Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bears get a Second Chance at Phnom Tamao Zoo

Bears get a second chance at Phnom Tamao Zoo Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Wednesday, 21 January 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

With countless animals in Cambodia falling victim to illegal wildlife trade, one organisation offers a safe and healthy environment for rescued bears.
Photo by: Photo Supplied
Harry is one of several vulnerable Sun Bears that fall prey each year to poachers or wealthy families looking to acquire an exotic pet.

THE timid, brown Sun Bear peered suspiciously out of his cage in the quarantine area of the Phnom Tamao Zoo, nervously growling if anybody came near him. He was extremely sick when he arrived at the zoo and had to have daily injections of antibiotics. Hence, his aversion to humans. His name is Harry, and he was recently rescued from the fourth floor of a wealthy Phnom Penh family home.

Harry was purchased from a dealer in Ratanakkiri by his previous owners when he was three weeks old and taken to Phnom Penh as a family pet. Not knowing how to properly care for a wild bear, the family fed him a diet of tap water mixed with sweetened condensed milk and kept him in a small cage, barely big enough for a dog. By the time he was rescued a year later, he was weak, emaciated and had lost large patches of fur that had rubbed off when he paced against the metal bars of the cage.

"I had to carry him in my arms down four flights of stairs, as the transport cage could not fit up the narrow passageways," said head bear keeper at the zoo, Chuon Vuthy.

The keeper works for an organisation called Free the Bears Fund Inc, which runs a centre at the Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Rescue Centre, 40 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. The Australian NGO was created in 1995 in response to the terrible treatment of illegally poached bears, many of which are cruelly imprisoned and sold for their body parts and bile, often used in Chinese medicines.

Free the Bears operates centres in five countries across Asia. They work together with local authorities to combat the illegal wildlife trade, and provide care and rehabilitation to hundreds of bears.

The Cambodian operation
The centre in Cambodia has been open since 1997.

"We get some of the bears from the illegal wildlife trade and some have been donated by wealthy people," Chuon Vuthy explained.
"Sometimes, we go to people's homes where bears are being kept as pets, and we explain to them that it's illegal to keep wild animals as pets or property. We tell them that they can donate the bears to the zoo, where we can care for them properly. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't."
Photo by: Photo Supplied
One of the caregivers at the center with Nutkins .

In October, the centre took on three new bear cubs, two of which had been donated to the zoo, and one of which had been taken from a poacher in Pursat province.

Holly, a small but friendly Sun Bear, had caught her leg in a poacher's snare and lost her hind paw as a result. She is also missing three of her front claws, which the poacher offered no explanation for. At the centre, she is receiving the medical care she needs, as well as a safe and healthy environment in which to grow.

A large family
Free the Bears currently houses 102 bears at the Phnom Tamao Zoo in 16 outdoor enclosures with a wealth of trees and wooden walkway.

The bear species are made up of Asiatic Black Bears and Sun Bears, both of which are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Bears at the zoo are closely monitored to ensure that they are healthy and happy, and there is an onsite veterinarian for any medical problems that may arise.

"As of now, none of the bears are released back into the wild, as much of their natural habitat has been lost, and they have become too accustomed to people, but I'm hoping that will change in the future," said Chuon Vuthy.

Phnom Tamao Zoo and the Free the Bears Fund Inc are currently building two new wooded enclosures where the bears can forage and play, and a new indoor holding pen for up to 20 bears. This new space will house the bears at the zoo, as well as future arrivals.

Volunteer opportunities
Volunteers are welcome at the centre. At present, they can sign on for one to six weeks to help feed and clean the bears. Volunteer packages include accommodation at a house near the sanctuary, transportation to the centre as well as breakfast and dinner. Interested parties have the opportunity to learn from veteran bear keeper of 12 years, Chuon Vuthy, and his highly trained and knowledgeable colleagues.

We get some of the bears from the illegal wildlife trade and some have been donated by wealthy people.

"The first day the volunteers are here, we teach them the rules - what they can and can't do so nobody gets hurt," said Chuon Vuthy. "Then, we teach them how to clean the cages, feed the bears and take general observations. Volunteers learn a lot, and they seem to really enjoy the time they spend here."

