By Kara Petersen
While staying in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in the spring of 2009, just the beginning of the rainy season, I was invited to visit a friend’s family village. Prey Veng is roughly 3 hours from Phnom Penh across the Mekong River, and rough the road is! Much of it is unpaved, like most Cambodian infrastructure that is still standing, it is a haunting whisper of a beautiful and sophisticated past destroyed by one of the bloodiest genocides in the history of the word. The journey to Prey Veng is a perfect day detour from the occasionally overwhelming city. Though the city is full of colorful life and sites worthy of your time, without a trip to the quiet Cambodian countryside a stay in Cambodia is not complete.
Once outside of Phnom Penh, a ferry escorts travelers across the Mekong. We wait patiently for our turn on the ferry, trying to sympathetically ignore the peddlers and beggars. Curiosity pulls my eyes out of the window to see what type of bug is roasting on top of that stick, but a glance is perceived as intent to buy, and therefore must be avoided. My curiosity hasn’t taken over my tongue, and I have no desire to actually taste the bugs.
Cars, people, vans, bikes, and tuk-tuks cram together for the short ride. I get out of the twelve passenger van and stand against the rail to gaze down river. I take a deep breath of the humid air, filled with exhaust, and close my eyes. For a moment I am a young Marguerite Dumas in French Indo-Chine, a scene from one of my favorite books, The Lover. Despite the petrol scented smog, the ferry provides a respite from the bumpy road as we glide over the smooth and gentle waters. My imagination slowly fades and I return to present times as we land on the other side of the river.
This is my first glimpse of the Mekong, a moment I have been waiting for all of my life, on a crowded ferry my ankles are caressed and welcomed with splashes of murky green water. I wish I could dive in and take the river through Vietnam to the South China Sea.
On the other side of the river we stop in a little cafe, not resembling any cafe I've been to before. It has the salty odor of fresh seafood, although I think technically the fish come from the river and therefore, it is riverfood. A man is plucking live crawfish out of a laundry basket and throwing them into a bucket of water. It reminds me of my Grandma Bonnie’s story of a crawfish whose fate is much kinder. Fate has not been kind to the people of Cambodia. Everyone you meet has a scar, in the form of a story or literally on their body, from the torture of the Khmer Rouge. Yet, like the hero in Grandma Bonnie’s story, their smiles reveal the hope that a kinder day is coming to them soon.
The traffic on the other side of the ferry is worse. It is like waiting in line to cross the border from Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego, California, which is probably why I kept trying to speak Spanish to all the Cambodians. We stop for coffee and lunch. If there is a Starbucks in Cambodia, I did not see it. Because I have an internal Starbucks honing beacon, I know this means there are no Starbucks in Cambodia. Coffee in Cambodia is found on the streets, in plastic bags, with straws sticking out of the plastic baggies, which are held closed by rubber bands. I order mine with sweetened condensed milk, and as long as you drink it before the ice melts, it tastes exactly like a grande-iced non-fact-vanilla-latte. For lunch, our group brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips but I didn’t spend $1200 on a plane ticket and 12 hours on a plane to eat peanut butter and jelly. To the Cambodian food court I go!
Only the men in our group, two Cambodians and one South African, head toward the street food, I follow them. Mordegai (The South African, I could tell you what he is doing in Cambodia but that is another story—check back soon.) our scenic and culinary guide enlightens me as to what each item is. In a glass case, on top of a little cart, there is a grill with four different plates of food. The first plate is glazed chunks of meat with bones sticking out of them and little red flecks of chili pepper in the golden sauce. "Short ribs," Mordegai says. In the second dish is thinly sliced silver dollar sized flat portions of meat, also probably pork. Seeing as they lack the enticing glaze, I skipped over them. The 3rd dish is in a bowl and far too adventurous for me. It is a mix of different hunks of meat, including oblong round portions I am quite sure are some poor male animal’s testicles. I quickly pass the testes over. The 4th dish appears to be noodles with vegetables and piqued my intestinal interest. I opt for that but Mordegai points out that it is actually ginger and not noodles. Following his suggestion I order the short ribs.
