Settling into domesticity in Phnom Penh

Day off, so in some ways, my first day of independent living in Phnom Penh.  It’s already been a hoot in unexpected, exhausting and glorious ways, and the day isn’t done yet.  I’m tired though, might have a nap in a bit.

I spontaneously work about 5 a.m. which was a shame as it was a relatively late night for me and an early start too. I’d booked a free trial at a bootcamp session with Amatak Crossfit Kettlebells Phnom Penh it didn’t feel such an enticing prospect when my alarm went off.  I didn’t know whether or not to eat anything, although really the pont was moot, as I’d only got a few dry biscuits anyway. I also couldn’t decide whether or not to take a malarial pill.  We are off to a homestay at Kratie tomorrow, and that is a malarial region I think.  It would be stupid to have the pills with me and then not take them when needed, but I ws worried about side-effects.  I did take one in the end.

Walking to the crossfit centre at about6.30 it was already hot and heaving with traffic.  I just don’t think running outside is going to be a viable option here.  Not only can you not go very fast anyway because of the traffic, it’s so polluted.  En route you smell sewage, smoke from open fire cooking, petrol fumes.  Litter blows about and putrid puddles left over from rain and ‘improved’ by decomposing vegetables and animal waste are everywhere.  I don’t know why people wear flip flops, I’m extremely glad of my closed-toe keen sandals.  Would mightily recommend those for here by the way.


I arrived at the gym and found it open so wandered in.  It weird, it is very much a minimalist work out space.  Reminds me some gyms I go to where they have a male/macho workout area.  Free weights, mysteriously hanging pull up rings, unspecified wall bars.  The space is large, and high, high up, a sort of canvas covering provides shade, but it’s essentially outside without air conditioning.  Honestly, I didn’t find it friendly, nobody spoke to me when I went in, and it wasn’t clear where to go or what to do.  I felt a bit despondent and discouraged, my training plan is never going to get off the ground at this rate.  I struck up a conversation with one guy, who explained to me that if you have signed up, you just tap in on the tablet on the counter where your name flashes up alongside other attendees.  I did this, and then one of the staff pointed me to changing rooms, which were behind a door that said ‘girls’ I think, which is annoying unless that’s false memory syndrome.  I’d seen the door, but assumed it was just a loo.  In fact, there were good changing rooms, with a loo, lockers (but bring your own lock), showers, and I think complementary liquid soap and shampoo, and thin towels for use.  I spoke to one of the women there and she said it was fine to leave stuff there, and as I didn’t really have a choice, I stuffed my shoes and bag with my cash and keys in it in one of the lockers before stepping back out into the workout area.

At 7.00 ish, one of the coaches, of indeterminate nationality, hauled a semi-portable white board across to a central area.  On it was written a work out plan for bootcamp, and the names of attendees.  A cross fit session was already in progress.  It was all a bit odd.  Not absolutely hostile, but not welcoming at all.  I joined a semi-circle of about 13 of us, feeling self-conscious and in the wrong place.  He then said some new faces, so say your names and where you are from. Which we all did, the majority are Cambodian women, which is a nice surprise.  He never told us anything about himself, such as, oh I don’t know, maybe his name would have been good.  He said we’d have a warm up and this began with a 400 metre run – out the door to the end of the road and back.  Gawd, that was depressing, I found even that hard. You feel like you are breathing in pure toxic fumes.   I am going to be training on a treadmill somewhere for sure, or not make the start at all.  As I returned to the gym, it was at this point the coach did clock I was new, and asked about my ‘general fitness’ and I said, I ran (ahem) at home, but was desperately unfit and hadn’t run for  a while since leaving the UK.  He nodded and walked away.  He never gave  his name or introduced himself, but then nor did he go in with a hard sell or forceful friendliness which can be even worse.

I found the workout really tough.  It’s so hot, and I was pouring sweat.  I’d drunk my half litre bottle of water within the first five minutes.  What we did was pretty simple.  Mostly lunges, jumping on and off a box (I stepped up, it was high and I don’t want to fall off) and doing a dead weight list with a weird cylindrical plate I think he called it that weighed 10kg and was really hard to manoeuvre because of its size as much as anything.  It isn’t made with small sweaty hands in mind.  I did try, but within 5 minutes I just felt hopeless.  Why am I here? Why am I crap?  I can’t do this?  A sort of extreme version of my normal waking thoughts but fitness rather than work related in this instance.  I tried to tell myself that that’s why I need to keep on coming, but I didn’t find it fun, rather isolating.

