Phenom Penh: Khmer Food Village

If you have limited time to visit Phenom Penh and you wish to see and taste lot of varieties of Khmer food easily in one sitting, I suggest you try Khmer Food Village.

Khmer Food Village sits near the monstrous “Naga World” casino/hotel complex near the Tonle Sap river.

Tonight, two local friends took me to Khmer Food Village to sample of lot foods I may not have seen yet.

As my friends and I talked about Cambodian cultures, we dined on stuffed frog, spicy chicken, squid cooked with Kampot pepper, and more delicious dishes, with steamed rice of course.

Eating the food of another culture is one of the best ways to get to know that culture. Not only is one eating the food, but one is dining with others from that country.

Tonight, many families were also eating at the restaurant. The inside has traditional fishing nets and “bat homes” as decor. Thatched huts are also part of the decor, although these roofed huts sit beneath a nice metal roof … no danger of getting wet, even if it is raining outside, as it did briefly tonight as we sat at one of the open air tables, near the side. My view was of the Naga World’s giant computer billboard, a monstrous amount of lights and signage, but somehow fun and fascinating due to being just so big.

Two hours of dining passed quickly. Once I was told I had rice on my face (again), which I wiped away. My friends told me that the old men in the villages would say jokingly, “Oh that rice is for someone back home”, before wiping away errant rice.

We talked about education in Cambodia. We discussed books that would be good to write about Khmer culture. They told me about sayings of some villagers such as, “I know this village like I know my finger”, to say they knew the village well. They reminded that when I travel I need to always need to ask the history of the name of the place or the story about where I was visiting. “In Cambodia, there is always a story.”

Eating food in the Khmer culture is a communal experience, so we shared each of the dishes we ordered. The food was OK but we talked about how Khmer food cooked in the small restaurants by by a husband and wife who prepare the food with that special attention of good cooks is always the best food.

Khmer Food Village is a good way to try a lot of Cambodian food in a nice safe setting. All you have to do is order and hand them your “dining card”, which is swiped through a computer and your meal calculated for one single payment at the exit. No more digging for Riels on the side of the road. Just hand your dining card to the teller and pay the total. Technology meets traditional Khmer food.

We stepped outside after finishing our meal. Across the street the stories high electronic billboard of Naga World scrolled the message, “Visit Angkor Wat”. I looked back inside at the large picture displays of all the Khmer foods at the order stations, each with its computer card swipes.

I am definitely not in the countryside anymore.

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Koh Kong: A lazy morning’s reflections

I was writing an email to a friend.

An excerpt I want to share:

“Koh Kong is awesome. Very remote and cut off from most of the world. Got a tour by Vietnamese ship workers of some of the ships in the bay here. That was an unbelievable life experience…. drinking whiskey with the Vietnamese crew of these giant ships I had seen all day during the boat trip some friends and I took around this inlet.

The first two months of the trip have now concluded. This past single month seems like a century. Last night was the full moon. A month ago, I was about to enter Vietnam.”

My friend who gave me the tour

The first of many toasts!

Another new friend aboard the "Tranh Hong"

More toasts. More pictures. Great fun.

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Koh Kong, Cambodia: “Victory Over Genocide Day”

I think this article sums up a lot of history here in Cambodia in one concise text,
and helps to at least clear some of the cobwebs of confusion.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand all of the pieces of Cambodia’s recent history.

As always, the Phenom Penh Post’s journalism is ‘spot on’.

Premier hails ‘Liberation Day’
Phenom Penh Post, Friday, January 6, 2012

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday addressed a crowd of about 10,000 Cambodian People’s Party supporters, including the armed forces of the government, gathered in Kampong Cham province to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of what the government calls “Victory Over Genocide Day”.

On January 7, 1979, the Cambodian People’s Party – then called the National United Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea – ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from Phnom Penh with the backing of the Vietnamese, beginning a decade-long occupation of Cambodia by Vietnamese armed forces.

“The National United Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea and the Vietnamese volunteer army would not have been able to liberate Cambodia from genocide if there was no participation of Cambodian people,” Hun Sen said.

Colloquially, the day is referred to as either “Liberation Day” or “Occupation Day”, de­pending on political standpoints on Vietnam, which some, especially the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party, see as having “invaded Cambodia” on that day.

Previously, Hun Sen has cursed “as animals” those who do not recognise Victory Over Genocide Day as the true liberation day. However, his approach was more tempered yesterday.

“We have no intention to make a law in order to force all people to recognise [Liberation Day] January 7th, because those who do not recognise the day are under pressure from their political ideology,” said Hun Sen, adding the CPP would show “tolerance” to those skeptics.

“Even if those who do not recognise, and are insulting [Liberation Day], I would still thank them, because they participated in dissolving [the Khmer Rouge regime], and today, they are not all dressed clad in black [as the Khmer Rouge once dressed].”