Matt Hunt, the Southeast Asia program manager and CEO, said: "It's great for people to come in and meet the bears, meet their personalities and learn about the program. For example, I can go tell people in Australia what we're doing here in about 30 minutes, but it doesn't really give them a clear idea about the centre or the bears themselves."

Each week the centre accepts no more than six volunteers, ensuring that the number of visitor caregivers never exceeds the number of onsite bear keepers.

Free the Bears Fund Inc is also in the process of opening a new centre for bears three hours away from Phnom Tamao on the South coast of Vietnam, where they plan to create small eco-lodges where volunteers can stay onsite and take part in caring for and learning about rescued bears in the region. The first bears will move there this month, and the centre should be open to volunteers in 2010.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pre-Angkor Stone Carving a Modern Affair

Pre-Angkor stone-carving remains very modern affair Print E-mail
Monday, 26 January 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

Nearly lost amid the violence and cultural nihilism of the Khmer Rouge, stone carvers continue to find markets for their ancient tradecraft

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Veteran stone-carver Touey puts the finishing touches on a statue in Phnom Penh.
THE ancient art of Khmer stone-carving has its roots in the pre-Angkorian period and has been passed down from generation to generation of artisans for centuries.

Common themes in ancient Khmer sculpture include deities from the Ramayana (in Khmer, the Ream Ker), such as Vishnu, Brahma and Hanuman, as well as varying images of the Buddha reclining, standing with one palm facing outwards to signify protection from fear, or sitting in meditation in front of a giant naga (or snake) with multiple heads.

Not uncommon was the representation of the Khmer royalty or aristocracy in the form of various stone deities, a clear example of which can be seen in the massive stone heads at the Bayon temple at the Angkor Wat complex, which combine the image of King Jayavarman VII and Buddha.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, many skilled artists were either forced to work in the rice fields or perished in the horrors that marked the Democratic Kampuchea period and the civil war that followed. Those who survived had little means to begin carving again.

Cultural revival
Fortunately, the 1990s were a period of reconstruction, rehabilitation and revival in Cambodia, and numerous NGOs began helping disadvantaged Cambodian people to reintegrate themselves into the workforce. In particular, Chantiers-Ecoles de Formation Professionelle, and its offshoot Artisans d'Angkor, were established to help train underprivileged youth in the country's many almost-extinct Khmer artistic traditions and techniques, including stone-carving.

Today, large stone-carving production centres can be found mainly in the municipalities and provinces of Pursat, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, though smaller centres exist throughout the Kingdom. In Phnom Penh, the bulk of stone-carving workshops can be found on Street 178, across the road from Wat Sarawan.

I learned from my uncle and other family members in our village.

Det Ourn, 16, works out of his uncle's workshop, Kon Khmer Sculpture on Street 178. "I learned from my uncle and other family members in our village," Det Ourn said. "First, I just watched others carving and I followed what they did. Then, I began to practise on my own, and today I can make any kind of statue."

Patience is key
One medium-sized Buddha statue can take up to one month to complete and involves considerable patience, Det Ourn said. "First, you paint an outline of the shape on the block of stone and begin to carve carefully with a chisel. When the rough shape has been chiselled out, you can begin to sand and polish the stone into the smooth, finished image. For extra details like eyes, mouths, creases in cloth and things like flowers, you can use a fine, small chisel or an electric sander," he said.
One veteran artisan says a variety of markets exist for today's carvers.

"The Angkorian, or traditional styles from the Ream Ker, are mostly bought for private homes, restaurants or businesses, while the traditional Buddhas and the modern, life-sized Buddhas and monks with alms bowls are generally bought for temples," said a veteran stone-carver from the Ta Phrom shop who goes by the name Touey.

Touey learned the art of stone-carving from his brother, who had learned it from their grandfather. Touey and his family were forced to work in the rice fields under the Khmer rouge. "Fortunately, my family remembered the traditional ways and we began carving again in the late 1980's," Touey said.