AFterwards, it was tempting just to leave, but there was a coffee bar attached to the gym which sold really, really good coffee.  I joined a guy already there who had been in the class with his wife.  He was friendly, some high-powered banker/ investor does business consultancy and been in PP for nearly 17 years I think.  He was very positive about the classes, and welcoming.  I felt I grilled him a bit. He and his wife used to do the Hash but he said they do indeed go out in the heat of the day and is very drinking related so not sure yet if I’ll go for that.  Once his wife emerged showered and changed they went, and two younger women appeared. They were great.  We had a fab chat and it really changed how I felt about the whole thing (yes, I know, fickle I am).  They are regulars, but advised go or 10 pass deal rather than monthly one. They reckon by the time you’ve missed a class because it’s full, been ill, been away, had to work whatever, you wont be doing more than 10 a month anyway, and it gives you flexibility.   They are also interested in giving running a go (which is the level i feel I’m at now) and even know the person who leads groups out with the running bong, which gave me the confidence to subsequently message the RB Phnom Penh Facebook page again about beginner runs.  It looks like they may do a Thursday 6.00 a.m. run each week more or less, but I don’t know at what level.  Anyway, that was all well and good, but the really fun thing was we ended up having a pleasingly riotous conversation.  It began with ‘what do you do’ and ended up with one of them saying how she’d just left one job (as a journalist with the Phnom Penh Daily) and was being considered for another as Asia correspondent for some media outlet or other which sounds very impressive.  It involved a Skype interview.  This was offered at such short notice, she only had about 5 minutes to have a shower and throw some clothes on before settling down to her computer with wet hair. She didn’t have time to put on underwear, but honestly who would know via Skype?  unfortunately, the internet connection failed mid-interview.  Desperately wanting the job, she headed off on her motorbike to the nearest place with a connection she could use, reconnected and finished the interview.  ONly afterwards, looking down, did she realise her wet hair had made her white shirt completely see-through.  Worse still, all but a solitary button on her shirt had come undone.  She had basically sat through a job interview with all her assets on show!  I did ask her if I could share the story and she said yes.  So that’s OK.  Love it.  May even add it to my professional repertoire if I ever end up as a Careers Adviser ever again.

She was interesting, her special area of interest is feature items on gender equality, lived experiences of women and things.  I wondered how easy this would be to do through a translator – in Vietnam I remember very clearly a colleague telling me that an American researcher’s work was essentially invalid because no Vietnamese person would speak the truth to a foreigner.  She said for her, it worked OK with interpreters, because women’s experiences were so common, they didn’t see talking about their lives as controversial or political.  She wants to ask about things like how they handle having periods, what did they know before hand.  All sorts really.  Sounds really, really interesting.   Her friend has only been in PP for a few months (that’s still quite a march on me) and works in some sort of media/ marketing capacity for Youth Hostel Association, I think.  She had to go off to work, so I didn’t really get her story, but, she did say she’d be up for the running bong, so we became Facebook friends.  She has also worked teaching English in Korea, mainly to children, but also conversational English to adult refugees from North Korea, wow.  Impressive.  Get me and my networking skills!

The coffee was great, and I felt much better for having met some new people and getting some new options.  I’m not optimistic about this marathon malarkey, but nor am I totally defeated as yet.

I went in search of breakfast, and found the nice cafe near the cellphone shop.  Turns out this cafe yejj or something, is actually a training project.  It’s nice, but I think there are midges there.  I had a really good breakfast though, a cheese omelette (they asked what sort of cheese I wanted, which seemed unusually specific and rather unlikely, but hey ho), and when it came, it was served with toast, butter and a sort of ‘marmalade’ (but not as we know it) which was a bonus.