I eat short ribs on rice, not sure what kind of meat it is but after seeing the six pigs bundled together and tied up on the back of a moto, I was hoping it wasn't pork. I eat two of them, and although the flavor is good, sweet with a little kick from the chili peppers, the meat is a little tough and intertwined with fat and sinew. It is served with a condiment of sliced ginger, carrots, cucumber, and chili peppers—delicious poured over rice. A cup of soup similar to miso but without the tofu, accompanies the meal. Its warm broth is a nice compliment to the spicy chili.
Unfortunately, I think, we have to skip dessert and get on our way. But then, walking back to the van, Mordegai points out a cart full of upside down turtles. (Sorry Mom!) And, I am relieved to be leaving.
Driving a short distance down National Highway 1, we make a quick right onto a narrow dirt road. We bounce through bicycles and honk our way through motos carrying all sorts of things. I see more pigs. This time in a woven basket in the shape of one of those things they use to spin bingo balls around in. They are packed in there and squealing like, well like pigs. I was surprised by my lack of concern for them. Being a lifelong lover of the swine, ever since reading Charlotte’s Web, I thought for sure this site would have tugged at my heart strings. But here it doesn’t. I am positive if I saw such a thing driving down State St. in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California, I would be horrified. But in Cambodia it is part of the landscape, like the babies on motos and cows in the middle of the street. The large blonde skinny cows pop up with more frequency the further we get from the city, and cause traffic jams. Twice, cows pulling wooden carts of hay block the path entirely, and despite honking and other coercion we are completely at the mercy of their will as to when we will be granted thoroughfare. The houses are mostly well kept. Built on stilts, each has a miniature pagoda in the front where offerings of fruit and incense wait for Buddha. Some of the houses are surprisingly nice, you can almost imagine living in them as you romanticize about the simple country life. There are beautiful bright flowers and bushes. Some of the houses are painted in a friendly blue and have adornments leading up the front stairs. Roosters, chicks, hens, and cocks run from beneath houses and roam around the yards.
The family has a small store. They don't sell anything labeled or immediately recognizable but I guess it is a variety of spices, soaps, and other household items. Their small store is adjoined to their house, and they invite us inside to sit on the mat in their living room. I am quickly awakened from my romantic ideal of country living on the Mekong when I see the car batteries under the table powering the television and realize they have no electricity.
After greetings and small talk we make our way through the back yard and down a little path to the beach. We pass a small concrete structure that barely comes up to my chest. They call it "The Little House" and it is their bathroom. On the left of the path is a small patch of pineapple plants amidst a grove of King's Fruit trees, large round fruits that look like coconuts covered in thorns. I have yet to try them but am told they smell like sweaty feet and taste the same. After being told this I am not sure why anyone would want to eat them?
I taste milk fruit for the first time after only hearing of its existence hours before. It is a small green fruit with thick skin that peels away to reveal milky layers of white and magenta until you reach its center. In the middle of the fruit is a translucent cocoon with six chambers spaced out like a three dimensional star. In each section is a dark seed. After sucking the sweet tissue from the seed, I spit it in the bushes.
As the brush backs away from the path and spreads open, it reveals the river just ahead. It is wide. It shifts from dark to light and back with the passing of clouds across the sky. Its beach is broad, and I am disappointed to find it laden with trash. The brush thins out to meadow like reeds that grow shorter and shorter until there is only sand, stretching miles and miles out before me. I spend the rest of the afternoon swimming in the Mekong with a group of villagers who are bathing themselves and their cattle. The Mekong is one of the 10 largest rivers in the world. Its width is quite a sight to behold. The world is a wondrous place, and just when I think God can't have created something more beautiful than what is before my eyes, I turn a corner and he says: Hey Kara, look at this!