the flooded forest & psar chaa market, cambodia part 2

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In the flooded forest.

After a day at wandering around Angkor, we welcomed a change of scenery. Angkor’s truly amazing, but there are only so many temples you can see before they start blurring into one another. (I wrote about Angkor Park in a part one post.)

 

Tonle Sap

After an early breakfast, we headed to Tonle Sap, the Asia;s largest freshwater body. As our tuk tuk leaves the city limits, we see modern buildings turn into paddocks and little shacks dot the roadside, selling snacks and bottles of fuel. After a good 40 minutes, we take a sharp turn onto a dirt track leading to the lake’s flood plains. Fed and drained by the a Mekong tributary, every year Tonle Sap floods on epic proportions, changing the dry landscape into quite literally, an inland sea. Out here, the tourist trade is only a fraction of the economy. Goods are transported via the lake and three quarters of Cambodia’s seafood comes from its waters. During dry season the lake recedes and rice is planted in the silted paddy fields. As you can imagine the flooding brings both agricultural prosperity and in some years, hardship to the communities surrounding the lake.

The houses here are bolstered by a concrete ground floor, with a wooden or rattan second story which is usually the family living quarters. Sothy has come along with us for the tour and his insight is invaluable. During the wet season the villages are flooded, so with the ground floors inaccessible families are restricted to the upper living area. Normally this is business as usual but in 2011 the floods were so severe that the tide mark reached almost 2.5 metres. This was so high, the water came to three quarters of the way up the houses, flooding everybody’s living quarters. I asked Sothy what happened to the people (and their livestock), as they would have been waist deep in water even on a second storey.

He said they simply lived and waited it out the best they could, moving their livestock into their living area if need be. Even though it was flooded it was better than leaving their livestock to drown. By the time we got there, the majority of the flooding had passed (though as we flew in some of the countryside was underwater as far as the eye could see). All that was left was a yellow tide mark ringing the houses and in the front yard, cows happily chewing their cud.

By the time we arrive at the port our bums are nicely tenderised from the tuk tuk seat. It’s quite a sight to see a port building that’s strangely inland, a good kilometre from the receding lake. We awkwardly trudge our way through thick grey mud and board a noisy long tail boat. The boat put-puts away, leaving the reassuring sight of land and into the vast lake with its tidal, frothy waves.

 

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A house metres above the lake. Love the colour scheme…

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The first sign of Kompong Phluk – a hall on stilts.

 

Kompong Phluk

A pretty pink hall that seems to levitate is the surreal first sign that we’re approaching Kompong Phluk. As contrast, the boat docks at a temple that was recently built on an embankment without stilts, a sign of modern times. Though serene, the temple is a modern riot of garish colours and murals and quite contemporary – they love bright colours here!

Kampong Phluk is sometimes marketed as a floating village, but unlike a floating village, it stays put. Most of the village buildings are stilted and during the dry season they rise up into the air, metres from the ground.

 

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Inside Kompong Phluk’s temple, a riot of colour.

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Depictions of Buddha line the walls.

Most tourists end up visiting Chong Khneas, the main port town. But I definitely prefer here, it’s quiet and less exposed to tourists. Children play chasey among the stilts and mats of pungent shrimp dry out in the sun for all to see. It’s life as usual here. We give out lollies to the kids and get bright smiles in return.

(Books and pencils are great gifts too but they rarely go to the kids as their parents usually take the books and sell them to tourists who then gift it back to their kids and so the cycle continues. So lollies it is.)

 

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More stilted houses, where the lake has not yet receded. We were there in early January, at the tail end of the 2011 floods.

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Where the lake has dried, the waterway has become a road. Villagers dry their catch of tiny shrimp in the sun. The smell is pleasantly pungent, to say the least.

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Villages taking an afternoon break in a local shop. As you can see, the bottom storey is not painted (see the stairs in the foreground too) as it will be underwater in 6 months’ time.

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The main drag of Kompong Phluk. Preparations for a wedding are underway within the yellow marquee.

In the sweltering sun, preparations for a wedding are underway within a marquee complete with super bright yellow and red decorations. Women were working hard at woks, preparing the wedding feast for later in the day. Somehow I feel like we’re intruding, so we boarded our long tail boat and headed further into the lake.

 

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Houses in the sky. I love how they grow ornamental pot plants while surrounded by water.

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Livestock are kept in floating pens. (Look! Floating pigs!!)

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A true ‘floating house’. A typical floating village will move with the seasons and you have to be a local to know where to find them.

On the way we pass true ‘floating houses’ on pontoons. These homes, plus their livestock (pigs can’t fly but they certainly can float!) are constantly on the move. Most of them are fishermen, so being close to the good fishing spots is a priority. Sothy actually grew up in a floating house but like a lot of lake people, his family eventually settled in Chong Khnaes. The migration from an itinerant lifestyle to an urban one is becoming increasingly common.