Most statues are made from sandstone from Preah Vihear or Kampong Thom provinces, while high-quality marble is sourced mainly from Pursat province, where stone-carving has become a major industry.

Statues range from grainy pink and grey sandstone pieces to smoothly polished marble, shining in colours from jade green to crimson to pale yellow.

Thanks to the perseverance of artisans and NGOs, stone-carving is on the rise again, and talented artists like Det Ourn and Touey can make a living doing what their ancestors have done for centuries before.

Bites Cafe

Halal Bites a 'taste of home' Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Monday, 23 February 2009

Phnom Penh's 'Bites Restaurant' draws hungry regulars with its varied and reasonably priced assortment of traditional Malaysian halal dishes

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Bites Restaurant opened after owner Tina’s packed lunches for husband Raaj drew attention and acclaim.
Nestled amongst a plethora of bicycle shops and guesthouses on bustling Street 107 is a small restaurant that draws customers with its reasonably priced, traditional Malaysian cuisine, prepared according to strict halal standards.

All meat products used at Bites Restaurant - excluding pork or pork products, which the restaurant does not offer - come from Phnom Penh's Russey Keo district, where they are prepared by local Cham Muslims.

Meat used at the restaurant is authenticated as a genuine halal product with a certificate from the local mosque, stamped by the mosque's imam.

Halal is an Arabic word meaning "lawful or permissible" according to Islamic law, and when it comes to food, there are strict rules as to what can and should be consumed.

Basically, this means that all animals must be slaughtered humanely in an outdoor area and then meticulously cleaned. Pork or pork by-products are strictly forbidden.

Seafood is considered halal, or not haram, which is the opposite of halal.

Small beginnings
Bites Restaurant began as the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Raaj and Tina Singh, and a 10-year veteran halal chef, Ada.

"In the beginning Tina, who has been cooking halal food for about 10 years, would often cook lunch at home and bring some to me at work," said Raaj, who also teaches at a private English school.

"People at work began noticing the quality and variety of the food she brought and started placing orders. Pretty soon, Tina was selling up to ten tiffins [four-tiered tin lunch boxes] a day."

At that time, Ada was also catering from home, mainly to casinos and local businesses in and around Phnom Penh.
As Tina and Ada had worked together previously in a Malaysian halal restaurant, and both were becoming busier as demand for their food skyrocketed, it seemed natural to join forces and open a full-service restaurant and catering operation.

"At first our target customers were travellers, as many people who travel like to try different types of food, and we thought they would enjoy our diverse menu," said Raaj. "However, after almost two years in business, our clientele is now mainly local expats from all over the world, vacationing and resident Malaysians and Singaporeans looking for a taste of home, and local Chams and Khmers."

On the menu
The name Bites refers to the idea of having a bit of everything.
While the restaurant serves food and drinks from many different countries, it is the vibrant Malaysian and Singaporean hawker food as well as traditional Khmer dishes in which chefs Tina and Ada excel.

Typical offerings on the menu include rendang, which consists of either beef or chicken slowly cooked in coconut milk and spices until it is tender enough to fall off the bone, fluffy roti bread known as roti chennai served with a homemade red curry sauce, and a rich and savory fish-head curry.

When asked what the most popular dish at Bites is, Tina answered without hesitation, "Definitely nasi lemak".

Often referred to as Malaysia's national dish, nasi lemak is a combination of coconut rice, roasted peanuts mixed with small, salty, dried fish, cucumber slices, boiled egg and a mildly spicy shrimp paste sauce. Included is a side of fried fish, chicken, or beef, or a choice of rendang.

Topping off the drink menu is the renowned teh tarik, known as "long tea", a mixture of strong black tea and sweetened condensed milk, poured back and forth between two containers before being served to obtain a thick, foamy head and a perfectly balanced flavour.

Bites is located at 240B on Street 107 and is open from 7:30am to 10pm daily.

