Sweetness in Siem Reap

I was looking through the cupboard today to find something to satisfy my sugar craving and found something I had bought on my recent visit to Siem Reap.
In the villages outside Siem Reap I would often see by the road side large pots steaming away and on closer inspection I discovered that they were making palm sugar or skaa t’nout,” ស្ករ ត្នោត in Khmer. (hat tip to Ethan Crowley)

Stirring the Sugar Syrup

Stirring the Sugar Syrup

Palm Sugar is unrefined and has a low Glycemic Index (it’s also full of B vitamins) so much healthier than white sugar so I feel justified in consuming it in large quantities.

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Needless to say I bought a couple of packets and started crunching away on the way back to the hotel in the tuk- tuk.
Surprisingly a packet has remained but not for long!

The finished product

The finished product

The best food in Siem Reap is found at the heavenly Haven.

Food being the main motivating force that gets the boss and I out of bed in the morning, we always search for great places to eat when we travel.

After a couple of false starts in Siem Reap, we were fortunate to discover the Haven.

Haven is a training restaurant for young adult orphans (orphans, half orphans and abandoned children) started by Swiss couple Sara & Paul Wallimann.
Haven gives these orphans a vocational training in hospitality or as a cook, teaches them life skills and supports them in their transition from institution to real world.
The food is superb and the restaurant so popular that you must book in advance for dinner and sometimes for lunch as well.

We phoned up and managed to get a table for lunch as long as we arrived within 15 mins ( when good food is on offer we can be anywhere in 15 mins!).

Haven is a small place a short walk from the famous ( some say infamous) Pub Street.
We were greeted on arrival by a young girl with a welcoming smile and guided to our table outside in a small garden area lined with banana plants and shaded by a sail awning.
After making our choices from the menu there then followed one of the best meals we have enjoyed in a very long time. In fact so good that we immediately booked a table for the following days lunch ( dinner already being fully booked).

On day 2 I remembered to carry my camera to photograph the food.

For a starter we ordered the delicious green mango salad, but so excited were we to eat it that I forgot to take a photo before it was finished!

Remains of the Green Mango Salad

Next I ordered the pan-fried fish with green mango salad ( now you can see it) on a bed of fried potatoes and home-made mayo.

Pan Fried Fish

The Boss had a Khmer Chicken Curry.

Khmer Chicken Curry

For dessert we had the divine yellow bean dumplings in hot coconut milk with ginger.
It takes a little time to prepare but the wait is worth it!

Rice Dumplings

Then to finish I decided to try the fruit infused rice wine from a local company called Sombai
Sombai was started by a lady from Mauritius who infuses locally sourced fruits and spices into the rice wine.

Sombai Rice Wine

I am not normally a fan of rice wine but sometimes on holiday one tends to live dangerously. This one was however very very nice. I chose the cinnamon and banana flavor and really enjoyed it.
The other available flavours are Anise-Coffee, Coconut-Pineapple, Galangal – Tamarind, Ginger – Red Chili, Green Tea – Orange, Lemon – Lemongrass, Mango – Green Chili.
The rice wine comes in beautifully hand painted bottles and would make great souvenir gifts (Obviously once you have drunk the wine inside!)

Rather than knock it back in one, it was very nice to sip slowly and ensured that I would be in a very good mood for the afternoon’s sight seeing.

10 Tips for a visit to Angkor Wat

I had posted earlier here about my journey to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is spectacular and should be on everyone’s bucket list. The sheer scale of the place and the fact that it was built so long ago without the technology that we have today is hard to comprehend. Words alone would not do justice to the place so instead of trying to describe everything, and invariably doing an inadequate job, I have set out below some tips to make your own visit a bit easier.

Siem Reap is a nice little town, although packed to the rafters with tourists (half the population of China was there as it was Chinese New Year) when I visited. There is plenty of accommodation to choose from and enough to suit all budgets.

I stayed at the Wooden Angkor Hotel which was very reasonable, very friendly staff and an easy walk into the town centre.

There are some good eating options as well, the favourite of which I will be posting about in a separate entry.

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So here are my tips for a visit to Angkor Wat which should make your visit a lot smoother.

1)      Buy a 3 day pass. You cannot hope to see everything in 1 day and there will be some places that you will be tempted to revisit at different times of the day. If you buy your pass after 4.30pm you can use it that evening but it wont be activated til the following day so you get an extra evening.

2)      The sunrise is overrated! If you want to fight for space with 1,000’s of amateur photographers all jostling to get a photo of the sun rising over Angkor then be my guest.Image

However it is much better in my opinion to visit one of the other temples without the crowds and see the colours of the stones change as the sun rises. The same with the sunset. To me it doesn’t make sense to be in the temple looking at the sun when instead you can be watching the temple transform in different light._MG_7471

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3)      Start as early as possible. You will avoid much of the heat and also the crowds and by midday you will have covered a lot of ground. The temples in the early morning are spectacular.

