30 March 2015

Taking in the Highlights of Ho Chi Minh City (January 13 - 15)

A luxurious 3 hour bus journey from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was for me an overt indication that Vietnam was rapidly shedding off its third world image to become another East Asian tiger. In the sumptuous lobby of The Grand Silverland Hotel - colonial décor to preserve its historical image - we were welcomed warmly with a refreshing fruit juice over ice. Alicia and I couldn't stop beaming as an over the top polite and elegant young woman escorted us to a classy room on the 4th floor, and ensured we had everything we needed to be beyond comfortable. We deliberately splurged on a high end hotel since we expected HCMC to be on the rough side compared to our previous destinations. We'd been warned about the careening motorbikes ("Good luck crossing the streets!" someone warned), the intolerable pollution, the crowds, pushy vendors, the bustle, etc. So we felt an indulgence was fully justified, and very affordable too, I should point out.

Despite our apprehension about HCMC, everything worked out effortlessly for us. Arranging a full day city tour for the next day turned out to be a cinch with the excellent Vietnam Adventure Tours, which happened to be right beside our hotel on Ly Tu Trong Street. Then, for dinner, we wanted a decent culinary experience in this city famous for its haute cuisine. Everyone recommended Nha Hang Ngon Restaurant on Pasteur Street which they assured us was just a short walk from our hotel.
Filled with trepidation we headed out, eyeing the insanely jammed streets, mostly motorbikes (3 million in this city), but a fair number of cars too. Many of the riders wore colorful face masks for protection from the foul air. To our amazement there were pedestrian traffic lights that drivers actually heeded and we were able to cross streets - most of the time. The walk turned out to be quite entertaining with lots of tourists and well dressed locals milling around. We could tell from the designer clothes and leather handbags that a lot of wealthy locals lived here. This was District 1, the most central part of HCMC. We past the beautifully landscaped gardens of the Revolution Museum, and other attractive buildings before turning into Pasteur Street.

Nha Hang Ngon Restaurant

The restaurant, in a colonial building, looked impressive from the outside. There were many diners around outdoor tables and the grand entrance was decorated with big plants and strings of lights. We were delighted at the ambience of the large interior which had decorative touches like a pond in the middle. The place throbbed with diners and we were grateful to get seated right away without a reservation. I had a lot of fun studying all the various Vietnamese dishes on the menu. Obviously we went for tradition and ordered pho, a flavorful noodle stew with lots of vegetables, served with a plate of fresh greens - lemon basil, bean sprouts, mint, and lettuce. As I savored every delicious molecule I wondered why I hadn't succeeded in finding Vietnamese food of this quality back home. Like in India - I consistently had great meals during my month of traveling through Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Yet, in the West, I would say one out of ten Indian restaurants served acceptable food.

The next morning I gaped at the breakfast buffet. It was on a much grander scale than the enormous spread in Can Tho. I sat down with a cup of strong coffee and eyeballed every tantalizing table, wishing I had several stomachs. I settled for a poached egg, my guaranteed protein for the day, a croissant, and dragon fruit. When I saw the selection of yummy cheeses all willpower vanished. I sampled a few ripe French cheeses with wholegrain bread, had a bit more coffee, and felt ready to check out HCMC.

Our full day city tour included a guide, a pleasant young woman, who gave us the scoop on each site in English that was clearly rehearsed and polished for this purpose. A swanky air-conditioned van took us to these highlights of the city:
War Remnants Museum

1. The War Remnants Museum, where we were painfully reminded of the brutality of war and the atrocities of the US military. I was haunted by a photograph of a frail old man looking at a gun pointed at him, the panic on his face - it was gut wrenching. The reporter who had taken the photo wrote that he heard the gun shot when he turned to get into his vehicle.
2. A tourist café to sample their special Weasel Coffee, boldly rich and smooth, served in porcelain cups while we sat around a traditional wooden table in a very welcoming and colorful interior. This very sought after very expensive coffee is made from hand picked coffee beans that are eliminated by weasels in the highlands of Vietnam. We were supposed to eagerly make a purchase - and a few in our group did. Sitting next to me was a middle aged man from LA who had grown up in Vietnam, and his 20 year old American daughter, a student at UCLA. He entertained us with his observations of present day HCMC in contrast to what it used to be like before he emigrated.

