Kratie: Travel notes and magic moments

After having my heart melt in Laos, it took a bit of adjustment for me to get into Cambodia. The town was a bit rougher around the edges than where we were coming from in Laos. I liked it well enough, but it took a bit of time and persistence to get to the “gooey center”. The effort was worth it though – getting past the initial surface impressions led to some really golden moments.

Tourist stuff – accommodation and attractions

I mentioned in an earlier post about having to deal with touts selling their hotels the second we got off the bus in Kratie. We ended up talking to two of them; we stayed at the hotel Hap showed us, Morhautdom Hotel. We turned down the hotel Lucky showed us, but he was also a tuk tuk driver and we ended up arranging with him to see some of Kratie’s tourist attractions later on.

Morhautdom was ok, convenient central location and Hap was friendly, but overpriced at USD 15 a night for what we got (but we’ve certainly stayed at worse!). A tip – don’t agree to pay extra for air conditioning until you test it out; our A/C worked enough to blow out air but that was it.

Great about the hotel was that it was just at the other end of the block from Balcony Hotel and its totally delicious food!

Red Sun Falling had decent but not amazing food with a quirky atmosphere and (mostly) great tunes at night, and crazy Cambodian television during the day (we got to watch bits of a Khmer-dubbed Chinese movie with the staff one day during one of the frequent downpours. It involved drama and intrigue, snakes – lots of snakes, in the shower, attacking people, fighting bears, morphing into humans – and tremendously bad editing and special effects. Highly amusing!).

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Owner Joe watches crazy movies at Red Sun Falling

The first place Lucky took us was to Kampi, where tourists from Cambodia and further afield alike board small wooden ships that scoot around the broad, opaque Mekong in the hope of spotting the increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We enjoyed the morning on the peaceful waters and it was interesting and exciting to catch glimpses of the dolphins cresting.

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View from the prow of the boat – my flip flops have since then been demolished by the rainy season…

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Dolphin sighting!

For me though, even more enjoyable was the drive to Kampi, along a picturesque road running parallel to the river, and the monastery we visited on the way back to Kratie.

Before I get to those, if you’re considering visiting Kratie or other locations in eastern Cambodia, this website offers some good information and trail ideas.

Finding the magic

After we got back onto dry land, Lucky took us to Phnom Sombok, a wat (monastery) located on the only hill on the area. Lucky dropped us at the base of the hill, and steep concrete steps through lush green brought us to a peaceful complex of moss-covered buildings and a colorful temple and stupas.

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We arrived just at lunch time. The monks and nuns were in the main temple performing a ceremony. We peaked in from the perimeter and immediately the nuns, elderly, dressed in white and with kind faces, beckoned us in. I joined them on the floor for the end of the ceremony (Roman wasn’t feeling 100% so he stayed outside).

When it was finished, one of the younger monks started speaking with me, telling me about their daily life (including how much time they spend in meditation each day – hours and hours!!), swapping stories about Myanmar (he had travelled there to study and had great reverence for the Buddhism practiced and taught there), asking about my meditation practice (weak!!).

He and the nuns invited me to join them for lunch. I tried to protest but it was futile. 🙂 The monks left to eat elsewhere (apparently monks eat only that which they collect as alms; the nuns’ lunch is cooked on the premises), and the sweet nuns proceeded to chat with me in our limited French (mine much more limited than theirs) and fill me up with all sorts of Cambodian desserts. Such an unexpected and generous encounter – I just loved it!

After I ate everything they offered me and received a handful of dried mango for the road, I rejoined Roman and we explored the rest of the compound, enjoying the lovely atmosphere and gorgeous views of the farmlands below.

“How poor people live”

We rejoined Lucky at the tuk tuk and turned back to Kratie – but first he asked if we minded making a quick stop at his home. With only a slight tinge of bitterness in his voice, he said we could “see how poor people live.” I was moved to be invited into his simple one room house, where his wife and two young children were at home to receive him. His toddler son was fast asleep in a hammock slung across the room; his older daughter shyly watched me with big eyes, but warmed up when an older, braver neighbor girl stopped by to investigate.

Lucky was dropping in for his lunch break – a quick meal of rice and chicken and vegetable soup that had been prepared with the simple cooking implements in one corner of the room that constituted the kitchen. He told me that the house was relatively new – earlier they had been living with his mother-in-law. The roof was corrugated iron (cheaper than natural fiber or tile roofs – but hotter when the sun was out), the floor bamboo, the walls incomplete, patched together from woven palm fronds and pieces of plastic. In the village, his was one of the simpler houses. I wonder what it would be like to live in any of the homes there. I’m grateful for the glimpse we were able to have into Lucky’s life.

