Home Renovations and Cambodia’s Spirit Houses

There is an old Cambodian saying: “Open the walls of your house with caution. On the one hand, the evil spirits will be set loose. But on the other hand, you will discover all the mischief they caused behind your walls.”

That’s not really a Cambodian saying, but it totally should be. Especially considering the construction drama going on at our own house right now and the wonderful use of “spirit houses” in Cambodia.

We saw these intricate, small golden shrines everywhere in Cambodia – outside houses and businesses, gas stations, restaurants, just about everywhere. There was even a very simple wooden one at Choeung Ek. Most of the ones we saw looked like gorgeous, miniature pagoda temples or stupas, and were usually on a pedestal or wooden pole just outside the house or in the corner of a lot, around eye-height. Cambodians pray at them every day and make offerings of flowers, fruit, incense.

spirit houses

Spirit houses are sort of like an insurance policy for the home dwellers and one of many ways that religion is entwined with daily life in Cambodia:

“Where does this tradition come from? It is hardly a formal Buddhist practice, though it is so integrated into this very Buddhist society that it is accepted as part of the culture and beliefs. It seems that the spirit houses are part of far more ancient traditions, animist colored by the Hindu beliefs and gods that were part of Cambodian culture and life for a thousand years.”

As this blog notes:

Most spirits are finicky pranksters and they require respect from humans to keep them from interfering with a happy home or business. Offering a beautiful spirit house is the first step in appeasement.

Two thoughts here: 1) I should have bought a spirit house as a souvenir while we were in Cambodia; and 2) we must not have given the proper respect to the spirits that reside in our house walls.

We are getting work done on our house. The house we spent a lot of money buying just three short years ago. The house that was gutted and renovated before we bought it, thereby necessitating no work on our part for many, many years.

Yet, here we are.

We noticed some water damage on the wall under a window in my office. We concluded that the siding was leaking and it was probably time to get it replaced, something that had not been done during the renovation.

We went ahead and replaced all the back windows and the back door, while we were at it. And, we wanted to remove the substrate and install new insulation, also while we were at it. Pretty big project, pretty hefty price tag.

After the siding was removed, we discovered our framing (the original framing) was a disaster of epic proportions. Wood rot, old termite damage, water damage, even beams that had apparently been through a fire at some point and now resemble used charcoal. There’s a whole history of stories that were hidden behind our walls.

house construction

We also learned about the various short cuts the original contractor took during his renovation. Missing beams, particularly headers for window support. (hello, floating windows). Wood framing that doesn’t have the necessary metal brackets in place to protect them from electrical wiring (hello, fire hazard). A haphazard, jerry-rigged oven vent without proper metal plates to protect the wooden frame (hello, grease fire hazard). Short drywall that doesn’t completely rest on any beam and has left a 3-inch gap along the backside of my office that was covered over with interior trim (hello, high heating/cooling bills).

We’re pretty sure the old, leaky siding was the only thing that was holding the back of our house together.

So now we’re in it. We just started week two of this incredibly noisy, cringe-inducing project (there really is nothing like hearing workers repeatedly banging and sawing away at the outside of your unexpectedly fragile yet very expensive investment).

On the one hand, it’s good we know about all these problems and can fix them, even though “the fix” is now causing damage to some of our interior walls (we’re also down two window screens so far). But it also really, really sucks, and is going to cost us a fortune.

Hopefully, we’ve released all the bad spirits and they’ll leave our house alone now. Otherwise, we might be investing in a Cambodian spirit house.

Definitely Not the Happiest Place on Earth: Cambodia’s S-21 and the Killing Fields

I suppose it is entirely possible to go to Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, without going to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Choeung Ek.

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There are in fact, other things to see in Phnom Penh. The city once known as “the Paris of the East” is on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers, so you could escape the heat and humidity by taking a boat ride.

The ridiculously ornate Royal Palace is in Phnom Penh. We went, but it ended up making me so angry. To see all that manicured and gilded opulence while right outside the walls the trash is piled up and there’s no clean drinking water or basic sanitation just really chapped my hide.

Phnom Penh

The National Museum of Cambodia is also in Phnom Penh. We went. It was a bit of a let down. Not too many items on display. Perhaps understandably. There are a lot of open-air markets selling cheap tourist stuff, mostly made in China. We went through a few, bought a few trinkets.

