Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sunshine and cold beer

Once I came back to "modern" society via boat and yet another overnight bus, I found myself in Laos' capital city, Vientiane. After a 45 minute hunt around the city to find a hostel that had available rooms, let alone rooms in my price range (of which there were none), I showered and left my sick traveling companion in the room.

As I walked outside, I noticed the chill. It had been weeks and weeks, since Sapa to be exact, since I had been able to walk outside without immediately sweating. Gross, maybe, but true. I'm only telling you this so that you can try to imagine my delight on being able to walk outside without sweating AND with my hair down. Sigh...it was bliss.

The scenery didn't hurt either.

So I wandered around the quiet capital city, turning corners at whim, switching from sidewalk to sidewalk depending on which side was sunniest. I gradually found my way to a restaurant that I'd read about in the guidebook, a place known for its spring rolls and pork brochettes (think pork kebabs).

I strolled up to a very busy storefront, with the "kitchen" out front, spread across two carts. There was a line of people shouting orders at the cooks working busily behind the glass displays of about eight different kinds of fresh spring rolls, piles of fresh herbs, plates of lettuces, and a completely full dining room inside.

I was a bit overwhelmed, and held back a bit, in order to watch and figure out the best approach. Apparently, my confusion and skepticism at breaking this restaurant's particular entrance code was quite recognizable, as a man to my right turned to me, smiled and asked a bit tentatively in French if I needed help.

Smiling gratefully, I explained that everything looked delicious, but I wasn't really sure what the procedure was, how to score a table or what to order. He introduced me to his lovely wife and daughter, then he and his wife recommended a few things to me, told me how much to order, and instructed me to snatch up a table as soon as I saw anyone making any kind of a motion to get up. The place was busy!

I gave him another grateful smile (I'm good at those), then squared my shoulders, ready to jump in as soon as I saw an opening at one of the tables.

Five minutes later, I was still squared up and waiting, and the helpful Laotian family were on their way out to share their food with family waiting at home. Looking back, the father saw me and came back to help. He asked the ladies if there were any tables free and to look after me to help me get the next available one. Then, giving me a smile, he headed off with his daughter looking suspiciously at me over his shoulder.

Two minutes later, I sat down to the spread you see above, along with a rather large Beer Lao, and utterly gorged myself on roll your own pork brochette spring rolls.

After I had thoroughly enjoyed and stuffed myself, I wandered around a bit more before I decided that the best way to cap off this lovely day was to find myself a little corner, grab a book and watch the world go by.

Which I did.

The following day I took a bus from the 1970s to Vang Vieng, the infamous land of drunken river tubing. I didn't have enough time to partake in the festivities, as I was heading the following day to Luang Prabang and arrived too late to be off the river by dark. Since I'd heard a horror story of tramping barefoot through the brush in the darkness from a traveler in Vietnam, I thought it was better to forgo the tubing.

Just so you know, the tubing is supposed to be a great time, with bars lining the river, along with mud beach volleyball courts, zip lines and rope swings. It just wasn't enough to convince me to miss out on Luang Prabang.

I did, however, take a rather spectacular walk at sunset, enjoy a few Friends reruns and have probably three mango shakes. Oh, that and some more fish laap and sticky rice. Hmmm...I think that I'm beginning to sound predictable.

Anyway, instead of a long post about my experiences in Vang Vieng, which, to be honest, weren't incredibly interesting, I thought I'd leave you with some pictures of a beautiful town with a deteriorating reputation for nothing more than booze and backpackers.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Racing against the clock

As soon as I left Vietnam, I knew I was in trouble.

Timewise, that is.

Though I'm not trying to complain that I didn't have enough time on my trip, trying to cram an entire country into one week, including bus travel, was quite a challenge. Turns out that time management is a crucial part of backpacking.

With one week in which to see Laos, I had only enough time to hit the highlights, so time-consuming activities like this or this were out of the question, no matter how attractive.

I took the overland bus trip to Cambodia, which sucked up two days in minivans, but did save me quite a bit of money and brought me directly to Si Phan Don.

Si Phan Don, otherwise known as the Four Thousand Islands, is a collection of tiny islands in the Mekong located at the lower border of Laos. Famous for its lazy river attitude, the place claims shore-line bungalows and electricity about three hours each day.

I got up early, and with a new friend, walked across the island on my way to the local waterfall. As we were padding over to the waterfall under the steadily warming sun, a large truck came plundering up the dusty road. Full of Thai tourists, they pulled over and rearranged themselves so that we could hop on, then we all continued down the road, over the bridge, to the waterfall.

After a stroll around the waterfall and a snack of coconut, which I shared with a stray dog nearby, my friend and I walked back towards our bungalows. On the way, we got another free lift. Those Thai tourists, so friendly and accomodating.

Once we were back on the road on our island, we passed by the bakery where we'd had a mediocre breakfast that morning. I have pretty high standards for scrambled eggs, and unfortunately, the bakery did not achieve them. That's what I get for having a grandmother who made rhubarb pies from scratch and scrambled eggs that made it easy to get up in the morning. That, and Cheerios with a spoonful of sugar, though, come to think of it, that was actually Grandpa's influence. The man loved his sugar...and slices of cheddar cheese with his apple pie, a habit I have kept up.

Speaking of sugar, my friend and I decided to stop in to the bakery on our way back. Delicious smells wafted out, drawing us in. I ordered a round little carrot cake muffin and a coffee. The cake was moist and chockful of nuts, which, in my opinion, is one of the the only baked goods in which nuts are welcome. Not in brownies and definitely not in banana bread. Is that just me?

