Phnom Penh ~ Pictures

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Dine in the Dark

I had heard about a place like this once. Blacked out, curtained, dark dining. Simple enough idea, let blind people serve sighted people dinner. Two girls and I left our hostel with anticipation running high for this surprise tasting menu to be consumed in pitch black settings. The interior has mild purple lighting with trendy white leather seats. We all ordered the “international” four course meal. Our waiter, a blind man of slight build affectionately and inexplicably called, “Manbaby,” led us up stairs, through doors and curtains to our table where he helped us acclimatize to the darkness. There was no change when you blinked, so I just let my eyes rest. We were giggly and giddy. The wine poured, we gingerly toasted our goblets of red. The first course came and food is blindly shoveled onto a fork, perhaps avocado and shrimp? Second course, a lamb in light sauce with broccoli? Third course was three shot glasses of soups, we guessed cucumber, pumpkin and mystery. Dessert was unmistakably pineapple and some chocolate. Dinner was delicious, our waiter was extremely helpful in our sightless situation, and the taste was heightened by lack of visuals. We made jokes about “putting it in our mouth, can’t find it because it was too little, hold it harder, who touched my leg” and other “that’s what she said,” comments. Afterwards,each plate was explained in pictures via Ipad. It was a great experience, and this “dark dining” idea is found in many cities over the world. Check to see if you can support one in your area.

Cambodia ~ Where to Stay

Phnom Penh:

Me Mates’ Villa– This clean white and black house is set off from a small street in the middle of sprawling P.P. They have great beds in 8 person rooms with two en-suite bathrooms with water hot enough to peel paint (not that you need that in a city with such outrageously hot days). A small, but convenient common room with internet, drinks and food helps for meeting people and planning trips ahead. Recommended

Diamond Palace 2– A value hotel with good wifi and clean, tiny rooms. It’s got a nice location next to the river and palace.

Sihanoukville:

Wish You Were Here– These bungalows are actually on Otres Beach. They are decent sized A-frame, dorm rooms looked hot and cramped though. It is not on the beach side which is more of a disappointment than an inconvenience. Shared bathroom and dim, cool bar with slow-moving bartenders. The Indigo bungalows looked nicer and were beachside with their own bar.

Siem Reap:

Mad Monkey- A prototype of a party hostel, this is THE stop for backpackers. The bar on the 4th floor has sand underfoot and stars above. Beer Pong and specials daily until midnight keep things moving. The common courtyard pool A la Melrose Place has bean bags for chilling and shade for reading. Tours available for Angkor, but too expensive, find your own transport. Showers were not strong, but towels and toilet paper provided.

Kratie:

Mahoungkong Guesthouse– I think all the guesthouses in this area are very similar to this one towards the end of the main drag of riverside accommodations. The 6US$ price tag was right for an en-suite bathroom double bed room with fan. There was a small television provided that felt like a nice luxury.

Kratie ~ Freshwater Dolphins in the Mekong, Rapids and a Painted Temple

In between Phnom Penh and the Laos border in eastern Cambodia, sits a slowly developing city with slight charm. The city is only two parallel streets with about 7-10 connectors. There is a small market, outdoor night BBQ and fruit shakes. The sun sets over the Mekong like a glowing pumpkin into a green bath. There is a glut of cheap guesthouses for about 6-10 dollars. See here for review of the food at U-Hong Guesthouse. I stayed at Mouradourm, and he (Hap) hooked me up with a bus ticket to Laos that included all border transfers and boat travel and a dolphin tour the next day. The room wasn’t very clean, but had a good bed. The next day we went to see the freshwater dolphins. There is an estimated 80 dolphins left in the Mekong and they like to lazily congregate in a deep pool. There is no playing or interest in the boats, they just swim around belching from blowholes as you try to snap a picture of them mid-breach. It’s still cool seeing dolphins anytime, anywhere.

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They have Beluga Whale shaped heads.

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After the expected anti-climax of the dolphins, we popped back on the motorbike for a long drive past the clapboard houses and jungle of Cambodia, and reached a rather nondescript temple. Inside was a different story. I am well acquainted with the mythology of Christianity and probably could tell you the 12 Stations of the Cross and recite the Beatitudes and the 10 Commandments, but I don’t know much about true practicing Buddhists or Hindus. These pictures told fascinating stories that I didn’t know, but am happy to invent.

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Don’t overeat.

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Don’t run naked with wolves.

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Don’t spy on sleeping women.

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Don’t forget the Buddha.

