Cambodian street food : chilli cockles

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It’s not often I post about things we haven’t actually eaten, in fact never – But, I was pretty surprised by the cockle sellers in Cambodia, for a couple of reasons.

Battambang chilli cockles

Battambang chilli cockles

On the one hand, I’m quite amazed that anyone thought that pushing trays of shellfish around in the midday sun was a good idea; and then on the other I’m surprised that small cities like Battambang can sustain so many people trading the same product.

I’m usually fairly fast and loose with my digestive health, an adventurous spirit, a street food gambler – although Pani puri proved to be a step too far –  I love cockles, but I just couldn’t justify buying unrefrigerated shellfish in the middle of the hottest time of year.

If anybody managed to enjoy these without gastrointestinal adventures, I would greatly like to know more.

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Cambodian street food : Loc lac  (stir fried Khmer beef)

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Beef loc lac, sometimes written as lok lak isn’t exactly a Khmer dish – The name comes from the Vietnamese bò lúc lắc, which translates as ‘shaking beef’ in reference to the constant pan movement to cook the small chunks of meat.

It does however have flavours and ingredients which I found to be inherently Khmer –  fresh pepper & green tomatoes.

Loc lac features on most tourist menus across the country – chances are if you’re looking at an English language menu, it’ll be on it.

Beef Lok Lak
This picture is sourced from Flickr via a Creative Commons License, thanks to Sodanie Chea

Cubes of beef are marinated in a mixture of soy, oyster and fish sauce with garlic and sugar before being stir-fried. It’s usually served on top of a bed of lettuce, with green tomatoes and slithers of raw onion. The meat is paired with a lime, pepper and salt dipping sauce which is both intense and addictive, it’s a perfect accompaniment to the seared beef.
Before the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975 they farmed what was considered some of the best pepper in the world. Production has taken off again since the removal of Pol Pot and his regime. The pepper has an incredibly layered taste, it’s used in a number of Khmer dishes.

It’s best served with a fried egg on the top and a side of boiled rice (as it’s a tourist favourite, it’s often seen with French fries and may be described as loc lac barang) Expect to pay upwards of $3.50 (15’000 riels ) depending on the location and how touristy the restaurant is.

Useful phrases

Muay – one
Pee – two
Soum – please
aw kuhn – thank you
Lee suen hai /lee hai – goodbye
Soum ket loi –  the bill, please

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Cambodian street food : Kampot pepper crab

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Kampot is a provinical town set against the tek chou river, a gentile place where little happens; a haven of cafes and day trips.

It’s also famous for the production of peppercorns.

Kampot peppercorns

Kampot peppercorns

Before the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975, Kampot pepper was famous, considered one of the premier peppercorns the world over and a popular choice with the French, who have a lot of colonial history in the region. Pol pot and his cohorts took over the country, killed off the elite and the educated and sent the remaining population to work farming rice. During this period the pepper farms were destroyed.

Fast forward to the modern day, the Khmer Rouge have been ejected and although Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the South East Asia region, it does have a rapidly developing tourism scene and the famous pepper is growing again.
The town of Kep, thirty or so kilometers from Kampot is home to ten or more seafront restaurants known as ‘the crab market’ the shacks are perched on the waters edge and all sell similar products – prawns, squid, grilled fish and crab in pepper sauce.

The crab is cooked in a Chinese style sauce, using oyster and soy sauce, with a hit of sugar to create a sweet and sour flavour. The green pepper corns are left on the vine and stir fried with the sweet, succulent crab. The pepper flavour is spicy, but with a sweet fruitiness – a perfect match with the sweet crustaceans.

The glut of near identical restaurants keep pricing competitive and the seafood is super fresh – after you order you’re likely to see someone wade out to the crab traps to round up your dinner – and it’s a truly memorable South East Asian culinary experience.
Useful phrases

Muay – one
Pee – two
Soum – please
aw kuhn – thank you
Lee suen hai /lee hai – goodbye
Soum ket loi –  the bill, please

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Border jumping Thailand to Cambodia : Ban Packard to Psar Phrum / Chanthaburi to Battambang

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We decided that we were going to head back into Cambodia, but did not want to go through the Poipet border, as the last time (coming into Thailand) it was a ridiculous, long, badly organised experience taking hours, to stamp out, walk a hundred metres, and stamp in again.

