Friday, March 24, 2006

The Wheels on the Bus Went 'Round and 'Round

He was the toughest-looking bloke on the bus. All shaved-head, pierced and tattooed, plus a muscular frame that was nearly double the size of most Asians we see, I noticd him right off and involuntarily felt sympathetic he'd have to squeeze into the Lao bus seats that aren't made for Westerners. As Andy and I boarded the "VIP" bus, which meant we'd paid $7 for our private company ticket and upholstered luxury instead of going public for $3 and metal seats, on our trip through the mountains to Luang Prabang, I surveyed the crowd.~> read more

 Mostly Western/White First Worlders, save for a few Asian girls with white men, and all with backpacks and a sunburn from a day on the river in Vang Vieng.

I wasn't looking forward to this bus ride, not that I'd say we ever look forward to a bus ride on our trip, but we'd been warned about this one in particular. The guidebook read "take Dramamine or other precautions if you experience motion sickness" (we hadn't read this anywhere in Lonely Planet India!) and we'd heard it was worth the extra $4.00 to take a VIP coach instead of a regular bus. So, we did and while I don't usually get car sick, I was anxious. The 44 other travelers looked relatively fine, and the air conditioning was blowing at a slow but somewhat cooling pace, so I settled in and read while the road was still straight. My leg room was a little more cramped than expected because the luggage space had myteriously filled up early on (I don't know if the driver was transporting extra cargo or what, but this has never happened before) so backpacks lined the entire bus aisle and I finally got comfortable by resting my feet atop someone's pack.

About forty minutes into our journey, which was already nearly running an hour late for no reason but that we didn't drive away until 10:48am instead of 10:00am, we pulled over on the dirt road. Primitive palm-frond and wood roadside stands lined the side and eager food sellers greeted us, though in the ever-gentle Lao way. Ladies waved and held up pineapple or baguettes, but no one yelled out to me in a loud, more piercing and atonal than a duck-call whistle voice: "Lay-dee, you want pineapple? Buy from me!" as in Cambodia. I stayed inside, as not to be tempted by the foods and fluids that combat my dehydration strategy for long bus rides and no bathroom usage, but Andy went outside to investigate. Apparently, we had bus trouble and the stop wasn't expected. Andy, ever the mechanic and careful engineer, looked stricken when he returned and I was immediately worried we were stuck.

"I just saw our driver pounding the engine and battery terminal with a rock he picked up from the road!" he cried, sounding appalled and yet wondrous. My eyes got big with shock and a lack of hope in reply, but just then the engine fired up, and they got even bigger with surprise. Andy just sat back in his seat shaking his head, and everyone piled back on with a "hurrah!" and off the coach lumbered, turning and shaking on the dirt road, but still rumbling. Later, Andy confessed to me, that he was nervous for the next hour and expected the battery to fall out of its terminal because there were so many bumps on the road and he didn't know what the driver had managed to do with the rock, but somehow we kept moving and he got distracted by other things.

These other distractions included the fact our paved road often disappeared isntantaneously to become only slippery dirt and gravel, and we started an ascent riddled with blind curves and corners. I put on the Ipod with Liz Phair to get inspired by her honest punk spirit and thought distracting thoughts like "What could I do with Lao silk? Would I ever use a woven textile as wall art? No. Well, there are so many here. What about a sticky rice basket? Is that a good souvenir? No. Too hard to carry; Andy won't like that and I'm not a basket person anyway."

Of course, all of these ridiculous, banal thoughts really meant, "This bus ride sucks! I'm not sure our driver could possibly be going any faster!?! He NEVER brakes! And, why in the hell do people honk before they go around a blind corner and breakneck speed instead of slowing down???!!!"

A reprieve came in the form of a lunch stop, and the bus pulled over to another village of roadside stands and nice ladies with food. Andy was skeptical if the bus would ever start again, and I was skeptical of the food options since everything seemed to have slippery pieces of minced meat floating in sauce. Dammit. To be vegetarian in this country is challenging. All of the other bus riders, including Mr. Tough Looking Guy, looked equally happy to be off the coach and madly smoked cigarettes while ordering up food. I finally found a girl whose glass-cased cart had cooked vegetables without pernicious pieces of uknown flesh and guts.

There were however, many mysterious greens, but beggars can't be choosers, let alone vegetarians here and I ordered away. I later learned that I ate some river greens, jungle vines and morning glory, which isn't the same pretty purple flowers that graces yards and fences in America, but some jungle plant that was bitter with a bit of crunch. Mixed with locally-grown mushrooms, cauliflower and carrots plus sprinkled with healthy doses of soy and fish sauce, it was quite good and took my mind off the fact we had at least 4 hours of the journey left!

Back the herd of pink and white backpackers went on the bus, which thankfully coughed and sputtered with life in the engine, and up we started on a continually blind serpentine road of curves. It got very quiet, very quickly. The blind corners that our bus took at seeming Mach speeds was intense and disconcerting, equalled only by the fact that the driver signalled our presence on the narrow road with village on one side and a 1,000 foot sheer limestone cliff drop on the other with only the horn. No braking, just honking -- our drive was puncuated by the vrrrooooommm of him pushing the gas pedal and the blaring beeeeeeeeeeep of the bus's horn for at least an hour. Vrrrooooomm, beeeeeeepp, vrrroooommm, beeeeeeeeeppp. Then finally, once, a Sssccrreeeeeecchhhh! We slowed down -- for seeming no reason as we were practically on a flat stetch of dirt. Puzzled, I craned my neck awkwardly in the aisle, as did many other tense passengers, and we didn't see any animals or trees blocking our way. Then, out of seeming nowhere, a giant logging truck screamed toward us as the same Mach speed of our coach, on our same dirt road, and whizzed past us with centimeters to spare.

Whoa! I and every other person was fully awake now as the bus shook, and then the vrroooom, beeeeeeep routine resumed and we continued climbing. Andy and I could only surmise that our driver had gotten some metaphysical signal from the environment and by knowing the jungle dirt roads so well, that he sensed and knew the truck was coming and slowed to let it pass. I looked around at the quiet group of 44 travelers and noticed all were awake, and many were unconsciously holding the tiny handle glued pathetically in the middle of the seat backs, almost more as decoration than safety. My palms glistened with a sheen of sweat, and for once, I knew it wasn't from the Asian heat.

Sitting on that bus, feeling it wind up and around the hills, hearing it blare and rattle through the moutain curves was unnerving. Andy saw some signs and deciphered that we were zooming up and down some 13%+ grades, which made Vail Pass look dull! Finally, the bus plateaued and pulled over to a clearing at the seeming summit with a lovely green view of limestone cliffs, lush foliage and misty clouds. Travelers piled off the bus with zeal and relief, tripping over the backpacks in the aisle in their haste to get out, smoke cigarettes and pee in the trees. Fortunately, my dehydration strategy was working like a charm, so I stayed inside and watched people from at least 15 countries relieve themselves in the tall green grasses of Laos' jungle-forest. I noticed Mr. Tough Guy and some others chainsmoking and shaking their heads outside my window, and I knew I was not alone in my riding unease.

