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I heart Cambodia PART TWO

Jun 20, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Uncategorized

(By Cori) Cambodia continued….after our time in Battambang in December 2011 we headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and left there in time to spend New Year’s on the coast in a seaside fishing town called Kep.  These final two weeks in Cambodia continued to convince me that I was in a very special country.  Read on!
 
Phnom Penh turned out to be, unexpectedly, a really memorable city

Usually we end up disappointed by capital cities when we’re traveling…they either are not tourist-friendly, too polluted, crowded, may not be safe, and just don’t have a great vibe or cozy feel.  Yet Phnom Penh ended up being a very enjoyable place to pass 3-4 days. Why?
 
We made a new friend. While waiting for our bus in Battambang we started chatting with a guy who looked like he was either Canadian or American (we were right – he was from Denver Colorado). Thom turned out to be a kindred spirit and we happily shared life and travel stories all the way to Phnom Penh and then Thom told us to pick a place for dinner and he’d treat us that night. WHAT?! We were so surprised and also super excited…this would be the first time during our travels (10 months at this point) that we’d actually be eating at a nice restaurant and not giving thought to budget. Yay! After an amazing night of food and beers and lots of personal, professional, and travel stories, we were all fast friends and spent the next two days sightseeing and dining together.  You meet a lot of people while traveling, less I suppose when you’re a part of a couple but still a good amount, yet being a picky person in general, it’s not often that I want to spend extensive time (usually a few hours is enough) with new people, or have any urge to follow up on a conversation that was started. Happily, Thom was different and joined a short list of people that I’ve met during my travels who I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to keep in touch post-trip.


 

We ate well.  Phnom Penh, catering to tourists and expats alike, has an abundance of restaurants to choose from – from the very budget conscious to the gourmet foodie, featuring cuisines from all over the world. Who knew? We had our first taste (literally) of this at the dinner Thom treated us to at a lovely restaurant called FISH where we feasted on salmon, snapper, and all sorts of yummy fishy appetizers that I can’t recall now.  Dinner for another two nights in a row (yes, shameful but we couldn’t help it) was at CANTINA, a Mexican restaurant that for the first time in all our travels, produced exceptional Mexican food. Homemade chips, guacamole, and amazing beer battered fish tacos made us instant fans. But our favorite meal? Our last day in the city while we were waiting for our bus to Kep we were searching for a quick and easy lunch close to the bus terminal where we could stow our big bags and have a cheap meal. Most of the restaurants that fit the bill were Chinese, and the one we stumbled into had friendly staff that greeted us with waves and smiles and our waiter cheerfully gave us menus that were in Chinese only (but had pictures!) and pantomimed that we should point at things we wanted. We ended up ordering what seemed like dumplings of some sort, a plate of string beans, and a plate of some tofu saucy dish. Sounds bland, right? Well when they came out we realized that we were in for Chinese family style dining with a big bowl of rice in the middle of the table and individual small bowls to scoop in rice and a portion of the main dishes. It was beyond delicious – the highlight for me were the crunchy string beans with a garlic sauce that was so unbelievably good I ate probably 80+ beans. A totally unexpected experience and one that set us up well for our bus ride to Kep.


 

We went to fun markets. We had read about the Russian Market (so called because of its popularity among Russian expats during the 1980s) and heard it was a great place to get cheap designer goods and souvenirs so we figured we had to go. It was set up as most markets are, with narrow and dark aisles absolutely overflowing with vendor stalls. What was for sale ranged from hardware to cosmetics to food (both raw and prepared), clothing, souvenirs, you name it! I was in search of high quality goods and got lucky when we found a stall selling crocodile skin accessories. Very unlike me, but I fell for a crocodile wallet and Brandyn managed to bargain down to a mere fraction of what I would’ve paid at home. The vendor wasn’t happy about it which meant we had gotten a good deal. With my fun purchase out of the way it was time to move on to checking off an item on Brandyn’s ‘to do’ list – trying durian. For those not in the know, durian is a big fruit (maybe the size of a small watermelon) with a spiky exterior that has a reputation for being really really stinky – like a very ripe bleu cheese or old gym socks.  In many places (like hotels) its banned. Literally – there are signs with pictures of durian and an X through it. So OF COURSE we had to try it, and we had been on the lookout for a small piece of durian that we could purchase, but most markets only sold the whole thing, which was a waste since we only wanted a tiny slice and we certainly couldn’t bring the rest of it home since it was banned in our hotels. But we got lucky at the Russian market! We found a fruit vendor that was willing to slice off a chunk of durian for us, and the second she put the knife to the flesh whoo-whee you could smell that! We carried our little styrofoam-packed bundle out to the street and opened it up. Fleshy, pale yellow fruit in a weird bloated oval shape – unappealing. We all tried it (me, Brandyn and Thom) and agreed it wasn’t worth all the drama but it was an unusual fruit. It was creamy and tasted a bit sharp (kind of like it smelled) but it was the texture really that I didn’t like. Very slimy yet firm, hard to describe but not a sensation I had before.



