Jo is a regular at blogging at her daily musings. We recently connected at a blogging networking event and has taken on role at Queen Superior intern over at our newest project, Pure Wander. She’s done some incredible things travel-wise and wanted to share her great Cambodia story with the world!
Walking through mountains of garbage in Phnom Penh’s municipal landfill when I was 16 on a three-day mission trip with school; I was trying not to breathe in the foul air but yet holding the hand of a beautiful six-year old little girl, my heart was torn. I knew I had to come back. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to take a year off school and live in Phnom Penh. After a lot of planning and convincing my family of my ridiculous request, I became a teacher assistant for first grade in an international school. That was over four years ago and still this day, I am reminded on a daily basis of my journey throughout the year; all my adventures and lessons learnt.
During my year in Phnom Penh, it was almost as if I adopted a few different versions of myself and was able to see the city through a variety of lenses. That was by far the most magical part, to experience all that PP had to offer with different groups of people. I had friends ranging from foreign teachers and local Cambodians, to couch surfers and backpackers.
Living the expat teacher life
I lived with four of my co-workers from the UK, Canada and the US. I was constantly surrounded by people who didn’t have to learn a new language or culture to communicate, at least until you are more comfortable with the language. In Hong Kong, I grew up in an international school and was influenced by Western ideals my whole life, thus, I should’ve felt right at home with comfort and ease when I spent time with them but that wasn’t the case.
We had a big house, a helper to aid us with the cleaning and cooking, and enough money to eat at some of the most expensive restaurants in town. We went for brunch in five star hotels over the weekend, and spent those gorgeous sunny days by the pool with 30 dollar entrance fees every time. With all that top-notch living, there was still something missing so I began to reach out to the local Cambodians in hopes of learning more about their daily life in their home country.
The local Cambodian community
Like a pin drop on Google maps, I removed myself away from spending all my free time with Westerners and dropped myself in the heart of the local scene. I took trips to the suburbs, had delicious meals in hole-in-the-wall restaurants where only Cambodians frequent, ate barbecued insects as snacks, and tried to fit in without speaking Khmer. Actions speak louder than words, and I definitely showed the community my passion and interest to understand them but without language communication, there’s only so much I can learn.
One of my biggest regret is not spending more time to learn the language. Growing up in Hong Kong, my family spoke to me in Cantonese and English while I learnt Mandarin in school and in an online class like Chinese tuition in Singapore. Spending majority of my time at work, I never had the opportunity to fully learn Khmer, only enough to get around with the moto and tuk tuk drivers. With that being said, I had some of the best experiences with them. I can only hope that I was able to give them the joy and happiness that someone is truly trying to learn about who they really are with no strings attached. That’s what traveling is really about. Learning, understanding and finding beauty in everyone’s story.
I joined couch surfing that year as a way to meet more people aside from work and my Khmer friends. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Couch surfers are a very unique group of people, everyone has a very high level of trust in each other especially if one is hosting or surfing. They were very adventurous and accepting of all kinds of people. I met some of my closest friends that year, we use to hold weekly meet ups and parties for ourselves as well as travelers coming through.
Everything is operated through the website. Travelers can request to stay with local couch surfing hosts, or simply attend events hosted in each location. As members, we have the ability to vouch and write references for everyone we meet, thus allowing us to keep each other more accountable. A free community based fully on hospitality, most members of couch surfers simply enjoy being with people and sharing life stories together. It’s one of the best ways to travel with a budget and fully dive into the local community.
One great thing about being an expat is that everywhere I went, I would make friends with other expats. We had a commonality of being the outsider in Phnom Penh. In a club one night, I began talking to a few Australian folks who I ended up spending my last two months in Cambodia with. They considered themselves “backpackers” although few of them had been living there for quite a few months. They lived in hostels on Beoungkok Lake, also known as the “Lake side”. It was a popular backpacker dig with many hostels, pubs and the best place to watch the sunset. The life they lived differed so drastically compared to what I had experienced throughout my year, many of them taught English earning just enough money for their room, food, and drinks; the definition of living in the moment. Almost every day for two months, I headed over to Lake side after work and spent the evening as carefree as I’ve ever been. We sat on the patio night after night drinking cool Angkor beers, talking and watching the sunset. It became a family, I knew exactly where to find them when I needed them. Till this day, few of them have moved home to new adventures, but many of them still live in Phnom Penh living the dream.
Since my gap year, I’ve learnt the way to ‘travel’ when I don’t have the ability to physically go somewhere, is to immerse myself into different communities of people. Not only did I meet some of the most amazing people that year, I also experienced Phnom Penh in ways I’d never imagine. If there’s one advice I’d give to everyone, it would be to never lose an opportunity to step foot into someone else’s life even if it’s just for a day no matter how uncomfortable you are with it.
The reward will always be greater than your fear.