Five minutes later a downhill version of the vrrrrooooooooommm and beeeeeeeeeeeep strategy resumed, as our bus barreled down toward the valley housing Luang Prabang. Soon the honks were abandoned in favor of sheer speed and the smell of burning brakes, which didn't settle well with me, my palms, or anyone else for that matter, especially when the driver turned off the air conditioning and windows were opened wide for comfort...and yet discomfort. Burning rubber just isn't what you want to smell on a mountain descent! Every passenger was alert and quiet, yet jerking left and right against their will with the dramatic curves. Suddenly, the driver hit the brakes and they worked -- impossibly, thankfully -- and we slowed to let another log truck whip by the bus. Dust, dirt, gravel and brake rubber flew in the open windows of our now un-air-conditioned bus, choking the already strained breathing of its nervous passengers.

As the bus of us tilted further down the mountain of blind corners and dusty curves, the horn and brakes gave it their all. And the Tough Guy's nerves gave out. All of a suddent, out of the uncomfortable silence of 44 passengers came this growling, savage plea with Australian flair: "Could you slow it down a little, use the brakes a bit, for fuck's sake!!! SLOW DOWN!"

No one said a word -- not the driver, not the 43 other passengers, especially not me, who was pleased to decipher he was an Aussie as no one else in the world uses that crazy curse phrase. Vrrrroooooooooommmmmmmmm, beeeeeeeeeeeeppp, vvvrooooooommmmm, beeeeeeeeeep. The bus continued swirling down the hilly curves, the brakes continued to make their presence known through a hot rubber smell, and no one said a thing. Andy and I didn't even know if the driver spoke English and understood what the Australian bloak had yelled out, as certainly no one had translated it into Lao and repeated. I looked around and everyone just sat as still and quiet as was possible with the winds, bends and down, down, downs of the road, hanging onto the helpless, decorative "safety" handle and waiting for the ride to be over.

Two hours and 187 kilometers later, the bus rolled into Luang Prabang and lurched to a final stop. Westerners and backpacks spilled out of the bus immediately, almost before the wheels stopped rolling forward agaist the cement of the station's curb. Cigarettes lit up left and right, hotel touts tried eagerly to grab the attention and dollars of the bus passengers and puffy exhale clouds of relief floated up above the scene. I was damn glad to be off the bus, and my palms were still a touch sweaty as I grabbed my pack out of the storage compartment. I noticed the tough, shaved and tattooed Aussie grabbing his backpack with little effort, and then I felt myself smirking. One bus ride through the mountains and jungles of Laos was all it took to crumble that mantle of pierced pluck. Guess he wasn't quite so tough after all! Looks really can be deceiving.

Part Jungle, Part Garden: Lao Cuisine

Since we learned the secret of making a good spring roll in Vientiane, and neither it nor the sauce tasted like neighborly Thai or Vietnamese food, I was curious to know more. Lao food is not a cuisine that gets a lot of press, nor a category you see on restaurant signs or menus, so it seemed like a noble pursuit to demystify the sustenance of this lush, jungle-river-rice country.

Luang Prabang, like it did on charm, temples, monks and riverscapes, delivered. Once the capital of Laos and its definite cultural mecca, Luang Prabang has the best remaining chefs in the country because the royal family used to reside here and the cooks stayed even after the royals were, ahem, deposed, and went incognito by cooking more simply in the age of Communism and blending into the new society. Fortunately, one of the few upsides of tourism in Luang Prabang means that there's a desire for rich cultural experiences, including food, and the old ways are appearing again in quaint restaurants and kitchens.~> read more


Ingredient do grow on trees here, as well as on the plentiful river banks of the town's three rivers, and exciting, unique Lao food is afoot -- not to mention a great cooking class run by one of the legacy chefs who knows the true essence of Lao cooking. So, off we went to Tum Tum Cheng (the onomatopoeiac sound that Buddhist drums make) to learn more about the herby, sometimes bitter, sometimes citrus, and astringent flavors that make up the cuisine of Laos.

The food we tasted in Laos lacks the layered sweet-savory-spicy flavors of Vietnam and Thailand, and while we missed that, it was exciting to eat new things, un-ripe things, crazy things that we didn't know existed. At our Tum Tum Cheng class, we learned that Lao people cook with a careful balance of jungle and garden foods, getting 50% of their food from the jungles, which are really a type of monsoon rainforest, that abound on the leafy, hilly topography that characterizes the north, and 50% from the gardens that grow generous and green right down the lapping, muddy waters of the Mekong.

Like India, Lao cooks have a "spice kitchen" that forms the foundation of nearly every dish and our apprentice-to-the-master-chef, Linda (she gave up many classes ago on giving her real name to Westerners since we haven't a chance in hell in getting the rising and falling vowels close to correct), laid them out beautifully for us in a woven rattan basket on a tea-colored teak table, where we sat on claret-hued silk cushions to ooh and aah. Literally. The smells and textures of the ingredients that ground food in Lao taste are familiar, but together the lemongrass, shallots, ginger, galangal, chili, kaffir lime leaves, garlic and fish sauce make something unique. Something more citrusy, slightly bitter and less sugary than what our palate knows of Thai and Vietnamese dishes, a very organic taste that just seems to come from the dirt or wild. I think the rhizomes of ginger and galangal, which looks like a larger version of ginger but has a soapy-piney scent, are the biggest contributors and when chopped, minced and sliced with abandon into a variety of dishes, you get a taste that is solely Lao.

Linda also introduced us to a few other special Lao foods and we got brave and tried the fruits and labors of their gardens and jungles. I say brave because my new favorite dairy animal, the water buffalo,is involved and that took some mental bravery and blocking out to get my mouth and mind behind the effots!!!

jaew bong - crazy chili-garlic paste with cheeky texture, a huge spice kick and earthy aftertaste that comes from the mingling of water buffalo skin with aforementioned ingredients. Ummm...interesting, unique, to say the least. You use this as a spread on top of things like kaipen.

kaipen - freshwater green algae from the Mekong that's blended with sesame seeds, tomatoes, scallions and tamarind. Hopeful cousin of the seaweed sushi wrap nori, I would say. Dried out like hand-made paper, gets crispy in the sun and you eat like chips -- we surprisingly liked it.

klao niaw/sticky rice - way glutinour rice that is more translucent, with longer grains than basic rice and sticks together, hence the name, in a clump when crumpled between your fingers. Forms a great ball for dipping into sauces and dishes -- the Lao use this instead of chopsticks!

jujubes - not the candy! A cross somewhere between a plum and a date; grows in the jungle and looks like deep brown-purple blueberry. Great in smoothies!

banana flower - grows off the end of a bunch of bananas, are large and tapered with a beautiful deep reddish-purple hue on the outside. You peel off leaves to eat and they're a bit like an artichoke, in texture and astringent taste, and frankly, make a better garnish for a salad than ingredient.

khao kham - electric pink rice wine that was sweet and slightly effervescent, like drinking strawberry kool-aid with a kick.

20+ kind of eggplant - not kidding!!! They have eggplant the size of marbles, the size of mangoes, the size of microphones and those purple ones that grace every vegetarian menu everywhere. It was insane -- I'd never seen so many kinds! They eat them ripe and unripe, cooked and uncooked, and often as a thickening agent for stews and soups.

