The Cambodia experience of a lifetime

A young Cambodian boy pedals his way to school

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book, “Hundred Years of Solitude” is one of the required academic readings for humankind, without doubt, Cambodia is one of the must-visit places in one’s lifetime. Such claim is staggering – The experience and sensation one feels as he steps into the vastness of the temple complex are beyond human comprehension and imagination.

Cambodia’s rich culture dates back from the first millennium and progressed through the centuries.  In recent time, the country struggled from the stigma commonly known as the “Killing Fields”. The Pol Pot regime brought about shame and dishonour to millions of peace-loving Cambodians. However, Cambodians are known to adapt, and adapt they did, rising above the stigma, taking pride and reclaiming the honour of their once prosperous civilization. I have never seen hard-working people making honest and decent living like the way Cambodians do. Struggling yet determined, Cambodians are slowly rebuilding their country.

Phnom Penh International Airport is newly-renovated, small and pleasant, with a homey cozy feel. Surprisingly clean and well-maintained, the airport has modern amenities, even better than most airports in Southeast Asia. Upon arrival, travelers are greeted by a barrage of “tuk-tuks” and taxi drivers offering rides around the city or to bus stations leading to the rest of the country. Typical fare is USD 2 to the nearest destination. A cab ride costs more but fare can be split with fellow travelers – young backpackers and adventure-seekers abound.

Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is like any other East Asian city coming out of its cocoon. After decades of internal struggle, newfound wealth from sustained tourism and discovery of natural gas in its territorial waters has helped the economy and triggered a new spate of middle class – luxury cars, SUVs rev the streets – alongside 50cc scooters carrying passengers with anything and everything transportable. The juxtaposition of old and modern, of wealth and poverty, of thatched structures and concrete buildings, clearly manifest the country’s interweaving fabrics of past, present, and future.

Discovering Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor

From the heart of Phnom Penh, it is a five-hour comfortable bus ride to Siem Reap, home to the temple ruins of Angkor. For USD 8, this is arguably the best way to see the Cambodian countryside. Crossing the mighty Mekong River, rural life beckons – colourful temples, rich rice granary, elevated nipa hut dwellings, lotus flowers glisten in the pond. The picturesque landscape perfectly captures the art of bucolic living framed in time by nature.

Siem Reap town is a straightforward affair – two kilometers of easily accessible avenue that runs alongside Siem Reap River.  Most of the hotels, guesthouses, authentic Khmer massage parlors, restaurants, souvenir and art shops are found along the main artery.

Getting around is easy and cheap – just make sure you have onesie’s (one US dollar note) at hand for convenience. Having US dollar notes saves you from the hassle of carrying thousands worth of Cambodian Riel during your stay.  The US dollar note is still the most preferred payment method in almost all shops, including street vendors, tuktuk drivers, and museum fees. Getting around Siem Reap town and the temples can easily be arranged – through the hotel concierge or on your own. Hiring a motorcycle trailer (moto-romauk or tuk-tuk) for a day (roughly USD 12) to explore the temple is highly recommended. All drivers are knowledgeable and trained by the tourism office to act as your tourist guides.

Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Park is home to the vast temple ruins that comprise several square kilometers of magnificent Khmer architectural achievement. Inhere, Angkor Wat, the centerpiece of the Angkor complex stands proud alongside other famous and must-see temple ruins – the giant stone faces of Bayon, the “tree-in-temple” ruins of Ta Prohm and the “temple mountain” architecture of Pre Rup.

Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples

The sylvan splendor of the landscape, dominated by tall and impressive Koki trees line up the boulevard enroute the temple ruins. Admission pass to visit the temples and sites can be purchased in the central ticket office on the road to Angkor Wat. One to seven day passes can be purchased, starting at USD 20.

Angkor Wat

Cool early morning calm greeted me as I took my first steps in the walkway leading to the main gate of the Angkor Wat. Surrounded by a moat that reminds one of Medieval European castles, Angkor Wat was constructed as a “temple mountain” dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It was also suggested that the temple was a funeral ground of Suryawaman II, the patron King who built the temple during the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the early 12th century.  The centuries-old edifice is an artistic and archaeological marvel comparable to some of the greatest man-made mega-structures on earth – Egypt’s Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, to name a few.