Anyway, I got through exactly two bites of the cake before I went into sugar overdrive. It's amazing how much sugar one cuts out when traveling in Asia on a budget. My hands were literally shaking as I tried to slowly finish the cake. "Tried" being, I'm ashamed to say, the operative word.

Quickly spiraling into a sugar coma, I headed back to my bungalow's front porch. Grabbing a book, I flopped onto a hammock and spent the rest of the afternoon swinging between sleep and lazy reading.

That night I had what would become the Laotian equivalent of my fish amok obsession. Laap is a cold salad, made with minced protein (chicken and fish are my favorite) stirred up with lots of lovely spices, chilis, onion, garlic and heaps of fresh herbs.

This fateful evening, I ordered a lovely fish laap, complete with sticky rice galore. I'm not sure I did it correctly, but I scooped some of the laap into the accompanying lettuce leaves, pinched and rolled a ball full of sticky rice in my right hand (always the right!) to top it, then shoved the thing in its entirety into my mouth. Oh, and then I moaned a little bit.

Ladies and gentleman, a new addiction has been born.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Picture update

Just wanted to let you all know that I've finally added photos to supplement my previous posts.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Discovering playgrounds

All right, time for another confession: Angkor Wat was not my favorite.

I realize that that is practically sacrilegious to admit, but when you see it on your third day of "templing" in sweltering heat, the kind of heat that pushes down on your chest while your ears fill with the muffled symphony of thousands of insects, well, maybe then it's easier to understand how its sheer size could leave me feeling a bit blasé. Plus, did I mention that this was my THIRD straight day of temples?

Don't misunderstand me, Angkor Wat was, no, is amazing. It's just that there were so many other temples, slowly surrendering to natural ruin, covered in winding tree roots that were much more fun to explore and interesting to photograph. The ruinous ones felt like my personal jungle gyms.

I used the first day of my 3-day pass to explore some of the temples that were quite a few clicks out of town.

Banteay Samre seemed to have been designed as if it were surrounded by water. Between walkways, there were sheer drops 10 feet deep, reminding me of moats and dragons. This temple was also home to a monk, seated beneath an offering and a bowl of incense, who gestured to me with a rather charming smile. Once I removed my shoes and kneeled next to him on his mat, he chanted while lighting another stick of incense, then wrapped and tightly tied a red string of good luck to my right wrist.

The River of 1000 Lingas showcased technical ingenuity. Reached after a two kilometer hike through the woods, I wasn't even sure what I was looking for, until I followed the gaze of a few other travelers to the riverbed. There, carved underneath the gurgling water, were literally hundreds of carvings.

Most of them were lingas and perfectly circular stones, but I also spied some Vishnus for variety.

The icing on my cake was found at the end of the trail. Before looping back to the tuk-tuk parking lot, the trail led me to a waterfall where I splashed around and cooled off.

My second day did not dawn well for temple exploration. I woke up to the pouring rain clattering on the tin roof of my guesthouse. After a leisurely breakfast of stir-fried mixed vegetables and rice (not exciting, perhaps, but such delicious breakfast food). The storm abated and I made my way to "my" deserted temple.

Of course, Preah Khan wasn't completely deserted, but its maze of rooms and walkways, many blocked by fallen walls and columns, allowed me to wander off from the major halls, down, over and around a few piles of ruined stones to find myself completely alone in total silence for minutes.

As I previously mentioned, by my third and final day at the Angkor temples, I was nearly templed out. Though its sheer size and preservation were, I admit, impressive, it was the intricately carved bas-reliefs that held my attention, as well as proved useful as shade from the hot noon sun. Plus, when there's another temple awaiting you that afternoon that is covered in faces, it can be a little distracting.

Bayon was constructed to have hundreds of stone Buddha faces (by huge I mean faces bigger than I am tall) facing in all four directions. For extra fun, the Buddhas are said to bear a distinct likeness to the king at that time, Jayavarman VII.

Vanity seems a small price to pay for such a magnificent relic. Spooky though...I had this weird feeling of being watched.

No food news today, guys. Siem Reap was the city of temples, not of dining. I promise to provide a good introduction to Laotian cuisine in the next update to make it up to you all!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Freedom in dusty roads

I love the idea of getting off the beaten track.

So much so, in fact, that I played a little game while I was away: "count the foreigners". Pretty self explanatory, really: every time I'd see someone I could identify as a foreigner, I'd call out "boul-ay", which is my phonetic transcription of the Indonesian word for foreigner, as taught by my sister. I played this game throughout my trip, garnering strange stares when I was around said boulays. I tried to avoid pointing but sometimes, eh. In general, the fewer boulays I saw, the more exciting the place turned out to be.

What does this have to do with me getting off of the beaten path, you might ask? Well, my next stop allowed me the fewest boulay identifications of my entire time in Cambodia. For that, and for some other reasons, I loved the place.

Battambang is known to tourists as "that place with the bamboo train". The bamboo train was, in fact, my entire reason for heading there. I'd read some tantalizing descriptions in my guidebook, though hadn't heard many first-hand accounts, which increased its mysterious appeal even more.

Of course, unless you've ever traveled to or planned to travel to Cambodia, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about when I say "bamboo train". If you're picturing a full steam locomotive constructed entirely out of bamboo...you're not even close. If, however, you have in mind a horizontal fence post of bamboo tied together with string lying across two bar-bells attached to wheels powered by a lawnmower engine, you're getting warmer.