A Buddha-full Afternoon

One hot Sunday in Laos, Andy and I hired a longtail boat to ferry us up the breezy Mekong River to a mystical-sounding cave called Pak Ou which is supposedly filled nook and cranny with golden Buddha images. Longtail boats are the cars of Asian rivers and look like an extra-long gondola from Venice, with a canopy to cover driver and passenger from blistering sun, and sport an engine seeming off an 1980 Toyota Corrolla that motors you fast and loud across the mud-brown, algae-green waters. It's not quiet, but nothing is in Southeast Asia, so you tune out the revving motor noises and instead sit at water's level and enjoy the scenic lifescape of Laos as you fast-float by the banks of the Mekong.

The Mekong is truly the lifeblood of Laos, as this Utah-sized country is ocean-less and these mighty waters are fertile ground for trade, transportation and tilling the land, and we saw humans and animals using its water in every productive, primitive way during our afternoon cruise. It was a serene, voyeuristic afternoon for us and we loved it because we quietly observed life as the Lao know it. Despite our clothes and skin, we were nearly invisible and while that is something we rarely yearn for in a purely innocent sense at home in America, it's something we've wished greatly for here. Rarely noticed, Andy and I and participated only when a friendly wave from the banks beckoned us to wave back.

Here's a glimpse of what we saw along the Mekong between Luang Prabang and Pak Ou:~> read more


- Families bathing in the brown-green water, sarongs on their bodies which are easily lifted for soapy access and dark heads glistening with shampoo.

- Women in those eponymous, woven rice paddy coolie hats, looking just like an Asian postcard, panning for gold.

- Water buffalo herds, buried neck-deep in the Mekong water, cooling off from a tough day of grazing...or maybe avoiding becoming tomorrow night's dinner.

- Electric green gardens, ripe with herbs, pumpkin, lettuces, zucchini, eggplant and watercress, growing in leafy glory right down to the river's edge.

- Shirtless men sanding longtail boats into shape to make a business on or of the river.

- Women slap, slap, slapping wet clothes against rocks to clean(?) them in the Mekong.

- Child-boy monks playing in the water, their traffic-cone orange robes startling your eyes in contrast to the earthy greens and browns.

- Vvvvvrrrrrroooooooooommmmmmmmmmmm!!! The most deafening motor-engine sound you can imagine, one that seemed totally out of place, and then believable once we got our bearings from the distraction and realized we are in Asia. A flat, surfboard-like speedboat with what could only be a truck engine flies by, rocking us in its wake. The eight passengers on the boat are all wearing lifejackets and helmets! We're puzzled and horrified, and then remember the warning about these commuter boats between Thailand and Laos in the Lonely Planet, and are horrified again by their seeming unsafe reality, and then grateful we aren't on one.

- Families that range in age from grandma to newborn, filling up a longtail boat like our own, out smiling and sailing along the river for inexpensive Sunday thrill.

- Masked-men, scuba-masked that is, on smaller boats with lawnmower engines, putting along...dropping their faces in the murky water to look first for signs of fish or algae, and then dropping their old-fashioned nets to mine the river for edible treasures.

As we sailed gently up to a white, sheer limestone wall, mottled by green vines and dark cave openings, we knew the simple beauty of our Mekong trip would now get even better. Pak Ou is a series of caves, hidden high above the river, turned into a sacred temple for secret worship during the less-than-religious Communist reign. It's filled with over 4,000 Buddha images, ranging from palm-sized statues left as offering to human-size statues that hover in golden, meditative splendor. Worshippers come and give alms to Buddha, and we joined the nearly all-Lao group, taking off our shoes and padding about the cave in socks to take in the incomprehensible number of Buddhas, kneel in respect and light incense. Scented smoke wafted around the gold, tarnished, faded, shiny and peeling Buddha images, stacked hundreds high into corners or piled onto rock ledges and we gaped about. Sometimes you heard a squeak above, and looked up to see the cave light cut by black wingspans reminiscent of a certain superhero.

Being inside of Pak Ou and surrounded by bats and Buddhas was like out of a adventure tale where Indiana Jones is your fairy godmother!!! So cool, so spiritual-magical, so unlike anything in the States...and that after our uneventful-yet-eventul in the best way trip up the Mekong. What an amazing afternoon! It was like for a few hours, we were almost Lao instead of us. This might seem strange but we're finding while traveling, to be on the inside of every day life without feeling like you're on the outside, is a rare treat that is both rewarding and comforting.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Sunset on the Mekong

We have just a few more photos to share that we took around Vientiane. Please note the last one as it shows that I have become a millionaire! But not in dollars, unfortunately; I'm holding the equivalent of about 100 bucks in the largest bills you can commonly get (each bill is 10,000 lao kip)

the gallery: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Vientiane

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

He would dye for me

Andy is setting the male population of Asia on edge. I can feel it. I see mens' apprehension as we set off from a guest house for an enlightening activity that could even be construed as domestic, leaving them with nothing but a blaring tv or tiny, endless cups of coffee. I also see the look of envy, of puzzlement, of wonder in the women's eyes as we fold spring rolls and question the origin of spices.

Andy is unlike the other men on this continent. He cooks, he shops (not by choice), he goes to market and now he's dyed silk textiles using traditional Lao techniques. I am SO lucky!!!

In Vientiane, he further threatened Asia's male race by accompanying me~> read more (with photos)

 to a women's cooperative and learning about traditional silk-weaving and dyeing practices. Textiles are the fabric of hope, opportunity and independence for rural women in Laos, and you see weavings of every kind, in every way here -- and all with unique, personal patterns. I'd read about a class at the Houey Hong Vocational School for women and figured it was a rare chance for hands-on learning of a cottage industry. Sort of tie-dye with a natural twist and less-Hippie output, so off Andy and I went.

Three women greeted us oustide the simple compound of cement buildings, each of varying age but all wearing traditional embroidered sarongs, asked that we remove our shoes and sit on a giant grass mat that sprawled in the center of a bustling courtyard. Rooms left and right were filled with piano-sized looms, strings and thread going left and right, up and down, foot treadles and hand boards that smacked together "clack, clack", and the dark, busy, bent heads of Lao ladies in motion. Other rooms reverberated from the whirring of old-fashioned sewing machines, fabric and thread quickly turning about the needle, syrup-colored bare feet pumping the foot pedal and more bent, dark heads. My nose crinkled from an acrid smell and I looked around for the source, cautious because after the food markets, you're never sure what to expect. Next to our mat, a group of men (!) sorted through bushels of dried marigold flowers -- piles of orange petals and green stems -- and stirred giant black witch cauldrons that smoked, spit and hissed. Two others were taking turns on a wooden teeter-totter type of crushing machine and mashing what looked like blackberry marbles but smelled not too fruity.

Another lady bustled up to us in sarong and flip-flops and introduced herself in excellent English as Boanam, the manager of Houey Hong School, and asked what Andy and I were interested in doing -- weaving or dyeing? Dyeing, we said, and I then I proceeded to bombard her with a few questions about the place. What was going on about us? How does this help women? What was that smell? And, what were those young men up to? Andy just kind of smirked at that one, as I've gotten uber-uppity feminist on this trip with all of the women I see vigorously laboring and men I see pathetically lounging. The women around us were from villages and came to strengthen their weaving design skills, so they could either produce textiles with pleasing patterns that might sell outside of Laos, plus learn about the large range of natural substances which can be used as dyeing pigment for greater variety. According to Boanam, many villages only use certain indigenous ingredients like marigold or jack fruit, ginger or indigo, betelnut or coffee, and thus their textiles remain locked in limited colors.

