Road Side Stands and Cambodian Gourmet

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Fish anyone?

It is amazing to see the variety of road side stands – that is, for us they are road side stands but here they are the shops. I love seeing how people use their specific skills or whatever resources their immediate area offers.

sticky riceIn a stretch of about one kilometre along the main road you might see stand after stand offering vegetables, or just coconuts and pineapples. The next stretch offers foot long length of bamboo, all standing up straight in baskets. At first I thought they were baskets of french baguettes (Cambodia was long under French occupation). But these hold steamed sticky rice with beans.

Someone sells chickens, live ones trying to scratch the dirt under the basket that holds them captive. Her neighbour offers fish for sale – small live catfish huddled in a plastic tub of water with a piece of wood on top to keep them from jumping out.

There are carvers of amazingly beautiful teakwood chairs and beds. Or people who build ornate stands with spirit houses on it. Each household needs one or more of these small altars so there must be a brisk business in spirit houses, often painted golden or orange.

IMG_0940Some women sell fabulous deep fried bananas or pineapple pastries.

A haircut costs one dollar, also in a roadside stand.

Perhaps one of the most innovative sellers is in the towns too far from a gas station. Everyone needs gasoline to drive their motorbike but it is too expensive to drive to the city. So someone goes to stock up and then sells it in small portions in empty pop bottles.

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Not oil but gasoline for sale!

At one point I asked our tuk-tuk driver to stop at a roadside stand selling round green things. I wondered what they were so we bought one bundle. Turned out the be the fruit pods of the lotus flower which we saw growing along the roads in shallow water. The green pods have round holes. You break open the pod to take out a green ‘nut’. Then you break open this nut to reveal a white inside which you pop into your mouth. It didn’t have much flavour but is an interesting texture, somewhere between a berry and a nut.

IMG_0942We enjoy experiencing new Cambodian foods. We’ve had things like

  • fried bananas with papaya sauce
  • river fish amok, a stew with rice served in banana leaf
  • banana blossom salad
  • pineapple spring rolls
  • fried glass noodles

Our lovely cheerful guide Po asked me if I’d like to try some deep fried tarantula. Hhhmmm…. I have to think about that one. He also laughed as he told us about frog sausages. Or would you prefer some chopped up tree ants in fish paste? Dog is on the menu, too. We see tall lines with bunched up plastic sheets along the road. Their purpose? To catch crickets at night when a light attracts them to the plastic. Another deep fried Cambodian delicacy! You can wash it all down with rice wine with scorpions.

IMG_1039And just in case you think everything is fabulous: we had lunch at a very interesting hammock restaurant. I loved the experience. As we walked over, all we saw was enormous wooden platforms with hammocks. Someone came over and spread a large woven wicker mat for us on the wooden platform. We climbed up and swung in a hammock until a pot of soup with cut up chicken pieces arrived. I ate some fried morning glory and we had rice (no chopsticks in Cambodia). Then we relaxed in the hammocks again as families around us did the same. It was fun until something hit me, about a day later. Severe food poisoning. I really don’t know if it was here, or something else I ate but I was sick as a dog and couldn’t eat a thing for three days. Had to cut down on hiking as it left me drained of all energy. I am just grateful we brought plenty of medicine and gravol.

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Fried morning glory

Angkor… whát?!

IMG_0695When we leave the hotel with our guide at 8 AM it is still relatively cool. By noon we will be sweating buckets… On our first day of hiking, we drive into the vast area of Angkor Wat. During the 12th century, this was the world’s largest religious area encompassing some 400 square KMs. There were many villages in the area and people would come to worship at the elaborate temples.

Many of the stone buildings have now collapsed and the jungle is winning the battle. Stone carvings surrender to tree roots, some trees towering a hundred meters on top of an old wall. IMG_0781

With the new technology of lidar (laser imaging radar) they are discovering many more old roads, walls and buildings hidden by jungle.

