Things I’ll miss: #4 Going to the market
Marketing was scary at first in Kampong Cham. My first week in the city, I subsisted largely off of packs of dried ramen, not out of laziness, but because I couldn’t muster the courage to get myself to the market. My first Saturday alone in my house, before I had my bicycle or motorcycle, I ventured out to catch a moto to the market. Would he understand where I wanted to go? How would I get back? Would I be cheated at the market? How would I endure the staring and the titters? I headed downstairs, out to the street, only to scamper back inside and boil some water for another noodle lunch.
Sunday was a little better. I managed to wave down a moto man outside my house and made it all the way to the market. That first day, I bought (what else?) some more dried noodles, some eggs and some vegetables before my courage gave out and I retreated back to home base to plan my next mission.
Each trip I became bolder. My Khmer lessons centered mostly around learning words for food and for bargaining and as my vocabulary improved, so did my confidence. By the first month, I was bargaining for meat, finding flour, picking out coconuts. When I got my moto, I learned where to park and how to pay the attendant. I came to recognize faces and became a regular at certain stalls. I had a place for housewares, for chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs, tofu and beansprouts, veggies in the late afternoon.
Beside my staples, I was always discovering something new. The market had all kinds of treasures — huge sacks of dried lentils, gooey, steaming coconut cakes, dried flattened bananas, sausages brought in from Siem Reap, dried fish in at least 30 different forms, stinky shrimp paste — and these things changed month-to-month. You only had to seek out the fruit stalls to see the degree to which the market was ruled by the seasons. My first months were ruled by juicy yellow mangoes and rambutans. Then came the custard apples and famous bright red longans. Pumelos began to pop up with more frequency around July and pomegranates appeared soon thereafter, followed by tiny orange tangerines. Through it all, dragonfruit, bananas, and pineapple were mainstays.
Going to market was a ritual that made me feel part of the thrum of Cambodian life.
My eyes loomed large during my first visit to the Lucky Supermarket in Phnom Penh. Neatly packaged apples in styrofoam and plastic wrap, a-la Trader Joe’s. Ice cream and yogurt and Prego pasta sauce and Cornflakes. Olive oil and Camembert and lunch meats, all within the confines of the one air-conditioned building. An entire chocolate section. Dark, light, hazelnuts and almonds. More than almost anything else in Phnom Penh, the supermarket was a place that brought me back to the Western world, with all its dazzling choice and convenience, and with all of its air-conditioned, odorless sterility.
And now I’m back to that world for good. Farmers markets are the closest I’m going to get to recreating the market experience, and they don’t really come close.