At Houey Hong, women apprentice for design and dyeing, and that's what those men were up to -- making pigments from organic ingredients for dyeing. Only recently, has the school accepted some young men who had no other prospects on a trial basis, to help with crushing, stirring, dyeing only, since the weaving is really women's work. Sigh...progress, but not really. Anyway, the smell making my nose crinkle is the boiling of all sorts of crazy natural fruits, vegetables, bugs (not kidding!), leaves and more that become a gorgeous rainbow of dye colors once absorbed into silk. When the ladies aren't honing their silk weaving skills or setting dyes from fresh pigment, they're learning to sew on the treadle machines of Houey Hong, which are reminiscent of my (great?) grandmother's and similar to what's all over Asia, so they can tailor in their spare time and make extra money.

After cups of weak Chinese tea, a Lao tradition I don't get but was glad for the warmth and caffeine, Andy and I got down to the business of dyeing. The greeting ladies appeared again and showed us a smudged plastic picture book with pairs of happy foreigners holding up textiles. From this, Andy and I determined we were supposed to choose which designs we endeavored to create and while the array of options looked a lot like tie-dye, it was not quite as Spirograph-y or swirly. More whole circles, lines and crosses dominated and as we went to work, we learned that's because the Lao use a lot of Bamboo to help with textile design. Bamboo rings and sticks of various sizes -- popsicle to ruler -- served as the markers that stop the dye from seeping into silk and create the patterns, sort of the way rubber bands do with tie-dye. Lao women also use plastic crinkle paper that reminded me of what we wrap our Easter baskets in to twist, tie and crimp fabric. But there were no pre-cut strips of it, no cookie-cutter presses or machine-made piece. All of the dyeing and design was done by hand, and we sat with our teachers on the grass mat in the outdoors, and learned teacher to pupil, their hands on ours as we folded fabric and twisted it to perfect design tightness.

Andy managed to select the most complicated ones, so he got lots of help and a few extra bright smiles. It was great! He wrapped silk around bamboo sticks and circles, plus then tied everything tight with the plastic wrap. My shawls were simpler to do, and only involved a lot of cutting and tying of plastic, and that was fine as I was most excited to see which colors we could choose for dyeing. Fortunately, the day of our visit, they had a selection of bright hues, as I could see from the chart that a lot of roots and vegetables produce things in the brown-gold range and that didn't excite me. We got to choose from stisk lask, which is a red bug resin and sounds gross, but turns out a lovely pink-mulberry color, jack fruit, a giant bumpy-skinned fruit that's all over Asia and a gorgeous golden tone, and marigold, which made a surprisingly sage green color instead of burnt orange. Oh well -- pink and yellow, I couldn't be happier!

Andy was again a good sport and figured out, once and for all, that he wouldn't be wearing his Lao shawls out in public and chose pink and yellow too. In went our twisted and tied slips of creamy silk to the giant black witch cauldrons, and we got to wander around and see the women weaving and sewing. It's truly amazing how they sit at these giant looms, flipping feminine fingers through silk and slapping the threads together to tighten the weave, and how a complex, uniform and beautiful textile emerges from the seeming chaos of thread, silk, wood and hands. In the weaving rooms, it's completely quiet except for the clackety-clack of the wooden looms -- no talking, no tv, nothing -- you truly feel like artists are at work. After thirty minutes, Andy and I were beckoned back to the grass mat by one of our teachers, who rescued our silk from the black vats and started rinsing them clear and clean. Excited, curious and hopeful, we helped cut off the plastic and bamboo and unfurled our first foray into textiles. Voila! Check out the photo gallery to see how they came out -- we're quite pleased!: http://bitjug.com/gallery/VientianeDC

Though I was probably the most excited, as I got a new bright pink shawl and a super sweet partner who's willing to try the unexpected with me, no matter how close it hovers to the sphere of domesticity in Asia.

Getting Fresh in Laos

I was not going to let some unnatural catfish the size of blimps and deep-fried frog intimidate me. So what if we experienced that one country south!? This was Laos! Green, quiet, friendly, emerging Laos. And I was ready to demystify its cuisine through trial and taste, to get my hands dirty with whatever local ingredients make-up the repertoire of this jungle-river-rice land. Cooking classes were on the map again in Laos, and I was optimistic -- and Andy a fantastic sport -- so we signed up for one in Ventiane.

Our class started with a trip to a local talat, or market, to learn about ingredients in the ripe flesh. Lao markets, like Cambodia, India and Thailand, are nothing like Safeway or Whole Foods. Perhaps you've visited an Asian market in the States...but that's only tame foreshadowing of the real markets of Asia! Here, the markets where citizens do their daily shopping squeeze into open-air buildings roped off into tiny stalls and burst onto the streets, with fruits and vegetables spilling out on display like colored confetti. The markets have cement floors that are wet with constant draining from hoses and God knows what else, no health deparment codes or plastic packaging revealing freshness or fat, and there are a bizillion products giving off sharp smells that range from shrimp paste to sugar cane, incense to intestines, cooking oil to coffee.

Dai, our teacher and head cook at Thongbay Guesthouse which offered the class, chaperoned us at the market and she moved about the body-width aisles of chaos like a pro, her long black hair swinging with purpose and coffee-dark eyes intent on destination.~> read more (with photos)

 First, to her dry goods vendor, where she picked up cooking oil, palm sugar, mayonnaise and fish sauce. (they have fresh fish sauce in laos, but foreigners can't eat it without risking a bout of parasites. if you saw it, you'd understand.) Then, to her rice vendor who had brown woven baskets heaped high with white rice, sticky rice, purple rice, yellow rice, jasmine rice and, frankly, more kinds of rice than Andy or I ever knew existed. Dai ran her slender fingers through the grains of specific baskets, barked out an amount, then placed her Lao kips directly on the white rice in payment as the vendor weighed it on primitive scales. For some reason, the bills of kip never touched hand-to-hand in the market, only on top of the food from buyer to seller. Very strange! All the more reason to be dousing our hands in Purel whenever possible!!!

Andy and I tagged along like kids in any grocery store, asking lots of questions and accidentally getting lost because we looked at some strange thing too long, though we managed not to beg Dai for any unnecessary treats like Oreos or Captain Crunch. Ha! If they'd only had that...sigh. The produce of Lao is varied, abundant and fresh, and it looks beautiful clustered in rattan baskets, piled to heaping as if there was such a bumper crop they had to squeeze it all in to sell at the market. I saw at least 12 different shapes of eggplant, mysterious root vegetables and rhizomes, and pumpkins that range from soft green to solid orange. I was also stunned by the chromatic jungle of fresh greens in the market: cabbages, lettuces, river weeds, herbs, vine plants, algae and more. Not always for the faint of heart, but better than the meat section. Enough said on the topic -- you can view the photos.