The experience is nothing less than thrilling, as you climb atop the train, remove your shoes and hunker down. Soon, you find yourself throttling along an extremely overgrown path, being whipped and scratched by bushes growing over the tracks. Behind you might be a motorbike, piles and piles of rice sacks five feet high, or maybe just a pregnant woman and her mother-in-law getting a free ride from the nice driver. If it's the latter, then they may insist that you sit in front, smiling and laughing a little bit at your obvious excitement over their everyday trip.

As I've mentioned before, I traveled quite a bit with an Aussie named Petar. With most every aspect of our time traveling together, we seemed to want to do the same things: wander around as much as possible and eat the craziest and tastiest morsels we could find. However, Petar also had what I will politely call an obsession: he wanted to rent motorbikes for a day, and he wouldn't let it go.

To be honest, I wasn't exactly keen on the idea, seeing as it's been over 10 years since I was on a bicycle, I can't drive a manual car let along a motorbike and I was familiar with the state of roads in Cambodia (not good--plus there's that whole unexploded land mine thing).

So, we compromised.

And I discovered a new talent: I am a natural at riding on the back of a motorbike.

It's hard to describe how free you feel whizzing past rice field upon rice field, stopping only to pick up a 2 liter pop bottle filled with pink(?) gasoline to refill the tank, or to explore that pretty temple hiding behind the crumbling wall just ahead.

The gloriously pink sunset that erupted at the end of the day, leaving me glancing over my right shoulder for a solid 30 minutes, well, that wasn't too bad either.

My days in Battambang were thrilling, to say the least. And foodwise, they were filled with delicious fruit shakes. Fruit shakes, essentially fruit milk shakes, are a staple all over Cambodia, but the ones in Battambang truly shined. Instead of a strict recipe today, I'm going to give you a general outline of what should go in a proper shake, plus a few ideas of fruit combinations. Seeing as it's December, the tropical fruits might be a bit harder to come by, but frozen fruit's always an option.


Fruit Shakes

As I said before, there really isn't much of a recipe here, just a general outline of ingredients. The best shakes I tried included at least two kinds of fruit, some ice and the most SE Asian ingredient I know: sweetened condensed milk. Roll your eyes, if you must, but those cans were as ubiquitous as lemongrass and ginger.

In terms of proportions, think in terms of handfuls.

Combine two handfuls of one fruit, one handful of the other, another of ice and a good-sized drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. Blitz in the blender and enjoy.

The following are my two favorite combinations, though feel free to throw in whatever you'd like. I have a feeling that a Blueberry/Lime combo would be fantastic:
Mango and Pineapple (Make the mango the two handful portion)
Coconut and Jackfruit (You could try just the coconut, since Jackfruit's not that common over here, or try substituting in a bit of pineapple)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Loosening the belt

When I read in my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook that Sihanoukville was Cambodia's answer to St. Tropez, I pictured white beaches, gorgeous people sunning themselves on the beach, fruity cocktails with those little umbrellas sticking up, way overpriced food...you know, the usual jet set fantasy.

What I should have remembered was that I was in Cambodia, and no matter how "St. Tropez"-y a guide book claims a city to be, I was not about to find little umbrellas, undressed locals or overpriced food. This is Cambodia, people! The food is delicious and cheap, and Cambodians play in the surf fully clothed...and, not to change the subject, but that made me feel fairly uncomfortable and very immodest in my two-piece. Eh, so it goes.

Sihanoukville is an incredibly fun town. Most of the action is centered ocean-side, with bar upon bar upon bar lining the surf. Each bar has roughly the same menu, prices and same people hawking the same bracelets and games. They even share the same boys walking around, trying to engage you in "games" that will leave you scratching your head and wondering how you just lost the equivalent of 5USD to a scrawny little 11 year old (I saw it happen more than once).

Incidentally, the boys all follow the exact same speech when they find out there's an Aussie in their midst:
"G'day Mate! Ozzie, ozzie, ozzie, oy, oy, oy!"
Can someone explain this to me, please?

This town is a backpacker's dream. The only effort you have to put out is to walk down to the beach and flop on one of the couches or lounge chairs. The rest of your day can be filled to the brim with booze, sun and fun.

Of course, this is me we're talking about here, and while I can take a few days of the above, I tend to get a little antsy if I feel like I'm looking a bit too similar to the barbecued meats sizzling next to me.

Happily, my older sister had made me swear to take a cooking class in Sihanoukville while I was there, and I take promises to my sisters very seriously, especially when they involve food.

Khmer Cooking is located in a house a bit out of town, on the upstairs open-air level, outfitted with individual cooking stations including wok and mortar and pestle. I signed up for the whole-day cooking class, which allowed me to indulge in fresh spring rolls, fish amok (yes!), banana flower salad and mango with sticky rice (my special request).

The first two dishes were prepared alongside some lovely Swedish tour group leaders camped out in Cambodia for six months. The fresh spring rolls were as delicious as always, though made a bit more interesting with the use of crumbled bacon as the protein in lieu of the traditional shrimp or pork.

And the fish amok...well, let's just say that the first bite was akin to the moment in movies where a direct light shines down, seemingly from the heavens and you can hear Handel's Hallelujah chorus in the background. Come to think of it, each bite had that effect on me.

The second two dishes I prepared myself, as I was the only one who had signed up for a full-day class that day. That just meant I had more time with our lovely instructor to pepper her with questions.

The banana flower salad was a surprise, as I'd never even heard of a banana flower before I saw it on the menu (so much for being informed). The banana flower itself, sliced very very thinly on a bias, didn't add a pronounced flavor, but the crunchy texture was indispensable. Imagine pretty purple thin carrot rings tossed in a sweet yet tangy dressing with poached chicken and you'll have some idea of its deliciousness.

