During my second stint in Otres, I had the good fortune to be invited to a Khmer New Year get together thrown by the contractor/construction worker who's been building the new bungalows for the guesthouse where I stayed, Mama Clare's. Hung (ethnically Vietnamese but living in Cambodia) invited Clare and her guests to come round for some afternoon food and drinks, so I hopped on Clare's motorbike and off the small group of us went.
Hung's house lay just down the road behind the few stalls that comprise Otres Village, located in a cluster of makeshift dwellings made up mostly of wood and corrugated metal. There was an awning hanging over a concrete rectangle, where Hung and his wife and friends had unfurled a bamboo mat and had laid out dishes of a river fish smoked in fish sauce, fried eggs, and spring onions sautéed with dried shrimp and peppers. We sat around cross-legged and picked at the food with chopsticks, cheers'ing every few minutes with freshly cracked cans of Angor beer -- the Cambodian custom seems to be to open a new can and say cheers and drink about half the can before opening a new one (or polishing off the can immediately and opening a new one, perhaps I'm just a slow drinker).
All around us the children played in the dirt, threw talcum powder on each other and squirted each other with water guns, while chickens waddled by and water buffalo lazily slept in a field just beyond Hung's home. Clare had mentioned that Hung might have children with more than one woman -- it was unclear. But there were maybe 30 some children running around, and a handful of adults, the women mostly shyly out of sight, minus Hung's wife who joined us for beers and food and a bowl of her own noodles after spending most of her time in the wooden hut where the cooking is done over hot coals.
As I sat there, picking at the onions and fish and eggs, swatting away about a bazillion flies, washing it down with cold beer served on ice, I felt a momentary thrill wash over me: I'm with the people! I'm roughing it! I'm sitting in the dirtiest environment ever and it doesn't matter! It's good food! Who cares about some flies!
Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I watched a mangy mutt of a dog trot up to a wooden table set outside the hut where a dish was laying to dry, knock it off, and proceed to start licking it enthusiastically.
I looked down at my own bowl. Every single thing we are eating off has been licked by that dog. Or another dog. Or a water buffalo. Or a snake. Or ... or ...
I took a big swig of beer and pushed oncoming barrage of thoughts out of my mind.
About a million beers later, I had to use the bathroom so I politely excused myself and asked someone where to go.
"No toilet," said a woman. She pointed in the direction of some concrete structures and a clumb of trees.
As I squatted down on a patch of dried grass realized that no one in the village had a toilet, let alone running water, let alone anywhere to wash their hands before preparing food before putting it into bowls cleaned by dog's tongues, I decided that if you're going to make it in Southeast Asia, you better have a strong stomach.
You'll need a strong stomach as you wolf down god-knows-what-meat-this-is street food at a open air stalll; you'll need a strong stomach as your bus careens down a narrow half-the-road-has-washed-away "freeway", overtaking giant trucks as it approaches other buses head on, only narrowly swerving out of the way at the last minute; you'll need a strong stomach as you watch one of the food vendors at the market in Hoi An hand-separate a dish of noodles so they'll be ready for the next patrons; you'll need a strong stomach as you step out into the onslaught of moto traffic whizzing by you on the streets of Saigon, praying that they will indeed swerve around you as you mind the motto to "just keep moving" to make it to the other side; you'll need a strong stomach as you eat at an outside café and watch The World's Biggest Cockroach saunter by; and you'll need a strong stomach as you watch a snake slither across the patio of your guesthouse and spend the next hour in a downward spiral of paranoia googling "poisonous snakes of Cambodia" (not recommended).
That's because, as my time in Vietnam and Cambodia has so far shown, it's not for the faint of heart and it's definitely not for people without a tough gut.
Because one of the things that's impressed me most about the people in Vietnam and Cambodia is that there's a spirit of toughness, resilience and strength shining alongside the spirit of good nature and humor. All the more impressive is that that spirit of resilience and strength is present despite some pretty recent horrors both countries have endured, from war to genocide. Rising up from the horrors (some self-imposed, others imposed on them by foreign countries, namely the U.S.) isn't an attitude of victimization or self-pity or despair, it's a tenacity to keep fighting, keep building, keep hustling, keep surviving, keep eating.
It's means that even though it's annoying to walk the streets of Hoi An, for example, and be perpetually bombarded by women wanting you to buy their trinkets, enter their spa, make you clothes or eat their food, you can't help but admire their tenacity to try. ("Where you from? You buy my things." "Nice things for you miss." "Want you want, miss?" "You come my spa." And so on.) Same for the men waiting on motorbikes or pedicabs, constantly offering up rides. It can't hurt but to try, right? So that secretly, despite the outward look of annoyance or indifference, I find myself both in awe and impressed by the attitudes of endurance and perseverance that seem to prevail.
I'm grateful to have a pretty strong stomach -- literally. It's meant I can eat a ton of über-cheap street food without many problems (before or after) and it's meant I've been able to toughen up and cope with some of the facts of travelling here on a budget (sure, you could fly between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but what's the fun in that?). And it's meant that with just a little bit of a tough gut, I've been able to come to truly appreciate the people I've been encountering, despite the hassles and annoyances and off-putting glimpses of cockroaches or unsavory kitchen practices.
So, if you're planning a trip to Southeast Asia, my advice is to start strengthening your stomach. Because when you find yourself bbq'ing ostrich meat on an open flame or eating the freshest clam you've ever tasted or cheers'ing beers during a party in a village or on the back of a motorbike flying underneath a canopy of stars on a country road outside Sihanoukville, it will all be worth it.
Just pack some Pepto Bismal.