Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Taking Home the Taste of Cambodia: Learning to Cook with the Chef

Saturday, October 1

Long comes to our hotel as he has for the past few days, but this time we are bringing our luggage to begin the long trip back to Boston. On the way, however, Road Scholar has helped us arrange for a cooking class with Chef Phav of Fou Nan Restaurant, where we had our best lunch in town on Wednesday. Chef Phav is fairly young but accomplished. Formerly with Siem Reap's Raffle Hotel, he has cooked for King Sihanouk and a thousand invited guests at the opening of the Angkor National Museum, and for President Clinton during his visit to the city in 2006. Not a bad resume for our personal professor of Cambodian culinary arts...

We begin with a tuk-tuk ride to Samaki Market to buy the ingredients for our farewell lunch. Along the way, we select the menu. Chef Pav suggests a banana flower salad and stir fried pork with ginger. We ask for the wonton soup that was the highlight of our lunch earlier in the week. He agrees, and we're off. 

Along the way, we experience one final insight into Cambodian traffic customs. Passing Jayavarmann VII Children's Hospital downtown, we are stopped by police who swing barriers across a raised sidewalk shaped like an enormous speed bump; the barriers are a smaller version of what you might encounter at a railroad crossing. Traffic stops for a doctor who walks in scrubs from one hospital building to another; once he has made it across, we resume our trip to the market.

If you get the chance to go shopping for food with a great chef, take it. He brought us to stall after stall, explaining how he looks for the freshest banana flowers, garlic, ginger, pork, cilantro, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. It was a real education. Seeing a few of the many different types of eggplant grown in Cambodia was eye-opening. Some look like limes; others more like small cucumbers. The vendors know Chef Pav, of course, and he gets exactly what we need for our class. Soon, Cameron, he, and I are headed back to his kitchen to prepare what we've found.

The chef works fast, but he's precise, and more than generous with tips on how to cut onions for different dishes, or when to add basil to the soup. Course by course, we cut, chop, mix, stir, heat, season, and, of course, taste and adjust. It's some of the most fun we've had on the trip, and a highly-recommended activity for those pre-departure hours normally spent fretting about whether everything is properly packed, or if we'll get to the airport on time. Plus, the results surely beat anything served on an airplane.

With the soup and salad waiting on plates, Chef Pav demonstrates wok skills I probably will never achieve but enjoyed witnessing first-hand. In a matter of seconds, sliced pork, seasonings, and oil flame to perfection; we taste the smallest morsels we can find to avoid burning our tongues. It's delicious. During our goodbyes, the chef escorts us to a table as we turn in our aprons. Within a minute, servers bring our meal as Bertrand, owner of Fou Nan, helps select a wine to go with it. Then, a leisurely if early lunch completes the highlight of our last day in Cambodia.

It's also the last day of our unforgettable Road Scholar program along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, a fitting combination of the education, new experiences, fun, fine company, and - yes - delicious food that have been our constant companions throughout the past two weeks. I'm glad and even a little proud of myself for enjoying so many new things on this terrific program. I'm no longer surprised by how welcome and at-home we all felt wherever we were. And I've found new admiration and affection for those we've met along the way - the people of Vietnam and Cambodia, and our traveling companions. Most of all, I can't wait to do it again, and find out how the next program will open my eyes to another part of the world. There's no scholar like a Road Scholar. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Seven Summits of Angkor Thom

Friday, September 30, 2011

Our last full day in Cambodia starts early, as Long arrives with his cheerful smile and his daily printed agenda. It's longer than usual; we're going to crisscross the ancient Khmer capital with visits to five temples and a sacred mountain - actually two sacred mountains; our last temple of the day is Phnom Bak Eng, Angkor Thom's first temple-mountain, built by King Indravarman I in 881. But, first things first. We begin at Pre Rup, one of the early red-brick temples constructed eighty years later in 961. The gods are smiling on us this morning with the bluest skies of our visit.

Next is a rousing one-mile hike up to Kbal Spean, a waterfall and "River of 1,000 Lingas," where the river bottom features carvings made by King Rajendravarman II's subjects during several dry seasons. Our trail through the rain forest alternates between firm red clay and large rock formations. Sturdy stairs have been constructed for our benefit, and the cicadas hail us loudly as we pass by their own little empires. We reach the river to find an alternate feature - high water has obscured most of the carvings, but the falls are worth the hike. Our trail back down passes several stone carvings, many of them beautifully mossy and green.

East Mebon Temple, another 10th century triumph, is an ancestral temple that boasts stone elephants guarding each of its four corners, looking out over the outer courtyards and the rain forest beyond.

