Sunday, December 12, 2010

Markets and Festivals

The hotel includes a breakfast buffet consisting of some western food and some local foods: baguettes, real French (as in imported from France) butter, sliced pancakes, French toast, fried eggs, noodles with chicken, fried rice with vegetables, fruit juice, and excellent coffee. The noodle dish and the baguettes were really good. The French colonial masters burdened this country with their style of bureaucracy (there's a reason that word has a French origin) but tempered that with French architecture, city planning and baking. Parts of the city are reminiscent of New Orleans, which is only odd until you realize that the French had a hand in both places.

After breakfast a group of us hire a tuk-tuk, a motorcycle with a trailer (seats four Canadians, or approximately fourteen Cambodians plus a live pig) to take us to the Russian market. I suppose the market takes its name from communist times, either because manufactured goods were mainly imported from the Soviet Union or because the Russians were the ones who had the money to shop there. It's now a huge complex, not a mall, just a whole lot of ordinary vendor stalls grouped along dark, narrow aisles by type of product and absolutely spilling over with manufactured goods and foodstuffs of every description. At the entrance we came in, the vendors had tourist stuff like t-shirts of the local signs and beer brands. I can't remember if slogans went quite as low as "Someone I know went to Cambodia and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" but it wouldn't have been out of place. I remember being startled by a sandals stand, because all the shoes were displayed with fake feet in them. A young man is selling large silk cloths embroidered with elephants and his come-on describing their use amuses me because he is accidentally demonstrating a feature of the Khmer language that is confounding me. There are two separate b sounds, one like English and one that does not involve exhalation of breath. The phoneme is written in my guidebook as "bp" and I can hear the young man urging me to consider his product as a "bped cover" or "tabple cover." I have lately noticed the decrepit condition of the things covering both my bped and tabple, and they are both reasonably priced and gorgeous, so after a little bargaining I have two for $12. Other people try to sell us jewellery, scarves, wooden carvings, pretty boxes, incense, handbags, books, and more. I'm not sure if it's cooler inside the market than outside because of the shade, or hotter inside than out because of the confinement. It's hot, maybe mid-thirties. I buy a light wraparound skirt and a top that matches.

While I am negotiating for the skirt and top, a woman comes up selling cards made by landmine victims. The country is absolutely riddled with landmines that not even the soldiers who laid them have records of. Someone who tries to care for his family by clearing land for crops or grazing may end up crippled by a mine. The woman is herself a victim of something, not a mine, but she has been severely burned. Her eyes have been spared, but the flesh of her nose is completely burned away and I can see mottled scar tissue down her chest, too. Could be a cooking accident or maybe an acid attack. It's something you see, and then stop seeing, because she doesn't physically carry herself like a person disfigured, or otherwise seem to expect anyone to waste any time over it. I look at the cards. They are watercolours of local scenes. I ask if there are any with tigers, or other animals. I like tigers. There aren't, but she flips through and points out oxen and birds in various scenes. The cards are pretty, and I need something to send home anyway, so I buy a package of ten. She counts out ten envelopes to go with them. If you sponsored the house building project and requested a postcard, you may have received it in an envelope with one of these cards. And these stamps.

I've seen people wearing thongs (the shoes that have a strap between the toes) with socks here: they have special socks with one toe. I ask the vendor if she sells those, or knows who does, and she tells the landmine card woman where. I follow her through the various aisles of the market in search of the right socks. At one point she leaves me and comes back with a vendor and socks, and I choose a couple of pairs. It's good to be able to wear thongs, yet have some protection against sun and blisters. And I like strange socks.

We wander through the aisles of the market some more, switching from shopping to sightseeing. We have seen enough repeats of the same carvings and crafts that we realize we'll see these all over the country and don't need to buy right away even if we see something we want. The card woman comes back and finds us again, this time with an armload of placemats featuring tigers. They would have been the best thing ever when I was about nine years old, as they are plastic and feature 3D images, with lots of depth, the tigers jumping right out of the jungle at you. My tastes have moved on a little since then and I have to turn her down, but I'm impressed and appreciative. If you go to a place like this, a personal shopper is pretty useful. In some cases a tuk-tuk driver will be able to come and help you find or ask for what you need.

