Posts Tagged With: Chinese

Cyclo Architecture Tour in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a city seriously misunderstood.

When visiting Southeast Asia, tourists expect two things from Cambodia: The ruins of Angkor Wat, and the Killing Fields. After booking their flight to Siem Reap and their bus to the beach, they plan to pop into the dusty and chaotic city of Phnom Penh for a few nights—no more—to tour the Killing Fields and have a beer overlooking the Mekong River.

I have news. Phnom Penh is so much more than the Killing Fields. It is a city in renaissance. A city overflowing with a culture unlike any other in the world.

Sure, the roads are a bit busy and the air a bit humid. Phnom Penh is a city of 2 million people.

When you visit Phnom Penh, you walk the pebbled streets of smiling women scrubbing pots and brushing the hair of baby girls.

You wave at the moto drivers playing chess on the street corner and they wave back. When you visit Phnom Penh, you giggle with the girls in the market as you try on clothes that obviously don’t fit.You are invited to play games in the street. You taste countless different types of sour soups and steaming curries. You never knew a noodle could be cooked so many ways. You never thought flowers could smell so sweet or fruit could be so fresh. You take a selfie with your lover in the moonlight, and look behind your shoulder to see a young Cambodian couple doing the exact same thing. You hear men singing as they pedal their bicycles past you as you walk home from the market. Teenagers sip bubble tea as they get a manicure for a weekend wedding. You try to photograph the architecture of the wooden Cambodian houses peeking out alongside the French colonial facades, but you realize that your camera can never capture the creeping vines, the butterflies, the shadows, the tiles, the apsara dancers carved in wood, the smell of the incense. And when you fall asleep, you dream of the people who were so patient with you in a place where you are so clearly a foreigner.

Phnom Penh is not a place to be “done”. It is not a place to ask, “Is it worth it?” When you go to Phnom Penh, you need to slow down, take a deep breath, and look around you. I have lived here for two years and I am surprised every day.

When my family came to visit, I wanted to show them a part of the city neither of us had experienced before. I had seen the cyclos looping around Wat Phnom on Saturday afternoons, and knew there was a pretty popular cyclo tour. After a quick visit to the Khmer Architecture Tours website, I knew it would be the perfect way to spend the morning.

IMG_5185(All pictures are courtesy of master photographers; my Aunt Pat and my sister.)

There were seven of us: Sean and I, my dad and sister, my aunt and her two friends. We arrived at eight in the morning to a group of men in lime green t-shirts and white hats. They didn’t speak English, and my Khmer small-talk is brutal. We had a tour guide who was a recent graduate of Phnom Penh University with a major in architecture. IMG_5187Our sunscreen on, and our introductions complete, we set off to learn more about the architecture of Phnom Penh.

IMG_5202Our first stop was at a Chinese temple, one of the few in the city.

IMG_2816The temple had a few people praying or making offerings. There is a large Chinese-Cambodian presence, and many Cambodians identify as both Chinese and Cambodian to a certain extent.
IMG_2819The streets weren’t crowded as we cruised along, seven cyclos in a row. I can’t imagine what someone sitting in a barbershop must have thought when they saw us filter past!

IMG_5221We stopped at an old Jesuit church that has now been converted into housing. Before this tour, I had no idea how complicated housing is here in Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge, people were marched out of the city and the houses became abandoned. After the Khmer Rouge, people returned to an empty city to try and rebuild their lives. The government passed a new law which said that if you inhabited a place for one year, then it legally became your property, and you were the rightful owner to sell it as you pleased. This presented a real problem. Imagine that you were forced to leave your home during the Khmer Rouge, crossed the border into Thailand, and were finally able to return three years later. You are dropped off on your street. Not only does everything look different, but you walk up to your door, and a stranger opens the door. Your house does not belong to you. However, the new owner is “so kindly willing” to sell your house back to you, if you can agree on a price.