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Drink the wine of flying people.

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Don’t piss off the Goddess of the Sea!

It was beautiful inside this temple. Every inch of wall and ceiling space was used in paintings such as these. A large gold Buddha sat restfully in a central position. There were card readers divining fortunes for the bowed down believers. Some carefree kids were having New Year’s water fights. It was a good surprise.

We had a small soup lunch, chugged some water, and our motorbike took us over shaky bridges, dirt roads and scattered rocks. We stopped at the Mekong rapids where a shanty town has arisen on the banks to provide a picnic area for river dwellers. Food and drinks are sold and hammocks provided for a small (2US$) fee. I gently fell asleep swaying to the hammock’s rhythm and the pulse of the river while arguing with myself about why I can’t just relax and enjoy something in the moment and stop worrying.

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Poutine in Cambodia

Yes, that title is correct. A dish that feels at more at home in the chilled fall evenings of Quebec, or the cheesy confines of Wisconsin, has somehow migrated to Kratie, Cambodia. At the guesthouse called U-Hong, somewhere in the middle of the two parallel streets of downtown Kratie, they sell bus tickets, dolphin tours and the best poutine I’ve had in Asia. It needs to be said that the best I’ve ever had is in my hometown of Phoenixville, PA, at an infamous little diner called T.D. Alfredo’s. I’ve never actually had proper poutine from Canada, I’m American, and therefore know about cheese fries and gravy not so much pommes frites avec fromage. Either way, cheese should be melted, gravy hot and fries’ crispiness gently wilting under the liquid goodness. This was that.

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The native food entree was chicken and ginger, which was nice and fragrant. The place had cold beer, good music, and a easy vibe befitting this river town. They also offer rooms, which probably inexplicably have signed Gretzky and Lemieux jerseys in frames above the bed.

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Siem Reap ~ Roadside Houses and People Viewed from a Tuk-Tuk

I’ve spent a lot of time on the day buses here in Cambodia. I’ve seen the indescribably extensive amount of trash littering every single inch of dirt along the roads, in the cities and sometimes in the restaurants. Papers, wrappers, cans, bottles, tickets, plastic, socks, shoes, shirts, food garbage, leaf clippings, composting itself under the feet of the oblivious locals. I see them sweeping up the dust in front of their shops or houses more than I see them pick up the rubbish. It’s not like the ground has become trash, but it seems to be moving in that direction in certain places, especially markets, or roadside stops. Despite the trash situation, it isn’t completely without charm. Some of that trash gets burned in random fires, producing a not-unlikeable, but definitely polluting smell. The smell is comforting in an unpleasant way. Smoke surrounds the road in some places, not the seemingly edible smoke of BBQ’s, but a mixture of plastic, palm leaves and cardboard. The houses are all on stilts, giving an extra room, that is purely shade, usually with a few hammocks. Small shops wait with supplies of strange chips, and always Pringles, sugary or salty treats, squid jerky and selected beers. Trotting along in my Tuk-Tuk at about 30 mph, I caught pictures in a bouncy manner, so they are purely glimpses of the street.

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Top 3 Temples at Angkor Wat Complex

1) Banteay Srei:

This 10th century temple dedicated to Shiva and called the “temple of woman” because the carvings are so delicate and intricate, that supposedly only a woman could do it. The rock was a special pink sandstone and looked beautiful. It was very well preserved and smaller allowing a better chance to see everything. It was such a great place to end, after seeing the big ones, this was a nice change. Recommended for the carvings and the amazing 40 minute tuk-tuk ride through Cambodian countryside.

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2) Baphuon:

Approaching this ancient pyramid also dedicated to Shiva, moving down the pillared walkway, a thought struck me. People’s faces would have been right at my feet if I were the king going home. I walked taller and felt regal after noticing this. There are three steep levels of stairs here finally culminating in a dazzling view of the dense jungle around. It was fully renovated in 2011. This place was BIG, and the original capital of Angkor Thom. Recommended for pictures under the stone walkway among the pillars, and for a hard climb to the top!

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3) Bayon:

This was for me the biggest highlight of the three days’ tour. Bayon was the central post of the immense Angkor Thom area. It has 56 towers with four faces on each, adding up to 216 faces, some better preserved than others. They all look peacefully stoked on life while presenting the calm features of the Buddha, for whom it was dedicated. It is the youngest temple as well, having been built almost 100 years after Angkor Wat. Recommended for silly face pictures contrasted with the solemnity of the stone visages.

