Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kep: Simply Crabulous!

After a week in Phnom Phen it was time to head to the coast.  Our first destination was Kep, a sleepy sea-side town known for dilapidated french-colonial homes and, more importantly, delicious crab.

The crabs are best ate at crab market, where a dozen or more identical restaurants literally sit over the ocean.  Kimly is the most famous one.  And deservedly so.  Nine dollars buys you a large plate of crabs fried in an amazing green Kampot pepper sauce.  The crabs are incredibly fresh.  We know this because they are stored in crabbing cages in the ocean right outside the resturants.  As soon as an order is placed, the restaurant's runner heads into the ocean and grab the crabs that are soon to be on your plate.  Kimly is not to be missed.
Fresh Seafood.  Very, very fresh.
It was sooooooooo good.
I still dream of it.
The crabs still have nightmares about being coated in Kimly's delicious sauce.
Our second day in Kep was spent on Rabbit Island.  This forested island is lined with fairly pristine beaches.  A handful of Cambodian families live on the island, offering food, drink & "hellllllo maaaaassage" to day-trippers and cheap bungalows ($7) for those spending the night.  We chatted up the local woman who hopped a ride on our private boat, and helped her carry the goods and supplies she was bringing back to the island to sell to people just like us (though our efforts were rewarded  when she offered us 25% off all beers!  Bringing the cost down to $0.75 from $1).
On the boat from the mainland to Rabbit Island.
The idyllic Rabbit Island beach.
It was perfect.
Playing in the surf
And we even saw dolphins.
Sexy, swim-suit model dolphins.
The rest of the day we lounged in hammocks, drank fruit shakes and coconut, and got Khmer massages, which were indistinguishable from Thai massage, which was a good thing.  Our day on Rabbit Island was a success.


Kimly Restaurant - Go here.  Eat crabs (in pepper sauce).

You are delicious.
Rabbit Island - From the pier you can purchase a return trip for $20.  The boatman will wait for you on the island for as long as you want.  There are also organized tours for about $9 per person.

The Kep hike up to Sunset Rock - The hike takes about 90 minutes to get up and 60 minutes down.  It was a mediocre hike because most of it is along a dirt or paved road.  Only the final 10-15 minutes is actually in the jungle.  The view from the top at 10 AM, perhaps the wrong time to visit sunset rock, was good, but nothing to write home about, though apparently, it is something to write on the blog about.

Veranda Natural Resort - We stayed at the Veranda Natural Resort, which had a lovely pool, cute bungalows, and excellent food.

The view from the top of Sunset Rock.  It occurs to us that perhaps the view is better at, um, sunset.

Monday, August 29, 2011

From the Khmer Rouge to the Khmer Riche

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Ravaged by the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge and decades of civil war the country's infrastructure is in shambles.  The violence also wildly shifted Cambodia's demographics: over 50% of the Cambodia population is under 22 years old.  These young people lack the education and productive skills necessary to develop the Cambodian economy.  Per capita Cambodia ranks 188th (of 227) on a purchasing power parity basis - the average Cambodian income is about $2,100 US dollars per year, the average American's $47,200.

But the world stands ready to help Cambodia face it challenges.  Year after year Cambodia is flooded with international aid that flows directly to the Cambodian government and to aid organizations.  Estimates vary, but Cambodia has received some $6-10 billion dollars in aid over the past ten years.  And while the goal of the aid is to develop better governance, infrastructure, education, and health-services the effect appears to be primarily the enrichment of the organizations that receive the aid.  This is because the corruption in Cambodia is rampant.  The money flows in and gets skimmed.  And it gets skimmed again, and again.  In the excellent book Cambodia's Curse, Joel Brinkley argued that each year roughly half of the donated international aid - hundreds of millions of dollars - was stolen by corrupt leaders.  Indeed, it is reported that Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is one of the richest men in Asia, and the wealthiest government official in the entire world.

And how did this effect us?  We were shocked in our visit to Phnom Penh by the display of wealth of the capital city.  Despite the average income of $2,100 I'd never seen so many Lexus, Land Rover, and Mercedes SUVs.  It seems that it is the official car of the government bureaucrat.  And why shouldn't it be?  Here are just a few of the cars we saw one afternoon.  If you can't tell what type of car it is just look on the side, the owners proudly display the make and model across the front and back doors...

