From our perch in the bow of the boat we can hear the shriek of the anchor and feel the deep shudder of the vessel as they crank up for our departure from Phnom Penh. We make no further stops on land today; we will clear customs in Vietnam by mid-afternoon. I promised our editor to put in a full day on the textbook but I am carving out some blogging time this morning first.
This visit to Cambodia has gone by in a flash, much more a cultural exchange than relaxing vacation — at once intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging. We have gone from heart warming and uplifting to soul destroying in the course of a single day. I have barely had time to process anything. Here are some impressions, culinary and otherwise, that I’ll be chewing over for some time to come.
A morning blessing by Buddhist monks in a temple glowing with pinks and turquoises. I wanted to move right in but apparently women have cooties — our touch keeps the monks from achieving nirvana. Still, the chanting was lovely and the littlest monk was about six. Adorable. Blessed indeed.
A walk around a village, one of several we visited, truly seeing how the rural people here live their lives. At first it felt voyeuristic but the villages we visited — most getting various kinds of developmental assistance — were used to it. Babies stared at us with huge eyes from their mothers’ hips, tiny kids ran around us showing off. A small boy chased after a friend, threatening him with an unhappy frog, clutched tightly in his hand. Just like home only so, so different.
A welcome into a family house (no more than a handful of us at a time so we wouldn’t break through the bamboo floor, slatted to allow mosquito-deterring smoke to waft up from below at night.)
A peek at women being taught to extract the most gorgeous blue dyes from indigo plants. In another village they spun silk from the boiled cocoons of caterpillars (the word “silkworm” sounds much cuter than they are) and wove it into stunning fabrics.
A visit to a rural primary school. Some of the cutest kids I have ever seen in one of the most sweltering classrooms imaginable. The second-graders were precious, the older ones precocious, all eager to show off heavily accented English and to sing us songs. One class sang their ABCs and then a little girl asked Jerry if we knew a song. All the cruise passengers in our group of about 30 (of whom a crazy number are teachers) broke into a spirited round of Old MacDonald Had a Farm. (Wish we had video.) The babies sang “If You Are Happy and You Know It” to much clapping of hands and stamping of feet. It was indeed a happy, happy time, if amazingly hot and steamy. The weather broke on the way back to the boat and we rode a rickshaw through the deluge.
A hair-raising tuk tuk ride through an equally wet Phnom Penh that night, where the rain didn’t discourage the colorful nightlife. The National Palace lit up and dazzling “All that for one person,” noted our driver. Indeed.
Dinner at a beautiful restaurant, Malis, that accomplished a minor architectural miracle — a dry and comfortable dinner outside despite the showers. A sheltered perimeter to an open garden let us enjoy the waterfalls and greenery and the rain-fresh air while we ate extraordinary Khmer food. The mix of herbs in my papaya salad (mint and cilantro, said the waiter, but unfamiliar to my taste buds) was strong but interesting, a roasted eggplant salad had a great sweet chili sauce (but could have used more of it), Jerry’s banana leaf and beef salad was superb and a friend’s scallops with green peppercorns was delicious — sweet and mellow until the little green devils exploded with peppery flavor. I followed the appetizers with grilled prawns on more eggplant, dressed with a mild green curry. Tasty but maybe too mild? Jerry had a goby fish baked in salt and served with a tangy tamarind sauce (necessary because the fish too was super mild.) Lynn had steamed prawns that were overpowering in their garlickiness — the one really off note in otherwise intriguing food. Not sure I really loved the flavor palate, but the meal as a whole was just delightful. Plus, excellent coconut icecream!
An agonizing decision process the next morning that ended with me deciding to skip the visit to the prison and the Killing Fields. I know the torture and killing happened, I am not in denial or avoidance about the evil of it, I just am not equipped to hear the details without falling into an emotional pit that I am not sure I can climb out of. So.
A midday tuk tuk ride (no less harrowing than the night before) to the Central Market for a sensory overload of a different sort. The sweaty heat and the fetid smell of durian were overpowering, but I did emerge with some very cheap and cool “Ali Baba pants” (as the vendors called them) with elephants on them and a breezy rayon shift (more elephants.).
Dinner last night in the tired but legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, at an open table looking over the river (and a wall crawling with tiny geckos.). The food had some unexpected highlights (lovely spring rolls, a spicy hearts of palm and watercress salad with grilled calamari, refreshing lime and mango ice cream) and the tuk tuk ride back to the boat was, once again, an act of faith.
A sad awakening to the double headlines of the Malaysian flight shot down and the escalation in Gaza. What are we coming to, a friend wondered on Facebook?
Nowhere we haven’t been before, I am afraid.