Hun Sen also lashed out at the United Nations Transition Authority in Cambodia, which observed the first democratic elections in Cambodia after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime. UNTAC left Cambodia without full peace or political stability, Hun Sen said, and claimed his “win-win” policy of 1996 was what bought true peace to Cambodia.

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A coastal shipping port in Cambodia: Port of Sre Amble

Sre Amble is located on an inlet on the southwestern coast of Cambodia, near the eastern edge of the Cardamon Mountains.

Thus, Sre Amble is a port town and now has a new port.

If you want to understand business and commerce in Cambodia, then visit her ports.
The port in Sri Amble is a good education.

Ports are points of entry into a country and like any country, access to ports in Cambodia is restricted. You will need to negotiate a visitors pass with the security guard, and cameras are strictly prohibited. It is best if you state from the onset that you have no camera, and show that you have no interest in photographs. There is a certain finese that must be used when gaining access to restricted areas such as a coastal port. Please be sure to follow only very polite protocol.

Once inside, the world of Cambodian commerce awaits and what a fascinating world it is.

Huge container barges lined the port tonight as I cycled from the entrance to the far end, my visitors pass hung around my neck.

For some reason, everything seems BIG in Cambodia. Big trucks … monsters … have passed by me by during my travels through this country. And tonight, I saw more monster trucks being loaded with goods carried in by the huge barges, which were unloading their berths onto these monster trucks. Tonight, about ten barges were still in the process of unloading or loading. Most of the rest were already loaded and were simply spending the night until dispatching tomorrow.

Rows and rows of large red trucks lined one side of Sre Amble’s port, just opposite the barges. Looking around at the huge piles of rock, sand, and gravel, I assumed that these trucks bring in construction materials that are removed from the mountains, and then the sand, gravel, or rock is loaded onto one of massive floating transports that then take the materials to some other destination.

For a small port, Port Sre Amble is very busy. And a nice window into the “commerce” of Cambodia.

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Sre Ambel, Cambodia: K’Bahl Poong Roo-Uhl Waterfall (forgotten Cambodia)

Sometimes a waterfall is not “just another waterfall”.

My guidebook (one of the only ones that actually has ‘Sre Ambel’ listed) stated that motorcycle taxis would be on both sides of the river bridge, to take visitors to the waterfall. That was written some time ago. Today, there no longer are many tourists wanting to go to the waterfall. And finding a knowledgeable guide requires a bit more work now.

A new road to Koh Kong was recently completed, and that caused many changes in these parts. Most of all, it caused the demise of the speedboat business that took passengers to and from Sre Amble.
These days, everyone simply takes a bus. And those buses only stop long enough at the bridge for tourists to get a drink and a fast snack. Very few tourists stop at Sre Ambel any longer. And almost no tourists go to this waterfall, one of the most spectacular in Cambodia.

It is a shame.

Sre Ambel boasts many special attractions, two of which are forgotten Angkor ruins atop a hill that over looks the river
and this spectacular waterfall. Two very special sites in Cambodia are falling into obscurity.

This is high season. I surely expected to see tourists from Koh Kong today. All of the websites (outdated) mentioned the waterfall. But, no other people were seen for the whole journey, with the exception of a handful of locals who live in that remote, scarcely populated area. The path to the waterfall is now merely a grassy trail, and that looks to be taken over by nature soon. The tour companies no longer operate tours to Sre Ambel. If you walk the streets of Koh Kong, the major tourist entry point from Thailand just up the highway, you will tours for the nearby jungle and Koh Koh Kong island. But no tours for this waterfall.

The K’Bahl Poong Roo-Uhl waterfall is like paradise. I could have stayed and swam there all day.

It is a mult-tiered waterfall, with a swimming hole at the very top of the falls and also more swimming on various tiers below. Below the first tier, you can stand and have the water cascade down on your shoulders or dash into the cave formed behind these flowing waters. You can walk in the flowing water to the very edge and get a glimpse of the water crashing down on the huge rocks, over 100 meters below. There is a certain excitement about standing barefoot in the water, only few feet away from where the water falls over the rocky edge, and watching the water flow past your foot and go down, down, down. Here, if you slip, it would be a fatal slip.

As my guide and I wandered on the trails around the falls, I saw other tiers that we did not swim, but could possibly have reached if given enough time. The waterfall is a good place to camp and hang out for a day or two. And under a full moon, the sounds and sights at night would be inspiring. Camping at K’Bahl Poong Roo-Uhl on a full moon is on my list of things to do before I leave Cambodia.

In the dry season, one can swim and climb down the tiers of the waterfall. In the rainy season, it grows to massive size and spreads across the cliff with thunderous power. The multi-ton boulders that litter it’s downward path are but merely pebbles to a waterfall of this power.

