I am SO behind here and I apologize to those of you that have been sitting at the screen WAITING for my next post.
In the time you haven’t heard from me I have been having BBQs with ex-pats, riding motorbikes over snakes, exploring rusty crashed Chinese ships and snuggling puppies with fleas.
Right now I’m in Phnom Penh (again – all roads seem to lead to Phnom Penh) trying to make a decision on my next move. Khmer New Year seems to be in full swing (even though it’s not officially until next week) and it’s been hard to plan without a plan.
I want to back up and talk about my night with a bunch of Khmer local guys in Battambang. It sounds more scandalous than it was.
WARNING: If you worry about these trips I take and my safety, skip this post. I promise you that I was safe the entire time, but some of you might just want to re-read the post about the temples of Angkor again. Or, take this time to google “puppies with bunnies on farms.”
Daley and I didn’t really have much we wanted to do on Day #2. I think we wandered around a bit and I’d planned on going to a cooking class that I was able to convince him that he should do as well. I called the restaurant and they told me to come by around 4pm. As instructed, we showed up and found a man splayed out on a lounger in his house (many are just completely open to the street and when you walk in you’re sort of already in what I guess is their quasi-living room) with no shirt on.
I didn’t poke him, but I thought about it.
Instead I think I just sort of cleared my throat and said something like, “We’re here for the cooking!” He bounded out of his lounger, ran to the back and put on a shirt and then told me there was no cooking class that day. I guess he knew that my brain was working and before I could suggest I come by the next day he said, “and no class tomorrow either. Or next day.”
And thus ended my cooking dreams.
So, Daley and I decided to go to the post office. He had a few things he wanted to mail home to the UK that he’d been carrying around. We got some pretty terrible directions, but an hour or so later finally found it. Closed.
And thus ended his post dreams.
I’d heard about a bar on the river – the first in Battambang apparently – and suggested we try that out. I’m not good with the scaling on maps I guess and rather than just a few short blocks it took about an hour. When we got there a big sign on the wooden door said they were closed.
And thus ended our riverside drinking dreams.
This trip that yielded nothing took about 2 hours. It was hot and it sort of looked like it might rain. We tried to hail a tuk-tuk (which is a ridiculous sentence since I’ve never been anywhere in Cambodia where a tuk-tuk driver isn’t already trailing me) but got absolutely nothing.
As we stood to decide what options we had left, Daley realized we were outside a barber shop. He threw his stuff on the ground and decided he’d get a haircut. Turned out to be a great decision. Each time we tried to do something and it ended with no luck I told him that there was some reason we weren’t supposed to do what we’d planned. Turns out it was because we were supposed to meet a Khmer barber and 6 of his best friends.
The haircut was great and I only thought the guy might slit his throat by mistake once or twice. When it was over I realized we were going to have to get ourselves all the way back to town, which seemed like a really ambitious idea. Instead I asked the barber if he would mind taking us back on his motorbike. He spoke no English so this was mostly me just revving my pretend engines and pointing to town.
He took us behind the shop and that’s where we met our 6 new best friends.
A few guys were sitting around a cooler drinking cans of Angkor and one offered one up. Not one to deny a good time I walked over and soon Daley and I were sitting around a cooler full of Cambodian beer eating processed fish strips with these guys.
NOTE: I just went to google these fish “snacks” to give you a sense of the ingredients, but came up with nothing because I’m not sure what search terms to use. “Packaged Fish Snack Cambodia” came up with a recipe website about how Cambodian Americans can live with diabetes. Sorry, folks. Maybe you should just avoid these snacks.
Someone must have called someone because before we knew it their one English-speaking friend had arrived to translate. Turns out he was a great guy named Han. I had a hard time remembering his name after spending the day prior with “Nit” (pronounced “Not”) the tuk-tuk driver. I found myself wanting to call “Han” by the name “Hot,” which made no sense at all.
