Friday, January 31, 2014

Day 20 - Laos: I made a mockery of the Lao kitchen...

After a lounging day of doing a whole lot of nothing, I endeavored to master the art of Lao cooking. I was successful....successful in making a mockery of the Lao kitchen, that is.

I would like to say I was not totally setup for success by Leng and Phia, the perfunctory and stoic cooking team who ramboed through the demonstration of 4 dishes - chop, dice, dice, sizzle, serve - "Easy, now you choose 2 dishes."

A sign on the wall said, "We find most people are shy and don't ask questions. Please feel free to ask us about anything," Yet, any questions asked were addressed with curt 1-2 word replies and with a hint of disgust for our incompetence. If these 2 were caricatures on a Seinfield episode, they clearly would have befriended the 'Soup Nazi."

They sent us off to our stations without further guidance. I was the only non-vegetarian who did not have a sous chef at my station. (Not trying to make excuses for myself, just stating the facts :p)

Dish #1, Pork Laap, unraveled poorly, but decided I should move on since the efficient German station had already exclaimed they were done with dish #1 minutes before.

As I collected ingredients for dish #2 from the main station, Phia barked, "Hurry, everyone's almost done.

I get back into my groove, browning the garlic and lemongrass, preparing to drop in the 'minced' chicken Phia provided me. But alas, I noticed the chicken was actually a whole breast and I had only 1 cutting board for both my veggies and meat. I quickly tried to slice the chicken, but the unattended sizzling garlic vanished into a crunchy, blackened ash in my pan.

'Start over,' Phia said without offering assistance, 'Hurry, everyone's finished!"

This was not quite true because I passed the station with two 22 year old English girls who were lamenting and laughing over their accidental explosion of chili paste into their dish and their ineptitude with how to cook chicken. Not that I'm proud that my cooking skills were on an equal playing field as the college students.

I raced through dish #2, ending up with a liquefied sorry sight. With my 2 inedible dishes in front of me, I called Phia over to help me figure out what I did wrong, he recoiled at the of idea of trying my dish, shaking his head vehemently. When he realized I would not disappear, he relented, tried a small bite of the pork laap and said,

'Too much rice powder"

"But the recipe called for 1 Tablespoon, and I put in 1 Tablespoon"

"Too much"

"How can I fix it?"

"Its ok. Its ok." He said, placating me. "Go eat" and he flicked his hands toward the door, shooing me out of his kitchen.

I brought my sad dishes outside and sat next to the hungry looking English girls who were afraid they were going to get sick eating their flaming red concoction.

"Dinner at the night market too?" I said to the English girls with a smile, accepting defeat.

I left to get a proper home-cooked meal on the street.

NEXT STOP: Lounging in Nong Khiaw

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Day 18 and 19 - Laos: It's Another World

On Day 17, i left Luang Prabang with a French couple in their 60s, a Swiss guy living in Alaska and 2 guides from Tiger Trails to do a 3-day hike in the Laos mountains (only 1300 meters) to villages.

As we reached the 1st Khma village (27 families), sounds of nature filled the air. The birds chirped in the sky above the turkeys, who boasted their feathers next to the baby chicks, who waddled in a group behind their mother, who brushed past the sleeping dog, who ignored the massive, snorting pig, who scrounged for food next to 2 piglets. The cows grazed peacefully nearby, clanking their bell as they trodded along, until the children chased them into the field toward the river.

The children outnumbered the adults 10 to 1 and their joyful laughter spread along the hilltop as they played, GASP!, without technology! A naked boy scampered by, rolling a tire with a stick. 2 boys climbed a 15-20 meter tree to pick tamarind. Kids jumped rope with tree ivy. A group of girls, wearing worn and dusty mismatched clothes, wandered around, 1 clutching a doll, another hunched over from the weight of her baby brother grasping his arms tightly around her neck.
In the evening, everyone ate around their respective fires until both children and adults returned to the communal mat inside their straw huts to sleep at 8pm.

