Wednesday, 25 June 2008

From Phnom Penh bar, a writer views Boston

At close of Asian trip, putting life and home in perspective

(Isabelle Lesser photo for Oxfam America) So Sophal and her sisters transplant rice seedlings on their father's farm in Kandal province, Cambodia.
Posted by Kenneth Kaplan
June 24, 2008

Andrea Perera, a resident of Roslindale, is a writer for Oxfam America, an international relief and development agency. Together with a small team from the organization’s communications and programs departments, she recently traveled throughout Cambodia and Vietnam to collect stories about Oxfam’s work in the region.

By Andrea Perera
June 20, 2008

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The name on the sign says Maxine’s Pub, but the locals here call this Snowy’s bar. Owned by an Australian who came to Cambodia more than a decade ago, it’s my last stop in Phnom Penh after three weeks in Southeast Asia.

It always happens this way. I spend the first few days missing home, my routine, my husband. But then it gets to the halfway point, and all of a sudden, time moves too quickly and I start to miss the place I’m about to leave.

This is my third trip to Cambodia in as many years. Of all the places I’ve visited, this is probably my favorite. For a country that is among the poorest in the world, which has such a traumatic recent history, there is a genuine kindness to the people. Cambodians smile at strangers on the street. They show respect during every interaction. They laugh easily, and take pleasure in good food and company.

I’m thinking of all this while sitting on a deck at Snowy's that overlooks the waters of the Tonle Sap River. I’m taking in the sunset with my colleague, Isabelle, a freelance photographer. We have spent all day in the Kandal and Kompong Speu provinces interviewing and photographing rice farmers under the glaring sun. Before that, we had spent five days in Mondulkiri province learning about gold mining in the region. We’re exhausted. But having survived the heat, the rain, the mosquitoes, and a 25-mile moto ride through the jungle, we agreed that my last night in Cambodia should be spent at Isabelle’s favorite bar.

She has been here five years. Half Belgian, half Israeli, she speaks fluent French, Flemish, English, some Hebrew, and a good amount of Khmer. In other words, she’s pretty much your typical ex-pat in Phnom Penh. There are so many NGO workers, reporters, and artists here. Most of them come from America, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia. They know each other, have dated each other, rent apartments near each other. It’s a very small world.

As I’m considering this, a man sitting to my right who had just set down his Sony Playstation asks me where I’m from. Although I am at a bar, a woman sitting alone, I know this is no pick up line. First of all, I look like I’ve been slogging through rice paddies all day. Second, he looks like he genuinely wants to know where I’m from. We talk, and I learn that he is Israeli, from Tel Aviv. He came here four months ago, fell in love with a Cambodian woman, and has now decided to stay indefinitely. He’s living out of a hotel for $10 a night. He studied music in Pasadena, California, not far from where I grew up. He had visited friends who went to Berklee in Boston.

(Isabelle Lesser photo for Oxfam America)We met Van Yom while he was busy working his rice farm in Kandal province, Cambodia.

When Isabelle rejoins us, she brings along a few people she’s met from inside the bar. I introduce her to my new Israeli friend. They share some words in Hebrew. She introduces me to the woman who works as a communications officer at one of the UN’s local programs. She’s Australian, a former newspaper reporter of four years in Sydney. We have a quick, easy conversation, talking about our shared experiences transitioning from journalism to communications work at an NGO. We bond over the complicated internal signoff processes for our stories, and talk about missing the urgency of real deadlines.

In just a few minutes, I have met more people with shared interests than I would typically meet during several months at home. As a visitor here, I’m realizing that I’ve adopted the openness that comes with being far from home. How come I’m not like this in Boston? Maybe everyone here makes more of an effort because they are away from their families, and the friendships they make will sustain them through all the low points -- the random bouts of illness, bad days on the job, and the everyday negotiations of living life in another language. On the good days, these friends will become as close as family, and they will know each other long after they’ve gone.

It’s gotten dark and the mosquitoes are biting. I remember the sad mound of clothes that need packing back at my hotel. Isabelle negotiates a $2.50 ride on a tuk tuk -- a sort of motorized rickshaw -- back over the Japanese Bridge into the heart of Phnom Penh. As we rush past moto cyclists and cars, I take in the crazy traffic patterns, the temples, the framed photos of the royal family, the evening heat. I will miss this place. I will miss the perspective I get when I come here, the sense of gratitude I come to feel for the comforts of my home, the wealth of my country. No matter what problems I leave behind when I come to Cambodia, three weeks later, they seem trifling compared to the everyday concerns of the people I’ve met.

With my hotel in sight, I jump out of my tuk tuk and swing my backpack over my shoulder. I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had on this trip. Perhaps I will be back again. If so, I will go to Snowy’s on my first night, and try to remember that I always miss this country once I leave. That might get me through that first lonely week and a half.

For more information about Oxfam America and its work, please visit their website at For information on how you can contribute to the Passport blog, please contact the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at


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