It did not take long to go from the start of the semester to the final days of classes. All of a sudden we went from struggling to keep up with all our readings and homework to wondering how on earth we could complete all our finals, papers, and projects on time for the end of term.
The first classes to finish were the language courses. In Chinese class my professor chose to watch a movie on the second to last day, Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree. On the very last day we had a feast of Chinese food homemade by the professor. He made us yu xiang rou si, ma po tofu, and chao ji dan xi hong shi. We ate and talked and talked and ate. Chinese food and talking in Chinese was a good way to end the year.
In all of the other classes the semester ended with less of a bang. The last meetings largely involved cramming in more material, discussing finals, and a few closing remarks. Then we were off to contend with the onslaught of work…
Cambodia is without a doubt the poorest place I have ever been. People live in simple wooden houses without plumbing or electricity. Even in the middle of Siem Reap, where the tourists come and the people with a little bit more money can come to try to find a life with more conveniences, life is hard. The hostel had blackouts a couple times a day. Not enough electricity was coming over from Thailand.
A decent sized meal costs two or three dollars. A large bottle of water is about a dollar (or less if you find the right store). A day’s worth of riding around with a driver can cost less than $20.
Part of the problem is from when the Khmer Rouge ruled the country. They abolished all money, making what there was little more than fuel for the fireplace. Since communication was not great, and warlords or other local leaders were not always on the same page, one province might have some Khmer Rouge money for a while before it was taken away again. Although they began to use the Riel after their problems started to settle, confidence never grew to the old levels. Now people are happier to accept dollars or baht than to use riel. (But I was told that they think Vietnamese dong is just ‘scrap paper.’)
Despite these problems, just about everyone I met in Cambodia was smiling and happy. Everywhere people were friendly and polite. They might have been annoying as they tried to get you to buy this, eat that, or hire them as a guide or driver. But at the same time, they were not rude or angry. Maybe the happy attitude comes from tourism…a guest who feels welcome will be more willing to spend. I’m going to let my optimistic side take over and say that it was all due to genuine good-natured people.
There are now some positive possibilities. The government is still full of red tape, bribery, and corruption, but things are stable. Inflation can be a problem, but the economy is improving. Tourism is increasing. And these tourists come bringing much needed money. The infrastructure is impoving thanks to groups like Artisans d’Angkor and the Landmine Museum. Every day other organizations from around the world donate money to help build schools, houses, and rennovate new areas of the temples. Many nicer houses along the country roads had signs saying what church, school, or person donated the funds. Someday the Khmer won’t need outside help, but until then they receive what they can get with a smiling face.
Korean word of the post: 캄보디아 사람 (kam-bo-di-a sa-ram) Cambodian person
Chinese word of the post: 柬埔寨人 (jian3 pu3 zhai4 ren2) Cambodian person
Khmer word of the post: កម្ពោជិក (kampoocik) Cambodian person
A lot of tourists come spend time in Cambodia. Some are looking forward to the ancient sites while others want to know about the bloody past and others look forward to some exotic scenery. Whatever the reason, a good mix of people stay in hostels across the country.
In Siem Reap I got a feel for two different types of tourists. One group was there on temporary vacation. We were looking to come in and see Angkor Wat, visit some ruins, and enjoy ourselves along the way.
The other group were on more of an indefinite vacation. In Southeast Asia, since it’s cheap and exotic, a lot of people save some money and come for some interesting experiences. They backpack from town to town and country to country. They pick up small jobs along the way as tutors, photographers, or in hostels. Since they’re half on vacation they still want to have lots fun, but since they’re half local they aren’t in a hurry.
The result? Lots of going out, drinking, and having a good time. The temples? They plan to go today, tomorrow, sometime or other. I would love to have been on that track, but what can you do? I had a job to do. Now I need to save some money so I can go on a vacation with no hurry and a lot of fun and new experiences.