We wander deeper into the market and find ourselves in the food market area. A lot of the food is still alive, fish flopping in baskets and shrimp escaping down the corridors. There's no refrigeration, meat just hangs on hooks the same way handbags and second hand car parts do in their respective parts of the market. The meat picture is by permission of my roommate who has more skill and a fancier camera than I do. Mine wasn't capable of capturing images at the light level inside the market.

We get back in the tuk-tuk and go to another market, the Olympic market. This one is in an actual two-story building as opposed to an area mostly roofed in patchwork tin. There I buy another suitcase, as it's already evident that souvenirs are going to overwhelm the one I brought, and a pair of light cotton trousers labelled XL, and falling to about mid-shin on me. I'm not entirely sure they were designed as capri pants, but they'll serve that function for me. It's a conservative country and we've been warned not to wear shorts or tank tops, especially in the village. I don't really want to wear shorts, and risk getting that much sunburn, anyway.

It's time for lunch. We buy a couple of pastries from a stall on the ground floor, and then go outside and look at the food displayed there. There are a lot of dried fish, and they smell good, but they are entire large fish, or dried really hard such that they would have to be boiled to be reconstituted. They are such interesting shapes. I'm reminded of the discovery of the coealacanth. Only the fishermen who caught this stuff know what wonders lurk in the Tonlé Sap. We buy a couple of meals by pointing at things displayed and then nodding in response to questions we don't understand. Between us we have fish with noodles and a variety of fried things with rice. The food is displayed on the counter and then they deep fry it after you select it. It's tasty and we have delicious coconut pastries for dessert.

In the afternoon we go to Wat Phnom, the hill temple, as are many of the people in town for the water festival. It's not an ancient temple, but it's probably an ancient site, the latest of many rebuildings. The whole scene is completely analogous to any number of public holiday events I've attended in good weather in Canada or the US: lots of people in a park with things to buy and eat and just milling around smiling at people. There's a big garden clock near the base of the hill, paths up to the temple at the top, and vendors all around the paths at the base.

First we go up the hill. There's an admission fee of one dollar for foreigners. We'll see this kind of thing a lot, and I don't have any problem with contributing my share to something the others probably support with their taxes. Right after I pay my dollar, for which I receive a receipt, an old woman in white robes offers to tie a red string around my wrist. For a moment I think this is the equivalent of a fairground plastic wristband or hand stamp, and then realize as it's being tied that it's an optional service, a good luck blessing in return for a donation. It even matches my hatband, and the donation is about 30 cents Canadian.

At the top of the hill is a tiled terrace and a roofed pagoda housing a large number of Buddha statues. I take off my shoes on the terrace and realize that as this is a culture where you take your shoes off indoors, even in public places, the floors are very important. The texture of the terrace is very interesting to my feet and I'm glad to feel it. I wonder what else my feet have missed. Inside the pagoda there are musicians playing on the concave xylophones we saw at the restaurant, people praying (kneeling and bowing low with their hands pressed together fingertip to fingertip and palm to palm), people leaving offerings of fruit, flowers and money on and around the buddhas, and incense burning in pots of sand. We go back outside on the terrace and wander down the paths on the other side. There is another smaller temple a little lower down on the hill, with Chinese-language banners.

At the base of the hill is the most exciting part, the food. We didn't know what most of it was, and didn't have enough language in common with the vendors to ask. A popular item was eggs containing half-developed foetal chicks. I don't think there was ever any possibility of us deciding to sample those. A borderline item was what looked like very large frogs barbecued while held in split bamboo sticks. While trying to rationalize these we discussed our own fairground food. "They're frogs-on-a-stick, like corndogs ... cornfrogs!" We did not sample cornfrogs at this time. Our excuse was that a group meal was planned, and we didn't want to spoil our dinners. We did try some kind of roasted insect, they looked like grasshoppers or crickets. They looked exactly like grasshoppers or crickets, large ones, too. They were tasty, spiced with something good, but the hard parts of the insect stuck in my teeth for hours, the way the seed coating does with popcorn.

