Market breakfasts

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The old market in the centre of Stung Treng town, one of Cambodia’s northern-most (and remotest) provincial capitals, was best described as ramshackle. When it rained, the loose tarpaulin covers that had been strung up would collect the water until it poured over the edges and cut down into the gulley-like alleys, soaking you on the way. Wooden boards bridged the walkways in places where the water had rendered them impassable.

The entrance I normally used to enter Stung Treng’s market involved weaving through parked motorbikes and sellers sitting on the floor offering barbecued sweetcorn, boiled potato (peeled and powdery), or crisp grilled bananas, depending on the season.  Entering the market, you first passed gold sellers, whose stalls ran around the edge of the market, before breaking into its heart, where cheap electronics, phones, kitchen goods, clothes, shoes, hardware, and pretty much anything else imaginable could be found.

On those rainy mornings, though, I wasn’t looking for any of that – I was looking for breakfast.  Cambodia’s ‘wet markets’ – as in, the stalls selling fresh produce and meats – are normally contained alongside the dry markets and most share things in common: pungent-smelling meat sections with sellers batting away flies with brooms, piles of vegetables, huge sacks of dried assorted spices, fish, garlic, eggs… and somewhere in amongst all that, cooked food stalls.  Stung Treng market, though, was a bit different.  In the mornings, a collection of breakfast stands opened up in a self-contained area buried within the more general stands, which I stumbled upon with a friend following our noses one morning.

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All dark wood and smoky, the space was dominated by a central coffee stand, the proprietor of which always had about twelve tumblers of drip coffee on the go at any one time.  She made the freshly brewed, rich Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and a spoon of chocolate Ovaltine powder, poured hot over a full glass of crushed ice and then topped up with more.  Two thousand riel ($0.50) a pop.

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She served the coffees with deep fried breadsticks called nom chao quay (នំឆាខ្វៃ), more ordinarily served with rice porridge – something like a cross between a savoury Scottish yum yum and a Yorkshire pudding (apologies to the non-British who will no doubt still have no idea what I’m describing).

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With the coffees, we would order bowls of num banh chok – thin rice noodles served in a yellow coconut and fish soup (normally – there’s also a meat and curry option) with herbs and flowers to mix in.  As we became regular visitors, the coffee seller would shout our order across to the noodle stand.  The dishes there were assembled to order from vats of sauce kept warm over embers, by three women bearing remarkable resemblance to each other.  The youngest, in her late teens, delivered the food put together by her mother, while her mother in turn dealt out bong aim (desserts) nearby.

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This was my breakfast on the vast majority of days of the six months I spent in Stung Treng, and nowhere was it rivalled, not even in Phnom Penh’s grand Psar Thmei.  And oh, do I miss it.  Over the course of one night in April 2016 Stung Treng’s market burnt down completely in a fire started by smouldering metal from one of the goldsmith’s stands, causing a million dollars’ worth of damage and the destruction of over twelve hundred stalls. Thankfully, no lives were lost.

It’s now being rebuilt – as many of Cambodia’s markets have been, in the same circumstances – as a large, warehouse-like structure.  You might have seen Kratie’s or Banlung’s, if you’ve travelled there.  The food stands have relocated to grass verges along the town’s main thoroughfare for now; we found the coffee on our last trip (and were greeted with “where have you been?!”), but we weren’t successful in locating the noodles.  Maybe I’ll track them down next time.

Returning to Cambodia with VSO

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In November I’m travelling to Cambodia for three months to volunteer in the north eastern province of Stung Treng.

I applied for the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme that runs here in the UK and was accepted by their partner Voluntary Service Overseas, a long running charity and volunteering organisation.  When I got the email that informed me I’d been placed in Cambodia, I was overjoyed.  I backpacked through too briefly in 2010 and have always wanted to return for a less fleeting visit.

Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, and I’m going to be working on programmes aimed at developing secure livelihoods as part of an effort by VSO that’s been going on in the region since 1991.  It’ll be a huge learning opportunity, and a chance to contribute something other than just the tourist dollar when I visit.  I’m very aware of the pitfalls of ‘voluntourism’, but am confident in the sustainability of this scheme – ICS and VSO only send volunteers to projects that have specifically requested them.  On top of this, each of the UK volunteers that goes out will be matched by a Cambodian volunteer.  You can read more about VSO’s actions in Cambodia on their website, and see their strategic plan.  Here’s a bit of what they say:

So far, nearly 700 international volunteers have supported 152 partners in 15 provinces.

Our core programmes areas are health, education, secure livelihoods and governance. Within these programme areas we cover other issues such as gender equality and climate change.  Our strategic plan (2012-17) focuses on the poorest communities in the north-east of the country where we feel the biggest impact can be achieved.

I’m really privileged, as a recent graduate (read: relatively unskilled in a practical way), that through ICS’s youth programme I can be involved with VSO.

Before I leave in November, I’ve been asked to fundraise towards VSO’s development efforts around the world.  This is just a fraction of the amount it costs to run their operations, but is an important part of how the programme works.  It’s also been proven that volunteers who fundraise know more about the work they’re doing, and commit themselves more fully.  None of the money goes towards my travel costs.  All of it goes toward VSO’s work globally, which is overwhelmingly the work of development professionals and highly skilled volunteers.   I am definitely up for the challenge.

If you’re interested in following along with my efforts, I’ll be posting more about what I get up to here and also on my JustGiving page at www.justgiving.com/lucymerchant.