I didn’t expect to write this post for another 6 months, but circumstances have changed.
We are returning to Australia next week, and feeling all the feelings. My husband has a new job near the South Coast of Victoria, and we are very much looking forward to the next adventure.
I’ve been reflecting on our six months as residents of Battambang, Cambodia, and the quirky, funny, confusing, excellent and plain weird things we have witnessed here. There are cultural things that I will never understand, things that have brought me so much joy, and things that make me grit my teeth.
Here are a few random thoughts about life in the ‘Bong.
The majority of our food shopping has to be done in the markets (we use Psar Nat and Psar Boeung Chhouk because they’re walking distance from home).
At Psar Nat, eggs are presented for sale by size and type (duck, chicken, salted, containing a dead baby chicken, and more). Beside the eggs lie pieces of chicken leg, breast, exposed to the air and flies and dust. Eggs are 500 riel each. I don’t know the price of the chicken, because I can’t bring myself to buy it. It’s 30 degrees and 85% humidity by 8am. Everything we know about food safety is out the window. I imagine the birds were killed this morning, and broken down on site at the market, and maybe they’re even cleaner and fresher than anything I can buy in Australia?
Nearby the chicken squats a woman, the vendor of prahok – salted fermented fish, which is a key ingredient in many Khmer dishes. It stings my nostrils and makes me hold my breath. Near this you can find fresh rice noodles (made, sold and eaten within 24 hours is best), dryfoods stores selling tiny dried, stinky shrimps, flour, seeds, nuts, rice. There’s a dark corridor with vendors hunched low beside their offerings of fruit, veg and ricey coconutty desserts.
Coconut milk is extracted fresh while you wait, and the by-product of freshly dessicated coconut can be procured cheaply or sometimes free. River fish writhe in baskets, awaiting the knock on the head commissioned by their buyer. Curry pastes, dragon fruit, bananas, pineapples, sticks of bread and literally hundreds of mystery foods and ingredients.
I’ll miss the interesting options, the freshness of the produce, the smell of the fresh herbs, and the hubbub of the busy morning trade. The ginger roots, supple, fresh and mild enough to chew raw or pop in hot water as a drink to sooth an unsettled tummy.
I won’t miss hauling a cranky and sweaty 2 year old to the market, swatting away unwelcomed cheek pinches, leg slaps and hair pulls, and trying to diffuse the shouts and jostling for her attention. Ginger haired, fair skinned, blue eyed children stick out like dogs balls here, and the attention she gets is one of the cultural things that we have found very challenging to manage here.
The bared bellies
Generally it seems Khmer people dress quite conservatively – women often covering arms and legs completely (to protect from the burning sun and for modesty). One opposing custom we have found quite amusing is that some men like to cool themselves down, but tucking their shirt up and exposing their low back and bellies. It works best if you have a large tummy to hold the shirt in place.
Most common mode of transport is the moto (motorbike), followed by bicycles and cars…and a little way behind that is the modest tuktuk. A tuktuk consists of a motorbike with a carriage hitched on. Our favourite kind are made of wood, but there are also larger, metal tuktuk carriages. We find the wooden ones are more flexible and therefore have a more comfortable ride. (We took a metal tuktuk to the Batcave tonight, and I was kicking myself for not wearing a running bra – had to ride with my arms crossed, to prevent my boobs from punching me in the face on each bump in the road!)
We have used tuktuks most days here, as they’re the safest and most convenient mode of transport we have with our daughter. We have enjoyed getting to know our regular drivers, and helping support their small businesses.
Last week we had our first ride in a tuktuk during heavy rain. Some roads had 1ft of water, and others had wave action going from vehicles moving through. It was exciting and a little scary, we got very wet, and we needed a good shower when we returned home. I thought our driver was quite brave!
There is nothing quite like this in Australia – open aired, public transport you can just jump in and out of, and go straight to where you want, without any technology. I enjoyed doing my grocery shop (kid free) by tuktuk, piling up my produce on the seat and floor as we spun around town. I will miss the simplicity and convenience of tuktuks – always one within 200m of our house.
You can smell it before you see it.
Before moving to Cambodia, I had avoided almost all caffeine for about 3 years, starting from when I fell pregnant. When I gave up caffeine, I noticed my headaches and sleep improving – which is why I kept away from it after my daughter was born. I felt like my health was better and I liked getting up in the morning without a withdrawal headache!
Well ‘decaf’ isn’t really a thing here.
Khmer coffee is so strong. And delicious. And I couldn’t stay away from it (unlike my husband who has only had about 3 coffees since we have been in country). I like it served with sweetened condensed milk over ice (cafe tek dah koh tek kaw), but it’s so sweet it hurts my teeth… and does keep me up half the night if I have it after 10am!
As far as I know, there is nothing like it in Aus.
That said, there is nothing like Melbourne coffee here in Battambang! I am looking forward to a nice latte and brownie from my favourite local café.
The early starts
Anyone with a kid under 3 would agree, parents don’t get enough sleep. Our babe is usually in bed between 7-8pm, and prior to being a resident of BTB (and living in a very quiet rural area of Australia), had been known to sleep in til 7-8am (or even later). Approximately 6 mornings out of 7, she wakes before 6am. On mothers’ day, it was 4.30am… THANKS FOR NOTHING, NOISE POLLUTION! If it’s not a wedding kicking off before dawn, it’s the blessed chanting monks, or some moto-driver who thinks everyone is a morning person and wants to listen to his piercing horn. For the record, 4.30am is still NIGHTTIME.
While I’m on the subject of horns… they sound different here. Really shrill and sharp, and loud. The horn of a car back home is much more of a lazy honk. I have a theory that Khmer people use their car horns so much that they have to replace them, and the after market replacement horns are built to be startling and not go unnoticed.
I’m going to get sappy for a minute. Sorry.
I am so grateful for the generous, warm and welcoming community that owns Battambang. We have been blown away by the incredible people we have met here. We have connected with people with totally different world views and interests, had our eyes opened, and learned so much about the world, Cambodia and ourselves.
They’ll kill me when they read this, but I have two special mentions I cannot miss.
Bonny, who tried to warn me about EVERYTHING and I naively ignored. Who gave so much help and advice about moving here before we even left Australia. Which I stupidly ignored. Who talked about everything and nothing for hours. Who let me be my weird self, and cry on her more times that I can remember. Who made me laugh out loud even more. Who held our hands while we settled in and figured out how to stay alive. Who made one of the coolest kids on the planet and let her be friends with my kid. Who shared her friends, and her gin. Thank you Bonny. You’re rad.
And Abs. The most inclusive human and best bargain hunter in the entire universe. I literally don’t know how this gal fits everything in, and fits everyone in, but she is the catalyst and the glue of a little mummies and kids tribe we ended up with here in Battambang. She is intentional in everything she does, incredibly organised, and a really good cook! Abs, you saved us from eating out 8 nights a week, shared all of your local intel, and made sure we weren’t alone. We adore you and your family, and will forever be grateful for everything you were for us here.
To all the people that loved us, welcomed us, befriended us, drove us, shared with us… you know who you are, and what you did. Thank you.
We didn’t expect to be shooting through so soon. While we have certainly had some challenges, hard days, health problems, and constantly questioned whether we are giving our daughter and ourselves the best opportunity to thrive in a challenging environment, we have had an amazing experience here, and are so thankful that we took the leap and did the thing. Our family is smarter, stronger and more resilient, and we have made some exceptional friends that we will not forget. We are excited and nervous about our next chapter, and I look forward to keeping you guys up to date on our travels.
Thanks for having us Battambang. Until we meet again…