Remember Samath from Butterfly Tours who took me on the bike rides through the Cambodian countryside? To jog your memory, here he is again:
Last week, I sent Samath an email to find out how to say “road” and “miracle” in Khmer. “Camino Milagro” in Khmer is “plov os ja.” I don’t know how to pronounce that yet but I will because here I am back in Cambodia.
But before I explain that, here is something kind of funny — the Tokyo Haneda Airport or, as I like to call it, “The Stepford Airport.” I spent several hours there on my way to Phnom Penh. When the plans for the Tokyo Haneda Airport were on the drawing board, somebody got pretty excited about building a 21st century operation. Unfortunately, they forgot that human beings would be using it. The first clue is the lighting in the hallway as you are getting off the plane — about five times as many LED blue-spectrum lights as you would need to perform brain surgery, which is pretty uncomfortable after 11 hours in the relative darkness of an airplane. Walking through the hallways, you are escorted by creepy new age music and competing recordings of female voices advising you in Japanese about things that must be pretty obvious because I didn’t have any problems using the escalator or going through security. The good news is there are plenty of stations to plug in your electronics. The bad news is there is no place to sit but the floor if you don’t want to take the risk that someone will walk off with your brand new 12th generation iphone. The bathrooms feature piped in water sounds in each stall and a lot of buttons with unknown functions. No paper towels and only one electric hand dryer so be prepared to wait in line dripping warm water that is getting cold. I used my low-tech shirt. An airport that is kind of a train wreck. But the people were nice!
A second trip to Cambodia at this time was not really part of my plan. My plan was either finding a job and a place to live, or, more likely, visiting Ecuador and Nicaragua and Guatemala (and maybe Armenia, Cuba, Egypt, Ghana, Tunisia and Germany). But during my month back home, Cambodia kept tugging at me — its sweetness, its struggles, its hope, its young people. So about a week ago, I decided to go on a scouting mission to figure out whether I loved Cambodia as a privileged tourist or in a more enduring way, and in a more enduring way that crowds out other travel.
My return to Cambodia was not preceded by all of the excitement and build-up of the round-the-world adventure. This trip felt more like sneaking out of town and has a different kind of not knowing what to expect. The first trip — the thrill of the unknown. This trip — the responsibility to decide something but not knowing what I am supposed to be deciding (but I will also have a good time!).
I have set up meetings with several NGOs to see whether I can help with discrete projects. Today I met with an American trustee of a foundation that helps young Cambodian women develop leadership skills. By a sort of wild coincidence I know him well by reputation for his work in California as an environmental attorney. I also met with the Cambodian director of a nonprofit that has promoted human rights and good government in Cambodia since the early 1980s. I learned a lot from these two about Cambodian culture and challenges, and I am reading books that describe a corrupt and brutal government that is increasingly at odds with a national community that is becoming more engaged and educated. One way or another, there will be more to report….
I am staying in the same Phnom Penh neighborhood I stayed in last time, which is probably comparable to Hayes Valley if this were San Francisco but of course Phnom Penh is not much like San Francisco. My hotel, the Khmer Surin, is very Khmer with lots of wood and weavings and splashes of color.
Someone (it was Cheryl) requested more food pictures and since I am in the land of great food, I am eating well. After I settled into my hotel yesterday, I walked a block to my favorite neighborhood cafe, ARTillery, which specializes in vegetarian and vegan dishes. I had a salad of greens and roasted vegetables with avocado, tossed with a variety of whole grains in a balsamic vinaigrette. Definitely some California influences there!
Tonight I hopped a tuk-tuk to Romdeng, which is one of those great places run by an NGO that trains local youth and has a lot of inventive variations on traditional Cambodian food, including ants and tarantulas in special sauces. The restaurant is in a gorgeous French-style mansion in a busy neighborhood a couple of blocks from the Royal Palace. I started with a salad of shredded pomelo, prawns, mint, keffir lime and chilies. It had bright, perfectly balanced flavors, and reminded me of the salads Carol and I enjoyed in Vietnam.
And then I had Cambodia’s signature dish, Amok, which is usually made with meat or fish but I got the vegetarian version. The sauce is a curry that has some of the flavors of a yellow Indian curry but with a lot of ginger and coconut. Romdeng serves it in a folded banana leaf. There is a lot on the menu that looks fantastic and I think Romdeng might be my favorite restaurant in Cambodia so far!
Tomorrow, another meeting and some tourist stuff I missed last time. After that, another couple of meetings in Siem Reap, five hours west. After that, I don’t know.