Memories of Cambodia

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My fav stone face!

Opposite the infamous Tong Sleng prison, amid the dust, heat and noise of Phnom Penh, I found an oasis of green and peace. The Bodhi Tree Guesthouse and Café have welcomed people for meals since 1998 and for the past three years (written early 2000’s) have also had guest accommodation. The ten rooms are individually decorated with traditional Cambodian materials: all are extremely tasteful and most have an en-suite.

I know the food is great, not only because I tried it, but also because some 70% of their customers are locals who eat there .

The main idea of the Bodhi Tree, as well as being commercially viable, was to give a comfortable working space for young Cambodians who find themselves in challenging circumstances.

I talked with a young man who has worked there for two years.

‘I could find another job with more money but it would not be good like here’ he says ‘I like to stay here. Everyone is friendly and all are equal. I have learnt so much. Before I worked at my Auntie’s shop and could speak some English but I did not understand anyone talking it. The accent was too hard – now I can talk to many people.’ He continues ‘I want to study management. My boss wants me to help others improve too. We only have people here who have a good attitude.’

Another young man tells me he has worked there for five months and that it was ‘ . . . a good place to work. I get two meals a day and it is a nice place to be. People are kind to me and I am learning many things. I stay in a house with some of the others who work here’ He also told me the restaurant was named after the tree in the story of how Buddhism started. (See sidebar)

The cook, who has cooked for three years, produces wonderful meals. She had been a cleaner at the Bodhi Tree before learning to cook and now her menu and skills could be used at any international restaurant she chose to work at. Along with the Asian and continental breakfasts from the kitchen, these became my favourites during my stay:

  • Slow roasted honey and cinnamon Asian pears – topped with fresh blue cheese and walnut – served with balsamic vinegar.
  • Red bean and steamed spinach salad with black pepper grilled bread with grated Parmesan and summer vinaigrette.
  • Spanish potato omelette served with tomato, olives, and mint salad and garlic bread.

After a week of travelling on the back of a truck in the remote north-east of the country, being served these, while sitting on cane furniture, leaning against silk cushions, under a Bougainvillea tree in an outdoor room, and with a Buddha gazing serenely on the scene, was heavenly.

Surrounded by the delightful artwork, birds of paradise, orchids, lotus buds, and other floral arrangements or plants it was hard to imagine the horrors that had occurred right across the road in the prison S 21. (See sidebar 2 below)

Note: I wrote this many years ago and have just refound it!

Kings guards in Cambodia
King’s guards in Cambodia .. just before I shook hands with the King
cambodia buffalo
Quintessential Asian photo
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A well photographed tree in Cambodia

 

Perfect rows of drying fish
Perfect rows of drying fish
Sun dried chilli - Cambodia
Sun dried chilli

 

Rough road, overloaded truck (incl me on the back!) = broken axle in jungle
Rough road, overloaded truck (incl me on the back!) = broken axle in jungle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sidebar 1. (As told to me by one of the young workers at Bodhi Tree )During the 16th century, in what we now call Nepal, Prince Siddhartha Gautama became curious about what life was like outside his comfortable court existence. When he saw people suffering it caused him great pain and he decided to alleviate their suffering.

Giving up his comfortable life, and his wife and child, he set out to study various religions for the answers.

After some time he adopted a life of self denial and fasting until, on the verge of death, he realised that this was not the way to end suffering: in fact he was perpetuating it.

During this time he was meditating under a Bodhi tree and this was where he received the revelations which led to his enlightenment. These were on three successive nights: on the first night he saw his former lives pass before him; on the second he came to understand the cycle of life death and rebirth, and on the third night the four holy truths of suffering.

Despite receiving enlightenment he chose to remain on earth and help others.

Sidebar 2

Toul Sleng  (known in the Pol Pot years as S-21 or Security Office 21) is now The Museum of Genocidal Crimes. This was Angkor’s’ primary security institution: designed for the interrogation and extermination of anti Angkor elements. Originally a high school (Ponhea Yat) and built in 1962 it was enclosed with corrugated iron and electrified barbed wire during the Khmer rouge regime. Prisoners came from all over the country, all walks of life and included different nationalities including British, American Australian and new Zealand.

Over 12, 000 people were killed at S-21. While in the cells prisoners were shackled to iron bars and on arrival had been photographed and details of their life recorded.

The museum is not only a reminder of Cambodia’s very recent history, but also serves as a warning about how badly very ordinary human beings can treat each other.

 

 

Food, wine, and birds in Melbourne

Wine tasting is often popular

Off out for a day tour with Grayline (Melbourne, Australia) as well as visiting a wildlife sanctuary and riding the Puffing Billy, we had food in many ways, including for some fellow passengers  feeding birds.

