Monday, April 27, 2009

Chasing Cambodia

In an effort to have the most fulfilling experience possible, Michael and I came to Southeast Asia armed with guidebooks, articles and suggested itineraries from former traveling/expat friends. All of our resources had served us well but no recommended reading brought us quite what we were searching for as did a recent NY Times article entitled, “Banishing the Ghosts in Cambodia” This article, published on Sunday, March 15th, would lure us to small towns on the southern coast of Cambodia – Kampot and Kep.

Cambodia is a country currently going through a slow rebirth. Its recent tragic history of the notorious Khmer Rouge cleansing has left the country in a dire state. In an effort to turn
Cambodia into a communist state focused on agriculture rather than industry, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge movement, set up cleansing camps and labor camps to rid Cambodia of its intellectual leaders and wealthy citizens resulting in a nation of peasants. He decided to empty the cities of their inhabitants, claiming that the cities are breeding grounds for any resistance to his cause. In Phnom Penh he went so far as to turn a children's high school into a prison, famously known as S-21. He converted classrooms into torture chambers and built brick walls to create barracks. His reign lasted from 1975-1979 and during that time Cambodia saw the death of approximately 2 million of its citizens. **Wikipedia.

There is optimism in the air. Recognizing Cambodia’s need for support from the global non-profit community, many NGO’s, such as Epic Arts, have set up camp here in order to help the locals get back on their feet. While everyone realizes that this is a long-tern recovery process, there is reason to believe the current conditions will improve.

After spending a few days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we hopped on a bus to head
south to Kampot and Kep. We arrived in Kampot rather late and checked into the modest Blissful Guesthouse in the center of the deserted town. At the hotel bar we befriended a group of European/Israeli travelers and headed out for beers at Honey Bar. Reconfirming my theory that Milton Bradley’s Connect Four has a monopoly on Southeast Asian board game imports, we sat down to a few games before heading home.

The next morning, after waking up in an overheated haze due to no air-con we decided to wander around town. One of the unfortunate side effects of traveling through SEA is the inevitable development of a tough exterior when dealing with transport vendors. As a tourist, when walking down the street in just about any SEA city or town, taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, moto drivers, bike drivers and rickshaw pullers are constantly soliciting their services. Just as we finally found some 
peace and quiet a tuk-tuk driver approached us and offered to drive us around. Michael, noting my impatient expression, took the reigns and responded with his patient phrase of choice, “Not today my friend, today we walk.” Disappointed, the tuk-tuk driver simply sat down next to us and handed us his card with a number on the back..
"You call me I give you good price”, he said with a friendly and genuine smile, clearly eager to work. We thanked him, got up and walked around, taking in Kampot on the way to breakfast at the 
Epic Arts café. A young boy stopped right in his tracks and shot us a glance. He seemed curious, frustrated and a bit spent, an expression I was learning to accept in Cambodia. 

After eating a delicious meal of a salty egg omelette, toasted bagel, baked beans and banana shakes we exited the café. There he was, Van-Din, our relentless tuk-tuk driver, parked right outside our door. “You need transport? I give you good price!” he shouted flashing an irresistibly enthusiastic smile. We decided to accept. Tenacity like this certainly deserved to be rewarded. 

After negotiating a good price we hopped in the tuk-tuk and headed off to Kep. Nothing could have prepared us for the scenic route on our way there. We opened up the conversation with Van-Din and quickly learned that he recently graduated from high school. This is quite an 
achievement for a boy from the Cambodian countryside. Van-Din's parents firmly believe in education and are determined to send all of their children to school. He completed four years of study in three because he excelled academically. He told us that we would be passing his high school on the way to Kep so we asked to stop in and take a look around. A few moments later we pulled up to the unkept and rusty gate of Van-
Din’s school with a sign that read, “Anaridoh High School”. Kids ran around and played on their bikes. Since graduation Van-Din has taken out a loan for approx $350 USD to buy both his motorbike and tuk-tuk. His goal is to save enough money to put himself through University which in Cambodia costs about $270USD a year. As we drove along we made various stops to take in the scenery. Perhaps the most unlikely of friends, you could clearly see that Van-Din appreciated our curiosity and that a bond was forming between all of us. 

