Thursday, December 10, 2009

I'll Have One, Please

I'd like to take a moment to step away from my ground-shaking reuminations to address one of the most important, and favorite parts of this trip: FOOD!

This has been a constantly changing and delightful experience throughout my travels, but especially in Southeast Asia. I have always been a fan of Thai and Vietnamese food, just ask my parents. So to actually get here and taste the real thing has been so much fun and astronomically different from any gastronomical experiments I've had in my life.

To begin with, food here is cheap. $2 max for a meal if you look beyond the restaurants created for tourists. One time in Bangkok I paid 10 baht, about 30 cents for a bowl of noodle soup, but that's the cheapest by far.

Food is also mysterious here. By this I mean I usually don't know exactly what I'm going to get, or what I'm eating (beside the fact that it is 99% of the time rice-based and delicious). There are plenty of restaurants with menus in English, which is really nice sometimes. Standards are fried rice or rice noodles with veggies, meat and egg or some kind of delectable curry over, you guessed it, rice. But there is a completely different side to dining here that I feel is under-utilized by a lot of tourists because we have no idea what is being offered or how to order it.

There are food carts or tables on the sidewalk with mysterious metal pots or trays covered in plastic everywhere. They usually result in a fantastic bowl of noodles, a nice cold dessert with sweetened condensed milk and sugary egg parts or a banana pancake, but it is difficult to know what you're going to get because all you see are the parts of the whole before they have been combined. So I have found that I can either wait and watch a Thai or Cambodian person order something and if it looks good (it pretty much always looks good) I point and ask for one. Or, if nobody else is around, I just ask for one and see what I get. So far so good! Even if it doesn't look good, trying it with an open mind is always a good first step, and it usually tastes delicious. Ha, this coming from the toddler who wouldn't try ice cream!

There are all kinds of things to try here, and sometimes the ingredients on the cart lend themselves to hazarding a guess as to what is made, like the ones with baguettes and cream cheese and veggies means a sandwich, while the ones with packets of instant noodles and veggies means fried noodles, and the ones with eggs and containers you cannot see into and sweetened condensed milk and bananas mean banana pancakes (thank you, whoever cerated these!). It ust takes a bit of practice to recognize what makes what. It's a lot of fun, sometimes not quite so much fun, but mostly a lot of fun.

I would consider myself a brave taster, but there are still things I do NOT have any inclination to try, such as the large black spiders piled high on a tray in the market, marinaded in something...or the insolent tongues sticking out at anyone passing by from the meat carts. But for the most part an open mind and fingers crossed on not getting food poisoning, being adventurous and eating from street carts is the cheapest and tastiest way to go!

Market in Siem Reap


Fried noodles with veggies and egg. Who knew?
Diep, my motorbike driver in Angkor Wat, with palm sugar
Meat carts. Check out those tongues in the middle of the tray. Mmmm.
Fried noodles for 50 cents

Thank you Cambodia for accepting the French baguette! Western breakfast in the hostel.
Paella Neil made at the farm in Thailand
Women at the farm making us Pad se-ew, fat noodles with veggies
Mmmmm fried ice cream!
Favorite restaurant in Phuket, about $1 for a great meal
Making spicy papaya salad in Thailand
Food court in Bangkok. Cheap and choices.
Fish at the street market in Bangkok

How are you tomorrow? I'm fine yesterday!

My bike and the Elephant Terraces
Yeah, people put these ni their yards. Oh my!

Yellow moth

Lacewing butterfly

Coolest praying mantis I've ever seen

Sonaya and butterfly

The kind Khmer family that gave me a coconut

Typical house and vending stall. Palm sugar is popular here
Kids near Angkor Wat
Colin, former Trailblazer volunteer and kids at the orphanage we visited

Hey ladyyyyy, you want tuk tuk?


Angkor complex

Angkor Wat at sunrise




Ta Phrom

Seiha, a girl I met at a food stall who treated me to my noodles and chatted for an hour with me.

Narem, the man I am helping at Trailblazer in the garden with our home-made epic compost

This is a common saying here and pretty much embodies the playfulness of the Cambodian people. I am absolutely in love with the kindness and constant joking that happens here. It's really interesting to see how tourism has distorted that though; the immense difference in how I am treated, being white, when I am walking around Angkor Wat or the Night Market where trinkets and t-shirts (yes, I bought one) are being sold and when I get bold and wander off the main roads a bit.

