Food feature: steamed Mekong fish at a river restaurant

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Steamed Mekong fish

This was my second dinner in Luang Prabang and my friend asked if I wanted to take the boat to cross the Mekong River to get to Dyen Sabai restaurant. Beautiful night, a free boat ride provided by the restaurant, yummy food and good company . . . of course I’m in! The night was so beautiful and I couldn’t believe that people could do this every day if they lived in Luang Prabang.

The restaurant atmosphere was calm and there was a good variety of food and drinks on the menu. My friend and I shared the steamed fish in a banana leaf. I’ve had a lot of fish in my life and I can honestly say this was one of the best tasting fish I have ever had. Most steamed fish I’ve had in the past has been bland. The fish had so much flavour that lingered in your mouth long after our meal was done, it was incredible.

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We met a fantastic waiter who took time to chat with us about his ambitions of being an English teacher and teaching his students about hospitality so they can work in the future. He was supporting some of his brothers and sisters’ schooling while he is working and is currently saving up to buy his sister a bike so she doesn’t have to walk the few kilometers to school. He was really inspiring and I thought, “This is why I travel. To meet people like him and learn about people’s lives.”

People in this city really know how to do flavours well. If people are in Luang Prabang, this is definitely a restaurant to check out.

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Boating across the Mekong to get to Dyen Sabai

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A week with three Khmer families during Pchum Ben

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At the local pagoda in the Kampong Cham province. The ceremony lasted three hours.

People around Cambodia celebrated Pchum Ben, a 15-day Buddhist festival to honour their ancestors. Pchum means, “meeting or gathering” and Ben means, “a ball of something”, usually for rice or meat. For two weeks until October 5, 2013, Cambodians visit the pagoda, usually before sunrise to make food and drink offerings for the monks and to feed hungry ghosts who could be their late ancestors, relatives or friends.

I spent five days of the festival with three Khmer families because I only had a few more weeks left in Cambodia and I wanted to spend as much quality time with them as I could. At first I thought, “What did I sign up for? I committed to going 6.5 hours to Kampong Cham for two days, then coming back north to Siem Reap for one night, and then taking a 2-hour taxi to Banteay Meanchey to stay for two days then returning back to Siem Reap.” I wasn’t sure if I had the physical and emotional energy to do this packed trip.

But it turned out this seemingly tiring itinerary ended being just the relaxation my body and mind needed. I’ve spent five days filling the slow hours by talking with my friends, laughing with the families, feeling the peaceful energy at the pagoda, appreciating the generosity of new friends and sleeping a lot. Anytime someone invited me to their home, I’ve accepted.

Two days in a village in the Kampong Cham province (central Cambodia)

My first trip was with my friends Phai and San, a wonderful young married couple who run a small restaurant in Siem Reap City. We were going to visit San’s family in Kampong Cham.

When I first arrived in Cambodia, I didn’t expect to be using as much French as I did and I had no idea France had such an influence on Cambodia. San learned French in Phnom Penh so I mainly communicated in French with her while I spoke English with Phai.

I was a bit worried at first because they told me that there was flooding the month before and the water was almost at their waist. They asked me if that was ok and we would just take a boat to get to their house. Hearing this, I imagined us staying at a flooded house and wondered where we would sleep. But this wasn’t the case at all.

On the boat sailing along the Mekong River with Phai (left) and San (middle)

To get to San’s village, we took a 4.5-hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham, a 5-minute motto ride to get to the ferry, a 1 hour ride on a big boat and finally a 20-minute boat taxi, which is a very small row boat that would take us to her home.

When we were waiting at the ferry, San was talking to a group of people. I asked Phai if she knew them and he said, “No they are just waiting at the ferry.” This is one of many examples of how opposite Cambodia’s social culture is from some Western countries. I love how people easily talk to each other so openly no matter what part of Cambodia you’re in. I’d be lucky to find someone who would have more than a superficial conversation with me at a ferry terminal in Vancouver, Canada.

The first boat sailed along the beautiful Mekong River. The weather was great for most of the ride with the wind blowing and cracks of sun that lit up the clouds. When were about to transfer to the small boat taxi, the rain started pouring.