 

But the market fun wasn’t over! Brandyn was tired of shopping so went back to the hotel to rest and Thom and I pressed on, visiting Central Market with a goal of buying fun jewelry. Well, we did it. We were greeted with rows upon rows of glass-encased displays of gemstones…loose ones, earrings, rings, necklaces, everything! It was totally overwhelming but I quickly zeroed in on a few cases and chose a huge aquamarine ring and a pair of pink ruby studs. The super friendly staff bent over backward to convince me the gems were real (not that I really cared- it was cheap and fun to shop). Part of their spiel was to pull out a small hand-held machine that they focused on the gem in question and pressed a button and some special light went off and beeped alerting me that it was a real gem. They then passed the machine over a fake gem (which looked the same) and the machine made a wah-wah noise or something to tell me ‘not real’. Sigh. No matter, I got some shiny jewelry for less than $30 so I was happy.
 

We watched group exercising. Along the banks of the Mekong River there was a wide promenade/walkway that was a good spot for gazing at the river, the French colonial buildings and restaurants across the Boulevard, or the groups of locals exercising (one of my favorite sights).  I had become accustomed to seeing pairs of older people wearing track suits and walking slowly around a park, swinging their arms energetically, or doing a graceful Tai Chi routine, but the sight in Phnom Penh was a bit unique. There were about 4 groups of maybe 20 people each out along the promenade. Each group had a leader (my favorite was a young man in tight jeans, tank top and sideways hat) and a giant boombox (yep, old school kind) and was leading the group in a sort of random aerobic dancing routine that involved a lot of movement, but yet so slow that it didn’t seem like it would cause anyone to break into a sweat. Totally out of synch with the upbeat pop or rap music playing, but everyone was having a good time – from kids to the pretty darn old – and it had a wonderful communal feel to it. We debated for a moment joining in, but opted for dinner instead.
 

We learned a lot about Cambodian history. All cities should ideally present opportunities for visitors to learn about that country’s (or city’s) history and experiences, and typically that takes the form of a museum or a city tour that features a few prominent cultural and governmental buildings. But in Phnom Penh we were impressed in what they had to offer by way of a history lesson.  Two of the first things we did in this city were visit the Killing Fields (or Choeung Ek in Khmer) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Center or S-21 prison camp. These are important historic sites serve to educate visitors as well as memorialize victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
 
The Killing Fields were a 30 minute tuk tuk ride outside of the city and the three of us (Brandyn, Thom and I) were not entirely sure what to expect.  It is one of many places throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of people (I think 17,000 at this specific site) and left them in mass graves.  The area is now essentially a memorial, and looks like a wide field with various signage where old buildings used to be, and indentations in the earth where the graves were/are.  The self audio tour was perfect, allowing us to move around at our own pace listening to the explanations of various locations on the site and also some survivor stories. It was all quite emotional and I was thankful that there was shady space to sit and reflect, and ironically, absorb the horrors of what you were learning about in a quite serene environment. I had a heavy heart throughout most of the audio tour, just finding my mouth dropping open at the descriptions of the mass executions and the barbaric ways the Khmer Rouge had of killing its own citizens. I will never look at a palm tree the same way again after learning that the stems (which if you look closely have razor sharp edges all along the side) were a ‘cheap’ method for slitting people’s throats (no need to waste bullets). We also learned that after it rains you can still see bits of bone, teeth, and fragments of clothing that are washed up out of the ground…which we did. Chilling. The memorial stupa was an impressive site – a tall glass sided Buddhist stupa  that houses the categorized remains of victims that have been excavated from the Fields – maybe about 8,000 skulls in all, arranged by age and gender and body part…skulls on one shelf, arm bones on another, etc. The sheer volume of the place just made you stop and stare and think.






