Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Biking Vienna to Kampong Cham

About a month ago, I signed up on Jaime had recently moved to Edmonton and been hosted by a totally cool Canuck, so I thought I would try to do my karmic part and reciprocate. After all, I have this great big apartment with a whole empty room, complete with two large beds and a hot shower -- all to myself. Since my half-hearted attempts to find a real roommate had failed, I figured this was a way to fill my room, and possibly meet some nifty people along the way.

I've had a few requests, but the only person to actually make it all the way to my doorstep was Dorothee, a German cyclist who was in month 8 of a round-the-world trip. From her launch-point in Vienna, Dorothee traveled over 19,000 km through Eastern Europe along the Danube, through Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam and so on before she hit Kampong Cham.

Dorothee and her trusty steed

I set Dorothee up with my buddy Vandong, a monk at Wat Nokor who founded a Buddhism and Development organization that teaches English and does small projects in the local community. She was looking for a temporary volunteer opportunity, and Vandong and the BSDA staff needed someone to help them design a lesson plan template for their English classes. This was Dorothee's first experience seeing any kind of education in Cambodia (or elsewhere on her travels) and she couldn't get over the shock of seeing the monks standing up in front of a class, reading a newspaper for an hour straight as the "lesson." Needless to say, she learned a lot in her short stint, and I'm sure the monks got something out of it as well.

I wasn't sure how much Dorothee had to tell and retell her story over the past 8 months, so I tried not to be too pushy, but after spending a couple of days together, I found out that biking along the Danube was gloriously beautiful, people were friendliest in Mongolia (yak's milk & cheese anyone?), and the Chinese police were the most suspicious.

The thing I enjoyed most about the whole experience was Dorothee's obvious enjoyment of life and her total independence. At 45, she had worked 17 years at her company, and had taken cycling vacations all over the globe. She wasn't married, had no kids, and seemed completely happy. Her enjoyment of life was obvious from her amazing stories and her cheerfulness. Everything about her just seemed so glowing and healthy. Though I couldn't (and wouldn't necessarily want to) live her life (19,000 km + is a bit much for me), I definitely aspire to be as completely fulfilled as Dorothee seemed by her life. I guess the thing to learn from her and her cycling adventure is how to enjoy the journey -- not just where you're trying to go, but also the sights, smells, and people you meet along the way.

After a couple of days with Dorothee, I had to head out for a trip to Singapore, but she stayed on in my house a couple of days to finish up her project. By now, I expect she's made it past Kratie and on up to Laos. She'll head from there through SE Asia to Australia and then across the US back to Europe. She's promised to write in Hawaii so we can try to meet up. If you sprechen Deutsch, you can check out Dorothee's progress here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The (food) price is right

Here's an overview of the basic prices of food in Kampong Cham. It's a good overall indicator of the general cost of living in town. Meat tends to be pretty expensive, relatively speaking, but I tend to eat very little of it so my grocery costs per week are around $15 if I splurge on some dairy.

I'm back in the States in December, and I shudder to think about what I'm going to have to pay for a carrot.

For reference, the street exchange is 4000 riel to one dollar (bank exchange is more like 4200/$1 or so)

1 big carrot = 600 r
1 green pepper = 600 r
1 kilo katna ( or most other green leafy veg) = 3500 r
1/2 kilo beansprouts = 1500 r
1/2 kilo greenbeans = 500 r
1/2 kilo eggplant = 500 r

1/2 kilo s'vai (mango) = 5000 r
1 kilo kroich ch'ma (limes)= 2000 r
1 small pineapple = 1500 r
1 kroich t'long (pumelo) = 3000 r
1 kilo kroich touch (tangerines) = 3500 r
1 kilo pomme (apples) = 5000 r
2 pomegranates = 2500 r
1 kilo grapes = 13000 r
1 kilo dragonfruit = 3000 r
1 watermelon (1.5 k) = 2000 r
1 bunch bananas = 800 r
1 kilo rambutan = 2000 r

1 coconut = 2800 r
5 grams basil, mint, etc. = 200 r
1 bunch (5 stalks) lemongrass = 200 r
1 kilo onions = 2500 r
1 kilo garlic = 1500 r
1 kilo shallots = 2500 r
2.5 grams turmeric bulbs = 200 r
5 grams kaffir lime leaves = 400 r
5 grams chilis = 300 r

