Cambodia as Lockdown relaxes

Posted in John's Current Blog on June 11, 2020

LOCKDOWN JOURNAL. Phnom Penh, Cambodia; June 11, 2010:

I’ve lost count, but we’ve been social distancing for over 12 weeks. For the first 73 days, I posted essays with recipes on Facebook as LOCKDOWN COMFORTS. But the Embassy relaxed our travel restrictions – though still no public transportation or travel outside the country – and so we headed to Siem Reap last week to revisit the Khmer temples without the hordes. We hired a driver – it’s 5 to 6 hours in a car – and went for four nights.

The drive is long and monotonous, but as we neared Siem Reap, this new monument in a new traffic circle reminded me of the recently deceased artist Christo.

The first hotel we had booked, in the center of the busiest part of town where there were dozens and dozens of restaurants, called us about a week before we were to arrive to say that their lack of business was forcing them to close. We scrambled and rebooked at a lovely – and much more expensive – hotel that had come highly recommended by friends. It was not centrally located, and it had cut back seriously on some of their amenities (the bar and restaurant were closed except for breakfast and they had severed their tv cable service). But the staff could not have been more accommodating. We were their only clients for three nights!

The normally bustling Pub Street in Siem Reap at noon on Saturday.

We have been here in Cambodia just shy of a year and we have not left the country. Our official R&R (standard 2-week holiday for American government employees in foreign service) was to have been a trip to Australia to see an old friend, with a stop in Bali on the way home. That had to be cancelled, as well as a planned trip to Singapore, where we also have friends. Singapore Airlines has not refunded our refundable Business Class tickets, in spite of the fact that it is they who cancelled the flight; Singapore is still in lockdown, and foreigners may not enter.

Like most folks, we’ve had a bit of cabin fever. I used to go have lunch with Mikel, usually at a Khmer restaurant near his office, but not only has he been working at home, but the restaurant has permanently closed. Two weeks ago when the embassy’s social distancing standards were relaxed a bit, we went out to dinner for the first time to one of our favorite little French bistros. We were the only people there.

We arrived in Siem Reap on Wednesday and met our friend, the historian Jack Weatherford, who is the world’s authority on Genghis Khan. Jack has been living in Mongolia for years and spends the colder months elsewhere, often in Cambodia. He’s a South Carolina native as well. He’s been stuck here for months – not that he minds. He alternates between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

Cambodia is one of the amazingly COVID-free places. There has been a total of 127 cases and no deaths. No one has been put on a ventilator and all of the victims have recovered except the two latest ones who were just diagnosed. All of the people who have tested positive have arrived from other places, mostly China. There have been no recorded instances of human-to-human transmission from within the Cambodian borders. Some experts have tried to explain it; others find it baffling. I think the fact that most Cambodians live outside and do not spend much time in air-conditioning has a lot to do with it. Because visitors entering from other countries are tested and quarantined if they test positive, transmission has been nil. Unlike the other big Southeast Asian capitals, we are just not piled up on top of each other, in air-conditioned offices and apartment buildings, the way folks are in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. The viral load here is probably very small. And very few Cambodians get on airplanes ever.

Homemade gravlax with homemade mayonnaise on rye with homemade okra pickles and half-sours. Jack fruit and Serrano ham. In the background I see some cheese and homemade chicken liver mousse. Par for the course.

So we’ve had a bit of “survivors’ remorse,” so to speak, like folks whose houses remain untouched when their neighbors’ are destroyed by a tornado. Sharing about 100 recipes in those 73 Facebook posts seemed the right thing to do. Some cookbook writers chastised me for providing recipes “for free,” claiming that it undermines their efforts to make money. Whatever. Two years ago the Culinary Historians of New York awarded me their prestigious Amelia Award for my contributions to culinary history and for my “generosity and extraordinary support to others in the field.” I took the honor to heart. Just because I’m basically retired doesn’t mean that I get to rest on my laurels. Posting those stories and recipes was my way of trying to share some comfort and joy in these difficult times.