‘Toast’ here, must be explained. It’s just bread imperceptibly dried out through warming.  Even at hotels with those weird rotating toaster grills, they set the heat really, really low.  However many times you put your bread through, it only ever comes out drier, never browner.  I don’t know why.  The ‘marmalade’ was similarly obscure.  Very sweet, indeterminate fruit, and such an intensity and texture it was a bit like eating a liquidised jelly cube say.  Very odd.  I also had a mango smoothie, because realistically, I don’t think I’ll bother going out to eat again today, so I wanted something substantial. It was fun watching the world go by outside.  Monks with huge shading parasols patrolled past, with their begging bowls covered by their robes.  At one point a garbage lorry tried to pass, but couldn’t get through the unattended tuk tuks.  No worries, the collection team just shunted the offending vehicles out-of-the-way, causing at least one driver to come sprinting out expressing considerable consternation at seeing his vehicle manhandled in this way!

Brunch was good, but it was heating up.  I made my way back through the Russian Market, pausing only briefly to go to a sort of mini-mart, which was pretty disappointing really, but I did get some ovaltine because it is apparently a ‘complete food’ so that’s my independent catering sorted.  I went alongside a section of fruit sellers. The fruits are amazing.  At intervals, I also saw two monks pausing and giving blessing to (mostly women, not sure if that is significant) who bowed their heads politely as the monks intoned in unison.  The monks are fascinating to me, we may get some as students, there seem a lot round here, don’t know where the temple is.  Somewhere around, obviously.  However, it does add a complication to traffic negotiation.  Females must not touch monks, so cultural sensitivity requires that I give them a really wide birth.  As if the road crossing and negotiating wasn’t challenging enough!

Home, shower, and I decided to check out my domestic goddess skills.  I began by doing some washing, including hanging it out on my balcony and waving at my Cambodian neighbours.  I was proud at the skill wtih which I rigged up a washing line.  First time I’ve used my travel washing line (it’s sort of twisted elastic) and you know what, it’s brilliant!  Come into it’s own for sure.

I then celebrated my achievements with a fine cup of ovaltine using both my newly purchase kettle and mug.  I’ve not yet bought a spoon, so unfortunately had to pour ovaltine into the mug and spilt a bit of the powder as I did so. When I returned 15 minutes later, it was absolutely crawling with tiny, tiny ants.  How the hell did they locate that?  It looked like the whole thing was moving!  I haven’t seen a single insect in this flat, but that is the first ‘food’ I’ve had here, and they must have scouts out all the time to have not only found it but have sorted an army of other ants to come and collect it.  I felt mean, because they are only doing what they need to do, but I can’t have that here.  In the absence of any alternative, I gave them a good squirt of Avons ‘skin so soft’ which is reputed to act as a powerful insect repellant though it is not sold as such.  I do declare it to be effective.  It not only liquidated those, but not a single one has ventured back.  I felt cruel, but you have to be so scrupulous about hygiene here, it’s not worth compromising on that.  Same reason why I wont befriend or touch any animal, no matter how piteous.  I don’t want a repeat of the poor dogs in Vung Tau it’s hard sometimes though.


So that was that, did get my sheets done, and they dried almost straight away in the sun. Unfortunately they also re-filthed themselves by dragging across the balcony, but at least they smell fresh and are sweat free for a bit at least.  Oh, and here is a gratuitous shot of just some of the plug sockets in the bathroom, there are four in total.  Don’t you just love the giddy thrill of juxtaposing electricity and water when you are naked and vulnerable?  Me too!


Tomorrow, we head off for three nights to see the CRDP at Kratie.  I don’t think there will be electricity there, but we shall see.  I’m a little apprehensive, I fear it might be room sharing but it’s probably good for me to have to do this.  I’ll take a book, and pen and paper, and hopefully, we can all get to gel more as a group. Two of our number have chosen not to come.  One has his mum here and the other feels a need for a period of settling in after a long time travelling.  Fair enough.  I feel I’d like to settle a bit too, but I also want to take up the opportunity for some organised travel plus the other volunteers on the project are my support network too, it will be good to get to know them better and share some adventures along the way.  Eek.  I can’t believe how much has happened in the last few weeks.  I even more can’t believe how much more is still to come.  Eek indeed!


One response to “Settling into domesticity in Phnom Penh

  1. Pingback: Running by osmosis – a marathon not a sprint… | Cambodia Calling·

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