East meets West in the South East...
We just spent 10 days in Cambodia...
'Cambodia?!', you ask, 'What on earth is there to do in Cambodia?'.
But in actual fact, we all fell in love with Cambodia: the culture, the people, the food and the history... so much so that Cambodia has even been featuring in my sister's and my dreams lately.
If I went into a whole story of everything I loved about it, this blog post would be three times as long as it already is, so I'm just going to stick with the food aspect ;)
Cambodia is the land of the two-wheelers: scooters, motorcycles and bikes make up the majority of the transport for the population, and túk-túks (scooters with a carriage at the back) ferry locals and tourists alike. In fact, during our whole holiday we only sat in a car twice- once from the airport, and once to. Scooters also often have little food carts attached to them, selling baguettes with your choice of filling, French crêpes (part of the lingering French influence) with banana and nutella, drinks, local fried snacks, noodles (not your regular maggi.... this stuff has real vegetables and fun sauces), and even little cakes.
My first meal in Cambodia had to be amok- Cambodia's specialty. It's a fish dish that's either baked or steamed. This version was at Le Tigre En Papier, a local fusion restaurant popular with backpackers. Actually, pretty much all of Siem Reap is popular with backpackers... it's a melting pot of loads of young groups and couples walking around in hippy-fun clothes and enjoying the vibrant markets. The amok was slightly cocnoutty and the fish was made in a shredded form. I didn't like some of the fish, but overall it was something new and interesting.
After hours of exploring the ancient Angkor temples, we bought some much-needed pineapple from a local vendor.The pineapple was ingeniously carved and quartered so one could enjoy it neatly and on the go.
One of the loveliest parts of the trip was our visit to a floating village, complete with an adorable floatng church, tiny floating police station, a floating basketball court, school, houses... everything. Our guide was a really sweet young guy who told us all about the culture, history, and functioning of the village- despite being a melange of various ethnicities, the community is very tight-knit, albeit with its own social problems.
Amidst the bustling markets in Siem Reap are alleys filled with alluring boutiques, cafés, restaurants and craft shops that could have been plucked right out of an old European town. We enjoyed many a nice meal and lots of browsing and shopping in The Alley (actually named that) during our visit and as a temple-detox.
The Singing Tree Café in The Alley works for the benefit of locals (as many organisations do- restaurants, shops, handicraft makers and various other services all really focus on making the flourishing tourism an industry that thrives and helps the Cambodians as much as possible.) serves cappuccino in pretty mugs, and we were all satisfied with out meal while going through our photos, taking in the activity of The Alley and talking.
I'm known to be indecisive when choosing something from a menu, and I was stuck between two things when 'mango sticky rice caught my eye (admittedly in the dessert section) and I settled on it instantaneously. I tend to gravitate to sweet things and dishes that are new and exciting. My family found it questionable, but it was definitely a success. I spent so much time tasting each bite carefully that the taste still lingers. The rice was subtly mangoey and nutty, the local mango is soft and just sweet enough, and the coconut cream provided a lovely, rich anchor.
Isn't this fork gorgeous?
The opposite of my choice, my sister went for an egg, tomato and cheese sandwich, but it was just right and made with great local bread.
They call themselves 'An American Café in the heart of Siem Reap', and they truly are. Common Grounds was filled with almost all Americans, many of them social workers and volunteers. The ambience was calm and relaxed, with a nice mix of coffee and divine baked goods, and hot local dishes too. Common Grounds devotes itself to helping Cambodians, through the people they hire, the ingredients they use, the jewellery they sell and the way their profits are used. Note the bottom of the chalkboard: 'Every dollar we earn makes a difference in the life of a Cambodian'.
I spent my morning sipping coffee and doodling <3
A true, Italian restaurant, Il Forno makes spectacular pizzas in its woodfire oven, along with a vast selection of fine risottos, pastas, salads, antipasti and wine. The ambience was warm, breezy and cheerful, tucked away in a small lane. The owner is a young Italian girl who bustled through the completely full restaurant, and we were undoubtedly pleased by our dinner.
The Sun is a huge, bright, sunny and well-decorated restaurant, which also has comfy outdoor seating where we enjoyed some drinks with the fairy lights on our first night. It's apparently famous for its fluffy blueberry pancakes, and I'm a sucker for pancakes at any time of day. They were warm, crispy and absolutely scrumptious.
My mum had a pasta puttanesca with real, rustic, chunky tomato sauce and fresh grilled vegetables.
They even made a good falafel burger... The Sun was definitely one of my favourites.
The Sugar Palm: an airy, spacious restaurant atop an old wooden bungalow that makes divine Asian food Their crockery was really cute too <3.
Look at this teapot! And I love the carved dandelion on the mug. I had hot lemon tea, although the local iced lemon tea is by far the best we've ever had.
The Sugar Palm is where chef Gordon Ramsay learned how to make amok :O So my mum and I were sure we'd try it. It was way different from the one at Le Tigre En Paper... it was much better. This amok is baked to a soufflé-like consistency, it's frothy on top and the sauce is rich, spicy and complex. The fish, too was a really nice variety and I polished off the bowl (which is a hollowed out coconut shell!). We also enjoyed perfectly crisp spring rolls, and gado gado- one of our favourites.
This was my breakfast every day in Siem Reap: fresh fruits and their homemade yoghurt. Clockwise from the top: pineapple, mango, watermelon, banana (their local bananas are so good), dragonfruit (a new fruit for me! The texture is like kiwi, but it's less sweet), papaya and apple.
