My first day volunteering as a teacher in an orphanage in Phnom Penh and I realised that being outside the city centre meant I couldn’t simply pop to the nearest restaurant or air-conditioned shopping mall for lunch. The kitchen, run by the older orphans, looked old and grotty, flies buzzing over raw meat left out in the midday sun. So when Mr Sakun, the orphanage owner, invited me to join him for a Cambodian specialty egg I agreed.
Picturing the spiced, delicious tea eggs of Northern China, I hitched up my long skirt as I climbed on the back of Mr. Sakun’s rusty old motorbike.
“What about a helmet?” I shouted over the spluttering engine noise.
Mr Sakun just laughed and revved away through the rusting gates.
Smells drifted past as the motorbike made its way, noisily, through the back streets of Phnom Penh; rotting rubbish, fried fish in old oil and sour milk. Dust from the dirt track whipped up into my face, clinging to the sweat in my pores. Wide black eyes stared out from under furrowed brows as we passed street stalls and houses made of corrugated iron. The motorbike chugged over the bridge to the main city; a stagnant river encased in concrete sat motionless underneath; litter peeked its way through green sludgy plants.
On the other side, we stopped outside a clattery food cart, operated by a toothless old woman with gnarled, bare feet.
Mr Sakun said something to her in Khmer that made her flash a crinkly smile at me. I smiled back, unsure.
“Aaah, very good,” she replied and began clattering around with pots and pans.
Mr Sakun pulled out a tiny plastic chair at a squat table and offered it. We were basically sitting in the middle of the road, motorbikes stacked with wicker baskets, bundles of wheat and one with about twenty live chickens strapped to it, all passing within inches of our table.
The old lady ambled to the table with two boiled eggs in cracked egg cups.
“Good appetite,” Mr Sakun said, lifting a spoon to his egg.
I peeled back the top of the egg, a gasp involuntarily escaping my lips as I looked down into the gelatinous eyes of a baby bird, curled up inside. When I looked up at Mr Sakun he had already started on his own, seasoning it with almost an entire pepper shaker.
“Cambodian specialty,” he grinned at me, a little furry feather caught in his teeth.
Not wanting to offend an entire culture in one sitting I raised my spoon as if going in to battle and scooped out the shrivelled feathery mass. Its head hung limply over the side of the spoon; beak closed in a downward frown. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth. The bones felt like undercooked spaghetti, the feathers like stubble. I swallowed it, almost whole; not daring to crunch down with my teeth.
The old lady came with the bill. Three dollars. Mr Sakun sat back and looked at me expectantly.