Postcard from Cambodia – Tonle Sap (Part 3)

My travel bug is on strike again, suddenly unmotivated off late. All I want to do is going through my holiday snapshots from the South East Asia trip last year and feeling sorry for myself stuck at home with no where to go. Then it reminds me that I actually still need to catch up finish writing about my epicurean journey before my next vacation starts in May.

My Cambodia journey is short and is coming to an end. After checking out the awe inspiring majestic Angkor Wat, and spending a day with landmine victims at KILT headquarter, I spent the last haul of my journey visiting Tonle Sap, also known as the “Great Lake”, it is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Bright and early in the morning, I followed my tour guide and a designated driver and we headed south.

As usual, you make small talk in the car with two strangers on a one and a half hour drive to the destination. I am usually a listener, and let them tallk, answer a few questions here and there when necessary. The conversation is pretty mundane, about my trip in Cambodia, what can we expect to see at Tonle Sap, the history, the food, the people and then the war… turned out my tour guide is an ex-military in the Khmer Rogue. Hence,  I see no reason why to argue and just nod my head agreeing to whatever he said.

First stop we had a quick check out of the local market not far from the lake. No matter where you go, every town has its own specialty, certain food in particular. As this town literally stone throw away from Tonle Lap, it claims to have the best sun dried fish in the country. All the fish are freshly caught from the lake and straight to the market. The constant flow of cars stopping over at the road side with locals haggling over a few dried fish is always a good indication.

It was the beginning of the monsoon season when I visited Cambodia back in August 2009. The Tonle Sap is like a big basin and slowly filling up as water that flows from the Mekong river reverses, helping to expand the Tonle Sap up to 16,000 square kilometers with a depth up to 9 meters deep. The stilts of the houses in the floating village are already half submerge in the water, and some also already migrated to higher ground.

As our boat slowly cruises past all the floating villages and heading towards the core center of the vast lake seemingly looks more like a sea with pretty much nothing beyond the horizon.

It is raining the whole time while we are out on the water and the visibility is getting poorer as the rain gets heavier. We decided to cut short the trip and heading back to the floating village to have a light lunch at one of the stilt houses. There is only a tiny small part of the lake that is still not covered in water yet. When we pulled up near the stilt house, I only then realised that we all need to climb up the steep steps into the house, from a rocking moving boat, on a slippery rainy day! Of course, it seems like a piece of cake for everyone else to climb up the steps effortlessly, except me. Piece of advice, take the shoes off and climb barefoot definitely helped.

They have pre-prepared simple lunch of sandwiches and fruit skewers for me which are covered in the cost of my day trip package while they are digging in with rice and vegetables which I am more interested in. I had a wander around the short strip of houses where the water are already slowly inching in from both ends. A group of children is playing game inside an outdoor shrine which reminded me of a similar game which I used to play when I was a kid back in Malaysia. They were a bit shy and curious at the same time when I started taking photos of them. Without being intrusive, I decided to retreat and head back to inland and call it a day.

On the way back, my tour guide kindly offers to take me to another village for a special treat. As we slowly approaching the village, I can see smoke clouds smothering from both sides of the road. There are stall upon stall lined up selling glutinous rice in bamboo stalks. They are very similar to the Malaysian and Indonesian “Lemang” which uses coconut cream, but the Cambodian version is simply cooking the glutinous rice with black beans in the bamboo stalk.

When the rice is cooked, the lady at the stall will then start chipping and shaving the charred bamboo with a machete until it becomes very thin easy for peeling. The glutinous rice has a nutty flavour from the black beans with a hint of saltiness and it is heart clogging moreish. I bought a couple and bring back to hotel to share with the staffs for being super helpful during my stay the whole time.

I spent my last day lunch at in Siem Reap at one of the Khmer restaurants behind Bar Street at The Passage. The meal is cheap here, and there are a selection of authentic Khmer local dishes to choose from. Almost all South East Asia countries have their own version of papaya salad, Cambodian is no exception and its Bok Lohong is a tone down version of the Som Tum. It is refreshingly crunchy and possibly a good alternative not having it too spicy hot in this insanely hot weather.

Next dish I’ve decided to go for something a little bit more “exotic”, also something I am quite familiar with and ordered the ginger stir fried frog (Char Nyai Gong Gai). Despite I have absolutely no trouble eating a frog, I am actually ranidaphobic (Now that’s a big word for you). I do not like cold blooded frog or reptiles like lizards and gekkos. I once had a household gekko dropped on my shoulder at home when I was a kid, it quickly ran away and gave me goosebumps, then the tail snapped off! I was traumatised since.

Frogs taste like chicken really and is a lot smoother with a firmer texture especially the frog legs. It is probably not your kind of dish if you hate bones, as I can almost build a catacomb on the plate by the time I finished the meal. Two dishes with rice, buy one can of soft drink and get another free, plus a plate of complimentary fruit salad to finish it off, the whole meal only cost me around $10.00, can’t complain really.

I did say I will not try any Amok while in Siem Reap as I believe the food in Bar Street are influenced and catered for tourists and foreigners. Swallowing my own words, I was actually quite lucky as Kourosh, the KILT volunteer took me to his friend’s restaurant, not far from the tourist district for dinner. Obviously a restaurant you wouldn’t expect to see any tourists inside, but this little dingy restaurant is busy with locals, and one of the reasons why we are dining here is because everyone is cheering on for Manchester United, a soccer game live on the plasma screen TV. I’ve been told the amok here is freshly cooked to order and is as authentic as you can get. With a smidgen of skepticism, it is the only fish amok I’ve had in Cambodia and indeed it is delicious. Do I need to try the other Amoks in the tourist district to compare? I don’t think is necessary.

Another inevitable muggy balmy night as we walk back to the hotel. I am tired, hot and bothered, looking forward to the cold shower then bed as I have a plane to catch the next morning to my next destination, Laos.

Related post:
Postcard from Cambodia – Angkor Wat (part 1 )
Postcard from Cambodia – A Day at KILT with landmine victims (Part 2)