Annie Bananie en Europe

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Category Archives: Cambodia

Eating in Southeast Asia, part 1: Cambodia

One of the greatest debates of life might be this: does one eat to live or live to eat? While it is no doubt true that food is essential in maintaining life, good food also brings joy and passion. I love food and cooking, and I am intrigued by the many cuisines and delicacies of the world. I cannot fathom living a life where food is just a substance and source of nutrient. Food is also culture, art, and love ❤

In fact, food is one of the anticipations and inspirations of travel. Wherever I go, I try to get a taste of the local food scene and appreciate the differences between theirs and mine. My trip to Southeast Asia last year was the perfect opportunity to try some local food of the cities that I’ve visited, starting with…Siem Reap, Cambodia! Now…before going to Cambodia I had no idea what Cambodian/Khmer cuisine is supposed to be like, and even with prior research, I was clueless beyond the popular amok. So my friend and I just ordered whatever we felt like from the menu and went from there. No preconceptions, no false expectations – this is as real as it gets!

Just a note: Siem Reap is incredibly touristy and commercialized, and I am aware that the stuff I ate might not be what you consider truly "authentic" (since I have no idea what authentic Cambodian food is anyway), so I am just trying to share my experiences without much bias. If you are from Cambodia, please do let me know if what I ate is really what you would consider authentic Cambodian/Khmer food!

Cambodian curry chicken – Starting off simple and mild, we’ve got a good ol’ curry chicken. Curry chicken seems to be popular in many cuisines – Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian…you name it. The Cambodian version seems to be coconut-based and not very saucy, and gave off a homey taste. It won’t be the only time you see the description “homey” in this post, that’s for sure!

Thick noodles with stir-fried chicken – This is another one of those very homey dishes, my my friend fell in love with the thick noodles after eating this. You could never go wrong with a good stir fry!

Spicy squid with basil – This was probably the best thing I ate in Siem Reap. It was from a huge outdoor road-side restaurant at a night market and it might look quite ordinary, but it was REALLY spicy. And the kick from the spiciness was what made this dish really memorable. Oh the squid – so good with the complementing basil. I could eat this again and again but please just give me a bowl of rice to neutralize the spiciness!

Watermelon shake – In addition to a bowl of rice, a watermelon shake was also the perfect side to a spicy meal. Actually, in the scorching 35+ degree weather, even in December, stalls selling fruit shake all over the place were a heavenly treat, and I certainly had more than a couple a day to cool me down! There were so many varieties, but my favourite was definitely the watermelon shake. So cheap, so refreshing, so amazing!

Fish amok – I mentioned amok before and if I knew anything about Cambodian food before my visit, I knew about amok. It is a traditional Cambodian dish of basically fish and curry, and aside from the lovely presentation, it was another one of those things that went down perfectly with just a bit of rice. I liked this a lot!

Beef lok lak – This dish reminds me of what I would often get at Chinese “cha chaan teng” restaurants, which serve a huge variety of rice dishes with any combination of meat and sauce you could imagine. The taste of the lok lak was not very exotic and in fact very…down-to-earth, if I may put it this way.

Beef soup noodles – This bowl of hearty beef soup noodles was served as breakfast at my hotel…BREAKFAST! This is why Asian breakfast will always triumph over western-styled ones, sorry bacon and sausage! The soup noodles reminded me of pho (definitely to come in the Vietnamese version of this series) but certainly had more intrinsic flavour with the abundance of green onions. If only breakfast could be like this every day…!

Chicken keng – I have no idea what “keng” means, but this innocent-looking dish introduced me to the very potent FISH MINT. As I was eating I noticed a very strong fishy smell, which was strange as nothing we ordered had any seafood in it. A bit of investigation led me to the inconspicuous leaves mixed among the chicken that I had thought were some regular herbs. OH HOW WRONG WAS I. A plant that smelled like fish…that was something new and intriguing, but the smell was SO STRONG that I was quite taken aback. Thankfully it didn’t affect the chicken much, so we were still able to eat it, but this fish mint…is definitely an acquired taste/smell!!!

Nom chak chan – Finally, some dessert! “Nom chak chan”, as written on the menu, is a special layered cake with “blended rice flour, mixed coconut cream and sugar, and steam”. I think they meant that the whole thing was steamed. Like the other dishes, it was mild but flavourful, not ridiculously sweet like many other desserts. And it was very pretty! So good I want another bite!

Cambodian stir-fried beef noodles – A nice stir-fried noodle with beef and vegetables couldn’t go wrong as part of a great lunch after an exhausting temple-hopping morning 🙂

Chicken with tomato and pineapple – If I were to pick the most homey-tasting dish on the list, it would have to be this one, the chicken with tomato and pineapple. It literally looked and tasted like something that my mom would bring out of the kitchen, though the addition of pineapple to a stir-fried dish was rather new to me!

Deep-fried tofu – This was a spontaneous addition to the final meal in Siem Reap, and my friend and I just wanted something super simple. What could be simpler and more classic than deep-fried tofu with a bit of chili sauce, right?