The whole system is terribly flawed, and shattered the lives of thousands. They not only lost their loved ones, but their houses were now “owned” by strangers.IMG_5224This church had room after room that had been cobbled together and built on top of each other. The church can’t be taken over by one dominant person as each room is independently owned by the people who resettled there after the Khmer Rouge.

IMG_5266The tour was fantastic not only because of the history and the architecture, but I had never seen Phnom Penh from the viewpoint of sitting inside a cyclo.

IMG_2817Each bike was a testament to the life of the man who drove it. You could tell they were meticulously crafted and continued to be cared for. These cyclos are the cadillacs of the city, man. Not to mention one of the drivers who really enjoyed saying, “Ooh la la” to make us laugh. IMG_5226At the end of the day, we said goodbye to our guide and our drivers, our minds full of awe at this city and it’s hidden alleys, temples, and histories that we never knew existed.

If you have the chance, come to Phnom Penh. And stay a while. I’ll take you to my favorite neighborhood. You’ll meet some really great people. It’s a hard place not to love.

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How to Spend Friday Night In Phnom Penh

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I am relaxing with a steaming hot cup of tea and reflecting on the weekend. The market has been visited, the pool has been swum, the yoga has been flexed, and—like any Sunday afternoon—the laundry has been washed.

As it is the middle of October, and the rest of the world is on the pumpkin spice craze, I want to take a minute to boast a bit about Southeast Asia.

I can eat pumpkin year round. And I do.

I get pumpkin smoothies.

Pumpkin tea.

Pumpkin curry.

Pumpkin muffins.

Pumpkin pancakes.

Pumpkin egg rolls.

Pumpkin custard.

Pumpkin ice cream.

Cambodia loves pumpkin. They don’t season it with nutmeg and cinnamon, but rather treat it as a melon or gourd, which can take on a variety of complex flavors. My favorite method of pumpkin consumption is the pumpkin smoothie, and Sean’s is chicken-pumpkin egg rolls from Sesame Noodle Bar. We are on the pumpkin bandwagon as much as you are, but we are rockin’ the pumpkin craze 365 days a year.

Moving on, this weekend was pretty great. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but I made sure I brought my camera out with me so I’d have something to share with you.

But first… a picture of a Kampot sunset:

IMG_2002This was snapped last weekend as we drove down to Kampot for a short getaway. I didn’t have another blog to fit it into, so I thought it would be a nice kick-off to this one.

Anyways, Sean and I went out last night for dinner and some live music. Our friend Chino is in a band, and they’re getting pretty popular here in Phnom Penh.

I had read about a Chinese place that had good food, so we headed up Monivong to check them out.

IMG_2330The name of the restaurant is Jiang Ren Su Jia, and is near Central Market on Monivong. The place was downright CHINESE, man. Everything in there screamed China: the customers, the walls, the menu, the food, the pictures, the tea. Sean was not amused of my tourist-photography, but I had to document our visit to share with you.

IMG_2329We got in a little over our heads with food. Everything on the menu was between $2-5, so we thought the portions were going to be small. Starting by the teapot and working clockwise we have roasted eggplant with chiles, peanuts, pork and chive dumplings, sweet and sour chicken, heavenly chili oil in a saucer, and crispy spring onion pancakes.

The verdict? I loved it. Sean wouldn’t go back. So I suppose that’s 50/50, right? Which means you’ll just have to try it for yourself to find out.

After dinner we headed over to the Foreign Correspondent Club’s property, The Mansion.

The-mansionA historical gem, The Mansion is a relic from the French colonial era of Cambodia. It was built in the early 1900’s, and was a private residence for 60 years. Imagine strolling those halls in your bathrobe! When the Khmer Rouge took over, they looted the place, but left it standing and intact. It currently hosts live parties and an evening cocktail hour, but the Foreign Correspondent’s Club is looking to sell it.

