Siem Reap’s Hidden Treasures


Copyright Michael Bencik 2013

I would feel a little negligent not to talk about Siem Reap a bit. I was not impressed when I first arrived; touristy hotels, restaurants, and shops. Not the Asia I had fell in love with. Once I was able to accept that we were in Cambodia’s Disney World, I began to have more fun. For one, the food was really good, and varied. First time in 7 months I had Mexican food, a nice change. The beer selection was also good. Yvonne and I were still recuperating from the ravages of food poisoning, but Jeff still needed to be entertained. Can’t have someone fly across the globe and not take him out for some beers.

So after exploring temples during the day, we would hit the town for some drinks and food. They had an entire street blocked off for bars and restaurants, called Pub Street ironically. Jeff’s feet were pretty manky from walking around the temples, so we thought they needed a thorough cleaning. Not trusting that he would use soap himself, we came up with a better option, Fish Massage. Boy did we ever find the place for it. There were two tanks a foot deep with padded seating around the edges. For 3 dollars we were able to get a beer, a 10-minute back massage, and a thirty-minute fish massage. Yvonne opted for a regular massage. The fish were young tilapias, according to our sweet little masseuses, not piranha, as we all had feared. Having been bit on the foot by a piranha in the Amazon when I was 17, I really did not look forward to having that experience again.

I was really looking forward to watching Jeff’s expression as the fish mauled his feet. I was not disappointed, as he slipped his feet in the water he squealed like a 13-year-old girl, splashing the masseuses in his panic. But with some peer pressure from the 19 year old staff, he put his feet back in. Well, it was the best three dollars we had ever spent. The fish biting your feet tickled like nothing in the world, but after 10 minutes your feet grow accustomed to it. When you pull your feet out, your skin looks as pink and soft as a newborn baby. The back rubs were pretty good too. Yvonne’s massage was not as good as in Thailand, but still a good deal.

We wandered the streets looking for a bar that did not have young girls waving older guys in. After a bit we found what we were looking for, a small bar with nice French music drifting out of it. The actual bar was an old boat, and it had a phenomenal beer selection. It was filled with expats who live here now. I love learning of their experiences living abroad. The owner moved in right after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, when there was still a lot of violence going on. His bar was the first to be opened after they left. He explained how difficult it was in the first few years getting things going, even getting beer to his bar. But he loved the people, and the country, and stuck it out.

At this point the expats were starting to warm up to Jeff and I, so they bought us a shot of Absinthe. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, but you never want to be rude. So we took the sugar cube on the spoon, melted it down into the drink, and then tossed it back. To say this stuff knocks you on your ass would be an understatement. One more beer and the whole world began to spin. That’s when we called it a night, grabbing a tuk tuk home.

Next night we checked out an Irish pub. Jeff is funny in the way that if there’s a sporting event on TV, he can walk in to almost any bar in the world and start up some sports conversation, and next thing you know he’s just one of the guys. He grunts, swears at the TV, and rips on the others guys team at the top of his voice, and they grunt in return, slap each other in the back, and toss back their beer. Between grunts you might hear ‘Bloody Ref’, or “Screw That”, then more grunts. It’s an amazing ability; one that I never was able to pick up.

There was a raffle going on that night to support one of the local charities. A girl was telling the story of their NGO, and she was so enthusiastic, you could not help but to be drawn in. Her charity was KIDS International Development Society. They supply local schools with books, teachers, and support, and families with rice, and developmental aid. They strongly opposed all the kids being taken out of school because parents could not afford it, and forced to beg to tourist at the various temples. Listening to her it was hard not to be moved, so of course we bought some tickets. She also invited us to hang out with them in two days for the children’s parade.

Next day Jeff flew off Phnom Penh, the beginning of his 24-hour journey home through Dubai. We stopped at a local place across from the airport to grab a beer, and some mystery soup. I figured the best way to say good by to the country was local cuisine. It was great break in the trip to have my brother come out and hang. In addition to know that Yvonne and him got along so well. We tossed a beer back with our driver and sent Jeff on his way.

We decided to stay a few more days to recover. Why leave when you have a clean hotel, great staff, and pool. Over the next few days we relaxed. I did the bike tour around the Angkor Wat, sketched, shopped, and ate really well. There are so many markets here. There were the high-end shops across the river, the night market with handcrafts from all over Cambodia, and the cheaper stuff in the pub area. The night market was really nice, because it had shops, masseuses, and a beer tent. I got a rather painful back massage for five bucks. The man took his job seriously trying to break my back. I was resistant to massages at first, but Yvonne eventually broke me down. It was weird for a stranger to be rubbing me all down. At five bucks though, I learned to enjoy it.