Early morning arrival just as the sun rises is the best time to visit Angkor Wat. The temple casts a fascinating silhouette, outlining the massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by lotus like towers rising several meters from the ground. The moat glistens, reflecting the shadow of the massive architecture, disturbed by ripples from the gentle breeze.

There is something magical and awe inspiring in the air – to be in the presence of these magnificence makes one so small, so irrelevant, yet an inner peace and communion with this marvelous human achievement allow us to celebrate this wonder in its purest form.

The lush vegetation surrounding the ruins and sites remind visitors of the unearthing of this civilization so advance and powerful during its time.

Bas relief carvings in the Temple of Angkor

Bas relief carvings that adorn the temple wings are reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics, depicting history and military might of the time. Some relief carvings also depict everyday Khmer life – from market scene, to cockfighting, games, and celebrations. Stone temple monkeys leap from wooded area to the delight and fright of the tourists.

Another most important ruin to visit is the Bayon, a complex of temple ruins dominated by huge concrete faces. The huge and ornate carvings, blackened by time and moistened moss green by tropical weather, represent the classic Khmer art and architecture.

Faces of Bayon Temple

There are indeed dozens of temple ruins in the Siem Reap area. To maximize your visit, it is important to highlight the architectural and historical significance, accessibility, and types of temple ruins you wish to visit.

Vibrant Khmer street life

Pub Street , Siem Reap

French colonial and oriental architecture dominate the Old French Quarter of Siem Reap

town. Two storey buildings line up Psar Chas where restaurants, bars, massage parlors, souvenir shops, art galleries, and internet cafes are found. The eclectic mixture of modern zen designs and low-key street food vendors with their ubiquitous red plaid PVC laden tables, give a picture of a vibrant Khmer street life.

Cambodian fresh spring rolls

Siem Reap is no stranger to a pulsating night life. Bar Street is teeming with tourists and locals as they intermingle over traditional Khmer cuisine. and a bottle of Angkor beer, the national brew.Nightly Apsara and traditional dance performances are offered in various hotels and restaurants.

Cambodian charm

There is a certain charm about Cambodia – its sincere hospitality and innocent appeal make it an exciting holiday destination that combines history and culture, nature and man’s fascination with architecture, and a determined human spirit that celebrates the willingness to live.

The famous chicken wings at Jalan Alor

Juicy, plump golden brown on the outside, white tender meat inside.

A visit to Kuala Lumpur is not complete without going to the famous Jalan Alor, an unassuming alleyway of some of the best dining choices the city could offer.  Must try’s are the grilled chicken wings and steamed grouper.

Cyprus: A rich past, a delicious present

Tiny paradise island of Cyprus

The crisp Mediterranean summer air breaks the silence atop the hill from the baths of Eustolios.  Thousands of years ago, this vast complex of cathedrals, bath houses, and marketplace, throngs of people gathered around the Kourion amphitheatre to watch the open air theatrical performances. Their echoes reverberated, carried by the gentle breeze of the Mediterranean Sea.  Same echoes are heard in modern Cyprus today.

Young Cypriots today enjoy the modern conveniences of a society rich with tradition and history. Travel back in time some 10,000 years and understand the complexities of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.   The country’s mythology, religion, and art present an amalgamation of influence from its conquerors – the Persians, Arabs, western Europeans, and the Ottomans.

Cyprus’ Hellenistic culture goes back some 3,000 BC, when Greek fighter of the Troy war came to Cyprus and established the ancient Greek cities. Visit the open air museums in Famagusta.  Seek solace in the birthplace of Aphrodite, the mythological goddess of love and beauty. Discover Byzantine art hidden away in the sylvan splendor of its pine forests. Relive Christian history in the stone columns of Pafos.

From the ruggedly charming northernmost city of Kyrenia to the modern southernmost city of Limassol, Cypriots carry on the spirit of its Hellenistic pedigree, Roman lineage and a confluence of the world’s major religions – Christianity and Islam.

With the continuous influx of tourists, the sun always shines on Cyprus. Travellers from the world over, particularly Europeans flock to this paradise island during the most of summer. Family friendly accommodation, wholesome entertainment, and the genuine hospitality of the Cypriots make it a travel destination for the entire family.