But really, unfortunately, the main tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are those tied to it’s horrific, recent past.

I had done a lot of reading about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge before our trip. I thought I was pretty prepared, but how could anyone be prepared for such sadness? Knowing about the fight to overthrow French colonization and the roots and growth of the Communist Party in Southeast Asia doesn’t explain genocide. Reading about the motivations of Pol Pot and his party — to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people — doesn’t make their subsequent actions any more rational.

But it’s very much a living, breathing history. You can see the effects everywhere. The countryside is still riddled with millions of mines. You see people with missing limbs begging outside of Tuol Sleng and Cheong Uk. The median age is 21.7 years, and only 3.6% of the population is over the age of 65. (In comparison, 12.6% of US citizens are over 65.)

We hired a tour guide to take us to Tuol Sleng and Cheong Uk. Her name was Maria. She seemed pretty young in her salmon-colored tour guide button up shirt. Her accent was very thick and we had to lean in close to understand what she was saying and even then, we only caught every third word.

She told us that she was born after her country was liberated from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese. She has an older brother who was young during the revolution and still remembers it.  And her mother, of course. Her mother’s first husband was killed during the regime, she thinks it was at Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), but they’re not sure. He might just as easily have been trucked out to Cheong Uk (also known as the Killing Fields.)

I was actually a little stunned by how seemingly emotionless she was while she told us all this. I asked her if it bothered her, talking about her family, but she just shrugged and said it was part of her people’s history and that it’s better to talk about it. I tried not to ask anymore questions. I focused on just taking in the information and being respectful.

Our first stop was Tuol Sleng.

Tuol Sleng is a former high school that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a torture camp, prison and execution center. From the outside, it looks like any high school – five buildings surround a quiet grass courtyard where kids might have played during recess.

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But then you notice the list of rules with warnings of punishment by shocks of electric, and you realize — this stopped being a school a long time ago.

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Former prison staff say as many as 14,000 prisoners were held at S-21 before the Khmer Rouge leadership was forced to flee, in the first days of 1979. There are only seven known survivors of S-21, one of whom, Chum Mey, sells his book on the S-21 grounds. I don’t know how he can come back to that place everyday. He’s obviously made of some strong stuff.

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Visitors walk through cells still containing the rusted chairs and beds where prisoners were tortured and killed. Inside are displays of the weapons of torture, skulls, blood stains and 114 small black and white photographs — just a sampling of the photos of the thousands of people who were murdered here. (The Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers, compiling “confessions” and documenting everyone who passed through).

It’s a pretty solemn place. It felt weird even taking pictures. I probably only took 6-7 half-hearted photos. It just didn’t feel right.

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But this one below is my favorite photo from the whole day.

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I don’t know anything about him, but I love this guy. I don’t know if he’s smiling out of defiance, or he has no idea what’s about to happen to him (that seems highly unlikely) or if it’s just natural instinct when he saw the camera, but I am fascinated by that picture and that smile and what it might be saying. You do not see many grins at S-21, that’s for sure.

After our time at S-21, we took a short drive out to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

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Choeung Ek is just one of thousands of other such sites around the country (Killing Fields) where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide. You could basically be killed for any reason — you were Chinese, you were an intellectual, you were a threat to the Communist regime, you had a family member who was a suspected spy, you wore glasses (a sign of being an intellectual) — or for no reason at all.

The Choeung Ek killing fields are about the size of a soccer field and are surrounded by farm land. It contains mass graves, slightly sunken, for as many as 20,000 Cambodians–including women, children and infants — many of whom were tortured at S-21 before being killed. This was a place where people were brought to die, not be held prisoner.

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To save bullets, the Khmer Rouge used a variety of execution techniques, but especially bludgeoning with whatever handy instrument might be laying around. They also hung loudspeakers from the trees and played music to drown out the screams of those being tortured and killed, anywhere from a few dozen to over three hundred people a day.IMG_2909

A memorial building – a Buddhist stupa — was built in 1988 and stands in the center of the killing fields. Many of the 8,000 skulls inside were pulled from the mass graves.

