Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cambodia Eats and Drinks

Ahhh after being in 90 degree weather most of the day

Raiding temples, pretending to search for ancient treasures, and jumping around in the air to get a suitable action shot and the like sure works up an appetite. I had no idea what Cambodian food would be like, but I quickly fell for it. It had all my favorite things including a combination of sweet and sour tastes, spices, and fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, and mint.

Some of our favorites while we were there included:

Heavenly fresh banana shakes that I devoured every day

I know you're thinking, it's just a banana shake, but let me tell you, it was divine. Did you know that there are about 1,000 varieties of bananas in the world? The Southeast Asian variety is definitely different than the average American supermarket ones. They're small for one thing, about half the size of their larger American cousin, and they are super sweet.

Spicy chicken and peanut dishes

Stir-fry with licorice tasting basil

Khmer deep-fried egg salad (yes, they deep-fat fried the egg!)

Shrimp spring rolls

After this particular lunch at the Butterfly Garden restaurant, we spent a lazy while dozing a little on the chaise lounge under the shade trees. You can't see the butterflies in the photograph, but they are everywhere. The restaurant is actually inside a butterfly enclosure housing more than 1,000 butterflies.

Cambodia Travel Tip #5: Decades of war and the harsh rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia left a devastating impact on the livelihood of the local population. All sorts of restaurants like the Butterfly Garden Restaurant and other businesses have joined a social contract to provide training and funds for disadvantaged youth. If you're looking for a great fresh meal, why not put your money towards a program like this?

There's more food pictures to come, as we enrolled in a Cambodian cooking class one day...

Tomb Raiders

Ever have Indiana Jones fantasies?

Without a doubt, the main reason to come to Siem Reap is to view the breathtaking temples at Angkor Wat. Built during the Khmer Empire's height of power between 842 and 1432 AD, the temples rise out of the jungle to demonstrate the force of this civilization in Southeast Asia. There's nothing like that first sight of one in the distance as you approach!

The 216 staring faces of Bayon Temple

Interestingly, when Angkor Wat was at its peak and held a population of over a million people, London only had a population of 50,000. (I'm embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about this ancient civilization of Angkor Wat until Angelina Jolie starred in Tomb Raider) On another interesting note, Angkor Wat was somewhat of a secret until the French "discovered" and revealed it to the world in 1860.

Wall Reliefs at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
We are siamese if you please. (Okay, I know this is not the land of Siam, but I couldn't resist)

Sawadee pose at Bayon Temple

How do I get a hold of the fish costume on the end for Halloween this year?

I especially love how the jungle is slowly swallowing up the temples...

In ancient times, travel through the temple complex was done by none other than- elephants.

Cambodia Travel Tip #3: While these days you can actually visit the temples on the back of an elephant, I recommend hiring a tuk tuk driver for the day to tour you around the temples and city. We paid about $15 for ours, and he took us anywhere we wanted to go, including areas outside the temple complex. And while at one point, he seemed as though he too was going to take us home for a feast of chickens, we had a special bond with him and used his services for 3 days.
Me, striking the Cambodian universal tuk tuk driver afternoon pose

Cambodia Travel Tip #4: If you plan on touring temples for several days, start with the lesser known places and gradually work your way up to the more resplendent. You'll avoid temple fatigue that way... trust me, they start to look the same after a few hours in the blaring sun.

Pilgrimage to the temples... monks, tuk tuks, tourists

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cambodia Sights, Colors, and Sounds

After our "initiation" the night before with our very late arrival and the taxi driver who wanted to take us home to his house and serve us a feast of fresh chickens at midnight (see previous post), we woke full of energy to bright sunshine our first day in Siem Reap.

Having few expectations about this tiny city, Sean and I fell in love with the lively downtown area. The city center, comprised of only a few cross streets really, housed all sorts of colorful cafes, galleries, shops, markets, and foot massage parlors. We spent our first morning browsing around and snapping photos of locals. As you can imagine, there were interesting things to catch your attention every which way you turned.

Local tuk tuk driver, waiting for fresh tourists to pounce on

When not hustling for business, napping tuk tuk drivers are a common sight.

I love this photo of a buddhist monk getting lunch at a local restaurant, and I felt pretty pleased with it until I saw the fun details in the next one...
I especially love how this photo captures the waitress bowing to the monk, the tuk tuk passing by, and the pseudo subliminal name of the restaurant. (Should we eat at this place? Sure, why not? Should I order the BBQ tarantulas? Sure, why not?)
Yes, we stalked the monk for a while and took more pictures of the flowing orange robe from behind (Sean wouldn't let me post any more pictures of him) until we came upon these darlings playing in a school yard.
...and then we were distracted by these two people on a motorbike

and then these three people on a motorbike!
but wait, not to be outdone, four school boys on this one!
As you can see, we were quite impressed with the creativity of moped usage there.

Cambodia Travel Tip #2: We stayed at the Steung Siem Reap hotel, reasonably priced and conveniently located right off the main Pub Streets. We were close enough to walk everywhere we wanted for shopping at markets, meals, and ridiculously cheap foot massages, which meant we didn't have to negotiate with tuk-tuk drivers every time we went out. The hotel is also tucked in a corner away from the street noise and they served a nice buffet breakfast with an omelette station and fresh croissants. Check out the Steung Siem Reap website here.