 

Our trip to the S-21 prison proved to be just as educational and shocking/horrifying as the Killing Fields. The prison is located in central Phnom Penh at the site of a former high school that was taken over and turned into a prison in 1975. Here the Khmer Rouge took innocent citizens, labeled them as political prisoners and tortured them (often in the form of interrogations to try to get them to admit they worked for the CIA – what??!!), and then those that didn’t die in the prison were often sent to the Killing Fields to be executed. Few survived. We hired a guide to help us better understand the prison and its place in Cambodian history. He took us to visit several cells that literally made me queasy. They were bare for the most part, with a rusty metal cot, some chains, and usually several blood stains (real) on the walls and/or floor. To illustrate what happened in the cells, most of them had an enlarged photograph on the wall of a victim in the aftermath of some type of torture. This was probably the worst thing I had seen…because they were real photographs and you couldn’t even in some cases recognize that it was a human on the metal cot because they were so disfigured or bloody. We also saw hundreds of ‘mug shots’ that were on display; all prisoners were photographed upon arrival to S-21 and some of them had their prisoner number safety pinned to them – through their skin, not their clothes. And many of them were young! Even worse was knowing that they were all innocent people just living their lives and then captured and corralled into prison by a completely wacko regime.  And this was happening between the time that I was born and turned 3. I was really thrown off by that – thinking about parallel lives and what I was doing and my parents were doing at the time that Cambodians were being slaughtered. Unreal.
 
A high point for me of visiting the S-21 prison was meeting 2 of the survivors. On January 7, 1979 when Vietnamese forces seized Phnom Penh and overthrew Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, there were 7 surviving prisoners at S-21. These individuals had escaped death because they had skills that their captors believed to be useful (for example, one prisoner was an artist and was forced to draw portraits of Pol Pot). Two of these men were at the prison selling (and signing) books about their experience and greeting visitors. Our guide introduced us to one and translated for us as he described his time at S-21. I was incredibly moved…this man had bright expressive eyes and a friendly face and though he was speaking Khmer he was making eye contact with me and speaking as if we had a connection. He was showing us his fingernails that had been removed as a form of torture and it was hard to look at him without tearing up at all he had been through. Absolutely emotional.



 
While visiting Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng wasn’t the happiest or most fun part of our time in Phnom Penh, it was definitely the most important and made me feel connected to Cambodia in a way that no country to date has.
 

Crabs, pepper and new beginnings

For New Year’s we wanted to be somewhere totally relaxing and not be in a city so we took a bus to the Cambodian coast.  Quick highlights…
 
THE BAD: BEACHES The beaches at Kep are bad. Well, the beach at Kep is bad. It’s just one sad lonely strip of sand that is dark yellow and off a major (though still quiet) road, with no chairs, nowhere to change, and no cozy palm trees to sit under. The water was dark blue, and not that inviting looking, in spite of how ridiculously hot it was. There were a few locals playing around and wading in the water but it hardly was what you would call a tourist draw.


 

Here’s the thing about beaches: you never know whose opinion to trust about them. Throughout our travels we’ve had lots of people telling us that beach X or beach Y was so gorgeous and we’d get there and it would be mediocre at best. I’m a beach snob.  A beach isn’t a good beach until it has turquoise crystal clear water and white sand. We have had people tell us about a number of beaches on this trip and many of them have been just okay. Ko Lanta in Thailand, Mui Ne in Vietnam, Palolem in Goa…we went to all three of those with high expectations and were disappointed by the beach and the water and (in some cases) the atmosphere.  So we were skeptical about going to Kep and in some ways, rightly so.
 

THE GOOD: CRABS Apart from the beach, everything at Kep was awesome. The focal point of the town (for us anyway) was the Crab Market, where  every day at the pier you can find women hoisting crab traps out of the water and a market area where locals are buying and selling crabs, grilled squid or sting ray on sticks, different fruits, sauces/spices, and tons of other fishy-smelling but unrecognizable stuff.  Next to the pier is a row of rustic restaurant shacks that hang over the water and sell DELCIOUS food at bargain prices. Nothing better than sitting at a little wooden table staring at the sea, ignoring the stray dog sniffing at your legs and digging into a huge pile of meaty, perfect little crabs with kampot pepper (a local specialty) for $5.





