Journey: Phnom Penh

Written for impulse online. Read the original piece, here.

 

Only when I was boarding the flight to Phnom Penh, the largest city and capital of Cambodia, I realized that I honestly had no idea what to expect. Almost 23 years after our family’s immigration to Canada, my mom and grandma were finally going back home to the country they were born and raised in, after being forced out so many years ago. A place that I have never heard any stories of until now.

  My grandmother’s younger brother.

My grandmother’s younger brother.

I found out that my mom grew up in her grandmother’s house in the countryside (to this day, I still don’t know what this area is called). She was sent there from the capital because her parents were too busy trying to make a living to take care of their six children. Overlooking a freshwater lake was her new home - identical to the other homes around it. She lived in a giant room where her entire family would cook their meals and sleep. Underneath the room was a tiny farm where they would raise poultry and swine. My great-grandmother's family once thrived on acres and acres of land, which they would eventually lose during the Khmer War. To this day, only the house remains.

  Children playing outside.

Children playing outside.

I also found out how easy it was to feel disconnected in a city that should feel like a second home (after all, family is family, right?). But time in Cambodia moves slow. There’s no sense of urgency once you’ve reached your destination, but for some reason drivers in the city are always incredibly impatient. Like its surrounding countries, masses of bikes and scooters leave little room for anything else on the street, but luxury SUV’s dominate whatever space remains. Then there are the little things. Discretely bribing customs into approving your visas upon landing by hiding US dollars in your passport to hasten entry, your uncle carrying a gun with him every time we went out in public, realizing that there are differently coloured license plates to distinguish a citizen's privilege.


I also found out how easy it was to feel disconnected in a city that should feel like a second home (after all, family is family, right?). For one, time in Cambodia moves slow compared to daily life in Vancouver. Even though there’s no sense of urgency in reaching your destination, the drivers in the city are always incredibly impatient. Like its surrounding countries, masses of bikes and scooters leave little room for anything else on the street and luxury SUV’s dominate the remaining space. Then, there are the little things: discretely bribing customs into approving our visas upon landing by hiding US dollars in our passports to hasten entry, my uncle carrying a gun with him every time we were out in public, and realizing that there are different coloured license plates to distinguish a citizen's status.

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  Top: My great-grandmother’s house, in the countryside. Bottom: My grandmother’s eldest sister.

Top: My great-grandmother’s house, in the countryside. Bottom: My grandmother’s eldest sister.

The countryside of Cambodia was definitely easier to adapt to than the bustle in Phnom Penh. There was no A/C, but sleeping under mosquito nets on the floor, surrounded by eight other bodies in the same small room was surprisingly comfortable - it just felt right. If you looked through the cracks of the wood floor, you could watch the chickens sleeping, too.

  A relative. She refused any money we tried to give her, but she did like the melon candy I had with me. I ended up giving her all five packs.

A relative. She refused any money we tried to give her, but she did like the melon candy I had with me. I ended up giving her all five packs.

Living was made beautiful by its lack of chaos and everyday simplicity. It acted as a memorandum - sometimes it isn’t necessary to look for signs of familiarity, or to become attached to a new place and actually feel at home. It reminded me of how my grandparents eventually relocated their family to live in the refugee camps of Vietnam, and to our lives in Vancouver now. A friendly reminder that home is not a physical entity, but being where your heart is.

  Dinner.

Dinner.