And the mango with sticky rice, you might ask? Sheer heaven, as I knew it would be. This particular version used freshly grated coconut rather than the already prepared coconut milk, which made for a slightly less creamy but still delightful dessert. Oh, and the perfectly ripe mango slices fanned on top might have had something to do with me doing my best to clean my plate and the subsequent bellyache that developed later that day. You can't let food like that go to waste.

I gave myself some extra time after the meal to slowly sip some wine (My God, but I had missed the vino!), digest and ask my teacher specific questions about the recipes. An incredibly sweet lady, she went over each recipe step by step with me, so I could add all of her individual tweaks to the printed version, which I will pass along soon enough.

Update (12/9/08): Below is my version of fish amok, adapted with help from my lovely teacher.

Fish Amok
Adapted from Khmer Cooking Class, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

If you have a mortar and pestle, I highly recommend using it here to get the proper paste texture. If, however, you don't have the time or inclination, it's perfectly acceptable and less tiring to make the spice paste in a food processor. The following makes an individual portion, as that is how it is generally served, but it's quite easy to double, triple or quadruple the ingredients and just make a much larger spice paste mixture to begin with.

1 firm white fish fillet cut into bite-size pieces (snapper would work great here)
1 14 oz. can, or about 2 cups, coconut milk, stirred to reincorporate both milk and cream
3 sheets of banana leaf (corn husks could be substituted here if necessary, or just use an oven-proof bowl)
1 red chili, sliced
2 kaffir lime leaves, sliced (leave out if unavailable)

Spice Paste:
1 quarter-sized chunk of galangal (substitute equal amount ginger if you can't find it)
1 Tbs roasted peanuts
1 large shallot
3 cloves garlic
3 dried red chilies, rehydrated by soaking in warm water for about 20 mins
1 Tbs chicken bouillon
3 tsp sugar
2 stalks lemongrass, only using white portion
1 tsp turmeric powder
3 kaffir lime leaves (substitute rind from one small lime and 1/2 tsp. lime juice if unavailable)

Start off by cutting the banana leaves into circles about 25 cm in diameter. Run them very quickly under warm running water to dampen. Layer the three circles one on top of the other, then fold in four corners, securing them with toothpicks to create a lidless box or basket.

Finely chop the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal. Add them, along with the turmeric, to the mortar and pestle and start pounding away (or, alternatively, throw them into the food processor). Next finely chop the shallot, garlic cloves, peanuts and rehydrated chilies before tossing them into the mixture as well. Once those are incorporated, add the sugar and chicken bouillon. Continue pounding or food processing until you have a thick, smooth paste.

Place a steaming basket over water and bring to a boil.

Heat your wok or large skillet on high and add the spice paste. Stir-fry for approximately 2 minutes, then add 2/3 of the coconut milk (about 1 1/2 cups). Continue stir-frying until the paste and coconut milk are a uniform color throughout. Add in the fish pieces, stir to coat, then place everything in your banana leaf basket.

Add remaining coconut milk to the top of your fish mixture, then garnish with red chili and kaffir lime leaf slices. Place banana leaf basket into your steamer basket, cover and let steam for approximately 20 minutes.

Serve in banana leaf basket with fresh jasmine rice on the side.

Serves 1.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Singing in the rain

Kampot is a tiny town in southern Cambodia, about a two-hour minibus ride east of Sihanoukville, a popular beachy tourist destination. Lying a bit off of the typical tourist trail, Kampot's claim to fame are its caves, in which semi-intrepid travelers can fawn over centuries-old temples found inside.

I only had about 24 hours in Kampot, but wanted to enjoy something cultural and a bit off the beaten path before heading to Sihanoukville the following day. As soon as I found an open room in the fourth guesthouse I tried, I dropped my bags, shook off a bit of dust and fatigue, and hopped into a tuk-tuk.

Of course, the second I hopped in, I glanced over my shoulder and noticed the huge storm brewing. As a former lifeguard from Iowa, I made it my business to recognize anything which might cause a pool closure and thereby give me a free afternoon, so believe me when I say that I knew this one was going to be a doozy. The rain started not long after we pulled out, and a little boy jumped on the back of the tuk-tuk,getting not only a reprieve from the rain, but also a free ride.

Once we stopped, the driver informed me that it was another two km walk through the rice fields to get to the caves. Conveniently, one of the eight children that are continually clustered near the entrance to the path towards the caves (lying in wait for tourists) offered to run home and get ponchos for us for a small fee. I laughed when I saw him set off barefoot in the pouring rain to find us ponchos, with my money clutched in his fist.

Once he came back and I was properly outfitted with my pants pulled up as far as I could get them, we all set off, and by "we", I mean me, the tuk-tuk driver, my traveling buddy and our new eight guides. The rain had already turned the path into pure mud, and I wisely let one of the girls carry my flip-flops so that they weren't lost forever in the rice fields of Cambodia. For some reason, the girls in particular took a liking to me and we exchanged ages, names and songs (I went with Disney on the way over) while tramping through the mud puddles towards the cave.

Once we got to the cave, I have to admit that the temple itself was slightly underwhelming. While beautiful, especially considering its age, it wasn't nearly comparable to the fun I'd just had walking through the rain, singing songs. Luckily, the temple wasn't the end of my cave adventure.

Noticing my only partially hidden lack of interest in the historical monument in front of me, the tuk-tuk driver suggested that we go check out the bat cave right around the corner. Intrigued, I agreed and we headed down, using my tiny, two inch long flashlight as our light source.

