“Tourist, madame?” asks my Khmer masseuse mid-pummel. I have to think for a second. “Yes” I state with a slight pang of regret. “How many days you stay?” she asks. “Four” I reply. Just another barang visiting for a few days. Niceties quickly over, the massage resumes and it hits home that I no longer call Cambodia home.
The sun sets in Phnom Penh
We left Phnom Penh six months before this return trip, and ever since, the memories of anything negative I once associated with my old home slowly dissipated. In their place, the positive memories grew and grew until they took on an elevated status of the best time I ever had in the best place in the entire world! Time, distance (ok, just a little bit of distance) and a whole lot of selective memory had transformed Phnom Penh into a holy grail of happiness and sunshine, to the extent that I was certain to be setting myself up for dissapointment upon going back.
The trip started off with a rush of excitement upon spotting all the things I missed. The view of the Tonle Sap out the plane window as we landed, the frangipani trees in bloom, the smiley Khmer faces, the slow pace, the crumbling charm of certain buildings and orange-robed monks wandering the streets collecting alms. How could I have left here for big, bustling Saigon? I wondered.
We spent the next few days getting reacquainted with our favourite places. We ate, we drank, we shopped, we reunited with people we knew and answered many a question about our now big baby who was a tiny 3 month old when we left.
From the time we arrived to the time we left, something inside me switched. While I’d built Phnom Penh up to be the epicentre of everything that is great, it came crashing down piece by piece during my stay. It’s hard to pin down exactly what caused my mindshift, but several things were like a slap in the face wake up call. Like filthy children sleeping on the pavement. The legless and armless being wheeled along the riverfront. The scruffy begging kids. The piles of rubbish on the unkempt streets. The groups of dodgy policemen looking for people to pull over for bribes (“We need money for beer!” they used to say to us). All these things I do not miss, and for some reason they looked more prevalent than ever. I’m still not sure if there were more beggars and homeless people than before, or if I’d become so used to them living in the Penh that I’d filtered them out. The city seemed a little more desperate; a little more dusty. There was a sense of emptiness, too, as it hit home that most of our close friends had now left. We passed one couple’s old apartment on the riverfront, a site of many a party and now dark, shut and with no sign of life. Our friends have moved on and time has too.
On this trip I experienced some kind of closure and a newfound appreciation of everything my new home offers that Phnom Penh doesn’t. I did have a fun time and will return again and again to Phnom Penh, and it will always hold a special place in my heart, but I think I needed this trip back to concentrate on the new chapter in my life and begin a new love affair – this time with Saigon.