Monday 5 August 2013

Cambodia - Summer 2013

Deep fried spiders
Wednesday, 31 July

I think Cambodia may be my favourite place in the world.  I feel that I go on a little too much about how friendly people are no matter what country I am blogging about but Cambodia has, without a doubt, the friendliest people ever!  Ok so I have probably said this about Ghana and maybe again about Indonesia but Cambodia definitely takes the crown.  This is undoubtedly down to one individual whom we met the second we touched down in Phnom Penh; Nang, our taxi driver (his number - 017446643).  Our original plan was to get a taxi to the coach station and head for Siem Reap.  In the taxi, however, the driver explained how he would happily take us all around Cambodia in his van for a small price.  "Here we go again," we thought, "another guy trying to rip us off".  As he explained more, showed us pictures from his phone of groups he has taken before and proceeded to be just a lovely guy who wasn't even slightly pushy; we bargained a little and accepted his offer.  $480 (the US dollar is the main currency here!) split 5 ways for a personal driver for 6 days was an absolute bargain in our eyes.  This saves us having to worry about transport and allows us to cram in Sihanoukville into our itinerary.  He refused to take money from us until the end of the trip and took us to his family house to freshen up before getting into his air conditioned minibus for our long journey North to Siem Reap. 

Having Nang was brilliant in many ways.  One was his knowledge and narration of Cambodia as it flew by our windows.  A free tour guide thrown in!?  On the way to Siem Reap he stopped off at Skun; the spider village where I have read is the place to eat deep fried tarantula.  I have no idea how we intended to get here without Nang.  I have also read that the children throw spiders at tourists.  To say I am not keen on spiders is somewhat of an understatement and it was going to take some doing to pluck up the courage to put one in my mouth.  My brothers wife simply refused to get out of the van and so she locked herself in whilst the rest of us braved the market.  As far as fears go, a bucket of tarantulas is easily up there among my least favourite things.  Just the photo sends shivers down my spine.  So did the children throw spiders? ummm yes and no.  Yes in the fact that they threw one on me, no in that they did not throw one on anyone else.  It was initially horrifying but ultimately exciting.  They didn't scuttle off up my neck as fast as I thought they would.  They just sat there asking to be stroked.  I sound stupid saying this but it felt like holding a hamster.  The others agreed with me! It had a warmth to it with furry skin and pink padded feet.  Now lets eat one. 
I hate to say it but they tasted pretty good.  The legs were like crispy prawns and the body a little more fish like.  Others didn't like the body but a bag of deep fried tarantula legs could be the way forward!  I ended up eating 3 and buying a bag of fried crickets for the journey.  By nightfall we were at the Riverside Hotel in Siem Reap to rest before our adventures in Angkor Wat began. 
Nang picked us up early and explained the plan for our day.  We bought a 3 day pass (they only sold 1 day, 3 day and 1 week passes) for $40.  A little steep but we're hardly going to miss it out.  Nang drove us everywhere, explained where to go, what to do and taught us what he knew of each temple.  The day was the hottest we had so far and everything looked stunning under the blue sky and smiling sun.  We visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm in one day.  Though the mornings were lush, the heavens opened by noon and gave a completely different dynamic to the temples.  By the time we visited Ta Prohm it was flooded and we couldn't help but think how much better it looked because of it.  It was by far my favourite temple and not just because it is the one famed from Tomb Raider but because it shows the real power of nature reclaiming its land; only emphasised by the floods and rain.  The rain flushed out the tourists too and so it had a real eerie feel to it as if we were actually in the middle of nowhere and just stumbled across an ancient tomb.  After a day on our feet and soaked through, Nang took us to a local spa where I had a "20 finger massage" which simply meant a full body massage carried out by two people.  I've now had many a massage in many countries, it turns out that this is the only way to do it.  No fat hairy man in Turkey or embarrassing moments in Indonesia.  Just one hour of two people working from either end of your body and meeting in the middle ($20).  
Food for the day was awesome.  I ticked off the national dish for lunch; a rich coconut fish curry called Amok Trey.  Creamy and delicate with a few spices to which I added heat with a local chilli paste served with it.  The evening saw us don our frocks and shirts to celebrate my brother and sister-in-law's two year anniversary and Nang had recommended us "pub street" for our nights entertainment.  We decided that lots of starters would compliment our drinks better and so ordered a few portions of spring rolls, barbecued chicken wings and barbecued frogs.  Yup, frog! That traditional party night snack.  In fact, it was very similar to the chicken wings if not tastier.  We ended up having an absolute blinding night and stumbled back with a polystyrene tray of the best instant noodles I have ever eaten.  Bought from a street vendor at about 3am, I have no photographic evidence but without a doubt it was the best meal so far.  I'm pretty sure I ate it.  Either way, right now my head hurts, we're late for Nang, and the rest are still asleep.  Frickin awesome night though...   

Nang simply smiled at our reasons for being late and drove us up to the floating village.  This was a recommendation of his own and for $20 we got a boat ride through the best part of the village.  Nang explained that much of our $20 will go towards the education of the children in the village and so he felt happy bringing tourists here.  It was a fascinating spectacle of how every family had adapted to working with the river.  Happy children were playing in the water like they would if it was the first time they saw snow.  Swimming, jumping off things, fishing with nets, waving at foreigners.  Clearly none of this gets dull after so many years living on the waters edge.  We came back to do what was called the "Grand Tour" of Ankor Wat which, in the end, was just more temples by now.  As a group, we agreed that we were well and truly templed out. 

