South East Asia, Uncategorized

Running Amok and Bamboo bridges: Siem Reap and Kampong Cham

After a long day and a big drinking session the previous night I was a bit slow to start, but I pulled myself together by 9:30 am for our Cambodian cooking school. Our teacher, Sim, was a chef at a local restaurant, so we met him there and he escorted us through the food market, pointing out as we walked through the assorted spices and ingredients we’d be using. The markets were packed, with tight corridors next to tables piled with vegetables and fruit. The markets were loud and claustrophobic, and got doubly so when you got to the meat section, with chickens and fish being gutted and filleted on the spot.

Luckily, Sim already had the ingredients we’d be using, so we followed him out of the markets and a couple of streets away to his home, where we would prepare our meals in a little pergola that he had set up for his school. We started with an entree of fresh spring rolls, very similar to the ones you get in Australia, though the Ines rolled by the pros usually look better than mine. We followed that with our main course, Amok curry fish. Amok is a specialty Cambodian curry, with strong flavours of lemongrass and turmeric, but the signature ingredient is the Amok leaf, a large leaf that grows here and is sliced and added late in the cooking process. The yellow curry is traditionally served in a folded banana leaf bowl, so our hosts provided them for us to spoon our curry into. Pretty damn good. Our dessert was a bit simpler, bananas fried in butter with passion fruit pulp, honey and coconut milk. Very sweet, but really tasty.

After our cooking class, Sim presented us with a recipe book and a certificate of completion, and we went on our way to explore the markets, grabbing a couple of souvenirs and some postcards. We met back at our hotel for our trip to the floating village of Kampong Phluk.

Floating village near Siem Reap #nofilter #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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Many communities in Cambodia live on the river in stilt houses, which are normal villages in the dry season and entirely water based in the monsoon. We took a bus to the edge of lake Tonle Sap (largest lake in Asia) along a road that was underwater for a large chunk of the year and boarded a rickety wooden tourist boat to go to the village. Motoring past mangroves and fishing nets, we approached the village and docked near the local temple, which was raised high above the water. The village was pretty busy, and the afternoon school was just breaking for the day so there were kids everywhere, running and chattering through the currently dry main street and playing volleyball, which is the most popular sport. The streets were filled with plastic rubbish- apparently during the wet rubbish is thrown into the lake, so come the dry there’s plastic bottles and bags everywhere, but the kids were unperturbed, waving hello and chatting to us in English as we walked through. The locals seemed pretty fine with our presence, and we weren’t hassled by sellers or anything like that- Ly says that this village isn’t the super touristy one, and he visits it to show a bit more of an authentic experience.

After walking down the main street for a bit, we made our way back to the boat to head out to lake Tonle Sap for the sunset. With a cold beer from a seller in a motorboat cruising around, we sat and watched the sun set.

Life’s tough.

After returning home and dinner at a cool Chinese restaurant, kayla and i did one last pass through the night markets and then headed to bed.

The next morning we had another early start, catching a 730 public bus to Kompong Cham. Kompong Cham is a large town further down the Mekong River, and we stopped there after our four hour trip for the night. We had lunch  a little restaurant called Smiles, run by a Buddhist charity that teaches orphans hospitality skills. Despite having to be a little patient with the service, the food was excellent.

After lunch, I hired a bike with some of the group from the hotel (Kayla stating that she’d rather watch from the pub with a cold cocktail) and we went across to an island nearby. The island is accessed by a bamboo bridge, that is completely rebuilt each year after the monsoon season sweeps it away. The monsoon season ending only a month or two ago, the bridge was currently incomplete, so we rode our fixed gear bikes with their baskets on the front down to a wooden ferry and joined the locals with their scooters for the short trip to the completed section.

We rode along the bridge (clack clack clack clack) and up a sandy hill to the island village, stopping for a thousand riel bottle of water, and then along the flat dirt and concrete roads past the houses and buildings. We waved and shouted hello to children as we rode, and they ran to the street for high fives. After riding for ten to fifteen minutes, we stopped to examine the crops. The island grows lots of sesame, corn and beans, and is run as a cooperative for the residents. We also stopped at the local temple and Ly explained the burial rites, which we’d heard the chanting of that morning in Siem Reap. When the father of a family dies, the oldest son is expected to become a monk for a time in his honour, and lives for a couple of weeks in a monastery. Much of the education in the small villages is provided by the monks, and many people become monks for a few years to further their education.

