After living in Cambodia for nine months now, I’m quite used to driving along bumpy, potholed roads, staying in $10 a night guesthouses with no hot water and awakening to the earsplitting sounds of wedding celebrations outside my window.
But last week was the first time a bird flew full force into my rolled up car window, the first time I had pigs watching me as I (unbeknownst to me) ate pork and my first experience of dining on a plate of snake. Travelling with my colleagues is always an experience.
This time it was a trip with Try (pronounced “tree”) and Sandan to visit a number of little villages in the middle of nowhere in Beantay Meanchay province, way up north in Cambodia. The purpose of the journey was to interview villagers for a research paper I’m writing for Oxfam on the impact of the mining industry on women and indigenous people.
It started once they picked me up in Siem Reap after Skip, Kirsty and Betsey went home and we headed north toward the Thai border to the town of Sway, our first destination.
The first evening was quite uneventful since we arrived at dusk, leaving only time for dinner and bed. But the next day began when we picked up a local partner named Meenyou and we headed out into the wilderness.
Once we turned onto the little dirt road off the main street, I figured it couldn’t be long before we reached our destination.
The second day took us along another endless bumpy road where we met with a group of women in a gold mining site and surreptitiously interviewed them since Try said the authorities may have a problem with our presence.
One of the women, Neang, looked as though she were in her mid sixties but we later discovered she was only 49. She lives at the site because her husband and two sons work at the mine but there is little employment for women who have to wait for lighter work to become available and, in the meantime, take care of the men.
Neang lives in a wooden shack with eight other family members and talked about their lack of health resources (the health care centre is three hours drive away) and the bad treatment they receive from the mining company which provides no assistance or services to its workers should they get sick or injured.
After our meeting with them came the second adventure… Lunch.
We pulled up at a decent-looking place with a dirt floor and smiling waitresses, and Try again ordered our meal. Several plates arrived, one which he described as chicken larb (a tasty spicy meat salad I’ve had many times before). I tucked into it with gusto.
At the end of the meal, Try turned to me.
“What is it you call this?” he asked, pointing to a chewy piece of something in the middle of the dish. “Do you mean the part of the chicken?” I asked.“Not chicken. Pig” was his reply.
There were three things wrong with this.
One is that I haven’t (knowingly) eaten red meat for more than 25 years.
The second is that there was a sty filled with pigs attached to the restaurant, oinking in the background as I ate one of their family.
The third is that I don’t know what Try was referring to in the dish. But I know I never want to find out.
After three days on the road with my colleagues, I was happy to arrive home in Phnom Penh.
I may sometimes be hot and sweaty, dirty from riding in a tuktuk or uncomfortable with mosquitos nibbling at my ankles.
But, in Phnom Penh, I always know what’s on my plate.