Cambodia: First Days

January 15th, 2008

“I’ve been here six hours,” I told the kid, a gregarious teen who said he was walking some UN woman’s dog.

“No way, man, you’re kidding me, man. Six hours, that’s crazy, man!” He was full of American slang, picked up, he assured me, in church. He asked if I believed in Jesus.

I lost him to his dog walk when a laughing cyclo driver pulled up beside me. It was Sot (forgive the phonetic spelling), the same guy Mike, Mindy, and I rode with a year ago. He said he’d seen her here again–of course, because she moved here to work. Last year Mindy spent some time with Sot, learning he’d lost something like nine members of his family to the Khmer Rouge. He told me in one week he was leaving for the countryside to see his 20 year-old son married.

Shortly, I found myself in the park along Sihanouk Blvd. where families were “working out,” couples were watching the fountains and playing badminton. I was just soaked in sweat and in a jet-lag-travel daze. This was the same park I moto-ed away from my last night in Phnom Penh last year; one of the prostitutes I’d photographed earlier that day recognized me and called out. I had wanted to stop but was so exhausted I just waved back. My moto driver laughed at me. (at left: Sot, the cyclo driver)


I’ve now been here nine hours. I’m still sweating while eating noodles down the street from the guest house and thinking–I’m back. All this work has come to fruition and now the real challenge begins: produce media; not just good media, but something that will engage, positively, even those who consciously look away.


After a long-needed night’s rest, I woke at dawn and headed to the Olympic Stadium for a run. I did laps and ran the stairs while the Khmer did aerobics on the stadium rim. I was half asleep and drenched with sweat–I’m still perspiring while writing in the shade–but it’s been nearly a week since I exercised and it felt good. I’ve simply been too busy; I was down to counting hours while still a week before departure. (at left: the guest house and new ‘home office’)


I ran into Sot again as I wandered past Toul Sleng, the old school used by the Rouge to torture and kill thousands. Tourist motos were lined up outside, shaded from the afternoon sun by the aging buildings. Two young women watched as Sot and I spoke again about his son’s wedding. He then penned my name in Khmer on a vinyl cover on his cyclo, pointing out Mindy’s name as well. I’d loaned him my pen and had to remove it from his hand to get it back. “No moneee, no food. Many children,” he kept on saying. “I working Phnom Penh, family Kompong Cham, need monee, monee, monee.”

I was out wandering and didn’t need a cyclo ride, maybe later I can hire him. I didn’t want to upset the relationship we had ‘established’ and revert to simply being a fare to him. But it’s hard too–a few dollars to me is a lot more to him and he works hard on his cyclo, pedaling people around in this heat.

I caught up with the women as they negotiated a busy street crossing. In another one of those “travel moments” we became friends and found ourselves exploring the confines of the Russian market and sharing our stories. We shared a tuk-tuk back towards the riverfront and their guest house. Facing backwards, I watched a foreigner on a bicycle with a blue helmet and gray climbing pack ride the opposite direction; it was Mindy.

We have emailed a bit so I know we narrowly missed each other this morning at the Olympic Stadium (she’s there before the sun rises!), but so far it’s like seeing a ghost. A once-close friend who is here, but not. I would like to get it sorted out, although I’m not sure she does. (at left: momentary friends)

I jumped off at Street 278, an enclave of hotels and restaurants catering to foreigners, while my new friends went on their way. There I met Pat Roe, the sole in-country representative of Clear Path International, an NGO working on non-medical aftercare of land mine victims. We shared both flights from Seattle (SEA) to Phnom Penh (PNH) but we only had vague descriptions of each other and she was intimidated by all the cross-wearing missionaries I was surrounded by. They were extremely nice folks, but I had no idea just how commercial Christian-themed apparel is today. (at right: random local noodle house)

I’m not working with Clear Path but I am starting to think there might be some cool stories there; my hardest task here will be to remain focused. I am hoping my editor friends and fellow photogs back home will be able to help.

Over drinks and diner we shared our backgrounds, she gave me numerous tips on things like internet spots, non-tourist moto prices and how to negotiate them, good restaurants, and some info on the international tribunal for Khmer Rouge crimes against humanity.

As I told her about the work I was doing–something she knows a lot about–she commented “I find trafficking issues so depressing. I’m actually glad I work on land mine issues.”

We paused and had a good laugh. It is absurd how relative scale is. Here in Cambodia, as an NGO worker (or journalist), the scale by which one measures human suffering is oddly twisted.

In the states, we don’t need to think about these things. Here, it is common place. Shortly before leaving I breezed through the climbing gym and heard two extremes: pride and encouragement for coming here and at the other end “I just don’t want to hear about it, it’s too difficult.”

So, again, I come back to the challenge–how to tell the story in an emotionally engaging way that doesn’t traumatize the viewer and leaves them with a feeling of hope, possibility, and the knowledge they can do something. (at left: traffic)

Pat asked me if trafficking victims can ever really live normally again. That was a hard question because I work with and know incest, sexual assault, and domestic violence survivors.

A survivor said to me once, “I forgot that I’m strong. I forgot who I can be when I find my voice…Just remember that the victim will always with be me.”

What is normal? For the survivor, normal is always having that victim buried deep within. There is a before and an after but it doesn’t make one any less of a person.

I think normal is having hope while struggling for survival, it just depends on your relative scale. Here it may be living with AIDS and turning tricks to survive. In the States it might be living tightly in order to make payments on your house and struggling with the stress financial strain puts on relationships. For a climber, it may be the push for more, bigger, bad-ass climbs when survival literally comes down to your skill, strength, and downright luck. “Normal” depends on where you’re standing. (at right: outside the Russian Market)

Pat and I continued our dialog and found–not surprisingly–that our understanding and sense of duty are quite similar. Back home life is “easy” and it is common to become inured to the maladies of the world; and yet people do care, we just need to find a way to inform and to leverage that concern.

And that brings me back to what Bill Gates was saying on Thursday during the interview: for we, the privileged, it is our moral duty to help the poor.

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  1. Marshall says:

    Very well written Tim. Good luck keeping focussed and away from distractions. There are so many (like blogging for instance). Although you should keep that distraction going. You writing style is intensely personal and often quite insightful. Maybe too personal at times, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.


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