Sitting at the hostel bar, I caught a glimpse of a flier laying by my left hand. With no stimulating conversation in my midst, I pulled the flier closer and began reading. Hmm, I thought, that sounds interesting. A boisterous girl saw me holding the paper and made a beeline for me. “Doesn’t that sound great? We should do it tomorrow. I was going to go, but it would be more fun if someone else went too.” I agreed that we should check it out so we made the plan for the next day.

We were waiting for our guide, Sambo, to pick us up at 10am from the hostel. He was a native of a small farming/fishing village about 45 minutes away and was in charge of giving us a glimpse into the real lives of rural Cambodians. This tour we had signed up for had no set itinerary. Basically we were taken in a carriage powered by a small motorbike through the countryside to this village of less than 100 people, where we would spend the day hanging out with/watching/doing what the locals did. This was exciting because it included traditional food.

Our guide brought us to his aunt’s home, where she and the surrounding children welcomed us warmly. We sat around the outdoor table under the roof of the house that was, like all others, built on stilts. Sambo was a fountain of information, telling us about the children and school situations, all about rural life, farming, rice, food preparation, his family, religion, history of the region, the making of the local booze, and everything in between. We sat around the table listening to his stories while he poured us cups of rice wine that had been infused in a large glass jar full of tree bark and other things that imparted the beverage with an earthy, soft ethanol flavor.

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After a few rounds of rice wine at 11am, we took a tour of the area around the home, where Sambo gathered the ingredients necessary for our lunch. He showed us galanga, ginger, chilies, lemongrass, and handfuls of other unnamed plants that we would include in our meal. He pointed out all the ants we would be harvesting into some sort of edible treat. One of his nephews climbed a coconut tree and cut down 8 coconuts for us. We saw the small reed fish trap that was laying in the boggy ditch across the yard. It contained a few small fish and two bullfrogs. I mentioned that I like eating frog and Sambo grabbed them both to add into the meal. Then, as we settled back down onto our chairs around the table, Sambo’s aunt began throwing rice on the ground in front of us for the chickens and ducks. Once word got out on the chicken grapevine that food was near, chickens turned up from all around us. Before we knew what was happening, Sambo had a large stick that he flung at a black, adolescent chicken. It hit the legs of the chicken and managed to hobble it slightly. The bird took off running into the scrub, where it was quickly apprehended and dispatched for our lunch. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.

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^^ants and ant eggs on the menu^^

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While Sambo’s aunt was preparing lunch, we drank more rice wine as Sambo cut open the coconuts and emptied their contents into a glass for us to drink. As we savored the coconut water, we were presented with our appetizer, miniature raw shrimp with a spicy lime dipping sauce. We were shown how to eat this snack properly. Grab a few (basil?) leaves and pinch some raw baby shrimp in between. Dip the whole thing in the sauce and pop it in your mouth, crunching the semi-soft shells and hairy antennae of the shrimp before swallowing and trying not to gag on the hard or hairlike bits. Aside from the texture, the flavor was delightful. I enjoyed the chili lime sauce, and I liked the flavor of the fresh baby shrimp.

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To prepare the chicken, it’s head and legs were twisted and pushed back inside it’s body cavity and then stuffed with handfuls of fresh lemongrass. The bird was then steamed in a large pot so the lemongrass flavor was imparted into the chicken’s flesh.

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The frogs were cooked whole, with their skin still on them. I had never eaten frog with skin before so this was new to me. Since the skin was so thin, it was crunchy and pretty much tasteless. As I’ve said before, frog tastes like chicken, not much flavor but tender and slightly bland.

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Once the food was cooked and ready to be eaten, we were all given a big bowl of rice and everyone settled in for lunch. Sambo’s aunt had made a sort of “dip” out of the ants, ant eggs, fish paste, and chilis. It was a chopped/mashed together conglomeration of said ingredients, with the consistency of a thick paste. I was intrigued by this plate of mashed ants so I grabbed a handful of chicken, rice, leaves of some sort, and a pinch of the ant paste to eat together like the others were doing. I got the handful near my face and immediately wished I hadn’t inhaled so deeply. The ant/fish paste dip had an aroma rivaling that of fresh dung. That was the only smell to which I could equate this food. I kept thinking of pig shit. This tasted like the smell of pig shit. With the consistency to match. Needless to say, I passed on any more helpings of it. I don’t think anyone noticed, though, because they were all busy enjoying it by the scoopful.

