“Bizarre Foods” 2, B & F Style!

So you think your stomach can handle it?  Welcome to “Bizarre Foods” Part Deux.  We have covered much ground since the last installment and have been fortunate or unfortunate enough to have our taste buds soak in some new creepy crawlies and other goodies from the road in South East Asia.  Some have been a pleasant surprise, while others…well…

Let’s dig in!!

We bought a handful of crickets from a street vendor passing through a restaurant we were eating at in Phnom Penh.  We were the only foreigners in the place and he went to every table but ours.  As he was walking out we flagged him down and he seemed genuinely stunned that we were interested. When we told him we wanted half a bag full his smile was from ear to ear.  Unfortunately after chomping down on a couple of his deep fried treats the aftertaste of wet grass began to float back up and the smile wasn’t returned. If they would have been crispier they may have been better, two was definitely enough. We also ate deep fried duck foetus at a street stall in Phnom Penh. If it wasn’t fried it may have been tough to swallow, but let’s be honest, anything battered and deep fried tastes good. We had them several times. For New Year’s Eve in Siem Reap we splurged on a dinner that seemingly was especially prepared for our “Bizarre Foods” blog. We romantically dined on ostrich, snake, kangaroo, and crocodile. Each one with its own distinct taste. Each one better than the other. Each one excellent. Highly recommended! We ate water buffalo sausage in Luang Prabang, Laos. I was excited for this one, but it all came crashing down like a giant cow paddy on a dusty road as soon as I tasted it in my mouth. I can’t describe it (or maybe I just did) but my taste buds rejected it immediately. Disgusting. We ate bamboo worms in Chiang Mai, Thailand and to be honest they had the same texture as cheese puffs but without all the salt and cheese. We ate the whole bagful. In Bangkok after a few beers we tackled the fear inducing water beetle. Two inches long and about an inch wide of sheer taste bud terror. They tore the legs off just before eating, stating that the barbs get stuck in your throat. We hesitantly ate them at the same time, they went down, but even with all of the beer we didn’t particularly like them.  We bought grasshoppers that same night about an inch long a piece. They were very crunchy, seasoned with salt and pepper. It seems when it comes to insects, the crispier the better. They were great. Last but not least, in Cambodia at a rest stop along the side of the highway F. brought two freshly fried tarantulas back onto the bus. The locals got a kick out of the fact that we were willing to give them a try as we giggled and cringed at the sight of them. We were both a little freaked out by the long legs and its bulbous body, but once we popped them into our mouths, to our surprise they were amazing. As the bus started pulling out, I had silently wished F. had bought more. Sadly we never saw them for sale anywhere else on our travels in Cambodia. Yummy.

Part three?  Stay tuned.

Bon appetit!

B.

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Born to be Wild

Get your motor runnin’… Head out on the highway… Lookin’ for adventure and whatever comes our way!…Yeah darlin’ go make it happen, take the world in a love embrace…Fire all of your guns…

By gun I mean the one I had loaded and cocked against my temple while horrible Cambodian karaoke music played at over a 100 decibels from a speaker just above my head.  By adventure I mean any moving vehicle you are in, driven by a sadist in South East Asia. By highway I mean a semi-paved dirt road with tailing pond sized pot holes and absolutely no rules.  By love embrace I mean the absolute insanity of handing over your life to the driver of an overnight bus who is chugging red bulls to stay awake on the worst road ever in Northern Laos. By motor I mean…

THE BUS.

