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
@realwordadvanture
@residenceblancangkor
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Leaving our Hearts in the Snow

3rd in a series

Previously in this series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

“Time flies when you are having fun”. So goes the saying. Couldn’t be truer than now, our last day in Yuzawa. The past two days have been a whirlwind. It’s been nothing but a plethora of different new things to the senses – from the weather, to the food, to the culture. It really is one for the books.

But wait, the fun isn’t over yet. We cannot leave Snow Country without having to experience winter activities it’s famous for, right?

So, as is the usual routine, we wake up early to have breakfast at GaiA (that cute, little cabin at the edge of the woods).

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Today however, we woke up a bit earlier than usual so we could maximize time.

Props to Yuki for cooking all of our delicious meals during our stay at the inn – the soup that was served upon our arrival (which I call the welcome soup), two of the breakfasts we had at gaiA, and the packed breakfast we had at the bus on the way back to Tokyo. She is such a sweet and nice gal, who had been nothing but patient and understanding to us 🙂 She probably find some of our customs weird but has managed to accommodate us still. For example, I don’t think it’s common for Japanese to put sugar in coffee (if they even drink coffee regularly at all). Doesn’t seem like it. So when I asked for sugar for the group, she was kind of surprised that one small pack is not enough. It had to be a small bowl for everyone 🙂

These are the meals she made for us for our breakfast for the past two days. All of these are organic, by the way.

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Today’s breakfast – eggs, sausage, salad and pumpkin soup

I particularly liked the set with the baked salmon. Delicious! Proof that going organic doesn’t mean taste had to be sacrificed.

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Country-style breakfast of baked-salmon, Japanese-style eggroll, fried veggies with dashi soup , and miso soup. All organic. Yum! 🙂

I also like the ‘hippie-dippie/new age/people-of-the-earth’ vibe of the place and the kind of lifestyle espoused by Yuki herself. Not something I expected.

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I guess it would be nice also to put the spotlight on The Vintage Backcountry Inn Arimaya – our accommodation for the past three days.

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It’s a traditional ryokan, so everything you see here are antique, save for some modern amenities like TV & WiFi.

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“Built in 1908 without a single nail, the original structure is a(n) exemplar of the exquisite traditional Japanese kominka construction”

There were just some modifications done with the heating, plumbing and lavatories to keep up with modern standards. But you get to sleep on a traditional Japanese futon and tatami mats. Also, please take time to read the house’s history and how it was built in the about section of its page on Airbnb. You’d appreciate it more.

Now we proceed to our first destination – ski!

We went to the ski rental first to get some boots. The boots had to be clipped tight. So tight in fact one could get sore feet and legs afterwards. We then proceeded to the ski area which is really just around the corner – the Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort.

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Since none of us have any experience with ski, or any of the winter sports for that matter, we were first taught just the basics – the essential gears needed and how to put them on; some warm-up exercises; the basic techniques of sliding and stopping, and how to get up after falling. Also, how to move your way to the top of the hill and how to, sort of, put on the “breaks” while sliding down.

Me saying it like this makes it sound easy, right? Wait till you try it, haha!

I’ve fallen a couple of times and it was really hard for me to get up without having to resort to the “shortcut” – that of releasing the locks from the boots 🙂 The proper techniques (there are two of them) both require that you carry your weight through the use of the poles. Good luck with that, really 😉

I was also challenged going up the hill. Gravity always win pulling me down. Ski blades are extremely slippery, you know. Anyhow, it was an experience.

By this time we are feeling hungry already. We went to this beautiful place with the mountains as backdrop and had grilled meat, or what is called yakiniku, under a covered or roofed space outdoors, much like a gazebo, if not one already.

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It’s like having your typical picnic, only it’s in the snow. There’s lots of meat to be cooked and they are so delicious. I don’t know how we managed to devour all of them up. Hungry much, I guess? 😛

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After that wonderful lunch, next activity is riding a snowmobile from ski-doo.

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This one’s easy. Anyone who wants to satisfy their need for speed can try it here. Everyone gets to try one round with instructor and one round by himself. Lucky if you get picked to drive for the race afterwards.

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It was an activity-filled afternoon. What we’ve learned and what we’ve been practicing for would be put to the test later with the mini-“Winter Olympics”, of sorts.

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I wouldn’t be delving too much though, with the nitty-gritty of the games and of the other activities, so as to keep the element of surprise for the other groups who are yet to experience it 🙂 All I can say is be ready with your wit and brawn. You will need them. Good luck! 😀

As you can imagine, we were all exhausted by the end of the day. Nothing could be more joyful and nourishing than a nice meal like this below.

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The main entrée to the left, which are thin slices of pork with some type of (what I understand) is a miso mixture at the bottom, and was cooked right in front of us, on our tables, with some special leaf for aroma, is super! It tastes really good. As we say in the vernacular, we were all “galit-galit” 😀

Not sure where we had the meal exactly, although below is the signage at the entrance. My online references direct me to the Yuzawa New Otani. I couldn’t be sure, though. The itinerary says closing dinner at a typical izakaya, or watering hole.

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But of course, this being our last day in Yuzawa, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity getting pampered in what I think is the most quintessential of our Japanese experience – the onsen. People can go to Japan but they may not always experience this, let alone the Snow Country.

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And that pretty much sums up my Yuzawa experience. Delightful! 🙂