The morning routine started at 3:30am. I did not get a glimpse of this life until 6:45am because I stayed indoors to try and escape the foggy and brisk 5 degrees Celsius temperature. Our host family had caught 8 rats. She sliced the rat stomach to remove the intestines,

roasted the rat on a stick, brushed the charcoaled hair off, washed it, and then roasted it again.
Our guide bought us a larger rodent type animal from the family next door to roast for our lunch. I learned Rodents have very little meat and very thick skin. The thick lemongrass sauce masked all flavors and I lied to myself that I was not eating R.O.U.S (Rodents of unusual size..Princess Bride reference) as I dipped my sticky rice into the tasty sauce.

The second Hmong village was larger with 72 families. They had access to a road and some houses had solar panels for electricity in the evening.

The children were also shy, but all guards were dropped once a volleyball appeared and a makeshift soccer field was erected with goals designated by broken tennis shoes. The Swiss guy, Andy, and I joined and after an hour, we desperately hoped a dinner bell would end the game. We left the boys running around with boundless energy on the field.

Meanwhile, a few families had converged into our host's hut for communal cooking. The men took turns as they pounded their wooden axe into a crate of sticky rice.
The woman sat nearby, waiting to collect the sticky substance and roll it out into pancake sized patties inside of banana leaves.

"Its another world", the French Woman said aloud in a thick accent as we left the village.

A life back to the basics: Slow-paced movements. Ingrained routines for survival. Rough, dry hands and feet from hard labor. Care-free playing children. Strong connected communities. Innovative uses of all materials.

Yes, it's a different world here.

Despite hiking with Tiger Trails, there are tigers few and far between.  possibly as few as 30 wild tigers ;(

NEXT STOP: Chill day in Luang Prabang, ending the evening with a Lao Cooking Class

Monday, January 27, 2014

Day 17 - Laos: Morning Ritual in Luang Prabang

Every morning at 5:30/6:00am, monks in Luang Prabang process through the streets accepting offerings from the devoted local people, Tak Bat. They believe feeding the monks feeds the spirits of their departed relatives and bestows good luck and fortune for themselves in the future.
Also, each morning, the women setup their blankets and tarps with displays of vegetables, fruit, fresh fish, chicken, flowers, etc. The early bird shoppers weaved through the alleys to their favorite vendors, inspecting, massaging and smelling the morning selection to get the pick of the crop.

Luang Prabang has a strict curfew. All businesses are required by law to shut down by 11:30pm, so locals can make it home before the midnight curfew or else they are heavily fined or arrested.

NEXT STOP: Departing today for my 3 day hike in the mountains to 2 villages

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Day 16 - Laos: Elephants and Waterfalls and Rope Swings, oh My!

Elephants weigh around 5 tons. Their skin is as rough and hard as dried leather. Their ears appear floppy, but are actually quite strong and surprisingly soft on the inside. They have a good center of gravity because they can climb up and down hills as steep as San Francisco. They sleep standing up. Elephants can't jump. That's about all the fun facts I've got for ya after my 45 minute elephant ride...

...and 15 minute elephant bath...

...which ended up being more of a bath for me as the elephant snorted water from his trunk and sprayed behind him where I was sitting on his neck.

While no elephants were harmed in the filming of this ride / bath, I could not help but feel bad for paying to have this poor creature carry me around.

Luang Prabang is clearly a backpackers haven. After the elephant ride, i returned to town and within minutes, I met 7 random strangers on the street and we combined forces and hired a truck to take us to Kuang Si waterfall. We walked along a series of small,  horizontal cascading waterfalls into crystal, clear, blue pools of water. And then I did my first rope swing, plunging into the crisply cool pools.

Lao is a little larger than the UK.

NEXT STOP: 3 day hike through the forest and mountains to a Khmu and Hmong Village

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Day 15 - Cambodia: Last Day in Cambodia in a Floating Village

Some tourist spots are a racket. They charge outrageously inflated prices, and know they can because there's no other way to get there. The only thing you can do is suck it up and enjoy the experience.

Kampong Phluk is a floating village, nearly an hours drive outside of Siem Reap. There's one boat company that can take you to the floating village ($15-$22 depending on their mood) and 1 small boat option to take you through the floating forest ($4-6 - depending on their mood).

