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.
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.
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.
-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!
– 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