As we wanted to go to Battambang anyway, we decided to take the one of the quieter, southern border crossings – Ban Packard to Psar Phrum which, I discovered online has very little relevant info. Some sites suggest it’s the adventurous route, but actually it was really, very easy.

To get there, we broke it up over two days. We jumped in a minivan from Bangkok’s Victory Monument (Anusawari Chai, if you need to tell a taxi driver) to Chanthaburi, which cost two hundred baht per person, and around three hours.

Here’s a top tip, if you want to get to Chanthaburi as soon as possible, make sure you show a map to the booking people, because apparently it sounds a lot like Katchanburi when we say it. Katchanburi looks like a nice place, but it’s two hours in the wrong direction when you’re trying to get to Cambodia.

Chanthaburi is a provincial capital city, It seems like there could be a few nice things to discover and explore with a bicycle. There is also a night market, with a whole heap of eating options, but most of them are take-away only very few street vendors have tables and chairs. We did however found a cheap, awesome street style restaurant next to the 7/11 near the hotel – Delicious.  
Unfortunately our Thai visas were running out and had a date set to meet friends in Vietnam. Not this time, Chanthaburi.

Chanthaburi map

We stayed at the river view hotel, which had a very helpful lady working in the morning and directed us to the bus pick up just across the bridge – Less than 100m away. It was quite lucky for us that we had seen this hotel in a guide book and just decided to try it out. It was adequate and cheap, but ideally located to get ourselves (and our packs) to the border bus in the relentless heat.

Smallest 'double' bed ever...

Smallest ‘double’ bed ever…

As far as we could work out in the broken English conversation the bus pick-up only runs once a day. There is another company which is somewhere near (around a couple of corners) the KP Grand Hotel which is directly opposite the 7/11 on the map. They apparently run three buses a day, at 0930, 1030 & 1130.

A few posts I had read online suggested all kinds of issues with getting to the border, or across the border or even away from the border at the other side, but it went without a hitch, for us.

We checked out the bus stop before breakfast – the man there spoke no English at all, but had a little card that said ‘0940 – 150B’ so we came back then. The minivan arrived about 1010 and we had an entertaining one (ish) hour journey to the border with a bunch of octogenarian Thai’s headed to the Casino in Pailin. The journey was punctuated with beautiful scenery and the occasional squawking -between naps – from our Saga holidaymaking companions. We made up their conversations for our own amusement, it mostly involved a new handbag that was excitedly passed around a lot and how one of the ladies, who was huffing and puffing all journey was “too old for this shit”. Much fun was had by all.

We got out at the gate, walked through the Thai side, stamped out; across the very short dividing area and into Cambodia in less than five minutes. Apart from a couple of Cambodian girls, we were the only people at either passport control and sailed through. The Cambodian officials were very nice and polite with no mention of a bribe or ‘special charge’ at any point. They even wished us a nice holiday.

At this point we’re thinking, ‘this is where it’s gonna get hectic’, because there’s two confused looking white guys with backpacks and over half a dozen taxi drivers all waiting to separate us from our dollars.

The first guy who was very eager to speak with us, took the piss and quoted 1200B ($37USD) to get to Battambang (around 100KM) in a private taxi, or 400B each in a shared taxi. We read online you could pick up transport in Pailin so he quoted 300B for both of us, but said there wasn’t a bus station there. We weren’t sure if he was lying or not (websites only seem to talk about a taxi stand?) but we went with our instincts settled on another guy who offered $8USD each to go straight to Battambang central market.  We ended up sharing part of the journey with five; yes five other people in his Toyota Camry but it was all quiet enjoyable really.

We left Chanchaburi at 1015 and were eating lunch in Battambang at 1400 – A very enjoyable four hour run.

Why did we take this route?

