Rich History, Exotic Cuisine
Often overshadowed as a tourist haven by its oft visited neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is a stunning country with a rich history and distinct exotic cuisine. Crisscrossed by major rivers that regularly overflow their banks and flood the countryside, Cambodians thrive on fish and rice. Some of their strange delicacies, like roasted spiders and bats, were born out of necessity during hard times; yet these food traditions remain part of the culinary landscape in this now bustling economy. Once a colonial outpost, the French have greatly influenced Cambodian cooking and architecture. Add to that the outlook and friendliness of a people eager to share their rich culture with the outside world and you can see why Cambodia is an appealing travel destination. From the majestic and awe-inspiring temples at Angkor Wat to the bustling markets of Phnom Penh, I went in search of some of the most amazing and bizarre foods in Southeast Asia.
And that did indeed happen. Our Cambodia show was a feast of unlikely proportions since the locals eat in a way that is more closely tethered to their past and present history than any other country I have been to save Mongolia. Rats, frogs, bugs, fermented fish of all types, air dried clams that never see a refrigerator, fertilized duck eggs replete with embryos, bats of all types and live tarantulas the size of my hand. Oy vey. But for me the greatest pleasures were the people, Angkor Wat and the country itself. Let me explain.
First off the people of Cambodia are amazing, warm and welcoming and if they seem skittish it’s because of their history. With the violence and genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge fresh in everyone’s memory there wasn’t a person we met who didn’t have a direct relationship with the most awful aspects of human nature. Walking the Killing Fields, or listening to our fixer tell us his personal story, were two of the most sobering travel experiences I can recall having. Which is why the country is so appealing to me.
Energetic and vibrant, self reliant and respectful, the people are tireless and happy. Take the fishermen I met at Lake Tonlé Sap. They all have large families, work 18 hours a day 7 days a week, earn five dollars a day on average and are as carefree and unburdened as anyone I know. I was almost ashamed to check my Blackberry and iPhone when I got back to my van, what was I so hyped about? What was wrong with my spiritual condition that I “had to check in” with the office? Well the next day I asked myself that same question as I strolled the grounds of Angkor Wat, perhaps one of everyone’s top five travel destinations in the world.
Lingering around the temples and parks I couldn’t help but chuckle at the greeting card quality of the obvious lesson here … I came for the work, to see what I could take from this beautiful country and its amazingly resilient people, and I ended up learning that those reasons shouldn’t be so important to me after all. From those who have much, much is expected as I remember Bobby Kennedy saying in old film strips, and visiting Cambodia will change you that way too if you’re willing to be open to that possibility. I came home a better person than when I left, and immediately began looking for a way to give back to my world.