Monday, January 30, 2012

Khmer cuisine and the state that I am in...

They great couple running the Siem Reap Rooms Guesthouse asked whether we were in an adventurous mood for dinner. So they recommended a place with no English menu and asked their staff to write down the names of the dishes in Khmer. The place was just off the main touristy area of Siem Reap, the waiters spoke no English and we handed them over our menu. This was one of the dishes we ordered:

beef with ants
It was quite dark at the place, so you could not really see what you were eating. Anyway: Beef with ants is delicious, the ants taste slightly sour, almost lemonish. It may just be difficult to recreate the dish at home...

Took another cooking class organized by the Frizz restaurant in Phnom Penh. Here's the menu:

banana flower salad with chicken

fish amok

another version of sticky rice and mango

Finally after a lot of travelling I reached the beach in Sihanoukville and indulged in seafood. It is also the winner of the fastest visa ever issued competition: got my visa for Vietnam in 10 minutes at the Vietnamese consulate there, and that included filling out the forms.

Seafood in Sihanoukville
When the French came to Cambodia they settled in Kep and called it Kep sur mer. The village is situated in the area of Kampot where they grow Kampot pepper. And there's a lot of crab in the sea. Hence the village's signature dish is crab with Kampot pepper. Go to the crab market and order one for $5, they take it right out of the water and serve it to you with green Kampot pepper. It doesn't get any fresher than this!
They also love big concrete statues in Cambodia, almost every roundabout has one. Kep has a crab made of concrete. A blue one.

Crab statue in Kep

Kampot pepper

and Kep's signature dish:

crab with fresh green Kampot pepper

Now regarding the state that I am in:

I don't know what day of the week it is. Sometimes I have to think twice to be sure what town I'm in. Or what the name of the country is. When I get to a new place and walk the streets I look out for familiar faces. Most of the times I find someone I met before. I am not certain if it's kip, riel or dong I'm paying with. I say “No, thank you” without looking what somebody is trying to sell me. It is normal when I pay that the shopkeeper walks out and goes to find a neighbour who can break that 100000 note. I see where the food comes from and eat it anyway. And most of the time it's delicious. Everything less than 10 hours is a short ride on a bus or train. I ask people I've met five minutes ago whether they can watch my bag while I go to the ATM for ten minutes. I travel with people I met two hours ago for the next three days. Whatever is on the table belongs to everyone. We like it. Life is good.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

know your numbers...

o.k. kids, today we'll learn how to count to five in Khmer!

1 - one - muuy

2 - two - pii

3 - three - bai

4 - four - buhn

5 - five - phrum

my high score was six (three adults and three kids) by the way, but unfortunately I did not have my camera ready...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Phantom pain

This is Aki Ra:

Aki Ra

He has been told that he was born in 1973 in the Siem Reap province in north western Cambodia. His parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was 5 years old. The Khmer Rouge took him under their wings and became his new family. He was forced to work for their army, build bombs and lay landmines. At the age of ten Aki Ra had his first AK-47, the Kalashnikov was about the size of himself. When he was fourteen the Vietnamese conquered his village and made Aki Ra part of their own army. From that day he fought with the Vietnamese against his former army, the Khmer Rouge. In 1989 the Vietnamese left Cambodia and Aki Ra joined a third army, the Cambodian army to fight the remaining Khmer Rouge. Finally the UN sent a peacekeeping force to Siem Reap and asked for Cambodians who wanted to help them to clear the country of the millions of landmines. Being an expert in landmines for many years Aki Ra joined the team and from that day on made it the mission of his life to make Cambodia landmine free. He has since defused tousands of them and it is a miracle that he still is in possession of all his arms and legs. Aki Ra is passed his knowledge on and trained the locals in the art of defusing landmines. He is also running the Cambodia Landmine Museum close to the town of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat.

cleared landmines

clean up soap, in the shape of landmines, sold at the Cambodia Landmine Museum, profits go to the Cambodia Self Help Demining organisation

It was at the Cambodia Landmine Museum where I met Stephen. Stephen lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident. After the accident he was suffering from what is called phantom pain, a pain that many amputees are suffering from. It is a pain that is felt in an organ that the person suffering no longer has. The brain sends out signals that make you believe that the missing organs hurts. In search of a way to ease the pain, Stephen discovered mirror therapy. By placing a mirror on one side of the healthy organ you create a reflection of it, so by looking at the mirror image you can trick you brain to believe that the amputated part of the body is no longer missing and thus stop the brain from sending signals that it hurts. It takes practice to achieve the result but when you master the technique it is a effective and cheap way to make the pain go away. Nothing the pharmaceutical industry is interested in since there is no need for painkillers any longer. Stephen is now cycling through countries with landmine victims and brings locally produced mirrors to teach the technique to the victims.

Stephen on his bike touring Cambodia with mirrors

You can find out more about Stephen's mission on his blog Me and my mirror.

Based on Stephen's story a movie has been produced starring German actor Til Schweiger: Phantomschmerz. I don't think I'm gonna watch the movie though. Movies with Til Schweiger give me pain. Physical pain.

Oh, the temples of Angkor Wat, yeah, they are alright. No, quite stunning actually. But see for yourself:

Angkor Wat, early morning

Angkor wat reflections

Pre Rup


Emma, Aidan & Axel do Laracroftistan, photo © Emma

Buddha in Bayan temple
Cambodia kids, all smiles

there's a new gang in town...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Indochina by love bus

Getting from A to B is rather simple:
Most of the guesthouses sell tickets to just about anywhere in the region: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, even a 40+ hour trip by bus to Kunming in China for those hardcore travelers. Tell them you want to go to B and they write you a ticket to B on a random piece of paper. You sometimes wonder how it works since no one checks first whether there are seats available, but it always works. Usually they also arrange pickup from the guesthouse to take you to the bus terminal. Easy. At the bus terminal people shout destinations, you pick yours and miraculously end up on the right bus. And if you arrive there two hours late that is considered on time.

Vientiane is a capital that does not feel like one at all. If it wasn't for all the UN organizations and expats you would not notice this is a capital. I stayed for a night and decided to move on to the south of Laos.
A pick up driver drove me and some other passengers to the southern bus terminal outside of the town. There was no bus. You learn to be patient here. Please don't rush.
When the bus finally pulled up and the luggage was stored away I received the real bus ticket stating that seat 19 was mine. I was expecting a seat, or rather since they sold me a sleeper bus, a fully reclining one was what I hoped for. When I reached the end at the top of the bus I could not believe what I saw. It was more like the honeymoon suite on wheels. But I was not alone. Our foursome consisted of a guy from Laos, Colm from Ireland and his girlfriend Lena from Israel, me being sandwiched between Paddy and Mr. LaoLao. It was a wet and bumpy night. Bumpy since it was the rear end of the bus and the road had many pot holes. Wet since the air condition was leaking. But Colm fashioned a condom from a plastic bag and some tape to keep us safe. At every stop the bag was emptied. We reached Pakse the next morning at 6. On time.

honeymoon suite on the love bus, hello kitty style

Other favorite means of transport include:

The mini bus. Filled to the max.

no need to look out of the passenger window

Bicycles and umbrellas go very well together

school's out somewhere in Laos

Going by boat through a forest on the Mekong.

Mekong forest

Roadtrippin' in Cambodia with Mr. Lucky

Mr. Lucky is driving a lucky passenger
 some more impressions from Laos

Monk in tree, Pakse

Don Det

fishing, Don Det

trees in the river, 4000 Islands