First Person

36 Hours in Phnom Penh

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A woman rides her motor bike through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America
A woman drives a motor bike through the busy streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Brett Eloff for Oxfam America.

Last June, I spent my final night in Cambodia taking in the sunset over the Mekong River. We had just returned from a grueling trip to interview traditional gold miners in Mondulkiri province; I was covered in dust, sore from the motorbike ride, and generally ready to sleep on a hotel mattress.

But, I’d had so much fun on the trip, whipping through the forests, slipping up through dry creek beds, I was feeling a surprising bit of apprehension about going home. So, in an effort to eke out one last memorable evening, I agreed to stop in Phnom Penh at what the locals called Snowy’s bar. This is where all my expat friends said they went to chill out and escape the constant hustle and bustle of city life. After the trip I’d just been on, and three weeks in general running around the region, I understood the allure. Perched on a stool on the open-air deck, I watched the boats float by and the sky turn a soft shade of orange.

Soon, Snowy himself came out to chat with his customers. And the chatter turned to a recent visit by the New York Times. A reporter was doing a “36 Hours in Phnom Penh” travel feature. And Snowy’s – or Maxine’s Pub as the sign says – was about to get discovered… much to the locals’ chagrin.

A couple months later, I’m back in Boston, and my life is back to its normal 9-5 routine. No exciting trips abroad. No drinks on the riverfront on the other side of the world. As a creature of habit and a homebody, that suits me just fine. But when the Times finally published its 36 Hours article recently, reading it made me miss that other life.

I always struggle to capture what it’s like to travel for Oxfam; maybe it’s just that I’m on my own, doing things that go against my instincts, taking risks that for me can be big and sometimes scary. Those are the field visits that make up 95 percent of my trip, where I’m reporting on the communities Oxfam is helping, like the rice farmers participating in savings-led microfinance programs in rural Cambodia or the fishermen replanting mangroves along Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.

But then there are the hours between the road trips, or the nights before the plane rides, when someone from our local office in Phnom Penh opens up their home or shepherds me around town for food and sight-seeing. Those days, and the ones where I take my backpack and hire a tuk tuk to take me around on my own, those are the ones where I feel less like an outsider looking in, and more like an annual visitor returning to my favorite places.

Speaking of favorite places, the Times article captured many of them — from the Russian Market where you can buy anything cheap, to the spa with the best massages, to the museums that convey the history no one should forget. Reading the article, clicking through the photos, brought back memories. And it reminded me of the people I’ve met, who let me into their homes to interview them. Even after I’ve left them, and returned to my air-conditioned office a world away, it’s their stories, their country, that I seek to honor. Most of the time I feel like I’m not doing them justice. But each trip I make, I feel like I learn a little more, and reflect back a better understanding of it all. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+