3. The Binh Tay Market -  sold designer brand merchandise in bulk, and housed in a historic building in Chinatown. Experienced what it was like to drive through HCMC's insanely clogged streets. Strolling through the absurdly narrow aisles with piles and piles of stuff towering all around made for a pretty claustrophobic experience.

Thien Hau Pagoda

4. Thien Hau Pagoda - one of the more popular pagodas in the city. High walls adorned by intricate friezes surrounded the front courtyard. Inside the atrium there were huge censers billowing fragrant smoke. We admired and photographed the stunning friezes and bas reliefs before escaping back into our cool van.

5. Lunch at Kim Cafe for traditional Vietnamese fare. Another pretty decent pho, served with a bowl of greens. A refreshing coconut water was the perfect beverage in the heat. Everyone on the tour with us sat together around a large table. We had some entertaining conversations with an older Australian man and his Singaporean partner. A German couple amused us too. The woman, who had grown up in Vietnam, looked at her German husband in horror when he attempted to order a pasta dish. So she ordered a local dish for him which he seemed to enjoy very much.
Independence Palace

6. Independence Palace (also called the Reunification Palace), the presidential residence and working place before reunification. The best photo op for this stately building was from the gates. Reminded me of the White House. We visited the lavishly furnished interior done up to look like it used to before it was bombed by Ngo Dinh Diem's own air force in an assassination attempt. Lovely views of the landscaped grounds from the upper floors.

7. Nam quo Lacquer Workshop - a longish drive from Independence Palace, allowing us a restful half hour in our comfortable van.
Nam Quo Lacquer Workshop

First, a presentation on the process of creating lacquered crafts. Talked up the fact that all the artisans were handicapped in some way and received training on this skill in order to live productive lives. Guilted into supporting this place - America was likely responsible for many of the handicaps - we strolled through the workshop to select something to purchase. It was quite a huge place with shelves upon shelves of vases, jewelry boxes, bowls, trays, and wine holders all with beautiful designs. The designs were not original and so they were quite repetitive. Gustav Kimt's "The Kiss" appeared frequently. I managed to find a vase with an unusual design and made my purchase.

8. We ended the tour with a stop at Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office - the two most famous buildings in the city, built when Vietnam was under French rule. The tall spires of Notre Dame, while attractive, looked totally out of place in this Asian city.
Post Office
Notre Dame Cathedral

Across the street, we gawked at the coral colored colonial Post Office. I was surprised to learn that it was designed by Gustav Eiffel. There are carvings of famous philosophers and scientists on the exterior walls. Stepping inside I was reminded of New York's central train station. It was so gorgeous with intricately designed floor tiles, and green, gilded wrought iron pillars. On the back wall was a photograph of Ho Chi Minh. There were lots of tourists in this part of the city - the Dong Khoi area - which has many grand buildings and luxurious hotels.

We were immensely satisfied with this tour. There's nothing like air-conditioned comfort to drop you off right at the door, saving you the trouble of dodging speeding bikes and breathing in ghastly fumes.

Rex Hotel

In the evening after a shower and nap, we decided to splash out for dinner. A little research led us to the restaurant at the Park Hyatt Hotel in the exciting Dong Khoi area. The famous Rex Hotel was on our route so we popped into its glitzy lobby. So ... this was where the reporters got their daily press briefings during the Vietnam War. Back on the street we walked past American designer stores and chic boutiques in glamorous buildings. You could easily believe you were on Rodeo Drive. Five star hotels were clustered near the Opera House, behind which was the Park Hyatt.

Opera House

We knew we were in for a good time the moment we were seated on the attractive terrace and a linen napkin was draped on our laps by a waiter in formal attire. What bliss - a great view of the Opera House, balmy temperature, and the anticipation of cuisine extraordinaire. 
First we were served a small loaf of just baked whole grain bread with flavorful spreads to munch on while perusing the menu. We ordered beer rather than the absurdly overpriced wine. We did make the mistake of bending to the pressure of ordering mineral water, though. They brought us a bottle of Evian and charged us $15 for it! Ouch!
For starters we had a variety of Vietnamese spring rolls which came with a peanut dipping sauce topped with slivers of roasted peanuts. C'est magnifique! For mains I had a spicy vegetable curry cooked in coconut milk. It had interesting enough ingredients to make it distinctive from Thai or Khmer curries. This was our last dinner on our East Asia trip. A most memorable (and expensive even by Santa Barbara standards!) meal, and a wonderful experience of Vietnam's fine culinary offerings.
Ben Thanh Market

