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A tarantula! This was served as an appetizer at Romdeng, a restaurant run by the Mith Samlanh organization that helps train Cambodian street children in service careers. On Friday, me and a couple of friends decided to check out the 15th Anniversary party being thrown by the organization and chose to order up some Cambodian grub. Among the dishes we ordered and chose to share at the really charming, surprisingly fancy restaurant were three of these creepy crawlies – one for each of us.

Much like the cricket I ate several weeks ago, this arthropod was similar to a soft-shell crab in both flavor and texture, which makes sense because they are in the same phylum. Unlike the cricket I ate several weeks ago, this sucker was huge and most definitely had a little buggy face.

The favored method of eating the arachnid was to gingerly nibble at its hairy, crispy appendages, either dipped in a mixture of lime juice and Kampot pepper or without any adornment, which is what I ultimately preferred. Of course, the sole male in the group, my co-worker, decided to man up and ate the whole torso of the little beast after making short work of its legs. Again, not to be outdone and to say that I too had eaten a tarantula, I followed suit.

It wasn’t too bad, and, actually, quite edible save for some prickly bits, which I assumed were portions of its fangs that had not been clipped. However, as I relayed to the folks at the table, I feared that what happened after my feast of crickets (well, one cricket actually) would happen after I noshed on the tarantula.

Several days after my cricket escapade, I was eating breakfast and felt a little tickle on my foot. When I looked down, I saw a large cricket chilling on my sandal, and the first thing that popped into my mind was an apology for eating his mum, dad, niece, nephew, etc.

Yup. Definitely not looking forward to seeing one of these guys on my foot as it was an adventure enough seeing one on my plate.

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After arriving in Phnom Penh, I quickly learned that one of its charms – among other things – is how inexpensive the alcohol can be. This is both good and bad for me.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, I joined a gym here, The Place, so I wouldn’t have to stop my rather loose 24 Hour Fitness routine that I established back in the States. Problem is, with the alcohol being so cheap and all, after I work out during the day, at night, I end up imbibing all the calories I burned off in all manner of sugary, frothy, sometimes pink drinks, all of which I can get for less than $5, and, if it’s happy hour, less than $3. Beers are even cheaper, often going for 75 cents at happy hour.

Yeah. Kinda awesome for the pocketbook and (mom, don’t read this next part of the sentence) if I want to get tipsy on the cheap. (Note to my readers: My mum says that real ladies don’t drink in public). However, I blame alcohol for the fact that, despite working out really hard four days a week (sometimes more) and eating like a sad, sad bird, I still do not have the child-like limbs and waistlines of many of the women here. For serious, next to them, I feel like an obese giant.

It doesn’t help that every frakking time I pick up a small blouse or dress in a shopping mall the sales lady smiles at me and says “We have bigger size!” S’truth. The other day, when I was trying to buy a small T-shirt for myself, the lady asked me if it was a gift for someone. When I said that the shirt was for me, she gave me this whole “child, who the hell are you kidding?” look then suggested that even the medium would still be too small. I know that she meant no harm by it, and, seriously, I know I am not the tiniest person, but I am mos def not a large.

I smiled and said thank you for the suggestion, but inside I told the biatch that I wasn’t buying her ugly shirt. Then I went to a local bar and threw back a couple more drinks.

Note: The photo is of Street 278’s Elsewhere Bar, where I like to read, jump on the Internet, and enjoy a glass of something in the evenings after work and the gym.

Photo: Julie Anne Ines / Flickr “Chronicles in Cambodia”

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Besides documenting the places I’ve been to and the things I’ve eaten in Cambodia, I’ve also been taking photos of all the cats that I’ve tried to make friends with. The thing about the cats here, however, is that they are not the happy, playful, sometimes disdainful kitty cats you see gracing the likes of I Can Has Cheezburger or Cute Overload.

Nope. These are fierce, fearful, feral felines that may or may not bite your nose off if you get too close to them and if they get the chance. Mind you, I don’t think they’re bad kitties. I just have a feeling that they, like many of the children I’ve come across here, don’t know what it’s like to be cuddled, much less loved. Thinking of pulling an Angelina Jolie and adopting these cats and several children.

Here is a cat looking wistfully at the rain, dreaming of things only kitty cats dream about:

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Here is a tiny cat waiting for his mom:

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Here is a tailless cat chilling at the Equinox bar, hoping that someone will pet him and that the drunkards will not step on him destroying what’s left of his stub of a tail:

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And here is a cat that kept jumping into my lap even after I repeatedly put it back down on the floor. Here’s the cat giving me his “I may or may not eat your nose” look:

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Photos: Julie Anne Ines / Flickr “Chronicles in Cambodia” (New photos uploaded!)

