Reading: Beliefs about the Mrenh Gongveal: Chasing the Elves of the Khmer

I've just had a chance to flip through this book. It's a photo essay on the Khmer tradition of providing a home to beings (elves) believed to provide them protection, guidance and advice. Look around Phnom Penh and it is such a common sight on the streets outside of residences, that it barely registers in your peripheral vision. Some people paint the houses, hang clothes outside it, add toy vehicles and phones and other things that represent everyday items, to keep the Mrenh Gongveal (ម្រេញគង្វាល) happy and entertained (otherwise a bored Mrenh Gongveal apparently wreaks havoc on nearby humans). As the author noted, this is a story that's increasingly lost in rapidly modernizing Cambodia. Fewer and fewer Khmers know of the origins of this … [Read more...]

Travel: Hauling a 2- and 4-year old through 6 countries in 8 weeks

As we were leaving the region to move back home, I did a consultancy that took me to several capital cities to review national health programs. It was a great opportunity for all of us to say goodbye to friends, colleagues and places we've frequented over the past decade. So we packed up the house and shipped, sold or gave away our belongings, and took the kids on a two month journey through Southeast Asia. I won't lie about my initial apprehension about the arrangement (two months on the road with two kids?!), but between juggling the work and play schedule, getting more efficient at living out of suitcases and finding places and things to do together, it turned into a fantastic bonding experience for us four. (Skip to the bottom if you're … [Read more...]

Project: Educate a girl and you educate a family

My old Khmer language tutor, Mdm Soun Neang, has a generous heart. In her youth during Cambodia's darkest years under the Khmer Rouge regime, she taught languages secretly to children, at great personal risk. Today, she supports girls in her hometown in rural Kampong Thom go to school, where the opportunity costs of educating a girl is too high for poor families (who send their sons instead). This is despite significant evidence that educating a girl has a powerful impact on the future of her family.   Mdm Neang has already brought several groups to graduation throughout her life. But she is getting tired, and suffers chronic and often debilitating illness these days. Still, she continues to tutor barangs in Phnom Penh (foreigners) to … [Read more...]

Getting a dog on a flight out of Cambodia

Want to take your pet out of Cambodia with you? Airline rules are changing in Phnom Penh. Small pets (<5kg) can still be stowed in the cabin with you. Pets over 5kg must go in the cargo, but several carriers have recently announced that aircraft flying out of Phnom Penh are too small for them to safely transport live animals in the cargo. The expat community was incredibly helpful when I posted a query on several forums for any experience in getting pets out of Phnom Penh, and compiled here the options (as of 2015): . I. Go overland Phnom Penh to Bangkok. Bus companies like Virak-Buntham does trips Phnom Penh-to-Bangkok via Koh Kong, without making passengers transfer to another bus at the Thai side of the border. … [Read more...]

Khmer cuisine: Koh saek chrook k’nao (Pork stew with jackfruit)

Koh saek chrook is usually a plain beef stew (of garlic, onions, soy sauce, fish sauce and small amounts of tubers) when our nanny Sopheap makes it for us. This variation below is with jackfruit, which lends a sweetness so that there's no need to add sugar. (With growing affluence and its associated sweet tooth, sugar is increasingly added to Khmer dishes like this one.) Tender shreds of meat are what's left after the yellow fruit is taken out and the tougher rind and tendrils discarded. The seeds of jackfruit are edible when boiled. It has a hard shell that's easily cracked and removed. They can be tossed into the dish as well. Sopheap leaves this shell on, but if I were to cook it myself I'd take them off. First, garlic is … [Read more...]

Phở shops in Khan Chamkarmon district

Phở is the most famous of Vietnam's culinary repertoire. A lot of what goes in it depends on whether the cook is Hanoian or Saigonese, with the latter dominating in this area of Phnom Penh. Its base is a murky broth of beef and chicken bones, boilded with some dried squid, garlic, shallots and other things. Thin slivers of raw beef are added to the bowl of noodle while the broth is still piping hot, and the phở is accompanied by a plate of vegetables and herbs: bean sprouts, onions, cuts of lime, rice paddy herb (ma-om), sweet basil (chee korhom), and saw leaf herb (chee bonla). It's served with hoisin, soy, chili sauces, which can be mixed into the broth or into a small condiment dish for dipping the meat into. Everyone has their … [Read more...]

Insect cuisine: Ongkrong saek koo (Beef stir fry with red tree ant larvae)

The first time I had this dish was in Kampot, at a small stall by the side of a building away from the busy center of town. I loved it! Then one night I sat underneath a particularly bright light source and saw all the ants in my meal. After my initial shock, I managed to have a civil conversation with my Khmer colleagues about the food they had me eating. These ants lend a tangy taste to dishes, especially when paired with meats in a stir fry. I did end up finishing my meal that night, getting over it very quickly. All manner of insects make it onto the menu in Cambodia, so psychologically-speaking it wasn't the worst thing I've ever eaten, and besides it was rather good. There are several names for this ant -- Fire ants, Red tree ants, … [Read more...]

Phnom Penh in photos

The first experiences in this charming little Kingdom of Wonder are a full assault on the senses, despite regular travel outside comfort zones. Our photo archive is bursting with what was once so unique and interesting -- market scenes, street sights, exotic fruits. But after many years of working and living here, these scenes reduce to mundane. Thanks to the gang at the Multicultural Kid Blogs, however, I can filter through our images with fresh eyes. In this series, bloggers around the world give a tour of their neighborhood and town. What does a local playground look like in Astana, Kazakhstan, or how about a school in Izhevsk, Russia? It's great for kids to see such differences in our daily lives around the world and yet, how much of … [Read more...]