That night we went to the Children’s Parade, and what a great event it turned out to be. All the NGO’s get together and compete on making giant puppets with local children. As I said earlier, there are so many charities here in Cambodia, all trying to improve life after the devastating war with Khmer Rouge. There are still horrible land mines throughout the country, killing and dismembering people, usually children.  A third of the population of Cambodia is under the age of 15. This was a great way for them to not only excite the children, but also their own staff with a nice friendly competition. The streets were packed with locals, cheering on the long line of giant dancing animals. Twelve feet high frogs and spiders had taken over the town. They were all were brightly colored, with a translucent material, lit up from the inside with glowing lights. It was an event that I was thrilled to watch.

The next day Yvonne and I decided to try our hand at cooking Khmer food. We went to Khmer Cooking School at the Le Tigre de Papier restaurant on pub street. We met our chef and teacher there. We were given a menu, and told to choose an appetizer, main, and dessert. There was about ten of us there, and a huge selection of food to cook, from Vegetarian spring rolls, Amok Chicken, Banana Flower Salad, Loc lac Beef, among many others. We each chose something different, which seemed absolutely nuts to me, that’s over 20 dishes we were all going to prepare. Before I could even realize how crazy that was, we were off to the market.

The markets are my favorite place to be in Asia, so filled with bright colors, varying textures, and strange and mysterious smells. They are loud, so to say we could hear much of anything our guide was saying would not be to far from the truth. But she still managed to get all the ingredients together for our dishes, and answer some of our questions.

Then it was back in the kitchen, for some hard-core prep work. We had various tubers and onions, spices and banana flowers, to work with. We diced quite a few up together, then using a large heavy bowl, the mortar, and a pestle, a small tool with a round head, we began to smash them all together. This is harder work then you realize, so we passed around the dish to each other. It gives you a greater appreciation of these small Khmer women who are sitting there preparing this food everyday. I would not want to get in an arm wrestling match with them, that’s for sure.

After a half hour of pounding, our kroeung was finally made. Kroeung is a mix of spices formed into a paste with that is the basis of so many Khmer meals. We all took turns going in to the kitchen now, adding a bit of fish sauce here, a little water there, some butter to fry, and mixing the sauces.  It was a small kitchen, so everyone worked in shifts. While the others were on the stove, we learned to cut banana leafs up for plates, and make flowers out of carrots for decoration. Yvonne and I made spring rolls, fried and fresh for appetizers. We rolled them like Rastafarians, nice and tight. I fried mine up in peanut oil making them nice and crispy. I added the last ingredients to my soup and finished it on the stovetop.  Now we were ready.

What a feast it was. It was the best food we had on the entire trip. The spring rolls were phenomenal, crispy and light on the outside, but juicy and tangy on the inside. The soup had a tangy smell that made my mouth water. It was a vibrant yellow color filled with big chunks. I loved it so much I did not even want to share it. We sampled everyone’s dishes, and there was not one that I did not love. Then our master chef brought out our desert, Mango Sticky Rice. I could not fit one more bite in, and I love the sticky rice. Ok, maybe just one. After that Yvonne and I went into a food coma for hours.

Later that night at the Irish bar we met a British Expat living in Philippines. He told us a great story about how a decade ago, he and a buddy decided to bike across China, even though large sections were closed off to them. He made it all the way to the end, and they were at a bar, slapping each other on the back, congratulating themselves, when the door opened. Another older Westerner walked in with an insanely long beard. They asked him where he came from, and he said he had just walked there from France.

So it goes to say, no matter how great your accomplishment, there is always someone who has done better. That’s pretty much sums up our traveling, we feel like we are taking a great risk just being out there, quitting jobs, leaving loved ones, just to see the world. But everywhere we turn we meet fascinating people who have seen and done so much more, and took on risks that I think are just insane. Which is great, because it always gives you something to aspire too, and dream big!

Things we were able to cook at the Tigre de Papier

Samlor Machou Khroeung
Tum Yam
Banana flower Salad
Fresh Spring Rolls
Fried chicken lemon
Fried Spring Rolls
khmer chicken curry
Mango Salad
Papaya Salad
Spice shrimp Salad
Fried beef & water_spinach
Fried chicken & basil
Fried chicken and cashew nuts
Fried_chicken and ginger
Khmer Chicken and Bok Choy
Khmer Lasagna
Loc lac Beef
Pumpkin Gratin
Pumpkin Soup
Samlor kteas
Samlor Machou Khroeung
Tum Yam
Banana flower Salad
Fresh Spring Rolls
Fried chicken lemon
Fried Spring Rolls
Khmer chicken curry
Mango Salad
Papaya Salad

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