I won’t lie, I don’t always summon up the courage to sample local delicacies and have no qualms about politely declining a mouthful of something gross-looking, even if the locals are supposedly going to be highly offended. I know my limits and I also know quite how far I can projectile vomit when trying to deal with something my mouth’s not happy with. And although it’s never come to that, I’m fairly sure that that would cause far more offence than simply saying, ‘No thanks.’
But I’m not immune to feeling bad when faced with this predicament and psyched myself up for the probability of this happening when I took a trip out to a remote Bunong village in the hills above Sen Monorom, eastern Cambodia. I went out with an ex-villager on the back of her bike and she explained how the tribe were known for living in harmony with the forest where they had settled and had little harmful impact on their environment. They believed that everything had a spirit, be it a person, an animal or a stone.
I relaxed somewhat, convincing myself that they didn’t sound likely to insist on force feeding me some gristly, rancid, unknown animal part. I felt very privileged to be welcomed into the village and free to wander around chatting to these laid back, friendly people. They led a very low maintenance lifestyle and their standard of living was extremely basic, surviving on subsistence farming.
One family invited me into their home; a low, one storey, wooden hut. The only natural light spilled in through the open door and the hut would otherwise be lit by lanterns. A gentle fire flickered on the floor generating heat and a substantial amount of noxious smoke. Water was collected from a communal supply.
I communicated with the five generations who lived there through my companion and asked her to relay that I was humbled to be with them and that their home was beautifully looked after.
The grandfather began to weep openly. He said of all the foreign visitors they had welcomed over the years, none had ever told him anything like this and his heart now surged with pride. We were, he said, friends for life and I would always be welcomed with open arms into their home.
We all joined him in shedding a little tear.
They offered me a bowl of the soup that was bubbling away on the fire which, to be fair, looked quite good. Meat was a luxury and today it was garden vegetables that adorned the stock so I knew I would be safe from any rogue gristle. I accepted the offer, saying a small bowl would suffice as I didn’t want them to go without.
My guide explained that in my honour, one final ingredient would be added that was normally reserved for high days and holy days. Reading my concerned expression expertly well, she recommended I sniffed it first before committing to any mouth action.
I braced myself.
From a darkened corner of the stifling, smoky room, the grandma proudly retrieved a litre-sized plastic Coca Cola bottle filled with a viscous, deep red liquid. It looked a little like blood.
It was blood and, apparently, their most prized possession. An ox had been slaughtered for a family wedding two years previously and as per the custom, the blood had been drained and kept for special occasions. VIPs would be offered a neat shot but for me they were willing to splash a drop into the soup. Evidently it would be good to use for a number of years, despite being stored in a fetid bottle with no refrigeration.
I fidgeted nervously.
I took my guide’s advice and asked to smell it first. The family exchanged worried glances – clearly this had happened before. I feared I was about to ruin a wonderful afternoon by offending my lovely hosts, but reassured myself how that was still preferable to an upchuck scenario.
They passed me the warm, vintage ox blood and I reluctantly brought it up to my nose.
My guide and I were silent on the ride home and parted company abruptly when back in the town.
I still wake up screaming in the night reliving the dreadful outcome when, totally overpowered by the utterly vile smell of the poisonous plasma, I inadvertently lost my grip on the bottle and could do nothing but watch in horror as it dropped to the floor, its priceless contents seeping into the clay.
For the second time in a single day, I had made an impoverished, elderly villager – and five generations of his family – weep uncontrollably.