Each home is built on stilts in water on Lake Tonle Sap lake. I visited during the dry season, so you can see how tall the stilts are and how much the water rises in the wet season.

Everyday life floated along in this village on the water (and narrow strip of land). Kids paddled home in their school uniforms. A 7 yr old sat by herself with a machete slicing away at something. A group of children laughed hysterically jumping off boats into the water. 2 women carefully scanned fishing nets, knitting the holes. Mats full of shrimp drying in the sun lined the main street. A little boy surreptitiously picked up 1 shrimp from each mat, munching on them them as he strolled down the street with his school backpack trailing behind him. Kids crowded around their favorite food stand, buying handfuls of shells and sucking at their insides (cockles?).

Here's the floating forest that a woman paddled me through.

Lake Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. It changes in size from the dry seasonseason (2500km) to the wet season (15,000 km).

NEXT STOP: Elephant riding in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Day 14 - Cambodia: Sore buns + Sticky rice buns

With a slightly sore ass from the previous day's ride, I rented a bike and set off for the 78 kilometer (48 mile) roundtrip journey to Bantei Sray, a temple made of pink sandstone. Here's a snapshot of my day:

4:45am: Biked with a headlamp to watch the sunrise at the less populated sunrise viewing spot, Srah Srang.

5:20am: Experienced 2nd thoughts for choosing the further and less populated location for the sunrise. Stopped a car to confirm directions and he offered to escort me there. Offer gladly accepted as I trailed his head lights.

6:25am: Sun emerged like a big orange disc from the clouds over the lake. Camera could not capture the perfect round circle.

8:30am: Back at the 'Best noodles in Cambodia' stand. I disregarded the long, black hair in my noodles.

9:00am: Bought rice buns stuffed with savory unknown substance.

9:30am: Watched a woman stir palm sugar at one of the 50 palm sugar stands that lined the road. Learned that every day she has to stir each batch for 1 hour. The elderly woman next to her gave me a sugar cube.

10am: Stopped at a roadside stand selling a banana wrapped in sticky coconut rice. Yum!!

10:30am: Arrived to the 'Pink Lady' palace. Wow, is it stunning!! Pink sandstone is more durable, so the ornate carvings remained intact.

12pm: Made the assumption that the shack on the side of the road was a food stand and not a woman's home. Pointed to the soup and basket of fresh rice noodles and smiled.

12:30pm: Bought rice buns filled with coconut and some other sweet tasty goodness.

2:00pm: Got one more glimpse of Angkor Wat.

4:00pm: Bought sweet bean filled rice buns.

5:00pm: Ended a day of biking with sore buns, although I think I ate more sticky rice buns than biking. Decided I still deserved a $5 Hour massage.

90% of the cultivated land in Cambodia are rice fields. This means the majority of the local vendors are cooking with rice flour. It's cheaper than importing wheat from Thailand. Yes, it's a Gluten Free girl's dream come true!

NEXT STOP: Floating village visit for my last day in Cambodia :(

Friday, January 24, 2014

Day 13 - Cambodia: 75 Kilometers (46 miles) Bike Ride to Beng Mealea Temple

Today I joined a tour where once again I was the only one on it! I guess everyone else chose tuk tuk or bus transportation to Beng Melea temple, which is 75 kilometres (46 miles) from Siem Reap. I chose to cycle it.

My guide took me on a mini food and culture tour through the backroads outside of Siem Reap.

We first stopped at a small strip in the middle of the road where a woman was squatting by a griddle making Nam Pom, waffles made of rice flour and coconut. The woman next to her was selling rice flour batter-fried bananas. Both gluten-free = Amazing!

Then we stopped at a mushroom farm and saw the different stages of the mushroom growth cycle.

As we biked along, a man climbing palm trees to squeeze the fruit to make palm juice offered me a taste. It can't get much fresher than that!

For 2nd breakfast, we stopped at my guide's self-proclaimed 'best noodles in Cambodia' road-side stand. You receive a bowl of Khmer soup broth and freshly made rice noodles. You then pick from the table things to add, like salt, fresh lime juice, peanut and sugar sauce, fresh herbs, greens, and edible flowers.