1 kilo potatoes = 4000 r
1 kilo good quality rice = 3000 r
2 pats of fresh noodles = 500 r
1 kilo flour = 4000 r
1 dried noodle pack = 300 r
1 "big" loaf of French bread = 1000 r

10 duck eggs = 4800 r
4 blocks tofu = 1,600 r
1 kilo beef = 20,000 r
1 kilo pork = 20,000 r
1 chicken = 20,000 r
1 kilo fish = 13,000 r
1/2 kilo peanuts = 3000 r

1 box milk = $1.80
1 yogurt = $0.60
1 bag of granola = $4.80
1 bottle of decent red wine = $8.00
1 box of Khong Guan biscuits = $4.20
1 loaf of sliced bread = $1.00
1 can of the good brand of coconut milk = $1.20
1 jar of peanut butter = $3.50
1 knock-off Magnum ice cream bar = $1.20

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #1 Ban Chao

1) Ban Chao -
Ban Chao is a thin savory crepe made with turmeric, eggs, water and rice flour, filled with bean sprouts and your choice of ground meat and veg, and eaten with a lush array of green veggies. The glory of Ban Chao is in the procedure. It's eaten with the hands -- pick a perfect lettuce leaf, fill it with your choice of the veggies and leafy greens provided (amaranth, water convolvulus, chyrsanthemum leaves, cabbage, cucumber, basil, mint, water mimosa, and other curious Cambodia-only green things). Then tear off a piece of crepe and filling, wrap up the whole glorious flavor packet, and dip it into the sweet, garlicky dipping sauce.

Making Ban Chao filling with pork

Making the crepes

The finished product

And the veggie medley

How the experts operate


* Ban Chao's Vietnamese equivalent is Ban Xeo (pronounced roughly the same way). The Vietnamese equivalent is often made a bit crispier with more oil in the pan while frying, and can sometimes have the ingredients embedded in the batter rather than included after the crepe is almost cooked.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

To market to market...

To market, to market, to buy a fat pig.
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog.
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.

To market, to market, to buy a plum bun.
Home again, home again, market is done.

Marketing is one of my favorite activities in Kampong Cham, and there's no dearth of variety -- from the main Psah Tom (big market), a pungent labyrinthine jungle of dried shrimp, just-butchered meats, fresh fruit, cookware, clothes, to the unassuming but oh-so-convenient Psah Sala Chun (Chinese School market) where I go for fresh veg after work.

A friend of Les Frenchies at Psah Sala Chun

But my favorite place to shop is the morning market at Psah Bangkot. The real action gets started around 5 in the morning. By then, most of the greengrocers have settled back onto their heels, surrounded by their multicolored produce, the fishmongers have set out their huge aluminum basin of writhing eels and fish, the piles of pineapple are stacked just so, the squeals of slaughtered pigs have just cleared from the air, and the breakfast ladies have started to light the fires under the huge Lot Cha woks.

I park my blue bicycle in the designated area and pick up a slip from the attendant, roll up my pants, then head into the fray with my co-op tote slung over my shoulder. At this market, I have a few favorites: my pork lady, who sweats under her precious pink and white frilly bonnet as she deftly hacks and slices choice cuts with her cleaver. Then there's egg woman who runs a no-nonsense operation. I like her because she delivers my ten eggs nestled in a bit of straw, and she always serves customers in the order they come. Fair and equal.

If I need beef, I head inside where ladies perch on raised concrete stands, hunks of the good stuff hanging from hooks around their heads, viscera and other odds and ends on display in front, often a bucket with skin on a stool just in front. Some employ switches to wave away the flies, some seem not to notice, but my favorite lady keeps her choice cuts in plastic and produces them with a magic white-toothed grin when she sees me coming.

Inside, I can also get tofu, beansprouts and delicious pats of fresh snow-white noodles, which are wrapped up in giant lily-pads (lotus leaves) and deposited with titters in my canvas bag. Just down the row from the tofu, past the bags of tobacco and rolling paper, begin the stalls of housewares. Here, I'll usually stop to commisserate with another friend who asks where I'm going, tells me about an accident with her arm, and then offers me a good price on plastic bowls for my kitchen. Just a week ago, I got some great chopping knives for just $3.

This is a morning place. By 8, the market is too hot to enjoy and by 10 or 11, it's a ghostland, but in the early hours, it's a gorgeous world of mud and meat and leaves and real food.