The courtyards themselves align as a sort of maze, with lush green lawns inviting exploration around every corner. Close up, the contrast between the red walls and green grass is a refreshing change from the different shades of gray found in other nearby temples.

Preah Khan, built two hundred years later as the Khmer Empire approached its pinnacle. It has two fascinating details. First, we get a chance to see first-hand the challenge for those restoring these structures. In its courtyard, the sawed-off lower trunk of one of the rain forest's invasive trees is frozen in mid-digestion of a lesser tower, its roots a cross section of wood and brick awaiting careful dismantling and reconstruction. 

Later, as we exit, Long points out a series of round columns, not seen elsewhere in Angkor Thom, that hints at some kind of European influence. Legend has it that a Roman coin was found nearby, raising the question of whether these two ancient empires ever met.

Our day ends with a final ascent, this one by elephant, as we reach Phnom Bahk Eng in time to watch a tropical thunderstorm pass just to our west. Its lightning and thunder are a dramatic background as we reflect on all we have done and seen in this most remarkable city. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Angkor Wat: A Treasure Never Lost

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Angkor Wat is vast. No other word can describe it. The scale of the moat surrounding it, the temple's outer walls, the long entrance causeway that was used only by Khmer kings, and finally, the temple and its five towers, is unimaginable. Unlike the other places we've visited, Angkor Wat was never abandoned, even as the empire fell. Buddhist monks have lived there continuously, keeping the rain forest at bay, and bringing thousands of stone Buddhas with them. Many of these latecomers have made a more recent journey to the Angkor Museum's Gallery of One Thousand Buddhas.

Every visitor to Siem Reap gets up in the dark at least one day to watch the sunrise. When it was our turn, Long, our leader, took us off to the side, through a smaller entrance reserved for the King's family, where the sunrise was more dramatic and less crowded than it was for the thousands of others who stood along the causeway itself. And then, after the sun had been up for a while and everyone else left, we stayed, touring the temple at our leisure, without the crowds. Road Scholar does it again. 

Like all the other temples, Angkor Wat is best experienced up close. The spaces inside, even the ones we stumble upon, are enormous - great places to fill with our imagination of what Khmer life must have been like. What seem like miles of wall carvings tell story after story to give us a clue. There were wars, good struggled against evil, and gods walked the earth as part-elephant, or dragon, or lion. Multi-headed snakes kept demons at bay so multi-armed dancers could celebrate the empire's many triumphs. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of finger-sized holes in so many walls once held precious jewels. What an empire it must have been...

As you get closer and closer to the center of the temple, the stairs become steeper and more narrow. This was intentional, forcing worshipers to prostrate themselves against the steps as they climbed, the better to express their humility in the presence of the gods. And then we reach the top, ruling the rainforest as Jayavarman VII did at the turn of the 13th century, even if only for an hour. 

After our morning inside Ankgor Wat, we use our free afternoon for a helicopter tour of the temple, nearby Angkor Thom, several other temples, and the surrounding region. The view from above shows how vast Angkor Wat was, and how far Khmer civilization had advanced. A grid of roads, man-made reservoirs, farmland irrigation systems, and walled cities which once held over one million people, can be seen even as the modern town of Siem Reap develops and expands within it. Life on the river may change, but it continues.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Temples Speak for Themselves

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

All of us have signed up for the extension of our tour, a land excursion to the ancient Khmer temples surrounding the town of Siem Reap. They're surprisingly close by, and as the day breaks with a beautiful blue sky, none of us can wait to see the highlight of anyone's trip to Cambodia.

Chhn Long, our guide, takes us first to Ta Prohm, a temple built in 1186 in the middle of the time of the Khmers. It's one of the smaller sites near Angkor Thom, but it has the distinction of being yet to be restored, giving us the chance to see how the Khmer Empire looked when the French happened upon it more than a century ago. Trees grow out of the towers and walls, giving the place an eerie, other-worldly appearance. Just the sort of thing for a hollywood movie, and in fact it is one of the sites used to film "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" in 2001. As we walk through Ta Prohm, we hear other guides pointing out where Angela Jolie stood in various scenes. 

Because the day is so beautiful, we're hading to Angkor Thom this afternoon, rearranging our schedule in one of the wonderful Plan Bs we've come to expect from Road Scholar. On the way, we pass through much of the ancient city of Angkor Thom - walls, reservoirs, and smaller temples, some surrounded by moats. Our bus stops briefly for us to take pictures. It's almost incongruous, given how beautiful these timeless structures truly are.