Finally, we reached the temple, Beng Mealea. It was similar to the 'Tomb Raider' temple with the strangling fig trees covering the temple, but with less people!

Cambodians believe that menstruating women must NOT go near a mushroom farm or silkworm farm because their smell will stunt the growth.

NEXT STOP: Last day in Cambodia at a floating village.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Day 11 & 12 - Cambodia: Angkor Wat & Surrounding Temples

When i was 21, I took Intro to Architecture where I got my 1st exposure to Angkor Wat. I immediately added Cambodia to my 'must see' list. 13 years later, I arrived to Siem Reap (and apparently late to the game with statistics showing over 2 million visitors per year).

After a 7 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh, I went to the Angkor complex to watch the sunset at the 'quiet' temple Pre Rup. 100+ people were vying for a spot and others had no shame and stood directly in front of people, who had been posted for a few hours. Needless to say, it was not my most peaceful sunset.

On Day 12, I woke up at 4:30 am and got my 1st glimpse of Angkor Wat as the sun rose over the temple. I shared this experience with 500+ other tourists. Despite the people yelling at each other to get out of their picture and the clicking of cameras and flashes of light every 1.5 seconds, Angkor Wat is a stunning work of art. The decorative lotus-blossom towers and reflective ponds in front of the temple are picturesque. The 'bas-reliefs' are carved figures and decorations in stone, often telling the stories of Hindu Gods, like Vishnu.

And of course, I needed to get my headstand shot in Cambodia.

I visited a fair amount of temples on Day 12, but these 2 were the most unique:

Bayon - If I visit again, I would time my visit off schedule from the tourist bus circuit. It nearly was as packed as a mosh pit at a Tool concert. But again, despite the lack of tranquility, the towers withe carved faces staring in every direction showcased an intense staring competition that was pretty unique.

Ta Prohm AKA Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider Temple - This temple has been
invaded by nature in a unique and beautiful way. Tree roots from the silk cotton tree and the strangler fig tree have grown out of the ruins or wrapped themselves around the temple remains. Some of the tree roots are oozing over the side, like the B Horror movie, the Blob.

I finished the epic temple visit with grilled frog at the Night Market. I would describe it as an anorexic chicken.

Supposedly, Siem Reap will not blow up with high rises because builders are not allowed to construct buildings higher than the Angkor Wat temple...but don't quote me on that.

NEXT STOP: 75 Kilometers (47 Miles) bike ride to Beng Mealea. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Day 10 - Cambodia: Iron Khmer Chef & ATV Racing through the Countryside at Sunset

My Cambodian cooking class started with 13 other International students and 1 teacher showing us the foreign looking fruits and vegetables in a local produce market.

We each contributed to making the taro and carrot fried spring rolls (gluten-free!)

We each made our own yellow curry paste and sauce for the traditional Khmer fish amok dish that's steamed in banana leaves.

It tasted delicious if i dont say so myself. BUT don't expect me to repeat this culinary feast in the states!

I followed the cooking class with an adventure outside of the city to drive an ATV through the countryside at sunset. I was the only one on the tour and the kids would come running out to the street, sometimes uncomfortably close to my ginormous wheels, and give me high fives.

The drive at dusk along the city parks & riverside was a sight to see with the local vendors, dance classes of 50 Cambodians (mainly women) breaking it down with a male teacher to Cambodian sounding 'pop'music, chess players playing by flashlight & of course 'Frogger' like traffic and crossing pedestrians.

NEXT STOP: Siem Reap and Temple Exploration

Day 9 - Cambodia: Somber Start, Joyful Finish

There's nothing profound or insightful I can say about the senseless death of nearly 3,000,000 adults and children by the Khmer Rouge regime. I did an audio tour at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh (Choeung Ek), which is 1 out of the 20,000 mass burial sites where people were brutally executed and buried. The stories of loss, perseverance, and fortitude are unbelievable.

It was depressing, shocking and heart-wrenching. Despite the solemnity, I encourage any traveler to Phnom Penh to visit and pay respect to the genocide memorial and educate yourself on the stark reality of only 34 years ago (when I was born!).