Perhaps the biggest change for us has been that we haven’t been eating out and that I have been preparing at least two meals every day instead of one. There’s a grocery store within the walls of our gated compound and there’s a big Japanese mall not 500 yards away where their excellent grocery store, which has one of the best selections of seafood in town, opens at 8:00am. The rest of the mall doesn’t open till 9:00, so I am often the only person there when they open. They make you wear a mask and have your temperature taken prior to entering. Plus, there are three bakeries, including a branch of the Parisian chain, Eric Kayser. So all the time I used to spend baking bread I now spend preparing that second meal. It’s no problem. I like cooking. And the pandemic hasn’t dramatically affected the availability of goods. Most of what we eat is fresh and local. Plus, everyone – and I do mean EVERYONE – delivers. Butchers, bakers, hardware stores, the potable water companies, and the gas companies (propane for both the grill and the stove and oven). The wine shops and liquor stores deliver. Nearly every restaurant does, and if they don’t, there are plenty of courier services. From one online company, I can order everything from batteries and paper towels to fennel, basil, Vermouth, and foie gras. So the lockdown hasn’t been bad, foodwise. I go for a walk along the river most mornings before it gets too hot. I’m revisiting lots of old music I haven’t listened to – especially not through headphones – in ages. I’m always amazed at how many lyrics I have been hearing incorrectly for decades!

There were some imported items – French whipping cream, prosciutto di Parma, good sponges – that the stores were out of for awhile, but I can’t bitch about such bourgeois things when innocent black people continued to be killed by policemen. I have thought for a long time that we need major changes to so many systems that have been unsustainable for years, from health care and education to finances and religion. I do not think it’s a coincidence that #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have emerged as true forces for change at the same time. We’ve got to do something about the many inequalities. And we’ve got to assure that everyone has equal access to education and health care. An editorial in the Washington Post yesterday rebuked Colin Powell’s remarks and attacked Democrats for proposing “unconstitutional” changes. But the Constitution needs to be changed. It’s still very much the document that the white, slave-owning oligarchs crafted, largely designed to protect the status quo. Advocating change is not unconstitutional. It will be an uphill battle to even organize a Constitutional Convention, but we have not had one in the US since 1787 – 233 years ago! But I firmly believe that laws that were put in place to prevent a tyranny of the majority have instead insured an even worse tyranny of the privileged white moneyed class.

But I am tired. I never thought we would have to be marching again for equal rights after the 60s and 70s and 80s. Even voting isn’t enough, what with the gerrymandering, Tuesday elections, Citizens United, the Electoral College and the two senators per state rule which has assured that a small majority of the populace is in control of lawmaking.

The Eastern side of Angkor Wat shortly after sunrise. We were the only people there.

An escape was just what I needed. If you have never been, and when you are ready to fly again, I can’t encourage you enough to come to Cambodia, if only to see the Khmer temples near Siem Reap. If you are of the means, hop on one of the first flights in, because never again will the temples be so void of people. [It's not cheap to get here and you must shell out $3000 to pay for your COVID test and possible quarantine and/or hospitalization expenses.] 20,000 tickets to the Angkor temples were being sold per day up until the pandemic. Khmer citizens do not pay for tickets, so there were thousands of Khmer visiting daily as well. [A note: Khmer is pronounced kuh-MY. To its populace, the country is Kampuchea or Srok Khmer. They and their language are Khmer. They do not say “Cambodia” or “Cambodian,” except when talking to foreigners.

And while I encourage you to travel, I do believe that travel must change as well. We cannot all keep hopping on airplanes and, as my friend Julia said, “fly to Paris for a haircut.” The carbon footprint of one long-haul flight is equal to or greater than that of one person’s annual emissions in dozens of countries. And cruise ships are worse: they dump billions of gallons of raw sewage into the oceans. But I digress. We have more people and more problems than ever before. The Trump administration has been systematically dismantling environmental and health protections that were put in place by bipartisan committees over many years. I do hope the protests help.