 

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Our canoe for for the flooded forest tour.

The Flooded Forest

Pulling up to a floating restaurant, we start our tour of the flooded forest. The only way to see this ecological phenomenon is via a private tour, there’s no way you can do it yourself (let alone get lost in the forest). The owner of the restaurant, who knows the forest like the back of his hand pulls in a wooden, weathered canoe and nimbly seats himself on the bow. We get on and head into the watery forest.

 

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Our guide paddling our canoe through the forest. The forest is both his neighbourhood and livelihood with his restaurant floating adjacent to the trees.

As we drift in, quiet and calm descend. The forest is flooded most of the year creating a unique sanctuary for fish and birds. During the peak of wet season, the forest is underwater except for the very top of the canopy, so instead of trees, you’d see bushes (!). The vegetation is so dense that the noise of passing tourist barges fade away into silence. Void of animals (poaching was a big problem) it’s spookily quiet and stunningly green. It’s a strange experience paddling and gliding through a forest, with water gently lapping as creepers and leaves brush past.

 

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Despite being surrounded by busy waterways, the flooded forest is incredibly quiet with no waves whatsoever. There’s not a single tourist in sight.

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Right in the depths of the forest.

We explore the darker, older copses of the forest and occasionally peer out to the open lake. The forest is a maze of intermittent sunshine and saturated bark and it’s calm waters without waves gives it an eerie appearance. It’s one of the most unique, weird, amazing nature based experiences we’ve ever been on. Despite the long journey to get here, there were absolutely no regrets. Apart from Angkor Wat, this is one of the best things you can do out of Siem Reap as a day trip.

 

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Hello there!

(If you are wondering where we stopped for a meal, we didn’t. The tour company provides packed lunches as there are no potable water facilities on the lake. So we had sandwiches while Sothy ate noodles from the floating restaurant. I was jealous but nonetheless, the risk of water borne diseases is not a joke.)

 

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Entering Psar Chaa market.

Psar Chaa Old Market & Le Tigre de Papier Cooking School

I have to admit, the next day frolicked in the hotel pool, took our own sweet time at the breakfast buffet and got a massage (oh yeah). I sort of felt guilty (for not seeing the World Heritage site a mere fives minutes away) but sightseeing for the sake of sightseeing is not fun. Instead, I went looking for food and enrolled at Le Tigre de Papier for a cooking class. I ended up learning not only a few new recipes but more about Khmer food culture. Food is definitely my kind of sightseeing!

Le Tigre de Papier is a popular restaurant on Pub Street and during mornings they run informal cooking classes. Every student gets to choose their dishes from the restaurant’s entire menu. The choice is staggering, you could cook anything from authentic Khmer cuisine to mushroom soup. While the weather’s still cool, our small group head to Psar Chaa Old Markets for a tour led by one of Le Tigre’s cooks.

 

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Refilled butane cans ready to go.
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In the heart of Psar Chaa is the wet market. The food is so fresh, it’s still wriggling!

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We pass stalls selling plastic kitchen tools, butane gas cans and mind boggling variations of rice before reaching the heart of the complex – the wet market. The dim lighting keeps the meat cool until midday when business starts to wind down. It’s so crowded with people and produce that vendors squat over their wares, some of which are swimming and wriggling, splashing water over the already wet floor. A common sight are shiny, coal black catfish, waiting for their quick dispatch from above.

 

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Left: Not sure what these are, dried eels perhaps? Right: Fresh prawns ready for sale.

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Chickens! Sold with everything including the head (the heads are tucked under), you won’t get fresher chickens than these.

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Note they are not gutted.

The chickens I admit, came as a shock. I guess what we value in the west – clinically pale skin, plump legs and breasts – don’t apply here. Instead, the chickens are kept whole (i.e. not gutted) with their feet (and pink toenails!) left on. Some chickens are halved, so buyers can peer inside for freshness and perhaps spot some tasty unborn eggs, a delicacy much like tender egg yolk. The pork section of the market, is the pongiest part of Psar Chaa, so if you have a sensitive stomach it’s probably best to skip it. Our cook explained that we are not buying meat from the market, instead the meat for the cooking lesson is UV treated and freshly delivered to the restaurant.

 

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Deep fried spring rolls and other tasty snacks ready to eat.

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Fruit is highly valued in Cambodia, with even exotic or out of season varieties air freighted in.

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A stall selling freshly ground curry pastes.

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Freshly milled, soft rice noodles.

We move through the vegetable market where our guide buys mangoes for our sticky rice dessert and any unusual fruit we’d like to try from the mountains of exotic produce. On the way, I spy the freshest rice noodles made that very morning, being doled out to shopping housewives to green spices being ground down for custom curry pastes. The floodplains that surround the town are indeed a fertile food bowl.