We finished our time in Siem Reap with entertainment and a big Cambodian Buffet at the Angkor Mondial Restaurant.  It doesn't hide the fact that it is directed completely at tourists but for $12 we feasted on a whole load of local dishes.  Noodle, Satay, Soup and Tempura stations amongst mains, starters and desserts fed a few hundred tourists (maybe exaggerating a little) whilst they were entertained by local dancing and music. It's not to everyones taste.  Yes you could probably find every dish served here on the street, cheaper and tastier; but we really enjoyed it as our evenings entertainment.

You like to shoot cow with rocket launcher?
Sunday, 4 August

Nang was saddened that we responded with the answer no.  Apparently you can actually do this in Siem Reap!?  We knew the shooting range is popular here but Nang explained that it is much cheaper in Phnom Penh and that he would take us at the end of our trip.  He did warn, however, that you can not explode the said cows.   The ever so lovely Nang drove us through the night from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville; Cambodia's only stretch of sand and sea.  After a nap and late breakfast we headed to the shores where we met some very persistent chatty women eager to give us all a pamper (above).  They were lovely and bubbly and I happily let them cut and file my nails.  The girls got their legs, feet, arm pits; whatever the women managed to convince them they needed, done! Whilst doing Jane's legs, one lady took a peek up her swim shorts, gasped deeply and raised her neatly shaped eye brows.  "No goooood," she insisted, "I do you half price!".  Jane sheepishly but politely declined.  The rest of us split our sides laughing. :-D

This was probably our most adventurous day of food so far.  Spring rolls on the beach were lush but it was the night market that got me excited.  I have never seen anything like it.  So many items that I have never eaten before all in one place.  We decided that a market crawl was the only way to sample every weird and wonderful culinary delights on offer.  Whole baby crabs, deep fried snake, Chicken feet, the best pork ribs on God's planet, more silk worms, beetles and the all disgusting foetus egg.  All consumed in
one night.  The snake was fried to within an inch of its life and so tasted like anything that has been cooked in such a manner.  The beetles were just too fiddly for what you got.  Peel back the shell, remove the wings, pull off the head and then snap off the needle sharp spike on their underbelly leaving you with a pea sized abdomen.  The Foetus egg was probably the most stomach churning of the lot.  Blood vessels and tiny feathers come together to make the least appetising feast for the eyes.  Blind folded; it would be a pretty tasty, meaty boiled egg... I'm just glad that my rule of trying everything twice went out the window with the Laolao!
Our second day by the sea was our first planned lazy day.  Breakfast at a beach bar turned into yet another feast as different food vendors passed by with giant deep fried mantis prawns, BBQ'd squid and boiled crabs each with their own sauce, rub or sprinkle.  Vendors carrying hot coals and pans of oil around with them cooking and selling the freshest seafood for next to nothing.  Lazy days are awesome!  We moved 5 yards onto beach beds and vedged out until the late afternoon. 

With inspiration from watching the locals fish from the beach we decided to make up some rods from bamboo and try our look on the rocks.  We ambitiously set up camp with beers, cigars and a little fire ready to cook the enormous fish we were about to catch...  To everyone's surprise we actually did catch a few fish and a crab!  Not enough to feed us all, but we cooked and ate them anyway.  Finishing on the beach with a proper BBQ seafood platter for 5 ($20), a shisha pipe, beers and a pool table topped off possibly the best chill out day ever.
Yesterday we set off early for a 3 hour journey back to Phnom Penh.  As we decided against shooting cows in Siem Reap Nang took us to a different shooting range in the capital.  It is a strangely eerie place and the girls were instantly uncomfortable with the weapons of war hanging on the walls.  Between 3 of us we shared rounds with an AK47, an M16 and a Revolver.  I only know these from computer games like Goldeneye 64 and was no way prepared for the weight and kickback they gave.  The guns were in brand new condition and the staff clearly went through strict health and safety training.  Yes that's a load of cock and bull; the guns were rusted, the staff happily walked through the firing line and I felt uneasy the whole time.  Only exasperated by the fact that the guy showing us the guns dropped the barrel for the revolver and it exploded.  Nobody died. Just. 

The night market of Phnom Penh gave us something to do for our last evening in Cambodia with some mild live entertainment and a food court where every stall sold the same things.  We took a selection and had a chicken and pork noodle soup with some sticky grilled pork on the side.  Served with a smile by a lady who was easily in her 80's; it was everything I hoped for my last Cambodian meal.  We then shared an array of traditional sour fruits with thick, salty and spicy dipping sauces  for afters.  "It's one of those things that sound awful but pleasantly surprising" I insisted to the others.  Low and behold I was wrong;  They tasted awful and exactly as they sound.  A second dessert, however; of stewed bean and pumpkin, from a plastic bag, went down an absolute treat. Twice!
Today was an emotional day.  Not only were we saying goodbye to our man Nang; we decided to spend the day visiting the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison Museum.  Time for some history and culture.  It was a real eye opener and intensely fascinating.  If you are in Phnom Penh then it should be at the top of your itinerary.  As the picture (left) shows, it's a hard hitting day.  The killing fields are sites where a large number of people were killed and buried under the Khmer Rouge regime that wiped out approximately a third of the Cambodian population.  The S21 Museum was the prison where many of the people were held before being taken out to the fields.  How have the most friendly people on this planet come from such horrid times?  I don't know, but they did.  And to that end, Nang drove us to the bus station and we said our goodbyes.  Goodbye to Nang and goodbye to Cambodia.  :o)


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