We just had fun walking around and looking. At one point I felt a hand and turned, suspecting a pickpocket, but it was a little kid being carried who had just reached out from mom's shoulder to investigate this strange milk-coloured person. When I turned, mom realized what was going on and stopped him, but I smiled to show no offence taken and then we all laughed and the kid turned shy. We sat down on the base of a statue to eat and people watch. A family came up to sit next to us and I made sure I made room for them all, but the littlest girl obviously wasn't sure she wanted to sit next to the scary foreign people, and sat on mom's lap. I caught a Khmer word I knew, thom meaning big and a gesture around the end of the mother's characteristic flat nose. They were discussing the looks of these peculiar strangers. I grinned and echoed the word and gesture with my own nose. Djaa, yes, I agreed, inducing giggling in the kids. I don't actually have a big nose, by Western standards, but it's not flat and broad like theirs, either.

I bought a small bag of crickets to take back and share, but got few takers. Not knowing the shelf life of roasted insects, nor how to tell if they have gone bad, I threw some away. That's the first time I've felt badly about putting dead bugs in a garbage can.

Dinner is at the FCC --Foreign Correspondents' Club-- obviously a fairly longtime enclave of privileged foreigners amongst the natives. I imagine it's the sort of place one can get a gin and tonic. I'd rather get frog-on-a-stick or barbecued Mekong eel or something else I've never seen before, but I also want to bond with my team, so a European meal won't hurt me. There's a group walking and another group taking tuk-tuks to the FCC. I elect to go with the walkers, but somehow get my times crossed and miss their departure time. Never mind, I'm a fast walker. I get directions and set out. "Straight down the main boulevard to the river, then turn left and just ask for the FCC. Everyone knows where it is." I clarify that it is the Foreign Correspondents' Club or if it has another local name, and am told no, just say "Eff-See-See," they'll understand.

The main street quickly becomes extremely congested with people, mostly walking, but a few embedded in the crowd on bicycles and motos, and occasionally beggars sitting on the ground in the midst of it all. The streets are partly taken up with booths, selling food, or mobile phone services, or things I can't figure out because I don't read Khmer. Again it's typical festival booths, just translated into a different culture. Many of the booths are blaring music or announcements. One might be a bingo game as I recognize a lot of numbers being said. Or maybe when numbers constitute over half the words you know in a language, everything sounds like a number. There are too many people on the street to move at a normal walking pace, but I've given myself almost an hour to go a couple of kilometres, and it looks as if I'll need every minute in this crowd.

I can see a decorated bridge ahead with people standing on it. (Fortunately I'm tall and everyone here is short, so I can see well, even in big crowds). That must be the river. As I try to keep going forward towards it, I'm not certain that it's a road that continues this way. I may be in a riverside park now. There is a Ferris wheel and other fairground equipment straight ahead, but I think that may be on the other side of the river. I turn left. There is too much noise from all the loudspeakers for me to easily ask anyone about the FCC, so I just go a couple of blocks, looking. There's a gated building with a security guard but while he's clearly willing to be helpful he doesn't understand my guidebook Khmer rendition of "Please, where is the FCC?" The thronging crowd presses me up against a metal barricade across the road, but I just need to make my way across to the gap in the fence. It's a roadblock stopping vehicles from coming this far into the festival. I repeat my FCC query to a police officer who is supervising the crowd, but he doesn't know either. He finds me another officer who speaks some English, but he also does not know what is this FCC of which I speak. He wants to know if it is a hotel. "It's a restaurant." It might be a hotel. "It's a big restaurant, lots of Europeans there." Europeans means white people here, the way Africans means black people in the US. I get uncertain directions to continue the way I am going. It's possible that there are out-of-town cops here for the festival, but this is the biggest city in the country. Most of them must be from here.

A few blocks later--or maybe it was half a block and just felt like a block--I spot a tourist information building. They speak English and have heard of the FCC. They mark it on a map and say it's about four hundred metres on, just past the National Palace. These sound like great directions and it's only when I'm back in the thick of the crowd that I realize that I can't see any street signs because of the crowd, that everything in this country looks like a national palace to me, and I couldn't read the words National Palace in Khmer if they were suspended on a two metre wide banner over my head. Which they probably are, but it's getting kind of dark now.