Here’s another photo from the Khmer Times article about the sale1406223532If you find yourself in Phnom Penh any time soon, you absolutely have to visit. Who knows what the future of this building may be, but for now, it’s a piece of living history.
Our friend’s band, Bacano, is a Latin Rock band here in Phnom Penh. Check out an article on them here, and here’s their Facebook page. In case you’re wondering, the word bacano is a Colombian term for something very good, cool, or nice.

IMG_2336Here’s a few shots of them from last night at The Mansion. Normally the bands play outside, but there torrential rain so they moved the event into the dark and mysterious cavern of The Mansion itself.
IMG_2338They’ve got an amazing mix of culture in their band. Starting from left to right, the guitarist is Russian/Chilean/Swedish, the bassist is Cambodian, the singer/guitarist is Colombian, the female drummer is Filipino, and the guy on the djembe is Pakistani.

IMG_2344Everybody was rocking out by the end of the night.

So, there you have it. A typical weekend evening in Phnom Penh. Good food, good company, good music.

 

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Dumpling Street: The Legend of the Penh


 

The dumpling.

A warm, steaming ball of glutinous goodness. A crispy, flaky packet of love. Globally, there are as many styles of dumpling as there are version of “Insert Country Name” Idol. (No, really. Look how many countries have their own Idol show.)

America has chicken  and dumplings. Italy has ravioli. India has the samosa. Poland has the pierogi. Japan has gyoza. Crab rangoons. Gnocchi. It’s hard to find a cuisine that DOESN’T have a dumpling.

In Cambodia, one street that has become something of a legend when it comes to all things dumpling. Street 136, adjacent to the bus stop near Central Market, has been serving up the most delicious dumplings I have found in the city yet.

But maybe that’s only because there are five dumpling restaurants in a row. Five. How could one go out for dumplings and stop after just one?

Enter the dumpling crawl.

I first heard of the dumpling crawl on Move To Cambodia’s site a few months ago. Since then I have been itching to head to street 136 and try things out for myself.

IMG_1861Our first stop was Feng Yuan Restaurant, closest to Central Market on 136. If you couldn’t guess, everything was in Chinese the second we walked in the door. Even the staff spoke Chinese before Khmer, it took a few minutes of pantomiming to clarify our order!

 

IMG_1860I knew we were in for a treat when I saw heavily-used steaming baskets  outside the entrance.

 

IMG_1862Not only that, but seaweed swaying in the breeze! On a drying rack, as if it were laundry, they were drying kelp. My friends Jeff and Lily were great models for all my photos. (How much Chinese can you see behind the seaweed? See what I mean?)

 

IMG_1859It wasn’t hard to warm up to the idea of the dumpling crawl. Restaurant #1 had us off to a great start.

 

IMG_1863As we moved onto the next restaurant, we found a very confusing poster. The thing is, I don’t know it is yelling at me, or if it is giving me wisdom?

 

IMG_1864I’m not so sure about the “Mind no evil” monkey…

 

IMG_1865Regardless of their ambiguous poster, this place had by far and away, the best dumplings. Totally crispy, flavorful, and succulent.

 

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Restaurant #3’s dumplings were a bit of a disappointment. The bright side was that they had an entire cup of minced garlic for us to drown our tasteless bites in. Not only that, but each of these places had out-of-this-world chili oil. I don’t know if this is how the oil is made here in Cambodia, but this website has pretty nice photos of the possible process.

 

 

IMG_1868Now, restaurant #4, on the other hand, had it’s own unique theme going on. Not only were their dumplings pretty top notch, but they had a complementary picked vegetable platter in addition to the chili oil, minced garlic, and hot peppers. Their dumplings weren’t have bad either.

 

IMG_1869By the end of our dumpling crawl, we had feasted at four different restaurants, learned a lot about the dumpling culture in Phnom Penh, and played lots and lots of cards.

The worst part? Now, I can’t stop dreaming about dumplings. I thirst for them almost as badly as I do for coffee in the morning. I seek out any opportunity to overwhelm my tastebuds with dumpling goodness.