Because the border is the closest to Battambang
Because we had no interest in spending all afternoon queuing at Poipet.
Because we had even less interest in giving the Poipet transport mafia any of our money. if you’re not aware there’s countless stories on blogs and forums about how you are taken to a ‘free transport centre’ in Poipet where you are forced to pay massively inflated prices to travel onward – it’s in the middle of nowhere and the police are in on it too.
Because travel is all about fun – We have such better memories of the times we ended up doing things the untouristy way than the ‘VIP AC bus from X to X’.

 

Costs

Minivan from Bangkok to Chanthaburi : 200B per person
Tuk-tuk from Chanthaburi bus station to the River View Hotel : 60B (two people)
Minibus from Chanthaburi to Ban Pakard/Pong Nam Ron border : 150B per person
Visa charges : $20USD per person
‘Taxi’ from Psar Phrum to Battambang : $8USD per person

River View Hotel : 290B for a double with fan/TV & attached bathroom. The TV didn’t work and it was the smallest double bed ever, but it was OK. They also had a shared bathroom option for 190B.

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Siem Reap & the Angkor Wat Historical Park.

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We previously wrote a piece on daily budgets for India, but didn’t write on for South East Asia – $25 (USD) per person per day, is a well reported figure online and we think is about right to cover backpacker style accommodation, basic food from cheap restaurants or street vendors and the odd beer. We thought it might be useful to note basic costs for visiting Angkor Wat on a backpacker budget.

 Visiting Siem Reap & the Angkor Historical Park will cost more than $25 dollars per day.

Park entry

There are three ticket options for visiting the Angkor Historical Park.

A one day ticket costs $20 (USD). A three day pass, valid to be used within a week is $40 and a seven day pass, which has to be used within one month is $60.

We used a three day pass for three consecutive days. We saw and did a lot we could easier have spent another day or two in the complex. A one day ticket would probably never be enough, you would briefly pass through all the popular/famous temples and not even see them properly, let alone visiting some of the quieter temples.

Transport

Angkor Wat is located 5-10Kms from Siem Reap, depending on where you’re staying. There are several transport options.

A car and driver are available for around $25 USD per day, often with air conditioning.

A tuk-tuk and driver are available for around $15 – 25 USD per day, depending on whether you’re staying in the main temple area, or planning to head out to places such as Banteay Shrei (32km from Siem Reap). Tuk-tuks are loads of fun and provide a nice breeze and respite from the heat and humidity. It’s your choice, don’t let a tuk-tuk driver choose you. There is a lot of competition in Siem Reap and people can be pretty in your face about offering you a ride… If you don’t feel comfortable with someone, you’re not obliged to use their services.

Moto Taxi’s are available for zipping around Angkor for around $10 a day, but are only suitable for one person. May cost more to travel further afield, and potentially more dangerous than a tuk tuk. May well invalidate your travel insurance also.

Bicycles are a great way to get around, but you need to be really fit, and able to cycle from the Siem Reap to the Historical park, as well as around it. You won’t get to go as far afield on a bike and you will have to put up with the heat and humidity, but I guess it depends on what you want to get out of the experience. The roads however are pretty good quality for cycling, and cheaper than a tuk tuk or private car.

Walking is another option, as with cycling you can’t go as far afield and will be in the sun all day.

With private cars, tuk-tuks and moto taxis make sure you are all clear on how long you are paying for, and how much – agree on a time period and a price before jumping in. It can save a lot of confusion and and potential confrontation at the end of the day. It would suck to have such a small thing ruin what should be an otherwise awesome experience.

Guides

Apparently an English language guide is available for around $25 USD per day, more for less common languages.

Personally, I’m not so keen on the idea of a guide, and many of the tuk-tuk drivers know a fair bit about the different temples anyway. The difference between a guide, and a tuk-tuk driver is the standard of English, but we found our tuk-tuk captain to be a informative, friendly guy. This is entirely down to luck though…

Money

Cambodia has a national currency, the Riel, however most places list prices in US Dollars and take dollars as their primary currency. To complicate matters further you may often receive small change in riels, not dollars.

It’s really useful to have an exchange app on your phone to work out costs. We use the XE app; it’s free and lets you store ten currencies and will exchange rates without an internet connection. Winner!

Make sure you have some small bills, a lot of businesses in Siem Reap wont be able accept or be able to give change for bigger notes. It’s not all about the benjamins.

