Highlights: Cambodia

Siem Reap Angkor Wat: It'd be hard/ridiculous not to include this as it really is fantastic. While Angkor Wat was spectacular, and well worth a pre-dawn bike ride, our favorites were some of the smaller, older and less peopled ruins. With our three day ticket, we decided to navigate as close to chronological order as possible and that seemed to pay off in regard to the architecture and grandiosity.

Nom Gua Chay: This is probably spelled completely incorrectly, but it's more about the experience than the food itself right now. We saw the guy with his wood fired food cart after lunch one day and made a mental note to get back to try them. It was four days of searching before he reappeared and we got to sample the little round rice patties with a chopped scallions and greens filling, bathed in garlic fish sauce with a dollop of chili paste on top. Delicious.*

Walkability: The core of Siem Reap is pretty walkable which makes it that much more fun to explore bit by bit, without the feeling of being stranded in one area.

1961: A good marker of some of the developments and changes that are taking place in Siem Reap. Part gallery, part shop, part cafe, part education space, part hotel - all of it executed with individuality and a keen, hip aesthetic. An interesting contrast for us was its location along the river next to one of the most local (read: not affluent, not touristy) areas of Siem Reap we found. Interesting to the point of confusing. Our hope is that there is conversation and crossover between these two worlds, as the potential is certainly there.

Smateria: Another of the development changes, and one of a few locally made options in the recycled product category (bags, wallets, etc). While many of the recycled products on offer are made from the cement and rice bags, Smateria devised ways to reuse mosquito nets and crochet minutely thin plastic bags.

Shared dinner at Angkor Thom: Casey got invited (Eli was still a bit knackered with dysentery) to partake in dinner with the family that runs our guesthouse, Angkor Thom. Thi had small fried fish with a salted chili sauce which was an excellent grounds for one of the few really personal interactions we were able to find in a town so otherwise built around tourism.

The sparkling facilities at the hospital: In addition to the facilities being on par with (or better than? At least to our laypeople eyes...) any we've been to at home, the doctor at the Royal Angkor International Hospital ran some tests and in the most calming and clear way, delivered the results within the hour. Far from our worst nightmares of a hospital visit in a strange foreign land.

Phnom Penh Tat Guesthouse: It wasn't so much the actual room at this small, family-run space as it was certainly not near the nicest we have stayed. However, the willingness to help us out with mini Khmer lessons, introducing us to the beauty of jackfruit, and generally making us a wee (albeit fleeting) part of the crew for our six days with them. The young men and women essentially running the ship slept in the corner of the main roofgarden or above the kitchen, between the metal roof and raw framed ceiling...and everyday they were awake before us, asleep after us, and truly smiling or goofing around in the middle of it all.

Russian Market: Somehow we managed to explore this market twice without running into the souvenir section. It is three stories, all rabbit warren pathways and endless goods from glittering fabrics to shrimp paste to cell phones to fishing nets. A claustrophobic and beautiful maze to wind around for a few hours, we skipped almost all of the many photographic and audio recording rich moments in favor of just being there.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Not something that is in any way a true highlight, we list our visit here because it is necessary. Something about the simplicity of displaying the photographs of each prisoner kept here during the Khmer Rouge rule of the late 70s is most striking. The space itself is in disrepair and not exceptionally informative, yet it remains incredibly moving. The sheer weight of the realization that the entire city of Phnom Penh was emptied, this school cruelly transformed and such detailed documentation maintained by the Khmer Rouge is crushing...and worth the time.

Romdeng: This restaurant is one of various projects by the Friends International group aimed at helping street kids make choices and obtain skills that lead to a more fulfilling and sustainable life. It was here that our epic tarantula chomping experience occurred and there was no better place for it. It stands boldly as a moment where we really pushed our comfort levels out of the way and jumped in, gastronomically speaking. Though it wasn't a dish we will make for anyone upon return, we are more than glad to have it in our back pockets.

Knowing there is more to explore and more to return to: Though not a thriving metropolis, there is a lot going on in Phnom Penh. While we were there we managed to catch parts of a city-wide documentary photography exhibit and a film at Meta House, and read about a boatload of other things we would be missing out on. Leaving a place with loose ends can be exciting - it teases you to return and explore anew, and we look forward to that happening some day.

Ban Lung The tall woman at the market: We were directed to this market stand by a few girls working in a nearby village as teachers - they described a tall Cambodian woman who (gasp!) sometimes bared her shoulders. This is how we found her - smiling and incredibly helpful through the language barrier, she is hopefully an inspiration to other vendors. The iced coffee* we sipped was liquid mocha, minus the fancy price tag. Additionally, her morning phó left Casey's belly happier than any other meal in the country. Go figure.

Walking around the lake: Nothing particularly stunning, just a simplified peek at the life that goes on just outside the town center ... Accompanied by the quiet that comes when the motos are not revving around you.

Riding on the back of a moto with less traffic around: Speaking of motos. Our favorite rides yet brought us to waterfalls and a lake down bumpy, red dirt roads at a quickened (heart and rpm) pace. High fiving the beaming kiddies on the back of the water truck while riding by brought the ride to the next level.