Our wheels during our visit to Phonm Phen were more modest.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cambodia's Dark Past

Cambodia is a difficult place to write about for many reasons.  It is truly a land of contradictions - so rich in ancient artifacts, spectacular scenery and friendly, gregarious people, but so poor despite massive amounts of international aid.  The bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-late 1970s casts a pall over the nation that was difficult to wrap our heads around.

We started our Cambodia trip in the capital Phnom Penh, a city that was evacuated in its entirety in three days after the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.  During the Khmer Rouge reign, Phnom Penh was home to the notorious S-21 Prison, where political prisoners were incarcerated and tortured, and the nearby Killing Fields where they were sent to be killed and buried in mass graves.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
A corridor of S-21, a former high school turned tortue prison turned genocide museum.
Inside are exhibits showing the torture devices used, as well a photographs of the many people who lost their lives here.
Of the approximately 20,000 Cambodians (as well as some foreigners) incarcerated here, only 7 survived.
The posted rules of the prison.
Later, we met one of the survivors, a painter who recreated the scenes of torture and violence he witnessed.
These paintings are hung throughout the museum.
Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

The Killing Fields are an unassuming former orchard and Chinese cemetery located about 17 km from Phnom Penh.
Each of these depressions marks a mass grave.  Bits of clothing and even bone are still scattered about.

Some of the graves are fenced off and marked, such as in the photo above, and the next few photos below,
but the memorial is still very much a work in progress.

These sharp serrated leaves were used as blunt knives to kill victims.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a Buddhist stupa,
where skulls and clothing unearthed from the mass graves are displayed.

Earlier in the trip we had visited Dachau.  The former concentration camp is now an excellent and extremely moving museum and memorial.  The Genocide Museum and Killing Fields in Cambodia were far less developed, but equally striking, especially given how recently the Khmer Rouge genocide took place.  Anyone over the age of about 35 would have lived through the years of starvation, disease, forced labor and executions that marked the Khmer Rouge reign.  And former victims of the Khmer Rouge live and work alongside their former captors.  Even many government officials today are former Khmer Rougers who defected in the years following Cambodia's liberation by the Vietnamese.

Last year, the former head of the S-21 Prison, a man known as Duch, was found guilty by the ECCC, a United Nations-backed tribunal, of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He will serve about 19 years in prison.  While we were in Cambodia, the second tribunal was just beginning, and the trial is expected to start in September.  The defendants, four high-level Khmer Rouge officials, including the "number 2" after Pol Pot, are all in the eighties and in poor health.  The Cambodians we asked about the trials had mixed feelings.  A few felt that the trials would provide them with a modicum of justice for their suffering under the Khmer Rouge.  Others pointed out that the millions of dollars sunk into the tribunals (notoriously plagued with corruption, disarray and delays) could be better spent on helping the struggling Cambodian people.  Still others just shrugged, of the opinion that the trials didn't concern them, and they didn't concern themselves with the trials.

Obviously in our three weeks in Cambodia we were barely able to scratch the surface of the Cambodian people and the effect of the Khmer Rouge on the national psyche.  But it was clear even to us that despite billions of dollars of international aid (more on this in the next post), Cambodia still has a long way to go.

There are a number of excellent books about life under the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia today.  I can recommend the following:
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.) - Loung Ung
Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind - Loung Ung
When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge - Chanrithy Him

Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land - Joel Brinkley

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jack talk thai. Jack talk thai food.

From north to soup, big city to small village, five-stars to carts on the street, we ate our way through Thailand, and loved every second(s) of it. The food was delicious. And cheap. And spicy, salty, and sour and sweet. And porky. (Thai people love pork as much as I do, an impressive feat no doubt).

And the fruit shakes.  Oh, they are to die for.  Sadly, I don't think I even have one photo of them because as soon as I held a frosty, fresh mango shake in my hand the only thing I could focus on was trying to drink slowly enough to avoid a brain freeze [JLM: freeze-ache, actually].