I followed the Killing Fields and Security Prison (S-21) with a visit to the Daughters of Cambodia shop. Employed by woman who have been trafficked into the sex industry, 98% of the girls who work at Daughters never return to the sex industry.

My day then switched from heavy to regal and then light-hearted fun. I visited the National Museum & the Royal Palace with magnificently decorated pagodas, including the Silver Pagoda which houses religious artifacts and shrines, like the Emeral Buddha and a life-sized Buddha covered in 9000+ diamonds and weights nearly 200 pounds (pictures forbidden).

            Silver Pagoda                                National Museum

I wrapped up my day on the riverside where locals were playing Cambodian 'hacky sack.' I watched for awhile and then was invited to play. I'm no pro, but i totally got the side kick down! (the guy in the middle in the video Below is the president of the club and sold me a 'hacky sack.' I might have a new hobby...

On my way to the Royal Palace, I walked with a monk who told me about his studies and thesis and asked me to be friends on Facebook!

NEXT STOP: Last day in Phnom Penh with a Khmer cooking class & ATV Sunset tour through the countryside.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Day 8 - Cambodia: You can take the Yuppie out of Manhattan but you cant take the Yuppie out of the Girl!

I've been told I need to face the facts that I've become a Yuppie. The supposed incriminating evidence is my love for my Vita-Mix, kale, Pilates, yoga, plant based protein powder, kombucha, etc. If that's a Yuppie, then I guess I'm guilty as charged. And today, I did my Yuppie tour throughout Phnom Penh.

* Arrived to PP via a bus equipped with Wi-Fi

* Lunch at 'Friends,' an NGO cafe that trains kids from the street to be waiters (and is buzzing with every Yuppie in Phnom Penh). Consumed beet juice, taro fries, grilled fish in a banana leaf)

* A wander to the southern part of PP to the Russian Markets, saving fuel by walking (over-exaggeration for artistic blog post license)
Independence monument:

* Roamed through what I deemed the 'local yuppie market' (Boeung Keng Kang Market) which housed hair salon stalls, fashion vintage items, an abundance of greens, chess games and more

* Gluten-free cupcake (actually labeled gluten free) at Bloom Cafe

* Dinner with my friend Phil's wife, Sara.

It would have been the cherry on top for Yuppie of the day award IF the vegetarian Khmer cuisine restaurant was not closed on Mondays! Instead, we settled for vegetarian Indian, Coriander.

Maximum people spotted on a scooter: 4.5
Maximum people spotted in a Tuk Tuk: 9
# of people who follow the 'rules of the road': 0

NEXT STOP: Killing Fields, Genocide memorial and Royal palace

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Day 6 & 7 - Cambodia: Going Rogue

You're not going to be infatuated with every place you travel. The riverside town, Kampot, fell into that list for me. Perhaps it was due to my high expectations for relaxation after serenity in Kep & Rabbit Island, or maybe it was because the best way to see the area is via motor bike & I knew I would contribute to tourist motor bike accident statistics if I rented one.

I explored the 1st day with a fixed gear bike. I went off the tourist path because I missed my turn, biking 2 hrs out in the scorching midday, and then eventually back when I realized I could not circle around. Below is me sitting with a local at his stand on the side of the road, helping him practice English while I hydrated on a coconut and studied the map.
I wrapped up the day watching the sunset along the river.

To get outside of Kampot and up to the old French hill station, (Bokhor Hill) where there is a view of the surrounding area, I ended up joining a tour. The road winded up the hill and I laughed at myself for toying with the idea of cycling up the mountain in my fixed gear. The views truly were great and our guide was very nice BUT he would have us stand in the sun as he explained things in 1000 words that could have been said in 150. We were herded along like sheep to various lookouts and were allotted time at each, including a horrible, new casino complex that's being built and will inevitably obstruct the views and destroy the natural beauty of the area. ;(

Right when I was calculating the hours remaining in the tour, I met a Belgian guy, Randy, who was traveling through the national park and seeing the remains of French villas at his own pace on a motor bike. I seized the opportunity and went rogue from the tour, hopping on the back of his bike. I missed the organized sunset tour on the river, but instead soaked up the remaining hours of the sun floating in the sea in Kep with good company and no long-winded guides.