We entered the ancient capital area at the South Gate of Angkor Thom and hiked through beautiful shady forest on a pleasant sandy path. This major attraction may be inundated by tourists, but théy are not hiking! We walked around a tranquil lake and listened to birds. At one point we reached a busier gate where endless throngs of traffic arrived. Walking through the woods, we had no clue there were thousands of tourists nearby! IMG_0704

We walked through Bayon Temple and heard about the many stories depicted in the endless stone carvings around the temple walls. This is ancient storytelling at its best: facts and myths intertwine in stone, leaving a legacy of stories and morals about Hindu gods and Buddhist beliefs. Stories of battles won and battles lost, of a sea turning to milk, of snakes and gods. IMG_0742

We continued our walk on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the compound, for many kilometers until we arrived, via the Terrace of the Elephants, at Cambodia’s main attraction: Angkor Wat. It was constructed in the 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.

IMG_0825This most important temple towers 65 meters from ground level. Since the temple represents heaven, no buildings in the vast area of Siem Reap are allowed to be taller – a wonderful way to keep high rises from taking over the landscape.

All Cambodian Buddhist hope to visit this temple at some point, much like Muslims trekking to Mecca. The temple itself is gigantic and you can easily spend an entire day walking around, climbing the towers and watching the sun rise or set on this national landmark. My favourite moment was seeing flame orange robes of monks, as they walked by, against the blackened stone of the ancient temple. Like in other Buddhist countries most people serve their country as a priest for some time in their lives. This can be for a few days, for a month or for several years. While serving, the community provides for the monks, bringing them food. Unlike other countries, like Burma, I haven’t seen any girl monks/nuns yet.IMG_0804

Floating Villages and Lotus Farms

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Siem Reap

When our bus arrived in Siem Reap, we took a tuk-tuk to our hotel. It turned out to be a lovely quiet oasis near the river in the heart if Siem Reap. This city is much, much bigger than I had imagined. But the hotel is very quiet, with a huge bed and a lovely little pool in a court yard. We strolled along the river, across one of the wooden foot bridges and to the old city market.

The main reason we ended up in Cambodia this time, is because we wanted an active holiday. Kees loves hiking and we like exploring new places. We wanted to go somewhere warm during the winter and sitting on a beach is not for us. One night Kees came across the website of Cambodia Cycling and Trekking. He found a good sounding program for a 15 day trek in which we would see much of the country, have some home stays or use small hotels, and walk about 100 KMs. The online responses were efficient. We read some good reviews of the company and so we booked our trek: http://cambodiacycling.com

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Lotus Farm

This morning we were met by Po, the tour guide who will stay with us for the next two weeks. He speaks English quite well, although we need to concentrate. It is great to have a local of whom we can ask any question! He took us by tuk-tuk to Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in south-east Asia. Some 80,000 people live on the lake and a further three million depend on the lake. Water streams into the Tonlé Sap during rainy season and drains out during the dry season, which is now. There’s up to 10 meters difference so the trees we saw today are underwater in the fall!

Once we got to the lake, we boarded a long narrow wooden boat and made our way to the floating village called Chang Kneas. I had known about these villages for so long… showing kids in schools photos that others had taken. Now I finally was able to take my own photos and visit the floating school! I kept pinching myself at being here.

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Floating School of Tonlé Sap

We climbed into the school and gave them books, pencils, stickers, pencil sharpeners AND my book that their school is in!! These kids come from Vietnamese families, living in very primitive floating houses anchored to the lake bottom with bamboo poles. They paddle to school in anything that floats: wooden boats or plastic tubs. We even saw kids paddling in styrofoam boxes, like old cool boxes…. IMG_0623

Education is free in Cambodia and all kids go to school according to our guide. Because of the number of students, they go to school either in the morning or in the afternoon. Instruction includes English starting in the lower grades. Can you image living in a small house that floats on a lake, paddling everywhere…. Toddlers learn to swim by age one!

I knew these lotus pods from dried flower arrangements. Here they are a delicacy. When fresh, you pop out the seeds and eat them. They taste a bit like chestnuts…

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Wild Ride Across Cambodia

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This was NOT our bus!

