Consumption, Cambodian-style


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Asia » Cambodia » North » Battambang
April 3rd 2008
Published: April 5th 2008
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Take a banana. Wrap it in rice. Wrap the whole thing in a coat of banana leaves and grill it on a charcoal fire. Call it delicious.

Wake up as early a possible. Rush to the market religiously as soon as you open your eyes. The villagers will be selling their wares: women in sarungs with shawls draped criss-crossed around their heads or with straw sun hats, crouched beneath their stall umbrellas. Pick up that snake fish writhing on the sidewalk and put it back in its bucket. It doesn't matter that you don't know its name or how it manages to survive all day without water. Smile when the seller woman seems amused. The villager sellers will start to go home around 9ish. Better hurry to get those bananas and mangoes. Don't stroll leisurely down the row asking for prices as you go along. You'll alert them to your presence. Don't forget that it's fair game if they try to charge you 2 to 4 times the actual price. And they won't budge. And the whole market will join in. Find a simple-hearted unsuspecting soul and pounce on her. Bananas? It's 1000 for a bunch of 14-16. A commodity. The price should be fixed. Mangoes tend to fluctuate more, and are thus a more stressful proposition. At least you know you can always get the grilled-banana-and-rice-in-banana-leaf. For 500. Or... have I been unwittingly overcharged for the past 3 weeks? Yesterday I self-confidently walked over to the seller woman and declared pii (numbers are as far as I've gotten in Khmer), reinforced by showing 2 fingers. She showed me 6 fingers in response. 600? No way! It's 500 and I know it. Feign friendly-yet-righteous indignation. Okay okay 500. Feel pleased and say "you just have to be firm sometimes..." Count your change. Wait! She took 500 for two... have I been demanding she sell her goods at half the price I regularly pay? Go back and get another two.

Scarcely containing your excitement sit down at one of the many soup stands. The flat yellow noodles cost more but taste best. Smile as you point to what you want. Chopsticks in right hand spoon in left. Add fish sauce, red pepper, black pepper, and some MSG (or is that sugar?). Delicious! Give 100 riel to each beggar that comes by. Try to suppress your feelings of guilt: yes it's nothing, but 100 is the going rate for alms. That bit of intestine doesn't really taste so bad. Nor does that shaving of liver (or lung?) that always makes an appearance. Finish your soup drenched in sweat and with a sigh of satisfaction. Use that roll of toilet paper to wipe your mouth and (now-running) nose. Hand over the money with both hands as a sign of respect. And then try to gauge from their behavior whether they will try to overcharge you. They do it so well, it's confusing: they smile and look deep in your eyes while raising the price ever so slightly. There's none of the evil greed-in-the-eyes that usually gives the Indians away and is endemic to taxi (or moto) drivers. "Yes," you'll have to tell your conscience, "it's true it's only 500 riel extra, but it's the principle!" That same principle that can ruin your day over a paltry 100 riel ($1 = 4000 riel) that you'd only be embarrassed to give a beggar. The woman shows you the price using thousand-riel notes. You have exactly that amount, partially in 500s, plus a $10 note that you'd love to get rid of. Hoping she didn't notice, you hand over the $10. She shows you the price again, this time in the form of the exact combination of 1000s and 500s you have. Defeated, you take back the $10 and hand over change. Remember to smile as you leave. Come again tomorrow if they've resisted the urge to overcharge. Call it Positive Reinforcement.

Try to re-experience the exotic air of the market as if it was your first time. The girls with smiling eyes peeping over surgical masks will remind you of Yemen. The yellow-ducky pajamas are way cool. Keep your nostrils flared for the smell of those grilled bananas. Your feet involuntarily tap in time with the celebrational xylophone music piped through loudspeakers. Wonder how those fertilized duck eggs with embryos taste. The women banging snake fish over the head before skinning them, the decapitated little fish that still flutter around. The vendors of fruits, vegetables, "oil sticks", imported apples and pears, small watermelons, pickled greenery, bits of meat and congealed blood, shrimp, green mangoes sold with salt and spices, and of course what you've been searching for: the drink stalls.