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Unlike most days, I’m all by my lonesome in the NGO office right now. My boss currently has me working on an overview of the Cambodian media landscape, but I decided to take the opportunity to take a picture and do a quick blog update just so y’all and my family know that I am still alive.

Photo 24

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tunnelAfter an almost six-hour ride on a crowded bus perfumed with eaux de backpacker, I arrived in Siem Riep on Friday afternoon so that I could spend the three-day holiday weekend celebrating the birthday of the queen (Vivat regina!) jumping over temple ruins in Angkor International Park, a must-do on any trip to Cambodia according to all the guidebooks.

Right now, I’m sitting in my adorable little room in a boutique guesthouse that cost only $13 a night, tax free. I haven’t been blogging as much as I’d like, but the Internet speed here sometimes leaves much to be desired, making uploading photos difficult. Still, y’all can look forward to hearing about this weekend, other past awesome weekends, and the fact that I keep getting mistaken for Cambodian in posts in the near future on this blog.

Till then, off to see the ruins!

Photo: Itchyfingers

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As promised, here are photos of The Place, a nine-story building that houses a gym on the eighth, seventh and sixth floors. In addition to a cool gym, The Place also boasts one of the best views of the Independence Monument on Sihanouk Blvd. — the tall monument that you see in the background of photos two and three — that I’ve seen in Phnom Penh. If you work out during the day, you can see the tuktuks, SUVs, motos and bike riders negotiating traffic below. At night, you can see the monument lit up in lights and hear the honking of horns.

If gorgeous views aren’t your thing, you can hang out in the Internet cafe on the sixth floor, check your email on some nice desktop Macs, and order a juice or coffee drink, or hang out in the lobby on the eighth floor and watch Cartoon Network on the flatscreen televisions nested in the ceiling.

Apparently, the building is somewhat exclusive, as the gym is the one of choice for some of the wealthier folks here. A two-month membership was fairly affordable, but check out the warnings posted next to the elevator. You can’t bring your gun, your bodyguard, boxer briefs or your Doberman. Fancy.

I also noticed that you can’t bring a camera. Whoops.

Photo: Julie Anne Ines / Flickr

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Photo 21 Walking the streets of Phnom Penh is one of the best ways to get a sensory feel for the city. The busy streets, shops and food stalls are often a cacophony of rumbling moto and tuktuk motors, different languages and visitors haggling over prices.

And the smells that greet your nose cover the entire spectrum of exotic and pleasant, like the smoky scent of incense and burnt baby powder, and jasmine flowers drifting over from the temples, to the not so pleasant odors of trash laying out in the streets and sewage drains.

The juxtaposition of scents embody the character of the city: there are some unpleasant parts, but the mystery, grace and moments of surprising loveliness – like sitting in a cafe while thunder rolls overhead and rain pours down at an angle – are sometimes enough to overcome the bad.

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Some serious stuff first

When it comes to travel, I think the best way to get a feel for the local culture is to actually eat the food that the local folks eat. But one thing that you start to notice after several days in Phnom Penh is that there are three different worlds here at minimum: there are the locals, the tuktuk drivers, moto drivers and service workers; there are the NGO and embassy workers and tourists; and then there are The Rich.

The local workers don’t necessarily go to the Western-style establishments that NGO workers go to, and the NGO workers don’t necessarily go to the primarily Khmer-speaking food joints that the native folks frequent. And The Rich, well they have their own high-end restaurants that aren’t within a law school student’s budget. Money and how much of it you have separates your world from the other ones, but there are times when the different worlds brush up – sometimes uncomfortably and jarringly – against the other.

This is most obvious when a child – no older than six or seven, straining under the weight of a tray full of copied travelers’ guides, or bracelets and necklaces of jasmine – walks up to you while you’re having dinner and asks you to buy their wares or, at the very least, give them a dollar for food or for school books. They are obviously tired – one had red, puffy eyes as if he had been crying and reminded me of my youngest brother when he was just a kid, another tiny girl no older than four shyly waited for rejection even as she pressed me to buy her flowers – and one can’t help but feel guilty for shoveling food down when all you want to do is take them home, give them a puppy, give them a video game to play, get them super excited about a trading card game like Yu-Gi-Oh!, and get them amped on candy and soft drinks.