Korean word of the post: 관광객 (gwan-gwang-gaek) tourist
Chinese word of the post: 游客 (you2 ke4) tourist
Khmer word of the post:ទេសចរ (teeh caa) tourist
Whenever you visit a new place, you get grouped in with the tourists. Not only might you not no directions, but you don’t even know the language or the local customs. But, there are a few things that worked for me in Cambodia to get more of a local look.
Many people want to go on vacation and feel relaxed and comfortable. Not me. I want to have my limited pushed, learn new things, and grow. I can go to a sit on a beach or eat American food at home. You need to travel with an open mind, and who knows what you’ll find.
One of the first things is to talk to the locals. I made friends with my tuk tuk driver and met a couple more drivers along the way. Working with tourists, they spoke English well and were eager to practice. A couple times I ate dinner with them instead of going back to the hostel and eating with the rest of the travelers. I learned a lot from them about Cambodia, and answered their questions about America and Korea.
You have to be open. When I went out to eat with them I asked them to suggest good food. I didn’t care about going to the best American or Korean or Chinese food. I didn’t care about making sure I got back to the hostel to go drinking with the other tourists. I wanted some good Khmer food. And every time, we went into a restaurant with no foreigners. Maybe it was luck of the draw, but my guess is that the real best Khmer food was there in the places that hadn’t tried to adapt to attract outsiders. I got a few strange looks, but it was more of something to remember than if I had gone to the Mexican place down the street for food and margaritas.
Learning a few words of the language helps. In Cambodia most people know a decent amount of English, especially the ones who work with foreigners in tourism, transportation, or trying to sell things at the temples. Even though they understand us, I like to meet them partway. There was no way I could learn Khmer in a week, but I could learn to count. I could learn hello, thank you, and goodbye. Plus food names. People are more likely to open up to you if you try to adapt. (And on top of that, I really enjoy languages. Which is probably obvious…)
I guess one thing that’s easy for me is to just sort of go with the flow. I didn’t know the culture, so I followed their lead. I let them show me how things were done instead of just doing it the way I did at home. At first I was quiet and let my new Cambodian friends take control. Once I’d learned a bit, I could follow some of their etiquette without a problem.
I’ve seen the people who come and vist without learning anything about the local culture. Maybe next I’ll say something about my two classes of tourists.
Korean word of the post:내국인 (nae-guk-in) a local
Chinese word of the post: 本地人 (ben3 di4 ren2) a local
Khmer word of the post: រជ្ជវាសី (raccea’viesey) a local
I already wrote about my bug-eating adventures on the Food Walk, but I figure there are some more things to say about Cambodian food before I finish with this trip.
After months of eating mostly Korean food (lots of salty, spicy, garlic, and vinegar), Cambodia was a welcome change. The Khmer eat spicy, salty, garlicky, and vinegary, but add more sweet, sour, and bitter. If you’ve eaten Thai or Vietnamese, it’s pretty similar.
One of the key flavors is prahoc, a type of fish sauce. To make this sauce, place fish and seasonings in a barrel, leave out to ferment/rot, and then drain out the liquid. It might sound like it would be disgusting or even deadly, but it’s delicious. It’s something like anchovy paste-it adds flavor without being overly fishy. I enjoyed the prahoc, and, more than likely, it was in every meal I had.
Cambodia has some barbeque restaurants that were unique for me. These places roast a cow on a spit, or maybe two cows, and then open for business. Unlike some restaurants, these do not have specific hours. Instead, they stay open until the food runs out. When I went in search of this, I had to make several stops before actually finding a place with food available. We went in, sat down, and was served a plate of meat. I can’t actually tell you what it was besides beef. Some of it was certainly steak, but other parts were organ. All of it could be flavored with salt or with prahoc and eaten with raw vegetables.
Just like elsewhere in Asia, there are a lot of rice and noodles. Some dishes are stews made from chicken or pork, mixed with prahoc, and served with rice. Like Thailand, there are a lot of curries. On the side of these, along with the rice, are pieces of raw cabbage and carrot. At the Cambodian Cultural Village, I ate some great noodles from one of the vendors. The noodles were similar to pho noodles from Vietnamese food. In the bowl, you could add whatever you wanted for flavor. Spicy peppers, bitter leaves, salt, and sugar all add flavor to the noodles. Sweet noodles with bitter leaves work really well.