Yes, reaching this waterfall does require a certain amount of effort. This site, unfortunately, might be out of reach for some of limited physical ability. But if you are fit and capable, I most certainly recommend you do not pass an opportunity to visit here. The “Indiana Jones” motorcycle ride to and from the falls WILL leave you feeling pounded. But it is a pleasant pain. After the motorcycle ride is a strenuous hike up the mountain. Your body will rejoice when it hears the first sounds of the falls. Near the top, you will turn a corner to the left. There in front of you will be the waterfall and the many pools of water. Now, give your body a treat for that long motorbike ride and the hike up. The water feels wonderful.

Waterfalls do not heed history. The water flowed in the ancient Angkor era and those peoples probably lived or visited here. As one descends from the waterfall, the ancient Angkor temple site of Sre Ambel comes into view, adding even more mysticism about this beautiful spot. The water flowed during the times of the Funan empire, during the sad days of Pol Pot, and now it continues to flow during these days of Cambodia’s new found prosperity. The water flows. And history rushes by.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR! … from Sihanoukville, Cambodia … January 1, 2012

I finally learned the tricks of shooting Cambodian fireworks last night, New Year’s Eve.

If a fuse fails to light the roman candle, simple break off the top end but don’t break the string. That string will be coated with gunpowder, so now you will have a nice long fuse that should get the fun going.

The Cambodians really know how to bring in a New Year.

As I was lighting my roman candle last night, I looked down the beach and saw thousands and thousands of other people shooting off theirs. And not only roman candles. There were rockets, sparklers, fire batons … you name it.

The “official” show, the first computer controlled fireworks show in Cambodia, lasted about 30 minutes, and boasted some very impressive fireworks. The “boom” of the last ones could be felt through my body.

The beach firework show, an awesome display created by the collective efforts of thousands of people shooting non-stop, went on and on and on … for almost eight non-stop hours. Mayhem, madness, and fun!

When midnight arrived, the pace of the fireworks increased even more… and more and more people joined in. Suddenly there were at least three times the number of fireworks as earlier, and people all around me … front, side, and back … were shooting roman candles, lighting bottle rockets, and firing off the missiles that were exploding in the sky above us.

And thus arrived 2012.

After midnight, I tried to ride my bicycle back to my hotel, but was forced to take shelter at a bar due to the deadlocked traffic. It was so packed with cars, motorcycles, and people that even me and my bicycle could not get through. That is a lot of people.

Finally, I made it back to my hotel. Before going to bed, the front desk clerk and I set off my last fireworks.

I went to sleep fast and woke up today to a beautiful first day of the new year.

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New Year’s Eve at Sihanoukville, Cambodia: SOLD OUT

Everyone kept telling me on the drive down to Sihanoukville (Sihanouk) that accommodations would be a problem. “It is entirely sold out,” I was told over and over.

Tens of thousands of people will descend upon the beaches of Sihanouk for fireworks on the shore. Half Westerners. Half Cambodians.

This year marks the first year for a computer controlled firework show. These fireworks are part of the Sea Festival, and will be fired from a barge, anchored in the water away from the beach. No other fireworks are allowed until Midnight, when the Sea Festival’s fireworks begin. And that rule will be enforced by ample police. (After that, all is pure mayhem, and probably at least some tourists will watch their belongings go up in flames when their beach side bungalow’s thatch room catches on fire, as happens sometimes here.)

I try to live by the rule of, “There is always one last room left somewhere”. If you plan to visit Sihanouk for New Year’s, I strongly advise you do not live by that rule.

Today, I needed to find a room, for December 31st, New Year’s Eve.
My hotel only has room for me through the 30th. No amount of smiles, jokes, or laughing would convince my front desk clerk to make one appear like magic. I have to leave on the 31st. Big bummer. My place is great.

When trying to find a room in Cambodia, one trick that almost always works is to go to “Khmer” tourist hotels and guesthouses. These are usually avoided by Western tourists. The common, “I want to visit Cambodia, but by golly please do not make me talk to any of them or sleep where they sleep”, mentality. But that mentality means rooms for you! I have used this over and over, without fail.

And yes, today, I did find a room in a Khmer hotel. Just not as close as I wanted to be. Especially for such an inflated price! When I refused the room, the owner looked at me stunned. “Who would turn down the only room left in town??”

I quickly regretted giving up that room.

The rest of the day was spent looking for another room. I cycled from property to property asking for a room. The answer was always the same, “No room. This is New Years. Everyone is full!” It was was almost embarrassing to ask. Sometimes, they only looked at me and laughed as if I must be nuts for even asking!

“There is always a last room,” I kept telling myself.

I kept looking. Then, I saw it: A hotel under construction!!!