My last day in Asia, after another buffet feast, I wanted to wander around the neighborhood and explore the streets and parks in District 1. But an oppressive sun and polluted air put me off. So I headed for the massive clock tower just behind my hotel which belonged to the building that housed the Ben Thanh Market. The French built this shopping center in 1914 and named it Les Halles Centrales. This bustling place was infinitely entertaining and I was so thankful to be indoors. I spent the morning strolling through the aisles of tropical produce, then onto the Vietnamese souvenirs, and further on I came to stalls selling American "designer"merchandise - a version of the Factory Outlet stores in the US with the same brands - but in crowded stalls separated by narrow aisles. It was amusing to watch western tourists haggling with passionate vendors who were not going to be diddled!

At lunch time I checked out the menus of the various restaurants in the market which all served traditional fare - pho, stir-fried noodle dishes, tons of seafood, spring rolls. An onion crepe served with various spicy sauces and a generous bowl of greens (lemon thai basil, romaine lettuce leaves, mint) made a perfect lunch.

In the afternoon I braved the heat and browsed the boutique stores selling high end Vietnamese designer clothes on and around Ly Tu Trong Street. I bought a bathing suit at one of the many stores that specialized in swimwear. I spent my last hour in the city at Violet Spa. Here I had the most amazing Thai massage - a full body aromatherapy session which involved hot rocks and a lot of pressing of sore muscles. Well, I have to say, I can't think of a better way to have ended my time in Cambodia and Vietnam.

There was still so much to see in Vietnam. I enjoyed my time in HCMC very much, and can't wait to see all the famous places to the north of it.

24 March 2015

Vietnam - the Mekong Delta

January 12, 2015

Definitely the most interesting border crossing I'd ever experienced. A van drops Alicia and me (and about a dozen European backpackers) off at the Cambodia border near the Gulf of Thailand. Some official looking person takes our passports. Then we walk across to the Vietnam side with our luggage, and after an anxious wait outside a smallish building, our passports are returned. Vietnam, here we come!

A startling change in scenery and culture assured us we were in a distinctly different country. The first locals we encountered at the border and bus stations were a lot feistier and more assertive than Cambodians. After five hours in a "local" bus filled with a cross section of Vietnamese locals, including a mute conductor (I'm not kidding!), through a landscape of shapely mountains and vast patches of luminescent green paddy fields, we arrived in Can Tho. This surprisingly modern city was our base to explore the Mekong Delta. Snazzy cars on proper asphalt roads, gleaming stores selling fine clothes, high rise buildings... and no tuk-tuks around to ferry us to our hotel from the bus terminal. It was a sleek, air-conditioned taxi that deposited us in style at our rather pleasant hotel. This was not the third world - or so they would have us believe! From our 7th floor room we could see a very built up city on the banks of a wide river, the Hau River, a branch of the Mekong.

Night Market
Strolling by the riverside in the evening we got a sense of Vietnam's high powered energy, a contrast to sedate Cambodia. A statue of Ho Chi Minh, the revered leader who unified the country, greeted us from a sculpted garden. Sauntering along the busy street, noisy with bikers, we browsed dinner menus, excited to see such a decent choice of restaurants. We checked out the creative displays of unusual fruit sold by street vendors, who added their exotic touches to the city. Further on, crowds were beginning to cluster around a very colorful night market. Having had a long day, the escalating bustle in this lively area was too much for us, so we ambled back toward the restaurant we'd decided on for dinner.

Entering Nam Bo Restaurant, the first thing I noticed was that it was filled with French tourists. There was a colonial ambience emphasized by traditional wooden furnishings and fine linen. Studying the vast menu was fascinating. It featured a range of exotic cuisine, including many snake dishes. We had fresh spring rolls for starters. They were artistically wrapped with long scallions jutting out at either end. The tasty stir fried veggies with tofu I had for mains was seasoned with lemongrass and chili. I didn't care much for a bland mushroom side dish that we also ordered. A light and refreshing Saigon beer was the perfect drink for this truly satisfying meal.

