Siem Reap | A Taste of the Gastronomical and the Strange

3rd and last of a series

Previously in this series:

The Ancient City of Angkor – a Cautionary Tale

Yesterday was exhausting. We spent the whole day touring the ancient sites of Ta Prohm, Bayon, and Angkor Wat. Though it was undoubtedly an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience – one filled with awe and wonder, it was also exhausting, what with the long walks and the heat.

This however, did not deter us from spending the night partying in Pub Street – the center of Siem Reap‘s nightlife.

Before that, we decided to stuff ourselves crazy with food – glorious food! We had dinner at the Asian Square restaurant near the Art Center Night Market.

Asian Square restaurant

We ate to our hearts’ content. Well, at least, I did. I’m adventurous like that when it comes to food.

Pound Green Papaya Salad
Deep-fried Fish Cake with Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables

Speaking of adventurous, there’s something I did I think would be worthy of that description – all in the name of fulfilling some bucket list. A random act of adventurism, I guess you can call it.

We were looking for a nice place we can party when we saw this lady selling some kind of street food that kind of looked unusual (to us) – some critter most people back home would probably freak out upon seeing, let alone eat – scorpions and snakes!

I mustered the courage to eat them. If anything, I would say, it was a revelation. The scorpion was crunchy and tasty, and the snake reminds me of a typical Filipino street food called isaw, or grilled chicken intestine. There are parts of the snake that’s close to being burnt that have crisped up, that actually tasted like “chicharron” (pork rind or deep-fried chicken skin).

The idea of these critters used as food has got some interesting history behind it, one that’s borne out of necessity and survival. During the Pol Pot regime, people had to escape the atrocities by hiding in the jungles. They survived by making do with what was available in their surroundings. Thanks to these critters they were able to get their nourishment.

Truly, one can never underestimate the value of nature, and the human spirit in overcoming adversity.

Such resilience these Cambodians exemplified, yes?

And what an experience this has been for me, personally. Couldn’t be more random 😅

By now we were able to find a place to party. The thumping and the booming were heard even from afar. It called and tempted, and we heeded with practically no resistance. We partied like crazy, man! 😛

Haven’t partied this hard for a long time, actually – got drunk, loosened up, got my groove on.

Booze a’flowin’, thanks to Gen 😁👍.

Good times, indeed. Especially because I’m spending it with some of my most favorite people. It just made the experience much more fun!

Got back to the hotel wasted.

The day after is “free” day so we get to do whatever we want since there is no formal itinerary planned out for us by the travel operator.

As always, we start the day with breakfast. We never miss breakfast. This one below I had on top of a wooden deck (or bridge, I guess it is) over a koi pond.

And if there is dinner provided for by the hotel, we would be more than happy to devour 😁 No need to ask us twice, for sure. Such was the case when they provided for our dinner on the last day before heading to the airport. Here are some of the pics.

Fresh Vegetable Spring Roll
Beef Lok Lak
Key Lime Pie. This one’s a hit 👍

Breakfasts are a combination of continental and local Cambodian dishes.

There is this soup similar to pho, the name of which escapes me now. Anyone who knows what this is, feel free to sound off in the comments section. It was delicious.

Any of you know the name of the pho-like soup on the left?

There’s also breakfast staples like toasts, coffee, sausages, omelets, rice, etc.

We spent our free day shopping and below are some of my haul. Looking at all of these now, it brought back to me how amazing Cambodia is – its history, its culture, its people; and how amazing this whole experience was overall.

Afterwards, we ate lunch at Pub Street and decided to have Tex Mex. Because, why not? No, really, we’re just hankering for something familiar 😁. Boy, we were full after. This was at Cafe Latino.

We went back to the hotel to prepare our luggage as our flight leaves in the evening.

Before I end this series however, I want to share something I want you to try to figure out what happened exactly. If it’s even something that can be explained by reason or logic.

I slept late on my first night in Siem Reap. I was still up early morning hours of the 2nd day – wee hours. I just finished ironing my clothes and took a shower afterwards.

I was in front of the mirror patting myself dry with towel when suddenly I heard some rustling – some kind of footsteps, coming from the back door, like someone is approaching. I immediately rushed to the door, afraid I might have left it unlocked.

There are different possible scenarios playing in my head at that time:

1. Whoever it is on the other side is probably oblivious of the fact that there ARE people who are checked-in and so would have entered by mistake.