A new kind of computer for rural Cambodian schools

This is a video I originally produced in Khmer for one of our projects, just translated into English.

This year, the ESCUP project in Cambodia installed the first solar-powered thin client lab in a Cambodian high school. Thin client labs are cheaper to set-up than a traditional lab, reduce energy use by 88%, and are easier to upgrade and maintain.

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #2 Pork Rice with sauce and picked papaya, carrot & cucumber

2) Pork Rice with sauce & pickled papaya, carrot and cucumber
This dish is so ubiquitous, and I've eaten it so many times here in Cambodia that I was tempted to put this number one. It certainly wins for the dish that I could eat and eat day after day without my enthusiasm flagging. The concept is simple, a winning formula for Khmer-food success: meat over rice, plus sauce.

The barbeque pork has some qualities of Chinese char-siew, but the cut of meat is thinner, and it has some of the lemongrassy tendencies of the pork they use in Vietnamese Bun. The best locales serve this over heaping rice with a small bit of chopped fried egg and some scallions. On the side, the classiest joints will have three small accompaniments: a bowl of hot broth, a medium size sauce bowl with thin slices of pickled papaya, carrot and cucumber, and a smaller bowl of the thin sweet, garlic, chili sauce that's used in so many Cambodian meals.



Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My new Fancy Fro-Yo maker

They say necessity is the mother of invention. I probably didn't need frozen yogurt for dessert tonight, but I sure did want it.

I don't know if it's a result of having more time or if it's the skillful improvisation techniques of the people around me (the bread man in the morning making a horn from an empty dish-detergent bottle, and the kids at the American corner hammering poster frames from bamboo), but here in Cambodia I seem to feel some sort of urge to create. The fact that I can't always get the "perfect" materials makes my little projects all the more fun.

So tonight, when I felt like a sweet frozen treat, instead of heading to the gas station (the purveyor of all things dairy), I poked my head into the icebox to see what I could see.

My three new precious cups of vanilla yogurt caught my eye and I thought...

~What ho!
In this heat,
what better treat
than a nice, home-made

So I found an empty plastic tub with a screw on lid and poured in my yogurt and a little extra sugar. I put the tub in my "Fancy" maker, then I took out my cleaver, banged up some ice chips, and poured them in between the two containers with some generous spoonings of salt.

Then I sat on the floor of my apartment and rolled my cylinders back and forth while watching a couple of Ted Talks and voila! 20 minutes later, yogurt delight to rival Purplemango, Greenkiwi, Chartruselychee and whatever other frozen yogurt stores are out there these days.


I went to the doctor for the first time in Kampong Cham last week. I convinced Rumdourl to leave work a little bit early to make the visit and we headed off on my moto to the market to look for the ENT guy who supposedly had an office near Rumdourl's family cell phone shop.

It took a bit of doing, but finally we located the right doctor. The "office," like most here in town, was the bottom story of somebody's home. When we walked in, the doctor's wife (also the nurse, receptionist and pharmacist) let us know that he was out, but would be back in 15.

The first thing I noticed walking in was an entire wall of framed certificates, a rectangle of rectangles at least 5 x 6 wide. Above there were blown up prints of the doctor's family hanging out in Singapore and at Angkor Wat.

There was a small counter just inside the door which served as the pharmacy, and next to that was a big wooden platform where the family was sitting. On the opposite side of the room was a wooden bench (the waiting room).

The wall behind me was covered with posters touting various medical maladies -- skin conditions, ear conditions -- from the banal to the grotesque. Rumdourl was obviously disturbed and she told me that this was why she could never be a doctor -- she would never be able to eat anything delicious again.

The doctor eventually returned on his moto in a grungy white t-shirt, shorts and plastic slippers. He headed straight into the examination room in the back. From my perch on the bench, I strained to see if he was washing his hands (he was!). The nurse sprayed what I thought might be disinfectant around the room; when I went in later, I saw (and smelled) that it had just been air freshener.

Rumdourl explained my issue -- I had had an ear infection two weeks before and my hearing was still muted since then. The doctor could speak some English, so he reassured me and began preparing his nifty medical toys. This guy was obviously a gadget geek -- he seemed to have more and better equipment than the clinics I had been to in Phnom Penh. He started up his computer and turned on a big machine. The machine turned out to be a camera that could look right up into your ear. He even had a wall mounted TV, so I could see what was going on, and he took a picture for me to take home. Nifty!

