Return to Cambodia
It has been two weeks since my return to my adopted city and I can say that this return is both strange and bittersweet. Strange because the city had changed a lot in the few years of my absence. I saw it the moment I arrived, on the drive from the airport to my hotel. The new fly-over, and another currently being built, the towering buildings rising amidst their more humble neighbors, and the traffic that choked the roads with SUVs, tuktuks and motorcycles.
When I last saw Cambodia in 2011, there were only a couple of malls in Phnom Penh, and no cinema that showed English movies. Now there are at least 3 new malls, each with its own number of cinemas that could rival the best cinemas in Bangkok, Kulala Lumpur, and Manila. On my first Sunday here, I watched “Chappie” in one of the cinemas of Aeon Mall. It reminded me of the cinemas in Bangkok and Makati, though I must say that the seats were a tad uncomfortable.
And because there are now malls, there are now more shopping options for Cambodians. Many foreign brands are now available here. From the high-end to the more affordable ones. Some even from the Philippines like Penshoppe. Going around the mall, one could marvel at how far Cambodia has come economically.
However, as soon as one steps out of the mall and goes around the more modest corners of the city, one cannot help but wonder how inclusive this new economic growth really is. Whether this new affluence is a bubble or not is a matter of debate. One that I wouldn’t want to be involved in. After all, even my own government is bragging our economy’s supposed robust growth and this growth seems felt by only by a small part of the population.
This could be the bittersweet part of my return but there is also another reason why I am feeling this way. One of the people who had been very kind to me in my last 6+ months here in Cambodia in 2010 is returning to the Philippines for good. One other friend has returned to Australia while another, whom I cherish like the brother I wished I had is moving to Uganda in 3 months. The Cambodia veterans are beginning to leave one by one.
I was fortunate to be able to attend her send-off party, wherein I saw almost all the people I knew from way back in one fell swoop. However, on her date of departure, I wasn’t able to see her off because I was in the province doing field work. And because I’m in the office 5 days a week, I try to fill my weekends with meet-ups with friends. Just a few moments ago, I was arranging another breakfast meeting with friends and I realized that I seemed to be setting these appointments in a panic mode.
Well, it’s because of this sinking feeling that it will be a long time before I see them again. This makes me sad, even if I am confident that our friendship will weather this distance as it has for years now. My assignment will bring me back to Cambodia a few more times in the next two years, but it won’t be the same without these people.
So while I can, I am trying to mint new memories I can keep in the pockets of my mind and heart. To tide me over in my lonely times.