Local Craftsmanship in Siem Reap

It’s amazing how you can find opportunities to learn about the local culture for free; you can simply visit the restaurants shops and talk to the locals, take advantage of the free guided walking tours, or if you have the time, live in that city for a month or longer 🙂

Because I spend most of my days in the CCDO office or in the field, I haven’t taken advantage of all that Siem Reap has to offer, and I only have a few weeks left! My time here in this wonderful city is coming to an end soon, and I want to start doing more than dining at as many places as possible 😛 I came across Artisans Angkor, a company that provides vocational training to rural people in the form of craftsmanship and promotes fair trade and development in Cambodia. When I visited this place, I was able to see some of the craftspeople hard at work etching beautiful sculptures using wood and different stones!

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Steps to carving a wooden sculpture
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Craftspeople hard at work carving stone!
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Paying close attention so they don’t miss any special details
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Polishing the stone in water to make it smooth and develop a shine
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Some examples of completed work
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5 Traditional Khmer Dishes to Try in Cambodia

Before I arrived in Cambodia, I had no idea what kind of food I would be looking forward to. I knew from looking at maps that Cambodia bordered Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, but wondered what kinds of influence surrounding countries and immigrants had on the country’s cuisine. It turns out that Khmer food uses a variety of spices and herbs that make dishes light up your taste buds!

Here are five traditional Khmer dishes that you should try when you’re in Cambodia:

  1. Amok is a very popular dish in Cambodia where a protein (usually fish) is stewed in a coconut-based curry along with some vegetables.
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  2. Prahok is fermented fish paste that is a huge staple in Cambodia. For many people, prahok is the protein in meals because when other fresh proteins are not in abundant supply, this paste could be created and preserved for a long time. I hear it’s not a palatable flavor for Westerners, but I’m determined to try it once before I leave 🙂
  3. Num mi jup (forgive me for my poor Romanization!) also known as Khmer noodle soup, is typically a noodle soup with fish and a bunch of other ingredients concocted together to make a delicious soup. My boss took us to this local restaurant in the village to try the authentic soup!
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  4. Any dish with Kampot pepper! This pepper is grown and produced in the Kampot province. This pepper is grown on a little stalk and looks kind of like the musical instrument of a bunch of bells on a stick
  5. Street food is kind of a big category, but I couldn’t just pick one. There is a large variety of street foods that are sold, such as noodle or rice dishes, preserved fruit, boiled peanuts, insects, skewers, and more!

Adventures in Asia: Water Festival in Cambodia

Happy November, everyone! While Western cultures celebrated Halloween last week, people all over Cambodia traveled to Phnom Penh for Bom Om Touk, also known as the Water Festival. This is a national holiday celebrated across Cambodia to commemorate the end of the rainy season (which fun fact: causes the Tonle Sap river to flow in the opposite direction!)

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I absolutely loved the floating lights! My friend told me that each of these boats’ lights resembled the Ministries in Cambodia

This was my very first time living in SE Asia, and luckily I was placed to work in Cambodia, so I knew I had to be present to witness this ginormous gathering in Phnom Penh*, which easily has a few million attendees over the course of three days! Cambodians from different provinces all travel into Phnom Penh to witness the boat races.

I decided to attend the Water Festival festivities on Saturday in Phnom Penh, and I’m glad I did because that’s one of the best days to go (the first and third days, according to what my friend told me). As you can see from the photos below, so many crowded both sides of the waterfront of the river to watch the boat races. These boats can have up to 100 rowers which is INSANE–just imagine how long these boats must be to be able to support that many men!

If you’re going to visit Cambodia in the fall, attending the Water Festival should be one of the top things to do if you want to experience an event the locals so proudly celebrate! Bear in mind that the festival dates change every year, so check before you book your tickets!!

 

Adventures in Asia: Battambang

This past weekend, we ventured out of Siem Reap for the first time to visit Battambang! It wasn’t what I expected at all, although I think my expectations were a bit high… I was expecting this super large city with tons of people, but it was wayyyy less busy than Siem Reap, and a lot quieter as well! Unlike SR, where we stayed was barren with the exception of a few hotels and some bar restaurants that only opened in the evening (that made looking for food so difficult without transportation!)

