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"I'll find my way home while exploring the galaxy"

Day 205: PART I First Impressions of Phnom Penh

Travelling solo in Cambodia has been no walk in the park. Though I solo-ed two weeks through Thailand nearly a year and half ago, I feel like I’m having my first solo trip all over again. Except, add many more complex layers of intensity to that, whether real or perceived. The country generally lacks laws and breeds corruption in a way more tangibly felt than Vietnam and Thailand – so my overall sense of independence has been tested. A literal walk in the park is no longer emotionally just a walk in the park.  

I’ve got a flight leaving Phnom Penh on May 26th, which gives me roughly one month in the whole of Cambodia. At the start of this solo trip, I had a vague itinerary of how I wanted to navigate around, but as suspected, long gone are the days of planning weeks ahead. Thinking about “future” has been reduced to 2-3 days at the very max, and I’ve come a LONG way to say that I prefer it like that. Coming off a month in Vietnam where it’s impossible to escape the very recent traumatic memories left behind by the Vietnam (or rather, American) War, my curiosity of war history naturally peaked. I had much more to learn about Cambodia’s concurrent history, otherwise known as the atrocious period of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, which not coincidentally, was designed to “free” the Cambodian people from the same US-backed imperialist forces that inspired Vietnam’s very own revolution. Similar timelines, completely different results. I quote “free” for reasons I’ll get into later.  

Before diving into that beast of a reflection, I want to back up to a very mystic connection and series of events that began the moment I landed on that auspicious day of April 27th in Phnom Penh, also the day following April’s New Moon, a symbolic time of new beginnings and perspectives.

Sometimes, we are not meant to understand why we manifest what we do right away, though the deeper connective tissue always surely unfolds with time. I say this with a specific human in mind, a solo female traveler who quite literally stumbled into my hostel room on day one of Cambodia. Meet Diana, a 22-year old Korean adopted into an American family of ten other siblings in Portland, Oregon. She started college at the young age of 16 and has a few months to wander the lust out of her early 20s before signing away the next ten years of life to medical school. Personality wise, she proudly claims her classic “resting b***tch face” and can’t go anywhere without someone pointing out her striking resemblance to Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy.

Classic Yang face

Classic Yang face

Side note, rarely do I meet Asian American boss girls solo travelling the world. Realistically speaking, not many incoming med students can afford (or really make) the time to do what she’s doing. Naturally, I was intrigued.

I'll eventually make my way to photographing Diana, this will just have to do for now 

I'll eventually make my way to photographing Diana, this will just have to do for now 

Quick anecdote to color my first impression of Yang/Diana: After a long day of travel from Hanoi to Phnom Penh, I couldn’t have been more relieved to land a super cold AC dorm of four clean beds. While chatting with my new roomie (about our recent food poisoning bouts, naturally), the door busts open and who do I see? Diana. She looks like she’s about to either pounce me, or collapse on the floor as the sass comes pouring out of her mouth:

“You blew me off at the airport – I put my hand on your backpack to get your attention and see if you wanted to share a tuk tuk. You turned around, stared right at me, and walked away! And now you’re in the same hostel room as me, I’m all like b***tch please.”

I burst out laughing. Really, this was happening?

I was more surprised by the fact that after jogging my memory for some facial recognition, I could not for the life of me remember ANY of this. I usually have a pretty strong knack for faces, but I can apparently be pretty spacey at airports too. She proceeded to tell me that after properly “blowing her off,” she got on a separate tuk tuk that rode alongside me, giving me evil eye as I stared off into total oblivion, probably thinking about what I was going to eat for dinner that night.

Anyways, after ALL of that, the universe brought us together literally as bunk bed mates. The serendipitous saga of this friendship continues, but I’ll save those stories for another post.

Back to first impressions of Phnom Penh, a vibe that I can’t quite describe other than a bit strange and unsettling. It wasn’t until I started chatting it up with other travelers at Onederz Hostel that I started to understand I wasn’t alone in that feeling. In the three days I spent there I rarely felt the curiosity to walk around town and explore; in fact, I wanted to cut my time short and get out of town as soon as possible. Though I could easily point to the grimy smells and pollution littering the streets, not to mention the high rate of pick pocketing that happens on tuk tuks alone, there was something very distant and off about the people I encountered on the streets, which naturally triggered feelings of inner distance, confusion and paranoia. This contrasted starkly with what I had imagined only 24 hours earlier.

Calm right before a storm, as pigeons go nuts and chaos fills the air

Calm right before a storm, as pigeons go nuts and chaos fills the air

Nevertheless, my mind was set on making the most of these few days to focus on the reason that brought me here in the first place: to learn about one of history’s most secretive and brutal genocides. And this could be found no further than the Killing Fields and Tuel Sleng Genocide Museum.

Didn’t feel right including that bit here, so if you can handle some real talk on how Cambodia’s genocide went down (and lots more photos as this post was sparse on the visuals), skip ahead to part deux…

Tiffany Wen