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

1st in a series on Siem Reap

It was 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. 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
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@residenceblancangkor
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Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice – and getting lost in translation, too

An unexpected invitation led to some interesting discoveries of the metro – this time in Makati. We were invited by a former colleague to this event held at the Indonesian Embassy where some of the activities include cultural shows, bazaar, food stalls, film showings, etc.

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The gargoyle located near the entrance of the embassy’s main lobby

We didn’t get the chance to see the cultural show/s but we were able to taste some of the Indonesian food, which, actually, was our primary objective. Unfortunately, we came in a bit late so some of the stalls started closing already.

The Mertabak pancake stall which we were so excited to try, apparently, was already closed when we checked, although it didn’t really scream “We’re closed” at the outset. I mean, we still see them cooking, and there are people who are, actually, still waiting in line, so we thought we could still order.

And, so, here’s the funny story. We inquired about the pancakes, and, of course, we were replied back in Bahasa (Indonesia’s national language). Unfortunately, we know little, if nothing, about Bahasa, so one could understand the confused, dumbfounded-look on our faces. But we carried on still, as if we understood (and quite confidently at that, I must add), asking each other what flavor or type of pancake we decide to get for ourselves while pointing to the products’ list displayed in front of us. Good thing one of the ladies standing in line was kind enough to explain in Tagalog that the stall is already closed and that they were only cooking for those who have ordered earlier.

I thought to myself: ‘Really?? Darn!’

Very easily with those words from the lady, our bubbles burst. Our faces now turned from one of excitement to one of disappointment. As we say in the vernacular: “sayang”.

Oh, well. It is what it is. On the bright side though, we were happy and excited to be able to catch up with some Indonesian friends who were former colleagues of ours. It was nice seeing them again after a long time and learning of what they have been up to and how they’ve been doing all these years. It’s good to know of their accomplishments both in their professional and personal lives. We wish them all the best.

Ok. I digressed.

Going back. I was able to try the Bakmi Ayam (from Bakmi NyoNya), which, as per some online sources I’ve checked, is basically a wheat yellow noodle topped with diced chicken meat seasoned in soy sauce and topped with some vegetables like chinese cabbage and mushrooms. Fried shallots are often added as garnish. And just like many of the other dishes in Southeast Asia, this too has a strong Chinese influence to it.

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“Bakmi Ayam”

The dish, I think, has a more subtle flavor compared to the other Indonesian dishes I have tried before, and so I think I probably should not have added the chili sauce at the start as I find it difficult to discern the natural flavor of the dish. One thing I can say is that it didn’t quite create the same strong impression I had with Mee Goreng when I first tasted it from years back – savory, addictive and with a delicious aroma. Whew! I’m salivating just thinking about it. So, I guess I would just have to give it another try at some other time, maybe in their restaurant.

Now all of this spicy goodness had to be balanced out with something sweet. So, off we went to find some café or restaurant where we could get our saccharine fix. We ended up in Naimas, or Balay Naimas (as shown on the receipt I’m looking at right now). More than the food, what struck us most is the interiors and all the funny and witty quotations, and maybe just some random thoughts about food and food lovers, spoken out loud, framed and hung on the walls.

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There are also some pictures of famous Hollywood stars of yesteryears – the “classic” Hollywood – whose names I am not even familiar with, embarrassingly so. I probably heard the name or read about it somewhere but, it isn’t my cup of tea, really. My colleague, on the other hand, this friend of mine from work, is THE expert 🙂 She couldn’t stop gushing about it and could not stop taking pictures. Well, she knows her stuff. She knows her classic Hollywood. As they say: “Different strokes for different folks”. And as we say in this country: ‘walang basagan ng trip’ 😛

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We ordered their vanilla ice cream. Nothing spectacular, really. Just your straightforward vanilla ice cream right there.

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Afterwards, we met up with another friend from work together with her kids, and we decided to go to this place they usually frequent, Tutto Domani. Things we ordered were ‘Butter, Cheese and Sugar Crounds’, some pizza, chocolate brownie, and a club sandwich, for them, and just cappuccino for me. Cappuccino made more gourmet with some all-natural coconut sugar.

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Butter, cheese and sugar crounds

I like the way the foam was designed. Very intricate. Like work of art. In fact, sometimes it feels such a shame to mess it all up when it comes time for you to drink it.

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What’s interesting and nice about this place is that its location makes for some quiet surroundings.

