The best part of travel is the unexpected. Unexpected friends, stories, food and adventure. This part of my travel has it all!
I was wrapping up my two days at Angkor Wat which concluded with a sunset. On the way up the hill, I struck up a conversation with another tourist who had a DSLR camera around her neck. I think I asked her if she had scored any good photos from the day and we kept chatting from there. It turns out her name is Sarah and she was also traveling by herself from Finland. She was on her own epic trip and although her blog is in Finnish, her beautiful pictures speak to all languages! She was hanging out with two German girls that she had met the day before and the four of us watched the sunset together. We had such a great time hanging out eating our mango and pineapple while waiting for the sunset that we decided to continue make plans for the following day.
The plan was to bike outside of Siem Reap, get out the city and explore the countryside. I inquired with the owner of the guesthouse I was staying at where I could rent a bicycle. And she was kind enough to lend me her son’s bike which was very generous. However, by the time I realized it wasn’t one of the comfy cushy bicycle seats, it was too late for me to do anything about it! But I soldiered on and our first stop was to get some lunch away from all the cars, the honking and eat amongst the locals.
We may have been slightly too ambitious to eat like a local because we were far enough outside the city that the owner spoke no English. We pointed to the pots on the counter and he responded by telling us what they were in Khmer which wasn’t too helpful! I settled on something that consisted of soup with some type of meat, with a hard-boiled egg and of course, rice. It didn’t appear particularly appetizing and I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was eating, but it was good, hearty and was pretty much what we had signed up for, so no complaints!
Since we were on bicycles and I’m not particularly good at riding with one hand, there wasn’t much opportunity for photo-taking. The ride though was more about observing life move very slowly as we rode by with the occasional truck or bike zipping past us. As for the zipping, some sights included about fifteen kids riding/hanging off a trailer of sorts and a dead pig riding on a plank of wood attached to the back of a motorbike.
Although, I did have to get off my bicycle because my behind was becoming numb from the seat and I finally saw what I had been waiting for. I had been anxiously anticipating the classic image of people working in a rice field. And it was just as I had imagined it would be. It was calm and the only noises were from the “whooosh” of the machete and birds chirping away. The woman who I took a photo smiled at me from a distance and just kept going about her work.
We stopped quickly to grab a cold drink along the way and I decided to finally document this all-too-familiar scene. Many motorcyclists buy their gas along the side of the road in a bottle. This happened to be a fancier one with an actual gas pump which was preparing the bottles to be re-sold to the road-side gas vendors. The smell is unbearable at the best of times and you’ll notice, the attendant is actually eating while pumping gas!
On our way back to civilization, we decided to stop one more time for something to cold to drink. I know it seems as if this trip was all about stopping for drinks, but it was hot and by this time, my butt was officially numb from the worst bike seat ever made. While I was cooling down in the shade with a bottle of cold water, two of my fellow bike riders headed back our way with a snack they had found. They were raving about it and told me I had to take a bite of theirs.
That bite! I had no expectation but it was still one of the best things I have ever had in my life. EVER. The best and only way to describe it is a rustic Fried Shrimp Toast. It was dozens of crispy and salty little shrimps brought together with some type of batter and placed on a crunchy baguette. I had to see this for myself, so I walked (very quickly) around the corner and I was in awe. It was a set-up that was so very simple yet was producing something the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever had. She lived there, her laundry was hanging everywhere and yet, over a small open fire, she was creating magic.
I am convinced that people would line up for days in metropolitan cities for the opportunity to have one of these and would consider themselves lucky! I showed my camera as I approached in the manner that I’ve learned to ask “May I take a photo?” without actually asking the question and she smiled and nodded. Not only did I need to document this, I needed to see her operation up close and personal if I was ever to come close and duplicate this dish.
As I said, it was a fried shrimp toast of sorts. The shrimps were very small and mixed together in some type of batter. She ladled the batter into the scalding hot pot and just let it fry and sizzle away. Occasionally, she would turn it over to give both sides their fair share of crispy goodness.
Once she knew it was time to come out of the oil, she placed it over a small grill to keep them warm while giving it even more crunch. You can see the little grill in the photo of her standing off to the side, it’s on the far right side.
Needless to say, I devoured the first one and got a second one which lasted long enough from the time I paid to the twenty steps it took to walk back to my bicycle. Oh yes, the payment. As if this needed to be any more incredible, each piece cost the equivalent of $0.50. Needless to say, the ride was made much better having had this experience and having it be so unexpected!
Sadly, I spent the next few days in Cambodia showing this photo in the hopes of finding someone else who made it. However, all I got were a lot of heads being shaken from side to side. If it wasn’t for the photos and us talking about this dish later that night over some beers, I wouldn’t have believed it myself.
The circumstances that led me to this shrimp toast involved befriending some strangers, meeting them the following day at a predetermined intersection that I never thought I’d find, biking randomly around the countryside and choosing to stop at that particular village for a break.
The lesson I have taken from this day that I will apply to life is this, “Allow yourself to embrace the unexpected and good times and unknown treasure will be your reward.”