2. Some maintenance or security guy doing rounds checking if doors are properly locked or maybe to check if the water tank or pipes are working fine. At one point I thought I heard some faint clanking, as if someone’s working the pipes.

3. A break in (with the purpose of hurting people or stealing). You know, the stuff of nightmares. This would’ve scared the s#@! out of me.

So, I don’t know. The first option is quite far-fetched. The second option seems off. It doesn’t seem normal for hotel staff to be doing this especially in the middle of the night.

The other strange thing is that the backdoor opens to just a small, sort of like semi-enclosed patio adjoined to a wall which pretty much draws the property’s boundaries – perimeter wall, I guess is what you call it. Beyond that, supposedly, is the neighbor. I’ve learned of this when I checked after the sun was up. There’s no sign of a “water tank”, either. At least not anywhere I can see in the immediate vicinity.

On either side of the patio are walls separating the other rooms. So it’s unlikely to be a prank pulled off by my colleagues from the other rooms. I don’t think anyone would go to great lengths, scaling walls and stuff, for that.

What I know for sure is that someone did try to open the back door – I saw the door handle turn with my own two eyes. I was looking at it up close, ready to deal with the “supposed” intruder, in case of forceful entry. Luckily, my colleague (roommate) was able to lock the door using the bottom lock before going to bed.

I was waiting with bated breath as to what would happen next. I’m expecting a knock, at least, or someone calling anyone from the inside. In my head, I was imagining my worst case scenario – a banging on the door. I’m preparing myself for a loud scream and some martial arts action 😛 (not that I know any martial arts, haha!). I’d probably just run as fast as I can, and in my towel 😀

But, yeah. Nothing. Nada.

Things couldn’t have gotten any more odd, actually. Remember the clanking sound? After that, the shower turned on briefly by itself and then turned back off again. I didn’t see the lever or the shower handle move.

Afterwards, I heard some kind of buzz in the front yard. In fact, I might have heard the door pushed lightly, like someone trying to enter. But not like banging, or something. By this time, my imagination was already running wild. I thought someone might be entering from the front door. Again, my concern was that the door might have been left unlocked so I immediately ran to the front while asking, in an alarming voice, my colleague (who was already sleeping at the time) if the door was locked. He was inadvertently awoken because of this.

No one was outside, apparently.

I don’t know. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. What do you think?

What’s more peculiar is that my other colleagues from the other rooms experienced something similar at around the same time, they say. Others have other strange things happen to them as well. Coincidence, you think? You be the judge.

On a lighter note, I would like to commend the hotel staff for doing a great job accommodating us. They’ve been very attentive and hospitable.

To all the friendly staff of La Residence Blanc D’Angkor, thank you 🙏😀 for making our stay memorable.

This wraps up my Siem Reap experience. It’s been a fun and exciting (and sometimes strange) three (or is it four?) days. Lots of lessons learned. Definitely something I would treasure for life. 😊🇰🇭

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The Ancient City of Angkor – A Cautionary Tale

2nd in a series on Siem Reap

Previously in this series:

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

Truth be told, I don’t know anything much about Cambodia before this trip. So are most of the people I talked to. Stories circulating online show others being so clueless they don’t know they are dressing inappropriately – some go shirtless, or worse, naked!

Ok, maybe it’s because of the heat, but still, it underscores the fact how little they know about the place and what these ancient structures mean to the local people. They think Siem Reap is just another exotic Southeast Asian beach town. Don’t get me wrong, Cambodia has beaches, but Siem Reap (where the concentration of the ancient temples are) is 280 miles from the nearest seashore. 

I surmise most Filipinos are introduced to Cambodian history some time during middle school. This is where we’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat the first time. However, as is true with most of the things we learn in school, we only remember them by rote (only because we need to pass the subject) but not really getting the import of what was taught (more often than not, I suppose). Not only until later in life and until it fits into one’s scheme of things, does one able to make sense of these things.

Cambodia, for a long time, isn’t really the kind of destination Filipinos are very familiar with. Except recently, it isn’t in the Filipino tourist’s radar. Not even in the OFW’s radar. I mean, I don’t hear OFW’s saying: “Oh, I work in Cambodia very often. In fact, nada.

I think the one time it made an impression on me as an exciting destination was when it came out in the first Tomb Raider movie. A very smart move to break into popular culture, I would say. It has effectively put Cambodia back on the map.