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Honorable Mention: Angkor Wat at Sunrise–because being present in such a simple moment in such incomprehensible beauty makes for a powerful memory.

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Ta Prohm: Tomb Raider was filmed here, trees overtook the rocks, surreal atmosphere and cool to see nature will always win.

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Do not do less than 3 days at the temples. Some of the people bail because of the heat, or hangovers, or repetition. But, the repetition is the point. They cared so much they even carved the stones they walked on. I’ll bet the toilets were carved from only the softest sandstone and adorned with the satisfied faces of those with functional bowels.

For me, it was a never-ending buzz of temples appearing out of nowhere, touching rocks from a different millennium, imagination, exercise in the sun, eavesdropping on tour groups, and plenty of photo opportunities! A big check on my list of must-visit places. Awesome!

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Siem Reap ~ Pub Street Dining

The aptly named Pub Street in downtown Siem Reap glows neon red in the hot jungle air. Street hawkers beseech you with their cries about the food quality and with bargain prices. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in which to eat offering Khmer, Thai, Western and Indian cuisine. Of course I couldn’t resist a place which proclaims to have “The Best Mexican Food in Asia.”

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At Viva, they serve pretty authentic Tex-Mex style dishes. I had the chimichanga with green chile sauce and was pleased with the results. Quality meat and cheese fried up with a cool sauce. They also offer 2$ tequila shots and Corona bottles.

There is also a trendy rooftop bar called The Triangle whose lights were too dim for pictures. They offer a very chill atmosphere and a bistro type cuisine. Live music every night here with plenty of balcony seats. The band actually covered The Doors’ version of “Backdoor Man.”

Charlie’s reminds me of Austin, Texas. Cold beer, good food and bar stool seating. I ordered the sliders, which were tasty but under-cooked. When will Asia realize you must cook burgers all the way through (without drying them out)?

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Temples of Angkor ~ Workers and Hustlers

The ancient Ruines d’Angkor are awesome. They give a glimpse into the past. They also give a glimpse of the Cambodian present. The ravages of a brutal Civil War and genocide, the collateral damage of the Vietnam War, the century long suppression under French colonialism, the never-ending feuds of territory with China, Thailand and Vietnam have produced a very poor country with a rich history and booming tourism. The tourist dollars are pouring into the main cities, but this mostly agrarian country still works hard for its money…or begs for it. Even the kids selling the ubiquitous postcards, “10 for a dollar mister. Look, 1,2,3,4…Come on. Help me out” sound like they’re begging even though they are offering a “service.” The middle aged ladies hawking the same scarves, the same dresses, the same bags, the same magnets, the same trinkets, the same t-shirts, the same same, not different have the same routine, “Buy for your girlfriend, your mother, your sister. Very cheap, very good, made in Cambodia silk.” It’s like they are all given a supply from the same store and sent out over the huge grounds of Angkor like some poor roving salesman with a tattered suitcase full of “amazing” cleaning supplies. I’m sure some people buy it. Some people might give money out of sympathy. Some people just shake their head in varying shades of disgust and annoyance. I started to look at them instead of the traditional, “No thanks, it’s okay.” I looked at their eyes, their clothes. I talked to them. I asked them questions. They speak better English than they are aware. As soon as I told a young boy he has special golf hat on or a girl that she was pretty, they smiled and forgot to see me as money on legs. They talked to me also. We didn’t discuss important things, we just commented on the situation. I quizzed the kids on world capitals. I asked the girls if they were all friends. I asked them if they like Angkor, and all said yes. I smiled and felt important with all their attention lavished upon me because I might have a spare dollar in my wallet meant for them. It’s a big job to squeeze all the money out of tourists while they are here at these mighty ruins. They give that big job to the smallest people.

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“You come back here and buy from me mister, not her, okay?”

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They were lined up for pictures and donations.

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Lying in a hammock, she popped right up to show me her daughter.

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They were making jokes about me in Cambodian I think.

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The girl on the left has such an old face. She’s ten going on forty. Look at the troubled smile compared to her friend.

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“One picture, one dollar mister!!”

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This young guy had such a whining approach. “Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuy one, eeeeaaaaaa.” He started crying eventually. He followed me for ten minutes even when I sat down to get a rock out of my shoe.

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I understand the salesman’s need to A.B.C. (always be closing). I can pretend to understand how hard it must be for some of these kids and parents. I don’t understand where they came from or where they’re going. Perhaps things will work out for them and it won’t be a never-ending cycle of begging/selling.