Cambodia already seems like a hundred years ago. Here I am in Singapore, and I’ve already been through Kuala Lumpur, so it seems weird that I still haven’t finished telling you about Cambodia, which was two countries ago. Perhaps I need to be a bit more disciplined about the blogging, or I’ll end up writing about Singapore from Karen’s deck in Winnipeg. So, here follows a few thoughts about Cambodia.
I know I said that the only reason to go to Siem Reap is to see Angkor, but there was a lot of time when I wasn’t out clambering around temples, and I did manage to fill the time somehow. For instance on my first night in Siem Reap, I went out to find dinner. I wandered around in the centre of town which is packed with restaurants and bars catering to tourists – I could have had pizza, Mexican, pasta, French, burgers, Cambodian BBQ, ice cream, organic sandwiches, and of course lots of Khmer food. This is the case in a lot of places – you think you’re in some tiny backwater town, and across the street will be a joint advertising Spaghetti Bolognaise and American breakfast all day. Sometimes it’s depressing and sometimes it’s comforting.
But before I had dinner I ran into this place:
Here’s the deal – there’s a big tank of water filled with tiny, hungry fish, surrounded by a bench-like platform around the edges. You sit on the bench and dangle your feet in the water, and hundreds of tiny fish eat your feet. The idea is that they nibble away all the dead skin and bacteria and stuff that coats your feet. It is weird, but cool. For $3.00 I sat and let fish eat my feet. At first it felt ticklish, but eventually I got used to it and it felt more like the pins and needles feeling you get when your foot has fallen asleep and is just waking up. It was not altogether unpleasant. I sat for fifteen or twenty minutes, and when I pulled my feet out they did feel softer – almost like they’d been moisturized. I’d recommend it.
At the entrance to each of the temples at Angkor Wat there were always lots of local people selling books or trinkets or cold drinks and food. Sometimes they were even inside the temples themselves – there they mostly try and sell books about the history of the site or small woven bracelets or trinkets, or cold drinks. There were also groups of musicians sitting by the side of the road playing music, selling CDs, and soliciting donations. They were the most heartbreaking because the reason they were sitting is that they were all victims of land mines – missing one or more limbs. They usually had signs declaring that they’d become musicians so they wouldn’t simply have to beg. This way they could use music as their livelihood. It was kind of heartbreaking, partly because the landmine problem was and still is so huge.
The other hawkers of note were the little kids. Some just pestered until they made me crazy, but others were more clever. One little girl asked “Where are you from?” When I said “Canada” she rhymed off: “Canada. Capital Ottawa. Canada very large country but not very many people. Speak English and French. Lots of Snow. Now you buy something.” Other kids could recite the numbers one through ten in about seven different languages, which they’d do at the drop of a hat.
Of course there was weird food in Cambodia, though I’ll admit right away that I did not go visit the Russian Market in Phnom Penh to try the fried spiders. Sorry Steve, but I have limits and chowing down on a three inch wide crispy tarantula is so far beyond those limits that I could travel faster than light and still not reach those limits in my lifetime. What I did try, in Siem Reap, was Cambodian BBQ. It was one of those cook-at-your-table affairs, sort of like the hotpot in Chongqing, except this one had a soupy part and a grilling part. There was a sort of clay pot full of burning coals that sat in a hole in the table, and then the cone-shaped bowl/grill sat on top of that, all brought by an attentive waiter who actually hung around for my whole meal, tending the grill. (That was a bit weird.) The donut-shaped part around the outside of the grill was full of boiling water, and the waiter stuffed that full of a load of veggies so they could cook into a soup.
Ok, so where does the weird part come in? Well, the weird stuff is what went on the grill. I ordered the “degustation” menu, which came with an assortment of different meats: chicken, (yawn), beef (yeah yeah) and… frog legs, crocodile and snake! So that’s the weird part, ok? The frog legs went on first, because they take the longest to cook. The chicken and beef went on after that and were cooked first and were tasty. There were also four different dishes of sauce to dip the meat into when it was finished. As each piece was cooked, the waiter would pull it off the grill and put it onto my plate. They were small bits – just a few pieces of each, but enough to get a sense of the flavour. I’m not sure I needed a whole lot of snake or anything anyways. (How would you order a lot of snake, do you think? By the foot?)
And how did it taste? The frog legs were my favourite of the three weird meats. They were like tiny little drumsticks and they tasted, well yeah, they tasted like chicken, but with a finer texture. The crocodile was a bit tough, with a texture similar to beef but a flavour more like pork. The snake was my least favourite. It was python, it turns out, and it was really really chewy. There wasn’t a lot of flavour, and it was a real workout getting it down.
All in all it was a very successful Weird Food experience. It was fun and interactive, and it was tasty, and it was weird. I can’t ask for more than that.
I noticed something a bit odd on the roadsides in Cambodia. Like all over Southeast Asia (and China, and India and Africa…) there are always little stalls selling things along the roads inside cities and towns and on the roads between them. Often it’s fruits and vegetables, or street food, or drinks and snacks, or, well, just about anything: foil helium balloons, car parts, underwear, whatever. But there was one thing I couldn’t readily identify. At first I thought it might be some kind of blindness-inducing homebrewed alcohol. This was at least partly because (though it’s not shown in this picture) a lot of the time the containers involved were recycled Johnnie Walker bottles.
Finally I got to ask a Cambodian about it – Ricky, my moto driver who ferried me all over Phnom Penh for three days for only slightly outrageous rates. It turns out that the stuff in teh bottles was gasoline, which made me feel much better. I guess there aren’t many proper gas stations in Cambodia, and the ones there are tend to be on the outskirts of the city. So vendors buy gasoline in bulk and re-sell it in small amounts. I suspect most of the customers have motorcycles, so they don’t need 50 litres of gas at a time. And the smaller amounts – one or two litres – are probably much more affordable for the average Cambodian. My Angkor Wat guide told me that the average yearly wage in Cambodia is $250, so it’s no wonder they like to buy gas a litre at a time.
An open letter to every tuk tuk driver in Cambodia:
Dear Mr. Tuk Tuk,
No, I do not want a tuk tuk. I am walking down the street to my hotel, or to a restaurant, or to the convenience store, which is approximately 23 feet away. I think I can manage without motorized transport. Calling out “Tuk tuk lady?” will not make me change my mind. I will not suddenly realize, because you asked, that what I really need to make myself truly happy and fulfilled at this moment is to hire your tuk tuk. And if I were to have the sneaking suspicion that a ride in a tuk tuk would bring me great joy, I would have hired one of the 739 tuk tuks that I’ve just passed, all of whom also called out to me, and all of whom were rejected, with decreasing politeness, as I walked by. No offense, but please, for the love of God, shut up.
P.S. For future reference, here are the other things I do not need: a massage, a book about Angkor Wat, a bundle of bracelets, a cold drink, an artfully carved pineapple, or any other knick knack or gew gaw that you happen to be selling. Sorry.
Bonus weird food: Palm fruit. On my second day at Angkor, my tuk tuk driver convinced me to try some local fruit that women were selling outside of one of the temples. It was palm fruit, and came in a little plastic bag that was kept marvelously cool in a bin of ice. Here’s what the palm fruit looks like when it comes off the tree:
Inside the palm fruit are little white segments of white flesh. They’re sort of like jelly-ish little bags full of a mild, sweetish liquid, and they burst inside your mouth when you bite them. The juice was refreshing, especially while it was cold, but I wasn’t wild about the flesh. Still, chock up another new fruit.
And that’s all I have to say about Cambodia, except to show you this photo of me while I”m having my feet eaten by fish in Siem Reap. I’m telling you, it was cool.