Monday, February 23, 2009

Cambodia in a Day

Vietnam was absolutely incredible and I sincerely wish I could have had another month just to travel in Vietnam alone. We entirely missed the central and northern bits of the country! That was partly because we got distracted, or perhaps enthralled, by the opportunity to go to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Brooke knew pretty much before we even decided on Vietnam as our destination that there was no way she would be traveling to Indochina without making a stop in Cambodia. It cost us two 12 hour bus rides and we only had time for one day to tour the Angkor Wat complexes, but it was totally worth it. So, from Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, we went through Phnom Penh (Cambodia's capital) to Angkor, Cambodia.

12 hours on a bus, like I said... so, lots of staring out the window and taking it all in. The occassional border crossing as well.
A little 'less plush' border crossing vehicle than our economy sized bus.
Cambodian countryside is full of rice fields. This one guy on the bus was telling us that even though Vietnam claims to be the largest producer of rice after Thailand, they really just import rice from Cambodia, slap a Vietnamese label on the bag, and resell it. Smart/shady business.
video
Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.
I was playing with my camera's coloration modes.
After the post about Vietnamese food, it's hard to compare. But, the Cambodian food we had was delicious as well. The most popular Cambodian dish is called amok trey, which is a fish in thick coconut milk with curry, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. I tried that the second night. Below is me being indecisive and getting two dishes, rice, and sero: a "milky sweet milky" drink, as the waitress described it.
The next day was entirely dedicated to the Angkor Wat temple complexes. $20 for an all day pass? Toooootally worth it! The complexes were built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. They are incredibly well preserved and have since been somewhat restored, but the ancient Khmer architecture still reigned supreme and overwhelmed me at every site. If you want to know more about the history and significance, check this link out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat .
Following the advice of fellow travelers and our handy guide books, we checked out Ta Phrom first. This was hands down my favorite complex. I felt like a little kid, playing in this ginormous, mythical complex. So hard to believe something from 800 years ago could even exist, much less in these conditions. It was incredible.
Bas-relief figures adorned many of the walls.
The best part about Ta Phrom were all the crazy trees sharing/overtaking the same environment as the ruins.
This is where a portion of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" was filmed. I'm pretty sure I'll be the next casted for the trilogy... Angelina ain't got nothin' on my skills!
A scan of the area around the Terrace of the Elephants.
video
Next, we headed over to Bayon which is within the Angkor Thom complex.
How many faces can you spot?
History makes me jump for joy! And yes, I'm a total dork.
These bas-reliefs are apparently done in a bit more of a baroque Khmer style, as opposed to the classical Khmer style seen in Angkor Wat.
Some might say, 'the writing's on the wall'.

Well hello, there!
We made it to Angkor Wat!
And Kristine made a new friend.
I am clearly so excited to be at the main entrance to the temple proper at Angkor Wat.
Heaven, 'present-day', and hell scenes shown in the bas-relief carvings that cover the east wall.
Inside the complex, we shared some solace with this monk.
Outside the complex, we showed our true family colors.
Our last stop of the day was Phnom Bakheng, where we could look out over the ruins at sunset. It was cloudy most of the day, so we didn't expect much...
But were incredibly and pleasantly surprised. I heart sunsets more than life itself.
They were not serving beer at the complexes, but I did manage some later that night. And seriously, this is hands down, THE BEST BEER I have ever had in my life. And I'm from Wisconsin. I know beer. If you ever get the chance to get your hands on an ice cold Angkor, seize the opportunity!

More countryside pics from the 12 hours ride back to Ho Chi Minh.
A stop for fruit and crickets. Yes, crickets. And, I was the first to try it; I'm brave like that. Or maybe just daringly curious. After much persusassion, Brooke and Kristine followed my lead.

Mmmm, fried crickets! Just like french fries (for real)!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When I Was in 'Nam: Take Nine: FOOD!

If you've made it this far into my very belated blogging about my trip to Vietnam, you're probably wondering why there have been next to no pictures, elaborate retellings, or elongated descriptions of the culinary delights Vietnam had to offer. After all, probably half of my blogs in the past have been about food. Fear not my fellow food connoisseurs, for I had so much to say that I decided to dedicate an entire post to it. Also, it gives those who are slightly less obsessed than I in the "all things edible" arena the option of totally bypassing it.