Viva restaurant also has an inn.

We left Phnom Penh at the crack of dawn last Wednesday and arrived at our hotel around noon. We immediately took a tuktuk to eat Mexican food at Viva, located in the center of town in a big old handsome colonial building, painted a bright salmon color. We had eaten there in December and were impressed with the quality of the food and the bartender’s willingness to make margaritas my way. (If you scroll down to October 10 on this page, you’ll find the formula.) The homemade corn tortillas are scrumptious. It looks like a tourist trap in the heart of the touristy part of downtown, but I have been twice now and would go back. After lunch we walked around in the scorching heat. Most shops were closed. A huge rabbit warren of a food court was empty except for Il Forno, an Italian restaurant run by the delightful Matteo from Lombardy. We had eaten there on Christmas eve, surrounded by other Italians. We returned our final afternoon for homemade orecchiette with a “pesto” of eggplant and Parmesan topped with “fried” eggplant. When a Facebook friend asked how it was made, I asked Matteo to be sure, and he replied:

Orecchiette with eggplant at Il Forno in Siem Reap.

Hi John, nice to hear you liked it!!! So prepare a spicy eggplant mousse (you can find many recipes for that), use it as a sauce for orecchiette (ours are homemade, but people can also buy the dry ones). Fry some eggplant to use as decoration. Actually I prefer to not fry the eggplant but just grill them. Then put olive oil, garlic and parsley on top of them. Let them rest some hours and use them to decorate the plate. Thanx and see you soon!!!

Two excellent French restaurants where we had eaten before – the bistro Le Malraux, where I had the best mayonnaise I have ever had – and Olive: Cuisine de Saison, where we had dined for hours on Christmas day over duck breasts and Mercurey – were both closed. Malraux, set in a house in the Old Market area, opened in 2006. Its signature art nouveau eaves that mirror the Paris metro entrances have been removed. I’m afraid they’ve closed for good.

That evening, we met Jack and several of his friends for an excellent menu-fixe Khmer meal at the delightful open-air poolside restaurant at Rambutan Hotel and Resort, which was the first LGBTQ-friendly resort in Siem Reap. It has been packed ever since, even in the pandemic. The meal was flawless renditions of Khmer classics that kept coming – Fish Amok, Fried Fish with Ginger, Dried Beef with Sesame Seeds, Oyster Mushrooms, Vegetable Curry, Mango Salad, Eggplant with Ground Pork, and Pumpkin Custard. The company included women from Canada, France, and Sweden and men from Belgium, England, and the States. The Brit was half Welsh and half Indian. Historians, NGO officers, an architect, a writer, and travel and hospitality industry folks. Great conversations. New friends!

Banteay Srei (the women’s temple)

We got up the next morning and headed out with a driver to visit some of the temples on the Big Circuit. (In the 1920s tourists were routed to the temples according to how many days they planned to visit. The Big Circuit takes three days.)  In December we had visited sites on the Small Circuit – Ta Prohm and Central Angkor Thom, including the remarkable Bayon with its dozens of Avolaketishvaras smiling down on us. The following day, we planned to return to Angkor Wat for sunrise, enjoy the temple without the crowds, and then return to Bayon as well. We had also traveled farther north in December to see stunning Banteay Srei, often called the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art, and the romantic Beng Mealea, left in the condition it was found, largely in rubble and smothered by jungle roots, trees, and vines. We wanted to circle around the East Baray, a reservoir 7km long and 2km wide that was built in the 9th Century by Yasovarman I. The names of the kings are nearly impossible to remember, but they were all great builders, demonstrating their power with their massive construction projects.

