Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts so great that it shocks many first-time visitors.
They expect the poverty. They don’t expect the wealth: the line of luxury SUVs and sports cars outside the gym; the cost of a cup of coffee; the fancy nightclubs and high-rise apartments. All of this sits in juxtaposition to the children begging at traffic lights, the sex workers hungry but giggling at the doors of city bars and the many, many crumbling buildings.
A city of contrasts.
And just a ten-minute ferry crossing from the capital’s chaotic tourist centre lies another great contrast: the banks of rural Kandal Province.
It’s a short journey in which the Tonle Sap river meets the mighty Mekong and time seems to step backwards. People live along the banks in rickety boats or tin houses, with rubble and rubbish littering the shore.
Fried-chicken and sweet stalls line a short walk to total countryside: a beautiful rural monastery, rice fields, and a slower pace of life. This is a snapshot of the poverty and treasures at the other side.
When I was younger, through my teens and university life, I had high expectations of what life has to offer. I wanted to be a journalist and a presenter. I wanted to travel the world, see amazing places, meet amazing people and, somehow, help make the world a better place.
At 21, I believed the world was a place of infinite possibilities.
It didn’t take long, however, for that belief to be shaken.
When I left university I got a job at the BBC in Belfast, where I stayed for almost five years. Walking through that newsroom and being a part of the daily newsgathering, producing and broadcasting process was a dream come true for me.
I was working with some of the most talented and experienced journalists in the industry and I was learning a lot, yet, month by month, I was losing the bubbliness and enthusiasm that had, in many ways, defined me. My ambition waned and the world began to seem a much smaller and more confined place.
This was partly due to the constant battle to secure temporary contracts, which is an exhausting and soul-destroying reality of the media industry and workforce casualisation. But I was also dealing with the reality that I was not living that greater dream of travelling the world or making a difference, and when I looked up the ladder I was fighting to climb, I could not see where it was going.
And I didn’t know what to do about it, which was so frustrating. It seemed a little crazy to consider leaving an organisation like the BBC and altogether impossible to finance it. So for a long time I didn’t do anything, just kept fighting for contracts.
It reached a point though where I knew I had to leave or I never would. That point was one normal June day, sitting at my desk in the Politics Portakabin of BBC Northern Ireland with the latest contract application form sitting in front of me and I just decided ‘no, I’m not doing this anymore’. I stood up, went to my editor and told her. No turning back.
My bosses and colleagues at BBC were brilliant, very supportive, and I felt wonderful. Liberated. Like standing at the top of a mountain, looking at a world with no limits once again. I started to see ways around obstacles where previously I could see none and the details just started to fall into place.
Through various ways I got the money together. I got a visa for Australia and I booked my flights and I had enough time left in work to savour it and to say goodbye to the many fabulous colleagues I had. Then I had enough time with friends and family to savour that and to say goodbye to them. And then I was off.
And that sounds easy but the goodbyes most certainly were not. They broke my heart so much that I still feel like crying when I remember them. Saying goodbye to my parents…now I am crying. But I didn’t at the time because I forced myself into emotional lock-down, focusing on the practicalities of the situation and refusing to be sentimental.
That may seem a little dramatic to many but I’m very close to my family. Home, to me, is an absolute haven. I love it. When I think about the people that have surrounded me all my life – friends and family – I’m kind of incredulous that one person could be so lucky. Not to be corny but I genuinely feel very blessed by the people I have in my life. People that have your back. And are warm and kind and really fun to be around.
Anyway, it suffices to say that at the point of saying goodbye to these people, I didn’t exactly feel like I was standing at the top of a mountain anymore.
But I got on the plane. Destination, Australia (via Bali). And I’ve had a few flights since then. Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Thailand. Eighteen months later and I am currently sitting in a little studio apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve rented it for a month but I don’t know how long I’ll be here. Maybe just the one month. Maybe two…
I’ve had so many happy moments in those eighteen months. Fabulously drunken, fun moments; so many delicious food moments and some profound moments in which I knew, by the sheer beauty of what I was seeing, that the world really is a place of infinite possibilities (some of those moments were even sober! Sunrise as viewed from the top of a volcano in Bali; sunset as viewed from Darwin’s Mindil Beach Markets).
I met people that I can only describe as inspirational: a 40-year-old American woman who was fighting terminal cancer linked to her military service in the Gulf War; a 19-year-old German girl who had just driven half-way across Australia, through the outback, on her own. Brave, crazy and wonderful people who I’ll probably never see again.
I met people that I now count in my circle of loved ones, that I miss so much when I’m not with them and that I am so grateful to have in my life.
And I had loads of shitty days. Grey-skies days when you’re trying to keep your head above water and the thought that life is full of potential is something that doesn’t even enter your mind. Days when those career dreams seem to have fallen back into the realm of the impossible. Days when you’re a little lonely, a little scared, a little tired of worrying about money and just tired of trying.
But I am still trying to build the life I believed possible when I was 21. That’s why I left home.
This blog has been a long time in the making, which is pretty typical of me: over-complicating something that should have been very simple; trying to make perfect something that was really in its infancy.
My progression has been backwards, from trying to create a high-end, magazine-style website to the realisation that it is pretty difficult to become a web developer overnight and the final concession that I needed to start at the very beginning. I am a journalist. A writer. A storyteller. And therefore a blog – something simple and clean – is just perfect for my purpose: to have a platform to write about what matters…to me.
During the months it has taken to discover that my perfect platform was, in fact, so easily realisable, I have been writing and developing posts. Those posts never really made the light of online, so over the next few days I will resurrect them, post them, and give you an idea of the things that matter to me and what you can expect from my blog in the future.
The Stories I’d Tell…if I never had to consider platform or commissioning or freelance payment. Just stories about what is important in life to me.