Claire Knox asked four Khmer returnees how life in the Kingdom now compares to that of their memories and whether they felt compelled to stay in Cambodia.
VEASNA, Perth, Australia, 29
My family spent time in a number of refugee camps over five years after fleeing the Khmer Rouge—I was born in the Chonburi refugee camp in Thailand. I grew up in Perth and was lucky to have the chance to return to visit relatives in Cambodia in 2002 and 2006.
A mix of things compelled me to return on a more permanent basis—wanting to explore and know my heritage further and to get to know my family, many of whom live in Bavel, a village an hour or two from Battambang.
Our lives contrast greatly and I feel ridiculously fortunate and sad knowing they would give anything to have the opportunities I’ve had. I’ve lived a life of privilege and full of opportunities—I get medical care, went to a private school and university whereas my cousins had to finish school after year six to support their families.
I feel helpless that I can’t do more for them. Particularly for the female cousins who got married young in arranged marriages so they wouldn’t be a financial burden to their families. We have bought the family a big farm and now trying to help them gain skills so they can have their own businesses.
My primary motivation was seeing my mother work so hard—she legally represented many Khmer women in Australia who could not speak English. I’m part of the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program, an Australian government initiative which sends skilled volunteers to live and work in developing countries as part of the overseas program.
So much in this country has changed since my first visit in 2002. The list is far too long—not just the rapid change in infrastructure—driveable roads, petrol stations, shopping malls—but also the customs of the people. Hand shakes are now acceptable, dress is not as conservative. The GLBTQ community was pretty much non-existent even just two years ago.
Thierry Chantha Bin, Paris, France, 21
I only came back to Cambodia last week, I’m from Paris. I’m playing professional football for the Phnom Penh Crowns. I came with the Khmer Europe team in September, a selection of the best players of Cambodian origins in Europe. I was then signed by the Crowns after a few weeks of negotiations.
I was the first French-Cambodian player to join the Cambodian premier league. I was born in France, my parents fled just before the fall of Phnom Penh. I have been back twice, in September 2007 and 2012, but in 2012 it was just a visit to play a single game of football.
The hardest part about being back is the heat. I’m currently living in a clubhouse with other local players. You can imagine how the living conditions here are different from what I’ve known in France. I came here to know better my country of origin, so it’s up to me to adapt and make it a good experience.
Cambodia is completely different to the image my parents portrayed to me. I think I’d like to stay here for a long time—my parents are in France though. I have a one-year contract and will see after that. It would be awesome to join the national team. It was amazing to see the TV crews waiting for me at the airport. I think I could have a long-term career here, so yes, I plan to stay a long time.
Jean Choor, Paris, France, 31
I have lived here now for three months. I was born in Paris, I am 31, and my parents were lucky to get out of the country before the war. My father has since died, and my mother moved back to Phnom Penh three years ago.
When my mother moved here I asked her, why on earth would you want to go back? I visited her here for a holiday in March this year and I immediately became very interested in the country. I love it. Much more than France. The life is easier here, it’s easier to set up a business, business is actually booming and it’s going the other way in France.
I feel great here, it’s my homeland really. I went back to France after that first holiday in March and something just didn’t feel right. I brought my partner over, he’s also Khmer French, and we decided to open up our video production company, Dream Touch, here, with a another Khmer returnee form France.
Now, I want to stay a year, and if we have success we’ll stay on. So far, it’s going well.
I actually didn’t learn Khmer as a child, so now I’m getting lessons, I regret that now!
The city is completely different to what my mother described. When I ask her to compare her experiences of now and then she doesn’t want to. I guess she doesn’t want to remember. She’s very proud of Cambodia now. I don’t particularly miss Europe.
Steven Path, California, USA, 44
I was born in Cambodia at the age of seven. I fled with my family to a refugee camp just before the civil war broke out. We were waiting for sponsorship and were fortunate that it came through. We moved to Milwaukee and it was hard, it was cold, there were many moments of isolation and racism. I spent much of my life in California.
By the age of 40, I was divorced and had a moment where something felt lacking in my life. I realised I needed to do some soul searching, something was missing. I had never been back to Cambodia, so I came back, and decided to build a social enterprise, to help mentor and guide young IT professionals here.
I founded Angkor One, (a mobile gaming and IT consulting firm) aiming to build a sustainable operation and promote Cambodia to the world. When I returned in 2008 all of my worries (about Cambodia being dangerous) evaporated, it was so different to what I had heard on VOA (Voice of America) and read in the international press, painting an image of Cambodia as crime infested.
I realised it was actually a safe, business friendly country—there are some issues business wise here and you do have to play some games and know the right people though.
I’m very, very happy here. My parents came to visit and have now stayed for a year. They’re planning on relocating too.
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, it was late at night, 2am, so I couldn’t see anything, but the following morning I walked downstairs and I saw the motorbikes, the food stall owners, and breathed in the smells… I recognised it all, it was a tangible symbol that I was home.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]