After lunch, we head to the temple of Bayon, at the center of Angkor Thom, also built around the time of Ta Prohm. It is spectacular, on both the grand scale of its architecture, and in the finely-detailed carvings on its interior walls. Bayon is the temple that smiles back at you as you explore it from its towers, built to look like the sacred Mt. Meru. They do look like mountains, although no camera can do them justice, or at least mine can't. You need to see them for yourself to experience them in their fullest.

The carvings tell stories Mr. Long describers to us in great detail, including the struggles between gods and demons, battles on land and sea, and the combination of man and animal that made up many of the Khmer religion's gods. The carvings of Bayon are the best we see during our program; those elsewhere are worn by time and erosion, or polished to an almost metallic shine by centuries of visitors rubbing them to take souvenirs home in the days before cameras.

Our day ends at Banteay Srei, a Buddhist temple built in 967. Sometimes called the Women's Temple, it is built of red sandstone, giving it an unusual, warm appearance. Because of the high water this year, we wade to it, but our trek is more than rewarded. The late afternoon sunlight brings out its details in an unforgettable way. And today is just the beginning. Angkor Wat, which we have passed several times along the way, awaits at dawn tomorrow.

Farewell to the SS Toum Teave

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Last night's Captain's Dinner ended too late to make Monday's edition of the Mekong Evening Record. 

Serge Prunier, our intrepid navigator and master of ceremonies, outdid himself with his hospitality, generosity, and charm. He hosted a dinner rich with food, laden with tales of ten years ago when he and the Toum Teave were the river's only passenger ship, and stories of how he and his crew had purchased and prepared our dinner this morning. Like every other night, his rich French accent and hand gestures kept all of us entertained. As he would say, "But yes, this story I am telling you is true. And now, I will tell you more..."

The same as our welcome dinner just seven short days ago, we began with his special cocktail, the Toum Teave Kiss, a secret recipe that, if guessed correctly, would bring another drink for free. "This is my offer to you, but of course I am sure you will never get it right, no?" Eventually, as a team, last night we Road Scholars did, although this morning, we discovered that one of the crew was dropping clues about the last ingredient.

This morning, after cruising since 4:30 am, we arrived in Siem Reap at noon, ready to begin our exploration of ancient Khmer culture. The official Mekong by Barge program ends Wednesday morning, but all of us have signed on for the two-day extension to tour the temples of Angkor Thom, followed by sunrise at Angkor Wat. This afternoon, we tour the Angkor National Museum and its modern displays.

But, for a while, even with all we will do and see for the next few days, today is a time for nostalgia, as all of us appreciate what we have shared with each other, and with the people of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap. For a week, Road Scholar and Captain Prunier have given us the opportunity to live our own lives on the river. None of us will ever forget it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Life on the River, Kmer Style

 Monday, September 26, 2011

At Phnom Penh, the Mekong winds north through Laos and into China. We take a left on the Tonle Sap and head for Siem Reap and the great temples of Angkor. Along the way, we visit two unforgettable towns.

The sounds and the sights of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Cambodia are different than Viet Nam. Our captain tells us that the Cambodian rivers are quieter, greener, and he's right. There are cows grazing, and few houses and boats beside us on the banks. This may be due to the extremely high water, overflowing for miles in every direction. When we do pass a town, we hear loudspeakers, but these are either Buddhist pagodas blaring holiday music for Dak Pen, or one of the many Mosques calling the faithful to prayer - very different than the sounds of My Tho or Chau Doc. 

Kampong Tralach is the smallest village we've called on to date, and we're scheduled to ride ox carts to a remote ancient Buddhist vihara, or monastery, a short distance from town. High water requires another plan B from Thoa, because the road is flooded part of the way. We ride in the smallest boats we've seen so far to a dry spot halfway there, and continue on our way. It's a great adventure. 

The ox carts are bumpy but fantastic, with children following us to practice their English. We arrive as the vihara's only visitors, and are greeted monks while some of the children go inside to pray. We learn that, at least until we get to Angkor, "ancient" means anything from 1850 or thereabouts, when the French first came to Cambodia.

When we get back to the Toum Teave, another boat is waiting to take us to Cambodia's floating village of Kampong Luong. The whole village literally moves about once a month, and has almost anything you'd expect to find: barber shops, gas stations, schools, churches, and a fish farm shaped like a boat with nets to keep the fish inside when it moves. The town's electricity comes primarily from car  batteries; a few businesses thrive by charging hundreds of batteries every day. Today, the village is anchored over a flooded road, the floating houses lined up alongside it as if they always belonged there. 

We return to the Toum Teave for our final evening on board, just in time for a beautiful sunset before the Captain's Farewell Dinner.

