Chef and I embraced the burn as we sampled a plate of my recently smuggled Cambodian peanuts. “Dude, these need to go on the menu.” The fun never ends! She separated, as we debated, ingredient ratios of crispy bits of fiery, red Thai chili peppers, flakes of bright green and sweet Kaffir lime leaves, and unambiguous slices of caramelized garlic. “Are those tiny pieces of lemongrass?” “Can we source peanuts like these?” And, “Man, this shizzy is hot.”
Upon my return from Southeast Asia, I tried not to look shifty as the customs officer examined my passport, then my eyes: “Do you have any plants oooor … food in your bag?” Unsure whether he asked everyone that question so directly, or whether he took a big look at me and my un-Asian-like stature and made the correct assumption, I’m thinkin’: Damn right I have food in my bag. Amazing peanuts, Kaffir leaves, garlic-pepper sauce, curry… . “No, sir, no food. Or drugs or Cubans.” I tried not to flinch while summoning my best confident-and-cute-but-not-cocky face. He stared a second longer, unamused. “Welcome home, sir,” he mumbled.
Yessir! I was giddy to be back after weeks away, but also to have said “yes” months ago, when a friend asked if I wanted to join on a trip. It wasn’t actually a stretch for me, as I say “yes” generally. Perhaps an occupational “hazard,” it comes with the hospitality/territory. Tempt me with a good time? I’m in. (Though exceptions to my enthusiasm do exist. For example, “Would you like to see a musical?” Notsomuch.)
I am not a “bucket list” guy. Fortunately, I am surrounded by planner-type peeps, this one from my youth having traveled to every continent but the “really cold one.” Newsflash … Southeast Asia is hot! Now, you probably think I meant temperature-wise, which is true enough. As a cabbie in Bangkok handed over the ubiquitous cold-and-rolled, damp-and pristine-white towel (with essence of lemongrass), he explained, “Two temperatures in Thailand: hot and very hot.” There is only one true way to joyfully experience a thick ’n’ drippy, daily 95 degrees, and that is to convince oneself that melting is fun — while also powdering liberally, changing T-shirts often, showering/swimming frequently, keeping a “mop” in pocket, being unafraid to sport the do-rag, recalling snow in New England, walking the outer edges of the shuffling masses, sitting in the shade occasionally (a daily regional practice), seeking spicy food (it works), saying “yes” to a beer (this doesn’t work, but sure is fun to pretend), and remembering that a frozen coconut drink is never far away!
Now, if my previous comment that “Southeast Asia is hot” summoned the goofy voice of Will Ferrell in your head (like mine … so many voices), you would also be correct. While in the town of Siem Reap, a Belmond hotel waiter gushed about a recent poll that ranked his hospitable city as the “No. 1 destination in Asia.” You would get no argument here. The charm of Cambodia’s simpler lifestyle is indescribable. He proudly chatted on about his duty to serve the future economic good of the country, about the harmonious relationship between Buddhists and Hindus, and then, while referencing the “Killing Fields” atrocities from a previous generation, kept his smile intact and said, “You must visit the museum with all the skulls; it will make you cry.”
Beyond many remarkable experiences — the beauty of Thailand’s Ko Samui island, the vibrant colors, flavors and bustle of many night markets, endless roadside vendors and streets buzzing with scooters and tuk-tuks — my most poignant memory is of the overwhelming peacefulness and hospitality of the people. Prayer hands and gentle bows were the common greeting, accompanied by soft voices and a prevalent sense of humble calm. This intriguing environment was enhanced by a plethora of golden Buddhas, brightly attired monks, incense, silk and the abundance of colorful, fresh flowers and fruit, often offered as gifts of welcome. From intricately-carved pineapples and the fun of squeezing olive-size longan berries from skin to mouth, or the spooning of sweet/tart passion fruit seeds directly from their husk, exotic abounds.
Despite having such “melting pot” access to international culture and cuisine in the U.S., I was fortunate to discover many memorable dishes. A pomelo salad featuring shreds of this non-bitter cousin to the grapefruit, mixed with crispy toasted coconut, spicy chili flakes and a touch of salty fish sauce was the first culinary “whoa.” There was tom kha gai coconut-chicken soup, for which words would do no justice, and rare betel-leaf wraps stuffed with shaved lime, toasted coconut and tamarind. Upon request for some hot sauce to “bump up the heat” of a fresh-crabmeat-laden plate of khao phat pu rice, I was brought a small dish displaying freshly sliced, razor-thin dimes of Thai pepper, floating in nam pla (fish sauce). Served with a smile and gentle bow that felt akin to a wink of “good luck,” I contemplated (much like crossing the streets of Thailand) whether to proceed with tentative caution or simply go for it — finally deciding that the hurts-so-good rush of a mouth afire was a much more innocuous risk than getting run over by a tuk-tuk!