I Signed for Six-Months and Then I Stayed for Six-Years in Cambodia

The year I left the Philippines to work overseas, the people of the world, were preparing for the doomsday. The main headline everywhere was the Y2K virus that was supposed to create havoc in the world, and the coming of Jesus was inevitable.

Nothing happened. No computer glitched happened, and no Jesus arrived with brimstone and death. So I forged ahead and started a new life as an expat.

My first international sojourn

I wrote in my blog The Reluctant Overseas Worker how I came to be an overseas worker. It was not something I dreamt of doing after I finished university. The adventure to work overseas landed on my lap without me trying and when an opportunity like this comes who am I to refuse.

Cambodia opened the skies for me, it was my first destination. I didn’t have difficulty settling in because I have family over there.

I have a brother living in Phnom Penh since the early 90’s and my sister who is a nun was assigned there after the coup d’etat in 1997 until few months after I arrived in 2000. And the Filipino community I met was very welcoming and helpful.

The culture was different, but it was not very imposing that its hard to adapt, moving around was easy for non-drivers like me, and the food was great so you will forgive me when I say living in Cambodia, in any part of it, I felt like I was on perpetual vacation all year round. Security was touch and go in the beginning and it improved over time.


I arrived in the country when everything was rustic. and security was lax (but one cannot be complacent). Airports are like ground zero – old runway riddled with potholes, the airport was fenced with corrugated iron and we walked to the gate after we deplane. Once inside the small arrival area, I got the feel of the country — the noise, the chaos and the smell (much like some of the Philippines domestic airport).

Outside was another experience and that’s when I felt I am in another country. I was welcomed by the dusty humid heat and array of colorfully dressed women, men, and children. They are happily waiting and sending off families and friends by the truckload and it was noisily excited!

No time to rest, I was in my new center the day after I arrived. I went to meet my new colleagues and got the introduction and met the different people that I will be interacting with and would help me adjust and settle in.

I settled in well.

Too well actually because a couple of weeks after I arrived, experiencing how easy it was to work with my organization, my colleagues and my team I told myself I can do this and make this my new career move.

My initial contract was 6-months. I was only to give on-the-job training to a few therapists who graduated in the only PT school in the country in French. The organization that hired me was English, and the medium of instructions was English so imagine me, a wide-eyed young woman in a foreign land in a male-dominated industry trying to figure out how I will do my job and not lose face (that is me being Asian) in case I bungled it up. I managed to overcome the language barrier and easily settled in my work like I was born for it.

I was happy that among the seven therapists I was to work with, five of them are female and two are male but only two of them speaks good English. The head of the rehabilitation center was also a woman from the US. She runs the whole rehabilitation center and community program while her husband runs the prosthetics and orthotics workshop and the technical school.

It was very different from working in the hospitals’ in the Philippines (which hasn’t changed a lot since), I had more freedom to be creative, and innovative in handling cases. It was refreshing.

Introduction to international development

When I joined the organization that recruited me I had no idea what they are doing. All I had was information from what they sent me to read. I don’t even know much about the country. That was the time when internet searches were something to be dreamed of and the search engine doesn’t have that much-stored data yet and Facebook will not be born until after four years.

I did learn about Cambodia but with its old name Kampuchea from my history classes in high school and from what my brother told me. I knew about the Khmer Rouge genocide and that the people had to flee their country which that time I could relate to Vietnam boat people and of course the world famous Angkor Wat. But I had no inkling as to the gravity of the aftermath of the genocide until I was there and seeing them in my own eyes.

My new realities

I never saw that much amputation in my life. It was only when I moved to Cambodia that I realized it would be my reality on top of other physical disabilities that we will find in the community where the centers were operating. Twenty years after the war, I still saw acute cases because there were still landmines everywhere in the country. I tried hard to keep my emotion to myself and get on with my job. Others were not so lucky in controlling their emotions because it is just very sad to see the impact it has on the lives of the people at that time.

(Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
A reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s (Cheung Ek grounds) (Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / Cambodia 2005)
Tould Sleng Museum grounds

Back then the idea of talking about your feelings is as rare as watching a movie in a theater in Phom Penh. I managed my own stresses and emotion by looking at different ways to unwind and I am glad that Cambodia was such a hub for fun activities – live music, good food, touristic sites etc.

A lifelong commitment

The country drew me in and joining my organization Cambodia Trust that runs one of the successful prosthetics and orthotics school in the capital Phnom Penh and physical rehabilitation centers also in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville (Kampong Som) and Kampong Channang made the transition easy.

All the centers were providing services to people with physical injuries while the school trains technicians using Cambodian standard prosthesis – durable, lightweight and cheap produced locally. It was a fun learning and working experience. I was involved in anything and everything that has to do with uplifting the standards of physiotherapy and rehabilitation services in the country together with other organization in the field aligned with the prosthetics and orthotics services.

Discovering that there are so much to do with very little time, I extended my contract and eventually stayed in Cambodia for 6 years discovering more about human rights and international laws and treaties, and many more until it was time for me to move to another continent.

You can check out Signs of Times: A Summary of My Two Decades of Experience in International Development