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The small boat taxi

While we were waiting for the first boat transfer, other people on the boat asked San in Khmer, “Why is a foreigner coming all the way here? It’s so hard to get to.” The first thing that came to mind was, “Why not? I love boat rides too.” I love it when I’m the only foreign person in parts of Cambodia and I love venturing to places that would never be on a tourists’ radar.

The first group of people who got to the boat taxi had to walk in knee-high water. I feel horrible for thousands of people around Cambodia who have had their houses destroyed from the floods and many people in the community who got sick.

Flooded village

We took our little boat taxi through the forest trees to get directly to San’s house. It was a peaceful ride passing all the houses on stilts and just listening to the light raindrops hitting the water.

I offered San some money for my part of the transport costs but she wouldn’t take it. She said it’s ok and I am always touched when that happens with my Khmer friends, especially because many of their salaries are not high. And often whatever leftover money they have they give to their families. Nevertheless, they treat me as their guest and don’t worry about the cost. Though I always offer something in return whether it is food for the family or anything else they would like.

San’s village.

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted by San’s parents, her one-year-old sister, and the neighbour’s daughter. The area was part of a group of eight villages of about 1,000 people.

We arrived early afternoon and spent most of the time resting before dinner. My interactions with Khmer parents takes a similar pattern when I attempt to say something with my limited Khmer, they laugh and try to say more Khmer words to me, and finally I end the conversation with “Sorry I don’t understand. Speak little Khmer.”

San’s sister (left) and neighbour (right). Beautiful kids.

San asked me, “You want to go with me and my parents to pagoda? It’s up to you. I go with my mother and father to Buddha for good luck. But for you if you don’t want to, it’s ok.” Of course I said I would like to participate as much as I can if it was ok with them. What I really appreciate with my Khmer (Cambodian) friends is they know I’m not Buddhist but they keep assuring that it’s up to me whether or not I want to participate or just observe. Nothing is imposed, which would be ideal with every faith.

Before I took a shower, I asked if they had shampoo and they didn’t. So the mom immediately gave Lisa, the neighbour’s daughter, money to get some for me. Again this surprised me but I kept insisting to Lisa to take my money instead to buy the shampoo.

Pagoda cat
Pagoda cat

San’s father is quiet and didn’t talk that much but he was very kind to make sure I had a fan on me when I was just reading or sitting in the house. And San kept asking to make sure I was comfortable in her Khmer house and I told her several times that I’ve been to Khmer homes and villages around Cambodia. But of course I was grateful for her concern, in typical Khmer hospitality.

The next morning, the family got up at 5 a.m. to start preparing food to make offerings at the pagoda, which they often do before sunrise. The offering included bobo (rice soup), drinks, fruits and some desserts.

Children at the pagoda

Children at the pagoda enjoying the camera

Before going to the pagoda, San, Phai and I made an offering to the father. We all had to touch the plate of money and food that was offered to him before he did a blessing. It was nice to participate in this rather than just observed.

I asked my friend if it was ok to film and take pictures during the ceremony and he said it was fine. The kids at the pagoda loved looking at my camera and they laughed when I tried to speak Khmer. Kids in Cambodia laugh so easily and they are so friendly.

At the pagoda, I imitated what the others did. I definitely felt like an outside observer sometimes, especially when I was taking pictures and filming because it was a completely different ritual that I am not familiar with and not an essential part of my life. I thought it was funny to see a monk taking pictures with his iPhone during the ceremony. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one taking pictures. But no one paid much attention to me and I was driven by my compulsion to share my experience, without disrupting the ceremony of course.

Family photo

Being the obvious foreigner newbie to the pagoda, my friends didn’t tell me I had to wear a white shirt for the ceremony. I was wearing a bright red top because it was more decent than my other casual clothes. But no one else seemed to mind but at least I know for next time. “Barang lop lop,” crazy foreigner. When we were all eating lunch together, one of the elders kept gesturing that I join them for a meal, they were really sweet to make sure I was included.

