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Fish heads anyone?
Photos and copy by Michelle Newman

While that may not be the most favorite food in our culture - and most, not all, of us prefer a juicy rib eye - fish heads are a big seller in Cambodia, especially in Tumnuk Rolok, a sleepy little fishing village near Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Surrounded on three sides by the Bay of Thailand. As though they fell from the sky in no particular order and settled here randomly, many beaches and fishing villages dot Sihanoukville?s shore.

It was steamy hot and the sun intense - providing perfect conditions to dry fresh fish on makeshift racks in the sun but the stench of the drying fish combined with rotting garbage was stifling and unbearable. A tropical setting marred by reality, and setting where a gas mask would have come in handy along with some expensive French perfume to mask the overwhelming odor.

Fishing Boat
A typical fishing boat embellished to keep the evil spirits away
Somehow, seeing hundreds of foul-smelling fish heads with their golden/yellow beady eyes staring at me wasn't an appetizing sight. But, it is an inexpensive and readily available source of protein used often for fish soups and stews in coastal Cambodia if you can wipe the picture I just described from your mind.

Life in Tumnuk Rolok revolves around the sea. The rest of our magnificent world is just trappings for their own realities ne the fisherman sit around schmoozing with one anothr4while mending their nets and packing their boats for the next expedition to sea. Old rickety 2-tone turquoise fishing boats, with scarlet stripes, are tied up behind the stilt houses bobbing up and down in the gentle waves while other boats were being repaired on shore. Each boat?s extended bows are decorated with colorful streamers for good luck, protection (which I could not figure out and no one offered an explanation and to keep the evil spirits away actually made sense in their world.

After a while of putting on more sunscreen than I thought the tube held I could see the fisherman gathered beneath a tent enjoying a lively lunch of some kind of fish stew while a young women squeezed fresh sugar cane juice. The latter looked almost appetizing and I was dying to try the cane juice but was terrified that I?d wind up with some incurable intestinal parasite. I passed.

Fish Heads
Fish heads drying on racks are used to season soups and stews.
Life is lived, if you want to call it that, in the slow lane here - there's no reason to rush, no place to go, no malls or discount stores anywhere, no traffic jams and high tech is defined as a good net and catch to show for it. Tiny front porches are crowded with grandmothers swaying rhythmically in handmade hammocks and women whose job seems to be sitting crossed legged, bothering no one and posing for photos. To these folks I was witnessing multi-tasking at its max as they watched their kids out of one eye while constantly swatting annoying flies away and playing some sort of gin rummy looking card game. That was the tempo of daily life and the villagers seemed more than content with its beat, slow and steady.

I peeked inside several ramshackle stilt houses - all with just one small living area for eating and sleeping. The walls were covered with stained old- fashioned floral wallpaper and paint peeling from the ceiling. Ancient ceiling fans provided a slight breeze to the still sticky air, its tons of garbage floated in the water behind the houses and scruffy looking dogs sauntered lazily along the village?s only dirt road. Not a pretty sight. Not your kind of neighborhood, nor mine and even the thought of photos soon lost its appeal.

Further, I was surprised to see that, even in this squalor, people seemed happy with very little and their simple lifestyle. I wondered, maybe there?s a lesson to be learned here in Tumnuk Rolok. Then I thought again, "Nah, they just didn?t know better!" - the best way to get there.

Photos and copy by Michelle Newman