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.