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It was another very quiet, solemn, almost peaceful place, which feels very weird to say, considering what it was — a place of torture and death. We did not stay very long. Again, it just felt so weird and wrong to even be there.

There was an audio guide that apparently goes into a lot of detail, but we chose not to listen. I think what we were seeing was horrific enough.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in an afterlife or ghosts hanging about or anything even remotely like that. But I will say, there is something very moving and just–heavy–about a place like Cheoung Ek. You don’t have to be a spiritual or religious person to have respect for history and needless suffering.

Nonetheless, walking into a glass tower containing thousands of skulls, matter-of-factly lined up, with tiny colored dots telling you how they think they might have died was just shocking. No book can really prepare you for that.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to understand what they’re doing here with the stupa, how they remember and honor their dead. I’m trying to understand a tour guide who calmly tells you her stepdad and her grandfather were murdered while showing you around an execution site. I’m trying to understand how a young man who’s about to be tortured and murdered can smile for a camera. I’m trying to understand how a man who was imprisoned in an execution site and saw his wife and son murdered right in front of him can step foot in that facility everyday without collapsing into tears and anger.

I may be uncomfortable with how closely and nonchalantly Cambodians live with their recent history, how it’s turned into a tourist attraction, but that’s my own discomfort. What do I know about that kind of suffering?  They lived through all this and more. And they’re still living through it.

Looking for Immortality (but will Settle for a Cold Beer) at the Angkor Temples

It’s the middle of the afternoon, the hateful sun is making my scalp tingle, and I am sweating in places I didn’t even know you could sweat. Seriously, why would my knees need to sweat? What possible cooling mechanism does one need for one’s knees?

The baked lava-like steps of Bakong temple loom in front of me. Oh, my apologies. The temple is composed of sandstone, not lava stone. “Bakong is the first temple mountain of sandstone constructed by rulers of the Khmer empire at Angkor near modern Siem Reap in Cambodia,” says the now damp Wikipedia page I printed out and brought with us.

Bakong temple
Note the numerous stairs.

We’ve been assured by our guide Nak that this particular temple—our seventh or eighth one in the last three days—has some of the best examples of guard lion statues in the area.

Three days ago, that little tip would have filled me with unbridled enthusiasm. I would have been agog: “WHAT? Lions? Made out of stone?? To guard the temple? And these ones right here are the BEST remaining examples? I cannot believe our luck! No, I do not need you to lead the way, Nak. I will find them!”

But today, looking up at these ridiculously narrow steps (how small were the Khmer people’s feet?? I practically have to tippy-toe my way up and down the temple stairs here) to the multitude of terraces that make up the Bakong temple, all I can think is, “Yes, that’s nice, but what are the chances that those guard lions are protecting a nice cold beer that’s been waiting just for me?”

The famous stone lions at Bakong temple
The famous stone lions at Bakong temple.

I was officially templed out.

We saw, like I said, seven or eight temples in the Angkor complex and we really only scratched the surface. There are literally hundreds of major temples spread out over a 154-square mile area, which, at its’ height in the 9th to 15th centuries, had a population of over 1 million citizens.

We were also getting a crash course in Cambodian history, Hindu and Buddhist religions, ancient architectural practices, and a graduate-level dissertation on obscure symbolism. All in 100 degree heat and humidity. It was enough to make anyone’s head swim.

Nevertheless, learning did occur and there were definitely some standouts who managed to stick in our soggy brains:

Bantreay Srei's pink sandstone.
Bantreay Srei’s pink sandstone.
  • Bantreay Srei: I think this was probably our favorite one. It was the farthest away from the main temples (about 20 miles), which means it tends to be a bit less crowded. We went fairly early in the morning, when the sun made the rose-pink sandstone carvings even more beautiful. The temple was originally dedicated to Shiva (the destroyer or transformer) and the name of the temple means “Citadel of the Women,” so not surprisingly, it’s got a lot of beautiful apsara (nymphs). And the bas relief carvings on all the pediments and doorways were amazingly well preserved.
Ta Prohm tree
You might recognize this famous celebrity tree. Also, I am LOVING that woman’s talons to the right in this picture. They are just everything and are perfect for this setting.
  • Ta Prohm – This was the first temple we went to and its claim to fame is that it was used as the movie set of Tomb Raider. There are lots of people posing for pictures with the twisted spung tree that sits over the ruins. The whole spung tree thing is pretty crazy. You see them growing up out of the temples, basically consuming them. It’s very easy to imagine the jungle eventually just taking Ta Prohm back. Most of the temples are under UNESCO protection and there are international efforts underway to restore or preserve them, but the groups decided to leave Ta Prohm as is so that people could get an idea of that interrelation between the temple and the jungle.
Buddhists as tourists at Bayon.
Hey guys, meet your spiritual leader, Buddha (at Bayon).
  • Bayon — The Bayon temple features a sea of over 200 massive stone faces looking in all direction. You see these smiling faces a lot through Angkor, and their believed to be a combination of Buddha and the King Jayavarman VII. It’s a favorite among the tourist crews, who swarm like little ants all over the three levels. It’s really is beautiful and ornate, even the crumbling bits look ornamental and intentional.
Angkor Wat at sunrise.
Angkor Wat at sunrise.
  • Angkor Wat – The big Kahuna. The granddaddy of them all. So iconic, it’s the symbol on the country’s flag (the only country to have a building on their flag, by the way).  The best time to see it is at sunrise, and our morning spent sitting on the edge of the reservoir surrounding it, waiting for the big, red-orange sun to show up is one of my fondest memories of the whole trip. Everyone’s just sitting there patiently, chatting in hushed tones while the tuk tuks putter past in the background and the frogs do their ribbetting frog thing. Once inside, there are bas-reliefs all along the walls on the first level. They depict Hindu stories including the mythical “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” a super awesome name for a badass legend where Hindu deities stir vast oceans in order to extract the nectar of immortal life. AND to churn the ocean they used the Serpent King, Vasuki. I mean, how fantastic is that?? “Heya, Vasuki, what did you do this weekend?” “Oh, I had some of the guys over for tapas. After I ran out of Rioja, we went out and churned an ocean to get some Amrita nectar as a replacement. You know, as you do. So anyway. Crazy night.”
Churning away at immortality in Angkor Wat.
Churning away at immortality in Angkor Wat.

The temples at Angkor are amazing and wondrous. A once in a lifetime experience. And I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to see them. I’m especially indebted to our guide, Nak, who helped arrange the temple-hopping schedule so that we avoided most of the crowds. And there were plenty of crowds. It was not at all uncommon for us to be exiting a temple right as a convoy of tour buses was pulling up and offloading hoards of (mostly Asian) tourists (there are approximately 2 million visitors annually).

This was during a quiet time of day.
This was during a quiet (hottest) time of day when most folks go back to their hotel for a nap before heading out again for another round of temple hopping in the late afternoon/early evening.

Here’s a great story on the somewhat negative impact of the massive interest in the temples, including the problem of aggressive vendors and rude tourists.

So, for those who wonder, yes, three days of Angkor temples is sufficient.

We came back to our “favorite temple in Siem Reap” (Nak’s joke) the Le Meridien Angkor each afternoon tired and sweaty, our brains fried by the sun and the unbelievable amounts of information that we’d probably never have reason to call upon again (Was that last temple dedicated to Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Naga?).  But we were also stocked with a slew of new memories and shared experiences, tons of pictures and definitely ready for a nice cold beer by the pool.

Poe's nose at Bayon
Rubbing noses with the local Buddha faces at Bayon. #nofilter #nomakeup #sweatglow

Finally, Cambodia

So, Cambodia, y’all.

As I mentioned just briefly a while back, our March trip to Cambodia broke my heart.

cambodian map

Going from Singapore to Cambodia was a complete and mind-numbing culture shock. I mean, I had expected that going from the U.S. to Cambodia would be a bit of a shock but it turns out that going from super-shiny, everything-is-new, non-stop-development Singapore to the poverty and stagnation in Cambodia was way more overwhelming.

As we drove from the airport at Siem Reap to our hotel, we passed dry yellow fields with gray cows so skinny you could count their ribs. Through the dust kicked up by our SUV, I could see children in various states of undress playing in the dirt next to women sitting in dilapidated lawn chairs of all varieties—the women fanning themselves in oppressive humidity, just waiting for someone to stop at their makeshift roadside stalls.