 

THE FUN: NEW YEARS It was a strange New Year’s Eve but a good one. We wanted to kick off the night by going to the Crab Market for happy hour sunset watching but our timing was off and by the time we left our guesthouse we realized we were not going to have time to walk. Luckily, a passing motorcycle offered us a ride and we awkwardly squeezed all 3 of us on and zoomed off. Try and picture it if you will: This was a standard small motorbike and  we had a smallish man driver, then me literally with my breasts pressed up super tight against him, and then Brandyn (who is a giant in comparison to most people in Cambodia), trying to stay on the back and not have his feet drag on the ground. Definitely got a few looks from people on our way to the Market but for $1 it was a bargain ride.
 
We luckily caught the sunset and enjoyed a few beers and rounds of cards, and then moved on to another restaurant on the water and ordered what else but CRABS. We were planning to head back to our hotel to rest before heading out to some party closer to midnight but then loud booming music caught our attention and changed our plans. Next to the restaurants on the pier there were huge speakers set up playing terrible music at a deafening level, but there were a bunch of locals (mainly kids) dancing to it so it was a fun people watching moment. We decided (read: I insisted and Brandyn acquiesced) to stay and watch for a while so we bought a bottle of Jim Beam ($10!) and a few cans of Coca-Cola and made some classy budget drinks. It wasn’t long before a dancing woman approached us and pulled us to our feet, so we asked a nearby couple (travelers) to babysit our bottle of Jim Beam and we were led to the dance floor where we let loose to a random mix of super loud songs. Once the initial bout of self-consciousness was brushed aside, it was liberating to be swirling around among kids, adults, locals, and a few travelers. The mood was upbeat, everyone was laughing and having fun and I have to say it is probably the most fun I’ve had on New Years.
 
Later that night we went to a nearby hotel that was having a New Year’s party. While there wasn’t really an official countdown, there were fireworks, or rather, there were loud firecrackers that gave off some light being set off all around the pool so that the air was super smoky and the local dogs were freaking out and barking and running in circles around the fireworks. Not really our scene, but we did the requisite midnight kiss and then retreated to our guesthouse to sleep, lulled by the beat of the music which didn’t stop until 6am. A memorable way to bring in 2012!





 

THE BEST: RELAXATION Our final days in Cambodia before we crossed over into Vietnam were spent relaxing, which was nice after a lot of touristy activities in Phnom Penh and Battambang. Kep is a small, sleepy town with not too much going on  – there are no museums to visit and few sites to see so it’s a great place just to be. We spent most of our days reading or writing or researching Vietnam on one of the decks of our awesome hotel (The Boat House – which is not on the water and has nothing to do with boats but is a beautiful and airy guesthouse with fantastic staff). Every day the staff would ask what our plans were that day and while we felt a little dumb saying “um, just sitting here” that was the truth! Since we weren’t really on a tight timeline we didn’t feel like we had to rush out and see or do a million things – just soaking up the atmosphere was all we needed. We did take a nice walk through the National Park to get our blood pumping one hot morning, and we also rented a motorbike and zoomed around town a bit, but aside from that and daily walks to the Crab Market we kept things pretty low key.




 

The good thing about all that relaxation is that it made us itchy for a new adventure, so leaving Cambodia to head to Vietnam wasn’t as sad as I thought it would be. We left filled with great memories and a certainty that we would be back. Thank you (Or khun) for an amazing experience Cambodia!


I heart Cambodia PART ONE

Mar 12, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Where two now?

(By Cori) After lounging on Thai beaches for a while, around mid-December we figured a plan was needed for the upcoming holidays and so we decided to head into Cambodia, where prices were bound to be cheaper even in the high season.

Spoiler alert…we loved Cambodia!! We stayed from December 19 to January 6 and could’ve stayed longer, or long-term for that matter. For a country with such a painful past (and a quite recent one at that), we were overwhelmed by the richness of its history and the warmth of its people. We decided on a basic travel route from Bangkok to Siem Reap, then Battambang, Phnom Penh, Kep and on to Vietnam. But more on that later!  Our border crossing story is below, as well as highlights of our time in the first two stops…a part two post will follow shortly.

