“Are you sure you want to eat my food?” He suggested we go to some of the other more established and palatable touristy places, before finally agreeing.
He was our tuk-tuk driver. It’s how tourists get around in South East Asia. We knew Sammy wasn’t his real name. I’m sure constantly explaining his true Khmer name to foreigners could get annoying.
I can’t tell you how many times I wished my name was Zeus or Heracles. You know, something modest and unassuming.
In any case, he was hesitant to let us into his world. I get it. With thousands of places to eat, frolic, and culturally appropriate in Cambodia, we were insistent to savor his taste of home.
With enthusiasm, Neil said, “We are sure Sammy!”
Neil’s my cousin. A good-looking man with impeccable skin who wears a smile as non-threatening as mine and teeth as white as ivory. He’s inviting without trying and remembers every detail about everything. I tend to forget, so it works out. Our mothers are sisters. We’ve always been close, and although he lives in the land of maple syrup, whenever I hear his voice, I’m home.
“Sammy, before we eat, please take us somewhere so we can purchase hats,” I said with intent.
It was pushing a hundred degrees, and the humidity had to be about the same. Our consistent sweat kept our bladders empty, and we were eager to keep the tanks full with something cold and hoppy.
The Asian culture in its entirety has contributed many great things to the world, but often overlooked is how amazing their beers are.
Sammy pushed the gas on his three-legged moped and took us to a hat vendor. Neil and I both picked up the basic necessities of the Khmer language and started to negotiate.
“Susadei”(hello), we said in unison with eager smiles.
The vendor was pleasantly taken. It’s seldom for foreigners to even attempt to learn the language.
We looked at the wide assortment of hats.
Rule number one of deceptive negotiating tactics is to peruse through their stock and act like you don’t need shit. I ended up keeping my baseball cap, but Neil decided to purchase an Indiana Jones-type ensemble with Cambodia printed in bold letters, just in case people didn’t know where we were.
We gave each other the signal like two lions getting ready for the kill.
It was go time. I used to be in sales, and Neil owns a construction company, so impressing future financial suiters is second nature.
“Bo man (how much)?” I said.
“Bram (three dollars),” the vendor said sternly. They deal with tourists all the time, so they have to keep their wits about them.
Neil said, “T’lay (too expensive).”
She brought the price down to two dollars (bee in Khmer).
We ended up giving her five dollars.
You were probably expecting something more dramatic, but that’s how we rolled.
It felt good giving her more.
We negotiated for the experience and paid more than we had to. Also, it helped in our favor that the dollar is particularly strong in these parts.
Thank you Federal Reserve. I say this with a malignant type of impish humor.
She had a big beautiful grin as we left. We both waved and said “Lee hi (goodbye)” as we parted ways.
Sammy took us to a location off the beaten path so we could feast.
The smell of gasoline and delicious food dispersed with the roaring sounds of children is a more accurate picture of Siem Reap.
We arrived at our culinary destination for the consumption of authentic Khmer grub. It wasn’t the typical tourist joint with English subtitles and thoughtfully curated pictures of the menu.
Nope, there were no menu’s.
It was the catch of the day.
It wasn’t a daily special either.
It was what was available.
Maybe that’s what made it special.
The restaurant was essentially a shack, with a few tables, and studded around were different shaped and colored chairs. It was apparent that the joint had its share of turmoil. It gave it character. Its foundations were held up by the dollars poured in by locals because only they know the true taste of home.
We were honored to be there.
We saw the chef, a cheerful woman supporting her family. We took a seat.
She took pride in her preparation and was thoughtfully surprised that two kindred spirits from another world yearned for her taste of home.
She placed three small freshwater fish on the grill. While she went to prepare the other dishes, her son who was playing with the neighborhood stray dog went up to the grill and put his finger on our soon-to-be lunch to check for doneness.
Then Sammy went into the kitchen to do the same.
Afterward, another gentleman, presumably a relative who was napping on a nearby bench got up to check the fish as well.
Their string-wired pet cat made its way to the grill and took a whiff of the food and scurried away.
Our cook came back unware of the hodgepodge of musical fingers we witnessed. Maybe she did. In any case, our contaminated barbequed fish was ready for consumption.
“I guess we’re really doing this,” Neil said with joyful hesitancy.
“I guess we are cuz.”
It was like we were ready for battle. Our artillery lay in front of us, a fork and spoon. We were already a few beers in and had been touring Angkor Wat all morning. Needless to say, a shoe doused with some curry would be appetizing at this juncture.
Sammy joined us at our table after helping bring out the food. Oddly, we felt at home. The owner of the establishment looked at us in anticipation as we took our first bite.
Neil and I looked at each other and smiled. We gestured to Sammy and raised our cans of Angkor Beer and said “Chhnang (Delicious)!”
Later that day we toured the many ruins in Angkor Wat. I know we missed a lot of landmarks, but that’s not important when seeing the world.
To find a connection, so you give and take a little bit of your spirit wherever you go has always been a central theme of all my travels.
Sometimes when we are in a rush to see everything, we feel very little.
Neil and I sat down next to one of the ruins.
The artfully deteriorated sandstone structures of what was once a shrine to Hindu gods have married themselves to the banyan trees. It’s revelatory of nature’s cycles, as we all shall be engulfed and wielded soon enough and into a form that is most needed to sustain the planet’s cosmic dance.
This particular ruin depicted a scene from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna who represents God is in conversation with his disciple, Arjuna, who’s getting ready for the battle of his life to save the world.
Our eyes veered away from the ruin and into the vast forest beyond us. The incessant chirping from the rich diversity of birds was drowned by the sound of silence.
Tears fell. We didn’t know why.
A fellow tourist came up to us. We were both enchanted and intoxicated by something and he wanted in.
“What are you looking at sir?” he said eagerly with his camera in full focus.
I sighed with a type of relief never experienced until that moment and took in a deep breath before saying, “nothing.”
He didn’t push any further. He knew that some things can’t be understood, and this was one of those times.
He joined us.
We were all looking at the same thing, differently. It’s the battle humanity is fighting. Differences are apparent, but deep-rooted values are unchanged
Life is kind of funny.
You never know who you’ll meet or what the day may bring.
There’s beauty in that. No real lesson to be learned.
Just letting things happen, like a flower blossoming in early spring.
The audacity to be surprised is one way to live.
I ended up getting food poisoning.
I’d do it again though.
I write articles, stories, and poetry on well-being. Subscribe below to get on my free newsletter so my work can be delivered directly to your inbox. Thank you for visiting.