Here are some photos to highlight the weekend 😀 Hope you enjoy! Thailand is next….stay tuned 😉

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The endless stairs up to Wat Banan
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We were halfway there and dying because of how steep these stairs were!
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Finally made it!! This is a rear view of the ruins
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We followed these three kids as our tour guides and trekked down a steep mountain to enter this cave with really cool calcium formations
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This is in inside one of the killing caves in Cambodia
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We caught the bats leaving their cave in the evening–I wish I could share a video!

7 Tips to Prepare for Southeast Asia

It’s been about a week since I’ve arrived in Siem Reap and I must say my body seems to be accepting this humid, hot climate in October. In NYC, I could probably enjoy the cool autumn breeze, but here…nope!

My friend gave me the scoop about living in Siem Reap, but you can’t really know what you’re getting yourself into until you’re actually here. With that said, I’d like to share some of my tips on how you could prepare yourself for living in Siem Reap.

  1. Learn to ride a bike.
    You’d be surprised to find out how many people don’t know or were never taught how to ride a bike during their childhood. Here, it’s one of the most common methods of transportation after tuk tuk or motorbike.
  2. Practice riding a bike in a real street, not in your backyard.
    Trust me, this one is one of the most helpful tips I can give you. I learned how to ride a bike when I was a kid, but I only practiced in my driveway and at the park, both of which were car and traffic-free! This week, my office’s tuk tuk driver let me and the two other volunteers fly from the nest and we were on our own riding our own bicycles. AND LET ME TELL YOU, it’s not easy when maybe 80% of the streets are unpaved and/or do not have traffic lights or signs. You’ll be dodging traffic left and right, in front of and in back of you. If you’re a noob like me, you have to signal with your left arm out when you want to make a left and risk getting it whacked if you stop too close to a tuk tuk or a zooming motorbike.11918__870x_148
  3. If you’re feeling lavish, hail a “trusty” tuk tuk.
    Tuk tuks are one of the most common ways tourists get around in Siem Reap, and probably in other parts of Southeast Asia. A little seated carriage is attached to motorbike and will be your “taxi” while you’re in Siem Reap. For a modest $1-3 USD, you can get around most of the city without issue. Make sure you negotiate the price with the driver BEFORE you get in, or haha good luck 😐
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  4. Book someplace to stay for the first week or two, and book another place for the long term later.
    If it’s your first time living in Siem Reap like me, it would be prudent to book a short-term stay when you first arrive. You won’t really know what you’ll be close to, so if you decide you like a particular neighborhood, you can easily find a cheap apartment for under $200 USD a month pretty much anywhere you want. There’s an “Expats and locals living in Siem Reap, Cambodia” Facebook group that advertises apartments for rent/sale and also many other helpful items that you may be interested in!
  5. Bring DEET insect repellent.
    If you know me, you know that I’m literally a mosquito magnet no matter where I am in the world. Name a place, and there will be at least one mosquito that’s lurking near me…When I was in Mexico this summer, I had brought and bought insect repellent but I still got bitten quite a bit. Turns out you need DEET percentages of at least 10-15%, and even that might not be strong enough depending on how evil the mosquito is. I ended up purchasing 8 bottles of 40% DEET repellent spray and lotion (yes, overkill but really I’m trying to avoid getting any mosquito-borne viruses). So far, I’ve been using the spray every morning before I leave my home and it’s been pretty reliable. I did apply lotion to my feet after I wash them in the afternoon (we experienced quite a bit of flooding from the rain so there’s some stagnant water outside the office) but it didn’t seem to work as effectively as I’d hoped repellent lotion would. :/
  6. Bring cheap quick-drying sandals.
    Echoing what I mentioned above about the flooding…I brought a pair of leather flip flops that tend to absorb water, and I didn’t want it to be contaminated with stagnant water that potentially can carry parasitic worms, so I was lucky to find sandals for only $1.50 here. But hey, Old Navy sells $1 flip-flops, so invest in that in the US or wherever you can find a cheap water-repelling shoe that is easy to wash!

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    Just to put things into perspective, this is supposed to be a rice field but was flooded due to the heavy rains two days in a row!

