Food; From Fantastic to frighterning (Bob Carver, February 26th, 2011)
Faithful readers may remember last year's story from Koh Mak island in Thailand and the story of the small restaurant and our adventure there. Well we had a similar experience in Battambang this year. But I think it is only fair to put things in a bit of perspective.
Food can be one of the high points of travel in Asia, we have had some downright awesome meals, however, we have also had the occasional 'not so good' experiences as well.
Cambodia, (well, Phnom Penh and Siam Reap at least) have got some good spots. Local food, while verboten to many travellers, can provide some great - and cheap - gnoshes. While in Phnom Penh we were pretty short on time, but did manage to get some good Khmer food at a restaurant that had plenty of room to seat the entire build team. Food was good, and, if I remember correctly everybody needed to kick in nine bucks to cover the tab.
You have already read the story of the team dinner at the Magic Fish, which while a little scattered, turned out ok. After we split up and everyone headed their separate ways our now smaller team of cyclists had one of those memorable experiences at the Khemara in Battambang.
The menu at the Khemara is actually pretty extensive, and we decided that everyone would pick a dish, and we would share. Our waitress, let's call her Stephanie was at our table in relatively short order and had our drink order sorted out quickly; good start.
We all pick out something that looks worth trying and Stephanie is back; Marc is first up. "Can I please have..." that's as far as he gets before Stephanie gets distracted by a friend arriving at the restaurant. It was like Marc disappeared from the planet as Stephanie does an impressive about face and proceeds to have a very nice visit with her friend. After several minutes of a touching reunion, during which we are all hysterical, Stephanie returns and we try again. Marc, you're up; ' Can I please have the grilled squid' Slight pause; 'Sorry, No Have'.
Ok, how about the....longer pause as Stephanie disappears towards the kitchen.....returning several minutes later with a giggle and 'Sorry, No Have' Wendy and I are both thinking the same thing; 'It's Koh Mak all over again'. Stephanie moves on while Marc scours the menu for a new option. Paula tries; No Have. At this point we definitely see where things are headed, but are taking things in stride as we know this will be a story worth re-telling. Apparently Stephanie has had enough as she disappears and sends in the A team, Let's call him Sam. My turn. Sorry sir; No Have. Well Sam, maybe you should give us a little help here, and tell us what you do have....come on throw us a bone here, we are really hungry. We wind up getting a 'have' order in, when Stephanie returns with a plate of rice. "Here I made this special rice for you myself." Cool, we didn't order it maybe it is on the house (not).
We wind up with Stephanie's personalized rice, plus 2 more rice dishes that are......exactly the same. One came handily disquised in a crock pot. We all cracked up again when we saw what was under the lid. I think we were causing a slight disturbance with all the laughter, but we left a tip for Stephanie and Sam nonetheless, purely for the comedic factor.
Next notable meal anecdote I really cannot describe without bringing back some disturbing images. For those of you think you can eat anything ask Dr. P for a picture of the fetal chicken egg.
I already described our over-compensation meal in Chantaburi, so won't bore you with a re-hash, but, as they say a picture is indeed worth a thousand words
Please note 1. Wendy is Too Full 2. Paula is in food shock 3. What the hell is that look on Marc's face....he looks like a lion feeding - 'get away from my kill'. 3. Fortunately the only thing left of the 'barely born porker is the ear you see on the big platter in the middle. Yeah, we are unabashed carnivores.
There are quite a few more food stories (all good), but the one I will mention last was the sushi we had in Bangkok at a place called Sha Raku on Sukhumvit soi 23, just past the infamous Soi Cowboy. We had a look at their menu on the street the night before when we were coming back from Guisto a great Italian place on the same soi that we visited about 4 years ago with an expat friend who introduced us to Anejo Tequila.
