Khmer Girlfriends Ain’t Easy: Phnom Penh Part Two

NOTE: After writing this post, I feel compelled to tell you that the title has little to do with the content here. Sometimes your post ends up completely different than you imagine.

In Cambodia, all roads seem to lead to Phnom Penh. It’s the central hub for getting from South to North and back again and I found myself in the capital city twice. It’ll be at least three times before I go back to the US.

After spending eight happy days in Kampot, Kamala headed to Otres and I opted in favor of heading North. But, by now Khmer New Year was approaching and I had no idea how difficult moving around the country would be.

A bit about Khmer New Year:

The holiday officially falls in the middle of April – April 13th or 14th-ish and lasts three days. The timing coincides with the end of the dry season and officially begins the monsoon season when crops are grown. Each of the official three days signifies something different and includes different traditions. Day #1 is Maha Songkran, Day #2 is Virak Wanabat and Day #3 Virak loeurng Sak.

The same timing for New Year celebrations can be seen across Southeast Asia – places like Laos and Thailand celebrate in similar ways. NOTE: If you’re a particularly celebratory person you might consider going to Thailand for their New Year, which is known as “Songkran” and includes water being thrown everywhere.

Despite the fact that the Khmer New Year officially began on April 14th in 2014, most Khmer people began celebrating far in advance of that and the party ran until they were pretty sure they’d had enough. Because the 14th fell in the middle of the week, the party started the Friday before. In this case “party” means that nothing happens. Buses are full, if they’re even running and entire restaurants and guesthouses shut down. Things stop. And what’s why, after finding that all buses to Mondulkiri were booked, I spent another two nights in Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh, Again: Photography Workshop

I wasn’t disappointed by spending another day in Phnom Penh because I’d wanted to take a photography workshop my first time through town, but wasn’t able to fit it into my schedule. I’d heard about Michael Klinkhamer of Cambodia Photo Tours when I was taking a stroll through the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh where he is unofficially “based.”

This is Michael. This isn't a real picture. I mean, it is. But, he mostly made me take it to be sure the camera was on. It was. And now you get this gem.

This is Michael. This isn’t a real picture. I mean, it is. But, he mostly made me take it to be sure the camera was on. It was. And now you get this gem.

NOTE: If you’re on a budget, don’t plan on eating at the FCC. The menu is really expensive and I mostly saw families on vacation eating there. If you really want to spend money at the FCC, order a beer. Once you’ve got it, you can ask for the free roasted nuts and you’re basically eating lunch! This offsets the cost of the twice-as-expensive-as-on-the-street beer. The place has a cool history, though, so if you’re interested in journalism and what it was like to be based in SE Asia during the Vietnam war and other harrowing events it’s worth the 20 minutes it takes to go up and walk through.

I met Michael at the FCC and we started by walking through and looking at all of his photos lining the walls. They were all gorgeous and I trusted him right away.

Before getting into any specifics on my camera or experience, he explained that he was a bit “off.” Seems his Khmer girlfriend was being held prisoner in Italy! Always one for a good love story (I could have also said, “Always one for a good episode of Law and Order: SVU”) I was intrigued and we spent most of the day talking about the situation.

Why am I telling you about this?

I’m not sure. I just wrote up a whole description of his relationship and how the woman ran off to Italy with another man and is now being held against her will with an Italian man promising that her passport is in Bangkok getting ready so she can leave. But then I realized that you probably don’t care about any of that.

So, I’ll just say that talking to Michael made me understand a lot more about the Western Man/Khmer Woman dynamic. For instance, Michael told me that the money that these Western boyfriends give to their girlfriends often gets sent back to the family. They’re expected to help support their parents and siblings and, sometimes, this feels like the easiest way for them to do it. Not the best way. In fact, probably the worst way. But, it’s what’s done.

The conversation about the situation began with me harshly judging Michael. What could he possibly be doing with a Khmer girl that he met in a bar a year ago that barely speaks English? I haven’t answered that question, but his willingness to spend the money to find a way to get her out made wonder if the situation wasn’t as nefarious as I’d imagined.

No. A woman shouldn’t be relying on a Western man and his needs to support her parents. I fully agree. No sex tourism, please.

But, Michael feels something. He told me about the dreams he has in his head of showing up like Liam Neeson and rescuing this poor Khmer woman from (what I have cooked up in my head to be) an Italian restaurant with meatballs rolling across the floor.

I hope he finds her. And I hope she comes back if she wants to come back.

Okay, the Photography:

Aside from the talk of his relationship woes, Michael told me all about some of the seedy underbelly of Phnom Penh as it relates to sex tourism, men and things that nobody would want to be wrapped up in. Interesting stuff, but too much to get into here.

Instead, I’ll tell you that the photography workshop was great! Michael reminded me all about shutter speed and aperture and ISO and he was incredibly easy to understand. He has a tuk-tuk driver friend who shuttled us across Phnom Penh – first to a bit of an over-crowded area of people all living together, then across the river to a small village on the other side and then back to the FCC. Below are the photos we took. Not nearly as nice as the ones he took, but it’s something.

Because I’ve had this post drafted and saved for about two weeks, I’m going to just lay the photos on you. So, here you go. Untouched because I don’t have time for that right now.


Wouldn't it have been nice if I'd gotten the exposure right on this? Sorry, friends.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if I’d gotten the exposure right on this? Sorry, friends.

Sorry about that rogue hand. Sometimes that happens. That's why Michael runs the photography workshop and I just snap pictures.

Sorry about that rogue hand. Sometimes that happens. That’s why Michael runs the photography workshop and I just snap pictures.



This is the face she made right after I told her I was an award-winning photographer. I call it "SKEPTICISM."

This is the face she made right after I told her I was an award-winning photographer. I call it “SKEPTICISM.”


2 thoughts on “Khmer Girlfriends Ain’t Easy: Phnom Penh Part Two

  1. Hi, this is Michael Klinkhamer from Phnom Penh. I just stumbled upon your blog.
    Wow! that was me in 2014.. it was all personal. Strange and fun to read it back from your perspective.
    Great pictures! Hope your doing fine and enjoying the summer. I am still in Phnom Penh. Khmer girlfriends aint got that right! The one in Italy came back and was with me again for a year. Unfortunately it never got easy and I gave up..we are still friends. Anyway’s if you’re ever back in Phnom Penh, let me know, I might relocate for Siem Reap in a few months. Or Bali… or

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