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I may not be able to say the same for the inside, though – at least not all the time, I suppose – especially when the kids (and kids at heart) start playing with the toys (yes, the free toys provided by the café itself). Nice concept though, especially if you have kids with you, as this is an effective way to pass the time and a good form of distraction. Also good while waiting for your food to be served. Genius, huh? I saw people play card games. There’s probably some board games, too. And there’s even a guitar for music enthusiasts. Isn’t that cool?

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Aside from these, there are toys and other items (like key chains) on display that are actually available for purchase, most of which I think, if not all, are from abroad, or that are probably hard to find locally. There’s this collection or series of toys that caught my eye called Labbit (by Kidrobot) that has a cute bunny donning different types of costumes depending on the theme. I think these are what they call designer toys, which probably explains the heavy price tag (P600). It may not sound much but it’s definitely costly for its size, and considering that there’s probably nothing much you can do with it other than for display purposes.

Oh, but they’re so cuuute….

If money is no object, I would have bought one right that very moment. But, as it is, I had to stop myself. And so now I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Dang! Cheapskate problems.

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My 7,107 | Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Palawan is picture-perfect.

Although it is not immune to the trappings of the modern world, its relative isolation helped it to somehow fend off excessive commercialization and environmental degradation. True, economic progress and conservation usually do not meet eye to eye, and surely the province has been a battle ground for many a war fought in this field. There are victors and losers, with tables probably turned every now and then. But as I have observed, Palaweños are generally the nature-lover bunch, for practical reasons. With travel and tourism as the province’s main draw, the people stand to benefit from caring for the environment and its natural wonders.

And so I came back to Palawan, the country’s last frontier, to enjoy and bask in its wonders and its beautiful, uncluttered beaches. The heat in the Metro is at an all-time high and there is no better time to go swimming. Destination: Sabang!

We took an AirAsia flight to Puerto Princesa, the capital. First stop on our itinerary is the crocodile farm. Upon entering the PWRCC (Philippine Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center) main lobby, we were greeted with a skeleton of a huge crocodile.

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Its skin was laid flat and hung on the wall. The guide says the skin of older crocodiles tend to be tougher and so are not ideal for creating wallets, bags, etc. That belongs to younger crocs who have softer skin. So this oldie’s skin might have to stay here for a little longer.

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There’s another one hanging on the other side painted with different colors of what seemed like tribal markings, maybe for aesthetic or art purposes.

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The guide also says this particular croc (the one whose skeleton is on display) and the biggest and longest one on record found in the Agusan marsh -“Lolong”, both died of the same reason – stress. This elicited lots of laughs because as humans, we only know too well how to feel stressed. And if these fearsome, magnificent creatures can only be downed by something as mundane as stress, then who are we humans to feel superior against it. We’ve all heard it said over and over: “Nakamamatay ang stress” (stress kills). Even the mighty crocodiles are no match to it.

Next we visited the hatchery where we see baby crocs, of course. The house smelled of croc pee.

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Then we moved on to where the full grown monsters are. When you scroll down farther below, you will see how this group of crocs form what seemed like crocodile pinwheel.

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After this, you get to have a chance to have photo op with or have your picture taken with a baby croc and get a souvenir picture. This leg of the tour gives you chance to relax and buy some refreshments like buko (coconut) juice and ice cream.

Next we went to Palawan’s Millionaire’s Row, where the Mitra estate/ranch (of the former House Speaker of the Philippine Congress) is located. This is also called the Sta. Monica Ranch. The property overlooks Honda Bay, another famous tourist destination. It’s an ideal spot for picnics.

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Just a few minutes’ drive away is Baker’s Hill where you find different breads and pastries like hopia, butterscotch, pianono, etc., and the famous local product – kasuy (cashew).

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Afterwards we went to another local market where you can buy more native produce like dried or sweet & spicy pusit, dilis, dried danggit and more nuts. Also you can buy local handicrafts and souvenir items. Everything is at a more affordable price here.

It was a fun yet exhausting first half of the itinerary. Before we proceeded to the resort where we will be staying, we first had lunch at KaLui. It’s a traditionally-themed restaurant with an artistic vibe, and has lots of organic and native artworks everywhere. We were even asked to remove our shoes and slippers as is commonly practiced in traditional Filipino homes.

