Friends founder Sebastien Marot reflects on the Cambodia of 20 years ago, and his first day there…
‘20 years ago today (April 1st, 1994), I arrived in Cambodia.
I had left Paris on a very early and very cold rainy morning (was this melted snow?) to catch a plane to go to Phnom Penh where Barbara had landed a job a few days before, teaching English. We intended on staying only a few weeks before heading towards Japan, our ultimate destination.
I only vaguely remember that we took a very cheap flight and the plane flew through Alaska where it stopped. I bought a very nice tie in the airport: it had children painted on it. I had no idea at that time that I would work with children, but it became my “official reception tie” in the following years. It also took me a few years to realize that this tie was actually a ‘Save The Children’ tie: this is how little I knew about the world of NGOs (and, funnily enough, ‘Save The Children’ became Friends’ first important donor in 1996…)
What was most memorable, however, was the landing in Cambodia.
First the heat: on the 1st of April the heat was atrocious. It was like moving in a demented sauna, especially coming from freezing Paris. The heat was just getting worse and with no electricity and hesitant generators, I would spend many nights sleeping in a pool of my own sweat (I actually had to dry the mattress in the sun during the day…)
Then the mayhem: there was no airport to speak of in Phnom Penh. The luggage was put on a big pile on the tarmac and every one had to find his own. In addition, the airport was open to the outside: so a crowd of well-wishers and what seemed to be just people coming from the road outside the airport, jumped on the bags pulling and screaming. So I jumped in to secure our own bags, confused as what was happening. We were lucky though that the director of the school where Barbara was going to work came to pick us up and her driver took care of the luggage and the visas, and to our great relief we were taken to a waiting room in a small building where an old aircon was blowing some warm air that seemed like heaven.
After what seemed forever, my passport returned with my first Cambodian visa… we were taken to an old Mercedes and driven to the school where we would initially stay in the city. The road was empty of cars or motorcycles and we quickly made it into Phnom Penh where things changed: bicycles, a few motorcycles and some UN 4-wheel drives. The roads were full of holes and chickens, pigs and other animals were running everywhere. I rapidly noticed that many men had guns in the back of their pants and I remember one man who had a machine gun strapped around his shoulder while riding a bicycle. Not very reassuring…
We were given a large room in an old 60’s building that was the school and I went to take a shower. Of course there was no running water, but a big bucket had been filled (and whenever water returned we had to rush to refill the bucket) and I had great pleasure in washing off the long trip using a yellow plastic container.
Then it was night and suddenly everyone was gone off the streets and from the balcony of my room on street 184, I saw the city fall into darkness. We had our first communal dinner of ginger chicken with rice. As I went to bed after my first day in Cambodia, and as the electricity cut off, I wondered what I was doing here and how long I would stay in this place…’