The unusual two-story building with round columns at Preah Khan

First up was the 12thCentury Preah Kahn, Jayavarman VII’s massive Buddhist university that once had over 1000 teachers. Much more than a temple and a school, it was also a huge city. There are entrance causeways with boundary stones and nagas held up by gods and asuras. Oddly, one of the stones was covered in cobwebs. There is a unique, two-storied building with round columns – more Rome than Bayon. Nagas are multi-headed serpents; asuras are enemies of the gods. Giant garudas (bird-men) are carved along the outer wall and on the gopuras (entrance pavilions). A giant silk cotton tree engulfs one of the walls. Half of the tree is rotten, and its branches hold the unique half-moon honeycombs of wild bees. We were the only people at the temple. With tourism at all but a standstill, the wildlife has returned en masse, as it has all over the world. I’m a rank amateur bird watcher, but I carried binoculars with me. The mature trees of the dry jungle, though, were simply too crowded and tall for me to make out who was singing from high above. And I was really there for the ruins. I did see two birds of prey, but I couldn’t positively identify them.

The Balaha statue and the central monument at Neak Pean.

From Preah Kahn we went to the unique island temple of Neak Pean (pronounced “poo un” — forget trying to figure out romanticized Khmer. There are no standard phonetic alphabets). Also built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th Century, it is reached via a long boardwalk. On the island, there is the central pool with a temple in its center, surrounded by small chapels overlooking four other pools. Most interesting to me was an unfinished statue of the flying horse Balaha, who rises from the water with a group of men clinging to his flanks and tail. Balaha is saving seafaring merchants from an island terrorized by an ogress. The sun was already hot and blinding. My photos, unfortunately, aren’t very good.

The Eastern Face Tower at Ta Som.

Not far away, Ta Som – also 12th Century, also by Jayavarman VII – was one of the places I really wanted to see, with its face tower engulfed by a giant strangler fig. The temple itself is often referred to as the “Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant,” whatever that means! All of these temples used to be surrounded by dozens of stands selling souvenirs, books, scarves, t-shirts, hats, and water. There are no vendors now.

On the south side of the East Baray, the imposing brick towers of Pre Rup rise above the surrounding plain. I think this temple surprised me the most. Built more than 200 years before most of the others, it is a mountain-temple that lay at the center of a large city whose boundaries are long since lost to the ages. The elaborately carved lintels, the combination of brick, laterite, and sandstone, and the monumental pyramid (which we climbed) are unlike anything else we visited. I loved it.

Pre Rup

We had plans to visit Sras Srang, the royal baths also built in the 10th century, but it’s just a big pond now, best seen at sunrise or sunset. Our driver suggested we go see Banteay Kdei, just across the road, yet another late 12thCentury temple that was built on the ruins of earlier buildings and rebuilt several times throughout the years. It, too, is pretty much the way it was found. There is a delightful Hall of Dancers (apsaras) and a huge tree strangles the western entrance to the temple, its foot-thick roots snaking throughout the site.

Banteay Kdei

We had excellent Khmer food in the jungle in a restaurant that is used to serving hundreds of people. We were the only customers. That evening, we were thrilled to see that Mamashop Italian Restaurant was open. Usually, reservations are essential. The owner is from Bologna and the pasta is homemade. The sauces are authentic. The mozzarella is made in-house. The pizza crust is wafer-thin. I was surprised by the gargantuan American-style huge portions, but the food was divine. But, again, we were the only patrons. (Full disclosure: we eat early, usually as soon as places open – as early as 5:30.)