The image of giant trees growing on top of ancient temple walls, with huge roots exposed, left a strong impression. There’s an otherworldly feel to it. It’s become iconic now.

This is a departure from the bad image the country has suffered for years under the Pol Pot regime – one of gruesome violence and genocide. Almost every Cambodian alive today has some loved one or relative, who fell victim to the atrocities. Truly a dark chapter in this country’s history.

Some people may not be too keen on studying history, hence, must have felt on the fence regarding this trip. I get that. But just like anything else in life that is good for us, like a healthy diet and exercise, it’s something we should develop a liking for, for our own good. It takes discipline.

Also, because our modern global civilization is faced with a similar crisis the ancients did, the repercussions of which we haven’t fully realized. We need all the help we can get to overcome it. Any precedence in history that could be of any value would be a good start to even get a bit of a clue on what’s the best way to deal with this problem.

And so, although I don’t know much about Cambodia, I approached it with an open mind. I was an empty cup willing to learn, and boy, did I realize a lot of things. Just the magnificence of it all – the splendor, the scale, the engineering marvel, especially at a time when (complex) machinery was unheard of – took my breath away. Mind you, this vast area dotted with numerous temple sites was once a vibrant metropolis (or whatever the equivalent of it is in ancient times). This, in fact, was once the world’s largest city before the Industrial Age – a world heritage that merits our admiration and appreciation. A gift to humanity.

There are three temple sites we visited that are in relatively close proximity to each other (satellite view below).

First is Ta Prohm, where part of the Tomb Raider movie was filmed. I’m sure you’ve become familiar with this image by now, thanks to the movie.

“Founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, it was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found – the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors” – Wikipedia

All this traveling back in time, at the same time being surrounded by magnificent ancient architecture, makes one feel like going on an adventure – Indiana Jones level 🙂 And to kick it off, we were given a group activity – a treasure hunt of sorts. We are to find a bas relief of an apsara head partially hidden behind some huge temple block ruins, overgrown with tree roots. We were just given a picture of how it looks like facing the image and then had to find the actual location for ourselves. Given the huge area we need to scour and the seemingly similar features of a lot of the places in the temple grounds, it seemed like an insurmountable task to accomplish. However, persistence and team work paid off and has won the day. Surely no task is so great with a clear vision and game plan, and a strong team spirit 🙂

Do you see in this photo where the apsara is hiding?

Apsaras seem to be the first ones to greet us upon entering our first temple – Ta Prohm. They serve as good introduction to Cambodian culture and history. In fact, they play a prominent part in the whole Angkorian culture and architectural theme of the day. Below are the apsaras stationed at the wall near the entrance.

Apsara (in Hindu mythology) is a celestial nymph, typically the consort of a gandharva or heavenly musician. In the Cambodian culture, Khmer female figures that are dancing or are poised to dance are considered apsaras; female figures, depicted individually or in groups, who are standing still and facing forward in the manner of temple guardians or custodians are called devatas.” – Wikipedia

Here are some of the other areas inside the temple grounds. As expected, it’s teeming with tourists 🙂

Next stop is the Bayon Temple, also known as Angkor Thom.

“Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom. Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences” – Wikipedia

It goes on to say that the JSA, the main conservatory body in charge of the conservation and preservation of the site, describes the temple as “the most striking expression of the baroque style” of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat.

This is where I got lost for a time, having been separated from the group. Was having a hard time finding my pass and so the group went ahead without me. By the time I was allowed to get in, the group is nowhere to be found. So I just made my way to the top and explored Bayon by myself.

Been exploring corridors and galleries on the lower levels and got few surprises here and there. Turned a corner and found “treasures” like this.

I wonder what it’s like being a Buddhist.

Made my way the to the top and found gigantic statues (towers) of Avalokiteshvara faces, a bodhisattva. This is actually a Bayon temple signature. Hence, its other title – ‘the face temple‘.

Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who are destined to become buddhas but postpone that final state in order to help humanity.

Another striking feature of Bayon is its adornment of 1.2 kms of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures.

I wouldn’t be delving much into the details and stories behind these bas-reliefs but I highly suggest you search and read up on their background. It’s full of history and lots of interesting stories to tell. It’s like taking a peek into the soul of a proud kingdom – its glorious past, its people, its kings, its tales and legends; its everyday life; the mundane and the otherworldly; its idiosyncrasies and all.

Lonely Planet was on point when it said : “There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face”.

