Wat Now?

Last Days in Phnom Penh

After seeing the sites of gravity in the past couple of days, we found ourselves with a day to spare in Phnom Penh before our planned departure to Siem Reap. My companions opted for a trip to the Central Market, a short walk from where we were staying, for some bargain hunting. The market is a circuitous maze of stalls selling pretty much everything imaginable. At the centre is an old art deco dome that shelters a glistening array of jewellery counters. For a lover of sights and sounds, it is an excellent place to kill a few hours.

It was here in the market that I finally glimpsed the elusive fried tarantula. I was all by myself, with no camera at hand, so I made note of where the old woman was sitting with her woven tray of arachnid delights, and charged off to find someone to document my daring exploit. This was a mistake. By the time we returned, the spider vendor was gone, and we never saw her again. Fried silk worms, readily available from numerous vendors, seemed like a poor consolation, so I skulked off to buy some cheap stuff and try to feel like less of a slave to technology.

By this point my low level gastrointestinal dissent was blossoming into a full on revolt, a kind of Colon Spring, if you will. Again and again I forked out a few hundred riel to use the ghastly market toilets, squatting over a hole in a stall with an inch of water on the floor, stuffing wads of paper into my hat band to keep them dry. The cuffs of my jeans were inevitably soaked with what I hoped was just water, a dampness that slowly crept up my leg as I wandered about. I decided it might be a good idea to spend the afternoon taking it easy.

In the late afternoon, after some rehydration, we took a walk up the road to Wat Phnom, one of Phnom Penh's more popular temples. Once again, our dated guidebook let us down, as the hordes of fearless macacques it cautioned us about were nowhere to be seen. The temple itself was beautiful, the walls and ceilings painted with elborate murals. A gold Buddha sat in the centre, whisps of incense drifting around his shoulders. A troop of musicians played at the back of the room, behind the space where the devout came to pay their respects and seek fortune. An old man hovered around the altar, shifting and rearranging the mounds of offerings, tossing bruised old fruit into a bin to make room for the constant influx of new bounty. We saw many workers and businessmen, still clad in the uniforms of their trade, coming to quickly kneel before the image and mutter prayers with bowed heads and incense in hand. Curious tourists peered in from the windows and doors, hesitant to venture inside.

The sun was setting as we left. As we walked towards the river to find some dinner, we stumbled upon the weekend night market. A square of food vendors, each with an allotment of blankets to dine upon, beckoned to us with the promise of exotic meats on sticks and fried delights. I chose a skewer of barbecued pig's ear, another of battered shrimp, some kind of small bird with its rather animated head still attached, and a "fresh' rice wrap stuffed with pork and vegetables. The meats were all fried to order by a twelve year old girl with expert range skills. The rice wrap was not, and as I bit into it I realized the folly of my choice. The taste of that first bite reminded me of the smell of the meat section at the market, that mixture of stale blood and sulphur. I put it aside, but the damage was already done; I had sealed my fate for the week to come.

Feeling a bit resigned to the inevitability of food poisoning, and since it was our last night in the city, I bought a bottle of Grant's at a very reasonable price from the corner store, and we carried on late into the night on the balcony of our room.

I woke after only a few hours of sleep with that familiar pounding headache that I know so well and a pronounced desire to return to a state of unconsciousness for another day or two. This of course was not in the cards; we had a bus to catch. After choking down a breakfast of rice, fried eggs, and beef, served in a sizzling cast iron tray, I heaved on the pack and followed the others to the bus station. The bus ride was uneventful, I alternated between sleeping against the window and trying not to throw up all over the place. I was quite successful in both regards, and gave myself a pat on the back when we finally arrived in Siem Reap.