Tuesday, August 16, 2011
An Existence Of Mud, Fish & Lake Water
I continued my journey through the floating villages on Tonle Sap, and the tin shacks and wooden houses became even more ramshackle, until there were families of 14 living in single room shelters with reed-stitched roofs. The people looked happy, but the poverty was appalling.
Children were playing in the mud, and everywhere I went there were choruses of “allo!” It was obvious they got few foreign visitors. Most of the tourists they see are the boat loads of holidaymakers who float past on organised tours of SE Asia's largest freshwater lake, which during the monsoon swells up to cover a fifth of the country.
It’s an existence of mud, fish and lake water. I passed a yard making boats, and the smell of the wood oils enveloped the air with a fresh, musky, aftershave smell that for a few seconds overpowered the relentless stench of fish rotting away in tubs to make prahoc (a delicious fermented fish condiment that has a peculiar taste of Roquefort, and is often cooked in omelettes, and served with beef lok lak).
It's a tough life - the dreadful poverty means the average age expectancy is just 54, 50% of children are malnourished, and 12% die before the age of five, according to the NGOs that raise cash for the villagers.
Some of the wooden shacks were bought for families by foreign visitors, and have their names plastered on boards outside like 'for sale' signs.
The whole economy is based on fish. And I'm glad the Cambodian government has finally announced action to restore fish stocks in Tonle Sap, also known as the Great Lake, by removing the commercial licences of fishermen who had been pouring toxic chemicals into the water to drive fish towards their nets.
The 35 lot-holders, who had been paying the government a total of $2m a year for the privilege of overfishing and poisoning the lake, will not be able to operate for at least three years to allow fish stocks to recover.
Locals will still be able to fish the lake to feed their families, however - which is lucky considering there is very little else for them to eat.
On the dusty road back to Siem Reap, a tuk tuk full of lycra-clad Russians clutching beer bottles ambled past and then stopped suddenly in front of me.
They got out and disappeared down a slope to a lotus flower farm with a 1,000 riel ($0.25) honesty box outside for visitors. They started clambering around in the middle of the flowers, taking pictures of each other.
I watched for a bit wondering whether the entrance fee would pay for the damage to the plants, and then there was lightning over the hill and soon the full strength of a monsoon.
I was drenched in seconds. The potholes and craters quickly filled with muddy, red water and it was impossible to know which would lead down into a crunching chasm, and which was older and filled with stones.
I stopped outside one of the hammock bars lining the road. An old woman welcomed me in and sat me down with a bucket of ice cold beers and a bucket of ice.
I drank the Anchors in quick succession, staring out at the lush green rice fields that would soon become a lake again. I could have been in Wales, except the rain was stronger, the heat left breath trails in the air, and there wasn’t a curried chip or a track-suit in sight.
The rain gathered strength, and poured through every hole in the roof. They moved me to a room at the back with a sturdier roof made of rusty corrugated iron, and I drank a few more beers as I waited for my Cambodian sour rice chicken soup. A steaming bowl big enough to feed a brigade of hungry soldiers arrived. There was so much there, I shared it with the family.
The chicken was the gloopy, gelatinous parts of the bird – feet and wing tips mainly – as well as offal and gizzards, and with the sourness of the tamarind, flavoured the stock brilliantly.
It came with bean sprouts, chopped spring onions greens, and a bowl of Kampot pepper. Every time the liquid level fell below five gallons, the old woman would return with a cauldron of bubbling chicken stock to top it up.
It was absolutely divine, and continues to be one of my favourite Khmer dishes. More commonly, it is flavoured with dried shrimps, sliced shiitake and straw mushrooms, chopped thorny coriander, spring onion greens, slices of onion, plenty of black pepper, and julienne strips of fresh ginger draped over the top (pic below).
The prawns add wonderful bursts of fishy flavour, and it’s so thick, it has all the smack of a good Mulligatawny. It really is a spectacular meal in a soup.
I sat in my hammock and gazed out at the paddy fields that now resembled a patched quilt with squares of brown in the afternoon haze. I looked down at the water-filled trench below and the goat and her mewing kid. The top of a reed fish trap was poking out from the water. There was movement inside and I could see a snake’s head squeezing out through the bars.
It tried one side and then the other, each time looking for a bigger gap. Finally it pushed half its body through and dangled unsteadily in mid-air. I felt slightly guilty, but did it anyway. I walked out to the front of the restaurant to tell the family they were about to lose a snake.
They had no idea what I was talking about so I got them to follow me. They squinted for a bit as I pointed. The snake had gone still all of a sudden and you could hardly tell it was there. Then it gave a final lunge and vanished into the brown water. I gestured again, but the woman just shrugged.
“You want me go and get and cook for you?” she asked.
“No, no, I not like,” I said.
They wandered back to their hammocks, and then the woman returned with a stick in her hand. Her silhouette got closer. When she was a few feet away, the stick bent upwards and I realised it was a snake.
“I cook for you?” she said.
“No, no,” I said, panicking, and wondering how I could jump out of the hammock without falling over the low banister into the snake-filled trench 20ft below.
She grinned, and I thought she was going to throw it at me. But she walked off and chucked the serpent back into a large, foul-smelling vase to rejoin its friends and live for a few more hours. I staggered to my feet, paid the bill, and got back on my bike to brave the rain.
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