Today is a perfect example. I had a spectacular day. It is a national holiday here, something about not working and so naturally, we all abide by it and nobody was at Trailblazer today. I took the opportunity to breakfast at the place that gives me a free bike for the day if I eat there and ride to the ABC- Angkor Butterfly Center. It is located 25 kilometers away from Siem Reap in the Angkor Wat complex but I didn't know it was that far when I started and I had all day, so I went for it.
Riding bikes is such a phenomenal way to see the countryside. I felt so happy to be taking things slower than the hundreds of other tourists that were whizzing by in tuk tuks and tour buses. There were no other white people on bikes once I got out of the main Angkor Wat area and everyone I passed waved or smiled, especially when I said hello in Khmer to them. Kids and adults alike.
After I while I got thirsty and bought a soda. I sat down on the side of the road in the shade of a tree to drink it, and a "Hello!" was shouted at me through the trees from a small girl playing by her house across the street. She came over to the side of the road and started trying to talk with me, but we didn't get far because neither of us spoke much of the other language. That did not deter her, and before I knew it I was across the street sitting under her stilted house with her mother and little sister and brother drinking from a fresh coconut they had chopped open for me. Ok, this is Cambodia. I mostly smiled at the antics of the small children and tried to learn Khmer harder than I ever had, to no avail. But I did have a picture of my parents and me so I showed them that, a great success! Family ties always strike a good connection!
After a while they said they had to go to Siem Reap, so I continued on my way. I felt so happy and dazed at what had just happened, the kindness and happiness just enveloped me. Compared with the restaurant and t-shirt stalls that line the edges of all the ruins, with women yelling "Hello ladyyyyyyy, you want cold drink? You want something to eeeeeat?" (Let me take your $10 and give you change in reel so you don't realize I just jacked $6 from you. Sorry for the cynicism, but that was a stupid mistake on my part I haven't come to terms with yet.) I was so elated about the genuine connection I had I just sang to myself until I reached the Butterfly Center, where I spent a delightful hour laughing and chasing butterflies around with Sonaya, my guide and butterfly expert. It was there I learned how far I had ridden my bike through forests and rice fields...and how far I had to go back.
Such a fantastic day!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sabai Sabai Siem Reap

The border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia is notoriously troublesome, especially for people from the United States. Besides being charged and extra 200 baht for being American and a long wait to have my visa stamped, making it across the border and to Siem Reap, Cambodia without a pre-arranged set up from a travel agency was not as scary as I anticipated. All the guys working for the bus company I found myself with in Cambodia were kind, funny and laughed easily. I've discovered this to be a common characteristic among the people here, as long as you're willing to make silly jokes and laugh at yourself when you finally understand their jokes. You can probably imagine how I'm doing with that.

I am here in Siem Reap volunteering with the Trailblazer Foundation ( I found them through my friend Erin whose parents Chirs and Scott started the NGO. They build bio-sand water filters and distribute them to villages around Siem Reap, as well as training the people how to build and maintain the filters, hold them responsible for paying the cost back to what becomes a village fund and eventually a small mirco-loan program within the village. Chris and Scott's vision is to phase themselves out and give the people ownership so the program will be sustainable. They have also sponsored through grants and helped build three schools in Cambodia and are putting together an agricultural program for the future as well. Not to mention they are totally laid back and super dedicated to their work. Very, very good people and I am so glad to be able to help them.

So what am I doing? Well, I mainly work to help Narem, a young Cambodian man who knows his stuff about agriculture and loves organic farming. He spent three years studying ag in Thailand and speaks English and Thai very well, which is extremely helpful for me since the other guys don't speak much English.

Narem and I have mostly been making really good organic fertilizer from cow manure and rice husks mixed with what he calls EM, or Effective Microorganism, which is made from a bunch of organic things and smells like really strong vinegar. We use it for the fertilizer and also as a natural pest repellant. We mixed all the components together the first day and covered it with a plastic tarp and the next day when we mixed it all together it was already really hot to the touch, all kind of good micro-stuff happening to make the plants happy!