Eventually, he decided that my ears were no longer infected and I had nothing blocking them, but that I must have an issue with my Eustacian tubes.

He prescribed me a barrage of medications (5 in all) which ended up making me really dizzy, and didn't exactly clear up the problem.

Oh well. Upon return to the states, I plan to have an exhaustive physical and then make a new proactive health plan to get myself back in working order.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #3 Lot Cha

3) Lot Cha
These noodles are a breakfast favorite at the market, but they're really delicious any time of day. Their unique shape, which on first glance look unsettlingly close to short, squat worms, make for a firm, but chewy texture-party in your mouth, but it's the sauce that separates ok Loat Cha from heaven. The noodles are fried in a little bit of soy sauce, oyster sauce + other mystery liquid goodness with sprouts, green veg, and your choice of egg and meat. But the real flavor comes from the sweet and spicy, extra-garlicky sauce that's served alongside. I like to eat mine loaded down with extra chili.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Phnom Penh Prisoner (happy ending)

Friday afternoon, I headed out to Phnom Penh hoping for a night out and some general fun on the town. It was my Pepy buddies' last weekend in Phnom Penh before heading out to their new office in Siem Reap, plus Friday night was the re-opening of the Pontoon, a floating club on the Mekong which sank back in July after a night of too much party.

I made it into town around 6 and headed for Lauren's house. All the occupants were out for the weekend, but they left the keys with their sweetheart landlady Eng. After a twenty minute conversation about the pros and cons of living in the US (Eng lived in Milpitas for over a dozen years), she let me in whereupon I proceeded straightaway to turn on a fan, plop down on the couch and sigh.

I got in touch with Achaya, Allison and Matt to get the rough plan for the night. Since no one was sure about food, I decided to splurge and order pizza delivery. When I come out to Phnom Penh, I tend to indulge in all the pleasures that I just can't get back in the KC, so I only felt a little guilty about vegging out for the next couple of hours with some good reading material and a perfect veggie feta thin-crust pizza.

Eventually around 10, Allison called and told me they were heading over to a bar nearby, so I hopped to, brushed off the crumbs, and started to get ready. 10 minutes later I bounded down the stairs, only to realize that Eng had locked me in. There were two extra heavy duty padlocks on the inside of the house gate. Given my lack of Parkour skills, I was trapped.

Twas a pity, but I was sleepy anyhow, so I curled back into my book, read for awhile, and then headed off for sleep.

The next day, I woke up bright and early, made a quick plan and then headed out to breakfast. First stop was Java cafe where I had a bagel (yum!) and housemade yogurt (double-yum!) and a big mug of coffee. Oh how the little things make such a difference to me here! -- sitting on a cafe balcony on a Saturday morning, surrounded by plants, eating a BAGEL and drinking real coffee. What a delight.

I prolonged the luxury of the experience with a Will Shortz puzzle and amused myself by eavesdropping on the 20-something graphic designer beside me who was giving a friend advice on how to procure Kanye tickets.

Afterwards, I walked out along the river towards Bohr's used book store where I wasted 30 minutes carefully browsing all the titles on their 2 shelves, and finally choosing two (photocopies, of course). As I left the bookshop, the light suddenly changed and the ever-present clouds took on a slightly ominous cast.

I decided it would pass and continued on my planned route to the huge Himawari Hotel where I got myself a day pass and headed out to the glorious pool. In fact the pool wasn't that glorious when I arrived. It was grey and drizzly and I was the only person around. The attendants in their jaunty maroon uniforms came out to rearrange the lounge chair cushions so they'd remain dry. They gave me incredulous looks so that I was afraid they were about to drag me out as a precaution against ... what exactly? not getting wet? But I was left unharrassed, and true to my prediction, the sun came back within 10 minutes and within 20 minutes of that, there were 20 people in and around the pool.

I sat out and read my book and whenever lines of sweat started dripping down my forehead into my eyes, I'd jump back in the pool and swim a few laps in between Korean speedo-boy and aqua-robics hippie lady.

After 3 hours or so, the folks beside me ordered lunch and the smell of french fries reminded me that I had other things to do that day.

I arranged myself and headed off to the Russian market where I bargained and sweated my way into various souveniers for friends and family back home. Since I'm heading back in December, I figured I would rather break up the present-buying affair into a few manageable episodes rather than one, stressful hagglefest. Then, pleased with my fortitude and laden with packages, I grabbed a motoman to take me to pick up my stuff at Lauren's, and then on to post-market relaxation.

