Wednesday 26 September 2012

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Wednesday 8 August 2012

Cambodia’s Magic Log

There are two English language daily newspapers here in Cambodia and the one we take at Bambu hotel is the Cambodia Daily. For logistical reasons it doesn’t arrive at the hotel until the early afternoon and by that time, thanks to the wonders of the internet, any major international news contained therein is fairly stale. However the paper is a mine of useful information about the odd bits of news from around the Kingdom and without the paper one simply wouldn’t hear such snippets. A couple of weeks ago my eye was drawn to an article about a “magic log” which had been unearthed by a farmer who had been excavating a piece of land to make a pond for irrigation purposes. Apparently this twelve metre long log was remarkably well preserved and for some reason or another had become a bit of a local attraction due to its supposed magic properties. Since the log was unearthed on 7th July an average of around two hundred people a day had been turning up to pay homage as the log seemed to have the ability to bring pilgrims good fortune.

Cambodia'a Magic Log -Healers
I thought little of it until a couple of days later another article appeared in the paper saying that quite large numbers of people were now turning up to see the log – two thousand on one day! Luckily enough the log isn’t too far from Battambang – about 70 km away just over the border in neighbouring Pursat province. It was clearly time I investigated myself this log that had come to pass so last Saturday two full car-loads set off from Battambang to pay our respects.

Pilgrims around the Magical Log
We had been given rough directions to the site which luckily was just off the main highway to Phnom Penh. We needn’t have worried about getting lost though as it was quite apparent due to the number of pilgrims exactly where the log was. To me the site resembled a medieval fair – there were fortune tellers, purveyors of all kinds of trinkets and snacks, piglets running wild and the smell of incense filled the air. Centre of attention of course was the magic log itself. The farmer had kindly erected a shelter for the log composed of timber uprights and tarpaulin sheets which helped keep the sun off. A shrine had been created near the entrance to the log where we all offered prayers before viewing the star of the show itself. What we saw was indeed a twelve metre long log - covered in talcum powder, there were plenty of people gently rubbing the log and then earnestly looking at the palms of their hands to see if any numbers had magically appeared. It seems the log has been giving out lucky numbers for the lottery and this was the reason most pilgrims had made the effort to attend. The log also has mysterious healing powers though and many were pouring water over the log and collecting it in bottles to take home to heal sick friends and family. The village chief, Mr Hun Nov, said that people had been covering themselves head to toe in the mud from where the log emerged in the belief that it would cure them of their illnesses. My wife spoke to several fellow pilgrims about their experiences. One lady told her that this visit was her sixth such one to the magic log and after three previous visits she had had unusual good fortune so she intended to keep coming back.

Pilgrims pay homage 

Inspired by this we bought some talcum powder and had a good rub of the log but sadly no numbers emerged on our palms. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed my visit even if I did at times feel like an extra in an episode of Father Ted. As we were driving out of the site we had to make way for a motorbike laden with fresh supplies of talcum powder so at least one stall holder was having some luck.

Magic log Cambodia

Despite there being no dramatic pieces of good fortune coming my way my visit to the log did make a profound impression on me. I have since marvelled at my good fortune in living in a country where such news items make the front page of the daily press. A subsequent article in the Cambodia Daily last week said that, due to increasing numbers visiting the site, the farmer was going to erect a more permanent enclosure for the log. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in due course, the log becomes a major site of pilgrimage – akin to, say, Lourdes or Fatima – and at Bambu Battambang Hotel we can welcome pilgrims from around the world eager to pay their respects!

Monday 16 July 2012

Bamboo Train - The Ultimate Transportation in Battambang, Cambodia

I have talked before about the Bamboo train which is one of the highlights of any visit to Battambang and virtually every guest at Bambu goes on it at least once. When I first came here in 2006 I was told that I was lucky as I was just in time to catch one of the last bamboo trains before the track was upgraded and the bamboo trains would be banished from the line forever. Well, six and a half years later the bamboo trains are still running and although work has begun on upgrading the track the “norry” – as the locals call the bamboo train – shows no sign of going away.
Bamboo Train

Funded by the Asian Development bank and the Australian government the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s railway network was announced with great fanfare a few years back but, as with many grand engineering projects here, actually getting the work done has proved to be somewhat problematic. The old “network” consisted of only two single track lines – one from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in the south and the other from the capital to the Thai border at Poipet/Aranya Prathet. After the Khmer Rouge period the lines were in some disarray and passenger and freight services ceased about five years ago. Rehabilitation work on the southern line started first and was completed to Kampot down on the coast. For some reason – and it is always difficult getting hold of reliable information here (perhaps because nobody actually knows!) – work stopped and the important link to Cambodia’s only deep sea port at Sihanoukville was not completed. Work on the northern line – which runs through Battambang of course – has been even more piecemeal. I am told that the first 30 or so kilometres of track out of Phnom Penh have been replaced but then nothing more has been done until Svay Sisophon (which is about 70 north of Battambang) from where the track has been relaid up to the border town of Poipet. From there it is planned to link up with the Thai network at Aranya Prathet as it used to in happier times. One major problem it would seem is that a huge casino has been built right across the proposed route of the line and no one quite knows what to do about this.
Bamboo Train - Norry