In the morning, after a breakfast feast - restraint being impossible due to an overwhelming buffet spread of every imaginable breakfast food on the planet - we went on a half day tour of the Mekong Delta. When I climbed into the small wooden boat, I had to work hard to hide my nervousness from the driver - a sweet man with a very tanned, wrinkled face. I looked at the huge Hau River (also known as the Bassac River). It had begun its journey as the Mekong River well over two thousand miles away in the Tibetan plateau and cut through a huge chunk of South East Asia before splitting from it and arriving at this point, a few miles from where it would empty. I felt absurdly vulnerable. In front of us there were bigger, newer boats that belonged to major tour companies. Oh, why hadn't we arranged to be on one of those boats? But our skillful driver, with his constant beam and attentiveness, put us at ease. He certainly knew what he was doing - did it everyday of his life for decades, probably on that exact same boat. He gave us traditional conical bamboo hats for protection from the fierce heat. Six kilometers down this great river, passing villages with dilapidated houses on stilts, we came to Cai Rang, a floating market.
Cai Rang Floating Market

Eager vendors on bobbing boats, laden with watermelons, pineapples, coconuts, and various other produce shouted out their offerings. It was all quite colorful and atmospheric. I'd heard of floating markets before, but to actually see it in action - everything happening on the water - was quite a unique experience. The river was so integral to how the locals lived here. It didn't look easy, and they looked anything but wealthy. Such hard work, daily, to subsist.
We sailed on, past another smaller floating market, and then into a quiet canal. We stopped at a village where we saw all the stages in noodle making. At Hoai's Rice Noodle Factory we went on a quick tour of the process from the soaking and husking of rice to making sheets which are dried and cut into strips. We bought some traditional snacks - tapioca cubes, and dried banana crepe like sheets from vendors near the dock. As we continued our boat ride through quieter and narrower canals, we munched on these very tasty snacks. Despite the intense heat I was relishing every moment in this different world - far away from noise and people and the city.

Lush vegetation flanked the canals. It was so peaceful with just birdsong and and the splash of oars breaking the silence. Every so often we saw a local, bamboo hat perched on their head, rowing their boat to some isolated destination. Our driver gave us each a carved pineapple on a stick, a tangible reminder that we were indeed thousands of miles away from home.

Three hours later, back on land in Can Tho, I stared back at the river. A beautiful modern cable-stayed steel and concrete bridge stretched across, and I thought, wow, how symbolic! The past and the present linked by that bridge.

11 March 2015

Why Kampot?

January 11, 2015
Kampot, Cambodia

Despite concerted efforts to avoid adventure on this trip, choosing a destination not on the regular tourist circuit made that impossible. A long, long ride on a clunky bus, its window curtains caked and drooping with years of dust, filled me with misgivings about spending two nights in Kampot. Should I have chosen the popular beach resort Sihanoukville instead? Was it really full of rowdy youngsters partying and drinking? Kampot was supposed to show me a different Cambodia. It didn't have a world famous monument, and it wasn't a major city. Here, in this tranquil little town, I would see and experience something more authentic. As we rode further and further into remoter parts I felt increasingly doubtful about my choice.

But when a tuk tuk dropped us off at the Riverside Hotel where this postcard view greeted us, my spirits lifted. I knew I could sit on the hotel terrace forever (ok that's an exaggeration!) enjoying the glimmering water and a romantic Old Bridge framed by the gentle Elephant Mountains. After a siesta, forced on by the oppressive heat, I strolled along the wide treelined promenade toward the New Bridge. Reminders that Kampot was once the French getaway place could be seen in the decaying colonial buildings along the street parallel to the river, and in the design of the promenade and its parks. It was early evening and the riverside buzzed with activity. Kids romped around on the playgrounds, families picnicked on the riverbank, and tourists sauntered along taking photos of the sky that was turning golden from an imminent sunset. Wooden fishing boats bobbed on the calm water and I could see nets being cast. The Old Bridge looked like a movie prop in the dying light. As the sun hovered over the horizon I was back at my hotel, on the terrace, with a chilled beer. Despite noisy bikers whizzing past, a peaceful atmosphere settled over the area.

We organized a full day tour ($17) of the Kampot countryside through the official tourist information. A tuk-tuk picked us up right after breakfast and in the company of a young French couple and the driver, who was also a very informed guide, we had a most interesting day.

First, we stopped at salt fields where we could see how salt from the sea ended up on our tables. Quite a labor intensive process with people lugging huge piles of salt in baskets into storage facilities.

Riding into deeper countryside, we past traditional villages that seemed to belong to a different era.