If you check for rooms at hotels under construction, chances are that the first rooms are already complete and ready for you. That is how it works in Cambodia. The owners do not bother waiting for all the rooms to be finished before opening. Why do that if half the rooms are ready now??!

The hotel I found today is mammoth. A HUGE swimming pool. And my room … or suite rather … has a living room, bedroom, huge bath with shower. Much more space than one guy with a bicycle is ever going to use. This is obviously another Khmer hotel, building rooms specifically for vacationing Cambodian families. The large living room is perfect for hosting gatherings of friends and family.

About one third of the rooms are complete. The rest of the hotel is under construction. The hotel reception building IS complete, open, and ready for business. It has large glass doors and windows.

Yes, they were still installing the light fixtures and bathroom fan today in my room for Saturday night, but I was assured that my room would be complete and ready for me to stay there New Year’s Eve.

“And all the bathroom fixtures will be working,” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” I was promised. “All the work on your room will be completed by Saturday.”

I gave them money to prepay for the room, and looked over my shoulder and saw workers going in and out of my room, with boxes, tools, and paint.

Yes, I thought to myself today, that probably was the “last room” left.

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Phu Quoc, Vietnam –> Sihanoukville, Cambodia: Arrived!

The rice fields along the southern coastal region of Cambodia are bursting with their new yields.

Everywhere I cycled on my way here, I saw communities working together to get the rice harvested. Men shucked and sacked the newly harvested rice plants, which were cut by the women of the villages. Sons rode up and down the roads on motorbike delivering pots of food to both their parents. Some daughters were in the fields. Others were assigned duties at home.

Harvesting rice on the large scale grown in the coastal rice fields of southern Cambodia requires a collective effort of many individuals to harvest.

I personally had never been so informed of the exact nature of the harvest process, so the past days’ cycling was quite an education.

An inspiring experience. And even though I sometimes got in the way by making a wrong turn and ending up face to face with two oxen pulling a huge cart of newly cut rice, everyone just laughed and I was allowed to pass to see the pagoda, cave, or temple that happened to also be on their land.

I am now in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, one of many coastal resort areas along Cambodia’s beautiful south coast. There are millions of tourists in SE Asia right now, and for the past days, it felt like all of them were in Cambodia.

Sihanoukville is sold out. I was lucky to find a room. One of the last remaining.

Visitors are coming not only for New Years but also for Cambodia’s very own annual Sea Festival, which also is held this time of year in these coastal provinces. The air is charged with fun and festivity. The first fireworks are being fired off right now as I type this post. People are happy. Cambodians are making money.

It appears that Cambodia’s stunning coasts are now a second profitable ‘rice bowl’ for this region.

And that … is a good thing.

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Phu Quch island, Vietnam: “Things to Do”, pt.1 — Sunset beach dining

The aroma of fresh fish and two large prawns being grilled on the BBQ behind me just hit my nostrils. When I arrived a few minutes ago, I hand picked the fish and two prawns, so they could grill them as I watched the sun set.

I am on Long Beach, on Phu Quoc island. I am on the south tip of the “resort area”, a nice spot where the ‘mass tourism’ resorts give way to an odd mixture of high end resorts, Vietnamese resorts, and ’boutique resorts’. I am staying at one of the ’boutique resorts’. It only has four bungalows and they face a private beach only a few steps away. You go to sleep hearing the surf almost at your door.

I decided not to eat at our restaurant, although the food is great, and opted to come here … a small, nondescript dining spot down the beach. The seafood is fresh. You simply point to what you want and have a seat. They then grill your meal on the spot as you enjoy a beverage.

And what a great spot it is tonight.

Long Beach, Phu Quoc island, Vietnam is considered by some to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I have seen a few beaches. And I would have to agree with them.

Tonight, the sunset is breathtaking. The vibe of the international travelers around me is fun and happy. Everyone in the world loves a beautiful sunset.

This is a great place to enjoy a grilled seafood dinner.

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Christmas in Vietnam: Phu Quoc island

Today, I sat at a cafe having lunch, watching the fishing boats come into the harbor.

Beyond, over the ocean, planes were arriving, bringing group after group of international travelers to this island resort.

These travelers are arriving with the plans of enjoying the Christmas holidays on this most pleasant of islands. This shall be their ‘shelter’ for the holiday season.

The travelers arrive by plane and by boat. And they shall continue to arrive for the next days, as Christmas draws near.

I too have chosen this island to pause for a bit from traveling. For a brief bit of time, I don’t have to worry about going from point to point, worrying about being stranded at sunset, being caught in the nightly storm, not finding food … or falling head first down a mountain injuring my leg, like yesterday.

For a while, it is now simply time to rest.

The sunsets are beautiful here at Phu Quoc, the beaches are spectacular, and the national parks are wonderful.

I guess I am going be OK during this holiday season.

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