everything about this country tears out my heart and renews my soul like nowhere else on earth.
The smell of jasmine in Wat Langka and prohok (fermented fish paste) at street cafés. The sound of children’s laughter and bread sellers tooting their horns as they cycle down the street. The sight of glittering strings of light wrapped around palm trees and the graceful arc of pagodas.
It’s all that and so much more. It’s catching someone’s eye and knowing they’ll always smile back. It’s spotting a tiny girl squatting in piles of garbage in the street. It’s watching tuk-tuk drivers struggle for fares and wanting to help them all. It’s wanting to constantly do more, give more, know more.
And, in exchange, we learn. About poverty. About people who give. About the beauty of connecting with someone who doesn’t speak our language. About how much we have.
Those things don’t change. Neither do the faces of people we remember. The man on the riverside, weighing people on his scale. His legs are stumps, his smile still broad. The woman in our local spa who hugged us when we went for a foot massage. The tailor in the Russian Market who recognised us. The vendor whose face is permanently scarred from acid burns and ran to embrace us. Those are the faces I see when I think of Cambodia.
There’s also a lot that’s new. Outside Brown Coffee, a Rolls Royce parks on the sidewalk. Cranes heft bricks on high-rise building sites. A second luxury mall will soon open. Chinese investment floods in as forcefully as the monsoon rains.
At Rosewood, on the 35th floor of the glittering new Vattanac Tower, the wait staff dress in crisp attire, and designer cakes and chocolates are piled high in glass cases. Le Broken Plate presents a stunning spread of six, eight, or ten courses that include some of the most gorgeous sashimi I’ve ever tasted (at $15, $20 or $25 per person, respectively). At the luxurious Royal Sands Resort in Koh Rong the smallest villa costs $360 per night.
Yet you can still get a delicious plate of dumplings at the Chinese Noodle House for $1.50, a one-hour foot massage for $8, and a room in an air-conditioned guesthouse for $15.
It warms our hearts to see how all our expat friends have something new to offer. Ramon started a food delivery outfit, Anthony went into the garment business with a Cambodian partner. Matthew expanded his hair salon/social media enterprise, as did Ruth, who opened a Bloom café in the Philippines and a new outlet in Phnom Penh. Rob and Meaghan advanced their coconut oil enterprise, and Stephen is providing advanced training for young Cambodians at his ballet school. Nobody is sedentary. Nobody’s life has remained the same.
And, in this city of almost two million people, it seems everyone knows everything. One day I separated from Skip, and lingered at the riverfront waiting to hear from him. Within minutes, a street vendor tugged my arm and pointed across the road. Yup, he knew who I was looking for.
So tonight when we depart, we’ll once again leave behind fragments of our hearts in this remarkable country. And the last familiar face we’ll see is the same one that greeted us when we first arrived. SomOn.