By this time, I was already able to catch up with the group.

Our final temple to visit is no other than the grandest and most majestic of them all – Angkor Wat. But before that, we first went to a restaurant outside the temple grounds as we all have been wanting to eat and take a break from all the walking and climbing, under a terribly hot weather.

Here are some of the food we devoured. I didn’t get the names of everything but some of them include: chicken with Khmer spice, deep-fried fish, fried egg, sauteed fried pork with eggplant, stir-fried veggies. I may not have gotten all the names correctly but you get the idea, right? No need to be all fussy about it 🙂

And so we enter the Angkor Wat temple grounds. ‘Massive’ is an understatement. We had to cross a body of water which seemed like some natural waterway, a river or something, but in reality is a gigantic man-made moat that surrounds the complex.

We notice monkeys roaming around freely. There are those who seem to be welcoming us on the other end of the pontoon bridge, seated on stairwells and on railings.

Angkor Wat is “one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum” – Wikipedia

Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. Coming from a predominantly Catholic country, this is a sight to behold. I feel like finding new religion 😀

Though damage is minimal, Angkor Wat has not been spared the effects of modern warfare. In fact, before entering, our guide showed us bullet holes left by a shoot-out between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces in the late ’70’s. This photo, in particular, shows bullet still left inside one of the walls of this ancient structure.

Even more destructive than the war itself though, were the rampant looting of the archaeological finds, by art thieves working out of Thailand. One could not help but notice the numerous headless statues and figures, as a consequence of this looting.

“Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation” – Wikipedia

Statue of god Vishnu

Once again, monkeys roam careless and free 😀

Angkor Wat is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia and is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.

Before entering the temple itself, we gathered in front of, what looked like a depression on the earth with a small lake-like structure at the bottom, to have our group and individual photos taken. This is a popular spot where people can take picture-perfect photos because of the reflection created by the water, for added drama.

Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.

The magnificence, the splendor, the scale of this ancient wonder. I was in awe.

The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas adorning its walls.

“The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last. Each gallery has a gopura at each of the points, and the two inner galleries each have towers at their corners, forming a quincunx with the central tower. Connecting the outer gallery to the second enclosure on the west side is a cruciform cloister called Preah Poan (the “Hall of a Thousand Gods”). The four small courtyards marked out by the cloister may originally have been filled with water. North and south of the cloister are libraries” – Wikipedia

The steep stairway symbolizes the difficulty of reaching heaven

“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome…”

Henri Mouhot, 19th-century French naturalist and explorer

Yes, we romanticize how magnificent the structures are and how ingenious the engineering that was used to build them, but I don’t think people really understand the enormity and scale of this project even if I say it repeatedly and candidly. So, let’s put it in perspective, shall we?

The Khmer Empire ruled over a vast area of Southeast Asia, even larger than what modern Cambodia is today.

Its capital city is Angkor. At the time, before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was the world’s largest urban center. And in order to support such huge population, the Khmer built water management systems like huge reservoirs, canals, channels and dikes. They made good use of the resources that are available in season such as the monsoon. Water can be abundant in one season and scarce the next. This ingenious solution of efficiently utilizing a precious resource secured them a regular harvest.

For a long time, it has been a mystery how the society collapsed after about 200-300 years after its peak. There have been lots of theories, of course. Recently, however, a new one surfaced (and this is a real kicker). It states that environmental factors, otherwise known as ‘climate change‘ could have played a huge role in its demise. The ‘freaky’ weather patterns, like floods and droughts, overwhelmed those water management systems. And when I say freaky, I mean those that are not within the parameters of what is considered regular or normal. Basically, weather phenomenon that are off the charts.

We often hear about once in a 100-year type of flooding or drought, or heavy rainfall, right? They do happen as part of the natural cycles of the earth. What’s scary about our time though, is that our brand of climate change is self-inflicted. We create the causes for our own demise. And there’s no precedence of it anywhere in history. The CO2 levels and other pollutants we put in the air are staggering. Nowhere in recorded history has there been this much level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Scientists fear reaching a tipping point where we face the risk of a runaway weather, in which we wouldn’t have any control over nor could we predict with a much better certainty how the weather is going to behave.

Now who says history is not relevant to us today? We may have come a long way as a species but we surely have not learned from the errors of the past, or at least not have been as vigilant as we should have. The ancient ruins of Angkor are a poignant reminder of how even with the best technology and advancements, humans are no match to nature. We could very well suffer the same fate as the ancient Khmer people if we don’t change our ways.

