There are places I love because of the rolling landscape, the food, the literature, the people, the architecture. I have written about them at great length. But then there are places I love for reasons that I can't begin to define, can't begin to understand. I only know that when I was there I felt the damp heat seep deep through my skin and straight into my bones, felt the ancient stones scrape against my heart the way they chafed the palm of my hand as I touched them. And the food is only a part of it, not the definition of what I feel but buried beneath the root of it. Cambodia is such a place.
We went there in 2000. It was summer, the beginning of the rainy season. We flew into Bangkok, spent a few days under the burning sun, walking amongst the royal temples bright with gold leaf, past the enormous gilded Buddha, reclining on his side, his smiling face the size of a movie screen. And then from the bustling streets of Bangkok we found ourself in Siem Reap. I remember looking out the window of the airplane; below us I could see vast fields, clumps of jungle growth, here and there the ancient temple complexes. Those fields were once pocked with landmines. (At the entrances to the temples there would be beggars with twisted, mangled limbs, scarred reminders of the country's past).
Our first night was spent in a cheap, dimly lit hotel that reminded me of hotels I had stayed in when visiting Russia in 1993, or those you find in most of China; with a vague pretense to cleanliness, and a stark bareness as to décor (or lack thereof). In the morning we ate a forgettable breakfast in the empty hotel restaurant and decided to move to another hotel not far away. The second place was two or three times as expensive (that is, about $100 US a night, for three people), and considerably more comfortable. The hotel was comprised of a complex of thatched huts, most with glass windows and air-conditioning, all connected by a series of wooden decks and pathways. We stayed in the two-storied hut, the lower floor with air-conditioning, the upper floor with ceiling fans and louvred shutters. Even in the heat and humidity, it remained cool inside.
Our days fell into a pattern. Awake early, have breakfast, drive out to the temples with our hired driver, spend a few hours wandering around, return to the hotel for lunch, nap or read until the midday rains stopped, go out again to explore some more, and then return for dinner. And then to bed. Our hotel was run by a Frenchman, and each day's menu was written in French on a chalkboard posted on one of the supports that held up the roof of the dining pavilion. The space was open on all sides, and at one end was the outdoor kitchen. (At night the bugs would hover over our tables; tiny lizards would slither across the floor near our feet). I would glance at the handwritten words every day, vaguely translate each meal for my parents. Some kind of soup...with fish....and...a grilled...fish, I think...vegetables...rice. To be truthful, I cannot really recall what we ate. I remember clear fish soups, unexpectedly spicy, desserts of sticky rice with meltingly sweet slices of mango, but little of what came in between. (My mother is allergic to mangoes and my father cannot eat sticky rice, so I always ate more than my share). Most of all, I remember the breakfast.
At home, breakfast is tea with milk, if I have time. If I am particularly hungry, perhaps there will be some leftover cold pizza in the fridge, or a brownie. Once every so often I am organized enough to manage some cereal, and if I am spectacularly on top of things there will be berries or bananas to toss in with the cereal. Usually breakfast is forgotten in the rush to shower and work and I remain hungry all morning until it's time for lunch. When I travel it is another story. And the breakfast I remember from our hotel in Siem Reap in those Cambodian mornings will stay with me forever. It was simple, and it was perfect. At breakfast, platters of enormous crêpes would arrive, several inches in diameter. (Remember, the hotel was run by a Frenchman). They would be dusted with powdered sugar and folded into quarters, fragile and tender and light. There would be tea and coffee and different kinds of juice (pineapple, guava, orange) and plates of sliced papaya or mango or watermelon. That was all, and that was all you needed, or ever could want.
The reason why I cannot remember exactly what I ate was because a) I am unfamiliar with Cambodian cuisine, b) this was before I started taking notes on this sort of thing, and I have a terrible memory, and c) what I ate was not important. The sensations of the food are what I remember, and what matters to me, because they are part of the entirety of that experience. The prickle of spicy fish soup, with a sour tang that left you feeling cool all over. The creamy hotness of curry made with coconut milk. The sticky rice that was the perfect foil to sweet, ripe fruit. And the feeling of eating in that open pavilion, a faint breeze weaving through the stillness, the suddenly rush of midday rain, the light gleaming on the lizards darting across the tile floor. That part I will remember.