Tree Top: The view from this guesthouse/restaurant deck brought on daydreaming and allowed us to get a glimpse at the back of a few homes sitting on the opposite ridge. Cashew nut trees surround the perimeter and a small gorge bursts with green everywhere. We didn't sleep here, but were lucky to have several mornings to chat with the owners, watch a hawk circle and cry, and see Ban Lung from a different perspective.

Having seats on the bus: A simple pleasure. Since we boarded first thing in the morning, our seats were just that - true bus seats, and two to boot. Others who boarded along the way were not so lucky, as more than six precariously balanced in the center aisle in mini plastic chairs for the ten hour trip.


* For those interested, we're keeping notes for a Southest Asia Food Porn post to add in all the loose (but tasty/weird/amazing/crazy) ends.

Location:Thái Phiên, Hội An, Vietnam

A Slow Peek at Phnom Penh

In collecting my reflections on Phnom Penh, a patchwork of images, sounds and smells evolves of daily life pulsing along through the semi-dusty streets, driven forth in swarms of motorbikes, wafting from the narrow interior aisles of the markets, woven tightly with history and specked with modern influences. The city seemed to balance daintily between the precarious rubble and rush of Kathmandu and the pristine vs. grit sensation of developing Bangkok. It immediately communicated to us that people live here, beyond the tourism. Contrary to the hot and blinding spotlight of the Siem Reap tourist machine, we were more able to slowly wander and quietly explore here. Though not many pictures exist from our week of time here, the ones that do sum up the time well enough. Yes, a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from our $6 per night guesthouse bookshelf was put to use for bedtime stories, though it went much quicker than when either of us was younger:

Staying true to form, as you have likely seen in a previous post, we maintained our culinary adventures as best possible...even after the dysentery mishap. A little bit of homesickness and sense of directional haziness was mildly, and I mean barely but happily, sated by some "fries" one afternoon. What was better about this place, though, was the extensively entertaining western-menu offerings:

It wasn't all reading and eating for us in Phnom Penh - even though our documentation may lead everyone to believe otherwise. The weather here was much kinder to us, inspiring many days of walking about and generally seeing what the city is made of. Some our favorites include:

+ The Phnom Penh Photo festival, a continuation of a festival in Siem Reap, highlighting the stellar work of young, mostly Asian photographers. Exhibitions were dispersed throughout the city, though more densely featured in the Street 178 (art street) area.

+ A $2 screening of the documentary about James Nachtwey, "War Photographer", at the Goethe Institute funded Meta House. I had meant to see this a few times over, but viewing it on the open-air balcony with a glass of sauvognion blanc in hand was better than a living room. Plus, Eli got to sip on a real stout, making the night a triple win.

+ The market up the street from our guesthouse was huge, lined with mopeds outside, hosted rows of fabric shops, was dark and super crowded with regular life goods and not just souvenirs. Multiple visits ensued.

+ Our guesthouse! Tat's Guesthouse, streets 125 and 232 or somewhere near there, away from the backpacker riverside and center city. We were lucky to stumble near it and be enticed by the nice, young chap on the balcony. It was nowhere near a sealed, spotless room but for $6 a night we also received some Khmer lessons, many good cups if coffee, the aforementioned storybook, and got our Vietnam visas taken care of by them instead of having to traipse around the city for a half day. Plus, Yi (the young, english speaking psuedo-manager) spoke to our khmer speaking only guesthouse in Ban Lung to make arrangements for our arrival. Woot!

+ Our visit to Tuol Sleng genocide museum (S-21), the former Khmer Rouge prison established at what was once a high school. Not a favorite in terms of the usual feel good city attraction, clearly, but one because of the respect that is due to the prisoners that died here and the fact that the rule of Khmer Rouge is gone, but still so present in this country's collective conscious and unconscious. An awful place, with a history that is worse, but the archival obsessions of the time it was running are currently being capitalized on as a memorial via photographs, paintings and a documentary. Funded by a now defunct Yale program, it is in need of some upkeep but gets the point across. All for the cost of a latte in the US.

+ Our nighttime walk down the riverside, accompanied by myriad Khmer families, when we happened upon one small temple that was, as Eli put it, "lit up like a Las Vegas drive through chapel" complete with blinking neon & another nearby that was crammed with people, lotus flowers and smoking incense for reasons unknown. The quiet excitement and sound of the live marimba like music and neverending scent and glow of candles was mesmerizing. That, and the small, incredibly dirty, naked child near us on the sidewalk playing with an iPhone.

Though many suggested that four days or so were plenty, we left after six wishing we had either decided to stay a little longer or that our route through Southeast Asia might bring us back through this city. Unfinished explorations can be well utilized in future choices with new places, or in deciding to return at another point down the road. Harnessing what we are learning from this currently wide open agenda applies to more than just traveling, an exciting challenge to tackle from here on out.

Location:Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tuk-tuk Clubbing

You never really know what you're going to get when you hire a moto tuk-tuk around Cambodia. The other night we got in this nice quiet little one to get back to our guesthouse and, once on the road, the driver decided it was time to GO. Anyone who has spent any time in Southeast Asia knows being in the traffic on the roads is, in some sense of the word, a party. He just took it to a new level: color changing strobe-light, traditional style painting up front, and a subwoofer beneath our seat:

Location:Phnom Penh, Cambodia