Jen Truong | KF17 | Cambodia

After experiencing my first day at work as a Kiva Fellow, I can tell you this much: One should always expect the unexpected! For me (and I feel incredibly fortunate for this), most of my unexpecteds so far have turned out to be only pleasant. Below, I have listed some details and thoughts of my first days being in Cambodia and at my MFI, MAXIMA, that I hope you will find at least entertaining.

The Expected:

1. Cambodia’s weather
Cambodia is humid! Granted, this is coming from someone who has lived in the Arizona desert pretty much her entire life, so I’m just being a bit more dramatic than I should be. Thankfully, my one-room apartment that I am renting from a family has air conditioning, which has helped the adjustment go much more smoothly. I am sweating less and less buckets as the days progress, and I’ve noticed that if I gradually wean myself off of the cool air, I will soon no longer need it at all! It doesn’t sound like something to be that proud of, but it’s funny how easily we take something like air conditioning for granted. Most people I’ve talked to don’t use or have air conditioning in their homes at all.

2. Homesickness
It would be a lie if I told you that I haven’t thought about being back home at all. I miss it. I miss conveniently knowing where everything is and who I’m going to see everyday. But, it is also for that reason that I am incredibly thankful for this opportunity to be in Cambodia. Each day I’ve seen something new–made new friend. I really can’t complain about that.

3. Street children
It is a known problem in Cambodia. Many people discourage giving money to these children as it only perpetuates the situation and puts them at even higher risk of getting into worse things in the future. Instead, I’ve been searching for local NGOs that aim to help protect street children and youth. I had dinner last night at Friends, the Restaurant (called Mith Samlanh in Cambodian). Friends is a training restaurant run by former street youth and their teachers. The food is delicious (a fusion of American and Cambodian cuisine) and the people are beyond hospitable here.


Menu from Friends the restaurant

The Unexpected:

1. Traffic rules…what traffic rules?
Motorcycles (called motos), tuk tuks (moto-pulled rickshaws), cyclos (bike-driven rickshaws), cars, and people generally fill the streets of Phnom Penh. There are no traffic rules here. If there is, it is most certainly rarely enforced. It’s truly a survival of the fittest (or quickest, I should say). As someone who has traveled to quite a few major cities, (including Beijing, China…where traffic is known to be pretty crazy), I’ll admit that Phnom Penh has one of the most disorganized and chaotic traffic systems there is. In Beijing, it is at least an organized chaos…if that is even possible. But, it does make for finding a ride pretty easy.


On my way to MAXIMA. We are crossing the street as traffic is coming directly towards us!

Also, I’ve come to find that most drivers rarely know where anything is. Everyone gives directions according to major landmarks, so you can forget about needing to know the address or street you’re on. You need only remember the major monuments and centers. For a map illiterate, like myself, this can be a little stressful…but an adventure nonetheless. My directional skills have improved exponentially since being here.

2. The red carpet welcome
At Kiva Fellows training, we learned that some of the MFIs we’ll be working with will make our arrival a red carpet affair. I expected my welcome to be somewhere inbetween that and the opposite. Oh how little did I know what was in store… On my first day, I was picked up by the company driver on a moto, which was really quite exhilarating. I’ve never been so close to getting my legs crushed before, but our driver happens to be an excellent one, thank goodness.


Delicious young coconut water

When I got to the office, I was greeted with all smiles along with a young coconut and two water bottles waiting for me at my desk. Lunch was bought for me and every half hour someone would bring over fresh fruit. After lunch, someone bought a delicious dessert for me, called Nom Loat in Cambodian. It’s essentially a tapioca-like dessert that is served in melted sugar water and coconut cream. To describe everyone here as hospitable would be an understatement. I wish I could express just how kind, funny, and special people here at MAXIMA are. I feel incredibly lucky to have been placed here.

Fresh Fruit in Cambodia
Fresh fruit for the fellow

3. Reactions to me being Cambodian-American
As a Cambodian-American, this country has always had a home in my heart. I didn’t come with any expectations knowing that I may be received differently because of my nationality and heritage. Before coming here, I was nervous about potentially offending others because I am Cambodian-American. However, I have found that most people I’ve met (so far, at least) have either been impressed with my Khmer-speaking abilities or intensely perplexed. There are times when I am treated better when I speak Khmer, and there are times when I’m treated better when I speak English. It is a delicate balance, and it is something that I’m sure will be a continuous challenge for me here.

Jen Truong is a Kiva Fellow completing her fellowship with MAXIMA in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 


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