And there were surprises to uncover...like dill! Who would have thought dill was alive and flourishing in Laos, and used to season omelettes and stir frys? And twelve kinds of basil? Dai let me taste a few leaves and they spanned from spicy to sweet to licorice to peppery. Myriad varieties of mushrooms made another section of the market look like the moon, all gray-brown-white with bumpy and porous textures. I'm not sure if they're a legacy of the French or not, but over 13 varieties grow in the rice paddies that carpet the country and make awesome additions in Lao soup, spring rolls, stir frys and more.

Laden with bursting plastic bags of fresh ingredients, we piled back in the tuk-tuk with Dai and returned to her garden to learn the secrets of Lao cooking. Our backyard cooking school was unexpected and quite the fairy tale atmosphere for crushing ginger, dicing chili, slicing green papaya and smashing a citrus rainbow of ingredients into salad with a mortar and pestle! Andy and I, ever savants of the spring roll, chose that as our first dish and were startled by the flaky-crispy-crunchy cyclinders of deliciousness that emerged from our hands...with Dai's help, of course. Filled with basic Asian vegetables like carrots, mushrooms and onion and yet more, we think these rocked the house because there was no cabbage (can overwhelm other vegetables), there was potato for increased mashy-smooth texture and taste, and a fresh egg mixed in gently before we rolled them in rice paper that made for an extra custardy inside. Dai also had us chopping away with special Lao tools that put a ruffled edge on vegetables, kind of like crinkle-cut french fries, and we loved their decorative but sharp touch. Later that day, we went back to the market and bought two so we can, hopefully, replicate the fancy chopping and fine food at home.

The Lao kitchen is not only all about fresh ingredients -- it's about the fresh, open fire as well. Everything of importance is cooked over a charcoal flame, not birquettes either so I don't want to think about the pretty forests here, and deep frying our spring rolls was no exception. Dai fired up the coals, fanned them with an electric fan plugged in from the house kitchen with an extension cord that ran across the leafy garden, and they sizzled away in palm oil. (don't say it! my heart has already chided me. but when in rome...) After copious draining, Andy and I enjoyed the springy, fried loveliness with an easy, fresh sauce of lime juice, palm sugar, crushed peanut and white vinegar. Mmmmmmm...Heaven!!! Or should that be Nirvana??? Whatever. They were awesome...and we have the recipe!

Please view a short gallery here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/VientianeCC

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Living Out Lao

Once the Kingpins of Indochine, Les French, coined this phrase: "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow."

Reading that in the Lonely Planet as we flew from Seam Reap, Cambodia to Vientiane, Laos (pronounced "vee-ehn-chee-ahn, louw"...that's right, "louw" -- rhymes with "wow"), we laughed out loud. Andy and I couldn't quite imagine any place in Asia could be so mellow.

We were wrong~> read more


Laos is unexpected -- quiet and serene, low-stress and beautiful. Traveling in Laos' Mekong river-green and gold-temple midst, you'd never know it's sandwiched between the chaotic, industrious cultures of China, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The friendly people, who utter "sah-bah-dee" (hello) with genuine smiles, rarely follow it with a sales pitch and go about their daily lives with such gentle equanimity, lilting purpose and lack of loud voices we've wondered if we didn't end up on a parallel continent.

Buddhism is the tour-de-force that governs the national psyche and its doctrine empahsizes a cooling of human emotions which seems evident in the way people act, interact, barter, drive and go about their day. Verrrry mellow, very placid, purposeful but not passionate -- kind smiles and polite interactions that get the job done, but never tread on your sensibilities or stress level. Plus, there are monks of all ages -- from cherubic boys to grizzled grandpas, all with freshly bald heads -- on every street in their orange-peel robes walking to temple for meditation, and with that much karma on the streets, you just have to be on your best behavior. Nirvana is the name of the game for the Buddhists, and traveling here...save for the roads...is pretty damn close.

We started off in the afore-pronounced capital of Vientiane, where a colonial past collided with communism and now flirts outrageously with capitalism.

From 1893 - 1953, the French worked their imperial magic of baguettes, balconies and boulevards...along with the delicious extras of coffee roasting, ice cubes and plumbing. After the debacle of the Indochina Wars in the 1960's and 1970's, Laos was ruled by a Communist government funded by the USSR and trained in Vietnam...in everything but architecture. During this time, concrete block compounds with nary a curve or decorative detail flourished, if you can even say that, and when walking the city you see cement monstrosities with the old emblem of the hammer and sickle butting up to decaying colonial homes with painted shutters and aromatic, white-washed cafes.

I guess you could say the "rice curtain" fell over Laos during that time as it was isolated from Capitalist countries, especially the West, but never fell prey to a masochistic government like Cambodia. Instead, the Communists let the tribes of Laos, of which they're over 70, go about their daily lives of farming the rivers and jungles, grow their beloved rice, practice a government-regulated form of Buddhism and ease, ever-so-slowly, toward modernism without destroying the environment or naivetes in the process. What a concept!!!

And now, there are backpackers, NGO Land Rovers and eco-tourism agents cruising the streets trying to uncover and unleash Laos' potential. Laos gently, suspiciously opened its doors around 2000 to outside travelers and so far, so good. This potpourri of past and progress makes a landscape that's digested a bit like an item on a Lao menu: easy to swallow yet tough to say exactly what's involved. Every point of interest in Vientiane is within easy walking or biking, every activity is hassle-free and you quickly fall into synch with everyone greeting everyone with "sah-bah-dee". It's contagious! Yet, you're not sure why Laos is so laid-back and the traveling cynic in me wonders if this is indigenous or just pre-mass-tourism.

Whatever the case, just being in Laos for a few days we're immediately excited and re-energized from Cambodia. Perhaps learning to listen to the rice grow is the secret?!? I'm not sure, but in the sensory pleasure-puzzle that is Asia, Laos is a perfect fit for us.

Where are we?

we've been staring at various maps our whole trip, but an idea of where we are might be interesting to some of you....~> read more

 Here's a map of southeast asia to get a general orientation:

To review, we flew from Seattle to Bangkok via Tokyo Narita, then on to Chennai, India, returned to Bangkok from Chennai then flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We took a bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia where the Angkor temples are, then flew from Siem Reap to Vientiane, Laos, which is the unlabeled star on the map. Then, we took a bus to Vang Vieng for a couple of days (not on map), then another bus on to Luang Prabang for 6 days, tomorrow is our last day here. Here's a more detailed map of Laos from the lonely planet website:

Next, We'll then fly from Luang Prabang back to Bangkok for a day and a half before our departure to New Zealand for a month. After we return from New Zealand, we'll fly down to Phuket, Thailand for about 12 days, then fly from Phuket to Singapore for 24 hours in Singapore, believe it or not. This saves us a bundle on our way to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south of viet nam on the first of May. we'll head northward through viet nam for the whole month of may, all by bus, then fly back from Hanoi to Bangkok. We have more ideas after that but nothing finalized yet.

Ghastly Past Lives On

The Killing Fields. Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot. Year Zero. Kampuchea. Or is that Cambodia?