In what seemed like the remote countryside we came to a cave carved into limestone mountains. First, we had to walk across a makeshift bridge - essentially two logs thrown across a canal. Seriously? There was no other way? Well, then! Amazing what you can make yourself do when you have no choice. After a short trail we had to climb up 203 stairs before reaching the cave. At the entrance we saw the ruins of Phnom Chhnok Temple, an ancient looking temple, though I didn't care to find out when it was built. Then, in the dark, cavernous interior we could make out some interesting shapes, most famously an elephant shaped rock. Outside the cave, our guide pointed to a dark and scary chasm. He told us that Pol Pot had ordered people to be thrown into that chasm. We shuddered, remembering the reasons people could be punished. An inability to perform a physical task, an expression interpreted as impertinence, any hint of being an intellectual.

Back in the tuk-tuk we rode along a canal which was used to irrigate the green fields of vegetables we could see around us. Quick growing vegetables like morning glory, onions, and peanuts were planted in the dry season. We came to what appeared to be a huge lake and learned it was a dam commissioned by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the nation into laborers and came up with huge projects to achieve this goal. Much of the Kampot countryside that we were exploring had been Khmer Rouge territory.

Kampot pepper is highly sought after by the world's top chefs. We visited a pepper farm to learn about this significant crop. Landmines had to be cleared from this area before it could be turned into a pepper farm. I expected towering pepper trees like the ones we have at home that produce red (inedible) peppercorns. Instead I learned that black peppercorn plants are shrubs that grow around a support structure. When the pepper is still green, the Khmer people throw small clusters into their curries and stews for a delicate flavor.
A stop in Kep - famous for blue crab - brought me to the shockingly polluted and overfished Gulf of Thailand. The craft market was pretty entertaining and colorful with its variety of tropical fruit, sea shell crafts, and sizzling seafood aromatically spiced and cooked on open grills. And for good measure, a group of Buddhist monks in bright orange robes sat beside a mound of coconuts.
Lunch was at a popular seafood restaurant, famous for the local blue crab. They very kindly made me a tofu vegetable stir-fry which featured every vegetable they could lay their hands on. Pretty decent - cooked just enough to preserve a good crunch and color - though not as flavorful as I'd come to expect in Cambodia. From our table we could see bamboo baskets floating in the water and further away small fishing boats.

I strolled to the end the pier in Kep for a view of Rabbit island. I'd intended to take a boat out there, but the intense heat put me off. The beaches sounded great, but the lack of shade would have killed me.

From Kep we went back inland through more desolate countryside until we came to a little fishing village.

Here we saw rickety, wooden structures, that were probably homes, and a scary pier that looked like it was about to crumble up. Looking at the aging wooden boats you get a sense of how hard these folks must work to feed themselves and have a shelter.

We returned to town to freshen up for the next phase of the tour.

Together with 8 other passengers I sailed in an old wooden boat on the Kampot River at sunset. They gave us each a beverage - I chose a beer - and off we went under the Old Bridge. The air had cooled down to a much more tolerable temperature. We floated past mangrove swamps and cute wooden bungalows perched on the riverbank overlooking the water and the Elephant Mountains across. Away from the city, we were immersed in nature as the sun slunk behind the mountains, turning the horizon crimson.

With the setting sun reflected in the rippling river, we were lulled into a state of bliss. I understood then why Kampot had to be on a Cambodia travel itinerary. After sunset we continued down the river, silenced by the beauty and a lingering euphoria. Darkness had been gathering, but it was only when we came to trees covered with fireflies, that I realized every trace of daylight had disappeared. The driver pulled up against the bank so we could fully appreciate these intriguing insects. There were thousands of them - emitting the only light out there - miles and miles away from the city. Then, as we sailed back toward Kampot we started to hear splashing noises all around us. Pleasant splashes that made you smile, reminding you of nature's generosity. Shining a flashlight onto the water, we marveled at the jumping fish all around the boat. They were large - a foot long -and what made it all the more thrilling was that they were so easy to see. These delightful creatures kept us entertained on the long boat ride back in the pitch dark.

We ended the day at the most popular restaurant in town - Rikitikitava. Entering the all wooden structure, you feel that perfect jungle vibe aimed at pleasing tourists pretending to be adventurous travelers. I really wanted to have one last Khmer curry since it was my last night in Cambodia. So I was quite happy to see that they served a wide range of traditional cuisine. Well, it turned out to be an absolutely satisfying meal. The curry, with colorful vegetables and tofu, was so perfectly seasoned it didn't need the Kampot pepper provided at every table. No wonder this restaurant was so highly rated!