The press here has reported that the initial budget for the works which was only $180 million in the first place has now been reached. Where the money to complete the works – which let’s face it is at best only half done – is going to come from is anyone’s guess. I have seen newspaper reports that the contractors assumed that a certain percentage of the existing track would be reusable whereas in fact most of it has had to be entirely replaced. Looking at the old tracks around Battambang I would have been surprised if any of it was reusable at all. Other problems that have beset the project include stories of families evicted from railway land without proper compensation.
Battambang Railway

I hope the project is completed eventually - it would be great shame if it was abandoned as so much work has already been done. Also the dilapidated Cambodian roads would benefit greatly from losing some of the freight that currently thunders along them. There was talk a few years back of building a brand new line between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) which would link the Malaysian, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese networks but I would imagine that given the problems encountered in Cambodia that has been put on the back burner for the time being.
Bamboo Train Railway

In the meantime then the bamboo trains which can now only be found in Battambang remain the only form of railway transport in the country.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Life in Cambodia

Last week elections took place throughout Cambodia for the local commune councils. Not headline breaking news I know especially as the results hardly came as a surprise with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party picking up the lion’s share of the votes cast. Nevertheless to watch the mechanics of a fledgling democracy in action was pretty interesting for me especially given the political problems of the not too distant past. The turnout figures at over 60% were down from the last local elections but certainly in comparison to the UK these figures are impressive. One tends to take for granted our right to participate in democracy but of course here it really is in its infancy.

The United Nations oversaw what were supposed to have been the first free and fair elections ever held in the country in May 1993 and since then there have been a further three general elections. The last one in 2008 saw the People’s Party gain an outright majority for the first time allowing them to govern without the need for coalition partners. The first commune elections were held in 2002 and last week’s exercise in democracy was the third such at this level. Early elections were marred by instances of violence and intimidation but of late this seems to be a thing of the past. Opposition parties regularly call foul but international observers have declared recent ballots to be generally fair. The main problem these days seems to be with voter registration which on paper appears to be an administrative issue. There were instances last week of people attending polling stations only to find their name was not on the register and they could therefore not vote. Cambodia is a fairly transient society with people often working far from home so it is possible to see why there might be problems. The challenge then for the National Election Committee, the body which is responsible for administering the elections, is to address these issues in the future although whether they do so in time for next year’s general election remains to be seen. Postal voting without a postal service would be difficult I would imagine!

Many of our staff at Bambu Hotel were voting for the first time and it was good to see most of them genuinely excited about taking part in their democracy. To ensure that people do not vote twice electors have to dip their index finger in indelible ink which leaves a reminder of their participation in the ballot as the ink stays with them for around a month!

June is probably the quietest month in the tourist season here in Cambodia. It is actually a good time to visit places like Siem Reap and Angkor Wat which are increasingly overrun with tourists in the high season. By June temperatures have fallen since the highs of April and May and the evenings are especially pleasantly cool. True, the rainy season has started and with it a rise in the humidity levels, but rainfall  is generally light and showers seldom last for more than an hour. Farmers have started planting rice and the countryside looks magnificent. Another good reason to visit Cambodia at this time of year of course is that you can drive hard bargains with hotels that are desperate to attract the few customers around!

This quiet period is a good time for us hoteliers to catch up with maintenance and renovations to our buildings and we are no exception at Bambu. The tropical climate can be pretty harsh on building fabric and a certain amount of redecoration and minor repairs are often necessary. We do a lot of this throughout the year but obviously to avoid inconveniencing guests larger projects have to wait until the hotel is less busy. By the end of August we will have been open for two years – a period which for me has flown by. With help from our staff and guests I have highlighted many things which work well and others which do not. I hope we have made the necessary adjustments where required. Certain things have surprised me – for instance the amount of space needed for our laundry facility and the continuing need for more room to store all the behind the scenes “stuff” that a hotel needs.

Lastly there was a maintenance job which, perhaps understandably, I have been putting off for some time – an inspection of Bambu’s five septic tanks. Clearly we don’t want any problems with these and a couple of days ago an investigation was made and I am pleased to say all were found to be in tip top condition!