Lita and Lisa are sisters and they come to San’s family’s house all the time to stay over and play. Lisa is 13 years old and she reminds me a lot of my adopted Khmer sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”). She is quiet, smiles a lot, very well mannered and helps in the kitchen. She knows how to cut the small fish and helps set up before dinner.

Kitchen of San's home

Kitchen of San’s home

San was so caring, I walked to the bathroom with the flashlight in the dark and San would look out the window to make sure I was okay. She was constantly asking to make sure I was comfortable.

San’s cousin came to visit and he translated some conversations I had with San’s mom. One uncomfortable and funny thing he had to translate was, “If you are back in Cambodia, she said me and you can work together,” meaning he could be my boyfriend. Of course I’m so “old” by Khmer standards because I’m 28 and unmarried, three years past the ideal marrying age.

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On the Mekong River

I was so sad to find out after we got back to Siem Reap that parents of the young girls we met actually separated five years ago and just left the girls. So San’s family took one of them in to raise her and a family nearby took the other. I said, “Wow that is so generous of your family.” I felt horrible because they are such good girls who are so helpful around the house. My Khmer friend said, “This kind of story is very common around Cambodia. The parents don’t do family planning and they don’t want the kids so they just leave them.”

During our last meal with the family, one of the highlights was making the family laugh with the little Khmer I knew. I felt even more like a Westerner with my camera, blue waterproof bag and backpack. San’s mom asked about my waterproof bag and I said, “This is from Canada,” in Khmer. You know you’re a Westerner in Cambodia when . . .

After two days, we headed back to Siem Reap and the weather was as beautiful and peaceful going back as the days we came.

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Trip #2: Back to Siem Reap

I spent most of the night with my adopted Khmer family. It always melts my heart when they’re excited to see me after being away for a few days on a trip. It was really sweet when my friend Konnitha told me that her younger sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”) asked if I was going with them to the pagoda. I said I’ll be away in another province and she looked disappointed. I felt guilty because even though I spent a lot of time with them, they really appreciate if I can participate in family events with them. I promised if I am back during Khmer New Year in April, I will go to the pagoda with them first before anyone else.

Trip #3: Banteay Meanchey province

This was my second time going to my friend Sopheak’s hometown, which is 120 km from Siem Reap city and this time I stayed overnight. Her family is full of wonderful and also very strong women. The way they spoke was very assertive more than most girls and women I have met in Cambodia, who often speak softly and are more submissive.

I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and because I thought we were going to the pagoda, I brought a white shirt this time. But my friend had already gone early in the morning with her family.

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Sopheak (left) has taken me to see her family twice in Banteay Meanchey. I met Sereyroth (middle) on my second trip there.

Sopheak made me feel so good she said her sisters and mom say I am very nice and beautiful. And when I smile, my face lights up. One thing I will definitely miss about Cambodia is being called beautiful by people you know and don’t know. She also said her friend Sereyroth wanted to meet me because I am nice.

I was really touched because Sopheak’s sister just had a baby on September 24 and the family was also busy getting ready for Pchum Ben. But when they found out I was coming to visit again, her mom said she was going to make make fish amok for me, which is one of my favourite Cambodian dishes. I really appreciated that because that dish takes a long time to cook and her dish was one of the best amok I’ve had in Cambodia. She was simmering the food for hours.

Sopheak was very considerate and asked if what they were eating was ok because I wasn’t used to Khmer food. But as always, I will eat whatever the family eats when I’m a guest and rarely, if ever, make a special request for food.

Sopheak’s sister (left), niece (middle) and brother-in-law (right)

I met two of Sopheak’s wonderful friends Sereyroth and Sorphea. Sereyroth has one of the must unique jobs of anyone I’ve met in Cambodia. When you ask many girls what they are studying or want to me, many of them say accounting or finance. But her friend Sereyroth has done a variety of jobs, including research on fish, interviewing people for field research and doing training for people for NGOs and other types of organizations. She was a human encyclopedia, she knew a lot about many things and it was fascinating listening to her.