Celebrating Pchum Ben in Phnom Penh

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Our timing is excellent. We are in Cambodia for Pchum Ben, the Buddhist Festival of the Dead. It's a time to visit where ancestors lived, bringing offerings of food for hungry ghosts. Everyone is heading for the countryside except the monks tending to their temples.

We take a tuk-tuk tour of the city, visiting a few places on Road Scholar's optional itinerary. Tuk-tuks are motorbike-driven sedans, covered to protect passengers from sun and rain. They're a great way to see the city, and would be a great addition to Boston's roadways, at least in the warm weather.

One stop on our self-guided tour is Wat Ounalom, where we are greeted by a monk who blesses each of us with a sima, a thin red yarn bracelet to protect us from harm. He engages us in conversation about our homes and his, before wishing us well and telling us to wear our simas until they fall off from natural causes.

The Royal Palace, just a few blocks from the pier where the Toum Teave is berthed, is hard to miss. We will visit later today, but photographs are prohibited inside, as they are in the National Museum, another destination for this afternoon. The highest spire of the palace features four benevolent faces, evoking the architecture of the Khmer temples we will visit at Angkor Wat. 

The palace and museum are spectacular, needless to say. Even though much of the royal treasure and many historical artifacts were lost in Cambodia's civil war, the collections are impressive, and well-presented. 

At night, before dinner, Captain Prunier has invited local children to perform a traditional Apsara dance on the Toum Teave, transforming our upper deck into a center for the performing arts. It's a spectacular show, set against the warm evening glow of Phnom Penh's waterfront.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"The Republic that People Love"

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Our border crossing yesterday took longer than expected, a slow, invisible process, except for the stern Cambodian customs official who took up residence in the Captain's office on the Toum Teave. I did not take his picture. We resumed our voyage against a strong current, and arrived in Phnom Penh at midnight. 

Road Scholar has designed our first day in Cambodia as a real education. At 8 am, Professor Leakthina presents an on-board lecture about the history of her country, including her own story of survival in the days of Pol Pot. She uses the nation's seven flags since its days as a French Protectorate as a theme; before then, the Kmer people saw no need for a national banner. King Sihanouk, now in his 90s and retired, is a familiar presence, from his days as a "celestial being," the god and founder of independent Cambodia, which he declared "the republic that people love" in 1954. Later, he became a Buddhist monk, and then a member of the Kmer Rouge, until he reassumed the throne.

Our education continued all morning, with unforgettable and searing visits to the Section 21 Interrogation Center, and later, the Killing Fields. The stories were difficult to hear, and we were given the option not to attend. Those of us who did saw history where it happened, painful, raw, and real.

The Interrogation Center is preserved as it was used by the Kmer Rouge, with tiny brick cells built into the former classrooms of an elementary school in downtown Phnom Penh. Other rooms display the photographs Pol Pot's military forces took of all prisoners as they entered, not knowing their fate, some of them smiling for the camera. Of the thousands of prisoners who were detained here, only seven left alive.
The Killing Fields in nearby Choeung Ek are astonishingly raw, preserved as a series of grown-over excavations surrounding a tall Buddhist memorial, whose stone-and-glass walls house 5,000 skulls of the people who were executed here between 1975 and 1979. Our tour guides at both locations were men who had experienced the horror of Pol Pot's cruelty first-hand. Road Scholar's program planners had done their job well; other groups had younger guides who told the same stories, but without the feelings ours were able to share. It was the most emotionally powerful morning of our journey, followed, thankfully, by a free afternoon to reflect and explore the city on our own. 

Life On, and Sometimes In, the River

Friday, September 23, 2011

The people of the Mekong know their river well. Their fortunes rise and fall, literally, with it. Our program brings us here in the rainy season, when the water is at its highest. Many city people live and work in floating houses, others have homes built on stilts, and some temporarily abandon flooded buildings until the river recedes. It's an annual event, and everyone knows how to cope.

The large markets of My Tho and Chau Doc attract many shoppers by ferry, but in smaller towns, the markets come to the people. Small boats filled with today's catch, or fresh fruits and vegetables for tonight's dinner, cruise from house to house. Shopping here is also a chance to visit and catch up with each other every day.

The river sometimes brings special events, such as the wedding we happened to witness during our morning cruise in the Cham minority village near Sa Dec. The groom's family boarded a small boat right next to ours, and everyone stood during the short cruise to the ceremony a few hundred yards down the river. The young groom was dressed completely in white, and his proud family beamed behind him along the way. 

Mostly, life in the small villages is peaceful and slow. The world flows by with the Mekong in front of their windows or waterside decks. Some of them are cooking, others fish, and still others simply watch it all in a way they have come to know for a long time. Our last morning in Vietnam is a nice contrast to the bustle of the past few days, and we look forward to crossing the border into Cambodia later this afternoon.