The river is on the right and I can see incredibly decorated barges sailing back and forth. Each barge has a superstructure which must be the height of a three-storey building, depicting a temple or a Buddha or a goddess, all illuminated with electric lights, probably LEDs judging by the precision and brightness of the lettering and designs. This festival dates back at least to the eleventh century and probably to the seventh, so at one time these boats must have been decorated with candles or bonfires or something. I pass something that looks like it could be a national palace, so I study my map. Wait, according to this map, either the FCC is on the other side of the street, in the other direction, or the person marked the map incorrectly. I think the last. I make my way to the sidewalk and ask again. A "European" (actually, judging by the accent, a southern United Statesian) is in earshot of my question and he knows where the FCC is. I suspect that my informant's "everybody" (who knows where the FCC is) consists of all European-descended people who have been in Phnom Penh more than two days. He didn't consider that I was going to ask locals. Silly Aviatrix. I'm told now that the FCC is about another block on, on the right, big white building, can't miss it. So I relax about being able to find it and struggle slowly through the crowd, appreciating the festival for a bit longer. It's remarkable how quickly it gets dark in the tropics. Fireworks start over the river. I know I'm late now, as part of the purpose of going to the FCC was to see the fireworks from their balcony. I hope they aren't worried about me.

After what I'm sure is well over four hundred metres past the tourist place and more than a block past the American, I still haven't found a big white building that says FCC or Foreign Correspondents' Club, so I ask again, this time smartening up and asking a white person. A New Zealand accent tells me that it's back the way I came, "You could miss it." This time I don't. It's easier to see from this direction, being kind of halfway around the corner onto the side street. By the time I arrive, everyone has pretty much finished their dinners. Some people were worried about me, but the group leader knew me well enough that he was fully confident I'd turn up eventually, so it wasn't too bad. I apologize for my tardiness and get a great meal out of sampling other people's leftovers. There are geckos running across the ceiling eating bugs. I wonder if they would have liked my spicy roasted crickets.

We all walk home together, as it's now much too crowded to get any kind of taxi or tuk-tuk down here. We start out on some back roads, which aren't too bad, and must have been the way the other walking party came, but then we merge with the main road and it's even more packed than it was on the way down. Now it's like the area in front of the stage at a concert, hot, everyone pressed up against one another and happy, smiling. Lots of people step on my feet, but they're all wearing sandals or thongs and they don't weigh very much. The motorcycle going over my toes is going to leave a mark, though. It gets to a point where we can hardly move at all. We've been trying to go the short half block from the main street to our hotel street for over half an hour. It's disconcerting when I realize that there are some food vending carts in the crowd--and I know the technology they use to heat things on the card is concrete pots of hot coals. We're packed tightly enough that there could be a real problem here. I don't know enough to Khmer to be able to yell something useful to prevent people from pushing forward if there was fire, or a child fallen, or something. There's a car embedded in the crowd near me. I could jump on it and grab children up to safety, hope people understood. I know how to say "Help me," and as there are no noun or pronoun cases in the language and it follows strict SVO word order, I can reverse that to declare "I help." A siren starts to wail and I realize that one of the embedded vehicles is an ambulance. There's not a chance of it moving. There's nowhere to get out of the way. People walking with bicycles or astride motos make it impossible for the crowd to push sideways, and there isn't any room anyway. We're already right out to the sides of the street. "Now you see why I was late!" I explain to the people still within earshot, but admit that it wasn't this bad on the way down.

We all get home safely and watch the crowd, festive searchlights, and more fireworks from the roof of our hotel.


Central User said...

Wow! Talk about descriptive. I cannot wait to read about the rest of your trip. Thank you.

John Lennerton said...

"And I like strange socks."

Oh, how I enjoy reading your narratives. Thank you.

townmouse said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person on the planet who doesn't just see disasters waiting to happen, but has detailed plans of what they might do when the disaster does happen. Fortunately so far the disaster never has happened but when it does...

Unknown said...

Loving it!

Years ago while in the Philippines I encountered the same almost-but-not-quite-ready-to-hatch-then-cooked eggs... I tried it, unconventional for sure but tasty! Also, as the only white person on town, it scored me some kudos with the people I the area :-)

Lookin' forward to more!



Aviatrix said...

Aaron: you've shamed me. Next time, I promise I'll try one.

Unknown said...

Haha! No shaming intended, it's just that I haven't heard of such food for, well, quite a while! It refreshed a, let's call it, interesting memory :-) Also it took days of encouragement from the people I was staying with before I could be persuaded...