I also spray the plants with EM to get rid of little red beetles that eat them, water the plants and do a lot of weeding, which, strangely enough, makes me happy. Narem works on his school paper regarding organic farming and what he's doing with Trailblazer in the afternoons, so I'm left to myself in the garden after getting directions. Usually Scott comes over to chat or show me interesting things like the fact that there's a crocodile farm on the other side of the wall about 10 meters away from where we all work, or to tell me they had to kill a lethal snake they found by the front door while I was on my lunch break. I've also found and released a tiny, very poisonous scorpion without knowing it's dangerous (the brown ones are Costa Rica at least) and Narem removed a three inch long poisonous millipede from the manure the first day. Cute.

I really like all the people working at Trailblazer, they are so kind and good-natured. Scott said hopefully I can get out on a water filter delivery with the guys to a village and see the real Cambodia; Siem Reap is pretty touristy. By that I mean disgustingly touristy, especially the mind-blowingly beautiful ruin complex, which I got to visit this weekend.

Angkor Wat. It's kind of a big deal. Pretty fantastic and I got to spend the entire weekend there. Yesterday I went with a motorbike driver because I wanted to go to some ruins that are pretty far away from the main complex; carvings in a river and Banteay Srai. Unfortunately I felt sick all day because I got food poisoning the night before and didn't sleep much, then felt nauseous all day but stuck it out and also saw Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat for sunset. This morning I woke up early and rode a bike out for sunrise over Angkor Wat, explored the temples there more then went to some smaller, less visited temples and had them mostly to myself except for the occasional Japansese tour group. It pays to get up early, and to ride a bicycle.

There was a half-marathon around the Angkor complex this morning so the whole Angkor Wat area was flooded with runners amped on life and ready to run! It made a fun atmosphere and I wished I was running too, but it also created tons of traffic jams for tour buses and tuk tuks because the runners were on the only roads through the area. Luckily I was on a bike and could just ride up the opposite side of the road and cheer on the runners as they neared the end of their grueling run. I'm pretty sure that's why there weren't too many people where I was this morning, which was just fine with me.

Let me just say that when entering an area such as this, tourists are everywhere are are accosted from all sides from kids and adults alike trying to sell you the same thing right next to each other. You get off your bike or out of your tuk tuk and people are shoving post cards, bracelets, tour books in your face, women are yelling at you to buy cold drinks or food or telling you to park your bike here and come back later for some food. It's my least favorite thing. I really really dislike being viewed as a money bag, not a human being but there are people visiting who pay $1,800/night for hotels, so I guess their persistent badgering and shoving of wares in tourists' faces must work. I just wish there was another way.

I have also had incredible experiences with locals. The first evening I was here I stopped by a food stand to eat some noodles. I must have looked confused becuase a girl about my age came up and asked it she could help me, and then proceeded to order noodles for me, pay for my noodles and her spring roll, then show me the pagoda down the street and talk and laugh with me for an hour before going home to do homework. Her name is Seiha and we met again the next day even though she's at work at 5:30am, works all day, studies for two hours in the evening then goes home to study and help her family. Wow. I hope to meet up with her again this week sometime!

OK, that's long enough for now. Pictures on the way when I get a better computer that will load them. Love to you all!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

WWOOFing Daruma Farm

An orchid

Neil and I with our bread

Neil preparing to deep fry some birds

Neil and his friend Dave with successfully deep-fried turkeys

Aggie and I at the Japanese Festival in Bang Phra

A room in the beautiful new house and spa

The past 10 days have been absolutely fantastic. I was able to get in touch with Neil, a friend of a friend of my fathers' who lives here in Thailand and has an organic farm about an hour outside of Bangkok. He is part of an organization called WWOOF - World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea is that people, anyone, pays a small fee to join the website and get access to contact information for organic farms in certain countries. You get in contact with the farm, go there and work for them in exchange for food (often from the farm) and a place to sleep.

Highly recommended.

Neil is married to Su, a beautiful and kind Thai woman and they are opening a spa in town at the "New House" so he was pretty busy there most of the time. The rest of us lived out at the farmhouse, about a 10 minute bike ride from the new house on two acres of land. The farm has been established for a while but they are making lots of changes and it's relatively new to WWOOFers. They are growing things like rice, tomatoes, spinach, mangos, bananas, chili peppers and cassava root which is a fuel source apparently. Oh, and pineapples, which I totally freed from a zillion weeds one morning.