But stay tuned! We've got photos of tomb raider temples, monkeys, and more!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Relentless Cambodian Taxi Drivers

Put yourself in this situation... you arrive past midnight to a city you've never been to before. In this case, it's Siem Reap, the tiny bustling city right next to the famous Angkor Wat religious complex. Your guidebook tells you to easily grab a cab from the airport to your hotel and pay no more than $5 total for the ride.

Only by the time you clear customs and groggily saunter over to the taxi stand, there's not a taxi in sight. Except for one. The driver tells you with a serious face, he'll take you to your hotel for $20. You know this is the marked up price for desperate late arrivals and tourists who don't know any better, so you try to haggle the price down. After a somewhat harried negotiation, you finally agree on paying $12 even though you know you're getting cheated. The driver insists the price is different this late at night, and since he's the sole means of transport at that moment, he's got a point.

So, you resign yourself, hop in the car and drive along the dark and dusty roads, feeling relieved as you peer out at the few homes with twinkling lights. Then the taxi driver starts telling you that instead of your hotel, he's taking you to his house so his wife can make you a special dinner from fresh chickens they raise in their yard. Fresh delicious chickens killed in your honor. You tell him you're grateful for his hospitality, but no thank you as you're not hungry in the wee hours of the morning. But the taxi driver is just not giving up. He keeps insisting on those chickens, and in addition to those chickens, he's offering a special price for his excellent driving services every day during your stay in his city. Chickens and driving tours. Chickens and driving tours. Chickens and driving tours. Broken record at 1 am.

What a start to our Cambodian and Vietnam holiday trip last week! But oh so worth it when we finally feasted our eyes upon the very reason for our trip.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Cambodia Travel Tip #1: If you're arriving late at night like we did, don't assume there will be plenty of taxis to whisk you away. Honestly this surprised me as I wrongly imagined we'd have our pick. Instead, arrange ahead of time with your hotel for a car or tuk-tuk pick up.

Have you ever had a similar traveling experience? How did you handle it?

So, how did we escape the clutches of the tenacious taxi man? Well, I have a special thing I say that works wonders when I'm feeling my most desperate and annoyed in these situations. I promise to disclose it at a later date, but in the meantime, I want to hear about your troubled experiences with taxi drivers abroad.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday Wishes to You!

We are taking off again in a few days to visit Cambodia and Vietnam. We'll be spending 4 days in Siem Reap, touring around the temples at Angkor Wat and then we fly to Hanoi, where we'll spend a few days and finally experience a fabulous junket cruise on Halong Bay... so excited!

I also wanted to share another great discovery!

I mentioned before that I love the "Song of the Day" online radio program on NPR. Well, I recently started listening to another fascinating show called "This American Life." Do any of you also listen to this program?

Each week's show covers a new relevant theme, and usually there are 3-4 interesting manifestations loosely related to it. I have learned so much about lots of contemporary issues and it's entertaining...

So, I suppose this introduction to the show is sort of like my Xmas gift to all of you. Hope you enjoy listening to it. Be sure to listen to check out a few others in the archives.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let the Holiday Eating Begin!

We certainly enjoyed the food last week in Iwakuni and Miyajima Island. Here's a little sample of what our food adventures looked like...

This historic looking building is the restaurant we ate at in Iwakuni. Doesn't it look perfectly cozy for a crisp evening? We don't actually know what the true name of it is. Everyone we know simply refers to it as the Chicken Shack... you'll find out soon why.
The back patio is lit with the most beautiful lights against the changing foliage
Those are electric blankets lining the tables... so comfy to rest your lower half under them.

The most delicious grilled chicken teriyaki
Deep fried battered beef filet
We figured we needed at least one vegetable so we ordered mushroom and tofu hot pot

But wait, we're not finished yet. Soba noodle bowl

But our Iwakuni eating was not all of our indulgence... Take a look at some of our good eats on Miyajima.

This signature cookie of Miyajima is made almost everywhere on this tiny island and the wonderful aroma of baking cookies hits you from every angle as you walk down the street. You can even watch the whole process through glass windows similar to the assembly line at Krispy Kreme. They are served warm and taste somewhat like waffles with different fillings such as azuki bean, custard cream, green tea cream, and chocolate. Can you guess which flavor we tried?
Need you really wonder?
Oyster man on the street
Bacon wrapped cheese fish cake
My new food love were these steamed buns filled with savory Hiroshima beef

Needless to say as the official holiday eating season has begun, so has the official holiday weight gain.

Anybody hungry, yet?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rudolph's Japanese Cousin

Wild deer in front of the famous floating Torii Gate

Last week, I jumped on a military hop from Okinawa to Iwakuni on mainland Japan. Sean had to attend a meeting up there and I tagged along to get a little taste of maple leaves, cold weather, good eating, and deer... so perfect to put us in the holiday spirit.

Wild deer on a narrow residential street

We took a short excursion one day to Miyajima Island, aka the Shrine Island, a convenient 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland. There we saw plenty of wild deer roving the streets, shrines and temples, and beautiful views of changing foliage.

Making friends

The Japanese are experts at making pretty views from so many different angles
Itsukushima Shrine

Torii Gate view from ferry boat

What puts you in the holiday spirit? Do tell...


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