Lefkaria lady showing the village's unique silk embroidery

The countryside of Cyprus is worth discovering. The sleepy town Kato Drys, tucked between Nicosia, Limassol, and Larnaca is a fine example of a sleepy town full of surprises. Walking on its cobbled stones, one travels back at the beginning of the 20th century and experience traditional living in Garden Kamara House, a traditional Cypriot house for rent ran by a local couple.   A Cypriot couple turned their house into a “living museum” where guests can experience traditional way of life surrounded by a collection covering all aspects of village life in a 300 year old restored building.

The village of Lefkarais known for its lace and silverworks. A common sight is a group of women sitting together, working on their embroidery, truly a Cypriot handicraft tradition.

Another interesting village is Akamas where time seems to have stood still. With very little development, the area has preserved much of its natural splendour.  Akamas, home to the caretta turtles, is soon to be a national park.

Moussaka, baked eggplants with creamy bechamel

Full moon casts a shadow over Protaras, a popular southeastern resort town 150 kilometers from capital Nicosia. Tourists walk up and down the taverna filled avenue.

Over traditional Cypriot dishes moussaka (baked eggplant / aubergines with meat and creamy bechamel on top) and kleftiko (slow cooked lamb with herbs and spices), i can’t help but admire the richness of the texture, yet very clean on the palate.

a Taverna in Protaras

Cypriots are family orientated – with Sunday lunches at their favourite tavernas (restaurants) serving  mezzes (little delicacies), a feast of more than two dozens  small appetizers leading up to the main course of fish, meat or vegetables.

 

 

Cypriot fish mezze

Typical Cypriot mezzes include taramosalata (pinkish fishy dip for breads), taztziki (type of yoghurt dip with cucumbers), hummus or tahini dip , grilled halloumi (traiditional Cypriot cheese), and grilled sheftalias (skinless pork sausage).

(Nicosia, June 2011)

Turkish delights

I must admit I love cold weather. My arrival in Istanbul couldn’t be any lovelier; Istanbul embraces me with her “chilly welcome” on a good morning, the same way she welcomes the arrival of every winter season. I loved her already. Trying to avoid sounding like a cliché, Istanbul at first sight is indeed about falling in love. There’s so much to see, so much to appreciate, so much to experience. Taking it slow is the name of the game…

At Istanbul Ataturk Airport, I hop on the airport bus, the “havas” which is conveniently located at the arrival gate. The havas takes us to Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul. I am surprised to see the highway lined-up with policemen every 100 meters or so. I am told the Pope is in town, but on his way back to the Vatican.  Well, not yet time for me to cross path with the Pope, I supposed. Taksim early morning is bustling with activity …  Out-of-towners blend with the locals. Doves hover above the main square. People getting on and off the city buses. The sight and smell of bufet is inviting. I am hungry right away.

From the Square, it is about a twenty minutes walk along Istiklal Cadessi to my hostel. I try not to get excited – which is my usual state every time I am in a foreign country. I  ust let it all sink it – I tell myself ill be in Istanbul for next 5 days and I need not hurry. Plus, I just came from a bout of food poisoning in Dubai, delaying my Istanbul trip for a day.  So my arrival is not very eventful on a touristy sense of the word. I am sleepy and still dazed from my food poisoning. I would sleep  rest of the day, and night, and I would  wake up the next day feeling refreshed and ready for some touristic and food action.

If Taksim Square is the heart of Istanbul, Istiklal Cadessi is definitely the city’s main artery. Istiklal Cadessi is Istanbul’s main shopping, eating and entertaining strip. It’s crazy, busy, a melting pot of cultures and personalities. One strip of expensive real estate. Whilst most cities pride herself of certain areas for certain entertainment, Istanbul only has one and it is in Istiklal.  Everything is in there.  Along the main artery are dozens of pasaji’s (passageways) that one can explore.

Getting around Istanbul is relatively easy; For English-speaking visitors, communication maybe a tad difficult; smaller shops are manned with staff with very little  command of conversational English.

Thus, It is important to first know the translation of food stuff so you don’t spoil your appetite. Chicken in tavuk; rice pilav, fish is balik. Most cafeteriass, or “bufet” offer some sort of meal deal, ranging from 8 to 15 US dollars, with cola. Turkish coffee is optional.

Balik sandwich goes well with Efes, a favourite local brew

There are three types of bread that they serve: my most favorite is  ekmek, a close relative of French baguette. They have the usual pide which is like pita bread.The national brew is Efes, it is clean and it goes well with balik, ekmek, salata (a sandwich of grilled fish in ekmek bread garnished with lettuce leaves).