Accommodation

Accomodation options in Siem Reap are endless, my guidebook suggests “There are now more guest houses and hotels around Siem Reap than there are temples around Angkor”, and a search on Hostelbookers showed more than 100 options. There is a lot of choice, and options to suit all budgets but the demand is there also, several hundred thousand (probably more…) people pass through Siem Reap to visit Angkor each year.

We stayed in a double with shower/en suite as we did in most places in South East Asia for around $20 per night. The standard was as good as anywhere else in Asia we have stayed, although maybe slightly more expensive. We specifically looked for a hotel with a pool. We thought it would be a nice way to end the days after tramping around temples soaked in sweat – it was one of the best choices we made on our South East Asia trip.

Food

At Angkor Historical Park there are a number of places you may be taken for lunch, the two we went to were overpriced and pretty bland. $6/7/8 for a pretty average stir fried meat, veg and rice. If you want to save your money, take your lunch with you, or arrange beforehand to go offsite for lunch.

 Weather

Cambodia is hot, and humid. Get out as early in the day as possible. Around nine or ten in the morning the humidity becomes pretty stifling when you’re trekking about and climbing up steep steps. We visited in early December, which was apparently the cooler season. November through to February is apparently the premium, cooler dry season but with that expect lots of tourists around this time and high levels of humidity.

Realistically, it’s mostly going to be pretty busy unless you’re prepared to visit in the wet season, or when the temperature rises to around 40ºc.

Practicalities

Wear decent shoes! The paths are uneven and stony, there is also plenty of gooey moss around. Girls, make sure you are well dressed. Long dresses and covered arms will ensure you won’t offend the many practising religious folks at Angkor. It also means you get to visit ALL the temples – Phimeanakas, for example had an enforced dress code when we visited and a sea of under-dressed girls were left at the entrance.

Plan ahead and try to visit the more popular temples when they are less likely to be busy – lunchtime for example,or dawn when almost everybody will be watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

 Siem Reap town

As this is an incredibly tourist driven city there are A LOT of beggars, mostly children. It’s heart wrenching to ignore children telling you ‘I don’t want money, just buy me some food’ they could well be part of a scam where they sell the products back to the shop and split the money 50-50. Also these children are often being used and exploited by a gang running the scams. As harsh as sounds if you engage with them, and give them money, they will not break the cycle, they will continue to go without an education, and will spend their entire lives destitute and begging. If you want to help, there are many places in Siem Reap and surrounding areas where you can volunteer your time.

The same can be applied to children selling souvenirs in the Angkor Historical Park. They are going to work instead of school – it’s a moral judgement as to whether you buy something from them, We bought some postcards from a boy; he was probably around nine, but I am absolutely sure he went to school as well. I spoke with him about his life, and I negotiated that he had to teach me some Khmer if I bought his postcards. I have no doubt he will do well for himself, he was clever and his English was fantastic but there will be children in similar situations who will spend their whole life selling crap to tourists, never breaking the cycle, whose children won’t go to school either.

The town itself is an unusual place, it’s got such a high concentration of tourists it feels almost like a European holiday resort, there are bars and restaurants everywhere, and it’s not hard to find somewhere to eat. ‘Pub street’ in the heart of the backpacker area is full of restaurants, I imagine prices are slightly inflated with comparable restaurants in the rest of Cambodia, We unfortunately cannot compare as we didn’t have time to visit any other areas of Cambodia.

Bartering

Siem Reap is full of markets, if you want to buy some souvenirs, or some ‘replica’ items there are loads of choices, barter hard and walk away if you’re not happy, there are a hundred other people probably selling the same thing.

With regards to tuk-tuks or drivers, and guides we’ve read online you can barter them down a little bit, but why would you? $15 to employ a driver all day, and for him to wait around for you whilst you’re busy pretending to be Indiana Jones (was it just me?) is a really cheap price for a westerner to pay. What difference is a couple of dollars going to make to you? What you pay them is probably their daily wage, and they all have families to feed just like anyone else – Don’t be a dick.