We also inspected the town’s dragon boat, recently returned from the water festival. These long 80 man boats are owned by the village, and they compete through regional competition to win a place at the big races in Phnom Penh. The prize money, provided by the government, is decent, and the bragging rights for winning are nothing to sneeze at.

We continued our ride through the island, cruising through leafy streets, and stopped at a stall overlooking the lake for grapefruit with chilli and salt, washed down with sugar cane juice. As the sun started to set, we rode back down the hill to the bridge, and watched the sun set as we waited for the ferry with the locals

Life’s really tough guys.

Stray observations

-Worst thing I’ve eaten so far: at a rest stop between Siem Reap and Kompong Cham I ate a local soup made from stuffed bitter melons. Not a nice flavour, so I added a lot of chilli and soldiered it down. Kayla had one of the other options, which on closer inspection appeared to be a ginger and offal stir fry. She did not finish it.

– Best thing? Guys, I am an Amok pro. Just ask me. I have the spices for it so hopefully I can get them back through customs.

-Weirdest thing? This:

On the road from Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh there’s a village that’s famous for being the spider and bug eaters, and no sooner than hearing this story did we notice that across from the bus stop was a lady selling crickets and spiders to east.  I decided to bite the bullet, or spider as it were, and grab one to eat on the spot, much to the alternating disgust and fascination of the rest of the tour group. It was cooked in a soy and chilli sauce, and once I’d psyched myself up a bit I ate it. Pretty good actually, a little bit crunchy and with a nice meaty inside. I’d recommend trying it, and as of writing this an hour or two later I’ve kept it down.

UPDATE: just went to spider village. Tried the crickets, the spider was better.

UPDATE UPDATE: Ants for lunch!

Lunch: chilli, beef, ginger, soy, garlic…red ants #Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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– The Mekong: the Mekong is the lifeblood river that runs through Cambodia, though it actually runs through 6 countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Chinese are planning to dam the river in 7 places upstream for hydroelectricity generation, but the other five countries are understandably concerned by this, citing already lower water volumes from the 3 completed dams. Given that something like 55 million people rely on the Mekong in the region, watch this space: it’ll be a bone of contention for a long time.

– Tour Joke: whoever is being eaten alive is the Jam Boy for the rest of the group. Apparently a real thing, look it up.

-Ly is number 9 in a family of 13, and grew up in a village very similar to Kampong Phluk near Phnom Penh. Of all his siblings, a couple of his brothers have died, and he’s one of the only two who were sent to school, which costs a bit of money (enrollment free, everything else costs). He’s the only one of his family who finished high school, and he says he has 58 nieces and nephews, whom he can’t keep track of. Ly has been in the industry for 14 years, working his way up from waiter to tour leader. Super nice guy

South East Asia, Uncategorized

Borders and big temples: Cambodian border and Angkor Wat

Welcome to Cambodia #SandKinSEA

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I have to say, Cambodia doesn’t make the best first impression.

We met our tour group and Ly (Lee) the tour leader on our second night in Bangkok. A mixture of Canadians, other Australians, Kiwis and a token Englishman, we had a good group dinner before heading to bed for our 6:30am start. We boarded a couple of vans for our drive to Poi Pet, leaving before 7 to avoid the worst of the traffic on the freeway. Our Thai driver also introduced us to the concept of the “Happy loo,” the local euphemism for a toilet stop. We left Bangkok, driving through mostly flat areas past rice paddies. After a coffee stop, where we filled out our Cambodian visas, we drove straight for our crossing at Poi Pet. The crossing is a bit of a dump: after leaving the vans, we had to walk through a hot, dusty and rubbishy market to get to the Thai border control. At least the queue area on the thai side was air conditioned, and we made it through fine.

On the Cambodian side, the first thing you see is a casino, or rather several of them, right on the border. Apparently gambling is outlawed in Thailand, so the Cambodian border is a bit of a haven for Thai tourists. Not for locals, as they can’t gamble there (similarly banned), but the casinos also cater for large volumes of Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists. We walked past the casino in the heat and dust to the Cambodian immigration booth, which was basically a tin shed, slow and low tech. It took a long time to process everyone through, and we sweated until everyone made it through. We boarded a shuttle bus to the bus station, transitioned over with our luggage, and we were on our way.

We stopped at a local restaurant for lunch, eating Khmer curries as our first local cuisine. The bus then took the flat, flat road to Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat town.

