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Cambodia, entrees, mysterious ingredients, travel

Running Amok

03.23.10 | 2 Comments

When I try to picture Cambodia conceptually, like on a map or as an overall mishmash of purple, trees, dirt, bricks, and green, I usually ‘see’ it as tucked neatly away under Thailand and Laos, or through a veil of netting—not quite clear, and hidden and out of the way. Cambodia has seemed, and seems still, to be out of the way, kind of secret and hushed. It’s not a Destination like Paris or Santorini or Bali, nor is it one of those purported ‘Travel Secrets’ that no one has discovered. Instead it’s tucked away in the archives, a stop for the savvy and somewhat adventurous wanderers.

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Cambodia—well, I shouldn’t say Cambodia, I should say Siem Reap, which is regrettably the only part of Cambodia I’ve seen—is a sort of travel anomaly. It is a huge tourist draw in that The Industry in Siem Reap is tourism—specifically, Angkor Wat, which is more or less the sole lure for most tourists. Tourism is so heavily relied upon that there are far too many tuk-tuk drivers for the number of people who want to ride in them. The tuk-tuk drivers, by and large men (I never saw a woman driver), spend most of their days parked under trees, stretched out below their tuk-tuks cowering from the blazing heat. A glimpse of a tourists elicits shouts of “Hello sir, tuk-tuk!”

They even addressed me a ‘sir.’

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The city is so dependent on tourism that everyone speaks at least basic English. There are burger and pizza joints everywhere and more bus, boat, and plane ticket shops than there are Starbucks in New York (this is not a proven statistic).

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And sadly, many of the locals, most often children, have picked up begging. It’s nearly impossible to say no to a shiny-eyed five-year old girl asking you to buy eight bracelets or postcards or any number of trinkets, for one dollar. It doesn’t feel quite human to stare straight ahead and ignore a young child asking for something, but it’s caving to the begging that perpetuates it. And I didn’t have much money left myself, so I had to be careful.

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Things in Siem Reap are incredibly inexpensive. Everything is measured in US Dollars, and exchange rates into Cambodian Riel vary from store to store. Things in Cambodia are even cheaper than they are in China, even imported goods. Almost everything on the street costs one dollar. Unfortunately for me, riel cannot be exchanged anywhere outside of Cambodia—I forgot I had a huge wad of about 80 US dollars-worth of riel in my bag.

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Angkor Wat is indisputably a major tourist attraction, but once you get outside the main temple, it doesn’t feel overrun with fanny packs and cameras. At the Duomo in Florence, there was a constant swarm around the façade such that walking in a straight line was impossible without body-slamming someone. But at Angkor Wat, everything is so spread out that once you get out to the lesser temples, it’s much easier to pretend you’ve found a long-lost archaeology relic.

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Until, that is, you go back to your tuk-tuk ducking your head against the shrill calls of “Hello sir, you want water? You want cold drink? You want you want you want?”

What I like to refer to as the ‘secondary’ temples are really just smaller temples that are farther away and tucked back in large swaths of jungle. One can even sample Cambodian wildlife!

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The secondary temples are much more peaceful, and luckily, very spread out, because this maximizes tuk-tuk breeze time. The still air is so stiflingly hot that standing still is like an itch on the place on your back you can’t reach, only all over your body. Tuk-tuk breeze makes breathing more bearable.

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The downside is that these temples tend to resemble each other very closely, so one becomes like the last, and what took nearly an hour to see at first takes 20 minutes. We took to just sitting up top and relaxing until we felt ready to move on.

One thing about Cambodia that’s really tucked away from mainstream knowledge is the cuisine. How many Cambodian restaurants have you seen or been to? Yeah, I haven’t seen any outside of Cambodia. And let me tell you, that is a huge shame.

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Cambodian cuisine uses a lot of coconut. A LOT. As someone with a mild coconut allergy, this can be a bit daunting. Luckily my allergy is mild enough that I ate amok, one of the most famous dishes, two or three times.

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Amok is similar to Thai curry in that it uses coconut milk. However Amok uses so much coconut milk or cream that the resulting amok has the thickness of an Indian curry but the subtle sweetness of a Thai curry. It’s spiced but not spicy, and it is wonderful. This was my second amok, and though I know it can never be proved, I will believe that this is the dish that started my body’s downward spiral into a terrible stomach bug.

But lord it was worth it.

Another famous Cambodian dish is Beef Lok Lak, which is cubes of beef sautéed with onions and black pepper, topped with a fried egg and served with rice.

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I had some chicken and peppers in spices neatly presented in folded leaves:

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There was green eggplant whose flavor seemed to have been lost or perhaps never found:

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Chewy, filling spring rolls and John waiting patiently for me to finish taking the picture so he could eat them already:

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Red Curry:

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Sweet, sour, salty cold papaya salad with chicken and peanuts and weird greens I’ve never had before:

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I left Cambodia in a haze of dehydration and overactive bowels. It was this nasty case of traveler’s revenge that led me to the Bangkok hospital hours before my flight to Singapore for some IVs, antibiotics, and some nasty red medicine. I had to fix myself up fast because I had some massive eating to do in Singapore.

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