Monday, 16 May 2011

Cambodia in May - Travel to Cambodia!

May in Cambodia can be a difficult month especially for those of us with larger than average builds – it is just so hot. Temperatures regularly hit 40 degrees Celsius and often very early in the day too. Coupled with this is the start of the rains which whilst bringing some relief from the heat helps to create a very humid atmosphere. At this time of year I generally take at least one spare shirt with me wherever I go as a back up in case I break out in uncontrollable sweating and then have to meet guests at Bambu Hotel. The trick of course is to avoid any strenuous activity and never be too far away from a fan. I have got pretty good at this after four years here but there are times when I get caught out – hence the spare shirt.

Battambang Fruit Market Cambodia

I have found that I have acclimatized gradually over the years and can cope with the heat much better than I had originally feared. When I lived in the UK I wore shorts and t shirts for all bar a couple of months of the year and often found the (quite often risible) British summers to be too hot. When I moved here many of my friends were incredulous and thought there was no way I would be able to stand the temperatures all year round. I was a little worried myself but have managed it with careful planning. Two years ago I invested in an air conditioning unit for my bedroom which has been a real bonus as I often found sleeping at night very difficult in April and May. Since getting the air con I have become a self appointed expert in it. I religiously monitor the cleanliness of the filters and ensure the unit is serviced every six months. Travelling around the country I appeal my wife by inspecting air con units in hotels and guest houses we stay in. They seldom come up to scratch in my estimation! I find them either dirty, noisy (very annoying at night) or just not powerful enough for the size of the room. We invested heavily in air con at Bambu Hotel choosing some of the most expensive units available but I am proud to say that they work perfectly – each bedroom was measured for capacity and where there was any doubt we opted for a more powerful unit to ensure the room could be as cool as the guest wanted. We have had only two complaints – one guest said the room was too cold (!) and the other said it was too hot. The latter were my parents who had turned the temperature control to 32 degrees thus actually heating the room – they are used to Fahrenheit and not Celsius! I have since pointed this out in our room directories.

One of the great things about this time of year though is the wonderful abundance of exotic fruit available. Cambodians love fruit and it forms an important part of the diet. All very healthy of course. Wherever you go all year around fruit is sold and eaten in enormous quantities. Get on a bus and you will notice that over the course of the journey at least 80% of the passengers will have munched their way through an impressive amount of it leaving an extraordinary mess once the bus reaches its destination. The buying of fruit is a very important exercise. There is much prodding, poking, debate and sampling before purchasing. Unlike a market stall back in the UK the fruit is not marked with a price so this has to be negotiated with the opening figure always met with hoots of derision by the prospective customer. I must admit I find this very difficult as I never know what a fair price is and am usually happy to pay whatever the stall holder asks (which annoys my wife and mother-in-law!).

Compared to what I was used to in the UK the variety of fruit in the markets is extraordinary. All your round there are bananas – smaller than West Indian ones and sweeter, pineapples (again smaller and sweeter), longan, mangosteen (one of my favourites), jackfruit, watermelon, rambutan, lychee, tamarind, orange, durian and most especially mango. The cultivation and consumption of mangoes here has to be seen to be believed and right now is the season for them. I was used to sweet slightly orange fleshed mangoes and these are eaten here but generally Khmers like to eat the mango young and crunchy. They make a delicious snack often cut into strips and dipped in a suger/salt/chilli mixture. The Khmer for mango is “svay” and this word appears in many place names all over the country. Last year I planted two mango trees right outside the main entrance to Bambu Hotel Battambang. They were semi mature and I certainly wasn’t expecting anything in the way of fruit for a couple of years. I was mistaken however for they were positively laden most of which has been picked by guests either coming in or out of the hotel. I suspect some of the staff might have helped themselves to a few too! My mother in law makes a really tasty kind of mango toffee. She boils up a pan of the fruit and then rolls the pulp out into disc like shapes which are then left to dry. The result is a very chewy intensely flavoured snack. Absolutely delicious.

One of the more extraordinary fruits is the durian. In less civilized parts of the world – Japan and Singapore – this much maligned fruit is banned from public places because of the very unusual smell that comes from it. It is quite unlike anything else I have ever smelled but – to my nose at least – it is not unpleasant. The fruit is grown in large quantities down in Kampot province but it is also grown up here in Battambang, most noticeably in Samlot. It is a very large fruit and a very tricky one to get into as it is protected by a very prickly skin like a pineapple but much more dangerous. A very sharp knife (and a pair of gauntlets) is needed to get at the edible parts which are of a soft yellow buttery texture. The taste is magnificent and well worth all the effort (especially if someone else does all the hard work). I would highly recommend having a try at this most unusual treat if you get the chance.