Siem Reap is a big town primarily tourism focused, and as such it has great infrastructure and lots and lots of bars, restaurants and markets. After checking into our hotel (pretty basic but clean) we headed into town for tea. The streets of Siem Reap are buzzing, with street food vendors selling everything from fruit, smoothies, satay and ice cream all the way up to one someone spotted selling cooked snakes and spiders (my encounter with which is coming later). Siem Reap also has a number of night markets selling souvenirs, and you can haggle and negotiate deals with the locals pretty well (I haven’t seen it in action yet, but one of our Canadian ladies is apparently a killer negotiator). We made our way to a pretty touristy bar, and over a couple of beer towers we ate Cambodian food including the curry Amok, which I’ll talk about next entry. Others were going to party on, but given our four am start the next morning Kayla and I called it a night, stopping only by a market stall so I could buy a sun hat.

We met out the front of the hotel at 4:30, some of us fairly bright while others (including the aforementioned Englishman) a bit worse for wear. Our bus and tour guide (Mr Chanphallin) picked us up and we were on our way to Angkor Wat, which is six or seven kilometres out of the city to the north. After purchasing our tickets (including a photo pass) we walked across a stone bridge in the dark, finding our way by torchlight while in the distance we could see a looming silhouette. Ly and Mr Chanphallin led us to the edge of a pool where lots of tourists had already staked out a spot, and we waited with our cameras at the ready.

Angkor Wat, pre dawn #SandKinSEA #intrepid17

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The sun rose slowly, first lighting the sky behind the ruin, and over the next 45 minutes we saw the towers of Angkor Wat gradually resolve themselves, reflecting in the pool to give a lovely symmetrical picture. Despite having to elbow and negotiate with a couple of tourists, we managed to get a pretty good view of the sunrise as it came over the ruin and lit up the reflection in the pool.

After a breakfast break, we were ready to explore the temple. Angkor Wat is the largest temple in the whole complex, and is massive. We entered through an ancient gate house, and wandered through a forested path before we reached the temple proper. The temple is built on three levels, on a base of sand, pumice and sandstone, and all of the stones for the entire temple complex were lifted into place by hand or by using elephant power. Crazy. We explored the first level, which has a number of incredibly detailed bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, including deadly sins and their punishment and the story from the Ramayana called the churning of the sea of milk, which is a recurring motif in many of the temples here. We climbed up to the second level, a stone plaza decorated with many carvings of Apsaras, dancing spirits that are associated with clouds and water. The top level is inaccessible at the moment, but the towers are incredibly impressive from the second level, intricately carved with more figures. We wandered around for a good forty five minutes, before exiting back across the causeway that we’d walked so early that morning.

Pretty amazing.

The entrance to Angkor Thom #SandKinSEA #intrepid17

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We boarded our bus, heading for the nearby temple city of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is massive, about 3 km from the cardinal point aligned gates. The gate of Angkor Thom all cross the most, and the bridges all have representations of good and evil aligned forces wrestling over a large serpent- the naga- as part of the churning of the sea of milk legend. The statues on the bridge have been partially restored, with many having replacement heads and limbs based off of castings of the original. The actual gate, large enough to drive a bus through, is flanked by very eroded statues of 3 headed elephants, and the gate is capped by a massive 4 faced Buddha- the bodhisattva, a representation of compassion and resembling the commissioning king, Jayavarman VII.

Buddha faces at the Bayon in Angkor Thom #SandKinSEA #intrepid17

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These 4 faced gates would give us a taste of what would lay inside Angkor Thom. The central temple of the complex, Bayon (buy-juhn) is alternately named the temple of the smiling Buddha, and with good reason. It is covered with bodhisattva carvings, the 4 faces aligned to cardinal points, and no matter where you are within the temple you can see them, smiling serenely. We climbed to the top level of the temple, taking photos and marvelling at the faces, all exquisite, all identical. It’s my favourite of the three we visited.

The other thing Bayon is famous for is the western carving, a large wall that depicts a naval battle with the Vietnamese army, and also depicting scenes from daily Khmer life, including farming, fishing, drinking, washing, and gambling on cockfights. It’s massive, and like all of the stone carvings in the whole Angkor complex the craftsmanship is amazing.

