As our stay in Siem Reap prolongs, we feel it’s time to take a side-road. We’ve had enough of going form city to city, the easy thing to do here, as bus connections are limited. Furthermore, there aren’t that many bridges in Cambodia and the route to regions on the other side of the Mekong makes too much of a loop for our liking. Thus we decided to see the countryside. So, we dig out the dollars knowing we’d have to splash out on taxis and motorbikes.
In Siem Reap, we get on a mini-bus to Kompong Thom. The driver is in a “need4speed” mood and actually manages to takeover all other vehicles on the way. Among the other passengers are a group of elderly monks who behave like first-graders: they joke and laugh contagiously, share comments with the driver and discuss the happenings outside the windows. When we arrive, we are totally worn out thanks to the crazy minibus ride and decide not to be overly ambicious and order lunch in the hotel restaurant. It’s not special, a spot where most of the tourist buses from Phnom Penh stop for a meal. On the last page of restaurant’s menu we come upon a note on Cambodian savoir vivre: the proper attire, respect to the local customs and rules for taking pictures. The last sentence though, which summarizes the note, says that Cambodia is not a place for beginner travellers. It sounds rather funny after our stay in Siem Reap, where everyone is gentle, polite and smiling, and everything can be taken care of without a word in Khmer, bus tickets are available at every corner, and in the restaurant you can get anything: Khmer amok, fish&chips, burritos, pastas or vegan stir-fry.
In the morning we rent two old bikes and set off to the countryside, shouting back “hello!” to the waving children. We stop at some roadside stalls to buy a bottle of sugar cane juice. Here, it’s body language only. Although the juice is squeezed right from the stem, it doesn’t taste green at all but is rather candy-sweet. Still, Marcin is delighted. The sugar cane lady is wearing the all-time female Khmer favorite: the floral pajamas.
The weather is scorching hot and the local roads very dusty, so every self-respecting Khmer is wearing a hat and a face mask. Even though we lack the proper travel gear, the trip is excellent and both of us are super happy.
When we get tired, we stop at the crossroads to ask for the way and have something to eat. We see a woman stuffing minced meat into a sausage. There is also a grill with sizzling sausages, so we want to try them. Signing what we’d like works out fine and we sit and wait for our sausages and drink Angkor beer. Everyone is watching us and giggling. One of the women approaches me and touches my arms, my legs and my nose, holding my hands in hers and stubbornly repeating “hello!”, very excited to touch a falang for the first time. We want to take a picture of the sausage lady but she is not thrilled with the idea.
Back in town we go in a search of a local eatery and find snacks in the shape of various insects. For Khmers anything that is edible is worth trying at least once.
On the next day we go north to Tbeng Meanchey. We meet a local English teacher who comes to rescue a guy we approached in the local tourist office, the latter didn’t speak English. This town is also the beginning of our local food adventure. There are no menus and due to our non-yet-existent Khmer skills as well as the non-yet-existent English skills of the staff, we come up with many different ways of ordering our meals. Sometimes the workers call a friend who comes to help out, sometimes we manage to point at something in the kitchen or on someone else’s plate. Often the dishes are placed in the front, in big pots, so we can point out what we want.
From Tbeng Meanchey we move further north, packed tightly in a shared taxi, to get to the Preah Vihear temple located near the closed part of border between Cambodia and Thailand. We check in a guesthouse in Sra Em and without further adieu speed to the temple on moto-taxis. The road is empty and landscapes bring to mind route 66. The temple is set on a mountain with amazing top-sed views, although the scorching sun somewhat limits the visibility.
In the evening, we decide to skip the “show and guess” game in favor of getting something from the street stalls, by just pointing out what we want. The most popular fare here are small birds barbecued whole. As we learn, they are quails. We show up in front of one of the barbecues and the lady points at a sausage exclaiming “Thailand”. The she points the bird, saying: “Cambodia!”. Marcin, though very embarrassed with his choice, this time opts for Thailand. But as the choice on the street is limited and we are of course hungry, we end up with the street’s whole assortment: the birds, grilled pork, baguettes, beer and a desert consisting of many mysterious elements drowned in various sweet syrups. I also order my usual fruit shake but this time I get it with both condensed and coconut milk, as well as with other syrups, including durian, and a fresh egg yolk.
On the next day we set off in the direction of the Mekong, beating our lifetime record of the number of people in a sedan. We travel over 100 kilometers stuffed with 9 other passengers making it 11 people together in a toyota Camry: four people in the front, five in the back and two in the trunk, sitting on the luggage. We were already beating such records first in Morocco and then in Georgia but only in Cambodia do we learn that the driver’s seat can also accommodate two people. Maybe it’s because the Asians are quite petite. We reach the Mekong and get on a ferry, thinking about the menu note we read about Cambodia. Perhaps the country is really not for beginners…