A particularly busy stretch of road with stalls.
A particularly busy stretch of road with stalls.

Everybody is Cambodia is a roadside entrepreneur, selling everything from plastic soda bottles of smuggled gasoline (makeshift gas stations were everywhere) to those baggy pants with elephants on them to fresh sugar cane juice.

You can see the gasoline in the soda bottles just to the left there at this more established roadside stall.
You can see the gasoline in the soda bottles just to the left there at this more established roadside stall.
Me with some of the elephant pants on display outside of one of the temples.
Me with some of the elephant pants on display outside of one of the temples.

But none of them seemed to have any customers. Cambodia is, sadly, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Average annual income is $2.60 per day, with a third of the population living on less than $1 per day. According to the World Bank Poverty Assessment Report, Cambodia’s “near-poor”, those who live on less than $2.30 per day per person, may have escaped poverty but remain vulnerable to (even the slightest) economic shocks. The loss of just 1,200 riel  (about $0.30) per day in income would throw an estimated three million Cambodians back into poverty.

It is safe to say that the country and its people have not recovered from the horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s. This failed four-year agrarian, Communist experiment led to the death of an estimated 2 million people, or a quarter of the total population through a combination of executions, disease and starvation. Because of the genocide, up to 63% of Cambodia’s population is under 30 years old.

The main victims of the executions were educated people – teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, Cambodia was left to rebuild the country with hardly any educated people left to provide leadership and an ill-equipped, corrupt government.

As a result, Cambodia still has very little infrastructure with just a few roads (only 12% of which are paved), and no train system to speak of (there is a limited train system which runs to the southern seaport of Kampong Saom and to the northwest Thai border.) Much of the population, especially in rural areas, does not have access to electricity.

Yep, those are oxen.
Yep, those are oxen.

The “public” school system is mainly funded—inadequately–by students’ families. As USAID puts it:

Today, Cambodia’s education indicators are among the lowest in Asia. While the primary school net enrollment rate is an impressive 96 percent, the rate for lower secondary is 34 percent and for upper secondary is only 21 percent. Due to high rates of poverty in the rural areas, poor quality of education, and insufficient number of classrooms and teachers, school dropout rates in Cambodia remain high at the primary school (8.7 percent) and lower secondary school (19.6 percent) levels. Cambodia’s education system continues to be affected by a weak public sector service delivery system, minimal teacher capacity, lack of school facilities, and inadequate enrollment levels.

Tiny vendors who recited their ABCs in English while trying to entice us to buy something.
Tiny vendors who recited their ABCs in English while trying to entice us to buy something.

An even bigger problem holding the country back is government corruption. While Hun Sen brought in a measure of political and economic stability when he became prime minister in 1985, he’s also ruled with an iron fist and has allowed bribes and corruption to run rampant in his government. (Plus, he recently referred to himself in the third person during a speech celebrating his 30 years of power, and well, that’s a personal pet peeve of mine).

According to the reports over at Global Witness, every natural resource — from rubber to rosewood to sand –is exploited by the Cambodian government while the people get nothing. Even one of Bill Gates’ foundation to help prevent malaria has been ripped off by government officials. You know if one of the richest do-gooders in the world can’t keep it from happening, it’s pretty darn pervasive. And criticizing the government is, of course, extra frowned upon.

It’s all the more depressing when you contrast Cambodia today with the former glory and greatness of the Khmer culture. It is almost impossible to reconcile that the people who built the magnificent temples of Angkor are the ancestors of the people who today sit by the roadside scratching out a meager living by selling smuggled gasoline and can’t even send their kids to school.

kids playing

See? I told you Cambodia was heartbreaking.

There is a famous Cambodian proverb: “Don’t take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken.” Cambodians have a mixed bag when it comes to ancestors. But I hope that someday they can get back on the path of their Khmer roots and the golden age of their Angkor ancestors rather than staying captive to their most recent history.

Buddhist as tourist

Cambodian Tuk Tuks

Cambodian tuk tuks
Cambodian tuk tuks from above

We had a ritual when we were in Siem Reap.

Well, it’s sort of a ritual we have whenever we travel, really.