To get from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep in the northern part of the country, we had done some research on the internet. You can fly, but then you don’t see a thing. We opted for a bus: Giant Ibis busses take 6 hours to drive at a cost of 15.- p.p.. We had ordered our tickets online and were lucky that, a month ahead, we were able to get front row seats. Their website is easy to use: http://giantibis.com

A small bus picked us up in the morning and drove us to the bus ‘station’. Our front row seats were great. While most people dozed or read, we had a great view and did not have enough eyes to take it all in. IMG_0512

While the seats and the service were good, the driver drove like a bat out of hell and the bus’ tires were so bald that metal wire shone through the smooth rubber. The company advertises with wifi onboard but that did not work for us at all. The guide said it depends on the server provider of each area we drove through, but for us it did not seem to work anywhere. There is also no bathroom on board – a good thing to realize ahead of time. The bus stops once for a bathroom break and once for a half hour lunch break at a local open air restaurant. It’s a good idea to carry paper because there is none in more bathrooms here.IMG_0523

The road out of P.P. was lined with stalls. Some sold fruit, other sold buckets or chickens or clothing or TV’s. Little children walked barefooted along the road, dogs dozed in the red dust. Cambodia feels to us as a mixture of Laos and Myanmar. As we left the city behind us, green fields replaced shacks. We spotted the occasional very skinny cow. And the bus gathered speed. Even as we passed through towns and people crowded along the road, we must have done 120 KPH while passing kids, cows, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Honking at everything that moved, we managed to avoid hitting things although one deaf dog had a very narrow escape and I kept expecting a motorbike loading with entire families to swerve in the path of our speeding bus.

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Us western woozies think of a motorbike as transportation for getting from A to B. Here it is obvious that owning a motorbike means you are well-to-do and that you need to help out friends and neighbors. In this one day alone we saw motorbikes transporting:

  • entire families including babies, toddlers and grandmothers.
  • a wicker cage with 6 live pigs
  • armloads bamboo, including one dragging 10 meter poles
  • large flats of potted mums
  • loads of bricks
  • a rack with steaming pots of food
  • enormous bales of rice piled high
  • large baskets, on either side, full of bananas or eggs
  • lumber
  • haybales
  • shoes for sale
  • piles of bottles of gasoline
  • terra cotta charcoal burners
  • large loads charcoal
  • fruits and snacks for sale
  • stacks of about 20 wooden tables (!)
  • teak carved bed frames
  • towering piles of mattresses
  • rolls of fencing
  • dried fish
  • firewood
  • coconuts and mangoes
  • tires
  • a cargo bike with a cow

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Cambodia, Here We Come!

IMG_0478Years ago I wrote about Cambodia by including a unique school in my book called My School in the Rain Forest. Recently, Cambodia was included in my book Birthdays Around The World. This was possible because kind Cambodians helped me to gather photos and information. But I really wanted to see for myself. Cambodia was one of the few countries we had not yet visited in Asia. So this year we planned a trip to get to know Cambodia.

IMG_0492As with all countries we describe in this blog, we don’t pretend to knów the country after a short stay. We simply want to share the excitement of what we see, do and learn.

The flights to get here were very long. We flew from Victoria to Vancouver and then had to wait for a flight that left well past midnight. The seats on our Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong were one of the most cramped we have ever seen. You could barely move and if you dropped something, tough luck. If the person in front of you moved the seat back, you could no longer hold a book or use the table tray. Cathay obviously cramped too many seats into too small a space.

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After a two hour lay-over, we boarded the flight to Phnom Penh. It’s always exciting to finally see the real thing, after seeing so many maps, photos and books about a place.

Even from the air, we already noticed that there were not really a whole lot of cars but loads of motorbikes.

We were met by a driver with a van who took us to our downtown hotel – about a 45 minute drive. The city streets got narrower and more crowded as we came into the old city along the river. Our hotel was a lovely colonial building with a restaurant and pool on the roof top.IMG_0525

We managed to stay awake all day (we left home on Monday and arrived on Wednesday!) –  taking a stroll along the river and through on old temple complex. Then we had a swim in the cool pool and enjoyed happy hour with one-dollar-beer and half price pina colada’s! We ate dinner during the sunset as the temple areas turned dark and the lights on boats came on. Did we ever have an amazing sleep after 3 days of traveling and no bed!

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