Can you blog and eat at the same time? Is it easier or harder than walking and chewing gum? This site may have lacked attention while your fearless blogger ate her way across Phnom Penh, but her belly was very, very happy.
You’re probably asking this very important question: How’s the food in Cambodia?
And I would say: Oh yeah, it’s good. Really good. Every day I eat delicious things.
But what, you ask, does it taste like?
It’s like Thai … but less spicy.
It’s like Vietnamese … but with different greens and herbs.
It’s like what your Cambodian-Jewish grandma would make for shabbat dinner … if she had galangal and lemongrass hanging around her kitchen.
I eat like it’s my job, and for a moment it is: Serious Eats let me write about some Cambodian dishes you won’t want to miss. If you can’t visit me while I’m here, grab your spoon and fork and eat vicariously. I’ll save you a seat at the table.
AJWS did its best to prepare us for culture shock, culture differences, work cultures, social cultures, and how not to embarrass yourself when eating with a spoon and fork. Some of the most memorable moments:
NGO site visit
Perhaps the most powerful afternoon at orientation came when we visited a refugee camp. The residents are primarily ethnic Burmese people from the Shan state, escaping a military government in Burma and not recognized by the Thai government. The issues in Burma are more complex than I’ll go into here, and absolutely worth learning more about. The people living here are safer than they are in Burma, and can apply for permanent residence in Thailand; for now, though, many are working in construction and earning about half of what their Thai counterparts bring home.
One of AJWS’s partner NGOs works with this community and provides education, community development and organization, youth empowerment, and more. And in addition to language skills—Burmese, Thai, and English—children learn about the Shan culture so they’re connected to their heritage.
It’s hard to write about something like this: I can tell you what I saw, but it’s nearly impossible to describe without coloring the experience in a way that feels unfair. And adjectives like sobering or moving leave too much out. I can’t tell you about the experience of someone living there, because I don’t know what it is. I also can’t share any pictures as they asked that we not take photos. Our group walked through, greeted residents, met with one of the youth leaders from the NGO, and learned about the work they’re doing, which has been quite successful. What I can say is that it was a meaningful experience to see, and it was important to see how the work we may do in an NGO office is carried out in the field. The visit was also a reminder to stay away from making assumptions: just watch, listen, bear witness and let people be heard.
Cultures in translation
Differences, similarities, what to do, what to avoid:
- Sit back, listen, observe. Build relationships. This will pay off far more than galloping in with big ideas, ready to change everything.
- Emphasis is on the collective, rather than the individual.
- Sharing food is important. Meals, including workday lunch, are often communal.
- Crossing your legs can be perceived as standoffish, so try to keep both legs down. Don’t show the bottoms of your feet to someone, it’s offensive.
- Streets have a logic of their own—and it may look like no logic. Look both ways, even on one-streets. Then, look again. Keep your head up. Bolt.
- To eat: use the spoon as the main utensil—the fork helps move the food into the spoon. Ideally, the spoon is in your right hand, but this lefty hasn’t made the switch.
Songthaews: Chiang Mai’s party bus
Not everything at orientation was work. When we left the hotel, we rode in this, a songthaew. It’s a combination of open-air taxi and bus: it picks you up and drops you off at your destination, and you can hail it on the street, but it also runs on a particular route and may take other passengers along with you. Imagine sitting in this with nine friends as you careen along the streets.
Chatting with monks
One evening, a few of us rode a songthaew to a temple to meet up with a group of Cambodian monks studying in Chiang Mai. (Our AJWS country rep knew one of the monks and his brother.) These monks shared the stories of their daily lives, their studies on a range of topics, Buddhist philosophy, talked about life in Thailand and Cambodia, and played with the stray dog who had adopted them as his pack.
Also, they cracked jokes—
Co-volunteer: “How has your perspective changed since you became a monk?”
Monk, gesturing toward his compatriot: “When he started, he was young. Now, he’s very old!”
Laughter and groans from all.
I’ve tried three new fruits—mangosteen, rambutan, longan—and one was more delicious than the next. If you haven’t seen them, take the 7 seconds to follow these Google image links; each looks like something Hello Kitty would eat.
… is how you remember the name of my new favorite Thai noodle dish, khao soi. I ate it five days in a row and didn’t remember to photograph it once. Google images will help me out here. This bowl has springy egg noodles, spicy-but-not-too-spicy curry (red-curry-esque, but different; that’s not helpful—just find yourself a bowl and dig in), your choice of meat. It’s garnished with fried noodles, pickled greens, cilantro, a squeeze of lime. Slurp, slurp, slurp and be happy. It’s soupy, it’s noodley. It’ll probably splatter a little on your shirt. Don’t worry, it’s worth the mess. Already I’m sad that it took this many years to discover khao soi. Now I’m making up for lost time.
This dog and his driver were in the lane next to our songthaew. I can’t decide which is more impressive: his balance or his obedience.
I’ve been here 24 hours. So far: no jet lag, inspiring co-volunteers, delicious food. I can almost say thank you in Thai.
The first day of orientation presented a range of exercises, from articulating why we are committed to social justice, human rights and repairing the world, to attempting to write a personal mission statement in seven minutes. Both were challenging.
Even more challenging: the business of being brand new. When was the last time you were in a totally new situation, with a totally new group of people, in a land far far away? That’s why this feels to me like the start of college: the opening of a new chapter, with new friends, in a new place, showing what you hope is the best version of yourself and not the insecure, jet lagged version.
My favorite orientation activity was a short exercise where we talked about what defines our people. Who are our tribes, both the ones we’re born with and the ones we create?
My people are kindhearted, good eaters, and laugh at everything.
A co-volunteer and I were talking about teaching writing, and why good writing makes sure it has a point. When I teach fiction workshops, we talk about why a short story needs to answer the Passover question: Why is this night different from all other nights?
The answer today was this: Because we went to the Sunday night market.
The Sunday night market was filled with vendors selling everything from cotton scarves to coconut shell soap dishes to t-shirts, woven skirts and pants, incense, jewelry, and more. It reminded me of a New York street fair—the best ones, with gorgeous handmade jewelry and not so many sock vendors.
And, there was enough food on a stick to give the Iowa State Fair a run for its money. Vendors sold smoothies, meatballs, rotis, cakes, dried fruits and more tasty-looking things I couldn’t readily identify. (Word was fried bugs were available for the curious.) Food-only alleys split away from the main market street. Chopsticks at the ready, we strolled and sampled. We ate pad Thai—real Thailand pad Thai!—that was more complex tasting than noodles past; it was subtly sweet and had a spicy burn that kicked in just when you thought a bite was done. The only thing that tamed the fire was another slurp of noodles.
At the next stand, the dumplings we ate had thin skins, crisp shredded vegetables, crunchy seared outsides, and were gone before I could take a picture. They were delicious, and they made me miss the four-for-a-dollar dumplings in New York.
And finally, ancient ice cream. Shaped like a stick of butter, and speared by a wooden skewer, it was served in a paper cone to catch drips.
I’ve officially consecrated my time in Thailand: I dropped some noodles in my shoe.