After lunch, we headed to our third temple, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is also known as the jungle temple, as it was chosen early in the Angkor exploration by the French that it would be kept in the state in which they discovered it. That doesn’t mean it’s been allowed to crumble, as even when we were there there was a construction crew on site repairing and reinforcing the remaining structure. For the most part though, the temple is moss covered and crumbled, with large trees (cottonwood and strangler vines) growing throughout and over the structure. You get a sense that without the maintenance it gets currently, it would be swallowed up entirely.

After a long hot day of temples, we left the complex, though you could easily spend a week visiting all the sites. It’s well deserved its recognition as a world heritage site, and it’s stunning. Do it.

Stray observations

– sure, if the toilets are OK it’s a happy loo. If not, sad loo, but still better than a happy bus, which would be happy for about ten seconds before becoming an inconsolable bus

-Thailand drives on the left, Cambodia on the right. At the border, this transition is a logjam.

– a note on currencies: the Riel, the Cambodian money, is pretty worthless, so you have to work in two currencies. Most purchases are made in US dollars, but any sub 1 dollar purchases are given as change in Riel. at a rate of 4000 Riel to the dollar, and Riel notes starting at 100, your fat stacks of cash are probably less valuable than monopoly money.

– Tuk Tuks: a Cambodian tuk tuk is actually a different design than a Thai one. In Thailand, the tuk tuk is essentially a 3 wheeled motorcycle with a canopy running all over the passengers and driver, and seat 2 passengers. In Cambodia, they’re bigger, with the driver in the open and a larger enclosure in the back that seats up to four passengers. We caught lots of them in Siem Reap, at a rate of about a dollar per passenger

– Horns: one thing we’d noticed in Thailand was that despite the chaotic traffic, there was very little honking. Apparently in Thailand it’s pretty rude to blare the horn and as such is only used in emergencies. In Cambodia they’re a bit more liberal in their use, honking when overtaking scooters on the road.

– to the guy taking pictures of Angkor Wat at dawn with only your iPad camera, I officially hate you. A phone I understand (and used), but if you’re going to drag an iPad around totake pictures just buy a damn camera.


– Business idea number one: one of the Canadian blokes reckons if you created a harness that let you carry around a fresh coconut to drink from you’d make millions. Probably millions of Riel.

– interesting note on Bayon: construction on Bayon was begun under a Hindu king, mostly finished under a Buddhist king, whose face adorns the temple, and completed under his successor, a Hindu. This means there are several areas in Bayon where representations of the Buddha have been struck off

-Children: a lot of children are around, Cambodia being a very young country. Schooling is technically free- to enrol. All of the other expenses, however, such as food, materials, uniforms, classroom resources and even payment for most teachers and some specific lessons must be borne by the family, so many children still do not attend. This also means you see a lot of children selling souvenirs etc, to which I’ve only caved once. I did hear one kid trying to sell the magnets others were selling for $1 at $10 a pop, and I figure if he can make that sale he deserves the money

-Ta Prohm is also known as the Tomb Raider temple, having been used (along with a few other sites in the area) as a set for the 2001 Angelina Jolie film. Not only was Jolie not there when we were there, our tour guide said she didn’t adopt him. To be fair, he was in his 40s.


South East Asia

A collective noun for Buddha: Adelaide to Bangkok

18th and 19th November

4am is an awful time of morning, but generally we an understanding: I don’t see it and it doesn’t see me. When either of us break that detente, however, it’s usually not pretty. So it was this time, when we woke up for or 6am flight at mine and trudged over to the airport. I figured I needed only be awake enough to get on the plane to Bangkok in Sydney, so I endured (reading) through the first flight and we landed safely in that place with the bridge. After a brief hold up at security we made the next flight and were on our way proper. Flight was pretty smooth, and as good as these things are, so at 3pm Bangkok time we touched down. From the air we could see the water as we approached, the rice paddies and canals visible from the air, and the humidity was palpable as soon as we landed. Cleared customs and collected baggage without a hitch, and made it to the taxi rank. After a brief moment t of discussion with the taxi driver, Kayla’s printed google maps coming in handy, we were in the seatbelt free back of the taxi getting our first glimpse of Bangkok. It’s a very flat city, mostly just above water level, and from the freeway we could see a mixture of skyscrapers, shanty towns, apartments and temples. We made it to our (very nice) hotel, greeted with blessed air-conditioning and a cold glass of juice while we checked in. After unpacking and settling a little we decided the hotel restaurant was good enough, and I had an authentic Thai green chicken curry. We went for a walk around the area just to stretch our legs, stocked up on supplies at the neighbouring 7/11, and crashed before that bastard 4am took his revenge.