Khmer Chess

Martial art of Khmer chess a big cafe draw Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Thursday, 12 March 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

Players test their patience and skill in a game that has its roots in Cambodia’s ancient Angkorian kingdoms

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Chess players at Cafe Truc Ly on Street 143 in Phnom Penh.
On any given day and at any given time across Phnom Penh, there is likely to be raucous games of Khmer chess, or ouk, taking place in cafes and on street corners across the city.

Ouk has long been a popular pastime for Cambodians, and records of the game in the Kingdom date back to at least Angkorian times, as is evidenced by bas reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat, the Bayon and the Preah Khan temple.

Often heard before seen, the game takes its name from the sound that the wooden game pieces make when they are slammed onto the game board, a key aspect of putting one's opponent in check. Ouk also means "check" in Khmer.

Played mainly by men, the rules of Khmer chess are very similar to the rules of chess in the West, aside from a few essential differences.

Both games are played on a wooden board with 64 squares, although Khmer chessboards do not have the familiar checked pattern.

There are 32 "chessmen", or pieces, 16 for each player as in Western chess, but the names and shapes of the "men" in Khmer chess are distinctly Cambodian.

The small, flat pieces are called fish. Often interchangeable with bottle caps, fish correspond to pawns in the Western version of the game.

The bishop is the general, and is shaped like a two-tiered stupa, knights are horses and retain the horse-head shape; rooks are called boats, and are fat and round; the queen, or neang, is short and rounded with a pointy top; and the king, or sdaach, is the tallest of them all, and is in the shape of a three-tiered stupa.

chess is a battle. each player's men are like an army protecting the king.

Each game piece has a set of rules as to which direction they can move, many of which closely match the movements of their Western counterparts.

As in Western chess, the object of the game is to capture the opponent's king. When the opponent's king is in check (or in the line of fire) the player attacking the king must say ouk (check). If the king cannot move out of danger, the attacker wins the game.

"You have to be very clever to play chess," said Vang Vuth, who has been playing chess for about two years now.
Vang Vuth learned how to play the game when he started frequenting Cafe Truc Ly on Street 143.

The cafe supplies patrons with wooden chessboards and chessmen, and is often packed with enthusiastic chess players.
"At first I would just come here and watch people play," said Vang Vuth. "Then I slowly began to pick the game up day by day. Now I come here to play ouk everyday. I usually play about five games a day."

Battle of wits
Vang Vuth explains that no matter what time of the day he goes to the cafe, there are always people there playing round after round of the game, or looking for another challenger.

"Sometimes the loser might give up his spot to another player, but more often than not they keep playing because the loser always wants to take revenge," said Vang Vuth.

Sok Keng, a Phnom Penh taxi driver and an ardent chess player since 1993, plays chess on a weekly basis, depending on his time schedule.

"I like to play chess because it is a battle. Each player's men are like an army protecting the king. Even the king is involved in the battle," he said.

Although most chess players in Cambodia do not play the game for money but rather as a way of exercising their mind, the annual chess tournament presents a lucrative opportunity.

The first Khmer Chess Tournament was held in May 2008, and was organised by the Cambodian Chess Association and the Olympic Committee of Cambodia in an effort to standardise the rules of chess in Cambodia, as well as showcase the Kingdom's top players.

Players spent three days vying for the title of champion chess master, and the grand prize of US$1,000 was awarded to 28-year old Chhoy Vira of Phnom Penh. Second and third place winners took home $700 and $500 respectively.

While most players appear excited about the prospect of one day competing for the big prize, for now they are quite happy to play the game as a form of entertainment.

"Really in the end, it's all about having fun," said Sok Keng.
Print E-mail

Kirirom Mountain

Cool mountain getaway Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Friday, 22 May 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

A favourite of former King Sihanouk, Kirirom offers a respite from the city

A chimney stack is all that remains of former King Norodom Sihanouk’s summer home.
Just two hours away from Phnom Penh, in Kampong Speu province, lies Kirirom National Park, a thickly wooded mountain retreat long sought out for its peace, solitude, nature and respite from the oppressive heat of low-lying cities and towns.