We went to Sha Raku primarily because they had an extensive cold sake menu. Needless to say the meal was great, and there was one dish that was spectacular. Now, just so you know, we have had the Omikaze at Nobu in Philly. With a typical sushi order of toro, sake (the fish, not the drink) hottate and one other that escapes my mind. We needed something different to round out the order. Wendy spots another version of scallop that looks cooked and is served sashimi style.
WORDS CANNOT DESCRIBE
It was fantastic. So much so, that I ordered a reprise, with the caveat that they show me how to make the 'topping'. Deal. The manager disappears with the promise to come and get me when things get to the crucial stage. A few minutes later, sure enough he comes and gets us and shows us the trick.
This now treasured 'family secret recipe' personally handed down from generations of master-sushi chef's is now available at Chez Bob and Wendy's. While we are not motivated by money, we could be persuaded to share the secret after you have tried it (and recovered from your fainting spell) with a bottle of Grand Patron....I said we weren't motivated by money, but I didn't say we were low maintenance when it comes to Anejo Tequila!
Signing off now, and currently taking reservations
Post Build Partings (Bob Carver, February 5th, 2011)
We all have had one more night together as a team, and actually fared quite well at a restaurant just one door down from the hotel. Wednesday morning we all got up to see the van off to Phnom Penh; Karen, Chloe and the 'Lush Girls" as well as Colin and Allan are all headed back down to PP, while the rest of us head north to Battambang.
A short hour and a half drive brings us back to the hotel we stayed at two years ago when we built near Battambang, and I actually recognized the turn-off to that village. The Khemera is the nearly the same as our last stay with the very welcome addition of a second building that contains a steam: awesome.
Rooms are still twenty bucks; breakfast included, and we take a day to chill before our bike ride to the border tomorrow. It is Chinese New Year today and a lot of things are closed, but we find the Gecko cafe is still in business and is the best place in town for coffee and 'food from home'.
Friday morning our guide and the chase van arrive on time at 7am, and we tweak our seats and start the pedal to the border. Five or six km through town and we are on a paved road that leads to Pailin. Pailin and the surrounding area was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, and the place where Pol Pot died in 1998. Ironically, because the area was very heavily mined that area of the Cardoman mountains has not been de-forested. Also known for its gemstones, we have agreed to wait until we get to Chantaburi (gem trading capital of Thailand) to take advantage of Dr. Paula's phd brain (and eyes) to possibly pick up a few stones.
The first hour is really pleasant; flat, good road and interesting scenery. We have a couple of short stops to take in some fuel, and everyone feels good. As Paula is the only cyclist among us, we (okay me) are not sure about doing the full 90km today, but the van is right there if we need it.
By 11:30 it is HOT. It is usually 3-5 degrees warmer in Cambodia than it is in Thailand, and I am guessing today is hovering around 36 celcius. Constant hydration is mandatory.
Our first bit of unpaved road lasts for around 10km, and the ride has lost a couple of points off of the fun scale, and has now become work. A respite of paved road is very welcome, but we run into more unpaved sections, and, now we are getting some grades.
At around 55k, I am covered in dust, sweat and dust cover everything and I am starting to weave a bit. Time to seek the shade of the van. Everyone else decides to keep pedaling, and I must admit I am feeling a little ego bruised to have bailed, but the ride is supposed to be fun, and heatstroke doesn't qualify in Bob's World as fun.
Wendy joins me in the van after another 15k, and it is up to Paula and Marc to uphold the honor of the Canadian Cycling Team. They hang tough and roll into town at around 3:30 if my overheated brain remembers correctly.
Shower, beer. Sorry. Beer, shower, then a good meal with our guide who has happily rode along with us (I don't think she broke a serious sweat).
Saturday morning has us up and on the road by 7 again, and much to our surprise we all feel good. No excruciatingly sore legs or bums. The 17k to the border is rolling hills, but good road and we are at the border by 9:30.
Unbeknownst to us the Thai's and Cambodians have been trading small arms, rpg, and reportedly artillery rounds that day. Luckily that border crossing is about 90k north of us and we don't get any feel of tension at our crossing point.