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Cambodian Cuisine – Traditional Khmer Dishes

Anyone who knows me, or in fact has ever seen me, will know that I have a keen interest in all things culinary. I think it is fair to say that I have a healthy appetite and I am always keen to try something new at least once. As a child growing up in the UK I was used to good quality honest food and I was blessed with a mother who was able to provide the business. Slightly more exotic food was available in the form of Chinese take aways but these were only ever a special treat and enjoyed perhaps only once a year. Later I became a devotee of Indian curries but it was only in the 1980’s and 1990’s that there was a culinary reawakening in Britain. Living in London I was able to take advantage of these new openings and I distinctly remember my first experience of Thai food at a restaurant called Ben’s in Maida Vale. I found the delicate spices and different herbs an absolute delight and was hooked. Later still when I first travelled to Thailand I was able to indulge my new found passion to the full and Thai food remains a firm favourite today.

The cuisine of Cambodia is very different to its larger Thai and Vietnamese neighbours and if I am honest it takes a little longer to get used to. It is certainly less spicy (although chilies are always available at any meal to liven things up) but at its best Khmer food is up there with the best of the region. Rice is the absolute staple and will be eaten with just about every meal. Battambang is considered to be the rice bowl of Cambodia and its rice to be the best in the country. If you travel to other provinces you will notice in the markets that some rice is advertised as coming from Battambang and usually is sold at a premium.

Cambodian cuisine uses tamarind, pepper, lemongrass, galangal and ginger extensively. A typical meal will include at least three dishes which will often be very different – sour, bitter, salty or sweet. Chilies will be served on the side and added to taste so each dish is very distinctive. One important ingredient which helps distinguish Khmer food from that of its neighbours is “prahoc”. Prahoc is a kind of fermented fish paste and more than any other aspect of Khmer cuisine takes the longest to get used to – at least in my experience. It can be added in cooking to make dishes salty but it can also be eaten in its own right as a dip for raw vegetables or roasted in a banana leaf. For some reason Cambodians often translate prahoc to cheese in English I suppose because of the distinctive aroma that comes from it. As with most dairy products cheese is hard to come by here especially in Battambang and on the occasions I have bought some my family has recoiled in horror from it. They cannot understand why anyone would want to eat something that smells so bad. A touch of the pot calling the kettle black when you consider the smell of prahoc.
Psar Prahoc, Battambang/Cambodia

Just outside Battambang is Psar Prahoc – the fish paste market – and I recently took some of our guests from Bambu Hotel there. It is one of my favourite places to visit with guests or friends as I love to see the look on their faces when they arrive. You can usually smell it sometime before actually getting there – the pungent aroma of fermenting (some might say rotting!) fish fills the air. It is a fascinating place to visit with some great photo opportunities as you can watch the fish being gutted and prepared for fermentation in the hardwood vats. Get there early enough and you can see the fish being landed from boats and then being weighed and washed before being sold. Quite a sight!

Psar Prahoc Dish -Battambang, Cambodia

I suppose the best known uniquely Khmer dish is Amok which is usually fish based although other meats can be used. The curried fish is steamed with coconut milk and other herbs in a banana leaf resulting, at its best, in a mousse like consistency. Most visitors to Cambodia will come across it during their time here and I am proud to say we do it very well at Bambu Battambang Hotel. It is one of our more popular dishes and (although I have had no hand in its preparation whatsoever) I am often complimented for it! We have a mixed Khmer/Asian and Western menu at the hotel so our guests can dip their feet in the local cuisine but also be reassured by some more recognisable fare. Fish is seldom filleted in Cambodia which some visitors find difficult but here at Bambu Hotel all our fish is bone free so you can chomp away without fear of an unpleasant surprise.

Loc Lac from Bambu Hotel Battambang

Another favourite is Loc Lac which for some reason is often translated as English Loc Lac although I certainly never came across it back home. It consists of stir fried cubed beef with red onions in a lime juice and black pepper sauce. This is widely available around the country but whilst I have tasted some delicious versions I have also had the misfortune to sample some less palatable ones too!  

A dog’s dinner!

It is often said that Cambodians will eat anything and of course there are times in their history when they have had to in order to survive. A visit to the markets is always an eye opener when you see what is on offer. Frogs abound, especially at this time of year – they are often grilled and to my mind at least make a tasty snack. Rats and mice can often be found on the grill too but so far I have managed to avoid eating these although I have been presented with many opportunities. I just cannot stomach the thought of eating them. Very popular as a beer snack – and tasting something like peanuts – are grasshoppers and locusts. These are fried and actually quite moreish – I would recommend trying these out if you get a chance. Spiders and snakes – both of which I have tried – are also readily available but not something I think I would try again. Coming from a nation of dog lovers as I do I was surprised and a little appalled when I came across dog meat on the barbeque. I haven’t knowingly eaten any as it would upset my sensibilities but I have to say it does smell absolutely delicious. It is often shown on restaurant signs and menus as “Special Meat” so beware! I am not quite sure where the supply of dogs comes from as I am not aware of them being farmed as in other parts of Asia but I would imagine the large number of strays is a probable source. I think there is also some dog rustling going on too. Our much ignored but faithful old hound Kiki disappeared one night and is widely thought by my wife and mother in law to have ended up on someone’s grill. I hope they choked on a bone!