Well maybe that was just a selling headline to get you into the blog – it’s perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Sorry. At the moment (Sunday evening 1st November) I am down in the sea resort of Kep (on the south coast). I came down earlier today as there is a Monday holiday and I was invited to join some other volunteers who came down for the full long weekend. We will go back tomorrow.
Here they are – some of the more mature volunteers, of whom I am proud to call myself one: Kath, Chrissie and Richard.
Various readers of this blog have apparently asked for an update on some everyday aspects of my life in Cambodia, such as what do I eat, where to I shop, where do I buy my shoes and handbags, get my hair done, what kind of clothes you can buy here and so on (by the way I can confirm there is no H&M, just that most H&M clothes are made here then shipped out). To those of you who thought I might never write about such interesting stuff, here is your episode of the blog, although I fear it will be disappointing as I have no photos as yet. Perhaps these will be added at a later date. Nor am I much of a shopper. In fact I’m probably a bit of a disappointment all ways round.
Hair: there are a number of pavement barbers with cutthroat razors who seem to offer a pretty good service, but so far I have chickened out of their service as they don’t seem to have the headclippers I’m used to. I have gone into several different air conditioned hair salons, trying to find one that will cut my hair (it’s not a difficult job let’s face it!) for less than $2. Normally these salons are quite intimidating as there are could be up to 5 or 6 beautiful young Cambodia women, all dressed in smart uniforms, sitting doing nothing but checking their impeccable nails waiting for a customer on whom to practise doing highlights or turning black hair red or blonde….. but whenever I go in there is a lot of tittering and giggling and then miraculously some grizzled old guy in a vest and shorts appears from the back shop to do my hair. So far I have resisted the attempts of these thick-fingered gentlemen to clean my ears at the end of the hair cut.
Clothes: I’m afraid I’m a big disappointment here as well. After having had a pair of UK trousers and a UK shirt copied for work at one of the tailors here, I have bought nothing else so far. I went for this to the tailoring shop of Friends (http://www.mithsamlanh.org/), a charity that trains street children in various trades, but they are obviously still needing a bit of training as there were one or two little problems, but nothing too serious. I will be going to a more professional tailoring service soon to have some more work clothes made. Typical cost of a pair of nice hand-tailored trousers – $15-20 (£10+) and about half that for a shirt. Tailors and seamstresses are highy skilled and seem to be able to do just about anything with a pair of scissors and the Chinsese equivalent of a Singer sewing machine. Some of the women volunteers in Phonm Penh are to be found every Saturday morning at the Russian market where there are a lot of tailoring stalls, brandishing photos of models wearing dresses at $1500 from Harpers and Queen or some such website and asking ‘how much to make this?’, to which the answer might be ‘$20’. How hard life is for the female volunteer – so many cheap clothes to tempt the hardest heart. This can also happen with shoes. There is a shop called ‘Beautiful Shoes’, where a pair of handmade shoes to fit might cost you $20. You can find shoes and bags here to fill an Imelda Marcos-sized wardrobe, but would you want to?
Cambodians like to dress smart, particularly for work and take their clothing pretty seriously (although please remember that daytime pyjamas are very popular for those not working in offices). They can be very dismissive of people who don’t dress formally for work. There are a lot of smart boutiquey places for Cambodians, and some very smart tourist shops at tourist prices. The markets sell a lot of second hand and cheap clothes (maybe ‘seconds’). Costs can vary dramatically. Before coming out here, my impression from the guidebooks was that women still covered up for the most part, but lots of the younger Cambodian women are throwing over the traces and wearing short skirts/hot pants etc., though not in a formal work setting, but so far I ain’t seen any showing any cleavage!! (not that I was looking particularly, but just so you know).
Now to the more serious business of shopping for food: I have to say my experience is coloured by two or three things – first I am cooking for one, second I am a vegetarian and third, I’m probably eating out two or sometimes three times a week. So my buying and eating habits are quite conservative. I’m never particularly keen to eat out on my own, so if I am eating out it is usually because I have been meeting up with various volunteers etc – and there’s a bewildering variety of restaurants and rice-shops around Phonm Penh. My favourite so far is a South Indian place, Dosa Corner, which does exactly what it says on the tin. But there is a place for every taste and every budget. For example, you can get some pretty good fried rice or rice and fish, for less than £1, or you can go to places that charge Western prices. I’m not too keen on a lot of the Khmer food stall offerings as they like their meat, and in particular lots of bits of the animal that don’t tend to be seen in Western shops! On the way down here the bus parked in a half way halt (Cambodian motorway services) and my window happened to overlook the cafe kitchen. I don’t know what bits of meat were being ladled out of the massive soup pot and mixed with noodles, then sprinkled with chilli, but they looked about the size of a pair of testicles and were a rather unattractive grey colour. I’m told that several volunteers who were not vegetarian before they came out here have converted to the cause. That’s a result of sorts, although it’s got nothing to do with factory farming.
I’m tending to go to the supermarket rather than the market for my main weekly shop. I do feel uncomfortable wandering round the aisles brushing shoulders with half the European/American population of Phonm Penh. On the other hand, ‘Lucky Supermarket’ sells the most devastatingly delicious sesame seed baguettes and they also sell uht milk (which I now believe to be almost as good as the real thing) and I have become very attached to my morning cup of tea with milk before work and my last thing at night milky coffee before I sleep. Another reason is that I do find all the dead meat hanging around the markets a bit off-putting. Last is that if you want to catch the best food at the local markets you should probably be there before 7.00 as the best stuff has been snapped up by then. There is an exciting variety of smells and sights at any time of day, that’s true.. and the fruit displays are fantastic. Local fruits are more expensive than I thought they might be, but there is a wide variety for every taste – mango, mangosteen, watermelon, melon, guava, durian, papaya and so on. Vegetables are a bit disappointing. There are many different varieties of leaf vegetables that look very like spinach (and cook the same way), bitter gourd and cucumber, cheap aubergines (that’s a real plus – they are very good) and peppers and then, more expensively, potatoes / carrots / cabbage. There is not a great variety of spices/curries, as there is in many other S.E. Asian cookery traditions. So far I have made up some different sauces to eat with rice or pasta and then kept it going for another meal… if I was staying for longer, I would definitely be tempted to buy a microwave as my luxury. It makes cooking for one so much easier. Having said all that, anyone could find food to suit here – most ‘haang bai’ (Khmer restaurants – literally ‘rice shop’) can turn their hand to a veggie fried rice, or rice with vegetables. There is a lot of choice for those who have the money to buy. In Phonm Penh and the tourist centres this goes all the way up to expensive Western dishes. The many rural poor make do with a more subsistence-based diet.
This week I am off to Koh Kong, which is the province on the coast nearest to Thailand. It’s quite a journey and considered quite remote from Phonm Penh so I’ll maybe try to get some food photos while I’m there. In the meantime, happy shopping!