We didn’t attempted to barter with our tuk-tuk captain and he made every effort to help us, he told us what types of food we should try, and offered to buy our water for us at locals prices rather than tourist prices, he also told us everything he knew about each temple. He was awesome, we were really lucky and I would have felt a dick if I had tried to shave a few dollars off.

All prices are in US Dollars,and based on our visit in December 2012.

**Check out our other posts on Angkor, including temples here & here.**

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Border jumping, Cambodia to Thailand: Siem Reap to Bangkok/ Aranyapathet to Poipet

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We arranged via our hotel to travel back to Bangkok on the bus, we didn’t really ask too many questions so it came to no surprise to us that we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Will it be one bus? Will we drive straight through?

The bus cost $16 US dollars through our hotel, it may have been a little cheaper if we had booked direct, but we didn’t know where we needed to go, and our hotel had been excellent so we were happy to pay them a commission.

We were offered three different times, six or eight in the morning and midday. We took the eight o’ clock bus as we thought it would be the most convenient time to leave, and also arrive.

The bus left sort of on time, and we drove towards the border. We stopped an hour into the journey for provisions and a toilet break, as is customary at these places everything is massively overpriced. There is a mini-mart opposite where the bus left from in Siem Reap which would has more choices and probably cheaper too.

We ended up stopping again in Poi Pet for some still unknown reason; we sat in a car park for about half an hour. After that the bus took us about a kilometre down the road to the border. It was very much a waste of time. The total journey from Siem Reap to Poi Pet took around three hours.

We were then taken off the bus, took back our luggage and given a red sticker! Hardly a ticket, and didn’t fill me with confidence if I’m honest.

So now were walking across to get stamped out of Cambodia. It’s getting on for midday and theres a lot of people around and plenty trying to get across the border. After you’re stamped out you have to walk across to the Thai side around two hundred metres and join the immigration queue here.

Again, the queue was long, and it did not move very fast at all. Literally hundreds of people walked straight past, out of the midday sun and into the air conditioned building. According to an employee we talked to you could go straight through if you got a visa on arrival! It’s a pretty great system that I pay for a multiple entry visa and have to stand in the midday sun for two hours whilst probably five hundred people  queue jump for a free visa on arrival. We spent over two hours waiting to get stamped out.

When we FINALLY get through, a man is waiting on the other side picking up lost looking people with red stickers. You now get assigned a number, and told to wait around.

A short while later a succession of vans turn up to ferry people to a restaurant around a kilometre up the road, where you’re invited to eat. It’s shit and it’s overpriced, but by this point I, and many others are pretty hungry. Sneaky.

You’re then ferried in mini vans to Bangkok, according to your red badge number (I guess to avoid queue jumping and suchlike) They jam you in and stuff all the luggage around you, it’s hot and stuffy and if you try to open the window the guy stops the car and gets out to tell you off. It takes about four hours and they drop you near Khao San Road.

Perhaps on other days the queue is shorter, or they are better organised. Maybe we went on a good day! If I did it again, I would get the six ‘o’clock bus to try to arrive at the border when the sun isn’t so strong.

The bus arrived into Bangkok around seven in the evening, taking eleven hours total.  I’ve read online about scams involving bus companies at Khao San Road, but nobody seemed to be missing anything in the buses we travelled in. Perhaps the night bus would be a more likely place to lose things.

cambodian street food : Amok (fish curry)

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Amok is one of the most well-known dishes of Cambodia. It’s tradionally made using fish steamed in a coconut leaf, although it is available in meaty forms too. We tried amok with pork, as we had been spoilt with fish all up the Vietnamese coast. It’s a Khmer curry, made with coconut, ginger, lemongrass and garlic.

It could be comparable to a Green Thai Curry, although it’s quite a different dish, it doesn’t have the aggressively spicy chilli flavours or the fish sauce punch;  but it can be similar in texture and appearance.

On another note, Cambodia’s national beer ‘Angkor’ with the excellent strapline “My country, my beer” is, like most South East Asian beers, quite light and enjoyable. A beer always tastes better when it’s sunny though, right?

We didn’t really get the chance to try too much Cambodian food. We spent three nights in Siem Reap on the way to Bangkok to catch our onward flight, we ate a lot of barbecue after long days at Angkor. Next time, I’ll be coming back.

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