I love the bus.  I really do.  You hear all sorts of travellers talking about the “real” Cambodia and the “real” Thailand or the opposite of that, where is the “real” Laos or the “real” Vietnam?  I for one will tell you that the “real” everything can be found and seen on the bus.  There is no better place to get a good sense of a country than taking a bus that locals can afford to be on.  I love looking out the window at the always amazing scenery and people watching as the bus passes by.  Small makeshift huts, shacks, stilted houses, 3 story mansions and bamboo food stalls riddle the roads of this part of the world.  Kids playing, women tending their crops, men heading into town with a truckload of cabbage, cows mingling by the busy roadways and as many motorbikes as you can count weaving in and out of traffic without any fear.  Most bus companies in this part of the world think you want to hear music.  More specifically karaoke style love ballads and really bad local pop.  Now I have nothing against local music, but some of this stuff is pretty bad, and when it’s played for hours on end in an uncomfortable bus at thunderously loud levels, well let’s just say that gun almost saved my life.  We were lucky a few times on the night bus to have along with the music,  disco style lights clicking on and off to the beat.  To top things off, after several hours of music, they would switch it and play local comedy shows just as loud.  Not many of the locals were laughing, I certainly wasn’t.  If we were really lucky the air conditioning wouldn’t be working. That always makes for a wonderful trip as the sun beats down on the giant metal frame, heating up the vessel into a stinky sweat box of smells that you don’t want to know.  Or the night bus that doesn’t turn down the air con and everybody on board turns into frozen sardines.  But hey at least it gets you from A to B right?  Sitting in the back of a mini bus (glorified minivan) 12 people on board, along with a roof top full of gear makes for a suspension that feels like a punch to your kidneys every time you hit a pot hole.  The ac was blowing cool air that never made it to the hot back seat where a tiny local woman with a newborn, F. and I were sitting.  The road was a sidewinder through the glorious mountain range leading into Northern Laos.  F. was standing strong trying not to let the roller coaster ride get to her somewhat tired stomach.  We thought the locals would be comfortable with the road conditions, but about 30 minutes into the trip the young local women awoke from her sleep and started throwing up all over the inside of the van next to the window.  She did manage to find a plastic bag and finished off her heaving without making too much of a mess.  Her husband sitting in front of us turned to see what was going on, than quickly fell back asleep offering no help or sympathy.  A guy from South Africa hollered at the driver to stop so we could let the young lady out to catch her breath.  Her husband stood in shock wondering why we were doing this; I also sat wondering how long he would have been willing to sit in the van with a stinking bag of puke in it.  We did finally get her out with some directing by the South African.  The locals were seemingly bewildered as to why we wanted to help.  It happened one more time about an hour later, I’m just glad that F. didn’t return the favour!  One thing that is a common theme to all of the countries in South East Asia is the lack of communication with the foreigners who do not know the bus routes.  Busses have started driving off with our bags still in them, me jumping fearlessly back into a moving bus yelling at the driver to stop so that I could get our last bag off.  We left two brand new fleeces in Indonesia because the bus all of the sudden stopped and said we needed to get out to catch another bus that was already leaving.  In our confusion at what was going on (no one told us we were going to be switching busses) we forgot $150 of fleece in the upper shelf.  A very nice present for some lucky SOB!  We have seen people fall down and almost get run over by the bus as they were getting out because time is money and the bus never comes to a complete stop to let anyone on or off.  You literally have to jump out of a moving bus.  Locals getting on the bus with instruments, usually guitars, playing a few self-written ditties then demand that you give them money.  I just wanted mostly to tell them to stop.  Tiny seats made for local bottoms not four European blooded cheeks.  Most of the bus trips have been uncomfortable, long, tiring, some with no bathroom breaks, some with way too many.  It of course wasn’t all bad, many people helped us get off at the right stop, and many more told us not to get off at the wrong one.  We were in China and nobody spoke any English, we knew the bus trip was around 4 to 5 hours.  I think we were over 5 hours in and we hadn’t stopped for quite some time.  We pulled into a huge empty gravel parking lot just off the road we had been driving on.  The locals got out of the bus to stretch their legs or have a smoke.  Was it our stop?  We were the only foreigners on board.  I got out and showed our ticket to the driver.  He grunted and turned his head.  I showed him again, and he slightly nodded and walked off.  Was it our stop?  I asked one of the taxi drivers if it was in fact our destination, he looked at me blindly and shook his head, “yes”.  Was it our stop?  We managed to get all of our stuff off the bus before it left, I was still unsure if we were even in the right place.  Then our knight in shining armor appeared out of nowhere, a taxi driver that could speak a few words of English.  I asked him about five times if it was the right city before I finally believed him.  The language barrier is a scary and beautiful thing, and being dropped off on the side of the road in nowhere China is one of the most amazing and scary things I have ever done.  The bus, it can’t get any more “real” than that.