I took an overnight "VIP" bus from Krabi to Bangkok then another bus to Bang Phra where the farm is located. Do not associate VIP with really nice...I guess I got what I paid for but it resulted in a sleepless night on a crowded bus with lots of foreigners, but I got to the farm!

I met Cassie and Zoe, two girls from Washington State and Rachel from Nebraska right away. Rachel is building a sweet website for the farm and Cassie and Zoe were WWOOFing around Thailand. We worked together threshing rice the first day, which involves gathering the rice stalks, hitting them with a stick to remove all the seeds, then trying to separate all the tiny pieces of hay from the seeds and attempting to collect all the tiny seeds that flew to all corners of the area when you were hitting the rice...but it was a lot of fun with those girls who unfortunately were leaving the next day.
Lunch and dinner and most of the details on the farm are run by Sean, a disgruntled but sweet old Irish guy (you just have to get through his outer shell and tease him a bit, then he'll warm up). He was funny and difficult to understand, really thick Irish brogue, sometimes he had to spell things out for me to understand! HA! He and his girlfriend Al live at the farm now, he's also a WWOOFer but for several months and has a farm back in Ireland so he kind of ran the place since Neil was never around. Al worked at the spa and cafe back at the New House. Sean is an excellent cook and I was never hungry; tons of curries, stir-fries and great soups.

We slept upstairs on the third floor of a mostly open-air building on matresses on the floor under mosquito net tents. After Cassie and Zoe left Gavin and Aggie came, an English/Polish couple who really spiced things up. We had a great time together, Gavin is a huge English guy who was fantastic at heaving pieces of soil around to create a rice paddie and Aggie, or Agnishka from Poland was tiny, vegetarian and very spunky.

Work I did on the farm ranged from everything from cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen to weeding pineapples with a huge metal hoe, planting squash seeds, planting herb bushes in the ground, breaking up grassy dirt and going through it endlessly to remove weeds and break up dirt clods to prepare it for planting, and of course weeding! I even got to cook more once Sean gained more confidence in me. I loved it.
Another exciting event on the farm was Rachel having a bike accident. There are lots of fairly ferocious dogs guarding the farms around Thailand and we all experienced them chasing us while we were riding bikes anywhere from the farm. One night Rachel was coming back from the New House where she was doing the web design and she must have hit a bump going fast to escape the dogs, but she crashed hard, tore the AC ligament in her shoulder and had a concussion. Thank you WFR skills. We got her to the hospital asap and I stayed with her the whole night as she asked the same questions in succession for three hours because she had no short-term memory. Pretty crazy, but she was doing so much better the next day and the surgery went great. Just a reminder that we are only human.
We even had a good ol' fashioned Thanksgiving Dinner! It took forever for everything to be ready, but not becuase of the turkey. Neil,who is incredibly intelligent about so many things and enlightens you whether you're ready for it or not, has deep-fried turkeys before and insisted that after 45 minutes the skin would be crisp, the meat tender. So we tried it and it was a success! However it took him a long time to actually heat up the oil and cook the birds, so we didn't end up eating til about 8:45pm, but it was a true feast. Stuffing, bread I made and we baked in the wood-fire oven, cranberry sauce I also got delegated to make, bananas in coconut milk, potatoes, gravy and even homemade icecream in flavors like durian and this green, sour fruit I don't know the name of. So so so delicious!
I already miss the farm. I am currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia after successfully navigating myself alone through the notorious border crossing. No problems, just an extra 200 baht because I'm from the USA. Awesome. I found the Trailblazer Foundation today where I plan to spend the next week or so volunteering helping them with their test garden and building sand water filters they distribute to communities that do not have access to clean water. Pretty sweet, but they never get foreign volunteers so I am staying in a hostel in town and will rent a bike to get there. We'll see if they have work for me and how it goes, but I will definitely spend time seeing Angkor Wat while I'm here, then maybe find another farm to WWOOF at before I head back to Thailand December 21.
Peace my friends!