“Mister, mister. You eat one”, she screeched at me as the plastic bag she was holding squirmed and writhed around. In the other hand I could see a platter of what appeared to be cooked spiders, roughly the size of the palm of my hand. As I approached, she knew she had a sale and set down her wares for me to take a closer look. After squatting down next to her, she opened the plastic bag to reveal what must have been over 100 fury and very much alive spiders!
Being overly paranoid, I asked her for a fresh one as I handed over the few Riels it cost for my snack. She selected the victim an proceeded to flash-fry him in oil before pulling it out and promptly delivering it into my waiting hand. Looking at its rigid form for a second, I decided that this was one of those one-off experiences that I would likely never get again…
In the mouth and a few chews later, I was oddly satisfied with the taste, texture and experience overall.
When I began working on the Lost With Louie project, I had an overwhelming urge to share my reflections of the short period of time I spent in Cambodia in 2003. It has been some 12 years since I was in Cambodia and to this day, the people, the history and of course the food still sit at the forefront of my mind.
The smile on her face and her enthusiasm for me to try her food had warmed my heart before her delicious curry had the chance to warm my stomach.
I arrived in Cambodia after having already spent three incredible months in South-east Asia. Life on the road was something to which I had grown accustomed and being so young, I thought I knew everything. For me, Cambodia was perhaps one of the first truly humbling experiences I ever had. The Khmer people are the most genuine and happy people I have ever come across. For a country and people who have suffered so much hardship, genocide and torture, to be as happy as they were is something that not only amazed me but made me understand the power of human nature to overcome absolute sadness.
Like most people who travel to Cambodia, I spent the majority of my time in Siem Reap exploring the numerous temples in the area. The history of the Khmer people was not one that I was too familiar with before traveling to the country but it is one that has amazed me ever since. The temples in the Siem Reap area were lost to the overgrown jungle that surrounded them up until not all that long ago, only to be uncovered by various French expeditions in the 19th and 20th centuries.
After Siem Reap, I passed through Phnom Penh on my way to Saigon by bus. The roads in Cambodia were amongst the worst in the world when I was there so this trip was not only uncomfortable but took a long, long time. Back then, Phnom Penh was a confronting place for a 19-year-old kid who was raised in the safety of Australia. There were a remarkable number of people begging for money and food, many of whom were missing limbs due to the land mines that were used in the war against the Khmer Rouge.
I remember eating Amok fish curry. Thinking back now, I can recall the vibrant mix of curry paste with lemongrass, ginger and other spices all set off by home-made coconut milk. I recall the restaurant in Siem Reap where I first enjoyed Amok curry. The old lady who ran the dirt-floored eatery served me the food on plastic plates. The smile on her face and her enthusiasm for me to try her food had warmed my heart before her delicious curry had the chance to warm my stomach.
I dream of returning to Cambodia one day. By all reports, it has changed a lot since I was there but the good news is that it has changed for the better as the people move on from their horrible recent history.
On a side note, apologies for the quality of the photos in this post. They are scanned copies of produced film photographs that have been sitting in my roof for over a decade.