I grew really fond of the yoghurt that came every day in little pots. It was sweet and super creamy, and really refreshing with a plate of fruits... it kept me full for ages
Phnom Penh, the capital, also has a vast variety of cultures and restaurants. After one busy day at the Central Market (mind-boggling), we came across a small Malaysian restaurant. My parents lived in Kuala Lumpur for man years and I was born there, so as a family we have an affinity for Malaysia. My parents enjoyed the chance to revive their Bahasa skills, jokes and memories, and they had this light and filling silken tofu dish with tofu that melts in your mouth.
Remembering our trip to Malaysia in December 2011, I ordered a Mamak Mee Goreng. It looked brown and messy, but the flavours were so yum, the vegetables were crunchy and the soft egg on top was the perfect touch. I found it hard to not finish every last bite, and even my parents, who have tried countless mee gorengs, thought it was fantastic.
Another responsible organisation is Friends- they have a store with handmade recycled products made from materials such as old scarves, tyres, magazines, cutlery and paperclips, just to name a few.
They also have a stunning restaurant which employs youth and trains them to get back into society after experiences with drugs, abuse or crime. They have had great success, with many of their trainees working in top restaurants and hotels. I absolutely loved my passionfruit-watermelon ice shake- which is literally all it is... no weird sugar syrups and ice cream... just fresh, sweet fruit and ice <3 Winning combination.
My curried pumpkin soup tasted a bit like amok, so I think they used similar spices. It was a hot day, and the rich creaminess was replenishing and left me feeling ready to keep walking.
A little ahead of the Friends restaurant, we spotted this young guy at the from of a small local place, busy stringing his arms up and down, deftly manoeuvring ribbons. This stuff comes pretty close to magic... we tried in vain to follow his fingers and figure out how he did it, but it's impossible... second by second the noodles divide or get thinner and it never gets tangled or stuck. The lump of thick ropes soon becomes fine strings, which are briefly boiled, leaving a bowlful of fresh, perfect noodles... we were awestruck.
Fruits! Juicy rambutan, sweet and crisp apples, and soft mangosteen all bought at a market, using a mixture of dollars and riel (Cambodia uses both... it's very confusing)
A Belgian man- smiley and portly- runs a restaurant called The Wine in Phnom Penh. To celebrate Belgium's new king, he hosted a Belgian night for 'Belgians and friends of Belgium'- given that my best friend is Belgian, we figured we qualified ;) There were two hippy Belgian oldies playing cute music on the piano, flute and saxophone, and a tiny boy even walked up to dance along. Being vegetarian, our options were limited to asparagus in butter with egg, but they were lovely: soft, falling apart and perfect with the little French rolls. My parents loved their Belgian beer, and it made us think back to last summer in France, when we met Maurice and Monique, Belgians who shared Belgian chocolate and beer with us in the evenings.
The markets are at times suffocating, but they're full of everything under the sun. We bought plenty of knick-knacks, and delighted in taking in the myriad of aromas, voices, people and activity.
Very well known and a tourist favourite, The Blue Pumpkin has a few outlets in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. This particular branch is three stories high, overlooks the riverfront and has sofas with young girls sprawled on their phones while sipping tea and coffee, businesspeople tapping away, families settling down to rest, and a really serene atmosphere.
The Blue Pumpkin's red berry shake. One day in Siem Reap we cycled down to Angkor Wat, which has a branch of TBP. My dad ordered this shake, and liked i so much he ordered it again in Phnom Penh.
Hidden away is a quiet restaurant called The Ebony Tree. We were the only customers, there was one waiter/assistant chef and one grandma chef, but we savoured being away from the noise of the city and it gave us the chance to finish writing our postcards.
We were joined by a fifth member at out table: a black tomcat who lay pretty much motionless, except for an occasional sleepy-eyed stretch or reshuffle.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club is a massive, colonial-era building with the perfect river view. We enjoyed drinks there one evening, and it won us- especially my dad- over. It has an energetic vibe, reminiscent of the old club culture but adapted to modern society, with people of all ages and backgrounds coming to relax. We returned the next morning for coffee and my dad bought an FCC cap, which he is loving wearing.
All over Cambodia you'll see these pretty lotuses with the outside petals delicately folded. They open up beautifully, and I have never seen so many lotuses being sold on the street as I saw in Cambodia.
By the poolside of the lush, serene Kabiki hotel guests are served a big breakfast. The head waiter was oh-s0-smiley and after a couple of days he remembered our preferences, and what to leave out or bring extra for each of us.
Passionfruit juice... cold, pulpy and so sweet... <3
The chestnut bread (with chunks of chestnut inside... chestnuts actually grown in abundance there) and the baguette, served with homemade pineapple jam that was heavenly. I always mixed it into my muesli and yoghurt, and I even tried in on a slice of pineapple (it's not weird.)
Cambodian coffee is really strong, but I just fell in love with their ceramic crockery.
Their yoghurt wasn't as yum as the one in Siem Reap, but mixed with the muesli and jam it made a light and healthy breakfast that I looked forward to.
'Looking natural' with the self-timer on :P
If you're thinking about going to Cambodia, don't hesitate. There's so much to do, so much to see, so much to try. This is going down as one of our favourite holidays of all time, and we didn't regret a minute of it.