Even for the relative poverty and simplicity of the villages along the river, there was a lot of beauty too. Many of the houses were sturdier wood in a traditional Khmer style and really lovely to look at. The whole road once you got further out of Kratie was lined by gorgeous massive trees; the village homes and stores enjoyed their lush, green and gold-tinted shade. I fell in love with the peaceful atmosphere and sweet scenes of every day life that we passed in the tuk tuk and resolved to come back.

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Lucky’s napping son

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Grabbing a quick bite to eat

River road

I tried to find Lucky the next day but was unsuccessful, so I headed back along the road out of Kratie on my own steam (Roman was still not feeling great so I went on my own). I was aware of weather’s tendancy to get stormy towards the end of the day, so, leaving after lunch, I had to keep an eye on the time if I wanted to avoid a soaking. The journey by foot was a lot slower than by tuk tuk; I didn’t even get close to making it all the way to Lucky’s village, but I still saw loads of beauty on my three hour walk (and I made it back to Kratie five minutes into the afternoon rain – but before the real downpour opened up. Perfect timing!)

As I had from the tuk tuk the day previous, I just drank in the beautiful houses on stilts, rice paddies, massive trees and river views. But being on foot was even better – the countless number of smiles and greetings I exchanged with bemused Cambodians made the little trek just magical – especially the amazing, out-going, totally fun kids (see my earlier post for evidence 😉 ).

Other bits and pieces

I’ll post pictures in my next post, but before I finish, here are some of the snapshot-type things I want to remember from Kratie. 🙂

  • The kids sitting outside a store in town eating steamed snails, pulling the meat out of the shell with toothpicks
  • The television in our hotel room that turned on automatically when the power in the room got switched on. It was on a Cambodian music channel – horribly dubbed singers and musicians (honestly who ever was editing the sound to match the video wasn’t even trying) performing traditional and modern Cambodian music to a room full of dancers dressed up like they were going to the prom, dancing sedately around a table piled high with fruit. Awesome, atmospheric background music for our stay in Kratie! 😉
  • The cheeky little scrap of a dog from the hotel next door that nipped at my heels and made me scream (embarrassing! 😉 ) – not because he bit me but because he came out of no where
  • Waiting for our bus in town. The bus station was right by a medical clinic. The clinic was open to the dusty, busy street. Patients would shuffle out with a drip attached to their arm to by food from street vendors. When we arrived, two men in black were sitting on funny wooden benches by the station, busily sharpening carving knives. Slightly disturbing when they finished their work and went to deliver the knives not to the nearby restaurant as I would have expected, but to the clinic.
  • There was one young man I saw both during the tuk tuk ride and a couple of times during my walk outside of Kratie. Although he was walking around fine on his own, it was clear that he had cerebral palsy. I can’t begin to imagine the first thing about him or his life, but we caught each other’s eyes the last time we passed each other and I do know that his smile was so bright that it lit up my heart completely.
  • The sweet guy at the cell phone shop who was really friendly and helpful. He had received a brand new iPhone from his folks who live in the States; Roman fixed his sim card and tried to help him unlock it (I love this about Roman!) – unfortunately the guy’s phone was too new to be unlocked.
  • The hilarious woman at the first phone shop we went to who kept burping the whole time she was waiting on us. Now that’s customer service! 😉
  • Trying krolan, a regional specialty. It’s sticky rice with coconut milk, beans and a bit of sugar and salt, cooked by steaming it in bamboo. Total comfort food!

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At the krolan stand. The tops of the bamboo tubes are stopped with coconut fibers

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The sweet vendor demonstrates how to open the bamboo

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Deliciousness inside!

Food notes from Cambodia

While the beer and coffee I’ve had so far can’t compete with the deliciousness that is Beerlao and Lao coffee, we have had some pretty great food since arriving in Cambodia.

Recently I’ve been really enjoying the international fare that’s available in Phnom Penh, but for this post I want to keep it local. 🙂

Divine dining in Kratie

Halfway through our stay in Kratie, we discovered the restaurant at Balcony Guesthouse. If we’d found it earlier I am pretty sure we would have had every meal there!

They had western and other Asian food on offer, but I only tried their Khmer dishes. I can confidently say that every single thing I ate there was absolutely awesome. Quality ingredients and amazing flavors. I was in heaven!!

The first meal I had there had me in raptures. It was something called chaa kh’nay. With a base of succulent local river fish, the dish involved tons of tender fried ginger plus lots of garlic and spring onions – some of my most favorite flavors.