B.

A Sense of Peace

Every single time a monk crosses my path I can’t help but stare. The blast of colour from their auburn robe awakens me. This striking bright shade layered onto glistening brown skin,  a cleanly shaved head and pearly white smile is just about one of the most captivating images I have ever laid my eyes on.  Simply being in their presence evokes the most powerful sense of peace. No matter what is on your mind, this sensation grabs hold of you like the strongest gust of wind and leaves you wanting more.  Stepping onto the grounds of a temple resembles entering a mysterious enchanted forest. Even if the location of the temple is right in the city center, all of the trees and greenery easily make you feel thousands of miles away from civilization. What a magnificent place to live. The temples alone are a sight to see with their detailed artwork and when placed in this setting, I have a terribly hard time ever wanting to leave. We had the opportunity to participate in a Vipassana meditation session led by the monks at a wat in Vientiane, Laos. Anticipating our session, I was as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Walking onto the grounds trying to take in as much as I could, the excitement I felt grew and grew. Wild dogs happily chased each other in the lush grass while a few monks quietly raked leaves nearby. Birds chirped a familiar song in the rustling trees surrounding the temple as we chose our pillows and sat in lotus pose. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. They began to chant. I opened my eyes and smiled at B. Oh what a wonderful day! I tried my best to shut everything else out except the cleansing sound of their voices. Completely in the moment, I inhaled light, love and serenity.

F.

Kingdom of God

The great moat reflected the huge trees that danced on its edge with grace and beauty.  The setting, majestic. The temple itself hidden by the jungle that protects it.  The symmetry and charm of this wonder of the world unparalleled anywhere.  Arguably the largest religious monument man has ever built, Angkor Wat stands alone.  A brilliant architectural masterpiece.  Awe inspiring.  Originally built as a Hindu temple for Vishnu, the Khmer people soon changed it to a Buddhist temple, which it remains to this day.

The bridge that crosses the moat to the entranceway is guarded by Cambodia’s wisest protector, Naga (Snake).  Its giant hood flared open with a menacing array of snake heads ready to strike any harmful spirits trying to cross the moat into Angkor proper.  The serpent’s body then transitions into the balustrade running the course of the walkway.  Naga is everywhere in Cambodia, protecting roads, temples and bridges right across the country.

Making our way across the bridge through the busloads of other tourists, was annoying. We selfishly wanted Angkor all to ourselves.  The entrance wall and gate weren’t that impressive in comparison to what lie ahead. Once we crossed the threshold however, there was no turning back. Angkor lay waiting for all those lucky enough to be dazzled by its warm glow.  The sun’s orange hues bouncing off the stupas created a magical golden palace. A dream. If there was a god, this would definitely be the place it would reside.

We were lucky enough to afford several days at Angkor so we weren’t forced to rush through it like so many others on a tight schedule. One regret we both had after seeing Machu Picchu was we only allotted one day at the site itself.  We vowed if we ever had the chance to see one of the wonders again, we would schedule more time. The Angkor temples are absolutely amazing, with Bayon leading the pack for me. Although not as grand as Angkor Wat, the faces of Bayon starring back at you as the sun is going down, was a moment for the record books.  A highlight of the trip.