So, without further adieu, here are some of the Vietnamese culinary delights I had the opportunity of experiencing.

Fueling up after our walk through Cat Tien: a standard for all meals is rice (known as the 'staff of life') and a few fish sauces to choose from. LP refers to fish sauce as being the "one ingredient that is quintessentially Vietnamese and it lends a distinctive character to Vietnamese cooking" (46). Distinctive, indeed. The sides were a beef and water spinach stir fry and an incredibly tasty lemongrass sauteed chicken dish.
Lunch at Cat Tien: rice, and a side of cucumber, pineapple, squid and tomatoes heavily moistened and sauteed, fried shrimp, and pork and water spinach.

The most famous dish in Vietnam is pho (rice noodle soup). It's served everywhere and is a filling and balanced meal that can be bought for less than a buck! It's most commonly eaten for breakfast, but can be eaten any time.

Below is a pic of Pho 2000, famous because President Clinton ate there on a visit while he was president.

We decided to go to the more highly recommended chain, Pho 24, for my first pho experience. The basics of pho are simple and delicious, and you can always add more greens or reds for more taste or heat. Pho for everyone!

Our host Momma served us up another steaming bowl of pho the following morning for breakfast. Like chicken soup in the States, it's clear that every chef makes their broth different. I gotta say, Mother knows best in any country!

Christmas pre-dinner dinner we ate at a little noodle shop. This time, the noodles were more ramen-esque though. My vote goes to pho for the noodle dish that reigns supreme.

Christmas FEAST: consisting of a very hearty rice porridge, processed meat chunks (probably a more eloquent name for that), a 'full bodied' chicken salad, and coke and beer to wash it all down with.

Yep, full bodied chicken.

Probably my favorite meal of the entire trip made for breakfast one morning by our host Mom: Banh cuon, which is rice flour rolls stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushroom, topped with greens, bean sprouts and peanuts. With the exception of the processed meat chunks on the top, this dish was perfection. AND, I even enjoyed the tea! I don't know what it was about it, but it in no way resembled dirty water - an attribute all tea I've ever tried by before exhibits.

Dinners at the outdoor restaurants next to the Ben Thanh market became a staple for us in Saigon, as the menu was extensive, and the food was fresh, delicious, and cheap.

That night I ordered: ground beef salad rolls, fresh shrimp spring rolls, and banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe made out of rice flour with turmeric, shrimp, slivers of fatty pork, sliced onions, and button mushrooms, fried, served with lettuce and other greens and a dipping sauce).

A fish and vegetable hot pot with a side of rice. Oh my gosh, the fish just dissolved in my mouth. So good, and so filling.

Back to the restaurants near Ben Tham. This night I ordered: fresh shrimp spring rolls (sooooo good!), clear noodle soup with chicken, and chao tom (grilled sugar cane rolled in spiced shrimp paste). I was unaware that you are not supposed to eat the entire sugar cane and are only supposed to kind of suckle off of it. I had sugar cane strands in my teeth for ages.

You can eat the chao tom solo, or wrap it up in a lettuce leaf with mint, rice vermicelli and dipping sauce. A fantastic trio of tastes and a playful way to reinvent a chicken drumstick.

This meal was sooo good, for each of us. It was definitely worth the hour wait. I think I got the fresh seafood salad that had a kick I kept coming back for more of, Kristine got an awesome tomato marinated fish dish, and Brooke's vegetable and noodle soup reigned supreme. Note to Brooke: let's reinvent that recipe, somehow, someway.

Back in Ho Chi Minh, there was a festival going on that brought out some more interesting choices, in addition to the usual street food fair.
Grilled chicken feet, anyone?

Our last meal in Vietnam, getting seconds and thirds of the absolutely magnificent fresh fruit shakes. My favorites were custard apple and sapodilla.

Grilled corn from a street vendor.
Enjoying a culture's food is not only an enjoyable, but an important part of anyone's travels, I think. If you ever get the privilege of making it to Vietnam, you will not be disappointed in this experience. Indulge and enjoy!