     

  7. TRY the local food! (But bring travel medicine, just in case)
    If you’re going to a new place for the first time, you need to try the food, at least once! It’s almost guaranteed that your home city won’t have authentic cuisine the way they have it in the country in which you’re traveling. If you want to err on the cautious side, go to an actual restaurant where they serve the local cuisine, and if you’re feeling brave, try the street food in the stands lining the streets. Use your judgment when you try these foods–if it’s meat, you want to see that it’s either refrigerated and cooked in front of you, or that your food is very hot when it’s served to you. If you have a sensitive stomach, you can bring any of the following items with you: Pepto Bismol (helps with upset stomach), activated charcoal (apparently it clings to the toxins in your body and helps you expel it), Imodium (anti-diarrheal), psyllium husk (to stay regular when you go #2)

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    Some delicious homemade Khmer cuisine 🙂

These tips can definitely apply to nearly every country in SE Asia 🙂 Please remember to buy your medicine where you’re from before you go traveling, JUST in case it’s difficult to find! Hope you enjoyed reading and please let me know in the comments if these are the kinds of posts you’d like to read!

 

Living Like a Local: The Importance of Family

8 weeks have flown by here in Agua Caliente Nueva. It’s been an incredible experience living with such a wonderful family. They’ve welcomed me with open arms and took care of me through thick and thin, especially when I had food poisoning twice during my time here lol… Extrañaré a mi familia Mexicana 😥 Mexicanos son muy buenas personas y me encanta la gente en Agua Caliente mucho. ¡Conocerlos antes de hacer juicios! (I will miss my Mexican family. Mexicans are really good people and I love the people in Agua Caliente. Get to know them before you make any judgments!)

I learned that Mexicans are very family-oriented and everyone knows each other in a small pueblo like Agua Caliente Nueva (less than 1,000 inhabitants).  The families here are large and from my understanding, there are generations of families that remain in this little town.

I was talking with my host father the other day and he brought up the fact that there are some people who have grown up in their town or in other cities in Mexico, only to leave to the United States. He mentioned that this was understandable, but it was sad to find how some family members wouldn’t want to return to “su casa“, or their home in Mexico. These individuals would leave Mexico in order to pursue the “American Dream”, as I tried to rationalize with him. He acknowledged that and said that it made sense, but that it was disappointing when these people didn’t return home, and seemed to forget their families here. It was disheartening to hear, especially coming from the US and understanding why people would want to try to pursue prosperity in the States. He mentioned that some men who had moved to the US continued to send money home to their wives and children who are here, meanwhile having another family in the US.

My host family is extremely close. My host father runs a carpentry business from his shed and hires his own family members to work for him, keeping things in the family. When I’m invited to family gatherings, there are toooons of people who show up, all of whom are family. I admire the close-knit ties they have to each other :’)

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Mi familia Mexicana ❤ 

Living Like a Local: The Not-So Itsy Bitsy Spider…

If you’re living anywhere outside of an industrialized, large city, you’re bound to find insects and other bugs that you haven’t encountered before. This is the story of my experience with a spider the size of my HAND.

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Not drawn to scale 😛

This spider seemed to live in my bathroom, and every so often I would see its shadow scurry away into hiding when I’d enter the bathroom. We shared a space together, and I left it alone for my 6+ weeks here since I figured it’s a mutually beneficial relationship: I leave it alone, and it will eat the insects in the bathroom…

UNTIL one day, I was taking a shower in the middle of the day because, you know, 90-degree weather, and I saw the shadow of this spider with what looked like a Mentos disc under its belly. Normally, this spider scurries away super quickly, but this time it was moving ever so slowly… I had a feeling it was carrying an egg sac or something out of the ordinary. I even considered the possibility that this spider had cancer and this was its tumor. So I rush to shower before this disc possibly bursts into a million baby spiders and quickly dress and leave the bathroom…

Later that evening, I go to take my second shower because you can literally sit in front of a fan and still perspire. So I’m in the shower, drawing the shower curtains to prevent water splashing, and I see this big spider again, no longer carrying that disc, and it’s walking really quickly. I’m thinking, Oh, -expletive-. I’m still wearing my contacts and I see these tiny little white things moving along the brown plastic curtains and again I curse to myself and start to panic. THERE WERE SO MANY BABY SPIDERS EVERYWHERE. So I’m panicking and splashing water onto the curtains to try to get rid of some (and before animal and bug supporters say I’m being cruel, spiders can lay between 50-200 eggs so relax, there’s no way I was going to get all of them anyway).

 

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Feeling unsuccessful and completely uncomfortable in my own skin, I quickly shut off the shower, shake off my towel and clothes and get dressed and bring in my trusty Raid spray and start spraying the shower curtains and floors like I’m trying to put out a forest fire. I found Mama Spider and we dueled for quite a bit but I eventually cornered her and I won the fight.