So often we fail to value the natural world because of our greed. We treat it like a commodity, an unlimited resource. We need to realize that it is to our best interest to work with it and not against it.

Here’s to hoping things would work for the better. And soon.

Special thanks to Real World Adventure for arranging our tour of the temples.

To Vox for this video, where screen grabs of the maps of Southeast Asia were taken.

Find them on Facebook:
@realwordadvanture
@Vox

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

Bangsamoro – Keeping the Faith

Previously in this series:

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Central to the Bangsamoro culture is Islam. It is the glue that binds them together. No matter the differences and difficulties, Muslims around the world follow a set of principles and practices that constitute the religion, creating a sense of belonging and unity called ummah. More than anything however, a Muslim aims to achieve unity with Allah, encapsulated in the concept of tawhid which emphasizes the following of Allah’s will.

The five essential duties of Muslims, also known as the five pillars of Islam, as revealed in the sacred book of Koran, or Qu’ran, are:

  1. shahadah – the profession of faith
  2. salat – praying five times daily facing Qibla/Qiblah (sacred mosque in Mecca) at designated periods
  3. saum or puasa – fasting between sunrise and sunset in the month of Ramadan
  4. haji – the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once if possible
  5. zakat – voluntary contribution of a portion of one’s income as alms for the poor

The Koran is considered sacred as it contains the teachings of Allah, and so is carefully handled and used. Pictured above is a copy of probably the country’s oldest, if not one of the oldest, translations of the sacred book known as The Qu’ran of Bayang (Lanao del Sur). Of significant historical and cultural value to Filipinos in general, and to the Filipino Muslims in particular, the Koran of Bayang will be declared by the National Museum as a “National Cultural Treasure”. It enjoyed a long and varied history – from being an heirloom, to being a loot of war (during the war with the Americans), to having to evade a typhoon by deferring its supposed return to Marawi.

During the height of the People Power Revolution of 1986 however, the Koran was reported missing, as it was previously requested by the then First Lady Imelda Marcos to be transferred to Malacañan from the National Museum. Fortunately, a complete copy was made prior to its transfer to the Palace, so its message is not lost to us today. It will remain for posterity.

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The museum’s model of a ranggar

There are two types of mosques in Southern Philippines. One is the ranggar or langgal, a small structure accommodating only few individuals for daily prayers in the rural areas. The prayer mats you see displayed above are from the Molbog tribe, Balabac, Southern Palawan. These are made of pandan leaves and synthetic dyes.

The other type of mosque is the masjid, a permanent structure facing Mecca, which adopted a more Western/Arabic-style architecture as evidenced by the use of minarets, mihrab, mimbar and places of ablution. Examples of the different types of mosques in the Philippines below, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Prior to the late 19th century however, mosques that were built in the country employs an indigenous form of architecture known as pagoda-style or hut-style, such as this Old Bangsa style mosque in Taraka, Lanao Del Sur (below). There have been proposals to put the Heritage Mosques of the Philippines into the Philippine tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Site declaration in the future.

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Fasting is a widely known observance in Islam during the holy month of Ramadan, where the faithful abstain from the consumption of food and drink daily from the break of dawn until sunset. This is also a time for avoiding practices that are deemed ‘unspiritual’, if you will, or are in conflict with Islamic teachings – those that divert a person’s focus away from spiritual things, such as inappropriate speech, excessive recreational activities, or acting unkind towards the needy, for example. It is a time to perform zakat, or the giving of alms to the poor and more importantly, worship through prayers and recitation of verses from the Qu’ran.

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

A lavish three-day feast is held at the end of Ramadan called Hari-raya, or Eid al-Fitr in Arabic. It starts with the sighting of the new moon on Shawwal – the first day of the tenth month of the Islamic calendar. People will pray in mosques and in open spaces, and would offer charity to the poor.

The most significant feast for Muslims however, is the Feast of Sacrifice or Hari-raya Hadji, or Eid al-Ahda in Arabic. This celebrates the completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca during the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

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Photo courtesy of The Great Courses Daily

Aside from these, there are other important Islamic occasions where Muslims celebrate by feasting and, according to the museum’s informational guide, all of these “involve communal prayers, recitation of passages from the Koran, communal consumption of special meals involving local delicacies and beverages, adornment of feasting spaces, and use of highly decorated prestige items and utilitarian goods during food preparation and consumption”.

