As a vegetarian I am sometimes accused of being smug. I don’t mean to be, I certainly don’t feel smug. I think people assume that living an “alternative hippy lifestyle” must give me a sense of moral entitlement. Well, it doesn’t. Except for this one time. This one time it definitely did.
My friend from university, Jeanne had uttered the fatal line “you should come visit me in Singapore over the summer!” It’s fair to say that Jeanne had failed to anticipate my response to this suggestion. In a story that has become fairly characteristic of our friendship then and since, she learnt the hard way the foley of making off-the-cuff suggestions to the excitable. After successfully bulldozing my faithful friend and travel buddy, Andrea into the plan, I skipped home from the pub and booked my ticket.
The next day I received a message from Jeanne. “I’m not going to be in Singapore anymore!”
“Well I bloody well am, I just booked my flight!”
“Shit” she hissed. “Well you can still visit, Singapore is awesome!”
“Well where the hell are you going to be?!”
“You wanna visit me there instead?”
“No. I want to visit you there…as well.”
We arrived in a rain-soaked Singapore a week later. Jeanne’s family had kindly agreed to let us stay at their place and had arranged to collect us from the airport. The evening was spent swapping stories about Jeanne in her absence, we shared a lovely meal of artichoke salad together and I opted to tell them, after my fourth or fifth glass of expensive tasting whisky, that I had thought Jeanne was a lesbian when we first met. After turning in for the night I saw a hand written note from Jeanne.
“Hope the flight was ok and that you didn’t get drunk with my Dad. In case of jetlag, take the pink pill. Love Jeanne x”
I inspected the tiny pastel pink pill on the nightstand. There was no information with it. Must be a sleeping pill, I mused. I snarffled it down with a glass of water.
The festival of weirdness that followed that decision will stay with me forever. A deer with a giant eye danced around the room in what I assume was a dream but may very well not have been and a host of other lucid dreams kept me asleep or awake for the rest of the night (I may never know which).
Our time in Singapore was fairly uneventful. I had my fortune told by a turtle, ate curry for breakfast, visited Orchard Road and Little India and had a Singapore Sling at the world famous Raffles. All in all, a successful mini-trip.
We arrived in Siem Reap two days later to the enthusiastic greetings of Jeanne and her hair, her characteristic curls twice their usual volume in the humidity. We spent a brilliant few days exploring the city. We visited Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, took a boat out to the floating village and watched Khymer dancers over dinner and drinks. It was in Siem Reap that I discovered one of my favorite drinks, iced coffee with sweet milk. My attempts to re-make it at home haven’t been perfect, but I’ve come pretty close using instant coffee and condensed milk. It’s the best drink in the world to wake you up and fill you up first thing in the morning.
After a week or so of enjoying the laid back vibe and rural village huts on stilts we decided to take the six hour bus to Phnom Penh. I’ve always enjoyed long bus journeys, especially with an ipod and I relished the chance to watch the scenery change as we ate up the miles through provinces and villages.
At the half way point, we stopped at a truck stop to use the bathroom and get some food. After getting of the bus, I was immediately struck by a woman in a straw hat selling food from a giant metal wok. I ambled over to take a look.
Tarantulas. Loads of them. Crispy and fried to perfection. And then I noticed the live ones. They were everywhere. Children were walking around with them on their shirts, on their heads, clutching them like teddy bears by one limp leg. The woman selling the frazzled ones was sat on a giant tub of live spiders, all clambering and slipping down the shiny walls of their plastic prison. I’d heard of this before, the Cambodian taste for creepy crawlies, but the sight was non-the-less unsettling.
A bit freaked out I headed for the truck stop after my friends. The sun was high in the sky and the heat was oppressive, even in the open air shelter. I brushed away beads of sweat only to have them reform minutes later. Between the heat and the smell of burning spider hair, I was in no mood for lunch. Andrea pointed out that our next chance for food would be that evening and I thought that maybe I should force something down.
The tiniest Cambodian lady I have ever seen appeared to take our order and I hurriedly glanced at the menu. “Vegetable noodles please” I smiled and handed back the shiny laminate.
“I’ll have the beef noodles please” chirped Jeanne handing her menu back.
“The beef noodles” I repeated, arching an eyebrow.
“What?” she snapped “What’s wrong with beef noodles?”
“Nothing….I guess. It’s just, I haven’t seen a cow worth eating since we’ve been here”
“Listen, I know Cambodia. I’ve been coming here a long time. The beef is fine, great actually!” she shuffled huffily in her chair and pushed a great wild frond of hair out of her face.
Our food arrived in polystyrene containers and we got up to re-board the bus. At that moment, a small Khymer girl appeared beside me, clutching two tarantulas in either hand. I started and she giggled. She advanced towards me, her hapless play things swinging by her side. I let out an involuntary squeak. Suddenly I saw a mob forming, seven or eight children, all carrying spiders appeared from behind tables and posts. “Keep calm” I told myself “don’t make eye contact, just move towards the bus.” The faster I moved the faster they did and as I broke into a trot I heard the sound of eager footsteps advancing behind me. I glanced back. The gang of spider kids were running towards me now hysterical with laughter as they swung their fuzzy friends back and forth. I broke into a full run and threw myself up the steps of the bus. The next thing I heard was a series of BANGS against the bus window. I looked over to see them pelting the side of the bus with spiders. They flew at the window like little living death stars, spinning through the air and landing with a thud against the glass.
The bus pulled away and I glanced down at my lunch. I put it in my bag. In the seat behind I heard Jeanne open her lunch box and take an inquisitive sniff. “How are the noodles?” I asked, craning my neck over the top of my seat. Jeanne was poking a sliver of meat with her wooden fork. “Fine” she replied “really good.” She hesitantly lifted a forkful to her mouth and sheepishly began to chew. “It’s a bit crumbly” she said with her mouth full.
“Crumbly?” I repeated. I pushed myself further over the top of my seat to investigate. “Looks a bit….orange. Is that normal?” I asked innocently.
“It’s rat” came the voice of my friend who was tucking into her vegetable noodles appreciatively. “I saw them cooking them on a spit round the back. It’s definitely rat, they were the exact same colour.”
Jeanne stopped chewing and held the meat in her mouth, trapped in a purgatorial state of disgust. Then slowly, she raised a tissue to her mouth and discreetly spat it out.
“Water?” I offered.