And that is how I found myself rock-climbing barefoot in a wet bat cave, and I don't say rock-climbing lightly, because there were some serious boulders to maneuver around. I was searching for foot and hand holds, and I barely even know what that means. All I knew was that if I hurt myself down there, there was no way any of those school kids was going to be able to drag me back up, so I had to be quite careful. Of course, those "school kids" looked like mountain goats, hopping from rock to rock with ease, while holding my flip-flops and extending a hand when necessary (that was frequently).

After slithering, jumping and shimmying my way to the bottom of the cave, I waded through a pool of collected rainwater lined with mud that made that lovely squelch with each step. We finally arrived at the bat cave, and listened to intermittent squeaks and the flap of wings in the darkness.

I made my way back up to the mouth of the cave, and we retraced our way back through rice paddies, this time singing "Beautiful Girl" at the urging of the boys, while "Jingle Bells" was requested by the girls. And still the rain fell, creating homemade slip 'n slides for the kids.

I don't remember the last time I had so much fun.

The next day, before heading to Sihanoukville, I stopped at a lovely cafe run by an English couple. The place was lovely, light and airy, with some of the best jam I've ever had. I haven't played with proportions yet, but they did reveal the simple ingredient list, which I've passed along below. I can't wait to try it out.

Banana Jam


Saturday, December 6, 2008

A day of reckoning

Every tourist to Phnom Penh has the ubiquitous circuit to complete to claim that they've really "seen" the city. On it are sites ranging from the National Palace with its Jade Buddha and dress code, the Russian Market with its stalls and stalls of knockoff purses and shirts and two of the most heart-breaking places I've ever seen: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.

It may be hard to imagine that places with unspeakables like "genocide" in the name can be on a tourist circuit, but there you have it. Street corners in the tourist areas of the city are crowded with tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled taxi/motorbike combo) drivers shouting with a smile "You want to go Killing Fields? Tuol Sleng? See Central Market?" It's slightly unreal.

My morning started off at the Killing Fields, located about 30 minutes outside of the city in the peaceful countryside. Once dropped off, and with ticket paid for, you found yourself confronted with a tall stupa, filled to the top with row upon row of glass-encased human skulls.

Upon reaching the foot of the monument, you walk up a few steps to a sign that instructs you to remove your shoes and hat out of respect. There is a mat, with incense continually lighted, where anyone is welcome to kneel and pray. Up two more steps, you come face to face with the skulls, cleaned but still bearing indentations and marks from being struck. Walking around and around, the obvious and simple emotion is to feel sad or disgusted, or maybe your breath will just catch in your chest like mine did.

The rest of the Killing Fields, so named because this is where prisoners from the torture prison known as Tuol Sleng came to be killed, consists of fields with large craters. You see, people were brought here with one purpose: to be killed, mostly by being smacked in the head with a shovel or the butt of a gun or a stick in order to save bullets, then loaded into mass graves. The craters are those graves that have been excavated, though there are still more suspected farther out in the fields.

Visitors can walk along the well-worn paths around the craters, taking care not to think too much about the pieces of fabric sticking up through the ground, or those white stones that look an awful lot like splintered bone. Through it all, you have a soundtrack from the nearby river and the sounds of dragonflies buzzing around the tall grasses in the bottoms of the craters.

After a very quiet tuk-tuk ride back into town, I found myself at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A high school in a previous life, it was transformed into the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prison and torture site. Consisting of about four different buildings, the top floors have been left unchanged from when they were used as cells or interrogation rooms. The cells were tiny, smaller than even the smallest NYC apartment bathroom, but the interrogation rooms were even more disturbing with their wire beds and stained floors.

The first floor of each of the buildings is filled with chalkboards on which are posted mugshots of every single prisoner to come to the prison. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their records, so each room has approximately nine chalkboards, covered front and back with these small 4"X 2" photos. Of course, the Khmer Rouge were also similar to the Nazis in the extent of their destruction: almost every person who was brought to Tuol Sleng died. Out of an estimated 17,000 prisoners, there were only 12 survivors. So each photo that I looked at, and I looked at every single one, was most certainly of someone long since tortured and executed.

An interesting tourist trap, wouldn't you say?

I suppose now would be the time to insert some moral lesson or wise words of wisdom, but unfortunately, I don't have any. The memories of these places affect me as much in memory as they did the day I visited them. And I suppose that's the best I can offer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Over the river and through the woods

My last few days in Vietnam left me feeling as if I was on a roller coaster ride with no end in sight.

And yes, I do mean that literally. I suppose that's what eight hours in a minivan without air conditioning, jutting in and out and around potholes big enough to swallow a full-size bus will do to you. That, and the fact that every time we hit a pothole (which was about every 30 seconds) I flew out of my seat about two feet forward, wiggling back up just to jettison out again seconds later. It was so ridiculous, it became hilarious. At least I provided entertainment to my fellow Vietnamese passengers.

Instead of the quick and ubiquitous straight shot bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, I decided to do the Mekong River crossing. Though it took longer, as it involved the previously mentioned minibus ride to get over to the Mekong Delta followed by a full day's worth of river travel north, the trade off was well worth it. The scenery that I witnessed during the boat ride showed a quiet, river-centric way of life that kept my eye glued to the camera viewfinder.

My first order of business upon arriving in Phnom Penh was to taste a dish that my older sister has been raving about since she left Cambodia: fish amok. A firm, white-flesh fish is steamed in coconut curry inside of a banana leaf before being spooned over hot long-grain rice and gobbled up. At least, that was how I ate it every time I tried it...which averages out to about once a day.