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We ate lunch with our hands, pinching off pieces of chicken, globs of rice, random leaves that I could not identify, and a salt/pepper/lime dipping sauce that enhanced the flavor of everything. Aside from the ant concoction, the rest of the meal was tasty.

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After lunch, we took a walk around the small village while Sambo told us everything he knew about life here. He explained how they planted and harvested rice, construction of their houses, how they go fishing during the monsoon season, and everything else he could think of. We went to the home of a woman who makes large batches of rice wine for her income. She showed us the process and her stills, along with jugs of the finished product. We witnessed a typical day in the life of rural Cambodians.

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Eventually, we walked down to the road leading out to the rice paddys. There was an area where the paddy was deep enough that we could go swimming in, so our goal was to head out to that area and cool off. Once we made it to the paddy road, a tractor of sorts pulled up to take us far off into the swampy distance. The slow and bumpy trip was fun, and I felt like a kid on a hot, sunny hayride. In some places, the road was dry, compacted, cracked dirt, while in other places it had sunk to the level of the water and was nothing but mud. The muddy parts were worrisome, and I crossed my fingers that this little tractor could get enough traction to pull our heavy butts back onto sturdy ground. After some sliding about and slow puttering, we arrived at our destination.

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Our destination, as it turned out, was just a patch of ground to the side of the road where they knew the water was deep. Somehow, I didn’t notice a small parade of young guys on bicycles following us to our swimming spot. My partner and I changed discreetly into swimwear while the guys jumped into the paddy on the opposite side of the road and began “fishing.” The method of fishing here is not what I had expected. They set up a long net of thin, closely spaced filament and waited for small fish to swim through and get stuck in the net. When I say small fish, I mean less than 6 inches long. The guys kept picking up sections of net to check for ensnared fish while we swam around on the other side of the road. The bottom of the paddy, when we could touch, was warm and muddy. Thankfully, there were no leeches around here, much unlike the leech situation throughout the entire country of Malaysia.

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Once the guys had gathered what they thought to be a sufficient amount of fish, Sambo pinched the guts out of them and readied them for cooking. His method was to split a bamboo stick down the middle, leaving it together at one end. The fish were then pushed down between the two sides of bamboo until no more could fit, and the open end was tied closed, pinching the fish together between the bamboo. Several of these fish “kabobs” (for lack of a better word) were positioned around a small fire, left there for about 30-45 minutes to get smoky, and cook all the way through. During this time, my companion and I dried off and laid down for a quick nap. I only awoke when I felt the distinct tickle of ants crawling on my arm.

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I sat up to find that the fish were nearly done, Sambo was testing one to be sure they were ready. He handed me a smoked fish and I gingerly tried to eat only the fleshy meat without the skin and bones. I’m sure he was secretly rolling his eyes at me. He told me that normally people eat the whole thing- skin, bones, and all. I’m not sure how people eat the bones without choking to death, but I was as brave as I could be. I ended up eating the skin and meat off the little bones, I just couldn’t bring myself to chew on jagged, pointy, death spines. Naturally, the skin on the fish was a delightful smoky flavor, which paired well with the tiny bits of flaky white fish. This was a tasty snack that I wish I could reproduce.

As the day came to a close and the sun began to set, we packed up all our things and climbed back onto the tractor for our final ride back to the village. The sun setting over the rice paddys was beautiful, and spending those last few moments with people that had a total respect for this place made me feel like I was a part of the community.

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4 Responses to “A Taste of Cambodian Rural Life”

  1. Bronco
    1 December 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Brava! Keep it up, kid. Wish I could be out in the world with you.

  2. Lam
    1 December 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    This was a beautifully written account of what seems like a beautiful day. Really puts things into perspective.

  3. MisterNicky
    1 December 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    Nice post! We like to this food experiments! I like this blogg, keep walking! 😉

  4. Jennifer
    1 December 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    That is amazing!!!