Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

1st in a series on Siem Reap

It’s a sunny day. Judging by what the previous groups who have been here before have told us, we only expect the weather to get even hotter as the day drags on. That’s actually a better prospect than when it rains, right? So I guess no one’s really complaining.

Immediately I notice how red the soil is (something I’ve noticed to be characteristic of the landscape here).

We were asked to assemble for a briefing to discuss the do’s and don’ts, the basics in biking, which gear is for what, and stuff. It was impressed upon us that this is not an individual race. Hence, we need to help each other out in order for the whole team to finish fast. Any member of the team struggling should be helped out. Now that’s something worthy of emulation in real life, don’t you think?

We are to finish a 12-km stretch of rough/dirt roads, with pit stops along the way for when we need to recharge – drink to quench our thirst, eat, relax, take selfies/groupfies, or just be silly with one another.

Some thirst quencher this Aquarius is

Despite the heat and exhaustion, one can admire the scenic view of the Cambodian countryside, complemented by a soft breeze generated by one’s own motion against the tepid air. I can only appreciate the simplicity of life here. Time suddenly stood still.

Photo courtesy of Rohjean Alberto, with Erene Araojo on the bike.

At the finish line, we were treated to the sight of an elaborately decorated Buddhist structure known as pagoda. Pictured below is the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda. It’s also a functioning monastery for monks so it’s alternatively called the Wat Phreah Dak.

Wat Phreah (Preah) Dak or the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda

I notice a lot of these interesting, colorful structures with spires in the temple grounds. Wonder what these are?

Colorful stupas

As explained by our tour guide Sip, these are known as stupas. They basically are tombstones that houses cremated ashes of deceased Buddhists. The more elaborate and bigger in size the stupas are, the richer the person (or the family of the person) who died who affords it. The deep colors represent peace.

Cambodia is 97% Buddhist, who believes in reincarnation. Death is merely a phase, a doorway to another existence – a rebirth. The remaining percent are Hindus, Muslims and animists, and a sprinkling of some Christian denominations. It’s interesting that in some of the villages we passed by in our route, we notice houses built in the second storey but nothing on the ground. The reason being that people believe spirits occupy the ground level. Humans would do well not to disturb them, I guess. This belief in spirits both benevolent and malevolent are strongly-entrenched in some areas that it’s common to see small, deeply-colored spirit houses (for spirits of dead ancestors) and local version of scarecrows (to repel evil ones) posted in front of homes. (I’m literally having goosebumps writing this, so enough already 😐 )

Let’s move on.

Now all this activity is making us hungry. So, we next headed off for lunch. But wait. As the tradition goes nowadays, it seems, we first had to learn how to cook our own food. Chef Khan Van Chhay demonstrated how to create spring rolls! I’m not sure if Cambodians traditionally would have their spring rolls deep-fried, but we definitely thought of it as a welcome gesture that he had it cooked that way, as an homage to our Filipino culture.

We even had a contest of who finishes cooking first with the most number of rolls passing quality check, to be pitted against the other groups. It was a fun activity and, suffice it to say, we’ve made some pretty bomb spring rolls (holler! 😀 )

Afterwards, we were treated to a parade of Cambodian dishes, plus the spring rolls we just made.

I appreciate the fact that they are big on veggies and salads, although the taste doesn’t always sit well with a lot of my peers. It’s an acquired taste, I suppose. I am definitely sensing some cilantro, star anise, in most dishes. There are some I probably haven’t heard of and have been trying for the first time, or just something we are not used to eating. I’ve been tasting everything because I’m adventurous like that when it comes to food.