Shortly thereafter we arrived in Kep. We passed the famous crab market and Kep’s Lady of the Water statue. Cambodian lore states that her husband left to head out to sea, as he was a fisherman, and never returned so she is there waiting for him to come back one day. Oh women.

Pretty tired out, we all decided to rent hammocks by the beach, grab a few cold drinks and sit back and take in the Kep shoreline. I set out to wander around Kep’s rocky beaches and took a moment to breathe it all in. The air was charged with an electricity that was impossible to deny. A free standing tree stood just meters away having grown out of the rocky and infertile soil. It stood there, defiant, symbolic of the Cambodian people who despite all odds will once again thrive as they had before political and social ruination. In that moment I felt relieved, lighthearted and happy. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Market shopping, Thai Cooking class and Shimmering Sunset Runs.

When planning for our trip through Southeast Asia we set out to spend between two and four days in each city, town or beach outpost. Undoubtedly during this type of trip there will be certain places that you connect with more than others along the way.  After breezing through Bangkok, Phuket and Koh Phi Phi we arrived at the quaint mid-sized city of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. As it turned out, Chiang Mai was my type of city.

Chiang Mai has two definable portions of the city, the Old City and the New City. A moat and a fading brick wall with four entryways, on the South, West, East, and North walls, surround the Old City. The vibe of the Old City can be most easily compared to the Alphabet city portion of the East Village – streets and alleyways lined by quirky shops, local markets selling fresh produce, small parks, low-level apartment buildings and guesthouses for travelers like ourselves.

Soon after settling in at our hotel, The Raming Lodge, I signed up 

for a Thai cooking class that would begin that very morning. Asia Scenic designed a workshop that would not only teach us a selection of varied Thai dishes but would guide us through local market shopping to pick the produce we would use that very day. After spending more than a week in Thailand I needed to learn the secrets to some of its classic dishes in the hopes of recreating them once I return back home.

Upon arrival at Asia Scenic in the Old City I met the other two members of my cooking class, Cynthia and Julia, good friends from Taipei, Taiwan who were spending a week in Chiang Mai on vacation. We were introduced to our quirky, hyper, self-conscious and over-zealous

cooking instructor, Lanee. Lanee greeted us with a zany enthusiasm that was at first a bit disturbing. She was certainly not the wise, kind and gentle Thai cooking instructor that I had in mind who would impart bits of wisdom on us as we sprinkled chives into our fried rice, but such is life. Luckily as time passed I found her disposition to be more entertaining than irritating so I went along with it!!

After ingesting cups of the Thai coffee equivalent of rocket fuel and selecting our dishes - Papaya Salad, Glass Noodles Salad and Chicken Pad Thai - we headed out to the local market. As soon as we arrived Julia, Cynthia and I got a glimpse of how much of a celebrity chef Lanee actually is in Chiang Mai!

We went around the market learning about various Thai ingredients, such as dried lemongrass and hot chili pepper, varieties of fresh rice and noodles, and exotic produce.

Some vendors greeted Lanee with nods of happiness and appreciation (no doubt they enjoyed her business) as others shook their heads in disapproval, undoubtedly fed up with her boisterous ways.  Once we loaded up on produce we headed back to begin cooking.

The beauty of Thai dishes is that the shopping and preparation take much longer than the actual 

cooking process.  Once everything is purchased and chopped up, all that 

is really left to do is fire up the wok, throw the ingredients in and sear them for 3-5 minutes.  Lanee guided us through all of the dishes mentioned above and we took breaks to sit and sample each dish. The flavors were heavenly and I was relieved to realize how easy they would be to recreate at home. Julia, Cynthia and I gladly sat down and enjoyed our freshly self-prepared Thai dishes.

