Its a little over a decade since I made a wonderful 5 day trip to Cambodia with a friend. We visited the city of Pnom Pehn and spent 3 days at Siem Reap to visit the famous temples. Being one of the major tourist destinations of the world, I cannot add much to the wonders of these temples. And I will not try. But it was also a whole lot of other little things on this visit that have left a lasting impression.
At Siem Reap we stayed at a clean and quiet home stay, in the center of a the small town, away from the more sanitized, fancy tourist hotel area, where we paid $10/per day. This was my first trip to SE Asia (have not traveled a lot in the area since then, either) and I remember how struck I was by both the similarities and differences from India. The most striking thing was the lack of the crowds, the population pressure seemed far less. And even in this small town, the streets and outdoor areas were fairly clean.
The town still retained an old world colonial air, with the tiled roof buildings lining most streets. While many of these looked run down and a bit shabby, they had not been replaced by the the haphazard concrete and brick development we see in our towns. The central market was also in such a structure and we found this fascinating.
It was all so familiar and yet so different. The market was segregated into sections for food, clothes, household items, jewellery, electronics etc. I believe similar markets are present in most of the towns, we saw one in Pnom Penh too!! (more seasoned travelers to Cambodia may clarify!) We too have had built markets in India, like the iconic New Market in Kolkota, Moore Market in Chennai which burned down, Crawford market in Mumbai. But I don’t think that our smaller towns had formal markets, it was more designated sections or galis in the market areas for distinctive categories of wares. Of course, an exception Is Panaji, which had a market which has been pulled down and re-built in recent times.
The lanes were bustling with locals (few tourists of the back packer variety) and noisy with music and chatter just like ours. But almost all the stalls were manned by women (??) or should I say womanned, unlike our streets where you still see very few, and if at all mostly in fish markets !! And one does not see them at all in North India. But I must admit that the bazaars I saw in the North East had many women vendors.
The women doing business
The shops had every kind of ware, from really expensive rubies and pearls to the every day needs, foods etc. Since not much on the tourist beat, and most of the locals only speak Khmer, we could only have limited interactions. The language of the more educated is French (a first for me) and since Odile was French we had some conversations. The variety of fruits and vegetables were incredible, and since this was before we bowed to WTO and started to get the imports, many were totally new to me. Many others like the banana flower, were familiar to my Kerala genes,but seldom seen even in North Indian bazaars.
And then there were all these stalls selling, partly made and ready made food preparations. I presume that folks do not make the effort to make the fresh rice noodles every day. And some of the preparations were so like what I knew from my Kerala/Goa food connections, like the little sweetened coconut/rice flour sweets steamed in banana leaves.
The remarkable thing about the market was how clean and non-smelly it was in spite of the amount fish being sold and cooked! The stalls were arranged in rows, with wide drains running behind each row which was constantly being cleaned.
And finally innumerable little eating stalls, with a variety of dishes where you sat on a low stool and asked for 50c/$1 worth of food ($=Rs 48 at the time) and you got a fixed amount of noodles or rice and could add a choice of the other stuff – often we did not know what this other stuff was, but most of it tasted good. Not spicy, but flavored, predominantly fish but meats as well. There were similar food offerings in Malayasia (a trip I made almost a decade later) – but a buffet with this value for money I do not think you can find. So we’d have this treat mid-morning, buy a bagful of fruits and drinks and head for the temples.
The equivalent in India would be the thali, which would have also cost about the same I guess if it was a vegetarian one but a lot more for the meat/fish fare offered. It would also not had the choice offered, but then the cereals also are offered as libituum in thali places. The cleanliness is an issue in many places of this kind in the North and I would hesitate to venture into most of them. But, in the southern sates, this is my food of choice when traveling.
In all it was the cheapest holiday I’ve ever had – and amongst the very best. It brings back great memories of my friend, who was a compulsive traveler and has given it up only due to the frailties of age. And here is a small sample of the pottery, that I have on my shelves, as a momento of that market.