Grasshopper Adventures has outfitted us and we take our bikes across the border. (First time I have ever crossed a border by bike). Mr. Tam our Thai guide is there waiting and after the mandatory paperwork we are back on our bikes for 30k towards our destination -Chantaburi town. Rolling hills, good road and everyones legs (and bellies) still feeling good, and we roll into our stopping point. Ice coffee for all, as well as some well earned high fives.
Interestingly, while the terrain from Pailin to the border and beyond is the same, once we cross the border into Thailand we IMMEDIATELY see that it is greener, and much more developed. Mr. Tam explains that it is due to the water catchment systems that have been developed.
We arrive at the Maneechan resort, which we found last year, and at dinner, order a feast big enough to feed six people; including a whole baby bbq pig.
Tomorrow we will try to find Mr. Keak's gem shop and see if we can get some chantaburi yellow sapphires.
The Build - Day 2 (Bob Carver; February 1st, 2011)
Before getting to the build I have to tell you about last night's dinner at the Magic Fish. As I already mentioned, there isn't much to Pursat. Not really a place to stop unless you are going to the Tonle to see the floating village that is a couple of miles from shore. BTW if anyone can solve the riddle of the freighter in the river I will give them a prize!
When checking the Cambodia guide about Pursat, only one restaurant comes up! The Magic Fish....so, we have Ponn, our Cambodian Tabitha staffer on this year's build to make us a reservation; for 20 people! In Cambodia food outside of PP is dodgy, but we are hoping for the best. When we arrive they have set us up to sit around 5 tables. This only leaves one lonely table by the back for any other customers.
We all sit down and get drinks ordered, and discover that there are only 2 menus. Ordering is definitely going to take a while, but we aren't in a rush. Thinking tactically I manage to get the waitresses attention and get my order in first, Allan is a close second. Roughly half an hour later everyone's order is in and food starts trickling out of the kitchen. After a long day I am a little tired, and the old blood sugar is probably dipping to dangerously low levels. My mouth begins to water as other people's food arrives. Forty five minutes later and most everyone has food; except for Me, Allan, Karen and Chloe. Wendy is kind enough to throw me a bone from her plate, and Paula kindly offers up a piece of fish, so things aren't too desparate.
Unfortunately (for them) two foreign girls wandered in just as we were beginning to order and sit at the lone remaining table. Problem. We are monopolizing the menus. When I glance over my shoulder half an hour later, they have waved the white flag and have decided to find dinner elsewhere. I hope they found something.
Once last of us have gotten our food it has been a good hour and a half, but at least we were entertained. The staff seem to have taken a dinner break, and are watching soap opera's; too funny.
We are anticipating the havoc of trying to sort out the bill when Karen tells us that the party is on Lush.....Thanks Karen. Total bill for 20 people, food and drinks - around a hundred and ten bucks. We ask everyone to throw in a buck for the tip and then have a lot of fun watching the girls from the restaurant start to count the windfall. Smiles, laughter, incredulous looks continue until our vans have left.
The morning wakeup at 540 is a little slower than yesterday, and the drive to the ville a little quieter. If we can keep yesterday's pace we will definitely finish today. New teams are formed up, and sound of hammering is soon filling the air, but at a much slower pace than yesterday. No one is under the weather, but yesterday's efforts are certainly apparent.
At each house it is always easy to pick out the future inhabitants, they are always hanging out close by, handing us the tin cladding for the walls, or just keepin a keen eye on our efforts. We push through with the now second nature water breaks keeping us hydrated until we hammer the last nail at 12:45.
The groups of houses from yesterday are separated from most of today's by a couple of hundred meters of dry rice fields, with our final two close to where we first entered the village. Ponn gathers the families and we hand over the houses officially along with a brand new quilt. Yesterday's ceremony was as usual, quite emotional with some tears (ours) being wiped discreetly away. Today is the same. We help change lives here, but our lives are changed as well.