Sereyroth and Sopheak were so kind, I don’t expect anyone to pay for any of my costs whether they are Khmer or not but they kept insisting on paying for my breakfast and snacks. When I asked why Sereyroth paid for our breakfast, she said, “You are a special guest.” Of course I at least wanted to treat them for coffee, which I did and fought Sopheak for the bill.

It was a nice break being spending two days with them away from Siem Reap city. Everything we did was nicely paced and not rushed. We took mottos to several rivers, the market, got coffee and the beautiful Lover’s Garden.

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Lover’s Garden

Lover’s Garden is this beautiful and hilarious place with hammocks, food, a fountain and random Disney and cartoon character statues around the garden. Some of those statues look so out of place, but that’s what makes the place fun.

One difference between Cambodian and Western culture is in Cambodia, people often sit at the same table as people they don’t know as long as there is room. When there were tables that were free for just the four of us, I pointed us to sit there but one of the friends said, “It’s ok we can sit here,” which was at a table where a mother and her young daughter were sitting. We spoke a bit with them and made the daughter laugh. I wonder if these kinds of interactions would happen more if people sat together more in Western culture.

Yep, this is in Lover's Garden.

Yep, this is in Lover’s Garden.

When we left, Sopheak told me that the owner said she was looking at me for a long time because I’m so beautiful and she thought I was Khmer. I’ll admit, I really am going to miss Cambodia for the sincere compliments I got from random people, particularly women. This would rarely happen in Vancouver unless it was a dude trying to hit on you.

It was amazing to watch and talk with Sopheak’s adorable six-year-old niece. She spoke quite a few English words and sentences, more than most kids I have met in Cambodian villages. She is at the top of her class and her teacher said she is an outstanding student.

Sopheak’s intelligent and adorable six-year-old niece.

The day that I left, Sereyroth told me “Even though we meet for only short time, I’m happy to meet you. It’s important in my life to talk with you and learn from you.” That was very sweet and responded to her by saying, “I’m pretty sure this weekend I learned a lot more from you than you did from me. You know so much!”

This was another unforgettable week with three wonderful and generous families and I will never for get them. I was really glad Sopheak and Sereyroth were able to join me for a dinner I organized the next day and be my guests this time.

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Family picture

Cost of living in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap has a full range of prices of food, accommodation and services. People, whether they are Khmer (Cambodian) or an expat (foreigners who live in Cambodia), can live comfortably for $300.00 US to $500.00 a month. Unfortunately, most Khmer people’s salaries are nowhere near that.

Some of my friends work nine hours a day, six days a week to earn $60.00 to $90.00 a month. Some of their jobs include working guest relations at a hotel or a cleaner will earn just $40.00 to $60.00 a month. The lowest price for a room to a rent I have come across is $25.00 per month, so of course that doesn’t leave people much to save.

While it’s nice to have a treat to eat out once in awhile, I’ve enjoying buying at the market with my Cambodian friends and cooking at their house. Just last night we went to a friend’s place and it cost $1.50 to buy enough veggies, eggs and noodles to feed four of us. It is still often cheaper to cook than eat a $1.00 meal every time.

Least costly food (US dollars)

  • Street sandwhich with a fresh baguette: $0.30 without meat, $0.50 with meat
  • A meal of fried noodles off the street: $0.50 to $0.75
  • A full meal of fried rice or fried noodles at a small restuarant: $1.00 to $1.50
  • 1 kg of tomatoes: $1.25
  • A bunch of green beans that can feed 4 people: $0.25
  • A dozen eggs: $1.50
  • A big pack of sliced bread: $1.25
  • Fresh curry spices: $0.25

Eating and drinking out 

  • You can a range of sandwhiches, a curry dish that is good for a meal, tacos on deal nights: $1.50 to $3.00: 
  • Eating a lot of soup and noodles you cook yourself with three other friends: $2.00 per person
  • All you can eat BBQ: $4.00
  • There are places like Soria Moria and Ivy guesthouse that have $1.00 tapas and drinks every week
  • Pizza is a little more expensive, ranging from $5.00 to $13.00