I'm the first to admit that I wasn't sure what those things really were in the context of history and consequence. I know "The Killing Fields" movie won some Oscars, the Khmer Rouge was a guerrilla-communist group and Pol Pot's name is synonymous with evil, but wasn't exactly sure why. After visiting Phnom Penh, its Tuol Sleng museum and the actual 'Killing Fields', I understand intimately and feel somewhat embarassed I wasn't more aware of what's quite probably one of the most modern occurrences of butchery and nonsense living in today's world.

I wrestled with how to write succinctly about a regime that was hobbled by ideology and wanted so pure a form of communism that they essentially killed off any smart or skilled person who might be a threat, imprisoned and tortured others who didn't buy in to agrarian slavery right away, all of which resulted in over two million deaths, and tried to erase the past by starting the calendar over at "year zero" and burning the books, clocks, currency and buildings that stood for it...~> read more

 and gave up.

Here's just a brief historical reference: the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot who was known as "Brother Number One" in proletariat-speak, took over Cambodia after it faltered from instability between the Indochina and Vietnam wars in 1975. They had a strong following of young comrades who'd suffered during this time at the hands of the Vietnamese, US, British, French and monarchy, and they joined up in fatigues and black caps to glorify the country through Communism. Overnight, families and lives were broken and sent off to till the rice fields and support the newly-named Kampuchea and its Khmer Rouge totalitarianism. Or else...

Or else they'd end up in the Tuol Sleng prison where they were tortured brutally and utlimately executed grotesquely, with no regard for human life in the dead-dirt pits of The Killing Fields. Men, women, children and infants (yes babies -- who were sometimes thrown up in the air only to be shot dead by guards with rifles) were instantly shipped off to Tuol Sleng if suspected of being a threat the Khmer Rouge, or if merely related to someone who was. Cambodians were imprisoned for singing old, pre-Khmer Rouge songs and killed for maintaining relationships with non-approved comrades. Indeed, it was that random, terrifying, paranoid and senseless. The Khmer Rouge got so caught up in its own doctrine and paranoia that they beat...in every bloody sense of the word...false confessions and accusations out of people, perhaps if only to justify their own fears and cause.

Walking around Tuol Sleng, which was once a secondary school, you see the architecture of classrooms and the remnants of torture. A very bizarre irony. School rooms are filled with metal leg schackles and walled into human-sized cells with primitive brick and mortar, and the playground has various torment tools, such as a hanging platform, water drowning barrels and whipping posts next to horizontal bars. It's quiet and still, and an eerie sense of death and history hangs over it even though sunlight filters into the rooms and cells. Just when you're not sure if this could all be real, you enter a room containing hundreds upon hundreds of black and white photographs and come face to face with the victims. And I say victims, because they don't deserve the word 'inmate' -- none of them did anything wrong. A few might have not bought into the twisted politica dogma of the Khmer Rouge, but none committed a real crime, and many were innocently accused by others trying to save their own lives and end the recurring torture.

Looking at, gasping, looking away, and then looking back at these photos, many of which were laid out in side-by-side "before and after" epitaphs which left little to the imagination, was difficult. There are a lot of common adjectives I could use, but I'm sure most of you have visited somewhere like this...a place that kicks you in the gut and leaves you speechless with the question of "How did this ever happen?"

What kicked me in the gut and the brain harder, however, was something completely unexpected. Seeing the primitive contraptions at Tuol Sleng used for "water boarding", that gruesome technique that simulates a feeling of drowning for the victim and hence triggers some form of confession was eerily familiar. And then I realized why. The Khmer Rouge used and the United States is still using the same technique of torture and that stopped me sick in my sandals.

It just couldn't be...but it was. I remember the news before I left, and we've kept up a little while we've been away online and with foreign news periodicals. You don't forget a detailed explanation of not at all sporting term "waterboarding", nor shy away from thinking about the ramifications when your country and the word "torture" are used in the same breath. Even typing this now seems risky, as I'm sure I sound like some amnesty freak who doesn't love her country...but it's not that. I'm proud to be American and traveling does more than most things to raise one's level of patriotism and gratitude. Trust me. But when traveling, you encounter the unexpected -- in both feelings and experiences.

And at Tuol Sleng I did. I was chilled despite the searing heat to see graphic photos and the ugly tools of torture, up close and personal, from Cambodia's torrid past. Walking by the piles of unlabeled bones which serve monument and warning to a regime of paranoia, fear and unthinking doctrine, you want to believe that kind of disregard for human life doesn't go unnoticed and unlearned. Yet to know in some semblance, those same tools of torture alive today...entering into my own country's history...even when there is so much history to learn from and judge left me puzzled, disarmed, bereft. Less proud.

It's clear that no one, from any country, believes the reign of the Khmer Rouge and its practices were good or productive. Yet, seeing the remains of torture and knowing it's allowed by the Oval Office and happening to humans at Guantanamo Bay and possbly other places today under the auspices of national security, is confusing. Even if the motivation is different, I find a parity in technique and desire between the two governments -- one that's widely believed to be evil and the other which is my own -- and it doesn't settle well.

If we learn anything from history, it should be that there are boundaries between right and wrong that are impenetrable and inexcusable. Similar to freedom and democracy, which many Americans including its forefathers and current president, believe to be incontrovertible rights. So where does that leave waterboarding and torture? I'm uncertain, but my US passport feels perceptibly heavier after Tuol Sleng...a bit like my conscience.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Not So Innocent Children

We thought we'd seen it all in India, but Cambodia provided a whole new level of discomfort. Child sellers...and sellers of children...are everywhere. And nothing, neither the tiny bands of kids peddling photocopies of Lonely Planet books in Phnom Penh, nor the sweet faces hawking bracelets and bananas on the beaches of Sihanoukville, prepared us for our enounters among the temples of Angkor.

Siem Reap, the tourist-infested, scam-central city around Angkor Archaelogical Park, boasts more children selling during school hours than India and Thailand combined. And in the most bizarre, repelling, sad way. Every time we arrived at a new temple, a battery of kids, usually ranging from ages three to eight, pounced on us before we'd even climbed out of the tuk-tuk.

Sweet chocolate-almond eyes seared us, and tiny mouths uttered the same eerie phrases of English:

"Postcard, lay-dee? 10 for one dollah."
"Tee-shirt? Storybook? Please, suuhhrr. You want?"
"Cold drink? 2 for one-dollah. You buy from me, kay?"
~> read more


And, as we gently waded through them, chorusing, "No, thank you. No. No, thank you!" they whirled 'round and 'round like a twister of tykes trying more urgently to suck us in.

"I have what you want, lay-dee. Anything, you want, I have!"
"I remember you, 'kay? If you buy, you buy from me. 'Kay?"
"I remember you...."
"Where you from, mee-stuhr?"

Jesus. It is SO HARD to try and relay the feelings of strangeness, guilt, sadness, anger and questioning that scene presses on your heart and soul. You cannot imagine the creepy-sweet robotic voices uttering those phrases to you repeatedly. Time after time after temple again. It happens every time you set foot near a monument site, of which we visited over 20, and often as you step away from your guest house. No where is safe in Siem Reap, and there is no good solution on what to do -- either in the moment of the situation or how to remedy it.