 

Bangkok to Siem Reap: a train ride and border scam

There is always a bit of anxiety associated with border crossings, as you never can be quite sure what to believe about how to get to, across, and away from borders. It usually requires several transportation combinations as well as vigilance to not fall prey to phony money changers, bribe-seeking officials, taxi touts, etc. After 10 months on the road, we were confident about crossing from Thailand to Cambodia and well informed/prepared about what we’d need to do. No matter what, I’ve found that border crossings tend to be associated with long days, longer lines, lots of carbs, a bit of frustration, a bit more inefficiency, and ultimately a sense of “there has to be a better way to do this.” That being said, our experience was fairly smooth but in retrospect, is also a sort of funny and typical travel tale. Read on for a taste of what we consistently seem to go through…

We left our guesthouse in Bangkok early enough that we needed to wake the staff member sleeping on the lobby floor and have her unlock the front gate.  We then hailed a taxi off the street to go to the train station, after insisting that the taxi driver use the meter (as they are technically required to do) instead of randomly charging us a high tourist rate. Arriving early, we quickly stocked up on crucial travel snacks like bread, peanut butter and water at the station’s mini-mart and splurged on some DELICIOUS freshly made waffles for breakfast.  Yum. Like fried dough, but it felt way healthier since it was in a waffle shape. I had two. On the train we were crammed into very hard and very straight-backed chair/benches (2 people facing 2 people) with an open window for fresh/hot air. The ride was about 4 hours, which wasn’t too bad but sitting the way we were our backs were killing us by the time it was over.

When we got off the train several tuk tuk drivers swarmed around us, offering to take us to the border for about $2-$3. We had read warnings in our guidebooks and heard from others that tuk tuks often take foreigners to a ‘false border’ where they try to sell you a Cambodian visa at an inflated price, so we were on guard. But our driver (a young woman) seemed sincere and nice and took us to an official looking building with many staff members in uniforms who were helpfully shuttling us into the office to get a visa. My first red flag was when the man inside immediately gave us forms to fill out for our visa and I asked what about the Thailand exit stamp (since that always comes first) and he looked a bit taken aback and then said if we wanted he would take us there first and then come back for the visa. What?! That made no sense. Then I asked how much the Cambodian visa was and he quoted a ridiculous price so we immediately knew that we were in the middle of a scam so we got up, loudly said no way, and walked out, warning others on the way that this was NOT the official border. Obviously no one tried to stop us or deny that this wasn’t the official exit/entry point.  How annoying. We were especially irritated (and a bit impressed) with how comprehensive and slick the scam was with the official uniforms and all. Still felt like suckers for falling for it after all the warnings. Argh.

So we walked 5 min more down the road and found the correct official Thailand exit post and line to wait in. Some Cambodian guy who ‘looked’ official (baseball cap and some sort of nametag worn around his neck) asked us where we were from and made a big deal out of shouting “AMERICA!! I KNOW SOMEONE IN CALIFORNIA!!! GOOD COUNTRY!!” and then insisted on personally walking us across the street to the Cambodian entry point which was highly unnecessary but he was super friendly and seemed to want to help.  Even so, Brandyn and I wanted to ditch him…friendly people near borders are never to be trusted (see how jaded we’ve become!) and we didn’t want to face an awkward situation where he would ask for a tip for walking us across the street and giving us information we already knew.

Anyway, the entry point officials charged us the correct fee for a visa $20 USD each but then stuck on an extra 200 baht (for themselves presumably). No explanation, just a matter-of-fact “this is the fee” even though it wasn’t documented anywhere in the office. Oh well, nothing we could do so we paid it. Visa in hand we waited in yet another line to get our entry stamp and YAY we were legally in Cambodia.

Unsurprisingly, our friendly California-loving-official-looking guy was outside waiting for us and led us to a free shuttle bus to go to the bus station (again, unnecessary because the bus was like 50 feet away and its existence wasn’t exactly a secret). Arriving at the bus station our new friend was chatting away about where to change our Thai baht to US dollars (the currency used in Cambodia), and other helpful tidbits.  To get to Siem Reap our options were to pay $9 each for a bus that would take 4 hours, or pay $12 each for a taxi that would take 2 hours, would leave immediately, and would take us directly to our hotel. Yep, we chose the taxi. We met a nice Australian man and his daughter when we were in one of the lines so we decided to share a taxi with them. When our departure was imminent, our helper (who turned out to be a volunteer at the border who helps tourists get oriented) asked for a tip and when Brandyn gave him a dollar he literally was over the moon. We felt a little bit like jerks for trying to get rid of him earlier and thinking he was trying to con us.  This was our first official introduction to the genuine warmth of the Cambodian people.

