Connect the dots

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rogue Rouge

A dark spot in Cambodia's history continues to be remembered throughout the country but nowhere is the reminder more brutal than at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheong Ek. We wondered if we should bring Alex to these places with some of the images displayed being gruesome but with a simplified explanation of the Khmer Rouge and skipping some of the photos, she wasn't too upset by the visit but felt affected enough to continue asking why they were doing this to the people of their country. 

This was a former high school turned into the infamous security prison or S-21.  From 1975 to 1979 about 17,000 people had been imprisoned here. Torture to coerce prisoners to reveal names of friends, associates and family members as well as association with the former ruling party were commonplace and often ended in deaths. 

Classroom used to torture and imprison
Items left in the torture room

Cells made in the classrooms
Khmer Rouge documented every prisoner admitted to S-21

Seventeen kilometers outside Phnom Penh is Choeng Ek, where detainees at S-21 were often transferred and finally put to death. A poignant audio guide takes you through one of the "Killing Fields". After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, mass graves were found containing up to 8,900 bodies. Today, a Buddhist stupa filled with human skulls stands as a reminder of the atrocities that occurred there and the healing that continues to take place. 

Gate surrounding a women and children's mass grave

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Khmer Kitchen

With Thailand and Vietnam as it's neighbors, Cambodian food has a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to food. Much of it is a subtler and less spicy version of Thai or Vietnamese but also has some of it's own stand-outs. 

I decided to dissect Khmer cuisine by taking a course with the popular Siem Reap restaurant, Le Tigre de Papier

Many of the ingredients are similar to Thai cooking such as the fish sauce, oyster sauce, and palm sugar. However, their fish sauce is lighter and the curries are less spicy. Their twist on the papaya salad is trading the star ingredient for the banana blossom, the large reddish bulb hanging from a banana tree. And the country's famous amok, a curry usually made with fish, can be found on every menu. 

In the usual formula, first a market run. 

Eventually into an Amok
Fresh noodles
Sweets: banana in tapioca, sesame rice balls, black jelly to name a few

Then off to the kitchen to start cooking. As my favorites, I decided to try my hand at the banana blossom salad and the fish amok.

Thinly sliced and placed in a brine to take away the bitterness

Banana leaves to present the fish amok

My fellow students also cooked up some yummy fresh spring rolls and beef lok lak.

We ended our meal with a pumpkin custard cooked right in the hollow of the pumpkin itself. 

Still feel like cooking? Head to a Cambodian BBQ for dinner. Pick your meat and get an unlimited amount of noodles, rice and vegetables to go with it. We went for the sampler platter. 

Squid and snake
Ostrich (the best!)
BBQ on top and soup with veggies on the bottom

And since the French were here, it's appropriate to say, bon appetit!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Anchor what?

Faces on the southern gate of Angkor Thom

If you haven't already figured it out, the crowds should let you know. You are one of the 2 million tourists per year who visit this jaw-dropping complex. We decided to start off our Cambodia adventure with it's superstar: the Angkor temples. 

If you think you can see it all in one day, you probably can, but you'll miss out on the whole idea of actually being here; imagining what it might have been like living here, how they built it, the craftsmen who created the amazing bas-reliefs, and just finding some beautiful detail at which to stare. In fact, we underestimated that we'd be able to see everything (yeah right, over 1000 temples!) in a few days. It's a lot. And it's hot (especially in March). And you'll be exhausted from all that walking. After those three days, you'll be looking at it all and think that it's just a pile of rocks, right?  That's when temple overload has sunk in. How to combat temple fatigue? Take your time. And don't do back to back days. The multiple day passes are great in that you get a week for the 3 day one and a whole month for the 7 day. 

With Alex in tow, we settled for 3 days of Angkor's offerings. Fortunately, we also hired a remork (think: motorbike pulling a semi-covered carriage), whose driver also doubled as a babysitter while we rambled through the ruins. This also made it much easier to linger and contemplate.

The Angkorian period started in the 9th century when the Jayavarman II declared himself the universal monarch or devaraja (god king). This notion of god king carried onto successive rulers up until the 15th century and drove the creation of these architectural wonders. Each one added to this amazingly large site until finally totaling this urban sprawl to 1000 square kilometers. Some researchers think that it may have even supported up to 1 million people. What happened to finally put this great city-state to an end? Some theorize that neighboring Siam invading, Buddhism taking over and eroding the cult of the god king, while some believe that neglect of public works such as the irrigation system for the rice fields (due to wars) led to it's abandonment. 

It was not until the late 19th century that Angkor was rediscovered by French archeologists and restoration began. Up until today, you'll find sites still being uncovered and new artifacts being catalogued. 

Here are my top pics:

1. The Bayon

We spent a whole morning just staring and discovering more and more bas-reliefs. The range of depth in the reliefs make it appear as if they were going to leap out at you. Everyday life on the bottom and a naval battle in the center on an outside wall, elephants, buffalo and other wildlife, and then on the inner wall with scenes of Hindu gods, well, we couldn't get enough. Then there are those towers, each with four Avalokitesvaras smiling at you. I could return to Angkor for this one temple alone. 

2. Ta Prohm

Here nature takes center stage. Figs and silk trees eventually took over but during the restoration process they scaled back as many trees as they could without destroying the remaining temples. It's a delicate balance between exposing enough and keeping the tree that's holding the structure intact! Tomb Raider (the movie) fans will be happy to know that Angelina's character, Lara Croft, met the mysterious girl right here in Ta Prohm. 

3. Kbal Spean 

 This is a must visit simply to take a shady hike to a riverbed full of reliefs. They call this "The River of a Thousand Lingas." Rightfully so, there are short stubby lingas, Shivas and Vishnus carved out of the rocks in a 150 meter stretch of river, ending in a refreshing waterfall. To get there, you take a taxi, remork or moto 25 km outside the main Angkor site. The ride through the countryside will take you to a large palm sugar producing area where you can sample some fresh palm sugar candy and see part of the process. 

4. Banteay Srei

On the way back from Kbal Spean we ended the day with this 10th century temple. This is commonly known as the "Citadel of Women or Beauty" due to the delicate and intricate nature of the carvings on red sandstone of this small group of temples. We didn't get to stay for the orange glow this apparently takes at sunset, but they're gorgeous no matter what time of day. It's one of my favorite styles in all of Angkor. 

At the end of the day when you think you can't possibly see any more, you should take a break and cool off at Frangipani Villa Siem Reap. Here's Alex, poolside:

Tomorrow, get up early and start again! There's never enough time to see all of Angkor. We'll definitely be making a return trip here to make another attempt.