It goes like this: Run around like crazy people most of the day, soaking in all the history and culture and sights we can lay our eyes on, make comments on all the assorted smells and sounds, file them all away into our jumbled brains. Compare. Contrast. Compare. Contrast.

Then head back to the hotel in the late afternoon for a swim, a shower, some downtime. Get dressed  and head down to the hotel bar for a drink and a round of dominoes before dinner.

For the most part, this routine in Siem Reap was the same as on any of our other travels. What made it different was the going to dinner part. Because then my very favorite part of the evening would occur: the tuk tuk ride.

Cambodian tuk tuks

Tuk tuks are everywhere in Cambodia, and we rode them in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but my favorites were the ones in Siem Reap, where frugal travellers and bohemian student types would take them back and forth to the temples and/or Pub Street. A tuk tuk is kind of like a rickshaw. It’s basically a scooter with a covered seat attached to the back like a two-wheeled trailer. The sides are open, and there’s a roof overhead to shield you from rain or sun.

Cambodian tuk tuks

Each evening we’d go to the front of our hotel and the doorman would call us a tuk tuk. The sun would be setting and the gardeners would be lighting the lanterns in the trees, as some garish yet faded tuk tuk would pull up. To go from our hotel — Le Meridien — to downtown Siem Reap was about a mile, and would cost us $2-$3.

We’d pull out of the circular drive, pulling along the dusty shoulder of the road until our driver could find a gap in the traffic and nose his way in, the put-put of dozens of other tuk tuks and the chattering of the riders blending together.

We’d slowly inch our way along Charles De Gaulle road, past dozens of barely lit, open-air food carts, surrounded by customers and families sitting on plastic chairs. The smoke from the cooking would mix with the dust from the road and create a haze.

Siem Reap cooking

There did not appear to be any road rules or very many traffic signals. Drivers would just inch forward, give way, inch forward, hold back. Surprisingly, there really wasn’t much honking of horns, although, when there was, it was that tiny little non-threatening scooter horn.

We’d drive past a large circular, non-working fountain that nonetheless drew crowds of people sitting on its ledge and socializing, or picnicking on the sliver of grass between the fountain and the road.

tuk tuk ride

We’d make our way past what I think was a school, and next to that, a large building with an advertisement on the side advertising either an upcoming fight or a political race. I’m not really sure. Then the Angkor National Museum and the Royal Residence, where the air would finally clear of smoke and dust, and the smell of frangipani would hang in the humid air around you for a couple of blocks. This was my favorite part. I would breathe deep and try to fill my lungs with it, close my eyes and just hear the putter of the tiny scooter’s engine.

While waiting for passengers, the drivers would congregate and eye people walking by. We noticed that most of them wore pants, even though it was unbearably hot. We speculated it was to protect their legs from flying bugs, although a small bug hitting your leg at approximately three miles an hour seems very unlikely to cause permanent damage.

The drivers did, however, like to pull their shirts up over their bellies in a sort of half-shirt situation that reminded me of when I was a kid and my sister and I used to pull our t-shirt tails through our neck hole to make a sassy halter top.

Cambodian tuk tuk drivers
Cambodian tuk tuk drivers

Some nights we’d ride along the river, watching the traffic on the other side going the opposite direction, enjoying the brief breezes before turning down a small road or alley where there was no breeze and inevitably, a traffic jam.

Phnom Penh tuk tuk traffic jam
Phnom Penh tuk tuk traffic jam

On our way home from dinner, we’d often take the same or similar route, and the magic was still there. The controlled chaos of hundreds of little tuk tuks marching along like ants, ferrying tourists back and forth in the warm night air heavy with frangipani.

Siem Reap tuk tuks

Eight Incredible Things We Ate in Singapore and Cambodia (and New York)

The last two weeks have involved super fun, almost vacation-like visits to a new dentist for my third round of scaling and root planing procedures. If you don’t know what this is, you are extremely fortunate.

I’ve actually had it done twice before, but my new dentist (and my x-rays) suggested that I had not had it done properly, and there was significant plaque buildup. So back in I went for a couple of two-hour sessions involving lots of numbing shots to the mouth and ultrasonic instruments that make your eardrums buzz for ages afterwards.