Strolling back to my hotel in the balmy evening, I thought what a perfect day it had been. And what a great way to end my travels in Cambodia. Tomorrow ... a new country ...

06 March 2015

Phnom Penh

A seven hour bus journey on the Mekong Express - a rather spiffy air-conditioned coach - got us from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Snacks, wet wipes, and bottled water were provided by a smiling attendant, easing the tedium of riding through flat, dry landscape and poor roads. Cows and water buffalo grazed on fields that would turn lush once the rainy season resumed. Halfway through the jouney we stopped for a restroom and food break in a little town by a bustling market. Among the tropical fruit and coconuts were big pots of fried insects. I bought a cut up pineapple and a bunch of bananas to sustain me for the next 3 hours.

Well Phnom Penh was not the chaotic, soulless city I'd imagined. With its 21st century aspirations, a French past, and an exotic East Asian culture, this city was unexpectedly entertaining. Plus, its location at the confluence of two major rivers - the Mekong and the Tonle Sap - allows you to take some scenic photos to post on Facebook and make people envious. I found the constant contrasts a little jolting. On the clogged streets people drive Lexuses and Hyundais, and then you cross to a potholed lane and you see cyclists wheeling baskets of fruit or smoldering grills. An imposing Colonial building will catch your eye, then at its shady base there are street people from the countryside (no work in the dry season) in makeshift structures cooking on open fires or trying to sell their wares.

Arriving in Phnom Penh after Siem Reap you are immediately hit by the rawness of a metropolis. Noisy, heavy car traffic, bustling, and dirty. But we immediately encountered helpful locals who got us a tuk-tuk to ferry us to our hotel. We drove through the unappealing center with its shabby buildings and clogged roads and ceaseless honking and arrived at the Riverfront area which took on a completely different character. We noticed ornate buildings - traditional Khmer style and French colonial - and beautiful parks.
H Hotel

We stayed at H Hotel, a small, über trendy, boutique hotel, near the Royal Palace. With a black and white color scheme and smooth, matt stone surfaces, my two days here felt very luxurious. The layout of the room was a bit unusual with a granite headboard away from the wall allowing for an office area with a desk and work surface between the bed and wall. An indulgent shower in the granite tiled bathroom with trapezoid shower stall and expensive soaps contrasted starkly with the street scene outside where spirited cart vendors awaited customers. Breakfast (notably a perfect croissant served with intensely flavorful passionfruit jam) was served in an open dining area with tables around the sparkling pool. Excellent coffee - espresso steamed milk - came in fine porcelain.
FCC Building

On our first evening we saw a romantically lit up colonial style building with columns and arches. It turned out to be the FCC Building, where journalists converged during the Vietnam War. Their outdoor bar in a lovely garden with low tables and candlelight was the perfect setting for a glass of excellent French Viognier. A bowl of roasted peanuts arrived at our table and we thought we could sit there forever. This rather pleasant experience set the tone for a most enjoyable two days in this city.

Friends Restaurant is famous for training street kids to cook and serve gourmet meals. An eclectic menu allowed us to take a break from tradional curries and rice. Zucchini fritters for starters and a leek tart for mains was proof to me that the young cooks here were off to a bright future.

National Museum

I spent a few absorbing hours at the traditionally designed terra-cotta National Museum. This stunning building consisted of four pavilions around a central courtyard. Roaming around the rooms, I took in the vast collection of Khmer sculpture spanning several centuries, and got quite an education about the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian eras. Intact statues of Hindu gods, mainly Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, were fascinating to see. Most interesting to me was a display of the statues of the five Pandava brothers and their father, which had been unearthed from the Kohker Archeological site. These almost fully intact statues had been looted by the West, and returned in the recent past. I also enjoyed a video animation of a functioning Angkor Wat. Golden topped towers, glistening lakes, people carrying on their daily chores and routines of a typical day. So splendid. Most impressive museum - not just the collection and information, but the design and beauty of the building too.

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace, striking with its no expense spared architecture and design, didn't excite me. First of all, it was such an ordeal to go around the complex in merciless heat. Then there was that nagging question: should you be entertained by the extravagances of the ruling class in a poor country? The floor of the Silver Pagoda, the most famous building in this complex, was made of silver. Emerald Buddha statues and other precious gifts were obscenely displayed in cases, and all I could think of was all that poverty outside this palace.

