Two Savages in Southeast Asia


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Ah! Now this is truly lazy: having walked (and biked!) the length and breadth of the Angkor’s religious-administrative centres, including the distant sites at Koh Ker and Beng Mealea, over the last three days, we feel entitled to a rest of sorts. As if to underline our European tendency to indolence, we breakfast at a local bakery, stuffing ourselves full of sweet pastries.

OK. So we’re bad at this truly lazy thing – we sneak in a bit more work on expedition!. We’ve realized that we need to understand our market and product more than we need to bang out code right now, so we concoct some market research surveys. Not that we know anything about making market research surveys, but it can’t be that hard, right?

After a few hours of expedition!, writing blog posts, and generally loafing around, we lumber out of the hostel to grab a quirky Cambodian fusion dinner at Marum. This is actually a hospitality/service training restaurant that hires street kids, apprenticing them to senior staff until they’re ready to take the reins. The food itself is definitely bizarre by local standards, dragging in Japanese, Mediterranean, and other sundry culinary influences:

  • a sort of maki with lotus root, pepper, and cream cheese served with a sweetish peanut-chili dipping sauce;
  • a peanut-coconut hummus with crispy French bread slices;
  • fried rice-mushroom balls with a creamy pink mayonnaise-like sauce that involves (I think) prahok fish paste and chili;
  • a tropical fruit parfait served with a single shaved and fried banana wafer.

It was all mostly delicious, with way more haute cuisine pretensions than just about anything else we’d eaten.

We continue our night of entertainment with a stop at Temple Balcony, where there’s a free apsara dancer show every night. It starts off with 20 minutes of traditional music without dance, and we note that all the musicians with the exception of the singer are male. Then the apsara dancers come out, dressed in insanely colorful garb; their signature move is to wave their hand in intricate curled patterns. In between the dances, we catch glimpses of the dancers stretching their fingers and wrists to prepare them for these dexterous movements.

What next? Well, it’s off to the Night Markets for some much-needed massages. There are two big attractions in the massage market here: foot massages and Dr. Fish massages. In the latter, you dip your feet into a tank of water and watch as they nibble off the dead skin. We opt for the former, however, because the foot massage stand we come across has a most peculiar show going on right in front of it. Apparently Cambodia, in a rush to meet tourist demand, has imported several of Thailand’s tourist draws, including their penchant for ladyboys. Yes, it’s a Cambodian ladyboy show, set to a mix of (mostly English!) pop and contemporary Cambodian music. As natives of the San Francisco Bay Area, it takes us precisely no time at all to discern the prominent male jaw lines and conspicuous fakeness of chestal features. The show is drawing quite an audience, for which I’m sure the massage stand is grateful.

There’s but one thing left on our checklist before we hit the sack: Sombai is a local infused rice spirit available in several flavors at some Siem Reap establishments. We go for the mango-chili and galangal-tamarind tipples, which prove every bit as delicious as their descriptions suggest. The mood is somewhat soured by a nasty row between some louts sitting at the bar and a Cambodian woman who we can only guess is local to the area, but we mostly ignore that.

Tomorrow it’s up early and off to the airport for Malaysia! I’m not sure what I think of our Cambodian experience: it was both extremely disturbing and fascinating to learn more about the history of Pol Pot’s murderous regime, and the ancient Angkorian temples were magnificent, but somehow there’s a veil we haven’t managed to pierce in our short time here. In Vietnam, the distance between tourist life and real life seemed much shorter, perhaps owing to the slightly higher average standard of life there. Here in Cambodia, we’ve only spotted real life at a distance; the closest we got was maybe cycling through the pockmarked dirt backroads around Siem Reap. Even distant Koh Ker and Beng Mealea have been sanitized in that normative way peculiar to tourist landmarks…

…but enough of these idle reflections; after all, it is partly our fault for spending barely more than a week here and not getting out of the major cities. Perhaps all this will be covered in a separate trip, some years from now. For now, it’s off to bed and then Malaysia!