Accommodation and property

  • Rent for a very small room (5 ft x 8 ft): $25.00 a month
  • Rent for a basic bachelor suite just outside the city centre: $40.00 per month ($20.00 if you share with someone)
  • Rent for a bigger suite or one-bedroom apartment: $100.00 to $300.00 per month for a bigger suite. It’s on the higher end if you’re closer to town
  • Rent for a three story house: $600.00 to $800.00 depending house close you are from the centre. But you have a motto or bicycle, three-story houses that are just a 5-minute motto ride from the centre of town are about $400.00 per month. They have a lot of space

I’m very grateful to have the ability to try a full range of food and services. But what I’ve enjoyed the most in Siem Reap is spending time with my Khmer friends in their homes, local hangout places and meeting their families in their home town. That’s when I feel like I’m experiencing the “real Cambodia.”

 

Food feature: sticky rice in bamboo

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I first tried “krolan”, sticky rice in bamboo, by Angkor Wat when I first came to Cambodia in March. It was tasty and a great snack. I’ve eaten much sticky rice in my time, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in bamboo.

Krolan is often sold on the street and I haven’t seen it sold in any shops yet.

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The $4 feast

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I have a million posts, pictures and videos to post from the past few weeks alone. I’ll do my best to catch up on these stories and adventures around Cambodia.

Here is a glimpse of all you can eat BBQ for $4 U.S. a person. I have not been a good pescotarian (people who eat fish, but no chicken or beef) the last month. I have been a pescotarian for 7 years in Vancouver, Canada before I got to Cambodia. Because I was traveling I did want to try some of the local food, including meat then starting eating more meat again.

Once I can successfully donate blood to Angkor Children’s Hospital this weekend, I will go back to a pescotarian diet for awhile at least.

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It’s all about the sauces baby!

 

I learned I don’t have to text before I knock

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I went to visit a friend and her family today and, as I’m used to doing in Vancouver, Canada, I texted, “Can I come and visit at 5 p.m.?” For many people in Canada, it would be considered rude to just show up without a warning or not letting people know in advance. I did this especially because my friend just had a baby.

But as I learned the last time I visited, even if they are feeling tired or sick, they like having people around. I asked them, “Is it ok to come without messaging first?”

The husband said, “Yes it’s ok you can come anytime. It’s a different culture. You don’t need to message first.”

It made me think a lot about how much we value our personal space and what’s comfortable for many of us in North America. In Cambodia, space is shared by friends and family at any given time.

Next time I visit, I may just show up, though the thought of showing up unannounced makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Catering to tourists, but what about Cambodians?

One of many hotels along National 6

The first day I rode along National 6 road, one of the things I noticed the most was the number of Western-style hotels. People who  have grown up in Siem Reap say there has been an increase in the number of hotels to cater to tourists.

Right behind or beside the hotels are families who live in very small and simple houses and living spaces. It is a weird contradiction.

There are over two million visitors who come through the one airport in Siem Reap and people are adapting to cater to tourists. I keep thinking, “How is that money being used to cater to the needs of Cambodians?”

I don’t always like what I see when I’m going around the markets or other areas. A few times I’ve seen girls wearing very skimpy shirts because it’s hot, but the custom in many places is to cover your shoulders and wear clothing that cover up to your knees. Especially in the rural areas. This is why I stress and will continue to stress the importance about learning about a place and its history before coming.

On the van ride down to Phnom Penh, we stopped in one of the smaller cities. While I was having some noodles, I saw an old Western man touching the waist of his very young “girlfriend” or whatever you want to call it. I was very angry and sad at the same time.  

My friend and I are going to be going around the city more day and I’m sure I will be seeing much more of that. While I’m sure some of the relationships are legitimate and it’s hard to tell everyone’s story, the guys who are just looking for a good time make it very obvious.

Last time we were here cycling in 2010, our group went to an Italian restaurant. There were a few Western/Asian couples, hard to tell what was legitimate. But right behind our table was a very old man buying champagne for two young girls. When we went to the club later, another old man was just standing alone for awhile on the dance floor. When he saw a young looking Cambodian girl he liked, he was quick to buy a drink. One of the leaders told us a man could get oral sex for 25 cents in the city.

While this is a huge problem, there are many inspiring stories that I will most definitely be writing about.