Han is a sous chef who worked his way up the ranks and has worked at a few different high-end resorts. He was visiting Cambodia before beginning his new job at the Coco Palm resort in the Maldives. His English was great and he was the perfect middle man to bring two westerners and a bunch of buzzed Cambodia guys together.
Two things to note about Cambodian revelry:
- Toasting: Cambodians toast at everything. In the US we might toast when everyone takes their first drink. Or when something really great happens or gets mentioned. But it’s usually a one-time deal. Not so here in Cambodia. When drinking, toasting happens constantly. If someone says something funny, if someone says something sad, if someone says something true, if someone says something loudly, if someone says anything at all.
- Finishing: If you’re part of a Cambodian toast, Khmer people will make you finish the entire drink. When we sat around the cooler of beers in this front yard each toast was followed by screams of “FINISH!”
Another overall piece of etiquette is that money is handed to the receiver with both hands. This is true with other things as well and if both hands aren’t used, people generally pass with the right hand and lightly touch that same arm with their left. It might sound a little cumbersome, but it’s not very easily. I mostly didn’t notice it until the night toasted 25 times within ten minutes and everyone touched their right arm as they toasted with it.
Eventually, Han told us all to stop doing it because we were friends and displays of respect weren’t necessary. I think it might be similar to the difference between using Usted and Tu in Spanish.
Daley eventually left with Han to pick someone up and I was left with 4 Cambodian men with no shared language. Luckily, before it got awkward one of the guys took off his shirt and started dancing to Gangnam Style which he sort of sang at the same time. Again, not one to turn down a good time, I danced along with him. I think dogs started barking and children may have been crying. I can’t remember this guy’s name because I eventually just began referring to him as “crazy.” He took his shirt on and off all night and when he wasn’t in the mood to remove it completely he just fashioned himself a little half-shirt. MORE ON THE MEN’S CAMBODIAN HALF-SHIRT PHENOMENON LATER.
REALIZATIONS & DINNER PLANS:
At some point I began showing photos of my family to the group. After seeing a photo of my father, one of the men jumped up and ran into the barber shop and brought out a photo of a man who looked a bit like a very German version of Santa. If Santa were dressed for a Safari in the Serengeti. He showed all of the men my father and this man and much Khmer was spoken until finally Han stood up and said, “I cannot BELIEVE it! Of all the places, your father came into THIS shop for a haircut!” Explaining that my father had never been to Cambodia was too complicated, so I just agreed. Because, really, if that had happened it would have truly been amazing. I prefer to consider things amazing. Even if they’re not true.
Han insisted that we all go to dinner together at their new favorite restaurant and off we went.
This is when things got a bit dicey. Han ordered everything and Daley and I went along with it. I wasn’t sure what anything was, but I was starving and I didn’t want to ask too many questions. Better to just appreciate the moment.
So, we dug in. Both Daley and I kept saying how great everything was. Crunchy and chewy and flavorful and…different.
After finishing a small bowl, I served myself another and that’s when I looked in my bowl. I saw an insect. I didn’t really even think it was gross in that moment. I just thought how annoying it was that a bug had landed in my bowl. I took it out and flicked it away (sorry, friend and family, for letting you know what I am willing to do when I am on the road) but then noticed he had friends in the bowl. Small legs were sticking out of places and I realized that it wasn’t just an unfortunate navigation problem for these bugs. They were put there. In the bowl. On purpose.
The dish was beef with fried red ants. And you know what? It was great until I knew what it was. Han noticed me noticing and said something like, “okay, it’s okay, okay.” I took that to translate into, “don’t make this a big deal.” So I kept my mouth shut so that Daley could continue his good time.
My advice to you is not to eat in the dark. Especially when you’re in a country where beef and fried red ants may be on the menu.
After this we went to a club with our new friends. I waltzed with Daley and crazy guy took of his shirt a bunch of times. Finally, it was time to go and the Cambodian friends took their beers to go – three in each hand – hopped on their motorbikes and were off.
That, friends and family, is how you spend a night in Battambang.