Things keep drawing me back to Cambodia. Last weekend I hearkened the call of teammates from Bangkok and friends I used to play with six years ago back in Madison and returned to Phnom Penh for their Big Phat Ultimate Frisbee Hat tournament which got a writeup in the local paper. "Hat" refers to the style of tournament where everyone signs up individually and gives the tournament director some information about their abilities and then fair teams are created as if being drawn from a hat.
My team for this tournament was very good and we did almost the exact opposite of how my team in Bangkok did. We came out strong and won our first three games then lost our final game on Saturday to the team that ended up going undefeated and winning the tournament. Sunday I think we were all a bit burnt out and we lost to some teams we'd beaten the day before, but that gave us two byes in a row which allowed us to get our drink on and for me to eat some fried bugs that a teammate gave me. We won our final game quite handedly which I believe put us one place above last. After the tournament a makeshift slip-n-slide was created using beer banners and a hose and people got to do layouts in front of the crowd. It was a good end to the tournament.
When the weekend was over it was time for me to return to Vietnam where I was hoping to apply for my Chinese visa but which I unsuccessfully tried to do. I met back up with T and the first street food I ate upon arrival in Saigon was none other than the famed pho. The elegantly complex broth was good and it was served with a mighty tower of vegetables which most things in Vietnam seem to be. I've had at least 5 different variety of make-your-own spring rolls including one that came with a royal sampler of vegetables mounded high on a huge round serving dish. The court of vegetables included king lettuce, his ladies queen and princess mint, the joker parsley, high advisor chives and a whole congregation of leafy surfs.
After a full day in Saigon T and I journeyed south to a town in the Mekong Delta in order to go see a national park boasting over 200 types of unique bird species. Getting from the city to the national park proved to be quite a challenge and featured my first-ever failed hitchhiking attempt. After finally arriving at the national park in the early afternoon we came upon a group of local high school students and some monk friends of theirs. Being far away from anywhere tourists often go I'm a celebrity in those parts and they all wanted pictures with me. After taking pictures they invited us to take a boat ride into the park with them and climb an observation tower which promised an unparalleled view of the park.
The tower had great views but unfortunately no animals were about so after taking another round of pictures the high-school students took to playing cards and invited T and me to join them. After a quick game that I didn't really understand but seemed to lose every time, the students gawked over my stubble—a few even reaching out to touch it—and we descended back to the boat. On the way to the ranger station one of the girls picked a water flower and gave it to me. She asked T if we could come over for dinner that night. We said "Yes" and then the monks asked if we'd like to see their pagoda first, which we also agreed to do. The girl that had given me the flower reached into her hand bag and pulled out a red hot chili pepper and handed it to me. I wasn't really sure what to do with it but I took it and said thanks. When I thought no one was looking I took a bite out of it. Someone caught me and all eyes were on me again, not that they'd drifted very far. It was hot and I knew it would be; it was a type of pepper I recognized, one that's local to the area and that I like very much. I knew it wasn't the type of pepper that my friend Matt hands me at a bar on St. Patrick's day and tells me to try.
The group helped us get back to the city, a challenge I don't think either T or I was looking forward to facing on our own. Upon arrival at the edge of town the monks escorted us to their pagoda where we were joined by a gang of street kids who were scattered about playing a variety of games. The pagoda was very nice. The girl who had invited us to dinner and one of her friends gave us a ride back to the girl's house which involved taking a dinky ferry to what I believe to be a small island. The house was very modest featuring two separate rooms and an unattached bathroom shared with the neighbors. We ate outside under the stars beside a big pile of rice on the edge of a river. Dinner was traditional Vietnamese hot pot which is something I'd been hoping to try. A special ingredient in this hot pot was fertilized duck eggs, a local specialty I wasn't hoping to try. Being the honored guest they piled the eggs in my bowl and I ate them like I have everything else on this trip.
My tolerance for food has really changed on this trip. When I left I didn't eat any water animals or eggs with runny yokes. While fertilized duck egg and dried squid still give me slight pause for hesitation, things like eel soup, head cheese and 5 different types of snail don't even phase me anymore. I even found the fried bugs to be quite enjoyable though the antennae had a slightly weird texture.
After dinner the girl asked if I like to sing. I said "no, but I will" and either she interpreted or T translated that as "yes" and she quickly rushed back into the house to set up what might be the oldest functioning karaoke machine. I say "functioning" instead of "working" because it only barely worked. Before I knew it I was signing We Wish You A Merry Christmas, one of the only two songs on the machine that had words that weren't all Vietnamese. I later sang the other song with non-Vietnamese words, Feliz Navidad. I felt weird singing both songs in a shack in the Mekong Delta in late February but both the family and the karaoke machine seemed to appreciate it—the machine gave me a score of 100% which only confirms that it was broken. The whole situation reminded me of a funny play I'd seen, right before leaving, that two of my family friends were in. The story features a small town in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota that gets radically changed with the introduction of a karaoke machine at the local bar.
After everyone had had a chance to sing, the girl, her mother, brother and aunt escorted us off the island and helped us get motorcycle taxis back to our hotel. The national park was a bust insomuch as I didn't see any animals or special plants there, but the experience that arose from it was definitely worth the trouble of getting there. I've said it once and I'll say it again, if you enjoy the journey and the company than the destination isn't all that important. I'm back in Saigon where I plan to spend the weekend and then head with T up north where I'll hopefully apply for my Chinese visa.Soundtrack: The Bullpen (Dessa)