I hate wasting time, money, and especially, a meal. And that's how I felt about our brief sojourn earlier this week in Sri Em, a pretty near nothingball town in northern Cambodia whose claim to fame is its proximity to the mountaintop temple complex of Preah Vihear.
We hired a taxi for the 3-hour drive from Siem Reap and left at 11:30am, figuring that this would give us an afternoon and a morning at Preah Vihear. But by the time we'd checked into our clean but down-and-out guesthouse in Sri Em -- 45 minutes to an hour from the top of the mountain -- it was 3:30 or so. No point heading up now, our driver told us, since the complex closes at 5. So there we were in Sri Em with nothing to do but find a way to pass the time until morning.
So we walked, up the characterless stretch of highway connecting our guesthouse to the crossroads that comprises Sri Em town. There's a huge military presence around and at Preah Vihear, and Sri Em has the feel of a town built to service soldiers. We found karaoke restaurants, questionable "hotels", mobile phone stores. We found a market. As market lovers we do not judge markets harshly, but Sri Em's market was dismal.
We walked in, stepping over squishy mud puddles and past shallow rattan baskets filled with fly-covered lurid pink sausages, past uncovered tubs of prahok and fruit vendors with absolutely nothing of interest to offer. We wandered down one aisle and up another, and ended up in front of a charcoal-fired barbecue tended by a grandmother and her granddaughter, its grill covered with blackening banana leaf parcels.
There was nothing -- not a thing -- in that market to stir the appetite. Quite the opposite, in fact. By the time we smelled the charcoal smoke I felt my stomach on the verge of churning. But whatever was in those banana leaves smelled good, really good. We bought a few and unwrapped them then and there.
They held a typical southeast Asian snack: coconut rice wrapped around a banana. But oh, what a version of this unremarkable snack so easily found all over the region! The rice logs were especially rich with coconut milk. They'd been left on the grill long enough to form a slightly sweet crusty, crispy-chewy exterior. Inside, the rice was still soft, and it enclosed a sweet-tart banana that the heat of the grill had reduced to the silky texture of grilled eggplant. We ate them up, and swooned, and bought more.
The next morning, at fog-shrouded Preah Vihear, we found Sri Em's other saving grace. Our overnight there gave us two hours alone at the site. By the time other visitors began arriving in noisy droves we were heading back down the mountain.
In Sri Em, we stayed at Som Rak guesthouse. The food at the attached restaurant isn't bad, but it isn't particularly good either -- and it's stupid expensive, especially in comparison with the deliciousness served up at this Cambodian restaurant in Siem Reap. If you go, plan to arrive in Sri Em by noon (it's 3-3.5 hours from Siem Reap by taxi) so you can visit Preah Vihear twice (U$5 per person per visit if you go up the mountain by motorbike). Arrange to arrive at PV in the morning before it officially opens (this can be done for a small price -- consult your taxi or moto driver). We were at the ticket office at 7am and if I had it to do over again I would aim for 6:30.