They were in the distance playing on a crumbled monument that used to be a part of the library at Angkor Wat.  We were sitting on the edge of the ruins next to a huge tree, the branches of which tangled gracefully overhead.  Ants marched up and down its spine in search of something, dedicated.  The beautiful grounds that surround Angkor are timeless.  It took some convincing before I gave into the fact that we were just “hanging out” at Angkor Wat, but we were.  Simply, glorious.  The sweet flesh of the longan is the perfect refresher after a long hot day.  It didn’t take long however before the kids playing on the stones noticed our bag of fruit.  The two older girls sat back as the little 3 year old jumped at the chance for the longan’s sweet juice.  He was an orphan no higher than my knee, with a snotty nose, beautiful brown eyes and the cutest smile you have ever seen.  We were both sitting on the ground so our perspective was the same as his.  He walked over timidly but aggressive. He was saying something in Khmer we thought it could have been, “Can I have one?”  He slowly made his way towards us, his bare feet uninhibited by the rocky soil, eyes fixed on what was to be his prize.  He put his hand to his mouth and then repeated the phrase.  By this time he stood right in front of us, he was irresistible. How could we say no?  We gave him one and the biggest smile lit up his dirty face.  It didn’t last long however and he jumped right back in asking for another.  Three longans filled his tiny hands.  He immediately thought to pull up his shirt and created a make shift pouch.  We obliged and filled it up with a few more, and he ran off to show his friends.   We assumed that he was going to share his catch but he ate them all to himself.  The little guy came back 2 more times, his undeniable cuteness too much for us to bear.  We filled his shirt up, same as the last.  After the second round of eating them alone, F. went over to the young girls and gave them each a handful since not everybody was willing to share.  They were happy not to be forgotten.  As we left, the three of them said thank you many times.   Our final glances back as we caught the path to the front gate, were of Angkor Wat and little energetic hands waving good-bye.  What an end to a perfect day.

B.

Christmas in Cambodia

This Christmas, Santa was a missing presence.  They actually don’t celebrate the same holidays you do in the rest of the world.  Chosen moments from our Christmas Day include: bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, Christmas lights by the water, Angkor Wat, dusty roads, frog, hungry kids, missing my mom, packs of wild dogs and monkeys, margarita’s and the trashiest drag queens you’ve ever seen.  Ever.  Jolly St. Nick failed to make an appearance.  Nevertheless, the Christmas spirit still found a way inside me.  I can’t seem to get our visit to the Lighthouse Orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia out of my head.  I all too quickly found place in my heart for many pairs of tiny brown eyes.  What is the real answer to helping all these children without homes?  B. and I made the choice not to give money to children who are begging.  Instead we offer to buy them a meal or share some of the fresh fruit we have with us.  I’m actually really sick of seeing hungry kids.  A certain detachment has set in for my own protection but what bothers me most, is the lack of security these kids feel at such a young age. Kind hearted, old little souls who won’t score some food or a drink without sharing first with friends and siblings. (The little boy in B.’s blog about Angkor Wat was the one exception to this rule.)  The children at Lighthouse were affectionate and eager to take your hand, show you how to play a game, or speak to you in the various languages they knew.  I wish adoption was popular.  I wish there was more balance in the world.  Why do some have so much while so many survive on hardly anything?   Everybody deserves a roof over their head and a full belly.  No frills necessarily, just the essentials.  Satisfying the most basic needs, because it is exactly these needs that make us all human beings.

F.