Iced coffee costs 1000. Some thick green syrupy drink (approximately identified as being some kind of bean extract), home-made soy milk, or sugar cane juice (all sold with a lot of ice), cost 500. Or maybe less. But you always pay 500. Coffee without the thick sugary condensed milk has more coffee in it. As with all other drinks and basically any food item, it can be bought "to go" in a plastic bag.

Plastic. It's sobering to think of how much of it you're consuming in a single day. Since the bout of hepatitis in Thailand, most likely induced by drinking chemically-contaminated tap water in India, you now drink bottled water (which, incidentally, is always exciting to hunt for, since most vendors will try to charge you 600-700 rather than the fixed 500). That's about 4 bottles of waste a day. Breakfast is usually sit-down (and soup), but lunch is almost always in the form of take-away "pot food" sold in plastic bags. Pots: that quintessentially perfect market food. A row of vendors, each with an assortment of pots (usually at least half a dozen, plus some extras such as barbecued sausage, chicken wings, or splayed fish) containing... well, pot-food. Plus a big bucket of rice somewhere in the back. Pot food is generally some form of vegetable dish served with some meat. A serving of food is 1000, a serving of rice 500. The quantity isn't fixed but the price is. I dare anyone to find a cheaper nutritious balanced meal. While delicious and cheap, something about the rice content makes it less-than-satisfying as a meal to your wheat-accustomed stomach, and you often end up feeling hungry right after eating. If so, it's time to rush over to the sugar cane juice stall and waste some more plastic. The bottles are recycled, but what happens to the 12+ plastic bags you consume daily? Tell yourself it's medically necessary and move on.

Transportation, contrary to what you may expect, takes a lot of effort. First of all, the prices are almost never written down, even at the established bus companies (special price for you my friend). Even if they are posted, they are frequently higher than what you'll pay if you go through an agency (such as your commission-taking guesthouse), hence are open to negotiation. Likewise, sometimes they will use the favorite "this old" explanation to charge you more than what is written. If there is a way of bargaining with them (and in general), I don't know what it is. They will almost always refuse to budge, even when both of you know you can get it for less next door (which is what you'll end up doing anyhow). On forms of transportation where the price is not established (ie, minibus, shared taxi, ferry boat) you may try watching what others pay and aiming for that, although don't make the mistake of expecting your friendly fellow-passengers or otherwise disinterested bystanders to be on your side or help you with the price. That pregnant young woman sitting next to you will smilingly insist that the price is "two dolaa" even though you've seen her pay 500, and the ticket lady is only pushing for 1000. And don't make the mistake of talking to anyone but the person who will be receiving the money. They love to share out the blame and responsibility, and bystanders (and I've seen at least one get kickbacks) are only too happy to emphatically shake their heads and say "no". I think "it's the principle" goes for them too: foreigners must pay more. Best to have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another. Minibuses are cramped and involve a lot of haggling (bus fares are an upper bound on the price); shared taxis likewise. Bus schedules can be inconvenient. If you see a boat with locals, just go for it. They're rapidly dying out.

Make eye contact with and smile at everyone you meet, even the vendors who try to double-charge you. Wave and say hello to the little kids who shout "what is your name?" or the young guys who ask "where do you go?" Learn to say aw khun and sum muy, and don't take yourself seriously when you use them. Be cool and don't ask the price of commodities before buying them (you need exact change in order to pull this one off). Ask for the bill by declaring some get laid!