The moral of the story: Dumplings are a slippery slope of indulgence. Eat with caution. Or, throw off the bowlines and drown yourself on street 136.

 

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Beijing In October: Part One

One of the perks of international teaching is the conferences. Our school is an IB school (International Baccalaureate), which means they prescribe to a philosophy and practice that is shared in all IB schools worldwide. Not only is it a great program, but they offer first-class conferences in every corner of the globe.

It’s my first year teaching Language B, which is English as a second language; normally I teach traditional Western “English” class, where you read novels and write essays and such. This year I do both, in grades 8-10. So, I was sent to Beijing to attend an IB conference on teaching Language B.

I couldn’t have been more psyched! China! I have read about it all my life, seen it in films and the media, and certainly obsessed over the Americanized version of their food. (General Tso, I’m talking to you.)

I handed my passport over to my school, who set me up with a Chinese visa. It took about a week or so, and I think the price tag wasn’t cheap. Americans have more detailed paperwork to get into China; as my Chinese friend told me, “Two big countries who each think they’re the most important.” Even when Sean and I had a layover in Guangzhou, the American passports took a lot longer to process for our transit hotel. At least it wasn’t like the Sri Lankan border guard, who told me Americans like to start wars, and we should stop picking fights with so many people. (I told him I agreed, and could I please have my passport stamped, sir?)

But really. China. Beijing, no less. The capital. With only four days to spend, and  a full-time conference to enjoy, I had my hands full with anticipation and possible plans.

I went with another teacher from school, Ice, who is actually from Shanghai. She has lived in Cambodia for the past 20 years, and is married to a Cambodian. She speaks Mandarin (Chinese), Khmer, and English. She also teaches Language B like me, but for Mandarin. We went to the same conference together—I had a great time traveling with her.

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Unfortunately, when we woke up the first morning, the sky was a bit, um, “foggy”. The pollution was bad. I was bummed out—I knew China had pollution, but seeing it out of a ten-story window made it seem all the more real. Luckily, of the four days we were there, this was the worst. The rest of the days had vibrant blue skies, no joke. It was really gorgeous. And, even on this bad day, when we were on the street, we forgot all about the gray-tint of the sky.

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The school where the conference was held had an AMAZING lunch. I mean, look at this! This is their school lunch! I would enroll as a student here just so I could come for lunch every day. I really loved their salads; none of them were with leafy lettuces like we’re used to in America, but instead with seaweeds, diced vegetables, tofu chunks, and amazing savory dressings. They did have a lot of deep fried things, as you can see. Just look at this picture I can count four different deep friend foods: sesame-crusted sweet potato, fried shrimp, fried fish, and fried chicken in a sweet and sour sauce.

After our conference Ice had made plans for us to meet up with her friend who works at Phoenix TV in Beijing. It is one of the few private broadcasters that is allowed to air in mainland China. We went out to a really nice Chinese restaurant, where I never even opened a menu. Ice and her friend ordered everything. And, man, did they order.IMG_8122

The craziest part for me was that everything came at a different time. After the first dish arrived, I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s a lot of food.” Then, the second dish came, and I thought, “Whoa, I shouldn’t have eaten so much of that first dish.” Then the third, fourth, and fifth dishes arrived. And we sat there, for three hours, until we ate all of it. Oh my goodness was it divine. We had mushroom salad (on the plate with the cucumbers on the left), a salad made entirely out of different mushrooms I had never seen before in my life. We had deep-fried tofu (so much better than any I’ve had in the States). We had an entire fish, with the head intact (Ice ate the head so I didn’t have to worry about tackling it myself). We had pepper chicken baked in a clay dish (with whole chunks of marinated ginger and garlic). Also, not pictured, was a giant hot-pot of cabbage and pork soup. There was so much soup in the hot-pot, man, that Ice’s friend sent it back to be warmed up about ninety minutes through the meal. Sometimes, weeks later, I dream about that night.