Dawn at Angkor

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4)      Even if you can afford an air-conditioned car to take you around, take a tuk-tuk instead. You will feel much more connected with your surroundings and will see so much more as you travel between each site.

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5)      We made the mistake of booking a tuk-tuk through the hotel on the first day and we ended up with driver who was average at best. Take the time to wander around town and speak to a couple of drivers until you find one you like. You will be spending a lot of time with him so it makes sense to pick one you can have a good relationship with. Most speak very good English and will supply you with chilled bottles of water from the cool-box on the front of the Tuk-Tuk. We found a great driver for the next few days and were sad to say goodbye to him on the last day.

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6)      Tell your driver what you plan to see for the day and negotiate a price in advance as some of the places such as Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean are quite far and you will need to pay extra.  The going rate when we visited was USD$15 per day with surcharges for the sunrise and outlying temples.

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7)      Make sure you negotiate for a return to town for lunch and a break before heading back to Angkor later in the afternoon. If not you will be charged the full days rate and then again be charged for the afternoon. By midday it is very hot and a couple of hours rest in your air-conditioned hotel room will be very welcome before heading back in the cooler late afternoon.

8)      Bring USD$ in small notes. Although the official currency is the Cambodian Riel, all transactions are done in USD$. Change of fractions of a dollar is given in Riels at the rate of 4000 to the dollar.

9)      The going rate for anywhere in the town centre is $1. Some guys will ask for more so be persistent as they usually agree with a smile after a couple of attempts.

10)   Wear sensible foot wear. While it is possible to walk everywhere in flip-flops ( I did) some of the stairways up the temples are prohibitively steep and you will be grateful for something sturdy on your feet

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Adventures on a Visa Run in Thailand!