Happy

Pizza…  Gosh darn it they figured out how to make one of my favourite foods even better!  Oh Cambodia, where have you been all of my life?  Where else can you walk up to the counter at a pizza shop and see a bag of weed sitting out in plain view?  What I really mean to say is I would NEVER participate in any kind of illegal eating activities…  I’m sitting in one of the worst rooms we have had the sheer pleasure to experience on this trip.  To make it onto the worst room list it has to be a real winner, no amount of cleaning or renovation would fix these places. At this point they just need to be destroyed and put to rest.  Yes, when you are travelling on the cheap you have the opportunity to stay in some real gems.  Broken locks, doors, toilets, sinks, TV’s, air conditioners, beds.  Three drops of water trickling out of the shower head somehow can still be categorized as taking a shower.  Towels that smell like someone died in them.  Bathrooms with see through doors.  Now doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having one at all?  If you happen not to be that close to your travel buddy before the trip, now you know them REALLY well.  What the hell are these stains all over the walls?  It seems like someone tried to make sure they splashed shit and dirt in every corner of this sad room.  We should call in the CSI team to solve this wall stained mystery.  The question is, do we want to know?  Twelve dollars in Sihanoukville Cambodia gets you an air-conditioned room with curious stains all over the walls.  “Air conditioned” means, the box that sits in a corner of the room making noise, giving you the illusion that you are cooler.  In all future correspondences B. and I want to be referred to by our alias, “The Mosquito Hunters.”  “Do you see him?”  “No.”  “Brad we have to get him.”  “There he is the little fucker.”  “Kill him, kill him.”  “Bastard, I can’t believe he got away.”  “There he is, there he is!”  Menacing laugh.  “I got him.”  What a test of our love and sanity this trip has been so far.  If we don’t end up as a murder suicide headline in the news, B. will truly be my immortal beloved. “B. I can see that you’re holding a knife over my head reflected in the computer screen, put it away it’s not funny.”

Good times.

F.

Lest We Forget

Armed with our face masks we sat in a tuk tuk caught up in a simple exchange.  We weren’t quite sure how to feel about the sights that lay ahead.  How do you confront evil when it’s starring right at you?  How long does it take for the deepest wounds caused by genocide to heal?  The Killing Fields.  Exploring them and finding out more about the atrocities that happened there left me exhausted, with a weight in my chest and a lump in my throat.  In the center of it all lies the memorial stupa filled with crusty decaying bones.  Floors of bones, bones and still more bones.  These images are an obvious reminder of those that suffered and lost their life, but also with some hope, are about something like this never happening again.  Will it?  An informative and well-made audio recording filled my ears with the facts.  I could not digest the energy all around me.  The pain I sensed smelled stronger than any decaying flesh ever could.  The killing tree, the pits that were once filled with mounds and mounds of bodies. Just can’t wrap my head around the reason why?  Large numbers of butterflies cheerfully dance in the greenery, masking the sorrow that rests in this ground.  Would they still dance if they knew?  Rainfall reveals more bones, more shreds of clothing, and more teeth that have been knocked out of screaming mouths.  If these trees could talk, what tales would they weep to us?  The dead want to keep us thinking, the dead won’t let us forget.  A loud generator was the source of electricity that fueled the sound recordings used to muffle their cries and moans. Today they want to be heard and hope you are listening.

Peace.

F.

I almost stepped on someone’s teeth today.  The jawbone jutting out a few feet away in the sandy soil.  They lay there as if they had just fallen out of somebody’s pocket.  By chance. Truth is, they belonged to someone’s brother, lover, friend, foe.  A lost soul, swallowed in a pit of madness, forced to die among thousands of others buried there.  Intentionally.  Brutally.  For over thirty years those teeth have haunted the dreams of an entire nation, now they will forever haunt me.

The tuk-tuk dropped us off at the Killing Fields just as the sun started to drop from its worshipped rise.  The wind was blowing its cooling breeze in the 30 degree heat, and a mini tornado spun dust and bits of garbage off in the hazy distance. Children played barefoot with sticks, spitting distance from the entrance, their dirty faces silhouetting their big brave smiles as we walked by. “Hello,” they said, as they often do. Reflecting the smile back to them, “Hello.”  Their game continued, and they chased each other off into the setting sun. I on the other hand was feeling uneasy.  We were stepping into the dragon’s lair.  One of the most evil places on Earth.

