This article is the third in our ‘Digital Nomad‘ series produced by Partner, Heather Scott. Heather is working remotely for GJE from 12 different cities around the world, one month each, with Remote Year.
Remote Year certainly likes to take you from one extreme to the other. Leaving our laid-back month by the sea on Koh Phangan, we were tasked with what can only be described as a 36 hour travel extravaganza involving taxis, a ferry, two buses, two flights, a night in a Thai Travelodge and 7 hours in Bangkok airport, to get to our home for month three, Phnom Penh. The eagle-eyed amongst you will spot that 36 hours is a long time to get somewhere that is only a 3 hour flight away, but such are the joys of travelling in a large group. In fact I can’t help but think it was a wise move as it gave us a more gradual re-introduction to society and a chance to acclimatise back to city life.
That said, nothing can really prepare you for Phnom Penh and I’ll admit to being quite overwhelmed by it all when we got there. I’ve heard the city described as the Wild, Wild West of the Far, Far East – and it certainly made KL feel like a walk in the park. There’s just so much going on all around you, all the time. On the streets, cars speed past you, seemingly buoyed by a continuous sea of scooters (carrying everything from smartly-suited commuters to entire families, pets and even household appliances), punctuated by tuk-tuks. There appear to be no rules – traffic lanes are mere suggestions and even the pavements are fair game. Walking anywhere is a real obstacle course. There’s a constant soundtrack of engines, horns, music from a nearby wedding taking place in the middle of a road, and persistent tuk-tuk drivers hoping for your custom. And on top of that you have the dust, heat and humidity. It all makes every venture out of your front door feel like a major expedition.
But persist, and you shall be rewarded – for Phnom Penh is a city of hidden gems. And one of the good things about travelling in a big group is that between you, you can unearth them pretty quickly. Before long we had found all sorts of coffee shops, cafes and restaurants that any of the big European cities would be proud of – plus peaceful oases in the form of shady courtyard gardens and colonial houses. It also turns out that tuk-tuks aren’t a bad way to get around – just cling on (to the vehicle and to your belongings), and shut your eyes at the intersections.
And while at the moment it feels like these green shoots of regeneration are relatively few and far between, I’m sure that in a few years’ time it will be a quite different story. The city is changing before our eyes, with skyscrapers going up and construction cranes dotting the skyline. One particularly surreal evening, I found myself getting out of a tuk-tuk and into a shopping mall that could have been in any American city, to watch the latest Hollywood release in 4D – yep, none of your standard three dimensions here, thank you. It was more like a theme park ride than a film, and more sophisticated than any Odeon I have set foot in in the UK.
So undoubtedly this is a country looking to the future, and wanting to put its indisputably brutal recent history well behind it. That’s not to say they want it to be forgotten though, and I was surprised to find how willing and open the people I met were to talking about what had happened. Still, it’s hard to get your head round the sheer scale and inhumanity of the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge – even when faced with literally a tower of skeletons, several stories high, now preserved inside a memorial at the Choeung Ek killing fields just outside Phnom Penh, where tens of thousands of people died.
Another area where the devastation wreaked in those four short years, less than 40 years ago, is evident is the coastal region around the towns of Kampot and Kep, where we headed for our first weekend out of the city. Once a popular beach resort, Kep in particular is still a shell of its former self, with empty, derelict villas lining its wide and once-glamorous streets. Kampot seems to be more on the up, full of ice-cream parlours and pizza places with unlikely sounding names (“Ecstatic Pizza”, anyone?), and certainly making the most of its beautiful sweeping river. Nonetheless, visiting the ruins in the national park on Bokor Mountain – home to what was once a world-class resort, and even the King’s holiday retreat – was a sobering experience.
On a happier note, we spent our final weekend visiting a very different set of ruins – the famous temple complexes of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, near the city of Siem Reap. Starting out before dawn, we made it to Angkor Wat in time to see the sun rise over the temple – just us and about 3000 other people with the same idea! I have never seen such a high density of selfie sticks. Nonetheless, the temples themselves more than lived up to expectations. Both huge and intricate at the same time, it is incredible to think how quickly they were built (I am told that Angkor Wat, albeit still unfinished, was constructed in 37 years – only just longer than it has taken to build me). Ta Prohm in particular I found stunning as it has not been cleared of trees or restored so it appears as if it is emerging from the jungle.
All in all, I’ll have to admit that Cambodia was not the easiest of months, combining a steep learning curve with being the most outside my comfort zone I’ve felt yet. But then, Remote Year was never meant to be easy. Speaking of which, how better to end the Asia leg and kick off our three months in Europe than with an Opposition Appeal hearing at the EPO…?