Why We Travel: Long Live the King, the Durian, and Cambodia’s National Beer

Kampong Thom monks

Procession in Kampong Thom

Annals of Memorable Meals: Angkor Beer, Rice Porridge, Durian, and Faith in Kampong Thom Town

At a makeshift parking lot café in a quiet Cambodian town, a tableful of girls stared gravely at the moon.

It was October of 2012, and I’d come to Cambodia to interview Chantha Nguon for the book that would become SLOW NOODLES. I arrived to find the capital grieving; King Sihanouk had just died, and central Phnom Penh was packed with Cambodians paying homage: monks in saffron, old women in the black and white of mourning, children offering lotus flowers. The air thick with incense.

Sihanouk mourners

Mourners in Phnom Penh

Cambodians had paused to commemorate Sihanouk, a powerful figure in their fraught history for more than half a century. It seemed he had been forgiven for his Faustian bargain with the Khmer Rouge; the remembrances tended to deify him: a god-king, the nation’s father.

Amidst all this, I accompanied Chantha on a work trip to Kampong Thom, a central province. In the morning, a procession of monks bearing flowers and large photographs of the late king glided along the provincial capital’s main street. By evening, the solemnity had melted away. We settled into plastic chairs next to a food cart powered by rumbling generators, on a tarmacked strip bustling with young people laughing and sipping Angkor beers—the national brew, whose official motto is, “Our Country, Our Beer.”

durian roundabout

Durian monument in Kep

Chantha and I ordered dewy Angkors and steaming bowls of bobor, thick rice porridge topped with pork and fried garlic. For dessert, she insisted that I try the durian—my first foray. Chantha grinned as I ate bite after bite of fetid, buttery goodness.

Soon, the Angkors took effect. I asked for a bathroom and was directed toward a woman sitting astride a moto. She waved me on board, zipped me to a portable privy several blocks away, then returned me safely to dinner afterwards.

That’s when we noticed the girls gazing skyward. Chantha asked them what was up. “The king’s face has appeared in the moon,” said one. We studied the orb’s familiar splotches; all appeared normal.

“See for yourself,” the girl added, passing us a slip of printer paper. It was a photocopy of sorts, a grainy, dark oval that vaguely hinted at a mashup of moon and face. Chantha shot me a subtle eye roll but did not point out the obvious. Too soon, we figured. This was no time to go around debunking moon magic in street cafes—the Cambodian countryside was still gripped by an almost religious sorrow. And it seemed to us, as we surveyed the earnest upturned faces, that one’s ability to see the king’s face in the moon was a test of faith that we would do well to pass.

“Wow,” we said, considering the heavens, sipping our rapidly warming Angkors, our faces as blank as moons.

This post first appeared at the Slow Noodles blog.

Kampong Thom vendor

Kampong Thom street vendor (alt caption: Still life with durian)

An earlier iteration of this story also appears in the archive. But I cut 2/3 of it, so it’s much better now.

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