There are as many versions of fish amok as there are restaurants in Cambodia. Known as the unofficial national dish, it had a place on nearly every menu I saw. And if it wasn't fish amok (my personal favorite), it was available with another protein: tofu, pork, chicken, beef. I sampled my favorite version at the Cambodian cooking class I took in Sihanoukville, which I will share in a later post.

After I got my introduction to fish amok out of the way, I was free to attend to other things of business such as applying for a Laos visa, oh, and visiting some of the many national monuments located in Cambodia's capital.

As luck would have it, the rain followed me all the way to Cambodia, and my first day there, after paying a visit to the Lao Embassy, found me inside the Cambodian National Museum. This was, by far, my favorite museum of the trip. Filled to the brim with ancient Khmer and Angkor statues, it took me hours to get through it all. I also brushed up on my Buddhist and Hindi deity knowledge and fell in love with the graceful Khmer language engraved on tablets centuries old.


Now, as you may have guessed, these blog posts are not happening in real time. Though I'm only up to Cambodia in the posts, I'm actually in Thailand with my good friend Katie, having a lovely time, and a mere week away from coming back to the States (assuming the protests in Bangkok don't wreak too much havoc). I'll definitely be continuing the posts to get you all up to date, but I wanted to take a moment to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.

I will be in the kitchen myself, taking a Thai cooking course, though I can guarantee that I'll be missing Dad's turkey, Mom's pumpkin pie and everything that comes in between. Have a couple extra bites for me if you can, and maybe a sip or two of champagne to celebrate.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The heat is on

Eh-ehm...anyone still out there?

It's been a busy few weeks, and I have to apologize for my recent silence. I'm already woefully behind with my updates and will therefore be continuing to post about my holiday when I'm back in the States for Christmas. Oh well, a girl has to be out having adventures in order to post about them, doesn't she?

Onward then.

My next bus ride down the Vietnamese coast brought me to the town of Nha Trang. Laidback, touristy, very very beachy. The weather was perfect, allowing me to play in the clear blue waves until sunset the day of my arrival.

My second day in Nha Trang was spent on a boat trip around a few of the neighboring islands. We were able to snorkel, drink fruity Vietnamese wine while floating about in inner tubes and enjoy entertainment in the form of our our crew's very own boy band (drumset, electric guitar and all).

As an extra bonus, I even met some sweet American girls who were equally crazy about musical theatre, so we played "name that tune" games throughout the day. Selections from Miss Saigon and Spring Awakening featured especially.

Foodwise, eh, Nha Trang's not exactly known for it.

I must admit that after a delicious lunch of clear vegetable soup, fish cooked in a clay pot with tomato sauce and rice...I gave in and had a goat cheese salad for dinner. I know, I know! I promise, it's the only time I've had Western food since I arrived, and, well, it's goat cheese, people! You know how I feel about that. Forgive me?

After basking in the Nha Trang sun, I hopped on yet another overnight bus (they're a staple of travel here) down to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it's officially known.

Now, Saigon wasn't particularly inspiring visually. It's a fun, busy, motorbike-filled city like all of the rest, but the architecture's nothing to write home about.

Two of the more memorable visits were to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The War Remnants Museum talked about the Vietnam War, or the "American War", as it's known here. It's the sort of gut-wrenching experience that's best left without description or outside commentary, but let me just say that propoganda played a role, and my eyes were not dry while walking by the photos of disfigured victims nor the deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde on display.

The Cu Chi Tunnels was possibly even more disturbing, mostly because the tour guide was laughing the entire time that he demonstrated how all of the booby traps left for American soldiers worked.

On the positive side, I had some fabulous food in Saigon. It would be hard not to. I had an authentic version of bun cha, or what we probably know as vermicelli with spring rolls. Fresh rice noodles held up fresh herbs and newly fried spring rolls. On the side was a sweet dipping sauce that I just tossed on top and mixed in. Absolutely delicious, and refreshing when the temperatures are through the roof...which they were every day.

The other interesting things I tried were on the recommendation of a waiter. Since I tend to ask servers back home for their favorite menu items, it's been hard not to be able to while travelling! Happily, this waiter spoke English well enough to understand me and steered me towards another fresh rice noodle dish. This one was interesting, because it involved mixing the typical inside parts of a fresh spring roll (fresh rice noodles, vegetables--cucumber here, herbs) and dipping them into shrimp paste. Tangy, to say the least, but delicious after you got over your initial shock.

After my tangy main course, I decided to even things out a bit with a sweet treat: taro mixed with purple sticky rice, drizzled with coconut milk. I cannot even begin to tell you how delicious it was. Think of a taro bubble tea, take out the tapioca, and substitute in sticky rice and a hint of coconut.

I promise to figure out a way to recreate it at home...as soon as I figure out where to find proper sticky rice and a good method for cooking taro. Too bad I won't have all of my neighborhood San Francisco Asian grocery stores. Guess Houston's Hong Kong Market will have to suffice. Oh, and if you know of any good Asian grocery stores in Chicago, please let me know!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Serious withdrawal

I come to you today with a confession: I really miss cooking.

Perhaps this is not that shocking to some of you, but since I recently spent an entire day on a bus, staring out the window and daydreaming about the different dishes I'm going to try and old favorites I will be pulling out immediately upon landing in the States...well, it's on my mind.

Luckily, today's entry includes a cooking class that I took in Hoi An, so I can at least reassure myself that I still remember what a kitchen looks like.

