Barely two months after I started my PhD, I was off. Heading out to Cambodia to my study area for the first time. Or rather – to figure out where my study area was supposed to be in the first place. The region had been set, but not the site – that was for me to figure out!
Getting onto the plane, I was brimming with anticipation, excitement and quite a bit of anxiety. I’d only ever gone to Asia once before – on a three-week geotechnical excursion to China. (And that had been a hell of an experience – as huge and impressive as China had been, the absolute language barrier and massive restrictions on internet and information access (and coffee!) had left my nerves raw by the time I’d gone back to Europe.) But singing up for my PhD, the opportunity of studying the Cambodian Mekong Delta had been too tempting. Now I was hoping fervently that I would come to love the country as well, and not just my subject.
Getting off the plane twenty-something hours later, I instantly breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was foreign to me, yes – from the language the people were speaking and the humid heat in the air, down to the tuk-tuk drivers vying to take me to my hotel. But there was open wifi at the airport, a travel SIM card seller just out front, and on the drive into town, I saw a host of coffee shops. Whew!
The hotel had me absolutely stunned. Paying less than I would for a youth hostel dormitory bunk back home, I was staying in a palace. Sipping coconut juice that night by the pool, I reflected that I really, really, loved my PhD.
That impression only got stronger over the following days. I visited the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) – which really reminded me of the Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU) in Vienna. Modern buildings, laboratories and greenhouses stretched across the campus. Really, the only difference was that the students here were wearing uniforms. At RUA, I met the team involved in the project – and the very next day, we were heading out to the field together.
Getting up early to beat the traffic, we sped out of Phnom Penh on an institute bus – heading South. The destination? A pagoda in Kandal province, where we were meeting local villagers. The purpose of the meeting? Figuring out decision structures and farming practices through an interactive learning game that one of my supervisors and his colleagues had developed.
I watched in fascination as the game was explained to the villagers, and the first few reticent rounds were played. Soon, however, reticence was forgotten, and discussions broke about which crops to plant where and which effects an early or late arrival of the flood would have. Trying to understand as much as possible, I was darting around the room, filming, taking pictures and scribbling down notes. Also a big boon: the absolutely delicious snacks that some women had brought along for the group. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves? Amazing!
The next day, back in Phnom Penh, the game was repeated – but not with village farmers, but with ministry representatives, village chiefs and water managers. It was fascinating to witness the different dynamics and choices made by these men and the way they personally interacted.
Then, finally, it was time to visit the area where I would have to delineate my study zone. Again, our group headed out of Phnom Penh when the sun was barely up. On bumpy country roads and earthen paths, our bus driver – I admire his skills! – took us across rice fields, along irrigation channels and through narrow village streets.
The flood recession of that year was ongoing, and large swaths of land were still under water. Where the earth had been exposed already, rice had been planted and was now growing. Lush green fields stretched into the distance, with rackety pumps rattling in the background to supply the needed irrigation water.
At one point, we were taken on boats along a river, stopping at a fishing village and observing fishermen reel in their nets for the day. Thousands of tiny fish spilt across the wooden floors of the fishing huts and were brushed together, sorted and packed away to be picked up by customers. The only sour note that day: Women were not allowed in all parts of the fishing hut, especially not near to where the nets were placed in the water. Apparently, we bring bad luck. I never knew that fish were misogynists.
Arriving back in Phnom Penh that evening, it felt like heaven to sit by the pool, have dinner, and review my notes. I’d only been there for a few days. Still, I felt boundlessly optimistic and enthusiastic about getting to work on my own topic. It would have to wait over the weekend though – because I was excitedly planning to explore the city then!
The next day, I got sick.
I spent the day roaming through Phnom Penh, its museums and markets and felt nothing wrong except a slight headache. But when I was settling in at a coffee shop that evening to read a few papers and reply to my emails, I was hit with a sudden bout of nausea. Stumbling back to my hotel, I was more irritated than worried – annoyed that I probably wouldn’t be able to join the next excursion.
It turned out that I’d managed to catch Dengue fever.
The remaining time of my first visit to Cambodia is a fevery blur of nausea, hospital visits, IVs, and trying to assure my family over the phone that while I was feeling horrible, I was not in fact about to die.
As much as I had been beginning to love Cambodia, I was incredibly relieved when a doctor cleared me to fly and I was allowed to get onto a plane to Vienna.