Interestingly the chef at our dinner stop -‘for the best roast beef you will ever have’ our driver  had told us – insisted that the alcohol in the jus would have been ‘cooked out’ – an old chefs myth that’s repeated all the time so I was not surprised she didn’t know. (See here for the facts from the US Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Data Laboratory which calculated the percentage of alcohol remaining in a dish – based on various cooking methods)

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Best-ever food at First Landing in Fiji

Visiting the First Landing Resort  in Fiji was an unexpected bonus after cruising on the Fiji Princess. It’s a lovely resort with many levels of accommodation and it appealed to me: unpretentious and friendly. Check out their website as there are some luxurious parts within the resort to stay also – including having your own pool.

But an even bigger bonus for me was the Chef’s Tasting Selection after a kodoko (Fijian raw fish) making lesson. Without a word of exaggeration it was the tastiest time I have had for a long time. I wish my photos did the six plates justice: the tempura coral trout was the prettiest, most impressive, dish I’ve seen: why is it food that looks so good to the eye fails the lens test?

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Let your taste buds imagine what mine had, and, if you get to Fiji make sure you have a meal at the First Landing Resort – make sure you tell them the KiwiTravelWriter sent you.

Fijian feast is cooked underground

 

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Our catamaran, the Fiji Princess, gets tied to a coconut tree: the Yasawa Islands setting idyllic, and we are to have a Fijian feast onshore, followed by a concert by the local village.

Coconut has a special place in the Fijian diet and, grown in most coastal areas, it’s not only for food, but plays an important role in the economy. It is also used in many ways in the lovo (earth oven); as a basket, as the steam producer then to cover the food.

These photos are of the demonstration we saw of a food basket being made.

Some of the foods cooked in the lovo were Taro (dry starchy root crop), Kumala (sweet potato) whole chicken and a large leg of pork. After the burning wood was removed the meat, and vegetables placed in the hole in top of the hot rocks, covered with banana leaves and cooked for about 3.5 hours. It’s considered a healthy meal because of the lack of oil – it is quite similar to the (Māori) hangi or the (Hawaiian) luau or (Samoan) umu and has a smoky flavour.

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After showering, washing off the salt water we had played in, we return to the island, where a kava ceremony was being held, and before long we watch our dinner being dug up.

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While the pork was dry, the crackling on the pig was fabulous (I think it had been grilled somehow after being cooked in the lovo) and my favourite dish was the entre. It’s a ‘raw fish’ dish made up of Walu (sometimes called Spanish mackerel) with ‘miti’ – a coconut-based sauce. The fresh fish is marinated in lemon juice and left to “cook” for several hours. The thick coconut milk is added after it is “cooked” together with finely diced tomatoes, chillies and salt – this is the ‘miti’.

the pork is carved
the pork is carved
Raw fish (kokoda)
Raw fish entree (kokoda)

Dinner over, we move to seats in a clearing among the coconut palms – by now it’s very dark and before long we are entertained by beautiful singing and dancing at the ‘meke’. I often feel uncomfortable joining in traditional dancing anywhere, but the Fijians seem to love a conga line, making it easy for all, including me, to join in!

 

NOTE: Kava is used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural and social purposes throughout the Pacific.  In Fiji a kava ceremony often goes together with social event and while on ‘the Princess’ it happened three times – including a ritual presentation of the bundled roots as a gift and drinking the ‘grog’ is accompanied by hand-clapping before and after drinking from the coconut shell. It is made by pounding the sun-dried kava root into a fine powder, straining and mixing it with cold water.

Apparently the effects of a kava drink vary widely depending on the kava plant used, and amount drunk. Most on board didn’t drink it but for those who did their eyes became droopy or sleepy looking it seem the active ingredients have a half-life of about 9 hours.

New Zealand is concerned about the risk of driving after mixing of alcohol and kava. On the other hand, it seems a national league team uses it after games to unwind.

Note: the KiwiTravelWriter was a guest of Blue Lagoon Cruises

 

Food, glorious food: oysters, berries, and chocolate

From oysters, berries, and cheese through to chocolate, my gourmet food and sightseeing  day trip with Bruny Island Safaris had it all: beaches, history and wildlife and for any foodies delight, meeting some of the producers of our food tastings.

One of those producers was an ex-teacher who turned an Adventure Bay paddock into a productive berry farm in only 3 years. A berry I’d not heard of was my favourite – Jostaberry – a thornless blackberry-gooseberry cross.

The Bruny Island Cheese Company has artisan cheeses, great breads, and many other foods in their shop and cafe-restaurant. It was a very popular stop, not just with my group but many others who were also enjoying tastings or their meal.  The award-winning chutneys, pâté, & pastes (made on site) at the Bruny Island House of Whisky were award-winning for me too – of course, others preferred the whisky tasting🙂

Bruny Island is about the size of Singapore, has a population of 600, and thousands of visitors each year – with nearly all arriving by the regular and frequent vehicular ferry (15 mins, no booking needed).