I only spent about two days in Hoi An, and was sick for most of one of them. However, I did get to wander a little ways around its streets, and the architecture was beautiful. If I'd had the time and money, I would have spent a bit more time there and had some clothes or shoes hand made (Hoi An is reknowned for this, you see shop after shop after shop of tailors), but unfortunately it was not to be. I think my dad described it as akin letting an alcoholic into a liquor store and not letting them buy anything. How well he knows me.

I did get the chance to take another cooking class here, one recommended by both my sister and father when they were in Vietnam just a few months ago, so all was not lost.

The cooking school was reached by a quick boat trip up the river, which, when there's yet another torrential downpour, makes for quite an interesting trip.

The venue itself was quite beautiful, an open-air outdoor kitchen with individual work stations set up with wok and cutting board. Our menu varied from a seafood salad with fresh herbs to tomato roses to fresh rice paper spring rolls.

The fresh rice paper spring rolls were quite fun to make. I've told you before about the lovely fresh spring rolls I've had throughout my time in Vietnam, but those were always done with dried rice paper. This time around, we actually made the rice paper ourselves, by preparing a sort of rice crepe batter which we steamed over cheesecloth. I did my best, but mine ended up a bit too thick, and since we were only able to try one each, I wasn't able to redeem myself. Eh, maybe next time. To be honest, I liked the dried rice paper better anyway.

I'm going to share a recipe with you today that's surprisingly good, and incredibly easy. The only "exotic" ingredient you need is lemongrass, which you can find easily in regular grocery stores or Whole Foods nowadays, so you have no excuse.

Asian Eggplant in Clay Pot
Adapted from Red Bridge Cooking School, Hoi An, Vietnam

2 Japanese eggplants (the long, thin kind, not the ubiquitous plump American version)
1 stalk lemongrass
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 cups water
1 1/2 Tbs tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp or more chili sauce (to taste)

Place two cups of water and 1 tsp salt into a heavy-bottom pot.
Peel the outer stalks from the lemongrass, then bruise it (crush the thick bottom part slightly with the side of your knife) and add it to the pot of water. Bring to a boil.
Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch thick rounds and add to the now boiling water. Continue to boil for 3 minutes, or until the eggplant is beginning to get tender and change color slightly.
Drain the eggplant, discarding the water and lemongrass.
Return the eggplant to the pot, then add the tomato paste, the remaining 2 cups of water, remaining 1/2 tsp salt, sugar and chili sauce.
Simmer this mixture for 7-10 minutes, stirring periodically, until the eggplant is completely tender.
Serve hot with steamed rice.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A full belly

The food in Hue is reknowned because of a particular king who must have been either constantly hungry, bored or picky. Whatever the reason, it is due to his orders to be served 50 different dishes by 50 different chefs at each meal that Hue has such delicious offerings today.

My personal dining experiences in the city ran the gamut from street to royalty.

I arrived quite early in the morning after an overnight bus ride to pouring rain and promptly showered before falling into bed. (Note: it is next to impossible to get a good night sleep on a bus, even one with long reclining seats. It's a hard lesson that I learned more than once.)

I was astounded when I woke up a few hours later to find that the rain hadn't stopped or even slowed, and the roads had been transformed into rivers as a result. I felt a bit like I was in the Oregon Trail, Vietnam Edition, as I forded the river crossing the street, nearly losing my shoe in the process.

Happily, I survived without losing any oxen or contracting cholera, so I was able to enjoy a big steaming bowl of pho bo while watching people struggle by on motorbikes whose engines had flooded. Quite an entertaining way to pass a few hours.

Once the rain finally subsided, I struck off for the Citadel, Hue's very own walled palace. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring this enormous and bewitching complex, stumbling upon ornate temples and playrooms in pristine condition only to turn the next corner to find a palace in complete shambles. The Citadel is an intriguing place where I could easily have spent an entire additional day wandering about.

Starving, Petar (my travel buddy) and I made our way to my favorite kind of restaurant: a stall just off (or on) the street. You know the type, plastic chairs and short tables filled with locals slurping and chattering, a kitchen rigged up outside with one wok and two cooks and a menu only if you're very very lucky. The kind of restaurants where you point at something someone else is eating, then make a #1 sign with your fingers, the eloquent yet universal way of saying "I'd like one of whatever he's having, please."

The following day I decided to treat myself to one of the Lonely Planet guidebook "our picks". Y Thao Garden offers only one dining option, an eight course set menu for $10. Broke my budget, but oh, was it worth it.

I now have to take a moment to beg your apologies, because I forgot to bring my camera to this amazing lunch to end all lunches. I know, I know, completely idiotic, but what can you do? Perhaps someday I'll learn to be a proper food blogger and have my camera onhand at all times.

Maybe I should mention that Hue food is known as not just being tasty, but also very decorative and well-presented. Because maybe then you won't be as shocked when I mention that our first course consisted of fried pork spring rolls skewered onto a pineapple peacock whose wings and head were made of carved carrots. I did mention that it was a bit over the top, didn't I?

Our next course was a vegetable soup with the most delicious broth I've ever had created strictly from vegetables. It was enough to motivate a girl to finally getting around to making homemade broth.

Third course consisted of freshly steamed whole prawns served with a delicious lemon and salt & pepper dipping sauce. Simple, fresh, perfect.

Four course was a sort of Asian taco. A deep-fried rice pancake was filled with pork, prawn, mung beans and mushrooms, and served with a peanut and coconut dipping sauce. Delicious, if a bit greasy.

