THE MAGIC OF CAMBODIA
Periodically, I will post content from my old blog with two purposes; to give my content new life, and to capture my growth as a traveller and creator.
Written October 20, 2013, from the Mekong Express Bus between Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Cambodia is hot. The heat creates a natural schedule for the people there, who take advantage of the cooler times of day to go about their daily lives. They get up early, relax through midday and go back to it when the hottest part of the day is over. In Siem Reap, we followed suit with the locals and were not disappointed by the benefits.
I always started the day with a Khmer noodle dish, full of fresh herbs and vegetables, thick rice noodles, sour lime, spicy chilli and light, crispy spring rolls. It was all washed down with strong black Cambodian coffee, pressed in the French way.
This gave me the energy I needed to tackle Psaar Cha, the old market. It is at its best in the morning. Like most markets in Asia, it launches a full on assault on your senses. The thick air is filled with the smell of dried fish, smelly fruits and noodle soup. As you wind through the maze, the tiny aisles ensure that you brush shoulders with locals, those shopping and those hard at work. Some negotiate energetically with each other, some make quick work of a duck carcass that is headed for a steaming bowl of soup and some are luring in tourists with the promise that they have your size in souvenir t-shirts. As the day moves on, the energy lulls into a subdued state, vendors relaxing with their lunch and passively watching shoppers go by. I am always in awe of the clockwork of a busy market; they run at full force every single day, all year long.
Another Cambodian custom I picked up for the week is that it is socially acceptable to eat constantly, or graze throughout the day. Perfect for a food lover. When you leave the market, the streets are filled with food carts selling delicious street side snacks. We tried as many street meals as we could. Grilled bananas, spicy rice porridge, fried rice patties, pancakes, sticky rice, noodles … All for the low price of $1USD (though we suspected we were being charged the foreigner tax). It’s so fun to watch them prepare delicious, flavourful snacks from such tiny carts. Plus, we got to maximize our time exploring the many alleyways of Siem Reap with our portable meals.
To escape the hot sun, many Cambodians retreat to the home with their families to have cold showers and take naps. Some sleep in their tuk tuks waiting for the buzz for return to the town core. Others sleep In their shops. When the streets emptied, we would take the same opportunity, reading in our hotel or rehydrating with a coconut or a cashew nut milkshake. It was a great time to reflect and plan the rest of the evening or write home to our own families.
We covered food and family. But the trifecta of Cambodian society is only complete when religion is included. A visit to the world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat, and it’s surrounding city of temples, would round out the trip. We took on the Angkor complex for two days straight with a wonderful guide named Prom, who shed light on the incredible history of the Khmer empire as well as the darker and much more recent history of the brutal Pol Pot regime. We wound through the imposing, never ending ruins that have withstood time, time wracked with by a war fuelled by hatred. Each temple was unique; Banteay Srei with its deep red colour and intricate carvings, Bayon with its large looming god-king faces and of course Angkor Wat, known as heaven on earth. I was totally wrapped up in our guide’s stories of great kings and dancing angels and ancient lore. His knowledge brought the stones to life and brought meaning to the experience of Angkor.
I was only there for a week. Though when I travel, I try to learn as much as I can about the host culture. I have now passed through the Cambodia-Vietnam border and feel like I can take away a piece of Cambodia with me. History truly helps you understand the present. You must know where you have been in order to know where you are going. Cambodians have been to great heights as a conquering empire and to sinking lows as a victim of extreme communist ideology, famine and genocide. They have known what it is like to lose all that is important to them; food, family and religion. The Cambodians I saw were happy, quick to laugh, soft spoken and relaxed people. They acknowledge the past and look to the future simultaneously. A valuable lesson in the life of any individual or for any society.
I will miss Cambodia. I will miss the wholesome food, the relaxed vibe of the small towns and islands, even the enthusiastic touts of the tuk tuk drivers. It was cool to be somewhere different for a week. But now as I peer out the window and see the familiar written words of Vietnamese, I am happy to be home. Looking forward to my motor bike ride to work in the morning and even to see my students. Lucky for me, I am now neighbours with Cambodia … And Laos, and China … And the bucket list continues.