More blogs to follow!

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Shucked oysters in Tasmania

Oh yes shucked oysters!  My next blog will be about the food tasting I did while on a day tour with Bruny Island Safaris. Oysters will lead the way of course – watch this space in a couple of days.

New York soup kitchen

Extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a Passionate Nomad (Available on Amazon)

Posting this as, in a month, after 19 years since this happened, and contact via Facebook, one of the women (in this story) and I, hope to meet for a coffee in Australia – and it won’t be snowing!

Teh tarik and my notebook - Malaysia
Teh tarik and my notebook – Malaysia

“An intriguing notice on the board in the lobby catches my eye. Help needed at the University Soup Kitchen. Meet Saturday 9am here in foyer, if you can give us some time. Thinking of the man under the bridge I offer my labour and next morning join two Australians and we’re taken by underground to the venue.

‘Welcome to the University Soup Kitchen,’ a conservatively dressed woman addresses us: we can hear capital letters stressed in her speech. ‘We are commonly called the Meat-Loaf Kitchen because that is what we Cook Every Week. We’re only open on Saturday and Produce a Good Meal, well Balanced and Tasty. We are only Open on one Day and for many of these People it’s the only Decent Meal they get All Week. Others are open Every day but we Pride ourselves on Quality. We also Treat people like Human Beings and Expect all Volunteers to do the Same. People are Here because they are Down on their Luck and it does not Reflect on them. So You Will Treat them Well or Leave, Right Now.’

She looks around the room of helpers, eyeballing us, daring us to show any prejudice against her customers. No one dares to leave so jobs are assigned: I’m to set tables then, with another woman, will serve coffee. The boss-lady adds a postscript, ‘People are allowed Second Helpings Only after All have been Served. They can have as much Coffee as they want. We Pour coffee for people At the Tables. You would Expect that if You were in a Restaurant and They are to Get the Same Good Service.’ Her voice fills the large hall here at the back of the church and the Aussies and I exchange raised eyebrows.

‘Hurry, hurry, we Open on Time.’ Her voice is everywhere and at last everything is ready and we gather around the boss again.

‘As I said earlier, we make a Tasty and Healthy meal here and to Show that to our Guests we Also Eat here, so go get your meal and sit down.’

I’m amazed; we are going to eat while the recipients of this ‘healthy meal’ are already lined up inside the room. Surely it would be better to feed them first and the staff could eat any that’s left – if they wanted it.

Her voice is even louder as she describes the Wonderful Work she and her band of Regular Volunteers do. The Aussies and I continue our eyebrow talk. ‘We don’t Ask Questions as to Why they are on the streets and we Don’t make them sit through a Religious Talk, like Some places, before they get their meal. We are Non Judgmental. They have a Need and We Provide it.’

I sit, eating the meal in an uncomfortable silence, under the gaze of the waiting people then, ordeal over, it’s time to work – the meatloaf sitting heavily in my usually vegetarian stomach.

I carry two coffee-pots to the first table. ‘Hi guys, coffee anyone?’ Silently they all indicate yes and I pour out six mugs, before going to the next table. ‘Hi everyone, coffee all around?’ This table is more vocal and we talk about the weather.

‘It’s going to snow some more,’ a man tells me.

‘Do you have somewhere warm to stay?’ I ask. He tells me yes, he doesn’t live on the streets, but comes here for a regular meal each week. The pots are empty and I replenish them and continue on my rounds. At the next table, a man produces a screw-top jar that he wants filled and a few have thermos flasks to take away the hot drink.

It sounds like a regular café and with everyone eating and drinking I can slow down and talk to some of the people, mainly men, who are here. I want to ask questions but restrain myself and we talk in general terms. They want to know where I come from, tell me I have a ‘cute accent’ and the constant theme is that ‘it’s going to snow some more.’

For two hours I’m in and out of the kitchen refilling the coffee-pots as well as responding to cries for more sugar or another plate of bread. While stragglers remain over the last of their meal I help sweep the floor and tidy up.

She-who-must-be-obeyed runs a tight ship and all goes smoothly – by three o’clock we are finished and with the Aussies, go to a local pub to talk about our experience: the three of us have Social Work qualifications. ‘It seemed as though the talk she gave us was really for the people waiting for food.’

‘I hated eating in front of everyone waiting for a meal.’

‘God keep me from being like that woman!’

Our common consensus is the day has been a good example of cultural differences and the type of social work we don’t want to do. As we find our way back to the hostel snow falls – the forecasters in the soup kitchen were right.”

Extract from the chapter ‘Meatloaf and Frozen Eyeballs’

Facebook page for Naked in Budapest.