I would recommend morning glory soup. I’ve never heard of it before, or seen it since, but I love it. It’s a really sour soup that went well with fish and rice, in my opinion.
In a lot of these places food is cheap. Tons of food for two people with beer was around $4 at a genuine Khmer place. At some of the more Westernized places that cater mostly to foreigners, the prices went higher. But, I had some success with finding those genuine experiences. But I think I’ll let that be my next post.
Korean word of the post: 음식 (eum-sik) food
Chinese word of the post: 食物 (shi2 wu4) food
Khmer word of the post: ភក្សា (pheaksaa) food
In Hindu religion celestial maidens called apsaras, a type of cloud nymph, worked as the servants to the gods. They were beautiful and artistic, being expert dancers. In many Khmer dances, beautiful women represent these apsara. Khmer kings kept these apsara dancers in their harems. Images of these beautiful dancers, whether human or godly, adorn the walls of many temples and palaces. Apsaras continued to be part of the local belief system when religions changed, and are now part of both Hindu and Buddhist myth.
In modern times, many beautiful women continue to dress in elaborate costumes to represent the apsaras. One night I went to a buffet dinner and watched some traditional dancing. Women and men danced traditional folk dances and reenacted ancient legends. The apsara dancers, with their tall golden headdresses and bright outfits, were a sight to see. Next time, I’ll have to get there a little earlier so I can get a better view…
Korean word of the post: 압사라 (ap-sa-ra) Apsara
Chinese word of the post: 阿普萨拉 (a1 pu3 sa4 la1) Apsara
Khmer word of the post: អប្សរា (apsara) Apsara
Following the Civil War Museum I made a much happier stop at the Cambodian Cultural Village.
This relatively new set of museums and entertainment attempts to capture aspects from all of the cultures of Cambodia along with a little history. I guess you could think of it as a sort of cultural amusement park.
At the entrance are a pair of museums. On the right is a wax museum showing important people from Cambodian history. An ancient queen, a historian from China, some recent royals and two celebrities who died during the civil war. One man, supposedly, could walk on water and talk to animals. Across the way a room is filled with taxidermy animals and historical artifacts. I saw a leopard and a small deer along with some old farm equipment and weapons.
From there I went into the park. Arranged across a large park are small villages. A lake in the center holds a ‘floating’ village on stilts. One hilly area shows the typical styles used by some minority groups. Around the corner is a Khmer village and a compound showing American style housing and a church for those Khmer who have moved to America.
Throughout the day the villages host dancing and comedy performances. The dances go from village to village putting on their shows. In one they show a Khmer marriage ceremony, in another they do some Chinese acrobatics, there’s a Kola peacock dance and a Kroeung inspired show about a young lady choosing a fiance. The shows are silly. Maybe they are a little culturally insensitive, if you consider that maybe they are simplifying minority cultures and adding comedy to important traditions. At the same time, all groups are treated with the same sense of humor, and how am I to know that the minorities didn’t help plan it all in the first place.
Besides the villages, the shows, and the museums there are some gardens, miniatures of important buildings across Cambodia, and a number of shops and food stalls. In the center of everything, in the hills, is the Hall of Judgement, a sort of haunted house full of images of death and demons. While it was nowhere near as impressive to me as temples, I can understand why Bunna from the tuk tuk said “Khmers come from all over the country because they want to see Angkor Wat, but they can’t leave Siem Reap without visiting the cultural village.” It’s a nice place to spend the day relaxing, wandering around, and maybe learn a little while laughing at the dances antics too.
Korean word of the post: 문화 (mun-hwa) culture
Chinese word of the post: 文化 (wen2 hua4) culture
Khmer word of the post: ទំនៀមទំលាប់ (tumniem) culture