Indigenous traditions become evident in these lavish feasts where local delicacies get to take center stage. In the olden days, these are usually prepared and served in highly decorated containers and utensils.

Below are examples of Tausug dishes often served during these occasions.

Clockwise from upper left: Tausug beef kurma, tiyula sug, beef kurma, a typical Eid spread, a collection of sweets called bang bang sug, and chicken piyanggang 

Muslims in the Southern Philippines also celebrate life cycles, such as birth, marriage, rites of passages, etc., with feasting. The communal experience of food and drink consumption establishes and fosters a sense of connection across cultures. Fasting and feasting are interconnected practices that  help connect a person to his spirituality – abstinence to food as an act of faith to a God who provides, and feasting as an expression of gratitude and acknowledgement of God’s generosity.

Banquets are thus part of Islamic rituals. These occasions provide opportunity to establish and renew social bonds.

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Photo courtesy of Ferdinandh Cabrera, ndbcnews.com.ph

And in the early days of Islam in the Philippines, especially, according to the museum’s informational guide: “Feasts provide arenas for displaying wealth, power and prestige through the abundant offering of food and drinks for communal consumption, and the use of prestige or exotic objects and technologies.  As a result, celebrations are closely tied to aspects of political economy which is guided by the ideology of the elite. This is often materialized in public ritual events where highly symbolic objects and ritualized practices are used to express and legitimize their political, economic and social prestige”.

It goes on to say: “… lavish feasts (together with spectacular performances and displays of resplendent art) thrive as they give visual expressions to the Islamic notion of the sacred power of sultans“.

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Photo credits:

Dishes – Yummy.ph/Knorr.com/Pepper.ph/umnoha.blogspot.com/angsarap.net

Coronation of Sultan of Sulu – retrato.com.ph

The Masjid Dimaukom or “Pink Mosque” – Tasnim News Agency

Taluksangay Mosque – Wowzamboangacity

Tulay Central Mosque – Al Jacinto 

A Day at the Museum | The National Museum of Anthropology – Part 2

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Having lived in Manila my whole life,  I never really experienced what life is like anywhere else in the country except those I had the chance visiting for a few days. But even that wouldn’t really suffice for one to really get to know or understand the local culture. I think one really has to immerse himself in it. That might require some time spending with the locals and experiencing things they usually do on a day-to-day basis. Now, being a busy person with lots of commitments, that prospect may not really work out for me. It’s almost next to impossible. Good thing there are museums, right?

Ok. You are probably thinking: “Here he goes again selling this museum thing to the hilt”. But really, this has proven indispensable for the city creature like me. It’s funny because both my (biological) parents were from the provinces. My surrogate dad was from the province, too. But I never really had the chance being on those places for a long time. The everyday man on the street may not realize it, but it’s staggering how culturally diverse our country is – more than 175 ethnolinguistic nations or groups. An average working person may not be able to meet, let alone visit each ethnic group in his lifetime, unless he spends most of his time traveling around the country, like some blogger I’ve read about. It is doable, yes, but may not always be practical. So, to each his own. And yes, this brings me back to the topic of museums and how it fills the void to satisfy that curiosity. You may not be able to meet or visit each of those ethnic groups, but you can learn about some of them through museums and visual arts. It doesn’t replace the actual experience, of course, but it’s the next best thing.

So, on with the topic. Now, what could be more interesting than the Bangsamoro, right? Bangsamoro, of course, is that hotly-contested autonomous region in the South populated by Muslims. There are other non-Muslim ethnic groups who are indigenous to Mindanao called the Lumads, but that’s for another article.

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Bangsamoro is the “largest non-Catholic group in the Philippines and, as of the year 2012, comprises 11% of the total population” – Wikipedia. Its defining and official religion, Islam, is the second largest and the fastest-growing in the world.

The spotlight is turned every time we hear news of war in this troubled region and when there are developments in the efforts made to achieve that seemingly elusive peace, as when peace talks and deals are made.

If you come to think of it, if we weren’t colonized by the Spaniards, we probably are Muslims today. Now, all the reason to be interested in the Bangsamoro’s history and culture.

Bangsamoro from the Filipino term bangsa, meaning nation and Moro, from the Moors (of Southern Spain) – a designation used by the Spanish to all Muslims.