True to the indulgence theme, my next stop was my favorite spa in town, Aziadee. For $8, I got 60 minutes of pure bliss from a super-strong Khmer lady who rubbed and pulled and kneaded until I was a happy jelly mess on the mat on the floor.

Once that was done, I was ready to go. I made a quick stop off at Lucky Supermarket for cat litter and one of their awesome custard tarts, and then hopped on the bus home.

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #4 Kway Tieov Beef Noodles

4) Kway Tieov beef noodles
Rice noodle soup's a staple in many Asian cuisines -- the Vietnamese have their Pho, the Malay have Assam Laksa, there's Burmese Mohinga and Indonesian Soto Ayam. But there's something special going on with the beef Kway Tieov at a small roadside restaurant across from the Tbong Khmum district hospital 30 km outside of Kampong Cham Town. Unlike traditional Khmer Kway Tieov broth, which is generally a clear broth with a pork or beef + fish base, this broth is a dark red, rich soya beef bonanza, very similar to Taiwanese hong shao style beef noodle soup. The noodles come seeped in this miracle broth, topped with greens and falling-apart-tender chunks of beef and are served with a side of bean sprouts and fresh limes. The shameless Cambodians like to add MSG, but I skip that and go for some crunchy dried onions. I'll also daintily dip my beef chunks in chili before placing them gently on my tongue to melt. These are for early-rises only because people come for miles and the noodles run out by 8am or so.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #5 Kampot Pepper Beef

5) Kampot Pepper Beef
According to my oh-so-trusty Lonely Planet Guide, top French chefs still pay homage to the key ingredient in this dish. Kampot pepper is prized not only by Cambodians, but also by its former-colonizers for its unique, fruity, oh-so-peppery taste. When Jaime and I ordered "green pepper beef" at the best restaurant in Sihanoukville (M'loop Mien!), we expected a green pepper like this:

But what we got was a lot better. This dish uses the fresh green, uncured peppercorns straight from the tree.

Slices of beef are fried with a lot of oil and other juicy delights (soy, fish sauce, and what other wonders?), shallots, and stems of shiny lime-green pepper pods. You pull the tiny green balls off the stem with your teeth and they pop open in your mouth in a delicious, spicy medley that complements the meaty beef. I found myself tilting the dish to spoon up the last dregs of the pepper-infused sauce to eat over plain rice.

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #6 Omlette with Minced Pork and Cured Fish and Fresh Veggies

6) Omlette with Cured Fish and fresh Veggies
Faint-of-heart travelers miss out on some of the best dishes in Cambodia because of their reluctance to eat fresh veggies. This dish is particularly scary because the accoutrements -- fresh cabbage, green beans, cucumbers, and carrots, are often served on ice (oh no!) in order to keep them cool and fresh while you partake. The omelette itself is unassuming, but its simplicity is decieving. The taste of the famous Cambodian sun-dried fish (Trei Ngiet or Trei Prama) and minced pork transforms a familiar eggy friend into a deep flavourful experience, sweetly complemented by the mini-bowl of chopped bird chilis and fish sauce that's meant to be rationed out over each bite. This fish sauce concoction is a regular accompaniment to Khmer dishes and is also used as a terrific dipping sauce for the fresh veggies.

Smoked fish, ready for action.
from Flickr, ndnbrunei

Friday, October 17, 2008

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #7 Ginger Fish

7) Ginger Fish
This is a super-simple dish that I've seen done deliciously with eel, fish, chicken, and wild boar. I like fish the best because the flaky white flesh of the Cambodian river fish seems to go perfectly with the deep fried ginger and scallions. It's a simple stir fry that throws all its eggs into one basket -- into the ginger basket, to be precise. The best versions include some fresh chopped bird chilis and have enough sauce to spoon over your piping hot white rice.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #8 Fish Amok

8) Fish Amok
The guidebooks call Fish Amok the national dish of Cambodia, but an informal survey of 10 Cambodian (female) colleagues confirms that only 2 know how to cook Amok, and even they are a bit iffy. The variations of amok are as varied as the species of fish in Cambodia (which is to say, very varied) -- thin sauce to gelatinous; red, white, to slightly green; wrapped in banana, or placed on a bed of greens -- but the general idea remains the same, boneless fish chunks steamed in a light coconut curry. The essential aromatic ingredients of Amok are lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves which give it a citrusy, fresh flavor which complements the fish better than your traditional Khmer curry sauce. I tend to like the deep red variations because they're spicier and thicker seems better because generally the cook has used the richest part of the coconut milk. I give extra points for the banana leaves, but only because of the presentation.