It's about 9 in the morning. Don't worry. There's plenty more to consume. Make regular forays to the market to purchase more food. Grilled bananas never get old. Nor does sugar cane juice. Eat eat eat. Why didn't anyone tell me there's *another* market in Battambang? The obvious one was kindof a letdown anyhow. The 14 books you're carrying are for emergencies. It's not an emergency yet, is it? Assiduously accumulate and hoard reading material. Listen to other peoples' travel stories. Be embarrassed and lie about how long you've been on the road and how bad you are at traveling. People just want to talk about themselves anyhow, right? Suppress the urge to begin sentences with phrases like "when I was in Afghanistan..." Envy those who can plop down at a western-style cafe and not feel self-conscious. Look at the people hanging out in the area beneath their house-on-stilts, chilling in hammocks and otherwise lazing through the day, and wonder "why should I feel sorry for them because they have less money than I? I wish my life was as cool as theirs!" Then remind yourself that you don't really know what their life is like. At least the little kids splashing around in the river in Kratie... you know they were having fun. Be amazed at how many white people there are around. And at the strange buildings of the French colonial era. And at how many buildings they built. If you're feeling particularly indulgent you can nap through the noontime heat. And worry about your next destination. And resist the urge to buy a pack of cigarettes for 500 (yes, that's 8 packs of smokes for $1). And write blogs to not think of the fact that you're now 30 and should start acting responsibly.

After the disappointment in Thailand (how could I have known? I thought all backpackers were cool and searching for something...) and the grief of India (tell me, in a country where almost everyone speaks English, why could I not meet a single person who didn't want to cheat me? And yes it's true that Indians are intelligent, but hey, we're not as stupid as you assume we are...) Cambodia has been a healthy break and a return to the 3rd world. Yet, strangely enough, I get the feeling that travel here can be arbitrarily easy or complex. You could eat all your meals at your guesthouse, maybe go over to a western-owned cafe or restaurant for dinner (or for beer if your liver isn't recovering from Hepatitis), spend your 8 days in Cambodia on the beach in Sihanoukville or the Lakeside in Phnom Penh, or even just do a 3-day trip from Bangkok to Angkor Wat and back (and get ripped off once with the visa and then again with the absurd exchange rate and stories that "there are no ATMs in Cambodia"). Or you could push the limit and try to live like a local as much as possible. Either way you get a stamp in your passport saying "Tourist". For me, I'm not under any illusions. I don't think I've even scratched the surface of that cashew nut that is Cambodia. And I wonder why it is that I felt like such a local in Pakistan, while even if they like me here and think my scruffy style is funny, I'm still just a Barang (albeit one who has figured out some of the prices and accordingly demands respect), and certainly an outsider.

As usual, days before leaving, I feel like "OK, now I'm ready to take on the country..."

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6th April 2008

cok coolsun
Bence cok da guzel travelling yapiyorsun:) Cozdun de artik heryerde local olabilmeyi, en guzeli de o!
8th April 2008

Good to hear your news again. I am glad Cambodia has given you some solace from the grief of India and disappointments of Thailand. Just wanted to let you know that we too don't know what to tell people about our travels, it's been three years now and for us too the big 30 is this year. Anyway I started reading your blogs when we were planning our great escape and finally our paths are getting closer together; we are in Vietnam just now. For us too Laos was a disappointment and India just plain tough. Vietnam despite all expectaions has been cool with great people, but we have stayed in the central highlands and away form the touristy beaches. Anyway will head to Cambodia, perhaps you'll see us cycling Erika
16th April 2008

Glad to see that you're still traveling
I really enjoyed your Africa posts awhile back and I'm glad to find myself catching up with your other travels. I'm planning on fastpacking the Camino in Sept/Oct, so I was glad to see that you had that part covered as well. Best of luck and happy travels.
3rd May 2008

good to have you back.
Hey bedreddin, excellent stuff as usual. Good to see you are still alive and full of pith. Mind if I ask, why no pics?
26th May 2008

YORULMADIN MI DAHA??
Abi sen anlattikca ben yoruluyorum.Yillardir Izmir'den BFL ye arabayla nostaljik road trip olayina giremedim bile usengecligimden.Senin olay beni 100 bin kere asar. RESPECT :)
11th August 2008

trying to fit in.
Selam Can, I'm amused by your effort to categorize yourself as a non-tourist. I think that is exactly what has prevented me from traveling so much. I don't want to be the tourist. I want to live in one spot for a while. Speak the language. Get to know the local grocer and be around for the seasonal holidays. and then move on to somewhere else...The other obvious thing is...You know the further east you go the less you can blend in. hadi bir gun gorusmek uzere, Katrina
14th August 2008

post need pics.
Nice stories but seeing is believing!

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