We had a very short day ahead of us a mere 60 km ride to the capital city of Phnom Penh. The plan was to arrive there early enough in the day that we wouldn’t get stuck in rush hour traffic on a Friday evening. I was quite pleased about having a shorter day as a little respite from the longer riding days we had had so far. It’s true that we covered very short distances on even the longer days but riding on unpaved roads on small bikes meant that we rode a lot slower than I normally would in the United States. The heat also made it a lot more tiring.
We made a short stop at a market which specialized in insects. As in, insects that you could consume. They had fried spiders (tarantulas, I believe), crickets, roaches and some small birds. We tried spider from a young girl who had two baskets full of them, one of which was filled with live spiders, while the other was full of cooked ones. I’m not an arachnophobe but the sight of the gigantic spiders crawling around the basket made me shudder. A couple of my group let the spiders run over their hands and one of them stuck it right on his face. He said that they had little suction cups on the ends of their feet (just like Spiderman!). I refused to handle them even though they had had their teeth removed and could not bite. I did try eating a couple of legs of the fried spiders though. They tasted more of the spices that they had been cooked in than anything else. The feel of eating the hairy legs still made me squirm a bit though, and for the rest of the day I couldn’t help but think that I had spider stuck in my teeth.
I refused to eat the crickets too as they didn’t look as appetizing as the spiders. As for the roaches, forget about it. These were water cockroaches, something that I didn’t know existed.
The kids who were selling the insects were amused by our reactions to the insects. They had grown up around them and were used to handling them, of course. It did strike me that my reaction was absurd but not something I could not control. Intellectually I can understand that poor people eat what they can get their hands on. The more privileged people could get access to eating cows, pigs or chickens, while poorer people had to make do with rodents or insects. If we were suddenly in the midst of a famine, I’m pretty sure most of us would throw our apprehensions out the window and eat what was available.
Later on during our lunch break at a local food stall, one of the buffet items was a kind of dish prepared with big red ants, wings and all, and its larvae. I tried a spoonful but I could not bring myself to enjoy it. I was really glad that I was at a restaurant where I could turn down the food, and not in someone’s home where as a guest I would have to eat it all up.
I should note as an aside that not every Khmer person regularly consume insects as part of their diet. Most urban people for instance would probably stick to what we in the Western world would consider â€œacceptableâ€.
Our ride was mostly paved roads and largely uneventful until we reached the city where suddenly we were in the midst of a teeming crowd of vehicles on the road. I had a flashback to traffic in Bombay, the city I grew up in.
Fortunately, we were in it for only about 15-20 minutes. My favorite moment was going over a bridge where we, along with all the other two wheelers, rode on the sidewalk. Now there’s a way to arrive in style! It reminded me a bit of riding over a similar bridge while entering Prague a couple of years ago, although that was on cobblestone.
We parked our bikes behind a building that didn’t look like much. We would leave them there for the night where they had a full time guard to watch the vehicles. We walked around the building and walked into the Ohana hotel which turned out to be a gorgeous 4-star hotel. I felt spoiled and a little out of place in my very dusty dirty gear. In my rides I have occasionally stayed at a couple of nice places, but the bulk of my lodgings have been cheap motels, hostels or campgrounds. By contrast, this felt like wallowing in luxury. An elevator, hot showers, modern flush toilets, access to laundry, all the comforts of home! This was a nice break to have in the middle of the tour.
I spent the rest of the day getting a nice lunch and drinks with the group at the end of the day. I didn’t really get to see the city very much, but that was okay because I would have an entire day here at the end of the tour. The few things I had read about it were from the heartbreaking book â€œFirst They Killed My Fatherâ€ by Loung Ung, a survivor of the terrible Khmer Rouge genocide in 1975. I think at the back of my mind I have been a little terrified to come to a country that had suffered so much. So far I hadn’t witnessed much related to that tragedy outside of the few defaced statues in one of the temples. I knew that Phnom Penh would offer a lot more insight when I was ready to go look for it.