Friday 20 May 2016

Fragrant Soup and Dusty Streets, a Snapshot of Phnom Penh

Fans spin lazily from the ceiling of the secondhand bookstore, successfully maintaining the illusion that it is possible to fend off the mid-afternoon heat. Our dysfunctional air conditioner back home at the apartment is a testament to the impossibility of this endeavour, its poor coils intermittently giving out as it fizzes and clanks. Back in the bookstore sweat pearls on the foreheads of the owner’s face, much as it does on my own.

The recycled wood shelves groan under the weight of foreign expectations, bearing countless copies of "Eat, Pray, Love" in English, providing insight into the soul-searching motives of Phnom Penh's average tourist. Did the original owners of the books ever succeed in finding themselves? We'll likely never know, but the stack of copies sits in interesting company alongside a hefty stack of "Fifty Shades of Grey" and books purporting to demistify the "secrets" of Thai ladyboys.

To this day Cambodia remains one of the poorer countries in Southeast Asia, particularly outside of Siem Reap where the national historical site of Angkor Wat is located. Though rapidly developing, it does have something of Wild West feel to it; the streets of Phnom Penh are dusty, personal gun ownership remains high despite government attempts to curtail it, and few people walk, preferring to ride. To the cowboys of Phnom Penh, motorcycles and mopeds are their steads, their carriages are tuktuks, carts with couches pulled by motorcycles.

As we walk the streets sound loudly with the voices of the tuktuk drivers which seem to summarize the last half century of Cambodia's history. Calls of "Tuktuk sir?" are endless in a city where few walk and tourism is eagerly encouraged. They're interspersed with queries such as "killing fields, want to go to the killing fields?" and every now and then a call of "Hey fellow, want to fire a rocket today? Or AK47?" the striking legacies of the Khmer Rouge and the government's attempts to boost tourism make strange bedfellows indeed.
Khmer cuisine is delicious, jasmine rice and fish amok abound. The latter is a rich coconut curry bound in a banana leaf which holds pride of place on the menus of many restaurants. Of these venues, the more upscale ones greet you with air conditioning and endless youtube playlists headlined by 90's boybands. Their inexpensive counterparts can simply be a short lunch counter with a single burner next to a spatter of brightly coloured plastic chairs across a crowded sidewalk or street corner in a flash of colour reminiscent of a Pollock painting. One of our finest meals was a delicious and addictive beef soup served for breakfast across from the Phnom Penh post office. The soup was defined by rich gristly beef submerged in a thick red sweet and sour broth with crisp counterpoints of fresh lime, bean sprouts and herbs. Redolent with the licorice scent of anise and Thai basil it was exceptionally good when washed down with the syrupy iced coffee famous in the region, a combination of condensed milk, instant coffee and an iceberg's worth of ice shavings.

Much like the post office we dined in front of, the vestiges of French colonialism are everywhere, from structures built in the early 20th century to art deco facades accompanied by French signs on government buildings and baguettes sold out of street carts.

This is why I'm here. As a food historian, the fusion of Khmer and French cuisine is intriguing. Unlike neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia parted ways with French imperialism on relatively peaceful terms and France persists as an important trade partner. French food remains prevalent both in the form of ritzy haute-cuisine restaurants and in the day to day street food of the city. Baguette sandwiches stuffed with pork cooked in Khmer seasonings are offered on the street for 4,000 Cambodian riel or 1 US dollar (Cambodia use both currencies in tandem) while excellent pure butter croissants and viennoiserie cost just a touch more.

The Cambodian archives remain in their original home, a colonial structure dating from the 1920’s, which the archivist tells me with a wry grin served briefly as a pig sty under the Khmer Rouge. The archivists themselves are endlessly kind, tirelessly providing us with a constant stream of documents and rearranging the standing fans around us in the endless crusade against the heat because this building, like many others, is not air conditioned. The rustling of century old papers is accompanied by the murmurs of conversation among the archivists, the staccato of pages falling into the tray of the photocopier and the crowing of the rooster who resides in the parking lot. The holdings reveal much about the dining habits of the colonial period with many documents providing evidence that the regional love for condensed milk is far spanning.
Before we know it we find ourselves heading on to Siem Reap to visit the majestic temples of the area, carrying a sliver of Cambodian history in the hundreds of photocopies provided by the archive, new adventures as ever await.


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