I admit it, I am one of those travelers who has her head securely buried in a Lonely Planet every time she hits a new country. During the five-hour bus ride from Bangkok to the Cambodian border I read everything I could about the upcoming border crossing.
Back at Yoga Thailand we met a couple from Sydney, Greg and Emily, who kindly filled us in on the transfer to Angkor Wat and gifted us with their Lonely Planet – Cambodia. From what I had read and heard it sounded easy enough. Head to the boarder, cross over at Poipet, keep your head down, find the bus station and hire a cab to Battambang. Easy Breezy.
Poipet makes Tijuana look like the Four Seasons or border crossings. First you have to deal with corrupt visa officers who will force you to pay $10 more than the clearly posted $20 visa fee. We learned later that you can apparently fight this by causing a scene which will force them to take you into a back room away form the other more placid tourists - in the back room you will be held for a while and once they realize you can’t be swayed they will let you go at the official rate of $20. We didn’t know this and even if we had, I’m not sure I had the fight in me, so we paid $30 each and left knowing we’d been scammed.
Directly at the border there is a very strange array of brand new Casino hotels, shiny white stark contrasts to the dusty, dirt roads 100 meters beyond. No sooner had we crossed through the gates then we were stalked by taxis and tour bus drivers. For the next half hour I became increasingly agitated and abrupt as one particular driver kept leap-frogging us, driving up a block then running back, each time lowering his price and further convincing me that he was part of the Taxi Mafia of Poipet.
Finally, out of desperation to escape the stalking Toyota Camery driver we hopped a Tuk Tuk – big mistake. The driver drove us all around telling everyone where we were going forcing us to fight off increasingly more and more taxi drivers.
When we got to the bus station we sat down and took a much-needed moment to ourselves. I told Jason I felt unsure about taking a taxi, that the stalkers had rattled me, made me think they were all untrustworthy and that maybe we should spend the night in one of the casinos in order to catch the bus in the morning. At least then we could be assured that we were indeed going to Battambang.
Jason managed to talk me off the ledge and convince me that he trusted the eyes of one of the drivers and that as long as we went with him, everything would be okay. We got into to Mr. Nice Eye’s taxi and started heading off in the entirely wrong direction. A few moments later, Nice Eyes dumped us off into the car of Mr. Never Spoke a Word. Drained, defeated and generally pissed off, I acquiesced and accepted my fate. Mercifully, three hours later we arrived in Battambang and checked into a $15/night hovel for which I was eternally grateful.
That evening we had dinner at the Smoking Pot, signed up for a cooking class and hired a tour guide for the following day, all referrals of Greg and Emily’s. I slept like a baby knowing that the entire next day was planned, that I would have to make no decisions, I would not have to fight off any taxi Mafioso, deal with any corrupt border agents and that I would be able pull my head out of the Lonely Planet for a while.
Note: Because my intro to Cambodia was less than stellar, I feel compelled to skip ahead a bit and tell you that this was the ONLY negative experience I have had while in this amazing country. The next day officially began my love affair with Cambodia. In addition today's paper had an article about how the tourism ministry is beginning efforts to clean up Poipet and to regulate the tour and taxi drivers.
Our cooking class began with a shopping trip to the local market. Oh the wonders and horrors of the Battambang street market.
Our instructor masterfully navigated the market, knowing exactly which stalls would have the freshest morning glory, the least smelly fish paste and the still-flopping catfish.
Purchases in hand we traipsed back to the restaurant where cutting boards and mortar and pestles were set out for us. I own a mortar and pestle and until this class I really thought it was just for grinding up peppercorns, but now I know it can make some of the the greatest sauces in the world.
Over the next three hours we produced such delicacies as Chicken Lok Lak, Spicy Basil Beef and my new favorite food, Khmer Vegetable Curry, the recipe for which, I am happy to share with you.
Khmer Vegetable Curry
2/3c - 1c lemongrass, sliced
(peel outer layer and cut off tops, slice multi-colored portion of stalk into very thin rings)
2T (4 thin slices) fresh turmeric
(If fresh turmeric is not available, substitute with half the amount of powdered turmeric)
3T (6 thin slices) galangal (ginger)
2 kaffir lime leaves (stems removed)
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
6-8 dried red chilies – tops and seeds removed
1c coconut milk
1-2T sugar (optional)
Fish sauce (or paste) to taste
1 sweet potato, cubed
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 potato, chopped
Optional additions - 2-4 long beans, 1/2 cubed eggplant, handful of straw mushrooms
1. Pound lemongrass, chili, turmeric, ginger, garlic and lime leaf together with mortar and pestle until a thick and chunky paste is formed.
2. Combine water and coconut milk mixing thoroughly, add to hot wok, heat until water separates from milk on the edges of the pan. Thicker coconut milk will move to the center and edges will boil and appear watery when this is ready – do not stir while heating.
3. Once water has separated add the curry paste and fish sauce, stir until blended.
4. Add vegetables and sugar to sauce. Cook until vegetables are tender, do not over stir. (Coconut oil will begin to separate from the milk, when oil is obvious sauce is ready.)
5. Serve hot with rice.
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