When my friends and I arrived in Phnom Penh in April of 2012 we still had no idea what to expect. We soon discovered a city that is bursting with activity.
Motos (motor-scooters) zipping through the streets carrying sometimes one, sometimes 6 passengers, to their destinations. Baker’s selling freshly baked breads from the entrances of their homes which serve as their street side shops. Vendors pulling carts through the streets selling everything from lotus seeds, to snails, to fresh sugar cane juice. Expressionless and seriously armed policemen dressed in black sit watching people pass. Saffron robed Buddhist monks walk from shop to shop accepting payments for prayers. Calls from tuk-tuk drivers looking to earn a dollar blend in with the sound of cars, and trucks racing past. Shop owners in the markets shouting promises of the best prices ever. Persistent beggars from the very young to the very old hold out hands hoping for just one American dollar. Men missing limbs from land mines still buried in the fields and jungles looking to sell their trinkets and hand drawn cards. And behind all this the ever-present smell that permeates the entire city is a subtle and, strangely enough, not unpleasant mixture of exhaust, incense, and burning refuse. (You’ll actually bring it home with you in your clothes.)
The people are kind and beautiful. The children are angelic. The architecture and the design aesthetic of the Khmer culture is absolutely stunning. (Khmer, meaning a native Cambodian, is pronounced “kh-MAI“.) The food is amazing, the coffee is lethal, and the fruits… oh, the fruits. Longan, custard apples, dragon fruit, mangosteens, rambutans… Wow. (I’ll pass on the durian, though. Thanks.)
But, the street food is a different story. Crickets, tiny song birds (whole), huge water bugs, beatles, grubs, snails, turtles, and even snakes on a stick are all offered seasoned, and fried to a crisp. Tarantulas are also a favorite Cambodian street food.
The traffic is something to experience. It is a chaotic mass of vehicles coming from every direction- from trucks to motos- weaving, dodging, and narrowly escaping impact at every turn. Simply crossing the street is like playing a video game.
And during the rainy season it’s not uncommon to go from dry city street to thigh deep flood in no time at all.
We were not expecting any of this- the people, the flavors, the smells, the colors, the sounds, the craziness… Man…
I love Cambodia!