We headed off next to a small house that has some shack where traditional rice noodles are made. It seems like creating rice noodles is as tedious as planting rice itself – from the pounding to the mixing, to the cooking, to the washing. Maybe I will just skip to the eating part, yeah? 🙂

They’ve been using some curious contraptions where the noodle-makers literally had to ride on top in order to function, like when pounding the mixture, wherein someone literally has to step on the lever on the other end (much like how a see-saw would work), doing it repeatedly in a particular rhythm, so that the person on the other end could fold the mixture in sync with the steps. Otherwise, that person could get injured. It takes skill and a great deal of caution especially if you are on the receiving end of the pounding machine. Kung sa atin pa, “buwis-buhay”, “putol a-kamay” 🙂

Or, when pressing the goo out of the perforated container/thingamajig to be dropped on to the huge cauldron below with simmering water, where it has to be done gently but with much weight, such that the person doing it literally had to sit or ride over the lever using his full body weight but careful enough not to crush the precious cargo. The idea is to press slowly and gently in order to create long, continuous strands. It’s literally what you call, a “tough, balancing act” 😀

If anything however, it makes for good exercise since you partly might also need to lift your own body weight in order to strike that “balance”. There’s a bar or beam above which you can hold on to, to lift yourself up in case you need to relieve the pressure on the “soon-to-be” noodles.

Our jolly tour guide Sip, all smiles and looking all proud at the rice noodles 🙂

Remember Chef Khan Van Chhay? Well, he’s here again to demonstrate how to cook a traditional Cambodian rice noodle dish called somlor brorheur (pronounced somlor brahar). And to assist him is Mrs Team Hup. I couldn’t find any reference to her online but I’m guessing she is the owner of the house and maybe one of the few people who is keeping the tradition of rice noodle-making alive.

She was featured in the Cambodia Chefs magazine.


Chef Khan Van Chhay (left) and Mrs Team Hup (middle) at work. And Sip, well, being his usual self 🙂

Presenting, somlor brorheur.

Somlor brorheur is a curry-based rice noodle soup. If I’m not mistaken, I think it has water hyacinth and lotus flowers (?) as ingredients.

Next stop is a traditional Cambodian farming village. But in order to get there, we have quite an unusual ride waiting for us at the jump-off.

Water buffaloes! 🙂

Ain’t no Grab ride, but one can only appreciate their tenacity and subservience. Seeing them at work is a little heartbreaking, actually.

When we arrived at the village, we were welcomed by the local kids with a song and were given some neatly rolled cold towels so we could freshen up by wiping it on our face and hands. With the extreme tropical heat, nothing feels better than a nice cold towel! 😀

As you may have guessed, we are in a rice farming village for a reason. There’s a traditional Filipino song that goes: “Magtanim ay di biro. Maghapo’ng nakayuko”. It translates loosely to: “Planting (rice) is not easy. Everyday you are in a stooped position”, which basically signifies backbreaking work. This day wouldn’t go by without us having to experience this as this is pretty much the lifeline of all Asian cultures. Rice is such a ubiquity. One can say that the foundation of Asian civilizations stood on the back of this lowly member of the grass family, feeding millions, serving as catalyst for growth.

And so, plant rice we shall, barefooted and all 🙂 To the rice paddies we go!

My colleagues getting ‘down and dirty’, quite literally 😛

After that one-of-a-kind experience (it’s not everyday you see a city-dweller planting rice, yes?), we were asked to go back to the village since it’s already starting to rain. We washed our feet in the communal wash area where water is still pumped from the ground, just like in the old days. We were then treated to some refreshments (my favorite is the “buko” or coconut juice) and some traditional Cambodian song and dance.

It really was an exhausting day – fun, but exhausting. I think most of us dozed off at the bus on the way back to the hotel. And just when you thought you could finally go to your room and indulge yourself in some nice, warm shower, drop to your bed and sleep to your heart’s content, lo and behold, Sip just had to burst your bubble by announcing another activity. And just like that, your anticipated R&R was thrown out the window 😀

We headed back to the hotel, the La Residence Blanc D’Angkor, to freshen up and change.

We had dinner at the Phare Cafe, where one of the items on the menu is the famous fish amok. As usual, there’s always the salad, and for dessert we had some (I think) caramelized banana with rum and grated coconut. There’s a Filipino dessert which is interestingly similar. We call it minatamis na saging.