On Friday we got up at 4:30 to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise. There were 15 people there instead of the 20,000 who were there the last time we went. Everyone sat around waiting by the almost dry reflecting pool so they could get their perfect photo of the sun rising behind the temple. I wanted to walk to the other side so that I could get a shot of the temple bathed in morning light, but the temple itself doesn’t open till 7:30. We were shocked to see that, as soon as the sun rose, all the other tourists left, so we had Angkor Wat all to ourselves! It’s truly a remarkable group of buildings, and worth a visit, though now that I have seen it with no one there, I doubt that I will ever go back.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

If you do visit and go for sunrise, the thousands of mostly Chinese tourists will leave as soon as the sun rises and they get their photos. There is usually a lull in traffic from right after sunrise until about 10:00 AM. You can walk around the outside of the temple and take in the long galleries of bas-reliefs while you wait to go inside. They are fascinating and it will take you at least an hour to see them. Tickets to all the Angkor temples are for one day ($37), three days ($62), and one week ($72). The three-day passes can be used over three non-consecutive days. If you go to the ticket pavilion the day before you plan to visit, arrive at 4:30pm and you can then go to see sunset at one of the temples that day as an added bonus. Because of COVID, they let us use our 1-day ticket for two days.

At the amazing Bayon

We headed back to Bayon, which both of us find mesmerizing. There’s no way not to be moved by all those smiling Avolaketishvaras. Destined to be Buddhas, they postponed that holy state to help humanity. At Bayon, there were originally 54 Gothic face towers, each one with four of the smiling giants. They helped me understand the gentle nature of the Khmer people, who do not outwardly show anger, not even road rage in their insane traffic. In December I came home and painted one in a niche on the patio wall. (Fortunately, our landlady loves it.)

My Avolaketishvara

The temple itself is unusually complex, which we didn’t realize the last time we were there because there were so many people that we just stayed in the main plazas. This time, alone again, we meandered through tiny hallways broken up by dozens of columns. It’s like a miniature version of a complex Moorish mosque. There are two galleried enclosures filled with the ruins of 16 chapels. Bas reliefs are not as elaborate as at Angkor Wat, but they are extensive. The upper level was closed off for renovation, but a worker on the highest peak waved to us as he cleared the monument of volunteer plants. We greeted each other with sampeahs (the traditional Khmer greeting of placing hands flat together with fingers pointed upward – a gesture Westerners associate with praying). Again, the sun was already high and the photo sucks. But the sampeah? Brilliant. When social distancing became the norm, the Khmer were already a step ahead of us huggers and hand-shakers.

Roast chicken at Barrio (we were under a blue awning).

Back in town well before lunch, we found a French restaurant that was open – Barrio. We had one of his many specials offered – roast chicken – but, again, we were the only customers. The chef-owner was delightful, though, and determined to stay open and keep his employees employed. He said that he had had NO business the day before but had a big party booked for that night. I do hope he survives. The food was excellent.

Walking home, we stopped in a spa and got manicures and pedicures ($10 each) and I got a full-body four-hands massage ($25 for 1-1/2 hours). Back at the hotel, we swam and napped before heading to Cuisine Wat Damnak, the most coveted table in Siem Reap. Chef Joannès Rivière’s haute Khmer food is world-renowned, and rightfully so, but, he, too, had been closed for two months. When we tried to get a reservation back in December, we were told we needed to book 2 months in advance. Rivière, who came to our table after dessert, when he offered and explained the uncommon fresh local fruits,

One of several sweets at Cusine Wat Damnak: Soursop sorbet with basil seeds, cured yam bean (jicama) and cucumber, meringue, dragon fruit and cilantro

laughed at that and said, always have your hotel call us. We’ll find you a table. He had decided to begin a soft, part-time opening the weekend before – only on Friday and Saturday nights. We weren’t alone but there were only four tables all evening. The menus were intriguing. He offers two tasting menus, one of which is vegetarian. We had seven courses, plus the fruits and a chewy sweet of what I’m sure was mostly tamarind. Diehard red wine drinkers that we are, we chose instead a Premier Cru white Burgundy from Michel Juillot. It perfectly complemented the prawn and sweet corn fritter, the beef and burnt green papaya soup, the pan fried fish with creamed amaranth, and the braised maam with fruits.

We left our last day free and we did little. It was a much-needed break from lockdown, and, for me, from the kitchen.


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