And the MSR!!!!  The mango sticky rice.  The juiciest, ripest mangos.  The glutinous, stickiest stick rice.  The sweetest thickest coconut milk.  How do I not have 1,000 photos of MSR?  Because I couldn't wait 1/60th of a second to take a photo before chowing down.

Oh, and did I mention that Thai people make fantastic coffee? Because they do.

But, of the foods I did photograph, here are some of our favorites.

No soup for you? Actually not. In Thailand there is always soup for you. Delicious clear-brothed pork noodle soup, creamy koi soi, dark beef soups, rich and spicy tom kha, and of course, hot and sour tom yum.  Please wait while I wipe the drool from my keyboard.
Shall we start it off with a pork noodle soup?
With a pork noodle crackling on top?
I think so.
And in round two we go for: pork noodle soup.  I could eat this every day of my life and be happy.
This is the (deservedly) famous Sukhotahi pork noodle soup. 
Beef noodle soup (for breakfast).
Made by a (thai) grandma, or some man under a grandma sign.
Tom yum.  Hot and spicy and delicious.
Soup with fried pork and liver.
And some more pork noodle soup.
We literally ate this one hour after the soup pictured above.
They were part of the chinatown food tour.
Time lapse soup photography (of sorts, and with weird green lighting).
Soups have a short life expectancy once they hit our table.
And we got... pork noodle soup.
Look at those thick, luscious noodles, and the extra pork bits.
Noodles & Rice
If its too hot for soup (though, its so good it should always be time for soup) thai noodle dishes are nothing to scoff at.
Pad Thai on the streets of Bangkok.  Cheap, delicious, and moderately clean.
As someone once asked, in Thailand do they call it Pad Thai, or just Pad?  Pad Thai.
Oooops, is that a pork noodle soup that snuck in here? That'll happen.
Well, without the broth, it's kinda like a noodle dish!
Chicken curry with rice.  Wonderful. 
Gotcha!  Looks like noodles, but it's actually a (refreshing and delicious) pomelo salad.
(Pomelo is like a grapefruit, only flakier)
And, while not a great photo, pad see ew was Jesse's favorite.
Pork & Chicken
Now we're talking.
My double-portion slow-cooked stewed pork leg over rice.
Best intro Jodi could have ever made.  Thanks Jodi!
Look at those legs.
They must work out.
He knew me.  He loved me.  And I loved him.
Fried chicken.
Over sticky rice.
Or over steamed rice.
(Look at the healthy chicken on the back of the plate.  B-O-R-I-N-G.  But actually really tasty.)
Seriously, the pork leg was soooooooooo good.
The broth is pure umami . You know, the fifth basic taste.
(The taste of amino acid L-glutamate & 5’-ribonucleotides such as guanosine monophosphate & inosine monophosphate.
Or as I think of it: a pleasant "brothy" & "meaty" taste with a long lasting, mouthwatering sensation over the tongue.)
Not that the grilled meats were slouchers.  They were also delicious.
Especially the pork meats.
One time I even healthed it up by putting my meat atop salad.
(J ate the greens.)
Fruit & Dessert
Sadly, no photos of MSR (mango sticky rice), the best desert in the whole wide world.  It is reason enough to go to thailand.  And to go there now (if its mango season).
Apples, green mangos, watermelons (yellow watermelons!) yum.
Purple mangosteens and rambutans.  Funnest fruit names ever.
[JLM: They are so cute, too.]
Corn & coconut pancakes.
Lovely lattes
Magnificent mochas.

And, on the off chance you tire of thai food, there were plenty of other options, such as:
Imported New Zealand beef.
Oh wait, that is from the decadent (and amazing, and 100% worth it) Le Meridien Chiang Mai Sunday buffet.
But there are cockraoches for sale.
Crispy?  Delicious?  I wouldn't know.
Or, even bigger cockroaches.
More crispy?  More delicious?  Still don't know.
The food alone is reason enough to visit Thailand.  It made each day a delight.  And some of our most favorite and delicious thai foods didn't even make it here (because I ate them too fast).  Sorry loyal readers.  In the future I promise to wait a few tenths of a second to take more food photography, but once you try one MSR you won't be able to blame me ... you'll be busily chomping away on ripe mango, sticky rice, and thick sweetened coconut milk.