 

Siem Reap: awe-inspiring ancient ruins meet a touristy backpacker haven

We stayed in Siem Reap for 4 nights and really enjoyed our experience. It has a pretty developed tourist infrastructure due to the fact that EVERYONE comes here and uses the town as a base to explore the nearby Angkor temples. Yeah, its touristy…lots of people selling souvenirs in the streets, night markets, “Pub Street” which is filled with bars and restaurants, tuk tuk drivers asking to drive you somewhere every second…but who cares? It was a nice and comfortable base to explore the area and introduce us to Cambodia. Highlights of our stay there include:

The temples of Angkor: So this is the reason everyone goes to Siem Reap. To paraphrase Lonely Planet, Wikipedia and a few other websites, Angkor (which means city) was the capital of the powerful Khmer empire from the 9th to 13th century and ruled a huge territory. Hundreds of temples were built during this time. They were (are) architectural masterpieces and there is immense Cambodian pride in these ruins. The one you may have heard of is Angkor Wat, the principal temple which is HUGE and is like a labyrinth with beautiful towers and it is nearly impossible to believe it was built by hand. Wow. But my favorite was Bayon, which has enormous stone faces on its towers. It also was one of the temples we visited early in the day so we were practically alone crawling all around the temple and exploring. I also loved Ta Prohm which had big old trees that had grown up and over and through the ruins. We had a LONG day of temple viewing – from sunrise to 1pm and after 8 hours of traipsing through temple after temple we started to get cranky and HOT. But they were super impressive and nothing we have seen since (in terms of ruins) even comes close.







Meeting Sam, our tuk tuk driver: We met Sam on our first night in Siem Reap when we were feasting on fresh shrimp spring rolls and 50 cent draft beers at an outdoor restaurant. He was sitting on his tuk tuk waiting for customers and struck up a conversation with us. He was clearly super proud of Cambodia and of his town and told us about Siem Reap and about the temples. He then, unexpectedly, started talking about the Khmer Rouge and how his family was impacted by their terrible regime. How his mother’s family was separated and his aunts are in France but they lost contact and now have no idea where they are or how to find them. He was matter-of-fact, super sincere and seemed to genuinely want to share information about Cambodia with us. Also, he had just about the best wide grin I’d ever seen. We were happy to spend the night chatting with him and then asked him to be our tuk tuk driver to explore the Angkor temples the following day.

Fish foot massage: Okay, so this is a kinda silly Cambodian memory since it could’ve happened in any other country I suppose. What’s the fish foot massage? A big tank filled with tiny fish (like fat goldfish sized) and cushioned benches around the tank where you sit and dangle your feet in and let the fish eat your dead skin. Sounds fun, right? Our feet were disgusting after so much sandal-wearing on dusty roads and we were in serious need of some foot treatment so after dinner one night when we were walking back to our guesthouse we finally said YES to one of the kids on the street trying to get our business at the massage place. The first second putting your foot in the water is a bit weird since you don’t know quite what to expect and then the fish just swarm around you and start nibbling! It felt ticklish for sure, but once you got over that it felt like tiny, rough (sandpaper rough), pinches and it didn’t feel bad or good. It just was. It was fun to watch them though and to see what part of your foot they went for (seemed to prefer toes, not so much into the calluses on our heels). Half hour massage for $3 and lots of fun pictures was a pretty decent way to end our night.


Silk farm tour: One day we visited Artisans d’Angkor, an artisan vocational training institution, that was originally founded to support and promote Khmer art and culture, and provide jobs to rural youth who were interested in traditional crafts. The grounds are filled with workshops where you can see the artisans in action with their wood carvings, stonework, silk painting, and other crafts. The showroom was GORGEOUS and filled with beautiful textiles and statues and amazingly beautiful and high quality art, nothing of which was appropriate to buy on our backpacker budget. They offered a free shuttle bus to a nearby silk farm where they make their silk for their products. I jumped at the opportunity, leaving Brandyn behind since he had zero interest. Long story short, I was blown away by the tour. The guide walked us through the whole silk making process which was incredibly interesting and gave me an even deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making natural-dyed handwoven silk products. I know that cloth doesn’t come out of thin air, but to actually see the process is eye-opening. I saw silk worms, and learned that they are fed mulberry tree leaves and then spin (silk) cocoons and then are put in the sun to dry out and then the cocoons are put in hot water and strands are pulled off the cocoons with some contraption to make thread and then they are dyed and then woven into gorgeous scarves, shirts, etc. It is such a manual and detail-oriented process and watching the men and women working in the silk factory was just amazing.  Seeing a finished product in the showroom and knowing it started with an ugly worm making its cocoon was a great souvenir for me to take with me.