Andy and I can't buy something from all of them, let alone every time, and we also question if that's even helpful since their own flesh and blood families are putting the trinkets in their hands, the weird snippets of salesy English in their heads. If the kids bring home even $2 per day, that may never incentive their parents to stop. But, Cambodia has suffered greatly and I can't imagine what many of the families do on a daily basis to survive, so am I, as privileged white Westerner allowed to judge? I don't know.

What I also don't know, but can extrapolate from the disturbing billboards and magazine ads all around Cambodia, is that this explicit selling to foreigners by children leads to deeper, darker things. Child sex and sex tourism. And, after hearing the phrases of, "Anything you want, I have..." and "You buy from me, 'kay? I remember you...", and seeing them delivered with learned manipulation and cuteness that beguiles us from the West, it's easy to see how this might come next as they come of age. If you think about it, when a child knows how to smile at you grandly, instantly illuminating his or her darling, brown-skinned face with white teeth clamped tightly in a magnetic smile, point to your camera and hustle for "one dollah, mister", I feel they've learned lessons more powerful than anything they're missing by not attending school.

Cambodia has one of the worst child-sex trafficking and prostitution problems in the world, and while international organizations are increasing legal action against offenders and purveyors, it's hard to break a lucrative cycle of income. Especially for the families who benefit. The warning is clearly out and about to those of us who arrive in Cambodia, with an ominous photo of an adult and child in a sexy silohuette with stark letters reading "Break the law here and be prosecuted in your home country" at the airport, on billboards and in tourist magazines. To us, it all felt like an awareness-scare campaign and while that's a start, it doesn't save the lives of the once-innocent. What's being done to diffuse the gain from the supply side of these human economics? The government is madly building more and more infrastructure to accommodate tourists and lure our dollars, but nothing to mandate schooling or assistance for children of Siem Reap.

So, as you trek to temples, you have this unpleasant image of children as sex workers in your head, and you're greeted by a bevy of smiling faces eager to sell you up and please you. Ugh. It's so confusing and confounding -- I want to help them all, yet I'm not sure how, and selfishly, this is my trip of a lifetime, so it's a bit of a bummer being accosted and brought down every time you're walking somewhere. Sigh...very selfish, but I'm being honest.

Andy and I cope with this on a case-by-case basis, and while we never just gave out money (after all, there were a plethora of landmine victims to see and consider for that), we did try to buy basic things like postcards and water from them. When possible, we also tried to talk to and compliment them, but we couldn't often get involved in answering the questions of "What your name? Where you from?" as it almost felt too intimate. We and the children knew it wasn't a genuine exchange and segueway to friendship, it was business pure and simple. And that was, perhaps, the hardest part of all.

Photos from Angkor

I spent some time enhancing Tiffany's "typical day" post below with photos, so you may want to see that first. There are some other interesting photos from Angkor here, though, so please don't miss them, I have added comments to nearly all of them!


Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Typical Day of Tomb-Raiding in Angkor (with many photos!)

(note you can click on any photo for a larger view)

We just finished a week in Siem Reap, Cambodia and are the most mentally and physically exhausted since starting our Extravagasia. The temples of Angkor are amazing, inspiring, mysterious and frankly, tiring. I'm saddened they're just now emerging as a wonder of the world and must-see for ancient civilization buffs because the myriad, magnificent temples, breathtaking sculpture, unique cultural traditions and jungle setting of Angkor is absolutely on par with the Pyramids and the Parthenon.

However, I don't want to impart a history lesson on god-king civilizations that sprang from Hindu-Buddhist traditions on the blog. Instead, I thought I'd give you a glimpse of a typical day for us.

We didn't know much about the ancient Khmer civlization or Angkorian temples going in, and learned a ton on our independent tour with two guidebooks and private driver/kind-of guide. Andy and I were truly stunned by how steep the temples are -- each layout is like a five-tier wedding cake of stone with giant, slippery steps for scaling to each level. But the views from the top which include jungle, lakes, rice fields, monasteries, monks and villages are fabulous and unique to the world. And, despite the maddening crowds, there is nothing like scaling temples of rock and stumbling into a quiet alcove filled with nothing but Buddhas, the scent of incense and meditative energy.

Here's how we spent our days:

7:32am -- Wake up and will legs to move. Wonder if somehow, magically, the rules of society have changed and we can just go naked since it's so damn hot and there's nothing in our backpack cool enough to wear. Sigh. Slather selves with sunscreen.~> read more (with more photos)


8:00am -- Meet our driver/guide Heang and get in his tuk-tuk, which is a motorcycle pulling an enclosed backseat on trailer wheels. Zoom off to Angkor Archaelogical Park.

8:33am -- Fight through horrific group-tour crowds filing off buses and try not to end up in some Japanese tourist's photo.* Sigh...impossible. Head away from the crowds with our two guidebooks and start learning about bas reliefs and sculptures endemic to that particular period and temple.

* These big groups, which rivaled only what I've seen around the Mona Lisa in The Louvre, brought out a very impatient side of me which resulted in a breakdown to Andy including a "This is NOT how you take pictures!" bellow because there were SO MANY tourist sheep blocking the path, holding their digital cameras one foot away from their face and trying to take a landscape shot using the screen on the back. Aaaarrggghh! *

8:56am -- Have fun noting specific sculptural relief or recognizing recurring theme of Siva, Vishnu, elephant mounts and celesital Apsara nymphs, and any differences from previous temple or prior century. (we are geeks at heart, after all!)

9:27am-- Stop for small break and eat Quaker Oatmeal Breakfast bar. (I'd never seen these in the States, but we found them for $3.40 in a mini mart and were psyched for breakfast-on-the-go!)

10:14am -- Finish temple. Get accosted by children and women selling postcards, cold drinks, fruit, t-shirts, temple rubbings, bracelets and more. Fight off and buy from first water seller, since there's an etiquette and someone will be pissed if you buy from the person who didn't first yell, "Cold drink, sir?" at you from 50 feet away. (Not kidding!) Pay 400% more for bottled water than we paid in Phnom Penh -- and that's after we bargained!

10:41am -- Visit next temple, which is thankfully off the less-touristed track. (Or at least out of their strictly-scheduled order!) Climb up five levels of stairs, carefully using hands to cling on rock during last part of ascent. My palms and all of me are sweating as it's approximately 900 degrees in the shadeless sun, and Andy looks ready for a wet t-shirt contest in the heat. (that sounds weird -- what I mean is that his shirt is totally soaked through!)

11:01am -- Marvel at view from top. Enjoy various temple colors. Red-brown-gold-gray slabs of rock, laterite, stucco and brick, many of which have a growing tapestry of misty green lichen or velvety emerald and egg-white moss over their rough texture.

11:51am -- Visit third temple, which has less decoration and climbing, but awesome jungle landscape. Essentially, it's 'manmade vs. nature' here and we're climbing over wild fig trees which are choking a temple entryway and walking through leafy vines amongst ruin and rubble. VERY COOL! Take many photos and hope one turns out in the high sun and shadow environment.

12:54pm -- Beg Heang not to take us to another Khmer roadside stand for lunch and more overpriced ramen noodles. Opt for Blue Pumpkin Cafe with its Western-selection of pasta, salad and sandwiches and gift-shop setting. (yes, Blue Pumpkin had something for us all -- Andy could be air-conditioned and eat meat-sauced spaghetti and I could shop, all in non-brain-taxing situation!)

