Reflections on Cambodia: Year One

17 07 2012

 As we near the one year mark of service in Cambodia, I’ve spent a fair amount of time processing the experience. As the days and months pass, I simultaneously seem to understand more and less about the complexities of this country and its fragile future. Although I could never speak with any authority on what Cambodia truly is, I’ve put together the following list of things Cambodia has become to me. I hope it provides insight into this place and the twelve life-changing months I’ve spent here.


Cambodia is a friendly smile and a nervous laugh. A “hello,” shouted from the rice paddies. It’s the hushed murmur of “barang” as you pass by, and the demanding “Moak bee na?” from a stranger. Cambodia is a string of small children chasing your bike. And a moto driver who stops to stare.

Cambodia is the smell of urine. Of fermented fish and rotting meat. It’s vomit on a long bus ride or the oniony scent of the country’s most beloved fruit. It’s incense burning near a spirit house.

Cambodia is pork with rice. Soup with rice. Noodles with rice. Cambodia is rice with rice.

Cambodia is the sound of roosters in the mornings and dogs at night. The monks’ rhythmic chanting drifting from the wat. It’s the discordant sounds of a wedding or a funeral. Dishes clinking next door or a baby crying. Cambodia is Pitbull and K*Pop, Karaoke and Prom Manh. It’s that same female voice, shrill and submissive, blaring from the TV. Cambodia is the deafening sound of a monsoon falling on the roof. And it’s a silence, a devastating silence, when voices should be heard.

Cambodia is the one glass eye watching everything you do.

Cambodia is emerald fields and killing fields. Disappearing forests and lakes filled with dirt. It’s a flood that ruins the crops. Cambodia is border wars and broken promises. It’s a billion dollars of aid and discouraging results.

Cambodia is 3,000 NGOs. It’s expats in coffee shops and sexpats in brothels. It’s bodyguards in the most exclusive of night clubs. It’s flocks of tourists, “Tuk tuk, lady,” and markets filled with cheap souvenirs. Cambodia is children begging on the streets. Amputees and orphans. It’s mediocre Western food.

Cambodia is its history. Cambodia is Angkor Wat.

Cambodia is a delicate balance of optimism and fatalism. It’s stories of the Khmer Rouge told in a whisper. It’s cheap beer and men who can’t hold their liquor. Cambodia is rovul taking afternoon naps in hammocks and sipping iced coffee on red plastic stools.

Cambodia is whitening creams and painted nails. Bright colored shirts adorned with lace and beads. It’s flexible fingers stretching backward, feet shuffling as music plays. It’s orange robes or bare bellies. Sampots and collared shirts, or tight tops and miniskirts.

It’s traffic and trafficking. Five on a moto and a truck piled high. It’s tai chi as you cross the street. It’s hanging on for dear life.

Cambodia is bats and spiders, snakes and mice. So many damn mice. It’s monkeys and elephants, lizards and butterflies. It’s plankton that glow in the dark.

It’s protractors and white out. Perfectly straight lines and meticulously taken notes. A sea of blue and white as children parade to school. Cambodia is a head ducked with respect, a face that’s been saved. Cambodia is so many vowels that all sound the same.

It’s squat toilets and no toilet paper. Stilted houses and burning trash. It’s life in a garbage dump, in its most literal sense. Cambodia is open defecation. It’s polluted rivers and a toxic lake.

Cambodia is rice farmers. Factory workers. Small business owners. Cambodia is a yay with a checkered kroma tied on her hairless head. A grandfather speaking French under his breath. It’s a teacher trying to do the right thing. A mother standing up for her community. Cambodia is a seller in the market, giving a discount and a smile. It’s a tour guide, beaming with pride.

Cambodia is exhilarating, inspiring and exhausting.

And, for now, Cambodia is my home.





13 responses

17 07 2012

Wow. I’ve never been to Cambodia but I can see the mix of love and heartbreak that you have for the country. It makes me want to go there and see it for myself.

17 07 2012

Congrats on one year down and thank you for putting into words what I haven’t been able to do yet. Good luck on year two, it will fly by!

18 07 2012
David Kierski


You nailed it.

Keep making Cambodia the best Peace Corps country there is.

Dave Kierski

18 07 2012

Katie, I just re-read this again. Thank you for this ~ you put it all so well in words… gives me goosebumps as that is exactly the country I lived in for 2 years. Best to you and the remainder of your service…. – Stephanie B. -K2

18 07 2012

Thank you so much for your comments. I’m so glad you all found something in this that resonates with you. I’m looking forward to learning more about Cambodia over the course of the next year!

20 07 2012
Jill Preston

Omg I’m crying so beautiful. I’m reposting this <3

20 07 2012
Jill Preston

Reblogged this on jill in the world and commented:
By Katie Muller

21 07 2012

had to repost this post via my blog as well! well written, katie! cheers!

30 07 2012
Arnoldo Hurtado Escobar

I have a knot in my throat after reading this. Re-post on my blog FOR SURE!
why can’t I write like this?!!! damn you

7 08 2012
I Couldn’t Have Said it Better… « Tea and Oatmeal

[…] My fellow PCV, Katie, is one of the most thoroughly articulate and insightful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. This is her post on what Cambodia has become to her. It’s a gorgeous piece of the english language, from an equally gorgeous person, and I find myself not being able to agree with it more. You were a fundamental part of my Peace Corps service, Katie-dear. Reflections On Cambodia: Year One. […]

31 12 2012
Celebrating the Highlights of 2012 « TimKat's Travels

[…] milestone for those of us who had reached the one year mark, welcoming the new group of volunteers to Cambodia reminded us all of how much we had learned […]

3 09 2013
Cambodia (still) is… | TimKat's Travels

[…] July of last year, I wrote a post about all of the things Cambodia had come to mean to me after one year in country. It quickly […]

22 10 2013
Our Favorites | TimKat's Travels

[…] Reflections on the Kingdom of Wonder […]

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