 

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Thin and thick rice noodles, plus flat sheets of rice flour dough being sold by weight.

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Our provisions laid out and ready to be chopped and pounded into oblivion.

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Preparing banana blossom salad.

We head back to the restaurant to find our ingredients and chopping boards at the ready. We begin to furiously chop and pound our ingredients, making a right mess in the restaurant. I’m making a banana flower salad, a dish I’ve fallen in love with since arriving in Siem Reap. The flower’s deep purple, outer petals are removed, along with the fibrous core. Chopped finely, it’s tossed with shredded carrot, cucumber, kaffir lime leaves and basil, and bound together with a fish sauce dressing. When I’m ready to plate up, the cook (sorry – I can’t remember her name!!) gently turns the discarded outer petals into a two striking makeshift bowls.

 

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Banana blossom salad plated up.
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Pounding the fish amok paste in a traditional mortar and pestle.

The only hard work in the class is the curry paste for the fish amok. Fish amok is a light curry of white fleshed fish in a turmeric and coconut sauce – some say it’s Cambodia’s national dish. The paste is pounded to smithereens in a traditional wooden mortar with the longest pestle I have ever seen. Everything – the lemon grass, fresh tumeric, the shallots – is grounded into a smooth paste. I’m ushered into the kitchen to fry off the paste, where on the heat it becomes dark. sticky and slick with oil. Coconut milk is added and brought to a simmer to gently poach the fish.

Now, I could be wrong here… I think the fish amok was meant to be steamed but we simply did not have enough time to finish it. So it was dished up in little banana leaf containers, curry-style. Steamed or not, it was still smooth and especially delicious accompanied with local red hull rice.

 

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Banana leaf containers for fish amok.

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Our tutor cooking the sweet sticky rice.

Our tutor had cooked a sweet sticky rice for dessert. Do you know what makes sticky rice so tasty? I’ll tell you. It’s a ton of sugar, rice and coconut cream – basically in one word, it’s scrumptious. It’s chewy texture was perfect with mangoes bought during our morning market visit. It was certainly a sweet ending to a cooking lesson that was insightful, educational and delicious.

The $13 USD fee included the market tour, cooking class and meal, which is a bargain. But Le Tigre De Papier’s cooking classes are more than just a good deal. The class fee is kept in the local economy, helping the business employ local people and improve their quality of life.

 

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My lunch made by me! Fish amok with red rice and banana blossom salad.

Meric at Hotel de la Paix

Our last meal in Siem Reap was at Hotel de la Paix. Unfortunately the hotel is no longer trading, as it’s being rebranded and renovated as a Park Hyatt. We had booked ourselves for dinner at the hotel’s previous French restaurant, Meric, just to have dinner on their alfresco swing beds.

 

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Vichyssoise with salmon.

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Swinging around. The beds look comfortable but after awhile they’re a pain in the back to sit on.

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Meric’s swing beds.

Looking out onto an old twisted, vinous tree surrounded by a reflection pool, the atmosphere was absolutely fantastic. The food was pretty good too, I seem to remember the excellent bread and vichyssoise more than anything. I hope the Park Hyatt brings the swing beds back, it was definitely a cool experience right in the heart of town. For now though the new Bill Bensley hotel, the Shinta Mani, has a similar concept going.

Anyway, our swing bed dinner was a terrific ending to (sounds clichéd, I know) an unforgettable trip. Even though Siem Reap was too touristy for my tastes, it was a good stepping stone into Khmer culture. I hope we will return to explore more of Cambodia, especially its rural, untouched areas. One day, perhaps.

 

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~*~

The flooded forest tour was organized through Beyond Unique who were incredibly helpful at short notice. They also organised our Angkor Park tour and guide. Their office is in the centre of the city and easy to find. They have some truly unique tours on offer, if you ever in town they are definitely worth looking into.

Beyond Unique Escapes
Cnr of Sivutha Bvld and Alley West
T: +855 (0)77 562 565
W: http://www.beyonduniqueescapes.com

 

Sothy is a freelance tour guide (who is occasionally hired by Beyond Unique). His insight into Tonle Sap and rapport with the locals made the journey memorable.

Mr Sothy Thoeum
No.0201, Krom 9, Phum Wat Damdak, Khum Salakamroek, Siem Reap, Cambodia
T: +855 12 963 446, +855 15 558 889
E: soth_th@yahoo.com

 

The Old Market is especially good for souvenirs.

Psar Chaa (or Psah Chas) Old Market
Psar Chaa Road, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Le Tigre De Papier
Pub Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia
T: +855 (0)12 659 770
W: http://www.letigredepapier.com/

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