The fifth course was the most unusual. It was described as fig salad, but what came out was not what I had pictured (I was thinking quartered figs with proscuitto and goat cheese, my only previous experiences with fig salads, and delicious ones at that). Anyway, what arrived was finally diced figs, peanuts, mint, prawn, sesame seeds...and possibly other things that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The salad was to be eaten on top of shrimp crackers and was completely delicious.

The sixth and seventh courses, while good, weren't quite up to snuff comparatively. They consisted of grilled/smoked beef topped with sesame seeds that tasted overwhelmingly smoky and a sticky rice stir fry with lotus nut and diced carrot, shallot and onion. The latter was fine, if unmemorable.

Our last course arrived looking like a cross between a lollipop and a tomato plant (okay, to be honest, I would never have guessed "tomato plant" if the waitress hadn't described it as such). It was, in fact, a green been cake dipped in gelatin that was tasty and, yet again, unusual.

Did I eat again the rest of the day? I did not. But I did have a satisfied belly to last me through another bus ride the following day to Hoi An.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ships passing in the night

After a quick and restless overnight train ride back to Hanoi from Sapa, I jumped on to the most uncomfortable mini bus I have ever experienced for the 3 hour trip out to Halong Bay.

Halong Bay, vying to be considered one of the new seven wonders of the world, is located off the northern coast of Vietnam. Consisting of gorgeous ragged rocks jutting out of the water, it is home to some of the most awe-inspiring caves in Asia. It is also home, as I soon found out, to hordes and hordes of tourists being ferried around in their boats from cave to cave.

This was the first and only official organized tour that I have taken so far, and let's just say that it was as good as I should have expected. At least the views were above average.

The first day of our two-day cruise consisted of being shuttled in and out of two large caves, helpfully decorated in colored lights for our viewing pleasure. Don't get me wrong, the caves were magnificently impressive...they just would've been more so if they hadn't had red and turquoise lights highlighting their nooks and crannies. Oh, that, and rubbish bins shaped like penguins. I'm still puzzling that one out.

Post-caves, our boat threw down anchor for awhile in a smaller cove that was happily next to a fishing village and only one other boat! We had time to jump off the sides into the gorgeously warm and clear water, as well as do a bit of kayaking and swimming.

The real gem of the whole trip was undoubtedly at sunset. As we cruised over to our overnight anchor area, next to 20 different boats, the dwindling sunlight highlighted that beauty that makes Halong Bay such a tourist destination. I know my imagination was getting ahead of me, but it looked to me like all of the towering rocks and islands were guarding something. It honestly seemed like, if there was an "end of the world", it would lie beyond the rocks and caves forming their seemingly impenetrable maze.

After the sunset, the boats around us became infinitely more bearable, as they were all lit up with people getting ready for dinner onboard, and looked a bit like pirate ships in the night.

Now, what about the food, you ask? Well, it honestly wasn't really worth writing home about. Better than I imagined, but you guys deserve better than your standard stirfries and really disgusting Vietnamese wine. So I shall leave you salivating in anticipation of the eight-course traditional meal I had in Hue, considered by some to be the gastronomical capital of Vietnam.

Monday, October 27, 2008

No cutting board in sight

You didn't think that I spent my entire time in Sapa sitting around, reading and drinking hot chocolate did you? Well, actually, I would have believed it myself, but I had adventures, not to worry.

Most of my time in Sapa was spent trekking through the mountains and rice paddies. It's sort of the thing to do while you're there, though I made sure to include a homestay on my itinerary. That meant that after 6 hours of hiking around the mountains, with stops to rest and even more stops to take photos of adorable children looking after a water buffalo, I found myself at the home of Son and her family.

Son is a member of the Zdhao mountain hill tribe, which means that she wears a scarf around her hair (which is never cut) and a brightly colored shirt with fasteners on the side climbing up to a mandarin top. Typical dress for the men nowadays? A t-shirt and shorts. Go figure.

Once we arrived, our guide sat us down and told us to relax while Son prepared dinner. Somehow, I didn't follow directions and ended up in the kitchen with Son and her mother-in-law. Once I had offered my help, Son sat me down with a paring knife, four heads of garlic, some shallots and asked me to peel them. Normally, I'm the kind of girl who smashes the garlic cloves with the back of my knife on a cutting board, so peeling them while keeping them whole, without anything to cut on...well, it was interesting. I have a new talent to put on my resume, however, and the only difficult part was keeping myself from cutting through the clove to my knee.

Next up came bamboo shoot peeling, which took a while to get a hang of, as I'd never even seen a bamboo shoot before, let alone peeled one for soup. It involves peeling the outer layers of each section of the shoot, then cutting or breaking off the section soft enough to eat.

Our next task was to fill and roll spring rolls, which, by this point, we were a pros at, since we'd had to do it at the cooking course I took in Hanoi. The key is to make them long and round, and wet the rice paper just enough so that it doesn't stick to the plate, but does stick to itself. All it takes is practice, I promise.

After helping with our feast, we were free to sit down and enjoy it. Well, I shouldn't say free. Our guide and Son took it upon themselves to initiate us into a new custom: taking shots of arak (rice liquor). Son homebrews the stuff, and it is strong. You count in Vietnamese to three, then yell "Zhou" and everyone takes their shot. Once we'd gotten to shot 4, however, I insisted on half shots, since I really wanted to make it through the evening. Our guide and Son's husband, however, took the stuff like champs and kept going long into the night.

Me? I helped Son do dishes. It was just like being at home again.

The next day we were off on another trek, this one a mere 3 hours, where I saw an incredibly beautiful waterfall, more gorgeous rice paddies and got chased by a drunk Vietnamese man trying to get us to drink his homebrewed liquor. Just like home, eh?