Boasting 35 hectares of protected land in the rugged Elephant Mountains, Kirirom possesses a landscape that is unique to the rest of Cambodia, with pine trees towering over the leafy slopes and cool breezes drifting across crystal lakes.

The name Kirirom means "mountain of joy", a name bestowed by former King Norodom Sihanouk, who was no stranger to the mountain's beguiling charms. During the 1960s one of the King's favourite summer getaways was his mansion at the summit.
The retreat was destroyed during the civil war, and today all that remains is the giant stone chimney, jutting into the sky. But the same incredible views that so enthralled Sihanouk are still there.

Close to the abandoned retreat is a visitor's centre, open only on weekends and managed with support from Mlup Baitong, an environmental NGO, as well the Ministry of Environment.

Vendors sell a variety of drinks and snacks next to the visitor's centre, including grilled fish, sticky rice with sweet potato and coconut, and, oddly enough, traditional Khmer remedies.

Srey Pov, a young vendor, explains: "We get all the remedies from the forest and many people come from all over Cambodia to buy them - mostly Khmer people, but also quite a lot of Chinese visitors."

The traditional remedies include large, woody tree mushrooms, boiled in water to make a tea used to cure headaches; tree bark that smells strongly of menthol, also boiled and drunk to cure fatigue; and black-and-white porcupine quills.

"The porcupine quills are for pregnant women who suffer from morning sickness and loss of appetite," says Srey Pov. "We light the quill on fire until it crumbles, and then put it in rice wine. We get many pregnant woman who come here just to receive this cure."

Just a few feet away from Srey Pov's natural remedy stand is a small nature trail leading down to the secluded lake. The walk takes about 10 minutes and trekkers are rewarded at the bottom with access to the glassy blue body of water and near total seclusion amid the tall grass and gently swaying pine trees.

Paths around the lake end up at either a cluster of small bamboo picnic huts sitting in a verdant patch of grass on the edge of the lake, or the towering stupa of Wat Chas, otherwise known as Old Wat, overlooking a bubbling stream.

One of Kirirom's most popular attractions is the Tea Farm Waterfall, known in Khmer as teuk chreus jom ka tai. Located 700 metres from the main road, the waterfall can be reached by a steep set of stone stairs built into the side of the hill. Thatch and bamboo picnic huts balance precariously on hillside, looking down onto the small waterfall, which tumbles noisily over the slick black rocks.

"There are a lot of animals out here," says Ruot Ravy, manager of Kirirom Guesthouse and Restaurant, located nearby on a ledge overlooking the nearby mountain ranges.

"The animals don't often come out in the daytime, but sometimes I see them very early in the morning or late at night," she says. "It's hard to tell what they are sometimes, but we know that there are deer, porcupine, bears and possibly even tigers in these mountains."

Guests can try their luck at animal spotting at the Kirirom Resort in one of their basic rooms for US$20 a night.

The quirky Kirirom Hillside Resort at the base of the mountain also offers accommodation ranging from $17 a night for a simple tent on the grounds to $160 for the opulent executive suite. Attractions here also include a manmade UFO structure, plastic dinosaur gardens and a turreted castle-like gate entrance.

More down-to-earth accommodations can be found at the Chambok Community-Based Ecotourism site, located at the base of the mountain, down a rich red dirt road and surrounded by fields of mango and jackfruit trees just 10 kilometres from the park's entrance.

Visitors can stay at the home of a local villager for the small fee of $3 per person per night. Meal options are available, as are guided treks to a 40-metre waterfall, ox cart rides, trips to a bat cave, bicycle rentals and traditional Khmer dance performances.

All revenues from the site go directly to the villagers, and are used in part to protect and conserve the area's natural resources. Entrance to the Chambok is $3 for foreigners and 1,000 riels for Khmers.

For more information about Chambok, or to stay overnight, contact Mlup Baitong at 023 214 409. The entrance fee to Kirirom National Park is $5 for foreigners and free for Khmers. To get there, follow National Road 4 west to Treng Trayeung town, where signs point the way to the park.