After a few hours of cooking and eating I returned to the hotel, satisfied 

with the knowledge I gained in just one day.  I grabbed my iPod and decided to top off the evening with a sunset run around the moat and wall of the Old City. The city lit up in beautiful shades of hazy pinks and greys as the sun set behind the mountains of northern Thailand.  Lanterns swinging from rooftop bar posts began lighting up all around town, welcoming the evening crowd in. Having spent the day in Chiang Mai getting to know some locals, learning all about their food and topping it off with one of my favorite activities, a good run, I felt right in tune with the quaint mid-sized city.

***Recipe for Papaya Salad


1 tsp palm sugar, 2 tsp fish sauce, 1 tbsp lime juice


1-3 small chilies, Long beans - cut in 1 inch length, 4-5 pieces of fresh garlic, 1/4 tomato sliced, 1 papaya thinly sliced, 1 tsp roasted peanuts


1. Pound chili, long beans and garlic together until they start to break down. 2. Add tomato, palm sugar fish sauce and lim juice and mix thoroughly. 3. Add shredded papaya then mix. 4. Sprinkle peanuts on top and serve.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Paradise Found on Koh Phi Phi Island

As we make our way through Southeast Asia I am quickly learning the difference between actual nooks of privacy and overdeveloped backpacking enclaves. While I can enjoy a stroll down Kao San Road (road featured in the movie The Beach in Bangkok) just as much as the next person, I have come to realize that I really appreciate finding quieter areas off the beaten path. That being said, my heart dropped a bit when we arrived at Koh Phi Phi Island.  How is that possible you ask?

What originally seemed like every travelers paradise surrounded by impressive stalks of island growth speckling the surrounding Andaman Sea wound up being just another backpacker haven

As soon as we disembarked from the ferry we were greeted by flyer distributors advertising free Thai booze buckets all around town. The reality fairy whispered in my ear and I agreed - I was a bit out of my element.

I was unwilling to relinquish my dream of a peaceful island paradise. My feelings of disappointment quickly turned into those of absolute resolve. I was determined to find the paradise I envisioned and with help from our new friend from the ferry, Damien, this vision would soon become a reality. 

While traveling from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi Island we had the opportunity to review lists of hotels and hostels and make a selection. While reviewing the hotels we befriended a Frenchman named Damien who was traveling solo. The majority of the hotels were located right on the main strip. After passing a couple of places along the shoreline we decided that our options were certainly sub-par. Damien mentioned that he saw one that seemed pretty nice and reasonable – Tropical Gardens. The only drawback was that Tropical Gardens was a 25-minute uphill walk into the

Island. To me this sounded ideal. As we walked further and further into the island the crowds diminished and our surroundings became increasingly tolerable.  We arrived at Tropical Gardens and took a small tour of the grounds and reviewed a few rooms. Paradise Found!!

The small hotel consisted of several private bungalows built up on stilts a good 15 feet above ground. After taking a walk up a smooth stone staircase to the platform of the bungalow we were welcomed by a hammock tied up on the porch.

The teak exterior opened up to a sweet room, complete with rattan rugs, bamboo furniture, low lying pendants for ideal lighting, an indoor/outdoor bathroom with intense water pressure and a bamboo roof to boot. After settling in I ran up to cool off at the hotel pool and came across a lagoon-like pool area, complete with Buddhist statues, relaxing waterfalls, meditation mats and a poolside fried rice and beer stand.

It felt just right… in a biblical sense. After pinching myself I dove right in, head first.

Michael and Damien quickly followed suit. Smiles were gleaming from all of our faces. We splashed around in the pool, trying to take in how perfect our surroundings actually were. I swam up to the grub hut and ordered a large platter of chicken fried rice. After three minutes it was ready and I swam the platter and a few Singh beers to the other side of the pool where we all dug right in.

Lesson learned: When traveling, do not give up on your vision of paradise. With a bit of hard work and determination you will surely find it!