All of which is to say, I’m glad I did not get this done before our trip to Singapore, Cambodia and Hong Kong. Because this trip was all about the food and the eating. A lot of eating. So much eating, of so much good food. The memories of all that great food helped me get through the two-hour dentist appointments.

Here’s a list of my favorite things we ate this trip, starting with New York, Singapore and Cambodia (Hong Kong is getting its own post. IT WAS JUST THAT GOOD.)

Birthday at Le Bernardin
Me with the first of SEVERAL birthday desserts this trip. This one at Le Bernardin.

Kingfish caviar at Le Bernardin, New York

We started the super awesome around-the-world birthday extravaganza in New York. We went up to the city the night before our Singapore flight, and lucked out on getting reservations at Le Bernardin. It cost a small fortune, but we had the Chef’s tasting menu. My perennial dining companion XFE pointed out that it was pretty unlikely we’d ever be there again, so why not splash out? (He’s a very good boyfriend).

This place, which in case you didn’t know, has three Michelin stars, is freaking amazing. Like, really, really nice. Far too nice for the likes of me. My voice is too loud, I hunch over my food, I eat and drink too fast, I gush a lot, and I wasn’t even sure what the small stool next to my chair was (to hold your purse, naturally). So, quite naturally, I started our dinner by knocking over my amuse bouche of soup. I swear, XFE can’t take me anywhere nice.

At Le Bernardin, the focus is on fish and there were several simply prepared all-stars, but my favorite was the kingfish caviar–a warm “sashimi” of kingfish, topped with Osetra caviar and a light butter broth. It was luxurious and briny and melted in your mouth. The seared wagyu beef with fresh kimchi was also amazing – fatty and unctuous – and I don’t even like kimchi.

Two sidenotes: my favorite thing about Le Bernardin (next to the purse stool) was that the huge round chairs swiveled out so you didn’t have to scoot your chair away from the table to get up. You merely turned to the side and gently lifted up and out of the seat. Classy. Oh, and we saw Eric Ripert peak his head into the dining room at one point. I was star-struck.

Continue reading Eight Incredible Things We Ate in Singapore and Cambodia (and New York)

The Road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

Cambodian chicken transport.
Cambodian chicken transport. By the way, it was 97 degrees out and this guy is wearing a puffer jacket. 

We took a nice little drive on Saturday here in Cambodia. We hired a driver to take us from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a distance of approximately 145 miles. But I will forever know that trip as “Exciting Game of Five Hour Highway Chicken.”

I’ve never been so glad to be alive.

Speaking of live and chickens, here’s a list of things we saw during that drive:

  • A tuk tuk stacked with mattresses that said Washington USA” on them (I did not know that Washington was our mattress capital.)
  • A flat bed truck full of stone Buddhas.
  • Two scooters carrying live chickens (they were tied to the scooters handles and a clever chicken-carrying contraption on the back).
  • A Mazda car chopped into a makeshift truck hauling duck cages.
  • Children on bicycles being pulled by children on scooters (they hold on to each other’s shoulders).
  • A truck of sewing machines pulling another truck of sewing machines by rope.
  • Several vans with people sitting in the trunk area with their legs sticking out of the open doors. And one with people balanced on top.
  • Several vans with scooters tied to the back (we think that’s a sort of makeshift tow truck for broken down scooters?)
  • A van hauling some beautiful and very large carved teak beds. Basically, the frames were wider than the van and stuck out on both sides.
  • Carts being pulled by oxen. Yes, oxen.
  • A peddler cart with toys and housegoods. Sort of a portable Walmart.
  • The most number of people we saw on a single scooter: Four.
  • A van filled with clear garbage bags full of red chiles and green beans. (seriously full. To the roof full).
  • A guy in camouflage with an AK 47 strapped to his back. Riding a scooter, of course.

I have a ton more to write about Cambodia and Singapore when I get back.

Cambodia Better Bring It

Ugh. I’ve been slacking on the blogging. I know. The thing is, I had to run all over town to find shorts. In February. In D.C. where the high temps this month have regularly hovered around “freezing your leg hairs off.”

(Also, I’ve had a lot of big deadlines to hit in the past couple of weeks. But let’s just blame the shorts, shall we?)

