Deep in Thought in Philosopher’s Lane

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Srey Nit at her cosy laneway restaurant. Supplied

In Kyoto, Japan, they have Philosopher’s Walk, a path lined with cherry trees along the canal that runs between the Buddhist temples of Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji. 
 
In Phnom Penh, there is a little lane known both as Abdul Carime and Street 21. It is a broken lane in more ways than one, with the end at Street 308 full of micro bars and party people, while the other is more infamous as the site of a gruesome murder. 
 
In the mid-section there is the Svay Pope pagoda, home to the Preah Sihamoni, Raja Buddhist University, which schools young monks in the Thommoyouttek Nikeay order of Theravada Buddhism. 
 
This quiet section of lane behind the pagoda is lined with old Poinciana trees that offer shade and a place of relative peace away from the snarling traffic, construction and bustling city life along the boulevards of Preah Norodom and Samdech Sothearos. There, in this place of contemplation and reflection, you will find a small restaurant set out along the sides of the lane, where a young family is selling the much loved Khmer snack Num Krok, or Cambodian rice cakes.  
 
‘Num’ means cake in Khmer and ‘krok’ is the word for ugly, hardly a fitting title for these gorgeous little balls of tasty delight. The cake is said to have been given this name because it is prepared in two separate halves and then joined together so as to hide the ugly faces of each half. 
 
A mixture of rice flour, coconut milk, chopped shallots and a little salt, fish sauce and sometimes palm sugar, Num Krok can be either savoury or sweet. The preperation requires a strong cast iron pan known as a Krok pan, which has scoops inlaid into it for pouring in the mixture. The cake is then cooked over hot coals. Srey Nit sits over the coals all afternoon preparing the Num Krok, while her little sister looks after the family drinks cart. 
 
Along each side of the lane are fold-up tin tables and plastic chairs. There you will discover the most curious aspect of this little al fresco restaurant, the signs posted along the walls at regular intervals. On each sign, in both Cambodian and English, (and one in French) are abstract poems and philosophical bon mots for diners to contemplate while they eat Srey Nit’s snacks. 
 
There seems to be no connecting theme to these signs, other than that they are gently thought provoking and mildly philosophical. A couple of them are poems by reasonably well known western poets, others are written anonymously. 
 
The signs were a joint project by the community and Seamentrey School, an NGO providing free education to underprivileged children and run by returned Khmer refugee Muoy You. While living in exile from the civil war, Ms. You became a respected teacher working in Africa, the Middle East and at a Montessori school in London, which would have a profound influence on her teaching. 
 
Ms. You returned to Cambodia with a dream to provide education to those who could not afford it, knowing from first-hand experience that education was the best way to break the cycle of poverty for Khmer families. Ms. You was supported in her efforts by her husband, the internationally renowned Cambodian artist and architect You Khin, who sadly passed away aged 62 in 2009. 
 
You Khin’s art often depicts the struggle and inequality he saw in the world, especially for women. You Khin’s uncle painted Buddhist murals on temple walls throughout his home province of Kampong Cham and this gave the young Mr. Khin his inspiration to one day become an artist. 
 
Srey Nit tells me she has been cooking in the lane for about three years and learned to cook Num Krok from her mother. She sells each cake for 400 riel until the mixture runs out. 
 
It is always comforting that amongst all the new high rise buildings, the traffic jams and the international fast food chains and cafes, people can always sneak away to this quiet, shaded area in the little lane behind the pagoda for a delicious snack, a cool drink and a moment to pause and enjoy a Phnom Penh that was once familiar but now seems to be fading away all too quickly.  
 

The simple poems behind tasty Num Krok rice cakes. Supplied
 
Srey Nit Num Krok
Street 21, Behind Svay Pope Pagoda. 
Open from 2pm to about 4pm.

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