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The food is also good. I particularly liked the fish fillet with mango tartare and the “lato” (seaweed). After having our tummies filled, it’s time for us to go to the resort. It was a long drive – about an hour and a half to 2 hours, depending on how fast the drive is. I think all of us dozed off because of exhaustion. We couldn’t have been more excited to reach the destination as we all feel like freshening up and retire to our rooms.

We had dinner at 6 – buffet dinner. Felt bloated afterwards. Swam at the pool. Had a few drinks. Wasted, at the end of the day 😛

To be continued…

A Night of “Hugot” and More

My friends from work invited me to join them in their food trip and to this music/art event they saw online. I thought I should join since I feel I have been working myself to death lately. A little time off wouldn’t hurt.

We decided to grab some bite to eat first before taking off to this open mic event they were so excited to go to. It’s called “Hugot Night 2”. We imagine something like a karaoke/videoke bar where people take turns singing their heart out and belting songs to express their angst or to make fun of their own misery over some heart break or something.

But more on that later.

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First we went to Sweet Ecstasy where we heard the burgers are really good. Based on some online sources that I checked,  they cook the beef fresh and not from the freezer.

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There is a marked difference in the meat’s texture and taste although there’s mixed opinion within our group as to whether they like it or not. Some do not find it juicy enough, which is their standard for a good burger. I personally liked the burger but I feel like I should have ordered more if not for the fear of being judged “matakaw” (glutton), haha! Some of the things I think could be improved are the lack of space and the customer service. The lady at the counter has been scrimping on the ketchup and gives me stoic looks everytime I ask for more. There’s seven of us who ordered burgers and she only gave us like four packets/sachets (do the math).

After having our tummies filled, we headed to Sev’s Cafe. Traffic was a bit heavy Saturday night. Good thing my friends are creative and talented enough to find ways of entertaining themselves while on the road. They would actually be thankful that they did, as you would find out later on. So, the entire time we were on the road, they were already starting with their version of the hugot concert – a never-ending playlist of songs hugot-themed (or not), loud and chaotic mostly, with matching medleys and sound effects to boot. It was pure… noise. Haha!

Like I said, it’s good they enjoyed themselves early because when we arrived at the location, we were (well, some of us), were kind of thrown for the loop as they never expected the event to be a little on the serious side (serious artistic side, that is). I’m not sure if it’s the nerves that got into them, like stage fright maybe, or is it the crowd, the artsy/artistic crowd, they’re not really comfortable with. To cut the story short, they left. Some of us though were quite curious as to what this whole thing is about, so we stayed. It’s a different perspective, a different kind of entertainment. To sum it up, it’s like watching an indie film or some indie art – raw and unapologetic. The place is a seedbed of creative minds similar to undergound art events I see in American films, like Begin Again,  only it’s not confined to just songs and music but also poetry, drawings, even dance, as what I’ve seen on YouTube in one of my searches. All art forms, basically. There was even a portion in the program where drawings were auctioned off. One of us even tried her hand in bidding. All of these is for a good cause by the way, proceeds of which go to the “Piso Para Kay Toto” fundraiser, which would help patients of the Philippine Children’s Medical Centre.

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Below are some of the pictures of the performances.

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There’s even a hip-hopper from New York who joined

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The auctioning of the drawings

The more intense and more profound however, I think, were the last 2 to 3 acts before we left. So profound in fact that I wasn’t able to take pictures because I was so absorbed with it and because I don’t want to create distraction. Everyone was so quiet listening. The poem “Pindrop Silence” by Words Anonymous, is probably our favorite. It’s the ultimate HUGOT! Search for it yourself online. Perhaps you would like it too 🙂

As I mentioned earlier, I felt a little underfed with the burger, so by this time I’m beginning to feel like eating something more filling and heavy, like rice, maybe. We decided to go to Solaire Resort and Casino since they have available food purveyors open 24/7 and it was a bit late already.

Solaire is awesome! Just look at their lobby. We will definitely go back. We will play hard and burn some cash (naks!). As if I have cash to burn, LOL! Paging Lady Luck. Now is the best time to have yourself felt.

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Anyways, our main purpose here is to be fed. And fed we did with our multicultural dishes. I ordered “dak galbi” (Korean spicy chicken) from Namsam and I would have to say it was really good. I was really satisfied.

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“dak galbi”

Two thumbs up to this amazing place. Really nice 🙂 I would have helped myself with the desserts if I wasn’t so full already, haha!

And here are the photos of the other dishes.

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beef rendang

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roasted chicken with mashed potatoes