Discovering fish amok: This is a classic Cambodian dish that we randomly ordered one night in a Khmer restaurant, figuring we had to try it, and it was, happily, DELICIOUS! Fish amok is made from chunks of white fish (or you can get prawns or chicken instead) that are cooked with coconut milk, kaffir lime, chilies, galangal (like ginger) lemongrass, and a few other things and then served in a bowl made of banana leaves. The taste is rich and creamy and so good and unlike any combination of flavors I’ve ever had. Such a great find.

Battambang: a boat ride and a Christmas celebration

You can get to Battambang from Siem Reap by bus (4 hours) or by boat (8 hours). We chose the boat. AHHHH! WHYYY?? Well, it was supposed to be a very scenic ride through narrow waterways and floating villages so we thought it would be interesting. Brandyn is much more into boats than I am, I tend to get bored of them after an hour, but I figured it wasn’t too big of a deal. We had heard that the boats uphold ZERO international safety standards so I was a bit nervous about overcrowding and drowning and those fun things, but we made it through okay. It actually was an okay ride. Good points – passing through floating villages, literally boats and structures that were houses and schools and stores and waving at the little kids along the way. Oh, and the little baby sitting next to us was super cute. Bad points – the hard wooden benches we were sitting on, our proximity to the engine so the noise and smell was overpowering, the man near us that had not one, but TWO seizures while on the boat so we had to helplessly watch his wife and other locals try to revive him by scratching him with their nails and then rubbing tiger balm in the cuts.





Arriving in Battambang we met a nice tuk tuk driver who spoke excellent English.  (“Call me Tea like the drink” he said when we asked what his name was, but I think its spelled Ty). He took us to Lux Guesthouse, a Cambodian owned/run place that had large, lovely rooms for only $11 a night. Yay! We immediately liked the vibe in Battambang. Though its Cambodia’s second largest city it has the feel of a sleepy little town.  There were lots of restaurants around and everything within walking distance, so we felt comfortable.

What did we do in Battambang? A lot centered around things we saw while with Ty, who on two separate days rode us around in his tuk tuk to local places of interest, made all the more interesting by his commentary and explanations, and the beautiful countryside filled with rice paddies, and small villages with houses on stilts. Notable standouts include…

Riding the bamboo train: This literally was a bamboo platform with a small engine on it that runs along the railroad tracks and can quickly be stopped and dismantled and moved if a real train is coming (or another bamboo train) from the opposite direction. Apparently it was ingeniously invented by locals to get to places faster while using existing train track infrastructure. Riding on it was SO FAST so bumpy, even though we were only going like 30 km/hr it felt faster since we were so close to the rails, and each break in the tracks made it feel like we were going to go flying off into the nearby rice paddies.



Learning how rice paper and rice noodles are made: Ty stopped the tuk tuk at a few seemingly random houses that he knew of where the families made rice paper and rice noodles. So cool to see in person how they make the foods we’ve been eating nearly every day and it was yet another reminder of how important rice is to the lives of Cambodians. Rice paper is made from a ground rice/water mixture that is the consistency of thin pancake batter that is spread in a thin circle onto a piece of fabric stretched tight over a boiling water pot, and then once cooked (just a few seconds) is quickly taken off and placed onto a woven bamboo rack and left to dry. It dries hard and with a neat criss-cross pattern, but then you just dip it in water quickly to get it to be soft again (like if you want to make spring rolls). Rice noodles are similar. The rice dough is pressed through some ancient looking lever machine and comes out in spaghetti-ish shapes and then are quickly put in cool water.




