Published Jul 12, 2006

Until today, I had, in all honesty, been disappointed by the food I’d had in Cambodia. Khmer cuisine was supposed to be the undiscovered jewel, but it had seemed bland compared to Thai cuisine, which was spicier, or Vietnamese cuisine, which was more flavorful. And then I got a cookie on the street, and had dinner at what is purported to be Mick Jagger’s favorite place in Siem Reap. That Mick, he’s a smart man. Oh, and I also saw that wonder of the world, Angkor Wat, etc. etc. etc.

First things first: the food. I’ve been craving sweets, since the only sweet that Vietnam has is ice cream (there are other, native desserts that purport to be sweet, but not by any Western definition of the word; that said, the Vietnamese like both their tea and coffee quite sweet, but that’s not the same thing at all). To my delight, there is a bakery just down the street from my hotel. Yesterday, I got tasty sweet bean balls there, but today I tried something they called a “Cambodian Cookie”, which, for the frankly outrageous price of 2000 riel ($0.50), is about a 4-inch-wide disc of goodness made from what tastes like sesame, coconut milk, what I suspect is palm sugar (quite common around here), and some somewhat cakey, yellow flour, which I suspect is made from taro (also common around here). That, ladies and gentlemen, was a cookie. I wish I’d bought a gross and shipped them home.

Then I walked to the popular part of town and ate at a place my guidebook says is Mick Jagger’s favorite in Siem Reap, the city, near Angkor Wat, in which I’m staying (fun etymology note: “Siem Reap” means “Siam Defeated,” yet the Angkor empire that built the city was ultimately destroyed by Siam, and it was probably only the untimely invasion of Southeast Asia by France, and setting up of a French protectorate in the same, which prevented Cambodia from being permanently absorbed by Thailand and Vietnam). Now, I didn’t just go to the restaurant because the Sultan of Lips eats there — the place is reputed, at least by my guidebook, to be a good, moderate-priced source of authentic Khmer food. I’d read, again in my guide book, about a food called trey ahng, grilled fish served with teuk trey, the Cambodian* version of Vietnamese fish sauce, nuoc mam. Now, teuk trey may be the greatest sauce ever invented in the history of mankind, althought it is possible that this underrates the sauce’s excellence. My guide book states that teuk trey is like nuoc mam with peanuts, but the peanuts are very little, the chilis are very much, and they’ve seriously kicked the thing up with lime — the perfect companion for a hot day. It’s not overstating things to say that, with this dinner and cookie, I’ve had the best food today since I came to Southeast Asia; in fact, it breaks my heart to say that, given some of the great pho I had in Hanoi, but sometimes the truth hurts.

(Fun fact: somehow, I’ve gone from spending about $4/day on food in Hanoi and Hué to spending $4 just for dinner tonight. What’s gone wrong? If this is what the free market does to food prices, up with Communism!)

Now, that’s good food, but I should probably say something about Angkor Wat, given that it’s supposed to be one of the world’s greatest accomplisments and tourist destinations and all. Um, it was all that. Seriously, we got to the back gate of Angkor and I was like, damn, this is a great frickin ruin here. I could’ve spent the whole morning just at that gate, but my confused-looking guide kept dragging me on, and it swiftly became obvious why. Angkor is not only enormous, every inch of it is covered in beautiful, unique detail, and nothing in the world looks like it at all. The bas-reliefs are incredible, the carving is unbelievable, and I’m stunned that a civilzation could have made something like this just as a temple. I was so blown away by the place that I actually climbed the 70°-steep steps, maybe 40-50 feet high (my guide book suggests the unreasonable height of 25 meters), to get up to the third level, see the central tower, and visit the most revered spot in this stunning temple complex. Well, heck, I didn’t come 12,000 miles, or whatever, just to be stopped by 75 feet!

(Yes, those are the stairs, seen from the top! Note that the man in black and the woman in the white hat are about halfway down, but are almost directly below the people at the top of the stairs.)

Next came the broken-down Banteay Kdeay, which was partially destroyed by the Khmers themselves — the king who built it was Buddhist, while his successor, like most of the kings of the Angkor era, was Hindu, and his successor effaced virtually all of the carvings of the Buddha on the walls. The broken-down feeling of Banteay Kdeay was a great warm-up for the jungle-dominated Ta Prohm temple, which you may recognize either as:

  1. The temple with the trees growing from it
  2. The setting of Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie

At Ta Prohm, balsa-like trees grow directly from the temple itself, with their powerful roots cutting through gaps between the stones to seek water from the ground. In some places, the trees rend thick walls apart; in others, they support ancient arches that would otherwise have fallen. Today, one of the key trees is dying, attacked by a parasitic plant, and archaeologists are arguing about what to do when it dies and can no longer hold up the arch it sits astride.

Then, on the way back to the car from Ta Prohm, the sky opened up. “It is the monsoon season,” my guide explained, “if it rains hard then it will be done in a few minutes, but, just a drizzle, it will last all evening!” Unfortunately, it was soon explained to me that the torrent pouring down from the sky was more by the way of a drizzle, and the drip did keep up, on and off, all evening. But that’s ok, I got my food, and I got my socks blown off by Angkor Wat, and I’m off there again tomorrow to see some more stunning stuff.

* Pedants, please note that I use the words “Cambodian” and “Khmer” interchangeably here, which is essentially true as virtually all Cambodians are ethnically Khmer, and the about 5% of the population that are minorities are mostly stone-age jungle dwellers, what with the Khmer Rouge having killed essentially all of the Chinese mercantile class. I wouldn’t make the mistake of, say, equating “Vietnamese” and “Viet” in the same way.


Thai cuisine also includes something like the Cambodian cookie you describe, as well as a deep-fried version that’s more like a donut — you make a batter of taro, coconut cream and flakes, and sweetened condensed milk, and you pour it into little rings that are just barely taller than the shallow-fry oil in your pan. They have these things at the Thai Buddhist Temple’s weekly brunch in Berkeley.

Also: Damn, yo, that’s a set of stairs you seriously do not want to trip on…

Is it weird that the photo just above is strangely erotic? Something about the sinuous curves of that tree juxtaposed with the architecture is quite wonderful. I must say I do so enjoy reading about your adventures and discoveries!
p.s. I want a cookie…

Thanks! I was aiming for that effect with the photo of the tree!

I had a chance to go up some even steeper stairs today, but I skipped it. One adventure was enough, I guess!

I’ve had those donuts, and mmmm, they’re tasty, but this cookie was much nuttier and beyond anythng like that at all - plus it was baked, not fried. Truly incredible. I can’t wait to try their Coconut Bread tonight!

I just hung up with one of Rachael Ray’s producers. bring me a cookie. … and oh my god, get here soon!