Three indigenous tribal men from the Sulu Archipelago in the 1900s.
Three indigenous tribal men from the Sulu Archipelago in the 1900s. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

What’s interesting to note is that Bangsamoro (as one nation of Muslims) is actually composed of different ethnic groups who happened to share a similar faith, and maybe certain aspects of their cultures, history and traditions. But there are certain things that are unique to each group. The brand of Islam itself as how it is practiced here, or manifestations thereof, may differ widely from say, those in the Middle East or even other Southeast Asian neighbors. The basic tenets of the faith are adhered to but there are certain embellishments that are quite unique to this specific group. Think of it as Islam in Bangsamoro garb. Some indigenous practices and beliefs persisted and made its way to the new religion.

Feast for the eyes

What really struck me immediately upon entering the exhibit is the ornate artistry of the works. Apparently, the peoples of this region have developed a highly-stylized form of geometric patterns that are combined together to form these visually stunning imagery. This is in no less thanks to a Qu’ranic prohibition of creating artistic depictions of human, animal and plant forms in any medium.

This particular style is called okir which, aside from referring to carving or engraving, is also referring to a particular curvilinear design pattern predominantly and distinctly used by the Muslim groups in Southern Philippines. This type of design could be seen in their architecture and in the day-to-day implements and fashion.

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Tabo or Dabu-dabu, of the Maranao tribe, Lanao del Sur. A signalling instrument horizontally suspended in front of Mosques. A standard rhythm calls people to prayer on Friday, while a more intricate tempo is played during Ramadan.

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Boras, Tausug tribe, Jolo, Sulu. A window screen which doubles as a floor mat during ceremonies. Interesting to note that Tausug culture gives specific division of labor for the sexes in the creation of the boras – men for the rattan mat itself and women for the painting and design.

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Enjoying the visual treat, yet? This is just a prelude to more exciting things to come, so watch out for it 😉 Till next time! 🙂

Lantaka – of War & Peace

This is the first time I’ve heard of the word “lantaka”. I bet most of us aren’t familiar with it, yeah? Well, fret no more as you are about to get enlightened 🙂

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I didn’t realize our ancestors had such sophisticated weapon in their arsenal. However, not only as an implement of war but also during times of peace are these lantakas proven useful, like during celebratory events, and as a form of warning signal when there is impending danger, much like a siren does in modern times. There’s this one article I read that says during those times, the number of lantakas (aside from the number of wives) a man has, are considered status symbols.

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This is just another proof of a vibrant, thriving culture during pre-Hispanic times. And proof positive of our predecessors’ knowledge of metallurgy.

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I can go on and on babbling about this subject but I should really stop myself because I realized I took a photo of the museum’s informational guide (for obvious reasons) – it should do the talking, right? I thought so.

Well, enjoy reading 🙂

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A Day at the Museum | The National Museum of Anthropology – Part 1

Treasures of the San Diego

You’d be glad that our museums are free of charge, would you not? At least those under the auspices of the National Museum, that is. One could kill time away and explore new knowledge for practically nothing, at no cost.

The story of the San Diego should interest every Filipino because not only does it shed light into the kind of world our forebears lived in, but because it’s teaching us some important life lessons too, if we are only to look closer and really listen.

I know nothing much about the San Diego myself, so I’m sharing this so we could learn together. I’m kind of curious too if this has already been part of school text books. It should be. Children, especially, with their impressible minds, should visit the gallery because nothing beats seeing the artifacts with one’s own eyes. I was kind of happy seeing groups of school children touring the museum. There is this one group in the lobby being briefed by the guide before the tour started. Although most seemed excited, you can see in some of the children’s faces that they are getting bored, what with their short attention span – some looking spaced-out, others forcing a somewhat interested/engaged look, perfunctorily nodding to every thing the guide says, but that you know their mind is wandering some place else. Sorry kids, you need to learn these stuff 🙂

Just a disclaimer, though. The article you will be seeing below were taken purely from museum references and informational guides. It does not reflect the author’s words or opinions.

The San Diego – a 16th Century Galleon

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A model of the San Diego

The San Diego was a 3-masted trading ship built in 1590 in Cebu by Basque, Chinese and Filipino shipbuilders. It used different kinds of Asian woods and was about 35-40 meters long, about 12 meters wide and 8 meters high. It had at least 4 decks and could hold about 700 tons of cargo.