Visiting the Killing Caves: This was a solemn experience, but a very important one in terms of introducing us to the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and helping us slowly begin to see what the country had been through. Ty took us to a hill called Phnom Sampeau which we climbed up and first admired several temples (as well as fed bananas to some hungry and friendly monkeys). The hill is also the home of the killing caves, where thousands of innocent Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. It was extremely gruesome, people were brought to the top of the caves, and then bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit and were pushed down the skylight into a deep cave. A few memorials were set up, with skulls and bones displayed in glass cases, and there were still some small pieces of bone and clothing in the area. So horrible to think about and just standing there and picturing the atrocities that had occurred there literally made our stomachs turn. Barbaric. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that all of this had happened after I had been born. Did my parents know about it? Did the world know?  This was just the beginning lesson to a lot of education about the Khmer Rouge during our time in Cambodia.






Seeing an amazing acrobatic performance: So we wanted to go to this “circus” in Battambang that I think is misnamed/mismarketed. The actual Cambodian name is Phare Ponleu Selpak and it is an NGO that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youth learn a range of artistic skills such as painting, acrobatics, theater, music, etc. as well as traditional educational subjects. The organization is quite renowned and has sent several of its students on to Cirque du Soleil. They put on performances a few times a week to raise money for the organization (and hone their skills) and the one we went to blew us away!! Not exactly the dancing bear circus that the name suggests. The performers were ages 16-24 and so talented…there was a 3-student band providing a musical background to a high-energy, well choreographed acrobatics show. These kids were juggling, balancing, and doing crazy acrobatics literally just like Cirque de Soleil. Great showmanship and just fantastic entertainment.  After a tiring and mentally exhausting day at the Killing Caves, it was quite a contrast and very inspiring to see young Cambodians with so much energy and talent and clearly living life to the fullest.


Taking a cooking class: On Christmas morning we took a cooking class offered at a nearby restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot”. There were 8 of us in total and we first went with the chef to the local market to buy fresh ingredients, which was such fun. The market is run by women, all of whom have small stalls on the inside or designated areas on the ground outside where they squat and sell their wares. The chef explained all of the ingredients (some of which didn’t look the way I had pictured them – like lemongrass), and we got to see him bargaining with all of the women for what he wanted. Definitely an experience! We got back to the restaurant and were quickly put to work chopping veggies, grinding spices and such in a giant mortar and pestle and then we moved on to individual work stations/stoves to cook up (and eat) three yummy dishes. We made fish amok, and two other spicy ones that I forget the names of but will remember soon enough since they gave us a recipe book which I sent home.  After our disastrous cooking ‘class’ in India we finally felt redeemed, and got a little bit excited about future dinner parties once we get back to Brooklyn.




Exchanging ‘secret Santa’ gifts: Since it was Christmas after all, we decided to do our own version of “secret Santa” and gave ourselves a $5 and 30 minute limit to buy each other a Christmas gift which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Battambang isn’t a very tourist-oriented town so there weren’t any souvenir shops and the dozens of hardware, electronics and clothing stores didn’t quite have anything appropriate. FINALLY I found a small handicrafts place and bought a pair of bamboo wood chopsticks (which we had been admiring in several restaurants), a loofah made of Cambodian natural products (Brandyn loves them), and then as a final touch, I bought an Angry Birds keychain from a street vendor (we’ve become obsessed with the game on this trip). I was pretty happy with myself! I got back to the hotel and Brandyn was grinning, saying that he got a great gift for me but it wouldn’t be ready for him to pick up until 5pm. Hmmmmm. So that night we went to happy hour at a nearby restaurant and began the gift exchange. I had wrapped my gifts in plastic bags (classy) and Brandyn loved them. Yay! Then he handed me his gift, wrapped in his scarf. It was rectangular and hard…I had no idea what it could be. Then I took off the scarf and saw the back of a picture frame. Oh cool, I thought, he bought some art! I flipped the frame around and couldn’t believe it…I was staring at a professional totally air-brushed photo of Brandyn wearing his bright red Kingfisher beer muscle shirt, doing a double thumbs-up, and standing in front of a wrought iron balcony with fake smoke all around. At the bottom of the photo were the words “Merry Christ Mas 2011 Battambang Cambodia”. LOVED IT!!! We had been passing by tons of photo shops in Cambodia and all of them had these ridiculously posed and overly airbrushed photos of couples and individuals in front of outrageous backgrounds. Like a senior high school photo gone wrong. So Brandyn had played along and gotten a portrait and although it was all really was a big joke to him, he and the staff at the photo store had taken it very seriously  and took about 30 shots of him. Brandyn doesn’t want me to post a big picture of him but I DO have a digital copy so if you want to see it let me know and I’ll share it.

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