Coconut rice cakes – During the final few hours of strolling through the streets of Siem Reap, I spotted a stall selling these little coconut rice cakes, and I decided to give them a try before leaving Cambodia. Excellent…if you like sweet things! To be honest they were a bit too sweet for my own tastes, but I did like the texture of these little things. A bit less sugar would have made them perfect 😉

So the conclusion is…Cambodian food is very homey, as you’ve probably deduced from the title and the many times I called the food “homey” in the post, and makes me feel like I’m eating mom’s home-cooked meals. Again, any Cambodian friends out there, please enlighten me as to whether this is what you would usually eat on a daily basis? Whatever the case, the food was delicious – I want the nom chak chan and spicy squid again! And yes, there were things on the streets that were not exactly very pleasing to our weak stomachs (spiders, snakes, and crickets), so we opted to skip those, thank you very much. If you were looking for that, sorry to disappoint you! >_<

The other face of Angkor Wat

Most people go to Cambodia to see the Angkor temples. With millions of tourists each year, it is not unreasonable to say that the Angkor area, including Siem Reap, the closest city and the hub for visiting the temples, has become excessively commercialized and tailored for tourism. That is to be expected at any popular tourist destination, for like many others, Angkor was my reason for visiting Cambodia.

I was genuinely fascinated by Angkor Wat, THE most famous temple of them all, even though its grandiosity was with no doubt undermined by the sheer number of tourists within the temples at any given time. Of course, the other temples, like Bayon, Baphuon, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Srei (all the ones we went to that day), each had its own unique characteristics. I am not going to spam you with only the typical photos of each temple itself, but rather, I will show you some parts of the exploration that you may not see on postcards and advertisements.

It’s easy to get templed-out in Angkor, especially when that’s all you go there to see. With two and a half days in the Siem Reap area, my friend and I could only afford one day in the temple complexes, which means that between 9am and 6pm, we were temple-hopping in the scorching, 33-degree heat. Some interesting sightings included elephant-riding tourists, gorgeous butterflies, and monkeys…lots and lots of monkeys just chilling around Angkor Wat. It was quite a miracle that I didn’t end up with a heat stroke.

When touring the Angkor temples, I couldn’t help but ponder whether tourism has harmed the country than helped it. Sure, tourism is a significant source of income for Cambodians, and I don’t deny that it has helped the growth and development of the country. However, every time I visit a popular tourist destination in a developing country, I think of the impact and implications of the tourism industry on culture and society. When the sacred histories of your country become the Facebook profile pictures of foreigners who don’t understand what it took to make those histories happen, when the realities of life in this country is masked by the glamorous image of tourism and overlooked by most, do you feel saddened? Indifferent? Does it even matter at all?

Of course, I have to come back to the people. I struggled to decide whether I should post more photos of the Cambodian people because they made me feel so…sad and torn. On one hand, I want to avoid the possibility of disrespecting the people who appear in these photos but on the other hand, I would not be telling the whole story if I omit them from my experiences. In the end, I decided that I would post them.

I cannot forget that little girl at Angkor Wat, walking back and forth through the queue of people lining up to climb a temple, picking up, crushing, and bagging plastic bottles and cans from anyone who threw them away. This was life for her. While I paid $20 for a single visit to the temples and hundreds of dollars to get to her country in the first place, $1 might be more than what she gets a day. This is her life.

It is no secret that Cambodia is a poverty-stricken country and when I see the stark contrast between my life and that of the little girl, I even felt a bit guilty. And the tourism question comes back – do we do good by “supporting” Cambodia – or any other country where tourism plays a main role in its economy – through its tourism? If this is what life is like here, then I can’t even begin to imagine life in the more rural parts of the country, perhaps its true face.

We see so much, yet know so little.

Highlights of my first trip to Southeast Asia

Happy new year! The first post of 2016 will be a summary of the highlights of my trip to Southeast Asia during the Christmas holidays. Yes, after having had the inexplicable urge to visit Southeast Asia – especially Cambodia and Vietnam – I finally went to both countries! So it became the final trip of 2015 and the first of 2016, with new year’s eve spent on an overnight train somewhere in northern Vietnam. What an experience!

The 14-day trip started in Cambodia, where my friend and I went from Siem Reap (Angkor area) to Vietnam, where we travelled to the cities of Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi, ventured into the mountainous villages of Sapa, and spent a night on a cruise in Halong Bay. Here are just a few highlights from the too many precious memories that could be elaborated in one post.

33-degree heat wave in Cambodia

When I was preparing for the trip, I failed to realize that while the weather could be too cold, it could also be TOO HOT. I certainly packed plenty of clothing for the expected wet and wintery weather in northern Vietnam, but neglected that in Cambodia, it was going to be 33 degrees Celsius. Ouch. Imagine walking through ancient temples through the scorching heat for a whole day – I was burnt to a crisp! Still, wandering in the Angkor temple complex and soaking in all that vitamin D that I had been deprived of in Glasgow was certainly the first highlight and a warm beginning of the long trip!

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