Bargaining for Amok ingredients.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #9 Beef Lok Lak

9) Beef Lok Lak
The Brits must share my love for this dish because most Khmer restaurant menus have a special entry for Lok Lak English style -- with a fried eggs and chips instead of plain old rice. Cambodian's Lok Lak is similar to their Eastern neighbor's mouthwatering Shaken Beef (Vietnamese call it Luc Lac, sound familiar?) though it would be treason to say so to any Cambodian. The fried beef cubes are served with tomato and onion slices, generally atop a bed of fresh lettuce. Like with so many dishes here, the make-or-break component of amazing Lok Lak is the dipping sauce, a salt-and-peppery lime-based sauce that makes even the toughest Cambodian cow taste good. I've never ordered English style because as much as I love a fried egg, I don't think chips could come close to the experience of a piece of beef dunked in Lok Lak sauce atop a spoon of white rice.

Unsuspecting cows, pre Lok Lak

Top Ten Khmer Foods: #10 Noam Ban Chop, Namja Style

This kicks off a ten part series on my very favorite foods in Cambodia. Coming in at number ten on the list:

10) Noam Ban Chop, Namja style

True Khmer noodles come in three styles, defined by the broth -- curry, keuv (blue), and namja (meaning unclear). The noodles are eaten at room temperature with an assortment of greens, dependent on the region, the season, and the establishment. My favorite is namja, the reddish brown coconut, shrimp, and peanut based broth, smothering fresh white rice noodles. Like all Khmer noodles, Namja is meant to be augmented by your personal addition of bean sprouts, leafy greens, chilis and a quick squeeze of lime from the communal tray. But the best part about Namja comes when you dig under the mound of sticky fresh noodles and come upon the secret treasure of cucumber slivers and round rings of thinly sliced elephant flower.

At a stall just outside of Phnom Penh. A bowl of noodles runs at $0.32 a pop.

Yum. This is actually keuv (or blue) style, but you get the picture.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

funk city

This has been the week of the funk. A deep, pathetic funk that settled like a large alien object way down deep into the pit of my stomach, so that I felt too heavy to get out of bed in the morning and couldn't concentrate on anything I was supposed to be working on. The seed of funk was planted way back in August when Jaime came to visit and I took the trip home for a few days.

It took some time to germinate. I kept busy with movie making, new friends, trips out to Phnom Penh, and various illness, but eventually it sprouted into an ugly, self-pitying, anxiety-ridden goblin that fed on feelings of isolation, uselessness, and insecurity about the future.

I'm trying various forms of therapy -- company for Pchum Ben, long bike rides, recruiting my coworkers for various social outings -- but this exorcism appears to be taking some patience and dedication to ongoing self-treatment.

My prescription combines lots of happy music, exercise, riding my moto with my hair flying in the wind, looking forward to trips out to the field and to my travel plans in Singapore and Thailand, meditating on self-affirming phrases ("Yes, I'm healthy, happy and strong"), and forcing myself to be social even when I would rather ball up under a sheet tent in my bed.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Discos down south

Last week, I had a few days off for Pchum Ben (a Cambodian celebration of ancestors), so I headed down to Phnom Penh with a plan to meet up with some friends heading south to the beaches. I arrived in the city with a terrible earache and ended up spending 3 days curled up prone, half in tears, on the couch of my dear friend Lauren. Eventually, Lauren took charge and brought me to a Francophone doctor (no English speaking medical professionals in Phnom Penh apparently) who prescribed me a barrage of heavy duty antibiotics. (My time in Cambodia has made me into something approaching a feedlot cow in terms of doses of antibiotics consumed per month, and my digestive track is most definitely devoid of any and all good critters.)

Thankfully, the meds cleared up the pain, and on the morning of day 4, I was able to hop on a bus out to Kep to meet up with a small crew of friends who had all made it down in the previous 2-3 days and were already a day or two deep into hard partying. It was a good night despite not being able to hear from one ear -- good music, good food, good company, dancing, and a sea breeze.