Extra! Extra! Read All About Them, continued

September 29, 2011

Sandra Soares came all the way from Bermuda to cruise the Mekong with us, and is herself a yacht agent and dockmaster with Bermuda Yacht Services. Here she is giving a geography lesson on the location of her home island to Captain Prunier after one of our many spectacular dinners on board, as Group Leader Thoa Nguyen looks on.

Ken and Sharon Walker live in Green Valley, Arizona, and the Mekong River by Barge Program is their tenth. Ken is a biology professor from Victor College in California, and has pointed out several features of the snails, tropical fruits, and birds we have eaten and otherwise encountered on our journey. Sharon enjoys Road Scholar programs because of the people she meets while traveling.

Rosamunde Ebacher is a retired nurse practitioner and midwife from Otisfield, Maine, where she enjoys walking year-round, swimming in summer, the Red Sox, and her dogs. This is her fourth Road Scholar program, which she is enjoying immensely while looking forward to her next one, a two-week journey to Antartica in February.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Extra! Read All About Them! The People of the Mekong by Barge Program

September 27, 2011

Here are some of the people sharing our journey along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers:

Stephen and Mabel Yee are from Hayward, California, where Steve is a Doctor of Optometry at Kaiser Permanente. They are embarking on their 25th Road Scholar program, and expect to go on many more. Here’s how they do it: once they know Steve has time off, they check out the Road Scholar website and book the trip they like best. On our first night, Group Leader Thoa Nguyen presents them with gifts to commemorate their 25th program.

Lavina Goracke sells residential real estate in Omaha, Nebraska. This is her sixth Road Scholar program. She's always the first to take part in every activity, whether it's a ride in an oxcart, a cyclo tour of Chau Doc, or an exciting Plan B invented on the fly by Thoa. She picked the Mekong by Barge program because it promised unusual culture and people. She's confident that Road Scholar will always provide the ultimate in cultural education and convenience - a combination that guarantees the trip of a lifetime, over and over again.

Eleanor Wiley is from Alameda, California, and this is her first Road Scholar program. An accomplished crafter of prayer beads, she has shared her art with several of us on the Toum Teave. She selected the Mekong program in part because of her interest in Buddhism. Eleanor has also returned more than once from the market with beautiful clams or snails, which the crew of the Toum Teave has happily prepared to be eaten, and then further prepared to be worn. Each of us has souvenir jewelry from the Mekong, courtesy of Eleanor. 

Cameron Kirkpatrick is a classical oboeist and independent video producer from Boston, Massachusetts. This is his third Road Scholar program, and he chose the Mekong by Barge because he has always been fascinated by Southeast Asian culture, history, and cuisine. He has made consistent efforts to learn enough Vietnamese and Cambodian so he can greet the people he meets in their native languages, to their, and his, great delight.

To Market

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Everywhere but in Saigon, the Vietnamese morning begins with an hour or two of official broadcasts from loudspeakers throughout the town and countryside. Popular music gives way to an announcer delivering news of the government’s latest plans for each city and region. There will be new schools built to educate local children. More roads and bridges are coming. Economic development goals are being set and achieved. Then, more music, and the broadcasts end until the evening. Thoa, our program leader, explains that people don’t like to watch the news available on television, so this is how the government communicates with them.

Until the bridges and roads arrive, the river remains the Mekong Delta’s primary transportation network. We take a boat to the markets of Sa Dec; local residents join us by ferry. Fish, meat, and vegetables of every kind are for sale here. Rambuhtan, a small red spiky fruit, is everywhere in bulk, as is the larger dragon fruit, a dramatic pink melon with larger appendages and a white, watermelon-like flesh dotted with hundreds of small seeds.

The commerce of Sa Dec goes on without paying us any mind, except for my friend Cameron, who attracts a great deal of attention. The vendors, particularly the women, show him their wares, and there’s always someone to describe things in English. Close up, we find a bag full of live chickens next to a pail with others, freshly-skinned. Live fish and frogs are at the next stall, followed by oversized carrots and turnips, and small, red-green tomatoes.

The market bustles with commerce, and our fellow passengers on the Toum Teave bring back clams and snails for lunch, which the crew happily prepares. The afternoon brings rain and a change of plans; we sail early for the border town of Chau Doc, which we tour in the rain by “cyclos,” one-seater tricycles with drivers. We have arrived at sunset, just in time for the evening government announcements. Tomorrow, after a short morning visit to a small village, we will cross the border into Cambodia.