We had time enough in Kratie that I could try a couple of other dishes there, but the chaa kh’nay was my definite favorite and I was lucky enough that Pheak, one of the really friendly guys working there, invited me into the kitchen and translated for me as his sister, the cook, explained the ingredients and steps. The recipe follows below. I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet but I plan to do so as soon as I can get my hands on a kitchen! 🙂

Pheak mentioned they are planning on offering cooking classes. If you happen to be traveling in Kratie, I would definitely check it out! We ended up at another hotel, but were able to peak into some of the rooms as we went upstairs for dinner/breakfast and it seems like a cute, clean place. The open, 2nd storey restaurant has nice river views and is a lovely place to enjoy a fantastic meal.

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Bor bor, a simple but satisfying rice porridge that is a traditional breakfast in Cambodia (with regional versions to be found across much of Asia)

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Chay Seang Y – Cambodian herbal wine that is allegedly a cure all. Enhances kidneys, increases appetite (like I need that…), good against hyperthermia, urinary tract infections, lumbago and “does not cause any headache after consuming.” Tasted pretty much as healthy as it sounds.

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Chaa g’dao, chicken stir fried with fresh basil, lemon grass and chili. Was just the right amount of heat for me, with lovely, subtle flavors. Really tasty.

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The incredibly delicious Chaa kh’nay. Am drooling just looking at the photo. Seriously.

Chaa kh’nay

Ingredients

Lots of fresh ginger (as young as possible), probably about 5 inches worth, maybe even more.
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
Mild freshwater fish, cubed
Vegetable oil (my guess is 1 or 2 tablespoons?)
Fish sauce and oyster sauce (again a guess, 1 tablespoon each?)
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of salt
One green onion for garnish

Directions

Finely chop fresh ginger into thin strips. Pre-heat a pan on medium heat, then add oil and ginger. Cook until the ginger starts to brown, then remove the ginger from the heat.

In the same pan, add the fish and fry until brown. Then add the chopped garlic and ginger until (in the words of the cook) “It smells good.” The garlic in my dish was also nicely golden, if that’s a helpful indication.

At that point, add the fish and oyster sauce and a bit of sugar and salt to taste.

Remove from heat, garnish with green onion and serve with steamed rice.

Fruit!

There are loads of street vendors in Phnom Penh, selling everything from steamed snails to waffles to freshly fried noodles to massive green coconuts. There’s plenty of seasonal fruit for sale and I love the colorful carts loaded with all sorts of delicious things. Even after 10 months on the road I am still discovering new fruits and vegetables.

Today I picked up a bag full of snacks from a lady with a cart on our street. A kilo of fruit for around one US dollar. I ate a bunch while we were walking around; these were left overs long enough to be photographed. The lighting was no good so it’s not a great picture but there was no way they were going to last until sun up. 😉

From left to right, mangosteen (which just keeps getting even more delicious every time I try it. Must be peak season right now.), custard apple, which I got hooked on at Ritu’s in Delhi but which I haven’t seen for sale until Cambodia and rambuten, kind of like lychee’s punk rock cousin.

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Pics from Kratie

Some stories and a recipe to follow, but in the mean time, here are some photo impressions from our stay in Kratie, Cambodia.

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At the street market in Kratie, fruit and veg for sale

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A big vegetable stand at the market

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The rainy season doesn’t mess around in Kratie. We experienced intense storms pretty much every day we were there.

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Locksmith

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Matching two piece outfits that – to my eye – look like pajamas seem to be all the rage among older women in Kratie. A woman in such a suit shops for more at a market.

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Lumpy people crossing

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Rain and more rain. The view from one of our breakfast spots.

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Live chickens strapped to the back of a bike. They seemed pretty resigned to the situation.

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In town

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Someone left a simple offering of coconuts, incense and flowers in the brush by the river

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Barber shop

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Incongruous: One house had a shiny new Lexus with US plates parked behind metal gates. Note the German Shepard in the background coming to bark at me. 🙂

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Pigs in a basket

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Typical house on stilts along the road leading out of the city

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Full truck

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House overlooking rice paddies and the Mekong river. (I like the cat in the window. 🙂 )

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Little person, big magazine

First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

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Rice fields with palms

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Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

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Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

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Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

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Chinese landscape on the yuan

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

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Cambodian school and school children

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Nice bridge; even nicer car!

Can I get a snap?: The Kratie edition

It’s been a while since snap mania in India. We’re a few days into our stay at Kratie, our first stop in Cambodia, and I’m discovering that some kids here can give the Indians a run for their money when it comes to enthusiasm in front of the camera! 🙂 Here is just a selection of the pics-on-demand I took on my afternoon walk today.

DSC 0166 A friendly group hanging out in front of a village store. The little guy had just had a bath.

DSC 0169 A bunch of students were hanging out in front of the international school and energetically called me over from the other side of the road.

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DSC 0175 At one point my sunglasses became an accessory; giggles ensued

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This bunch ran out to greet me as I was coming back to town and wouldn’t let me go without doing a photo shoot first.

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And a dance move or two.