The next day, we had breakfast at the Led Zep cafe -- burritos which tasted more like pizzas in pitas -- and said goodbye to one of our crew who was headed back to Phnom Penh, then we rocketed off to Kampot. Jam and Matt had ridden down on bikes they borrowed from their NGO (a eco/development-tourism business called Pepy where they both are volunteers), so they sweated it out the 30 or so kilometers. Achaya speed off dangerously on his rented crotch rocket, and Alison and I lived it up in the back of a vacationing family's truck.

Kampot was sleepy as usual, but so were we after the previous night, and the plan was head out ASAP. The idea was to stash the bikes, rent motos and make like Charlie's Angels onwards to Sihanoukville. However, post-coffee, rain still spitting down, our not-so-tough crew decided that riding was out and so we went van-hunting. Eventually, after much incredulous eyebrow raising and reminders of "holiday prices," we settled on a share taxi for $5/head and $5/bike.

Jam was strapped and in a nasty mood. Lucky for him, his whining and empty threats to just stay in Kampot alone were met with good natured cajoling and convincing by his friends, so after much hee-ing and haw-ing (and rolling of the eyes by yours truly) he stashed his bike on the van and hopped on the motorcycle with Achaya.

The unwitting and unlucky rest of the crew (Matt, Allison and I) pile in the back row of the van next to Mr. McDrunkerson who proceeded to grab me and attempt to lay one on before Matt graciously offered to switch seats. 5 hours, one new oil filter, one new van, 3 roadside Anchors courtesy of Mr. Tipsy, and many drunken-Cambodian-anecdotes later (songs about seahorses, anyone?), we finally arrive in Sihanoukville ready for a shower and a drink.

Later that night, we end up at the dark empty venue where they host crocodile and snake shows during the day. Apparently, one of our party was mistakenly informed that this was an "off-the-hook" night spot. On the upside, the tuk-tuk trip afforded a crazy roller-coaster ride up and down the hills of Sihanoukville, the clear highlight of the night.

Eventually we find ourselves at seedy Khmer night club with a cover charge of $4 (free beer included), unflattering blue lights, and creepy staring bouncers. Allison and I are clearly the tallest people on the dance-floor, and we become the unofficial hubs around which the smaller energetic contingent eddies and swirls. The Cambodian boys dance together holding hands. They shake it like they mean it, and scream out loud with ecstatic arm gestures and coordinated pelvic thrusts at appropriate moments while the girls stand around swaying slightly and looking more than a little embarrassed.

Then, amidst all the joy and chaos, the crazy cat who's still sore about his mistake with the abandoned croc farm disappears. Those concerned for his welfare recognize this as a cry for attention and accommodatingly text him messages of love and concern. Croc boy is found upstairs, and we eventually convince him to head back to the hotel with the rest of us. We drink some bad vodka and chat and some of us stay very quiet, meditating on how we wish croc boy was left behind. This uncharitableness can be partially blamed on croc boy's non-stop verbal outbursts, bragging about about how his Hindi advantage got him into the VIP lounge and chastising us for dragged him away from the apparent apogee of the S-town social scene.

The next day, Matt was in a bad way with his stomach and the other boys were knackered, so Alison and I headed down to the beach for awhile. We whiled away the day in various ways, but ended up all together again around 6pm for the first drink of the evening.

I'm 23, but rarely do I feel that age. Instead, my feelings and actions swing from those of a 10-years old to someone around 35, only occasionally (uncomfortably, unnaturally) ending up somewhere in between. That particular night, I started as an old 35, not in the mood for the drinking, party, flirt with random strangers thing. I was very thankful to meet Elida, a friend of Achaya's (actually his ex-boss) who provided some interesting conversation, agreed to dance, and didn't seem to mind that my libations were only half-hearted. Then, croc and I had a tiff. The others tried to mediate, but I made like a pre-teen girl and he made like a reptile, and though things were smoothed over, I still felt disgusted. (Who tries to excuse their anti-social behavior by likening themselves to Mother Teresa?)

The next morning, I was up at 7am to a glorious sunny day. The rest of the contingent slept while I headed out to the beach for a small sunning. Then I called Elida and we headed out in her SUV to a secluded beach where we swam and splashed and sunned and built a mini-version of Angkor Wat in the sand and felt completely content when our castle was recognized by the small Cambodian children frolicking about us.

Eventually we headed back to meet up with Elida's fiance and after a small dip in her hotel pool, I headed back to Phnom Penh.