Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Janet and Rick

Cambodia resonates with its French colonial past almost as much as it does its legacy of war. It is the closest you can get to how 1970s Asia would have felt. Cyclos still exist, albeit in far fewer numbers. Many have been replaced by the motorised version: tuk-tuks. You can buy a ‘happy’ (marijuana-laced) pizza on the main drag by the river, if you like getting really happy.

You can just ooze into the totally laid-back environment; drink some cheap beer and wine, swim and luxuriate in the tropical heat. And then, of course, there is the majestic Mekong, cutting through the middle of all of this with a wild nonchalance. All these things together trigger a love affair with the country. It is different to the attraction that many other Asian countries offer. It is less explicable. And this confusing deep attraction to Cambodia hit Australians Janet and Rick like a sledgehammer. They visited Phnom Penh more than a decade ago and it’s kept a hold on them ever since.

Janet said, ‘We didn’t choose to live in Cambodia; it chose us. But I found it intoxicating every time I returned.’ Rick added, ‘I don’t recall ever making a decision—it just happened. We got the house because Janet was coming here for a month or two every year for work.’

‘I like the unpredictability of it,’ Janet said. ‘In Australia, you get on a bus every Monday morning in the rain or whatever and know exactly what is going to happen. Here, you wake up in the morning and you don’t know what is going to happen. You want to leave the house but you can’t because there is a buffalo walking down the street. There is electricity or there isn’t—which I find very frustrating yet exhilarating.’

Rick joked that he just loves the heat, then added, ‘but there is so, so, much more’. Of course Khmer culture is rich. You only have to visit Ankor Wat to understand that. But equally, from a Western perspective, Cambodia is no cultural wasteland either, said Janet. ‘There are films, concerts, plays. There are art openings, performances. There are two websites—one on music, what is on this week, and one on the art scene. And it is incredible; you cannot actually keep up with it all. There are book clubs, choirs, a lot of music. And the restaurants, my god.’

Janet and Rick live in a traditional-style Khmer house that sits on poles and nestles by the Mekong river. The house is less than 30 minutes drive from the centre of the city. Wide verandahs watch over the expanse of the fast-flowing yellow-brown Mekong. Chickens and ducks scratch and quack about the garden. There’s even a goat. The Mekong, this time of year, laps over their lawn. At times it floods back under their house as well—but that’s what the poles are for. And hey, why worry? This is Cambodia.

When we visited it was the end of the wet season in Southeast Asia. The Mekong is swollen both by tropical rains and by the snow that has melted way up in the Himalayas in China—the source of the river. Water from China, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia floods into the river.

It is here, in this house that they built by the river, that Janet and Rick spend leisurely days and warm dreamy nights. The fans turn, the staff brings tea and coffee and the odd drink. They have a driver, gardeners and cleaners.

It is as close as you get to the old days when the French were ‘colons’ in Indo-Chine. Not that Janet and Rick are exploitative. In fact, they continue to employ a number of staff because of concern for their well-being rather than the need for help. But, relative to the poverty about them, they are undoubtedly privileged. They know this only too well.

Janet and Rick not only have a great lifestyle, it’s also meaningful. They are both semi-retired. Janet is a part-time university lecturer and Rick is in the IT game. And they are both deeply involved with the Cambodian people and their lot.

‘But will we stay forever?’ said Janet. ‘Yes and no. Nothing is forever.’

Janet and Rick built their house in 1999 when Janet was travelling regularly to Cambodia for work. Janet said: ‘We are deeply interested, enmeshed in Cambodian relationships and people and institutions . . . We are pretty enmeshed in our village.

Phnom Penh river front

‘But at first we didn’t say we were coming to Cambodia to stay. We built the house with friends because we were coming frequently and because they were here and it sounded like a good thing to do. And it was fun to do—building it—and we thought we couldn’t lose on it.

‘Then my mother came here in 2000 and stayed for a month or two—she was quite elderly at the time, 83—and she said to me one day, “Now I understand you will never come back”. ‘I was really taken aback when she said that. Then we began talking about whether she could possibly come and stay, too.

‘Several friends of our age have brought their elderly mothers—in the three cases we know—to Phnom Penh, and they have had a really wonderful end to their days here. Living with their children in a different situation with lots of support and lots of care. It is a million times better than the opposite which is what they’d have had in Australia. So we were talking about that with my mother, but then she got sick in Australia and died very quickly.’

Janet’s mother’s death in 2001 was another factor behind the permanent shift to Cambodia.

The country is not yet a common destination for Western expats. There are several reasons for this: Cambodia is ‘Asia-tough’ compared to, say, Malaysia which is ‘Asia-easy’. Australians and indeed most other Westerners  are not as knowledgeable about Cambodia, unlike perhaps Bali or Thailand, and there may well be reservations because of the terrible war and cruelty endured by the country late last century. The name given to the area just outside of Phnom Penh where thousands were executed—The Killing Fields—still resonates.

This annoys Janet. ‘It is taking so long for the country to shed this image. And to a certain extent people don’t want it. They want to go beyond that. They don’t want Cambodia to be the Killing Fields anymore.’

‘Apart from the genocide itself, which of course was appalling, every foreign press article about Cambodia has the obligatory paragraph – “Hun Sen former Khmer Rouge strong man, authoritarian, da da da.” That is the boilerplate that just gets dumped in. You just can’t get a view of what is going on without this prism to look through.

‘To describe Hun Sen as former Khmer Rouge – he risked his life to get rid of them and without him they would not be gone today. It is just the wrong cast. Yes, there are elements of it – but it is so judgmental,’ said Janet. Rick added, ‘So much of the population now was born after all that time anyway.’

War, though, has deeply marked Cambodia. This is hard to scrub away. And the Mekong is there always, holding that history. Life today though for the Westerner is cheap and laid-back. Khmer culture is rich, as evidenced by Angor Wat.