The Beauty of Eating Alone
One of the things that concerned me the most about travelling solo was having to eat alone. This is how Cambodian food changed my mind.
I had travelled alone many times before Cambodia, but never for this long and never this far. To say that I was confident in my decision to go on this trip by myself would be an overstatement, but I also felt a deep, almost adrenaline, need to be alone, find my own pace again, breathe, sleep, walk with myself. People do it every day — I thought. I can do it too.
I arrive in Phnom Penh late at night. The streets are lively, the air is warm, and for a moment — as I look at the world unfolding before my eyes from the back seat of my tuk tuk — I feel genuinely happy. The first ten minutes in a new country are probably one of my favourite moments. My eyes are hungry with details, my fingers tingle with anticipation, I feel curious and alive. I finally get to my hostel around 2am and I go straight to bed, but a mix of jet lag and excitement allows me to sleep only for a few hours.
The next morning, as I look outside the window, I see a group of tuk tuk drivers parked in front of the hostel waiting for their next customer, while a young couple is getting take-away coffee at a small coffee stand by the side of the road. I look at them for a few long seconds and my stomach grumbles, a clear sign that it’s time for breakfast. I get dressed quickly and I walk towards Orussey Market. It’s a 30 minutes walk in Phnom Penh traffic, but it’s not too hot outside and I decide that I want to take my time. I’m immediately surprised by how easy it is to walk around. People smile but don’t stare. I don’t feel uncomfortable walking by myself and, despite the non-stop buzzing of cars, scooters and tuk tuks, I find it almost peaceful. Shops are opening, a small group of people is chatting under the protective shade of a big tree, courtyards are turned into playgrounds by animated children waiting for school to start. Everything and everyone is waking up. I see food everywhere. It’s clearly the uncontested protagonist in everyone’s life, the call that no one can miss. There are several, different food stands by the side of the road. The most sophisticated ones have small, plastic stools for people to sit and equally small tables where food is quickly served and quickly eaten.
A few weeks before, as I was mentally preparing for my trip, I was almost embarrassed to find out that one of the things that concerned me the most about travelling solo, was having to eat alone. It sounded ridiculous to even admit that, while family and friends were worried about my safety, I would spend hours thinking about how much I hate eating alone, how awkward and uncomfortable it makes me feel.
As I approach the market, these thoughts are still in the back of my mind.
From where I am standing now, I can see Orussey Market at the end of the street. It’s a blue and white building surrounded by a crossway of small alleys. As I get closer, I find it hard to understand where the actual market begins. I know from my guidebook that the market, the biggest in Phnom Penh and the most popular with locals, develops on two floors inside the central building, but as I walk towards it, I am suddenly swollen into a second, spontaneous market. I’m walking slower now, all around me people sell vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, fresh noodles, dry fruit, pepper, spices…
I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. People are moving quickly around me and I feel like I am the only one without a specific place to go or something urgent to do.
I’m completely lost in my own thoughts, when an old lady, standing next to a small food stand, hands me a take-away box. I accept it almost in relief. She has no idea, but she just gave me the gentle nudge I needed to get out of my comfort zone. I ask her what’s inside, but she doesn’t speak any English and all I understand is that it’s something sweet — some sort of dessert. I smile, pay her and I continue my exploration of the market. The box comes with a little plastic spoon, so I can eat as I walk. Inside, there’s sticky rice covered in thin slices of coconut and topped off with condensed milk and brown sugar. I expect it to be too sweet, I was never a fan of desserts, but as soon as I try it I am amazed to find out that it’s not. In fact, it’s delicious.
I stop for a few minutes and I look around as I finish my rice. I am interested in observing where people eat, what they eat and how they eat it. I soon realise that there are mainly two groups of people at the market: those who are grocery shopping and those who are stopping for breakfast on their way to work. I focus on the latter.
A young girl, probably in her early twenties, catches my attention. She is wearing smart, business clothes and she walks confidently around the market. I can tell she knows exactly where she is going. I see her sitting down at one of the food stands and I decide to trust her judgement. I cross the street and sit at the same stand. I’m glad I don’t have to ask anyone for a table, I just sit down and point at what I want to eat. After looking at what she orders, I decide to go for the same. I recognise the dish from a documentary I watched as I was planning my trip to Cambodia. The dish is called Bai Sach Chrouk, the quintessential Cambodian breakfast, and it’s composed of marinated pork, grilled, thinly sliced and served with rice and pickled vegetables. I am sitting on a small stool and the meal is being prepared by an old lady right in front of me. She is quick and precise in her movements, it’s almost like a dance that she has been practicing for a really long time, the sizzling of the meat on the grill and the rhythmic chopping of the knife are her music.
The meat is incredibly tender and its juices make the rice less dry than I was expecting. The pickles are delicious, almost sweet, a perfect counterbalance to the savouriness of the pork. I ask the young girl from before if she knows what the meat is marinated with. She gives me a big, gentle smile and tells me that the pork is usually marinated with coconut milk, garlic, palm sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime and Kampot pepper. Then she asks me if I like it. “I love it” — I say, and smile back. Eating by myself has been surprisingly easy so far, I almost laugh for worrying so much over something so simple.
I spend the afternoon walking around Phnom Penh. I stroll around the Royal Palace with its beautiful buildings, rich bas-reliefs and calm, peaceful corners. I visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the high school taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces during the Khmer Rouge and turned into a prison. When it becomes too hard to look at the rooms where the tortures and killings took place, I focus on the beautiful, tall trees in the school courtyard. I think about what they must have witnessed, I think about the added atrocity, if conceiving such evil wasn’t enough, of turning a place meant for learning and education into the most barbaric of sites.
I leave with a heavy heart and I ask a tuk tuk driver to take me to one of the piers along the Mekong. The sun is slowly setting, young couples are getting their future read by old fortune tellers, and groups of teenagers are sitting by the river, chatting and laughing together. The average age in Cambodia is 24 years old. I remember reading it somewhere before the trip and not giving it too much thought. Now, after visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, this fact has suddenly gained a new, much more morbid connotation.
After watching the sun set, I decide to get something to eat and I head to the night market. It’s smaller and calmer than Orussey Market and it’s almost completely outside. In the middle of it, there’s a food court where people can order from different stands and then sit together on big rugs placed on the floor. I walk around and after carefully evaluating my options, I decide to go for noodles and Khmer curry. I wait in line for my turn and I tell the lady behind the counter what I want.
She nods and then looks at me for a second: “Only one? Are you alone?”
I blush, suddenly I feel vulnerable and stupid again: “Yes, only one please.” “Perfect, it will be a few minutes”
I thank her and look around for a place to sit.
“Lady?” she calls me back. “Yes?”
“You are by yourself, but you are not alone.” — She says as she points at the crowd sitting on the rugs, enjoying their meal. I can’t help but smile: “Thank you, it means a lot.”
I take my curry and sit. The night is warm, and the smell from the bowl before me is irresistible. For a moment, as I look around, I feel genuinely happy — just like I was in the first ten minutes of the trip. I laugh at my insecurities, they now feel so unreasonable and distant, and I realise how beautiful it is to eat alone.
I pick up the bowl, and I start eating.