1:53pm -- Go out to "parking lot", which is a sandy sea of tuk-tuks, buses and child sellers, and ward off more armies of cuteness hawking postcards, t-shirts and bracelets. Sigh...

1:57pm -- Enjoy quiet, breezy ride in the tuk-tuk on temple-filled jungle road. See monks and monkeys. Excellent!

2:06pm -- Embark on another temple adventure of steep climbing and beautiful bas-relief sculptures. Feel triumphant that we're schooled in "the churning of the ocean of milk" myth and recognize various elements on the causeway and pediments. Also happy that we visited India first as the ancient Khmer civilizations were greatly influenced by Hinduism and India, and we're noticing some trends.

2:42pm -- Wonder how Angelina Jolie EVER filmed "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" in the exact same place where I now am without looking like she'd just rolled in a slick of oil and sweat and sucked a lot of wind. Damn, is it hot!

3:26pm -- Alight from tuk-tuk at next jungle temple. Take break in shade, hide from sellers and read about its history before hiking 2 km down the leafy, viney path and crossing serpent-covered causeway.

3:51pm -- Enter top-level tower and find Buddhist shrine awash in candlelight and golden statue glow. Colorful prayer flags zig-zag across the stone ceiling and sweet-smiling, shaved-head monk points us to the incense sticks and donation box. We take off our shoes and hats, kneel down with feet behind us and bow heads three times in meditation, then light incense sticks and plant them in ancient, sand-filled urns. Monk smiles approvingly and bows, and we press our palms together in symbol of thanks and bow.

4:36pm -- Buy sweet, fresh pineapple from Khmer lady in sarong...the first one who asked us, of course...for blood sugar surge and eat from plastic bag with giant tooth picks in the back of the tuk-tuk.

5:02pm -- Heang drops us off at one of the four best Angkorian temples for watching the sun set. Unfortunately, other drivers and tour operators also drop their hordes and it's a mass of humanity scaling another root and rock covered hill.

5:04pm -- Spray deet on skin with ferocity. Buy one more overpriced bottle of water and give legs a pep talk. Start the climb.

5:43pm -- See searing pink orb settle into the lavender-gray sky atop a temple with tourists and monks...their colorful robes nearly upstaging the sunset...and watch as the towers and shadows of an empire fade to black.

Amok Time*: Khmer Cuisine for the High Maintenance

Besides almighty rice, we weren't sure what would be on the menus in Cambodia. And when we first walked the streets of Phnom Penh and saw giant, deep-fried cockroach-cricket-bug things, stuffed frogs and small, freshwater mollusks that people snack on like smelly-fish candy, I was extremely frightened. Frogs mean one thing to me and it's Kermit, not dinner. But, we got brave and entered our first Khmer restaurant as culinary adventures are definitely part of this trip.

Andy by far and away has an easier time eating off a menu than I do. And that's in the States, not just here! Okay, fine -- some might call it high maintenance but I work in marketing, so I like the word "selective". Regardless, being mostly vegetarian, save for a deep love of sushi and wild salmon (the Oregon girl in me), I can leave all four-legged, cute-faced animals for tofu. However, there hasn't been a soybean in sight in Cambodia, and once the arthropods and amphibians entered the menu, it got really interesting.

So, why not fresh-water fish, you say? After all, Cambodia is on the Mekong and that's a mighty river. Two words: giant catfish...which scared the hell out of both Andy and I. In the ubiquitous markets that proudly sell anything on land and water in the open air and sunlight, we've seen some of the Mekong catfish featured on menus and they are whiskered giants that measure over 4 feet in length!!! Their glazed sludge eyes still look mean lying there and, besides the fact they're bigger than a small child, you just know the catfish scavenged the bottom of that brown river for anything -- from mercury to mini vans~> read more

 -- to make a good meal. Neither Andy nor I, who aren't big on fresh-water fish even when it comes out of a Coors crystal-clear stream, can make the mental jump here to block out that image so, for us, fish is "off the menu".

Luckily, two dishes saved me time and town again: Squid Salad and Amok. I honestly never imagined I'd be eating so much squid in a non-calamari form, but this Khmer salad created with sliced cabbage, chopped lemongrass, fresh mint and basil, scallions and grilled squid, all spiced with a dressing of lime juice, chili, palm sugar, prahoc (Khmer fish sauce--salty!), garlic and black Kampot pepper is outrageous! So fresh and zesty, crunchy and spicy, sweet and salty -- and totally bug free!!! Defintely unlike any other salads, even Thai versions that include green mango and green papaya, and something that I'll be perfecting upon my return so we can enjoy in the US.

And, to be fair, I want to explain the legacy of exotic, desperate eating in Cambodia. Frogs, bugs and other bizarre things here are neither delicacies nor tribal foods eaten for magical, virile powers -- these foods are simply the legacy of vicious famines and even more vicious government reigns. The Khmers have suffered greatly, mostly at the hands of their own unstable, ever-changing governments, and these constant battles for power and control resulted in burnt rice fields, severe famine, isolation from the outside world and aid groups, and a drastic measures for finding nourishment and survival. Thus, bugs, frogs, fish skin, tiny river creatures and other suspicious mammals became edible options and make the Cambodian menus, even today.

Most other Khmer dishes are a gentler version of Thai food, albeit to those of us who like spice a less flavorful one, but Amok is a concoction all its own. In many ways, Amok is a sauce not far from the Pina Colada base of exquisite coconut creme, but takes the Colada to a deeper, non-cocktail side with the inclusion of a vivid spice paste with echoes of lemon grass, ginger, chili and kaffir limes. Oh my gosh!!! Amok is the most delicate, delicious coconut creme curry in the world, and when paired with vegetables and steamed coconut rice, you have something so rich and delicious that it doesn't matter what else is on the menu...because you're having Amok, again, for like the third night.

For me, the signature notes of Khmer cuisine are lemongrass, kaffir lime and black Kampot pepper. Cambodians use lemongrass more subtly than Thais, and from what I can taste (and learn from puzzled waiters that I ask in a mix of Khmer and English with the help of the Southeast Asian Phrase Book), they often saute it and blend with ginger, garlic, onion and chili to mellow its flavor and texture. This unique fusion of spices is their "masala", and it's then mixed with kaffir lime -- which is the most limey, abmrosial version of lime ever; it tastes like key lime pie and lime jell-o powder smell, all in one bite -- for balanced, savory-yet-sweet citrus notes. To add bounce and zing to anything from cabbage to coconut milk, Khmer cooks sprinkle in freshly-cracked black pepper, sometimes even whole peppercorns, straight from the Kampot province. When mingled together in what could be a just simple dish of vegetables or salad, this citrus-with-a-kick taste makes for flavor and food that even the most high maintenance eater can savor with delight!

*: For any Trekkies on our blog, the title of this post is an homage to one of my favorite episodes, "Amok Time". My dear friend Matt "educated" (though looking back now, I'm not sure that is the right verb for the job) me on Star Trek in high school by screening key episodes. I couldn't resist the play on words for this post. Who knew I could fuse cult scifi and cuisine...Aren't you proud, Matt?