Eating out Etc. Food safety Health & nutrition Poverty Travel

The Truth of the Matter

Dirty dishes, Siem Reap roadside rain

Some days, I just don’t care very much about food. I go through moods and, at times, all I want to do is feed the machine so it keeps on churning. And sometimes, as in this week past, I suffer a gut bug and I take drugs (not very often) and I have little appetite for anything. It’s hot. I’m tired. We’ve been spending a lot of hours doing interviews in the sun, and even more hours driving across the worst of Cambodia’s roads, which leave your nose parched and your teeth gritty with dust.

There is little choice in food on these excursions. Lunch is inevitably a fly-ridden (trust me: there is indeed a Fly Season in Southeast Asia) plate of rice with a few unappetizing fried bits of unclear origin. And while we can do our best to stay our cleanest, there’s no escaping the grime when it’s all around and everywhere in between. This is the reality many of the people I interview face every day of their lives; my entry into their scene lasts but a few minutes or hours. And I don’t mean to mislead. Often people have absolutely no control over the sanitation in their neighborhoods. One former soldier I recently interviewed in a suburban slum looked toward a group of cows eating through a huge corner of garbage. He scrunched his nose and said, “A truck used to come once a week and pick up the garbage. Now it doesn’t come anymore. We have no garbage service.” He had no idea why, nor what could be done to remedy the situation.

On some occasions, filth and flavor converge. One day last week, I found a pleasant lady serving an enormous and tasty bowl of num banh chok at a highway stall swarming in flies. The foods were covered, but the flies pestered so that I had to use one hand for eating and the other for swatting. I finished the bowl, I loved it, and not long afterward I was sick in the gut. It’s impossible to tell the origins of such ailments, but a few days later, out interviewing again, my cramping stomach had no appetite for the exceptionally tasty but cheap fried, fermented fish I found in a shantytown. The woman in charge kept her quarters as clean as could be, and she struggled to make a living selling small lunches for about 60 cents apiece.

It’s the heat, the dust, the noise, the grunge combined. But even more, it’s the people’s stories of late that make me–at times–far less interested in exploring the pleasures of food than simply eating what’s necessary and getting on with things. This phase shall pass. It always does. But on many of my trips, I am never far from people for whom survival is the foremost thought, and food is a fuel. It is through luck or fate or good karma that I am able to indulge my many food moods. I hope I never forget that.

6 replies on “The Truth of the Matter”

I’m glad to hear your back in Cambodia. I just happened to get a link to your site while doing a search about Stung Meanchey. Any idea how long you’ll be there?

Your book is on the shelf to my left, and I recommend it as the best primer on Cambodia whenever I get a chance (admittedly not often). We traded a few emails a year or so ago. Since then I’ve been taking groups of volunteers from Japan for 10 days at a time. Now we’re thinking about moving…already got tickets (frequent flyer miles via Bangkok) for the whole family to visit in December.

I’ve been posting thoughts and photos at the blog linked to my name. Please have a look if you’re interested. I’ll add your blogs to my reader now.

I also appreciate what you’ve just written. I once ate a roadside bus stop in Thailand, and it was as you describe. Also, three weeks ago I was on the bus to Takeo and it broke down in front of a bakery just outside the city. As several people pretended to try and fix it, we all started eating bread. Then a vendor came with a sugar cane press, and a fellow German passenger started going on and on about the virtues of sugar cane juice (pure energy, etc.). I finally bought some. I noticed some of the hovering bees, there were hundreds everywhere, were getting sucked through the press with the cane. I guess some bee juice was extracted and ended up in the mix. No harm to the flavor though…

Ed, Andy — Thanks for your comments.

Andy, as it happens, we’ve just wrapped up six weeks in Cambodia and arrived in Bangkok this evening — yes, we did leave the blissfully quiet and empty city of Phnom Penh (everyone goes to the “srok” for the holiday) for the turmoil here. It’s just a stopover before we return to Burma next week. We expect to be in Cambodia again later this year — our trips might overlap. Keep in touch. Would love to meet.


Thank you for the comment and links to your articles. I appreciate it and just spent about 45 minutes catching up on what you’ve been doing. I love learning about traditional healing methods (regional) and how people use plants for medicinal purposes (I responded to your comment about that on my blog). I bought Pacific Lady recently, but have yet to read it. I have a conference to go to soon (gluten intolerance medical conference) — I’m saving it for the plane ride. Your blog looks great and it’s nice to reconnect with it. As always, I love your writing, insights and photography.

By the way, that chocolate orange cake looked amazing (especially since I’ve been sticking with whole foods only lately and no sugar). But the coconut marzipan sounded like a good back-up!

Safe travels,
P.S. I was in Taos twice recently and posted about it — if you’re homesick, there are some photos of Wheeler Peak and Taos Ski Valley. 🙂

Hi Melissa, great to hear from you! Thanks, too, for your book support. I’d like to hear what you learn at your conference. And thanks for alerting me to the NM pix — I’ll have a look in the morning when the Internet isn’t so sluggish. The connection seems to be taking a holiday here in Bangkok.

We’ll be in Albuquerque for April, May, and June next year just in case. Got to get some enchilladas at The Shed before going to Cambodia.

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