And if we weren’t stuffed to the seams, I had smiled when we passed the Starbucks earlier in the evening, so they decided it would be great to polish off our meal with a decaf latte.

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See, we don’t have Starbucks in Cambodia, which isn’t a big deal, but the novelty of seeing different Starbucks around the world is always cool to me. We sat for another few hours and talked about American customs versus Chinese customs, and whether or not Starbucks is as popular in America as it is in China. I said, “Maybe, but it certainly isn’t how people traditionally drink their coffee.” Then I explained to them the concept of the diner, and bottomless coffee.

The next morning, we struck out at 7am for the second day of our conference.

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Breakfast on the streets of Beijing. So much meat, so early in the morning! This was the city of food, I tell you.

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Donuts? (Notice the heavy coats; we were there mid-October, and it was chilly! Around the 40’s or 50’s. Look, when you’re coming from the 90’s of Cambodia, that’s cold!)

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It reminded me of New York City.

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More delicious street food.

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I loved all the bicycles everywhere. Every major road had a bike lane, and we saw people on bicycles everywhere.

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It wouldn’t be China if there weren’t the ultra-modern in immediate juxtaposition with the traditional.

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And then we passed a McDonald’s.  (Something we also don’t have in Cambodia!) I have to admit, I did get a McFlurry one night. And in case you were wondering, it looked just the same on the inside as an American McDonald’s does. What was different about it? If you remember, Kuwait had the McArabia, but here China has the “McExpress”. It’s that window on the left side, where you can walk up to the counter and order espresso drinks, ice cream, or apple pies.

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Here was the school where our conference was held. It seemed really large to me—especially in comparison with NISC, which only has 490 students! Our school is teeny tiny next to this giant.

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Here I am outside the gates of the school. It was the “High School Affiliated To Renmin University of China”. I still haven’t figured out how they abbreviate it…

The second night, Ice and I had plans to meet up with a girl I met through the conference who lived in Beijing and worked at the Canadian International School of Beijing. Ice and I took the subway to another part of the city, and walked around for a bit.IMG_8144

We ended up in the fancier, shopping mall area. I loved the balloons you could buy in between stops at H&M and Ray Ban.

We accidentally ended up walking through the embassy district, which was devoid of any street life whatsoever. We were pretty bummed out, and had to meet up with the girl from the conference. Honestly, if Ice wasn’t Chinese, I would have starved that night. She was able to find a minuscule sign hidden behind some trees that said, “Soup House” in Chinese. She pulled me inside, and we warmed our frozen bellies with delicious 75 cent soup. IMG_8145

Ice had hers with beef, and I just had noodles, vegetables, peanuts, and egg. Sounds weird, I know, but I ate it all!
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You eat it with both chopsticks, to pick up the whole bits, and a spoon for the liquid. Honestly, it was simple, it was unexpected, and it was delicious. Finding those out-of-the-way places on accident is what makes good memories. Ice and I had fun  in the back of that noodle shop!

The next day, the final day of the conference, I had to take another photo of my meal…IMG_8149So what? I’m a little obsessed with food. Again, look at the amazing salads. On the left next to the broccoli were gigantic black seaweed pieces that were delicious. I swear, if I tried to cook any of this at home, it would turn out a disgusting mess. But in China, magic happened in the school cafeteria. (Check out the whole shrimp in the top right!)

I do have one more post for you about China, and it was the final night of our stay. We went to the city center, where the hutongs are. The hutongs were narrow, winding streets and alleys over 400 years old. Many of the store fronts now house restaurants, take-away food, cute shops, with live musicians on every corner. Many of the streets are closed off to cars and only allow foot traffic. Men are engraving names on pieces of rice. People are doing magic tricks. You can buy a silk dress at one store, and a t-shirt of Mao Tse Tung at the next. It was a riot, a party every night. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Categories: China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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