The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Hong Kong Phooey

I’ve left Cambodia and the Phnom Penh Post, and I’ve landed back in Hong Kong with Time Magazine. By and large, it’s been an easy transition back to a city with mass transit, dumplings, and the rule of law, but I’ve really struggled to explain my last year to people.

When people ask what was it like in Cambodia, it’s difficult to whittle it down to a few statements. Sometimes I ham it up for people, and Cambodia has provided enough adventures good bar talk.

I tell people I lived in a coldwater flat that overlooked the spot where a Scottish teacher was shot. I mention that I was punched in the face twice protecting a woman after being pushed off a scooter next to an old torture chamber. I sip my own drink and tell them about downing homemade whiskey with former Khmer Rouge soldiers while trying to smuggle myself across a border. I say that I once woke up to find a tarantula in my toiletries bag, that I rode on the back of strangers’ scooters to go places, that I lived in a house without internet (the horrors!), and that for fun I partied in abandoned mansions with felons.

This is all true, and these stories might impress the person on the bar stool next to me, but it doesn’t really capture what it was like living in Phnom Penh. Between my home and my office, there were four places to buy gourmet muffins. Danger does not lurk around every corner in a city with so many muffin options. I labor on this point, because if you understand Phnom Penh’s muffins, you understand its expat life.

There’s the all-white Fresco’s. With its sleek, minimalist interior and high-prices, the Frescos stand out along the dusty streets of Phnom Penh. It represents the Phnom Penh fabulous life. If you don’t look out the windows, you could be in a posh coffee shop anywhere in the world, and then there’s the Living Room, where all the NGO consultants and freelance journalists go on their laptops. Closest to my apartment was Jars of Clay that was always full of nice old British ladies talking about church. Finally, there’s Java Cafe which doubles as a gallery. Each stands for a different part of the expat scene: the moneyed who miss the luxuries of home, the small army of consultants and freelancers, the religious groups, and the art lovers.

At different times, I frequented all of them. My life in Phnom Penh is better described by its muffins than its muggings. But then again, muffin-shop monologues rarely make good bar talk.

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6 Responses

  1. Tim Matsui says:

    Hey Christopher, glad to see you found something to move on to after Phnom Penh. I would agree it’s more muffins than mugging, but like you quoted…it’s safe until it isn’t.

    Would love to work with you again.


  2. Tara says:

    Those big citys always have a little pocket of “home” to escape to. Though it’s not much of a place to visit as a tourist, I recall being ever thankful for the good coffee and delicious muffins of an expat cafe in Ktm. Glad you got to experience both sides, and looking forward to all the stories.

  3. anh-thu says:

    and don’t forget drag shows during major holidays.

  4. Flynn says:

    You forgot to mention an important constituent of the expat community: dirty old french men looking for new khmer girlfriends. I am not sure whether they enjoy muffins or not.

  5. Tom says:

    Hi Chris

    In August 09 you wrote an article about a private eye in PP, one name he goes by is Cordell. Could you email me his contact details? I may need his services.

  6. Andrew Engert says:


    That was amazing. You’ll have to tell me where to get these muffins. How much was it to live and get around there? How hard was it to find English speakers? If I were going what time of year would you recommend? I have a sad story to tell and would love to tell you about it more sometime. Anyways. Hope you’re doing well and great piece.

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