First Impressions of Cambodia

Author: Caleb Bjorem   Date Posted: 31 January 2017 

Stifling a cough, as the first wave of thick, dusty steam hit our lungs, it was difficult to pretend that we were anything other than fresh off the plane.

As our tuk-tuk darted through the busy streets of Phnom Penh, we were bombarded with a symphony of city sounds: children laughing, horns tooting, engines competing with the chatter of chickens and ducks. The smell too, was a complex concoction of moto fumes, cooking oil and tropical fruit that had spent the day in the sun. We expected these things. Along with tangled webs of electric wires, questionable street meat and cavalier approaches to road rules that would give your parents a cold sweat, these are the hallmarks of what we label a third world country. As we collapsed into our bed and recapped our first day, there were few surprises.

However, as the week unfolded, and we were whisked around, between trendy cafes and bustling markets, our eyes began to open.

The scents of freshly laid bitumen, roasting coffee and fresh blossoms accompanied a landscape of beautiful monuments, smiling faces and construction projects; new hotels, new shops, new infrastructure everywhere. These things don’t tend to make the final cut of ads and digital media featuring so called under-developed nations. Our vision of Cambodia may well be one of an economy suffocated by its colonial past and a culture torn apart by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, but above all that, or perhaps in spite of it, the new Cambodia is rising. In Phnom Penh, there’s a tangible sense of hope, of eager expectation of what the future may hold. A new generation of students is being educated to bring greater financial stability and independence to the nation, while in the provinces, scores of training programs are creating new industries that will afford Cambodia a more authoritative voice on the ASEAN council.

While we were undeniably excited to undertake such important work alongside the talented Outland Denim seamstresses, we could never have anticipated the joy of watching these women empower themselves through this project. We look forward to seeing what the new generation of Khmer will achieve in Cambodia.