One cannot leave turkey without trying out any of the Turkish delights. It sounds kinky and , no it is not Turkish baths, but a range of sweets that delight your eyes and elevate your senses. Baklavas. Pure heaven. (Istanbul, Dec 2006)

Philippine street foods

Undeniably Malay in origin, Filipino food is a confluence of colonial concoction having been under Spanish, Japanese, and American rules. Indeed, Filipino food is a hybrid delicacy with an Asian soul, owing its richness and flavor from the bounty of the sea and the harvest of her fertile lands.

A typical Filipino meal is steamed white rice, served with a main course or “ulam” (hot dish of meat, fish or vegetables). Best way to loosely describe a typical meal is a dish swimming in grease.  And how they love grease – stews and soups have at least an inch of oil on the surface.  Whist Filipino food is yet to gain prominence in international gastronomy; it is interesting to take note of the country’s penchant for food and even developed a unique culture of culinary creativity found on the street.

Street food is enjoyed by the cross section of society. From snacks to complete meals to desserts, food is virtually available anytime, anywhere.   From the individually set-up stalls on the street to food hawkers on bike, on foot, and sometimes on makeshift vans, Filipinos have elevated street eating into a way of life.

Food stalls are set up resembling a “carinderia” (restaurants).  On the street, stools are lined up, with pots on large rectangular tables in front where customers can point out (“turo”) which dish he or she prefers.  Hence, the moniker, “turo turo”.  Dining in a “turo-turo” is such a treat. It is cheap and delicious, home cooked meals as prepared by mum. In here, traditional Filipino favourites are served: Adobo (meat, usually cuts of pork and chicken, stewed in vinegar, soy sauce with rich garlic flavor), Pinakbet (Mixed vegetables with fermented shrimp paste), Dinuguan (blackened soup of pork blood with vinegar), and Pancit (egg noodles with vegetables).  Everything must be eaten with steamy pluffy rice.  The dining experience is not complete without ice cold Coca Cola.

Most street food is creatively called with slang names, usually pertaining to existing, more popular references:  Adidas for grilled chicken feet;  IUD ( intra-uterine device) is chicken intestine delicately skewered on bamboo sticks; Walkman is skewered pork ears.  Betamax is chicken blood skewered roasted on coals that are cut into small cubes, resembling to a Betamax tape. Maybe VHS tape, but Betamax was more popular in the Asian region during the 80’s.

Local names such as Kwek-kwek’s are soft boiled quail eggs drenched in funny orange-coloured flour coating and deep fried.  Similarly, tokneneng is chicken egg in similar coating. Doused with spiced vinegar, these egg wonders are a perfect snack.

Deep-fried banana cue and "tokneneng"

Philippine sweet treats are  fritters called the “ cue’s” – banana-cue, camote-cue, deep fried into golden brown perfection perfectly coated with caramelized brown sugar that crumbles in every bite.

“Make tusok-tusok the fishball,” is a phrase that gained prominence amongsts Manila’s colegialas (college girls).  Fishballs or squidballs are sold on specially made cart equipped with a single gas stove and Chinese wok for deep frying.  The “balls” are Skewered (tusok) on bamboo sticks and dipped in variety of savoury sauces: sweet, spicy, sour, and sweet & sour.

Notably, the Filipino street food scene is not complete without the notoriously popular balut, boiled duck embryos sold at night by street vendors. Shouting “Balut …. balut” deep into the night like a town crier,   the balut vendor is a perennial neighborhood nocturnal visitor. Why sold only at night? Baluts are said to be aphrodisiacs. Go figure.  Balut eggs are neatly packed in special rattan baskets, covered with layers of cloth to insulate the heat. Cracked open, broth slurped before the meat (the entire duck embryo – yolk, young chick with feathers) is eaten. Sprinkled with rock salt for added flavour, balut is an acquired taste an often a subject of dare especially among Western tourists. Balut is not for the faint of heart (or stomach) and has also been featured in reality based shows like Survivor, Truth or Dare,  Fear Factor and even Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods due to its exotic features.

Tame compared to its East Asian counterparts, with no bugs, scorpions or exotic animals involved, yet as tasty and comforting like home.