I am writing this post out of sequence as I didn’t get the time to blog about it when I was travelling. I am a bit of a lazy blogger and get carried away enjoying my surroundings instead of blogging about it.
Now woefully behind in my posts and with a bit of spare time on my hands I am hoping to catch up.
Before leaving Thailand last month the Boss and I were faced with the dilemma of soon to be expiring visas. We could have gone to the immigration department and requested a 1 month extension. This would have been a pretty straightforward exercise involving a couple of hours and a fee of THB2000 each.
However as we had a double entry visa and always wanting to visit new places we thought we would follow in the footsteps of countless other expats in Thailand and do the “Visa Run”.
This involves crossing the border into a neighbouring country, in this case Cambodia and then reentering Thailand with another 2 month stamp on the passport.
Some people do all this in a day and as soon as they have set foot in Cambodia immediately turn around and re-enter Thailand.
To us though it seemed like a long way to go for a day and as the border crossing of choice, Poipet is close to Siem Reap, home of the world heritage site of Angkor Wat, a long time resident on my bucket list, we decided to make a proper trip of it and spend a few days exploring the ruins of Angkor.
The next decision was how to get there. Flying was immediately crossed off the list as at THB12000 each it was not an inexpensive option.
A quick search on Google threw up horror story after horror story about traveling to Cambodia by land and crossing through Poipet. The reports made Poipet sound like a rough and dangerous wild west town from the cowboy films of old.
Fearing for our lives, or at the least the contents of our wallets, we decided to approach a travel agent and find an organized tour. This also didn’t seem easy as it involved switching from private taxi, to minibus, to hot air balloon, then a 3 day trek by camel (just joking) and it also wasn’t cheap. Our research had shown that the cost of a Visa to Cambodia was only US$20 but the travel agent was quoting an amount equivalent to 3 times that amount.
Telling her we would think about it we wandered the streets in a confused daze before coming to the conclusion that we would give it a try on our own. How bad could it be after all? We like to consider ourselves seasoned travelers, and we have watched every episode of Scam City. What is the worse that can happen?
So the next morning we caught the 6.15am government bus from Ekkamai Bus stand for the princely sum of THB240 each (including a bottle of water! Bargain!) and enjoyed a very pleasant 5 hour journey through the Thai countryside to Poipet accompanied by mainly Thais and Cambodians but also a scattering of foreigners.
After a few stops at various country towns and also at an Army checkpoint where the very polite Military Policeman hauled off two Thais from the bus, we finally arrived in the border town of Aranyaprathet on the Thai side of the border. The bus pulled up outside a white building covered in signs saying “Cambodia Visa”. Being forewarned by the numerous scam reports on Tripadvisor we knew not to pay attention to these signs or the couple of touts half- heartedly beckoning us into the building. Come on guys, if you want to scam an innocent young tourist like me you are going to have to try harder than that!
Retrieving our bags from the luggage bay under the bus we headed off towards the Thai border post a couple of hundred metres away. This bit we knew to be straightforward, after all, the journey to the “dark side” would start once we had crossed into Cambodia (or so the internet reports would have us believe).
Receiving our exit stamp from the Thai authorities we nervously took our first steps into the no-man’s land between Thailand and Cambodia.
“Please cross the road and apply for your visa on the right hand side” we were told by a smiling friendly looking man standing outside.
We followed his directions and sure enough after about 50 metres we found the Cambodian Visa office. A number of foreign back packers were already there filling out forms and after completing ours we presented them to the Cambodian border official together with the required US$20 each. Pointing to a handwritten sign taped to the counter he told me I have to pay an extra THB100 each. Sensing that things would not go smoothly if I didn’t comply I handed over THB200 and he told me to wait a couple of minutes.
I told the Boss what had happened and we started to have a doubt as to whether anyone else was having to pay the “tea money”. It wasn’t the amount, just that we hate the idea of being the only ones to be conned. If everyone has been conned it is much more acceptable!
I asked a fellow traveler from Belgium if he had to pay and he said he had also paid. However he was a much more charitable soul then me and said “it doesn’t matter, these guys aren’t paid much. They need to supplement their income” (Note to self: must work on my Mother Teresa qualities).
Within 5 minutes our names were being called and we were handed back our passports with the Cambodia visa taking up a full page in our passports.
As we left the office the same helpful man was outside smiling and guiding us to the next office where we would get our visa stamped with the entry stamp. Feeling suspicious of anyone being helpful to me and on a heightened state of alert after reading the internet horror stories, I took a closer look at the man and noticed he was wearing a shirt with the logo of a tour bus company on the left breast. Ahhh, I thought to myself! His true colours will soon be revealed I am sure!
Joining a line of people at the immigration counter we waited for about 15 minutes as the two open counters seemed to take an interminable amount of time to stamp each visa. I also noticed some money being passed over to the immigration officials by some of the travelers. This seemed to reduce the time taken to stamp the visa significantly. Suddenly a senior looking officer entered the room and opened up a 3rd counter. The pace of the other two officers suddenly accelerated, visas were being stamped at a rapid speed and the requirement for additional cash to oil the wheels seemed no longer to be necessary!
Within a couple of minutes, visas duly stamped, we left the building to be greeted by our friendly guide who proceeded to lead us to the “official free shuttle bus” which would take us to the main bus stand from where we could catch a bus for the 3 hour journey to Siem Reap.
Forewarned is forearmed as they say and the internet had warned us that these buses are in fact overpriced and that if one walks another 3-400 metres away from the border, it would be possible to catch a taxi or bus at a “local” price. We duly informed the friendly guide that we wouldn’t be catching his bus and his personality underwent a sudden transformation, no longer the welcoming smiley guide of a few minutes ago, instead a red-faced angry man insisting that there are no other buses in all of Poipet and that we would end up walking the 250 kms to Siem Reap. Suspecting that this might not be true, we decided to take our chances and ventured out into the dusty wilderness, otherwise known as the border town of Poipet.
Accompanied by the Belgian backpacker from the Visa office we walked about 200 metres looking for the waiting buses and taxis eager to drive us to Siem Reap. What we hadn’t counted on was this day was the first day of Chinese New Year, surprisingly a popular festival in Cambodia! There wasn’t a bus or taxi to be seen anywhere. We walked further and further, getting hotter and dustier but still faintly optimistic that we would find someone and anyway determined not to give the bus tout the satisfaction of seeing us returning to his shuttle bus.
Finally a couple of guys approached us on motor bikes offering taxis for US$50 however we felt that we would find something cheaper as the going rate according to Tripadvisor was about US$7 per person. After about a kilometer a guy approached us and in a heavy American accent offered to take us for US$30. While debating whether to take him up on his offer a Cambodian family started loading up his taxi with piles of luggage brought over from Thailand (including 2 fighting Cocks in baskets!) Realising that 7 people ( and two roosters) was probably the limit of his Toyota Camry’s loading capacity and taking pity on us he phoned a few friends to see if they could take us but they were all celebrating Chinese New Year and slightly inebriated.
Apologising, he did advise us that the fair rate for a taxi was US$30 although some people would try to ask for more due to the holiday.
Taking his leave we headed off again further and further away from the border. We were now too far away to contemplate returning to the bus stand with our tails between our legs but Fortune smiled upon us and spotting another Camry by the side of the road ahead we approached the driver and asked him for a price. After a weak attempt to charge us $40 he succumbed to our superior negotiating skills and smilingly agreed to take us for $30.
There then followed a very pleasant and safely driven (again contradicting the internet doom merchants who frightened us with tales of terrifying driving) 3 hour drive to our hotel in Siem Reap. In fact so happy were we with our driver we took down his number and despite our lack of Khmer language and his equal lack of English ( we actually communicated in pidgin Thai!) informed him that we would call him for the ride back in a couple of days.
And so ended our first day in Cambodia. The first of 4 extremely pleasant days amongst a very friendly, smiling and welcoming people and a place we will definitely visit again (about more of which to come).
So much for the internet warnings. I never realized that not everything on the internet was true!