Sampling a slice of Cambodian Life

Pulling the zip shut on an increasingly full rucksack every morning has got a little trying, and it was good to get to Cambodia last week, knowing I was able to finish the first leg of my tour and settle here until Christmas. However, before waving my traveling team off back to Oz, Switzerland and Blighty, we had enjoyed two of perhaps the most ‘real and local’ suppers of my trip so far.

Birthday looming, it is tempting to feel old but the truth is I am not old, and I have found it profoundly emotional to think that the worst of the many atrocities these poor people have been subjected to, have happened within my lifetime. Up to a quarter of the Cambodian people – including all teachers and anyone considered to have a skill – are estimated to have been executed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. They were determined to exterminate all but the ”lowest common denominators”, thereby creating complete and unchallenged power.

A whole generation was all but exterminated; I have, after nearly 10 days, seen only 3 grey heads of hair. Our age-group, therefore, represent the new wave of hope for a Nation that was once an undisputed leader in S E Asia, despite having very limited education.

Forced evacuation from the cities to work all day in the paddy fields was the future chosen for all Cambodians. Ex-city dwellers had no knowledge of agriculture and whilst the terrified people were forced to up the nation’s rice production by 300%, the produce was not theirs to keep. A huge percentage of those who died during the Regime, died in fact of starvation. Any attempts to rear chickens or animals of their own, risked immediate death. Rats and other vermin became delicacies.

This and so much more is the stark backdrop to the culinary culture here in Cambodia. It is a miracle that its culinary heritage as an Empire giving rise to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, has not been buried deep into its hideous number of mass graves.

Our first two dinners in Cambodia were around the simple but lovely tables of Cambodian families. The first was in the bowels of Phnom Penh (shanty-esque) suburbs, under a blue tarpaulin, suspended between a telegraph pole and a rickety corrugated iron shack roof. A rat – lit, by the lovely blue tinge of electric strip lighting – joined the scene. He is apparently a friend of the family’s pet dog. I was just pleased he wasn’t being served up for supper.

We were treated like kings with delicious pork and beef curries – very mild and usually reserved only for celebrations – with mounds of steamed rice. Spring rolls and BBQ fish from the huge central fresh water lake were served with sauces made of stuff which looked and tasted like pond weed. It probably was. The most interesting, however, was the re-hydrated fish sauce (Ref. Laos Blog) which was served with a plate of raw cabbage leaf, morning glory, wing beans and a lovely yellow flower. The idea was take a bit of cabbage and create a fresh veg roll using all the ingredients; wierd, rustic and hideously mud filled, yet a good experience……….which I will not be repeating.

Nor will I be repeating my ‘tarantula rice wine’ experience – “a medicine” I was told as some pale gold liquid was decanted from a sticky water bottle, 1/3rd full of spiders with a 10cm leg span.  Like most of Asia, nature still provides the basis of all medicine – sucking on a slice of Quinine seed is still used to cure malaria – but the spider thing seemed a bit spurious. “It give you energy”‘ the host then tried – a second sales attack. So I went for it, downed it and tried not to show my surprise at the extreme taste of methanol. C & B tasting notes would have read; Almost clear, pale gold in colour with extreme notes of alcohol on the nose. A hint of sweet natural, ‘hay’ on the palate does its best to balance the extreme taste of alcohol. An average vintage. Recommended drinking date: 2050 and beyond. Score 2/20.

The next night we stayed in a ”Homestay” in the middle of paddy fields and miles of terracotta coloured mud tracks. As with all houses in the Cambodian country (and Laos for that matter) it was built on stilts to provide a shady living space for the day below, and mosquito-safe (??) sleeping quarters above. Pigs, chickens, dogs and babies all co-habit in this calm, simplisitc, family scene. The site of my large and obtrusive camera on their table made me wince and I resorted to sketching the scene… our afternoon there was the quietest and calmest I have enjoyed for years.

OCADO rural cambodian style

Dinner was served under the starriest of skies, lit only by 2 candles and a host of partying fire flies. (The only other light provided in was in the squat loo thanks to a car battery.) I was silently hoping we might be served one of the many roosters I had already clocked providing us with a minutes’ more sleep the following morning, but no. We had a pork and veg stew thing with eggs – wierd addition but good – and a similar beef dish, with lots of rice. I couldn’t see any of the ingredients but it didn’t matter – it was simple, tasty, true and delicious. It was all washed down with home-made green tea out of a huge, dented kettle and topped off with one of their own little, sweet bananas – yum.

A little mention has to go to the outrageous and incredible – in the truest sense of the word – noise the local cicadas make around here. Forget romantic, muted mediterranean tones, these guys sound as if they have tried some of the local happy mushrooms. The noise is similar to the most disgruntling of high-pitched fire alarms and it took me hours to be convinced that it was, in fact, nature’s way of dressing the little blighters in spangles to attract a hot date. They would be better placed, deep fried on the market stalls with their cousins if you ask me.

Out of the Homestay and into epic Temple tramping. My poor camera was in need of a holiday after such a visual overload and I was in need of some post-colonial relaxation. Luckily, Siem Reap provides this in abundance and a vodka tonic in the fan-whiring environment of Raffles, (whilst naugtily taking advantage of their super-high speed computer) was heaven; I can do showering with buckets of cold water out of a pig’s trough with a smile, but being served a cold vodka tonic in a place like Raffles is the Yin I need to balance my inner Yang.

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