Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cambodia Trip '08 – Day 05: Tonle Sap Lake & Cambodian Cultural Village

After our short morning at the Angkor Wat temple complex, we drove back to Siem Reap and stopped at a Muslim neighborhood to have lunch at a Muslim restaurant near the Al-Nikmah Mosque. Our host in Siem Reap treated us to a local spread that consisted of a coconut milk base fish soup dish as well as something that the locals there called “daging lembu naik bukit” (roughly translated as “beef going up the hill”. At first we were all scratching our heads trying to figure out what it was but when we saw the special wok that the dish was cooked in, we sort of figured out why it was called that way. After days of eating things that were familiar to us, this dish caused quiet the stir among the group who have never seen it done before.

(L: Special beef dish being cooked, R: End result)

(The restaurant where we had lunch at Siem Reap)

The dish was basically thin slices of beef marinated in a marinade mix that I think included lemon grass, garlic and eggs which was then cooked on the specially designed cookware. The cookware looked like an upturned wok will perforations on the dome of the wok and a deep channel running around the bottom part. The cookware was placed on a tabletop stove and the top part was drizzled with peanut oil to cook the slices of beef that would be placed there. Salt and pepper would be added to taste and while the beef was cooking, the fat from the beef would flow down to be collected in the channel area around the upside down wok. Carrots, mushrooms and greens peppers would then be cooked here using the collected beef drippings as the beef was being cooked to added flavor to the vegetables. The dish was served right from the cookware once the beef was cooked.

After the wonderful lunch, our group proceeded to the shores of the nearby Tonle Sap Lake for a chartered 1 hour cruise around the lake organized by our hosts. The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap Lake was also home to a floating community of Cambodian and Vietnamese living most of their lives on the waters. Unlike the other attractions in town, the shoreline of the lake seemed to be still under construction as at the moment as the charter boats were berthed at makeshift piers. Looking at the progress of the permanent pier under construction at the site, I think this tourist attraction would have its own permanent visitor’s center and pier.

(Boats for charter on the shores of Tonle Sap Lake)

(Making waves on Tonle Sap lake)

(Sunny day on the water)

From the lake shore, we were taken out to the areas where the boat houses were located. There were 2 groups of people living on the lake, the Vietnamese on one side and the Cambodians on the other side. Most of the houses on the Cambodian side looked more like permanent structures floating on water compared to the boat houses used by the Vietnamese group. Both communities live their lives on the lake complete with shops, schools, petrol station boats, fishery and even the occasional floating animal pens to rear their pigs and chickens. Some of the houses even had TV antennas which I assume were for TVs powered by car batteries or generators as I did not see any power lines connected to the floating houses.

(Boat houses of the Vietnamese side of the floating community)

(Floating grocery store)

(Boat houses on the Cambodian side)

It was interesting travelling by slow boat through the communities and see how their lived their lives. The way that the boat houses were built, we practically could see the insides of their houses as they would open all doors and windows to let the lake breeze to blow through the house to cool it down. We could also see how the people there lived from watching them cooking their food on floating kitchens to seeing how the children of the area would casually jump into the lake for a swim that afternoon. One might think that they must have been born swimming as I could see even the youngest of them could swim in the lake.

(Cambodian children at play on Tonle Sap Lake)

(Fishermen harvesting the lake's bounty)

After spending the hour at the lake, we returned back to the shore and drove back into town. Our final destination of the day was the Cambodian Cultural Village which was located about 5 minutes from our hotel. We had to pay USD 11 per person for entry into the huge complex that showcased displays and performance pavilions related to Cambodian history and culture. We walked through the section for plaster dioramas detailing periods in Cambodia history which, surprisingly, omitted depictions of Khmer Rouge rule. Most of the displays had description in Cambodian, French and English which helped us understand what it was we were seeing. Thanks to our Cambodian hosts, we got even more details from what they were able to share as we walked through the displays.

Thanks to the public holiday while we were there, the complex was filled with holiday makers taking their family out for a nice evening out. Public performances which were held in the scattered pavilions were jam packed by the throngs of visitors although it was surprising that we saw very few foreign tourists among them. The performances that we saw that evening were folk stories told through dance, song and comedic dialogue. Since the shows were performed exclusively in Cambodian, we were left to figure out what was happening on stage for ourselves. The crowd looked like they were having a good time so I assume that whatever the performers were performing went well with the local tourists.

We left the Cambodian Cultural Village at about 6pm as the skies grew darker to return to the hotel for our last dinner together on the trip. Dinner was a simple buffet affair with a reasonable spread which after the long day was a welcomed relief. We had the rest of the evening to ourselves after dinner and while some of the group decided to go back into town for some last minute shopping, we (my travel companion and I) for our appointment for the full body traditional Khmer massage at the hotel’s health center. Unlike the more vigorous Thai style of message, the Khmer equivalent consisted of deep muscle kneading and pressing without using any message oils. The resulting effect was a quite enjoyable message which helped smooth out all the travel kinks that had been accumulating during the day from our bodies. Refreshed after the message, we turned in for an early night as we had another early start the following day to catch our flight back home.

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