Today marks the eighth day since my girlfriend Shalma and I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This entire endeavor was in many ways committed to on a lark. I am not sure where the story really starts. Maybe it began with my longing for my carefree years of traveling skint around Europe and the Middle East in my late teens and early twenties. For the sake of this story, it begins on the 11 September 2015, the day I was hit by a car on my motorcycle, a 2014 Triumph Tiger XC. After spending the last year and a half recovering, it was time to move onto newer things.
My old friend Dimitri, a Greek national who I have known for at least two decades, had already been here for a year and a half. He suggested I come around. Longing for the tropical weather because it seems to help with the residual pain of breaking seven vertebrae, I had considered spending more time in Central America. However, I have always longed to go experience life in Southeast Asia. I have wanted to go to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia for years. My biggest dream was to check these places out by motorcycle.
Shalma (my girlfriend) has been in the freight forwarding business for the last couple years, so we looked at shipping my bike here. Dimitri, however, warned me that the traffic in Cambodia was way too complicated–and the streets too small–for such a large motorcycle. I decided to mothball my bike and get another after we arrived. I have since gone on the search for a little Honda XR250 or CRF 250, the details of which I will get into below. First, we needed to get situated for the long haul.
Our intentions are to get a feel for Phnom Penh, and Cambodia in general, for a month or so before looking for work. Dimitri had invited us to stay at his place for the first couple of weeks. Centrally located, he lives kitty-corner to the infamous Tuol Sleng S21 prison turned genocide museum. Dimitri was a very gracious host, and we decided to look around for apartments while he was at work just to get a feel for what is out there. Within a couple days of looking, we found a great place: a brand new apartment in the Riverside area of Phnom Penh. Here we are surrounded by some of the most beautiful architecture and raucous nightlife.
The next piece on my agenda was to find a motorbike for regular transportation. The tuk tuks in Phnom Penh are cheap, but two dollars here and three dollars there adds up pretty quickly. We have walked between four and six miles every day over the last week, which is tricky in a city that is mostly void of pedestrians. Sure, there are sidewalks, but they have all been relegated as motorbike parking by this point. Its a treacherous game of Frogger out there, and you’re the frog in this city.
Shalma and I walked around to a couple motorbike shops. I saw a three-year-old CRF 250 for 3600 dollars, a new one for 5600, and a couple of XRs in the same price range. The Khmer salesman at the shop told me that bike was too big for me. If only he saw what I rode back home!! After some looking, we came across a highly recommended mechanic called Lyda who has a couple bikes for sale for considerably less money. I found an XR250 that will suit me, and I have been making payments for the couple days. I am, like many expats, limited by the amount of money I can take out of the bank in a day. I will be able to pick up the bike the day after tomorrow, right on time for the weekend.
In the meantime, Shalma and I have been busy setting up our place. We sort of embrace a minimalist lifestyle and are excited that we do not own too many things. In fact, we have been talking about the few things we stored back home and I think we both wish we got rid of it all, especially since we are already enjoying the lack of things. But I digress. The main thing that we have been trying to do is stay as cheap as possible. Most of the things that can be found in the US or Europe can be found here. While it is rather easy to live here cheaply, if you want to completely maintain your western lifestyle, things come at a premium. You can shop at the Aeon mall and pay twenty dollars for a cutting board or get a better one made of solid wood for less than four dollars at Central Market.
Yesterday Shalma and I made a payment on the motorbike and decided to do our first truly touristy bit since our arrival; we went to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. There are actually many killing fields around Cambodia from the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Between 1975 and 1979 the regime led by a former teacher called Pol Pot exterminated roughly one in four people in this country. The Khmer Rouge, having clearly not read The Wealth of Nations (or not believed in Adam Smith’s hypothesis), believed that the way forward for Cambodia was to go to a completely agrarian society.
The Khmer Rouge emptied all the cities of its inhabitants and engaged in a brutal ethnic cleansing spree that was largely inspired by China’s Great Leap Forward. Seeing educated people–including intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, people living in cities–as a threat to an agricultural utopia, the Khmer Rouge began rounding people up, torturing them, and then using various methods to dispatch them. They also sought to wipe out other ethnicities from Cambodia, including countless ethnic Chinese people who had long been part of the fabric of Cambodian society. For the most part they avoided using firearms for executions as to save bullets, which were supposedly costly. Choeung Ek is one of the places where people were murdered and varied en mass. Below is a picture gallery with captions.
Overall, visiting the killing fields was by far more emotionally draining than I had ever imagined it would be. After two hours there, Shalma and I hardly spoke to each other. While I realize the macabre nature of genocide tourism, I believe it is important to see what humans are capable of; all they need is an excuse, be it nationalism, utopianism, or the myth of an existential threat. We have seen ethnic cleansing and genocide all over the word, from the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population to the eradication of millions of Native Americans in the US. The nationalist impulses that can spark such events are often grandly accepted, be it by those who voted for President Trump, American arming of anti-semitic nationalists in Ukraine, or international support for the continued ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.
On a lighter note, from here on out I hope to post not only more pictures and commentary on life here in Cambodia, but I am very excited to share our upcoming motorcycle explorations. We are currently trying to decide whether to go to Angkor Wat or down to somewhere south by the sea.