The discovery of the San Diego has significantly expanded knowledge of Renaissance shipbuilding techniques. On the basis of the finds and the positioning of the wreck, the construction of the ship had been studied.

Detailed investigations were only conducted on selected planks because of conservation problems. A large part of the wood remains were left under-water and covered with sand for future researches.

The Sinking of the San Diego

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

On December 14, 1600, about 50 kilometers southwest of Manila, the Spanish battleship San Diego under the command of Morga clashed with the Dutch ship Mauritius. All odds were in favor of the Spanish. The San Diego was four times larger than the Mauritius. It had a crew of 450 rested men and massive fire power with 14 cannons taken from the fortress in Manila.

It sank “like a stone”

Unfortunately, this was also the weakness of the San Diego. Morga had the ship full of people, weapons and munitions but too little ballast to weigh the ship down for easier maneuverability.  While the gun ports had been widened for more firing range, not one cannon could be fired because water entered through the enlarged holes.

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The San Diego sprung a leak beneath the water line either from the first cannonball fired by the Mauritius or from the impact of ramming the Dutch at full speed. Because of inexperience, Morga failed to issue orders to save the San Diego. It sank “like a stone” when he ordered his men to cast off from the burning Mauritius.

The events were recorded in Morga’s book, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas. The book portrayed Morga as a hero of the battle. Olivier van Noort also wrote about the battle.

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Antonio de Morga (1559 – 1636)

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Morga came from a family of bankers in Seville but decided to have an administrative career. He was appointed as Advisor and Lieutenant General to the Governor of the Philippines in 1593 by the Spanish King. This did not make him happy being posted “at the ends of the earth”. He saw his chance to change his fortune when he heard the news of a Dutch pirate ship entering Philippine waters.

Through political maneuvering, he was promoted to admiral and later commissioned the San Diego, a merchant vessel anchored in Manila, to be a battleship. Morga thought that a swift victory over the exhausted intruders would put him in a favorable stead with the King.

Morga’s ignorance as a captain was proven during the sea battle with the Dutch. He gave wrong commands that led to the sinking of the San Diego, but as one of the few survivors, he successfully depicted himself as a hero of the battle and even got promoted. He was sent to Mexico in 1603 and to Peru in 1615.

Olivier van Noort (1558/59 – 1627)

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Olivier van Noort was a tavern owner in Rotterdam. He was described as a humorous, courageous, stubborn, but enterprising man. In 1598, he was entrusted to command a small fleet financed by some merchants and the Dutch stockholder, Maurice of Nassau. His mission was to ascertain the trade route to the Spice Islands and, along the way, plunder any vessel he could find.

In the latter part of 1600, van Noort, reached the Philippines with two ships. On December 14, the battle between his flagship Mauritius and Morga’s San Diego took place in front of Manila Bay. Although far outnumbered, 59 to 450, his men fought bravely. Van Noort tricked the Spanish into fleeing by setting fire to his own sails. Through his nautical skills and tactical cunning, he was able to escape the Spaniards.

One year later, van Noort returned to Rotterdam broke. The expedition was a failure. But his knowledge of the trade route, allowed Dutch participation in the spice trade in the Moluccas. Belatedly acknowledged, he finally took a post as garrison commander until 1626 when he retired.

The Wreck of the San Diego

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The hold of the San Diego contained food and water supplies. Stoneware jars doubling as containers and ballast were placed in the hold. About 800 of these were found in the wreck. These jars came mostly from Burma and dated from the 16th century.

Antonio de Morga sailed into battle with the Mauritius, commanded by Olivier van Noort. Early in the morning, Morga neglected to inform his Vice Admiral Juan de Alcega. Morga at first seemed to gain the upper hand, and his soldiers even captured the standard of the Mauritius. The Spanish galleon was under full sail when it violently rammed the Dutch ship. The seasick Spanish admiral, however, failed to follow up on his advantage despite pleas from his officers and crew and soon lost control of the situation.

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The Admiral’s table

A major leak was discovered in the hold, obviously a result of the violent impact. Morga gave the fatal order to cast off the lines holding the ships together. The astonished Dutch could not believe their eyes. When the lines had finally been cut, the San Diego sailed 330-660 feet (100-200m), nosed over and went straight to the bottom. The time was approximately 3:00 pm, on Thursday, December 14, 1600. Three hundred people are thought to have drowned. Another hundred apparently survived by swimming to nearby Fortune Island. Morga himself was rescued by his secretary.