But we’re leaving this week for our annual Poe Super Birthday Extravaganza Trip to Far Flung Destinations–and this one is going to be a doozy.

This tradition began in 2008, when XFE was in Rome for work right before my birthday. We cashed in some miles and I met him and some of his co-workers over there, and had a merry old time eating lots of pasta, going to lots of museums and drinking lots of wine. And, of course, going to a soccer game (a tradition now whenever we travel to Europe).

The next year, XFE and his co-workers were in Japan, again, right around my birthday. In fact, I spent my actual birthday on the flight coming home. We did not see a soccer game but we did go to the opening day of a sumo wrestling match in Osaka. And ate lots of sushi, including sushi for breakfast after visiting the Tokyo Fish Market.

Tokyo Fish Market
That’s a lot of frozen sushi, which actually sounds quite gross.
Gambate
I don’t know, how do you sumo??

Every year, XFE has outdone himself, planning a bigger and better birthday trip. For my 40th, it was Australia. Two years ago, it was Peru. Last year, South Africa where I stroked a cheetah (YES, a cheetah!) and ate lamb’s brain at one of the world’s best restaurants.

South Africa Safari
Yep, just chilling with an elephant. No biggie.
South Africa cheetah preserve
That’s a cheetah, with my pudgy paw all up on it.

This year, it’s Cambodia (with stopovers in Singapore and Hong Kong). I know, right? I would not argue with anyone who says that I’m spoiled. I would lose that argument every damn time.

Oh, pardon me, I meant to say, the Kingdom of Cambodia. That is, apparently, the official name. Pretty bitchin’.

I am beyond excited. But I will say, it’s hella hot and humid in those places right now. So, I needed a couple of pairs of shorts, particularly since we’ll be visiting the very dusty, very hot, Angkor Wat. I want to make sure I have as much exposed pasty-white skin as possible to attract all of the mosquitoes in the area, and keep them away from my beloved trip planner, XFE. Love = sweating + risking yellow fever.

I don’t really know what to expect from this trip. I always like to say that we actually get to take a trip three times: once during all the excitement and anticipation of the planning stage. The second when we’re actually there, soaking it all in. And the third when I get to come back and write about it all. In fact, those amazing birthday trips (along with the non-birthday timed trips we tend to take as well) is what led to the creation of this blog. I wanted to document and remember all the amazing places we’ve been together. Even Peru, where my intestines tried to escape my body repeatedly.

You can't tell, but this not-so-young lady is wondering where the nearest bathroom is.
You can’t tell, but this not-so-young lady is wondering where the nearest bathroom is.

But because of the fluctuating nature of freelancing, I haven’t really gotten to take that first part of the trip. A lot of the planning has been carried out by XFE. He’s the one who found a spa for us to go get massages our first day in Siem Reap. He’s the one who found and arranged a fun-sounding food tour in Hong Kong called the Won-Ton-A-Thon.

We’ve actually put off a lot of the planning specifics, figuring we’ll use our 20-hour flight on this ridiculousness (YASSS to miles travel!) to figure out more details. Between stuffing our gobs with caviar and bossing our butler around, of course.

How on earth can they be gazing into each other’s eyes when there’s so many other things to see on this airplane??

Then I realized — when I was working in an office and not very happy with my work environment, I would spend a lot of my free time daydreaming and researching our upcoming trips. Now that I’m my own boss, I seem to be a bit more focused and productive. Hence, no daydreaming and a lack of blog posts, as well.

Which makes this trip kind of exciting. I haven’t ruminated it to death. I’ll be seeing everything with fresh eyes. Sure, we might miss some neighborhood or hot restaurant that we would have known about if I’d just spent more time on TripAdvisor, but I’m looking forward to just being blown away by the strangeness and the newness and the overall foreignness.

I haven’t even really thought out my packing list. Which is why, while the rest of the greater Washington D.C. area was out chipping ice off their sidewalks on Sunday, I was running around a mall trying to find sweltering-weather appropriate gear.

Why didn’t I pack some anti-malarial pills? (nice shorts, btw)

And, while I’m typing this, I’m supposed to be packing. XFE has been packed since Saturday.

Guess I better get to it.