From the Mud to the Kitchen at Pchum Ben

Posted on by Anna Spencer


This time last year, Makara and I needed a small boat to travel from the main road just after Kean Svay across the river which had swollen at least half a kilometer to within meters of his family house.

This year, thankfully, the flooding hasn’t been so bad, so we could take the regular route- passenger ferry just after Kean Svay and then a few kilometers on the moto through Lvea Aim district.

However, five minutes after disembarking from the ferry I realized that despite the lack of flooding, the residents of this district- and probably most other provinces- faced another obstacle to their daily lives-the huge mud puddles and roads of slippery clay.

Makara managed to steer the bike on the drier mud, but inevitably before long the wheels slipped and we skidded and landed in the mud. We laughed, checked each other over with cries of “joys” (which translates roughly to “oh shit” in Khmer).

After a couple of retries on the bike we decided Makara should drive alone and his cousin and I would walk.

Then after a kilometer or so my foot slipped into a muddy puddle which it was impossible to get out of, causing me to do an obligatory splits. I grabbed hold of a tree branch and managed to pull my foot out, minus my flip flop. I dunked my arm into the muddy puddle but couldn’t find my flip flop. Makara’s cousin kindly rolled a sleeve up, had a good dig around and finally found it. My phone beeped a text message from a friend back in Phnom Penh “Bloody Mary at Green Vespa?” It sounded really quite tempting at that precise moment.

Five kms more in the mud and en route we passed wheel spinning motorbike drivers laden with supplies and old women in pristine white tops, padding barefoot to deliver food to the monks in the pagoda.

Concentration was glued to balance of feet or wheels through the dark orange, slimy roads.

We were all very pleased when we finally reached the entrance to Makara’s family home.

It was strange and sad to see the new layout of the bamboo porch under the house where most of the day’s activities take place. Usually, the living area is bustling with the family including many offspring. This time, however there was only Makara’s Dad and his youngest brother.

Makara’s dad had set a solitary deck chair up on the bamboo and beside that an old desk and chair with some ancient looking exercise books piled on it. He spent a good part of the weekend writing text from the Buddhist scriptures into the notebooks in beautiful handwriting.

There was a solitary feel to the set up; whereas before all the family would be bustled together on the bamboo, now Makara’s dad cut a solitary figure in the deck chair and I also felt sad for the youngest brother, a wisp of a 13 year old suddenly left alone with his elderly father.

This weekend the sisters had gone to PP to make Pchum Ben arrangements and purchases. I would be cooking. I was very excited about this, and determined to cook my heart out.

It wasn’t long before his cousin came over and not long after that a litre of rice wine was being poured into a delicate silver teapot and mixed with sting.

I sipped at a small thimble of this rather rank tasting concoction for a couple of hours before it was time to get cooking.

I had chosen to cook two dishes which I felt would be fairly foolproof- Tom Yum (Makara’s favourite) and a stir-fry of pork with broccoli, green pepper, cauliflower and onion. It bemused me how the latter dish was named by Makara’s dad as “Chaa sach chrous bolay bor sor bor kieu”, which translates as fried pork with white and blue vegetables’ – green, blue, what’s the difference as long as it tastes good.

What I loved about cooking in the province was that, as in any professional kitchen, the three of us knew our place. I was head chef, Makara was knife sharpener and pork fat remover and his young brother was pots boy and responsible for running to the shop every 5 minutes for extra ingredients.

Many of the elders visited during the cooking process, coming over to the kitchen and prodding, sniffing, asking questions, like spindly Gordon Ramseys with much less punchable faces. Makara’s Dad seemed very proud and I must admit that I glowed amongst the embers as he announced “Jongpouw laek muoy!” (chef number one) and pointed at me whenever someone came to visit.

The cooking went very well and when we all sat around to eat I relished watching Makara’s tiny bird-like youngest brother dart at the two dishes and getting the thumbs up from all as we polished off a huge saucepan of Tom Yum and almost all of the stir fry. Bellies full, we all reclined and I smiled to myself-job done.

As the sun started to set against the drizzle, Makara declared beer o’ clock and sent his youngest brother off on his bike, soon to return with a slab of ice and a crate of Cambodia beer.

Alongside his two cousins I enjoyed a really lovely few hours. I made sure that I didn’t drink too much, knowing full well how difficult a belly of beer would make sleeping upstairs with the toilet far away at the end of a dark and muddy yard.

The men bantered in Khmer and I managed to keep up with most of the conversation whilst at other times I would lay back in the hammock and relish the fresh cool air in the province and the lovely feeling of needing my cardigan on.

When it was dark we drank under the light of a tiny solar power lamp. When the power in this lamp ran out, we lit a candle and held the lamp next to the candle until it lit again. With every few cans we opened, Makara or his cousin would fry up a smoked fish to share with our beer.

As the last few cans of Cambodia were poured over ice, Makara’s cousin drunkenly announced that it was time to count the eggs, pulled me over to the hen in the nest and to my horror giggled as he lifted the hen’s arse up by its feathers which as you can imagine made the hen go completely mental, especially seeing as it was actually in the process of laying an egg at the time. I suggested it was better to let the hen do its business and went up to bed, completely exhausted.

The usual provincial morning chorus started with the frogs, followed closely by the cockerel, then the monks and a little later some throat clearing and chit chat between Makara’s dad with other elders of the village as they had their five am tea and cigarettes.

I knew that I was not likely to go back to sleep but enjoyed lying under a blanket, cocooned in the mosquito net absorbing the pleasant country sounds- a relief from the yappy dogs and angle grinders of Phnom Penh.

I got up later feeling sheepish as if I had stayed in bed till noon but on arrival downstairs discovered the time was actually 6.46.

Coffee always tastes better in the province whilst watching the mist rise from the banana fronds and people passing to each other’s houses or taking their morning walks.

I sipped at the coffee as three scraggly chickens jumped up on the bamboo, heads bobbing, like smug police-men with search warrants for the kitchen.

A small pony travelled past with a man sitting on a cart full of batteries that provide the evening electric light and TV or phone charging. Makara called him over to get a replacement. I smiled to myself at this new definition of horse-power.

About eight o’ clock I started cooking up a fresh stir fry. I was also responsible for preparing the food that Makara’s dad took to the pagoda for the monks.

As I piled the stir fry and rice in the pots and Makara’s dad came down in his smart whit pagoda shirt I beamed with satisfaction. I had cooked in the family home for my man, his brother, father and cousins as well as some monks and I hope it will not be the last time that I do so.

We waited for the road to harden but by 10am it had started raining again and we realized if we didn’t leave then, we probably won’t make it back at all.

I knew this time that removing my flip flops was the easiest way. There was something surreal and not altogether unpleasant about squelching barefoot through the mud, feeling it in between my toes, head down in a concentrated meditation of balance as the sound of monks chanting filled the air around us. Next time, though, I’ll wear my converse.

Anna Spencer

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One Response to From the Mud to the Kitchen at Pchum Ben

  1. Vicky says:

    Found myself stretching my toes when reading about the mud!A good balance of narrative humour and descriptive content. Again- thanks Anna!

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