The travelers guides and websites caution against giving money to these children or even buying something from them, as they don’t necessarily get to keep what they get because their handlers will take their earnings at the end of the day. Folks passing through have taken these disclaimers to heart and are used to the intrusion, sometimes just waving their hands and going back to their conversations, ignoring the little person standing right next to them. I fear becoming so desensitized that the children become part of the scenery, and I hope I don’t.

That said, because of the sometimes oppressive heat here and seeing the children that have way less than some domesticated pets back in the U.S., I haven’t really had much of an appetite here. But I have faithfully taken pictures of the meals I have had, just in case some of y’all were interested in food porn.

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The oddest meals I’ve had so far were at the Night Market and at an eatery called Good Dream Restaurant (I think).

At Night Market, you get to pick your plate from a selection of skewered and deep-fried food. I decided to be adventurous and got the whole fried quail, barbecued chicken hearts, barbecued beef tongue and fried cauliflower with fish paste, washed down with pressed sugar cane juice with lime. The quail tasted like fried chicken, and the barbecued chicken hearts and beef tongue just seemed like the chicken and beef flavors were concentrated into a protein with a chewier texture. My favorite thing on the plate was the fried cauliflower, which tasted like tempura with salt in the batter.

The meal at Good Dream Restaurant was more about the company than it was about the food, which consisted of traditional Khmer-style dishes. I had graciously been invited to dinner by another NGO that OSJI is working with to join the co-directors, a staffer, and two other interns – very smart young ladies – for dinner.

The dinner was something of an introduction to Cambodian-style steak, fish paste and beer. The steak was fairly basic: grilled with sliced, raw garlic on top. The flavoring of the steak came from dipping the sliced meat into pepper, and prahok, a salty, somewhat sour fish dip that is part of many Cambodian dishes. It sounds a bit unusual, but the food was pretty good washed down with several glasses of beer. Or that could have just been the beer talking.

nompenh_cricketsPerhaps the highlight of the night, however, was the appetizer selected by one of the co-directors: deep-fried crickets. He happily noshed on the little critters, saying that they tasted like almonds. Based on the review, one of the more adventurous interns, who is also a first-year law student, decided to try one of the bugs. Not to be outdone by a former Ivy Leaguer and another girl, I decided to dive in. The hardest part about eating a cricket is contemplating the fact that it has a face and was possibly hopping about doing bug-like things. Once you get past that, however, the flavor is very mild, and both the texture and flavor is similar to soft-shell crab. I just had one, though, and, again, that could just be the beer talking.

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4658438854_100f72195aSince my last video post, I’ve been thrust into the media law work that OSJI has planned, which includes learning about the separate laws that govern defamation prosecutions of journalists and private individuals here in Cambodia. Apparently, United Nations transitional laws, the Cambodian press law, the Cambodian Constitution, the penal code and international agreements all influence the outcome of a case in some way. It’s a lot of reading, but very interesting stuff. Yey, research!

On top of all the laws and reports I’m going through to try and make some sense of the legal situation, I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that government officials can just remove offending publications from newstands, that newspapers themselves have to be registered with the government, and that any sort of “incitement” can be met with a fine or even jail time. Sometimes it seems the laws have been pulled from the law books of some authoritarian goverment from some science fiction novel, but the law is all too real for those who have been jailed or fined by the government here.

I’ve also had some time to meet and have a couple of beers with the other intern – also a first-year law student – who is working with OSJI. I mentioned before that many of the students and volunteers who pass through the city are super worldly, knowledgable and educated, and this dude is no exception. He has studied and worked in Japan – where he met his fiancee – and can both read and write Japanese. This wouldn’t be so unusual except for the fact that he stands 6 feet 2 inches tall and and has a shock of red hair. He had some interesting stories to tell about Japan, and I look forward to hearing more. Yey for cool people!

Speaking of cool, since it’s too darn hot to actually even think of running in the city, I decided to join a gym, which is just a quick jaunt around the block from the hotel that I’m staying at. Apparently, this gym – which sits in a building called The Place (creative, I know) – is the place that most people want to be at if they do join a gym in Phnom Penh. I can’t argue with that. The gym at the place has it all: very cold air conditioning, leather seating, free classes, free Internet access, cable television, weights, all manner of exercise equipment that you would find at 24 Hour Fitness, and possibly one of the best views of the Independent Monument in the city. Photos to come!

Photo: Open Society Justice Initiative office, Phnom Penh Center Building / julieanneines Flickr

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