The next morning we had a free day until 6pm, so we decided to explore Bangkok. After a breakfast in the hotel we geared up and set out, heading south down Sim Sen road towards the grand temple. On the way, our first landmark was the democracy monument. Erected in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 constitutional change that ostensibly brought democracy to Thailand, the monument is at the centre of a large Arc de Triomphe style roundabout- indeed, the French Arc is one of the acknowledged inspirations. Of course, as with many such monuments to democracy, the term was probably pretty loosely applicable to Thailand at the time, but hey, it was a start.

We headed another block or so south to see the Giant Swing, a large frame originally used in Hindu ceremonies, which stands outside a temple of another kind. Wat Suthatthepwararam ( which my tablet autocorrect hates) is one of the royal temples of Bangkok, constructed by 3 successive kings in the 19th Century and containing a large golden statue of Buddha, seated, as well as a large number of other Buddha statues. It still being early in the morning, we had the place largely to ourselves, and were able to spend a lot of time admiring the murals and statuary in the complex.

River boat cruise! #SandKinSEA

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We continued on our way to the grand temple, but were waylaid by a couple of friendly locals (this is probably a schtick, by the way, that we played along with a little too readily) who informed us that the grand temple would be busy and only accessible to thai residents until about 12, so in the meantime we should check out a river boat cruise. He was probably getting a kick back here somewhere, but it seemed OK, so we caught a tuk tuk down to the pier (Kayla had now checked tuk tuk off the bucket list) and paid for a canal boat ride to another temple, Wat Khun Chan. These long boats, low and with an outboard motor, were everywhere on the water, and we cruised for about twenty minutes through canals to the temple, this one known for its twenty metre high Buddha (which was cool, I guess, but the temple was not as impressive as Wat Suthatthepwararam. We looked around for a little while before jumping back on the boat for another 25 minutes, which took us past more canalside houses (many pretty rough and in disarray- unlike most cities, waterfront property in Bangkok is not the domain of the cashed up) before crossing back to the main dock, bringing us out in close proximity to the grand temple, Wat Pho.

The giant Buddha statue at Wat Pho temple in Bangkok #SandKinSEA

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Wat Pho is one of the largest temples in Thailand, dating back to the 1700s, and is known primarily for the Reclining Buddha, a giant status (15m high and 43m high) of Buddha reclining on his side. The thing is massive, and it’s housed in its own building, which I think is actually to it’s detriment- it’s hard to get a sense of the whole thing except from the ends. When you do get close though, it’s impressive- oddly sleek and simple in its depiction, covered in gold and encrusted with glass mosaics, its feet also have a frieze depicting 108 Buddhist symbols inlaid in mother of pearl.

It also has long toes and toe prints, which were pretty cool.

More from Wat Pho temple #SandKinSEA tomorrow long bus trip!

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After taking in the giant Buddha statue, we expired the temple grounds of Wat Pho, which contains many cultural artifacts and writings- it is considered the home of Thai massage, and spiritual and herbal medicine texts, written on make tablets throughout the grounds are on a UNESCO world cultural heritage list. The grounds also contain many more Buddhas (Buddhi? Buddhases?) and statues of various Buddhist figures, as well as many elaborately carved or mosaic covered pagodas. After wandering for a while, that prick 4am came back for another round, so we caught another tuk tuk back to the hotel for a rest, so we’d be awake enough to meet our tour group at 6pm.

Stray observations

– food has been very good, and cheap. As has the beer, but I’ve actually been trying out a Thai soft drink range, which is sparkling tea varieties with flavors like lemon lime and been apple and kiwi. Could catch on

– Thai people have been lovely

– a reclining Buddha is a recurring image in Buddhism, and represents the Buddha in his final illness before death and his ascension to parinirvana (which autocorrect also hates), the nirvana which follows death. Or so the internet tells me.

– speaking of Buddha, I cut my foot while shoeless at Wat Suthatthepwararam. Nothing serious, bandaid took care of it, but I’ve never associated Buddhism with blood sacrifice. At least not until now.

Next time: Angkor Wat

South East Asia

Cobwebs and Cambodia

App behaving and WiFi willing, I’ll be resuming my travel blog here next Tuesday for my trip to Cambodia! The entries will an be under the South East Asia category linked at the to of the entry, so if you’d like to play along at home follow that tag on here. See you next week!