The site itself was haunting.  A bone chilling reminder of the horrendous choices human beings can make.  A place where thousands of innocent people were viciously executed one screaming soul at a time.  The guided audio tour was excellent and offered deeper insight into the lives that were taken there.  Bits of cloth protruded from the ground all around the site, matted into the grass and tangled in tree roots.  This was not garbage as the audio tour mentioned, but pieces of actual clothing from the victims who rested there. The earth not willing to digest it, preferring instead to churn it back up, lest we never forget.  It’s a place that could make you want to give up and then inspire you to take on the world all in the same breath.  The stupa in the centre of the site filled with bones and hundreds of skulls provides hope and inspiration to the Cambodian people to keep moving forward, and live their lives to the fullest.  This couldn’t be more apparent in the million smiles you see as you walk down the street, or drive past on the highway.

I saw them from the bottom of my eye.  They stopped me dead in my tracks.  I didn’t know what else to do but stare.  They were human teeth.   In that moment of a thousand thoughts, I realized how lucky I was to be there, how lucky I was to be me.  Just plain lucky. After all of the hardship, the Cambodian people have regained their identity and a collective smile fuels the country. They have slowly risen from the ashes to become some of the most amazing people I have had the opportunity to encounter.  I am humbled.  I have nothing to complain about. Ever.  I need to be happier. Always.  I need to love with all of me.  Truthfully.  The Killing Fields stole my heart, but the Cambodian people filled me back with love.

Grateful.

B.

P.S.  I find it curious however that the Cambodian Government has rented the area to a Japanese company to run and maintain for the next 20 plus years. Somehow I can’t help but think that any profits raised should go back to the Cambodian people, many in desperate need of basic supplies.  Puzzling.

Welcome to the Jungle

Please gather ‘round ladies and gentleman, urgent introductions are in order.  These mesmerizing characters have unfortunately been left out of your vacation brochures.  They are, The Beach side Wanderers.  Their weather worn feet are more accustomed to sifting through hot sand, than walking on pavement.  When it’s too hot for anything but swimming and drinking, they bear the heat day and night working for survival in the jungle.  Bracelets every color of the rainbow adorn her tiny little body placed there in the hopes of catching your purchasing eye. While it registers in your head how old this child is she asks, “What is your favorite color?”  Her nimble fingers ready to satisfy each and every possible request.  The innocence in her eyes grotesquely overshadowed by a premature adult like quality that should only have set in many, many years from now.  Winding her way through the aisles of bamboo beach chairs she absorbs one too many images of begging land mine amputees, while her stomach’s only concern is finding some form of sustenance.  Dirty finger nails, matted hair, and a clearly irresistible smile. It is said that buying the precious jewels this child sells will only encourage her to stay out of school.  I just want to see her put down all of the bracelets and go play.  His eyes are on every table as he drags his plastic bag full of cans along with him.  When the beach is crowded he has to move his small legs around very quickly to be able to pick up every single one.  He always finds time to watch the cheap fireworks go off and the cool fire jugglers scattered around different sections of the beach.  Just one more can and his bag will be full. He lingers around the tables crowded with people while playing with one of his friends.  Just one more can and his bag will be full.  Just one more can and he will get to go home.  She is the belle of this ball, offering your business trip or too short vacation the kind of sex you always wanted to have with your wife.   She laughs at all your jokes and makes you look really good long after your first day back at the office.  Who would she like to be kissing tonight?  My guess would not be some middle aged, fat, filthy foreigner she’s never going to see again.  “Massage?”  “Pedicure or manicure?”  “Maybe later?” She repeats in broken English countless times every day.  On a good day, she’s proud of how much money she made and how good she’s getting at giving women pretty pink toe nails.  Time flies as she chats with the other women selling an array of fruit, peanuts, and crispy fried shell fish.  On a good day, the sun is out and everyone is smiling.  On a bad day, she hasn’t made any money and the sight of these familiar, friendly, desperate faces is just too much for her.

F.