We capped the night off with a spectacular performance from the Phare Cambodian Circus. No, not that kind of circus. No animal was harmed or even involved in any of its production. It’s all display of acrobatic skills – part-theater/part-acrobat. And it’s for a good cause, too. It’s helping Cambodian youths stay out of the streets, giving them better opportunity by making better use of their skills and talents. Should you ever go to Siem Reap, do watch their show. It’s amazing! 🙂

I’m leaving you with some of the photos of that night. Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on Siem Reap. Enjoy! 😀

Special thanks to Cambodia Cycling and Real World Adventure for arranging our cycling adventures of the countryside and our sampling of the local culture.

To La Residence Blanc D'Angkor for our accommodation. Their friendly, caring and attentive staff made our stay enjoyable.

Find them on Facebook:
@CambodiaCycling
@realwordadvanture
@residenceblancangkor
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Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

1st in a series

Not being able to join the Japan tour three years ago was a big bummer. Japan is one of those countries people want to go to and check off their bucket list. It’s just awesome like that without even trying. Just hearing about it talked about, or read, or seen somewhere is enough to spark one’s imagination. Japanese culture exerts a strong influence on the world. There’s something about it that draws people in. One could understand the excitement and the fulfillment it brings me to be here. This is one of those things I can proudly say, ‘been there, done that’. Kudos to everyone who has been behind the success of this trip.

When we say ‘winter’, ‘ski resort’, or ‘snow’ in Japan, first thing that comes to mind probably are the more popular places to the north like Sapporo in Hokkaido, and Nagano.

Yuzawa, in the Niigata Prefecture however, is kind of under the radar, off-the-beaten-track, if you will (at least for the uninitiated).

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And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Seeing the glass half-full, one would appreciate the fact that you can, sort of like, have the whole of Yuzawa for yourself (yes, one does get that kind of feeling, even if just for rhetoric).

As of June 2016, the town only has an estimated population of 7,972. That’s just 22.3 persons per km²[1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuzawa,_Niigata

As we say in the vernacular: “Pwede pang mag-tumbling sa loob” 🙂

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The whole place is blanketed in snow, and not a lot of people are on the streets. It’s like ‘the-world-is-my-playground’ kind of place.

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Due to its geographic location, this town has one of the highest annual snowfalls in Japan, earning it the moniker Snow Country (one of the many snow countries in the region called yukiguni, Japanese for heavy snow area).

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And as you can guess by now, skiing and snowboarding are its principal draw and main source of income during this season.

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Dealing with extremely cold weather is a challenge for tropical folks like us. We are not used to wearing extremely thick clothing (oftentimes several layers), with warmers especially on our extremities, where the cold would normally seep in. We find it restricting our movements. But, it is what it is. You wear it or you suffer the cold.

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Day 1 of our activity in Snow Country is snowshoeing – a form of hiking which uses snowshoes. The way it works is it distributes the weight of the body so that the foot does not sink into the snow completely, also known as flotation (can also be spelled floatation). We went to this place where the snow is about knee- to waist-deep in some places.

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We were asked to put on the proper gear to walk on snow. Now, if you think walking on snow is easy, think again.

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Photo courtesy of Stephen Tamba

Well, actually, it depends on a host of different factors: how long the trail is, for example; how steep the incline, how thick the snow is, etc. It can be really exhausting though, if you ask me, what with the weight of the clothing bearing you down. I find myself sweating inside my clothes towards the end of the trail. Also because being the first person in line after the instructors (on the second half of the trek), there is pressure to catch up with them seasoned folks (around 6-feet tall-ish Caucasians who have such huge gait). Maybe it needs a little getting used to.

I kind of learned from that experience so the next time around, I removed a layer from my five-layer attire. You kind of acclimate to the weather as you go along, too 🙂

It was fulfilling finishing the trail because we were already anticipating something good at the end of it – food! But wait, one gets to work for it first. It’s time to make soba noodles! Yehey!… (Nooo! We’re already famished, haha!)

The soba we made were served two-ways, one as hot noodles with soup and the other is cold like salad, with dipping sauce and wasabi on the side. They say among locals, the cold is the preferred choice.  I am yet to agree to that. Right now, I need a hot bowl of noodles. They also served us a basket of tempura. It satiates our hunger. We capped it off with hot tea.