It's easy to forget that the tenor and the lifestyle of Cambodia’s other expat communities is profoundly different from that of the capital.
Kep has the feel of six French restaurateurs obsessing over where they sit on an outwardly invisible social hierarchy in relation to the other five. Kampot seems to be the nesting ground for the languid wake and bakers that were left bereft after the slow death of Boeung Kak had run its course.
On a superficial level, Siem Reap can feel like Phnom Penh’s smaller cousin, with the same mix of NGO workers, restaurateurs and English teachers. All the same, being there felt faintly suffocating after months confined within the Phnom Penh city limits.
It’s easy to believe while living in a city where vices are easily indulged that bad behaviour will go unnoticed, but up there people don’t have the same luxury.
My most recent trip there coincided with the opening of The Doghouse, which operates from the same playbook as the Street 51 nightclubs and with the same patronage from older men and taxigirls sipping Royal D. But its clientele seemed not to behave with the same aggressive abandon as you’d find in Pontoon after three in the morning.
While I was there, I was amazed how versed everyone was in the private lives of other expats. Anyone who has been there more than a little while knows who hangs out at Angkor What every night to pick up backpackers, who’s boofing whom, whose perpetual money problems are wearing thin with everybody else.
That parochial air of a place too small to be too aggressively cliquey, seems to give Siem Reap expats an air of civility often lacking among their brethren in Phnom Penh. There’s a much greater awareness of what behaviour will be poorly judged in the eyes of their peers when people have no choice but to bump into each other during breakfast at Café Central three times a week.
Of the friends I have there, most have been in relationships lasting a year or more, only coming to an end when it’s time for someone to move away. I always got the impression that it was easier to pursue some kind of decent romance there in a way that the abrupt beginnings, the sudden intensity and the equally abrupt endings of expat relationships in the capital rarely allows.
But without the urge or the means to share your time there with someone in some substantial way, perhaps it would be a very lonely place. More than anything, it’s a reflection of that underappreciated cliché: “Wherever you go, there you are.”
In Phnom Penh, it’s easy to let a false impression of anonymity turn into a philosophy of impunity and still enjoy all the trappings of a rich social life regardless.
Up in Siem Reap, there is never any shortage of reminders as to what sort of person you are, and, for a paramour, that can be a lonely place indeed.