Tonle Sap River at Sunset

On an evening walk along Sisowath Quay we saw cart vendors selling lotus fruit and deep fried shrimp, couples strolling along the river, and happy kids running about. The street, clogged with traffic and impossible to cross, is lined with multi-storey hotels and restaurants. We went to the rooftop bar of The Quay Hotel from where we had terrific views of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. I sipped the best Bloody Mary I'd ever had, and watched the river and horizon change to crimson as the sun set on the opposite side.

Fish amok is a traditional Khmer dish cooked in a banana leaf with a coconut milk sauce and seasoned with cardamom pods, lemongrass, and black pepper. Lucky me, I found a delicious vegetarian version at Karma Restaurant on Sisowath Quay. I loved the friendly atmosphere and the focus on being healthy and ethical. The cuisine in Cambodia is similar to Thai food, and influenced by its Vietnamese neighbor. So menus feature stir fries, noodle dishes, and curries with spices like those found in Thai food.

I took an early morning stroll through the beautifully landscaped parks south of the Royal Palace because I wanted to see Independence Monument while it was still cool. Turned out, lots of people had already started their day. All through my stroll I saw groups doing aikido and tai kwan do and other morning exercises. Lining the parks were glitzy buildings housing American designer stores and Starbucks-like cafés. Along other streets I saw stately French colonial style buildings. And behind these grand boulevards there were roadside shacks beside shabby streets.

I found this juxtaposition of the first and third world blended into a colonial past and strong Asian traditions intriguing.

03 March 2015

How To Spend a Relaxing Day in Siem Reap

Day 4  January 8, 2015
Spent a big chunk of the morning at the aptly named Peace Café, a vegetarian place that offered yoga and cooking classes. Hippyish, with an ethical and healthy vibe, it had the perfect setting for hanging out and catching my breath. We settled down on cushioned cane chairs in the shade of a wide limbed tree in their inviting garden. I was so overwhelmed by everything I'd seen and done in the last two days, and needed time to assimilate all the information. I also wanted to spend some time reading about Cambodia's ancient and recent past. So while sipping a chilled, fresh passionfruit juice, I first read about the glorious Angkor era when there was such an industriously creative energy manifested in the erection of grandiose monuments. Then I read about the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), led by Pol Pot, which set about transforming Cambodia into a nation of slaves. The sick, infirm, intellectuals, or anyone not capable of performing a task was put to death. To think that many of the young people we saw around us were the offspring of people who lived in terror of a maniac dictator! It was truly heartbreaking. How is it that humans are capable of such cruelty? So Pol Pot was a psychopath. But what about his supporters who carried out his orders? It was interesting to me that the Vietnamese freed Cambodia -exactly 36 years ago - on January 7, 1979.

After two brutal days of temple touring we were desperate for a serious massage. Not like the weird one we had at our hotel yesterday on a regular bed, with clothes on, and the young ladies weren't even sure what we had ordered. And we certainly didn't want to take a chance on one of those numerous cheap places scattered all over the town. Alicia did some online research and came across rave reviews of Lemongrass Garden Spa. After a delicious lunch of tropical fruit salad from a roadside fruit juice vendor who very obligingly sliced up whatever fruit I requested, we went for our full body aromatherapy massages.

As soon as we entered the tastefully furnished and air-conditioned front office, we knew we were in for a good time. The experience was everything you could expect at a top end spa in the west - soft music, soothing aromas, low lighting - plus more. They served us herbal teas before and after the treatment. And the Asian style massage which involved pressing, kneading, stretching, and rubbing with fragrant oils was sheer luxury. Knowing I deserved this made it all the more enjoyable.

Afterwards we checked out the crafts at Artisan's d'Angkor, famous for helping the community by providing creative opportunities for locals. The silks and carvings were all beautiful and overpriced too, but we bought a few small items to support the cause.

After sunset cocktails at our hotel's rooftop bar we decided to check out the $1.00 tapas deal at the Soria Moria Fusion Restaurant. Every Wednesday evening they ran a training program for young adults registered with local NGO's as part of their extensive social program. Young men and women received training in the various aspects of food service by experienced chefs, turning the place into a cooking school on this evening of the week. We dined here to support their efforts, and were rewarded by a topnotch dinner. The menu was amazingly huge and quite international with chicken satay, meatballs, and sausage rolls. But there were a reasonable number of vegetarian options like samosas and spring rolls which were crisp, light, and filled with well spiced vegetables.

A fantastic meal with great ambience from the many local families dining there.
What a blissful day!