As we all cross our fingers as we cross the rickety bridge we are all happy, dirty, tired, and some of us are already thinking about next year!
Pursat (Bob Carver, January 31st, 2011)
Our drive to Pursat was uneventful. The highway is a good one, so we wound up in our hotel by early afternoon.
It is Chinese New Year's here, and everyone is traveling. Lots of firecrackers, and parties going on. Pursat is a small town and there is not much here. One odd sight is the large freighter resting in the middle of the river that has been turned into a 'park-temple-aerobics center'; how it got there is a bit of a mystery. One thing is for sure; it's staying where it is...
Day 1 of the build
Our village is about 40 minutes from town, ten of it on paved road, the last ten typical off road quality dusty potholes. A quick detour around a questionable bridge that wouldn't be possible in the rainy season is brought into perspective by a bridge that consists of pieces of wood of varying length unsecured. Van 1 is successful, but only makes the occupants of Van 2 think about getting out and walking across. Thankfully the bridge is quite short and in a few more minutes, after a bit of machete work on the local shrubbery in a particulary tight spot gets us into the ville.
Faithful reader's will know that our arrival in a village is a special event; everyone gathers with hands up in a wai, and we emerge from the vans returning the gesture with 'chuum reap suur' a greeting that contains respect and blessing. It is a good time.
We have broken into 3 teams, putting experienced builders together with those who are building for the first time. Soon 3 houses are being floored and walled, and our 'hammer time' is underway. It is 36 celcius, so frequent water breaks are mandatory to surviving the day.
By lunch time we have completed 9 houses, and have set a good pace to maintain. Baguettes filled with a wide variety of substances constitutes lunch. Safe players go for peanut butter; more adventurous ones have 'tuna in a bag', and boar spread. Everyone is feeling good.
The pace has slowed slightly in the afternoon but we keep it steady and by days end have completed 15 houses.
It has been a good Day 1
Off, off and away!! (Bob Carver; January 29th, 2011)
Some of our friends have been in Asia for a while. Paula has been happily training with one of the great fighters from the 90's - Sangtiennoi, famous for his knees. Colin and Marc are also beating us to Asia by a few days and will probably have a little less jet-lag to deal with than we will.
Our flight plan this year was tempered by 'the frozen crapper incident' of two years ago where our whole flight over to Thailand was thrown out of whack due a frozen toilet on the Ottawa -Toronto leg.
Eliminating the risk meant flying into Toronto on Tuesday night; bonus, we were able to have dinner in Ottawa at our favorite Chinese restaurant, but we had to overnight for our next leg to Narita which left at noon the next day.
I won't belabour the fact that we were able to fly business class this year due to the accumulation of aeroplan miles. Let's just say that the pod and the accompanying service in J class is quite a bit different than 'cattle class'.
We got into Bangok quite late, but had found a really nice little place by the airport to stay, and as our last leg to Phnom Penh didn't leave until 3 the next day, got to explore the neighborhood a bit, and treated ourselves to the 'jet-lag massage', which actually seemed to help.
The short flight to Phnom Penh and ease of enty due to our acquisition of e-visa's online was well worth it. Instead of the scrum for getting a visa on arrival we were able to go straight to the e-visa line, and were through in less than five minutes.
The Billabong is now our familiar home away from home in Phnom Penh, and all the other team members were already there.
Orientation for the team this year was a bit different than in years past; Narry told her story, putting a real face and person to the reality of Cambodia's history under the Khmer Rouge. Janne's rules are always a bit intimidating, but it is important that everyone understands that we are building in a village that has not had any interaction with foreigners.
The sobering visits to Tuol Sleng and Chuonng Ekk are never pleasant, but are again a necessary part of the education process for team members.
We all went out to dinner together at a Khmer restaurant and are all going to try to get a full night's sleep before vanning it north to Pursat town.