I’ve been working hard all week extracting and analysing data from hospital registers, reports and patient dossiers. It’s mind numbing work from 8am to 11pm most days and I’ve been skipping meals to get it done. Friday I had to hand back the records by 4pm so didn’t eat at all. Come evening it was time for a change so I joined the Rotary Club of Angkor at the Raffles Grand Hotel hoping for some fellowship and a decent meal. The club has only 5 members but has plenty visitors as may be expected in Siem Reap. True enough there was an Australian lady, wife of the late professor of obstetrics and gynaecology in Monash University, Melbourne, two couples from Sienna in Italy and someone from Bala in Wales (only me).
We exchanged greetings, handshakes, banners and photographs and I contributed my $10 in return for a glass of orange and some crisps. I was impressed and inspired by what such a small group achieve in education and health projects, focussing at present on water filtration and purification systems, and on rice distribution in the wake of the floods which hit Cambodia as hard as Thailand but didn’t hit the world headlines because Cambodia is commercially insignificant. The crisps didn’t hit the spot and I came back to town in Vinh’s tuk tuk for my rice fix at my usual dive. It was 10.15pm when I finally ate.
Saturday brought more free time and I hopped on my bicycle heading for the Children’s Hospital carrying my precious pint of blood which I had saved for them (still circulating in my veins at this point in time). The obligatory preliminaries included hopping on the scales to be weighed and I tipped 83kg the same weight I left UK near two weeks ago. I was sure to have lost weight! How can you not lose weight on one or two rice meals and an ice cream each day? I exchanged my blood for a can of Sprite, a week supply of iron and vitamins and a packet of calcium enriched crackers. Oh yes, and a T-shirt. Sunday dawned and it’s blog day as well as a day to rest and I seem to have little to blog about. How can I make it more interesting?
Calling Vinh at 8am brought sleepy sounds down the phone. He’d been working as security guard in the night but he was up for an adventure. No problem, let’s go! Where to? No temples. No schools. Just somewhere peaceful where we can have breakfast and relax. Water, trees and butterflies. My favourite road in the Park will do. So we head out of town, past Jayavarman VII Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital, bypassing the entry to Angkor Park so we don’t pay. After about 5km we reach the usual police checkpoint on a junction and convince them I’m not entering any temples today thank you. I get a pep talk not to enter temples from the young policeman. No intention to do that, I say.
At the pool where the road turns right the water level is fuller than I saw it before but not to the top by a long way. Stopping to take a picture of it, I’m accosted by the usual children selling souvenirs. Wooden flutes, woven birds to hang on the Christmas tree (who told you that?), postcards, etc. No thanks I don’t want anything. Or maybe just one thing – a photo. Sit down here on the stones around the pool and I’ll take your picture. How much? 3 dollars, 5 dollars! No way! By now there’s 6 kids so I take my shots and start handing out the money. 1,000 Riel each is a good price, 25c. I get to the sixth, a tall girl maybe 12 years old or more, and have only 500 left. No more Riel. It’s OK says the last boy, 500 for her. It’s OK for you, I say you got 1,000. I call Vinh over and he has 500 in his pocket, so she gets the same as the others. Very happy children. Very happy me, too. On we go. We stop along the way for bananas. I’ve had no fresh fruit since I arrived. Two thousand Riel. So I get 2,000 change for my dollar. Then a girl arrives to sell me souvenirs. I see a wad of dollars in the top pocket of her shirt and gently pluck it out, saying you’re rich! Just joking. No thanks, I don’t want souvenirs but I’ll buy your picture. So she sits on the table and I pay her the 2,000. Cambodian money for the Cambodian people. Seems right somehow. It’s your money.
At Phum Borann village we stop to eat food. The name means something like ‘the ancient place where we lived a long time and nothing changes’ so I’m told. They speak slowly here, long vowels, says Vinh, not like the town. Frogs are cooking over a BBQ. You like to try? OK. What I do to make the blog interesting you wouldn’t believe! Two frogs 3,000 Riel. Good price. Legs are just like chicken. Body is stuffed with spices and some other edibles and very tasty so they go down well. We eat noodles to with curry vegetables and chicken pieces. This is the real deal, the chicken, the whole chicken, skin and bones and all chopped up. The cubes of blood I pass to Vinh except for one for old times sake. It tastes OK but I don’t like boiled blood, only fried blood like Joe produces in his sausages.
Off we go again through fields and fields of rice. Tall rice. Must be well over a metre high, some as tall as 4’, maybe 4’ 6”. Some is green and some ready for harvest. We pass rice drying in the sun on mats at the road side. I ask Vinh about rice-growing, harvesting and milling because the whole grains seem so small and they are brown inside the husk. He describes the milling process and a couple of young lads say there’s a mill right there. We go to inspect the old hand-mill. Then they demonstrate the foot-operated pestle and mortar that is also very old but looks as though it’s still in use. I saw the same in use in Nepal. I describe a pestle and mortar that we might use in the kitchen and the lads say they are using one in the village right now so we go see. It’s a whole community affair. The green rice has been threshed and the grain soaked in water. They are cooking it over a fire and then pounding it in the pestle to separate the chaff. Finally it’s winnowed and can be eaten as ‘ambo’ and tastes like the rice of rice cakes but with flavor, and more solid than puffed rice or rice crispies. Substantial to eat. I love just chilling and watching these new scenes of life as it is now. I can’t understand why this cannot be used for tourism but then I guess lots of visitors would spoil it and it would change to take advantage of the visitors.
Would you like to see the rice harvested? Yes please! They are doing it now just outside the village. We don’t have far to walk and we come into the fields and see half a dozen women with broad hats for shade, cutting the rice by hand with sickles. Do you want to have a go? Wow, yes please! So we walk over, rather slippery muddy land but we can reach them without walking under water. Vinh tells me to be careful. He demonstrates the method. He’s a village lad, not from the town. The sickle is very sharp. I cut quite a bit of rice before I first cut my finger. Time to hand the sickle back I think. Vinh had intervened a couple of times thinking my technique was a bit hazardous and I had said I’m a surgeon, I’m used to sharp knives, but I cut my finger all the same… Back at the houses I’m offered ambo and pay $1 for a bag. High price but I’m paying for the experience and thanking for the hospitality. The man of the house goes to fetch a couple of coconuts and pours me a bowlful of milk. Beautiful. Po’em chhnang! Tasty sweet. Thank you. They are such fun and so friendly. So very different out here from the town where the visitor is seen as a source of income and pestered for the same. No sense of fairness among many, just as much as you can get from the tourist. OK, so we are wealthy, but we lose out on friendship and so do they to an extent. This has been a wonderful morning. I have relaxed and feel rejuvenated. Ready to return to work. I feel as though I’ve had communion with these people and shared their rice and coconut milk. Refreshing the soul as well as the body.
We take the cross-country red road on the way back to town, my favourite road, and I take the chance to drive the tuk tuk because there are no police down here. It’s fun but I don’t get beyond second gear (of four) because the surface is bumpy and when a massive pothole appears across the whole road I hand control back to Vinh. Here, as we change places, is a fisherman standing at the roadside. I inspect his net, not sure he’s caught anything but he may just be setting out. There are several snails that seem to have come from the water in the net and Vinh starts throwing them back in or they will die. You can eat them. In the dry season they leave the dried up water courses and seek moist undergrowth. That’s when they get collected and eaten. I exchange a photo of the fisherman for what’s left of the bunch of bananas, maybe 8 left. He’s very happy. Me too. It’s been a very happy morning. And at last I’ve got something to blog about…