* With the strong Sea, the fisherman pay respect to the Goddess of the Sea to ensure safe waters. How do they pay respect? By offering wooden sculptures of penises & bananas at an offering table.

* Randy (Belgian guy) is luckily a medic in the navy and he came to the rescue of the scene of a motorbike accident. He helped clean the wounds and wrap the ankle of the woman who was left behind next to her mangled bike, while the male victim of the accident was quickly whisked away on another bike, presumably to the hospital. Why they left the woman and what would have happened to her if Randy was not there is unknown.

NEXT STOP: 1st day in Phnom Penh

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Day 5 - Cambodia: Visit to the Doris Dillon school in Kampot Province

Before I left for SEA, my mom put me in contact with someone from her church, who helped fund a school in Kampot Province in Cambodia - the Doris Dillon school.

I arranged in advance the purchase of school supplies and books to give to the 182 students. We passed around the books then I went to each classroom to meet the kids.

I have not stood in front of a kid's classroom since I've been in grade school. What do you say, especially to kids who speak very little English and are super shy? I thought of how my friend Jocelyn would have been able to connect with the kids regardless of the language barrier. I had nothing. I looked to the papers on the walls for inspiration and saw the word birthday. My question, "Who has a birthday in May?" was a flop. "What do you do after school?" went over better, especially when I asked the kid who was going home to see his cow what the name of his cow was. I mean, i would name my cow if I had one. The most successful question was asking a kid to say something in English. At first he said a few words in English, then he was on a roll and started listing out a string of words: control, organize, apologize. Regardless of having no semblance of meaning, it was pretty cool to see this kid's confidence grow from shyly standing next to his desk to shouting out big syllable words without a break. Overall, the kids were super cute and stoked to have a visitor.

DONATE to Doris Dillon school through World Assistance of Cambodia if you want to help the school build their computer technology, library and more.

NEXT STOP: 2 days of relaxation in Kampot

Friday, January 10, 2014

Day 4 - Cambodia: My favorite impromptu day... so far!

Today's adventure was supposed to entail a day trip until 4pm on Rabbit Island, returning to my guesthouse in Kep for the evening. However, as soon as we pulled up to the island, I was greeted with tranquility, simplicity, and rustic beauty. Regret immediately set in by the idea of not staying the night there.

A basic bungalow with no electricity, nor running water for $5? Hell yeah!

And so I immediately found someone who spoke enough English to let me use their phone and call my guesthouse to inform them I won't be returning to my room in Kep that night.

And voilĂ , my plans changed & my home for the evening was my basic bungalow with a day pack containing a sarong, mosquito repellant, camera, e-reader, iPod, journal, tissues & enough $$ for the next 24hrs. What more did I need?

My highlights on the island:

- Engaging in random conversations with other travellers, like the English crew who intertwined the word 'nob' in every sentence, the French organic melon farmer and designer, who hiked in the Cambodian forests with local hunters, eating red ants and spiders and Bill, the 60-something years old from Minnesota who comes to Rabbit island every winter and recently discovered his health condition was due to gluten insensitivity & how his life has changed since becoming gluten-free!

- Playing with kids who followed me as I circumvented the 8km island and they had a 30 minute photo shoot with my camera until they got bored. One kids creative inspiration came out as he took pictures while putting a flower in front of the lens. Here are photos of some of the kids & the boy taking a photo of me.

- Devouring fresh crab for each meal.

- Watching the sun plop down from the clouds into the sea from my hammock.

- Peeing under the starry sky with silhouettes of palm trees and calm, glassy water reflecting the moon light.

- and finally, waking up early to watch the sunrise on the other side of the island where the locals live, which clearly upset the dogs to see a Westerner at 5:45am. They encircled me & barked until finally I backed up to stand in the water & yelled "help me" until a local came out and called off the dogs. Of course, they instantly transformed from Cujo into fuzzy fur balls. At least I have the ability to laugh at myself!

Needless to say, it was the best extra $5 I've spent to stay on Rabbit Island.

NEXT STOP: Visit Doris Dillon school to donate school supplies and meet the kids!