Kirirom Guesthouse and Restaurant can be reached at 012 957 700 and Kirirom Hillside Resort at 016 590 999.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dim Sum in Phnom Penh

Dim sum, in a variety of styles, tempt the palate Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Thursday, 21 May 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

Phnom Penh’s numerous Chinese restaurants bring the flavours of southern China to the capital with both traditional and innovative dishes

Photo by: Tracey Shelton
Selection of dim sum at Almond Hotel’s Yi Sang Chinese Restaurant.
Dim Sum menu guide
Today there are more than 2,000 varieties of dim sum dishes, most of which come from Guangdong province in southern China and Hong Kong, although many are improvised with the most readily available ingredients by dim sum chefs outside of China. Despite the overwhelming variety of dim sum, there are a few basic dishes that remain popular favourites and appear on dim sum menus across the globe.
  • Char Siu: Cantonese-style barbecued pork, slow cooked in spices until it is a rich red colour
  • Char Siu Bao: Fluffy white steamed buns with a tangy filling of Cantonese-style barbecued pork
  • Cheong Fun: Long, wide strips of rice paper filled with pork, shrimp, or vegetables, steamed or fried and served with sweet soy sauce.
  • Egg Tart: Flaky pastry shell filled with sweet, creamy egg custard, then baked.
  • Fun Co: Steamed dumplings usually filled with pork, shrimp, mushrooms, peanuts and bamboo shoots.
  • Fung Jao: Chicken feet, fried marinated in black bean or oyster sauce, and then steamed. Also known as ‘Phoenix Talons’.
  • Har Gao: Transparent rice paper filled with shrimp, pork, or beef, steamed or pan fried (in which case they are called potstickers).
  • Jin Deui (Sesame Balls): Dough of rice flour and sugar, filled with sweet red bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds and deep-fried.
  • Lo Mai Gai: Sticky rice mixed with mushrooms, Chinese sausage or chicken, wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed.
  • Siew Mai: Pork, shrimp or a combination of both wrapped in a thin yellow flour paper, often topped with fish roe.
  • Shrimp Toast: Shrimp, ground to a paste and spread on small pieces of toast, then deep-fried.
  • Turnip/Radish Cake: Shredded daikon radish mixed with dried shrimps, Chinese sausage, carrots or mushrooms, cut into squares and then fried.
To some, the words dim sum conjure images of a veritable feast of exotic Asian delicacies. To others, the term invokes a pleasant weekend brunch with family and good friends. And still yet to others, dim sum brings to mind the perfect antidote to an excessive night out on the town.

Whatever image comes to mind, one thing is for certain: Phnom Penh's huge Chinese population means that tasty dim sum is usually only a stone's throw away.

Originating in Southern China, the term dim sum translates literally to "touch heart", a metaphor for small plates of food meant to re-energise travellers on the old Silk Road.

Today, dim sum has become synonymous with Chinese brunch, or Asian tapas, a culinary tradition that centres on small plates of tasty Southern Chinese fare, shared with friends or family, and washed down with plenty of Chinese tea.

Sok Mean, the Cambodian-Chinese owner of Mekong Village Restaurant, says that dim sum are traditionally served at breakfast.

"I get many Chinese and Cambodian customers who come here in the morning between 6am and 1pm to eat Hong Kong-style dim sum. Some people also order it for lunch or dinner, along with other dishes such as rice or soup."

Mekong Village employs authentic Chinese chefs to cook up dim sum favourites such as siew mai - delicately spiced, ground pork wrapped in yellow dumpling wrappers, steamed, topped with a whole shrimp and garnished with orange fish roe.

Another popular dim sum mainstay at Mekong Village are leek dumplings - thin, translucent rice papers bursting with finely chopped leeks and spring onions, fragrant minced garlic and earthy brown mushrooms, steamed and served hot.

"My wife and I eat dim sum every day and we like the classic dim sum dishes, but we also like to experiment with new styles," said Sok Mean.

Unique innovations at Mekong Village include rabbit and goldfish dumplings, a twist on the popular dim sum dish har gao.
Conventional har gao is made out of ground pork or shrimp, wrapped in a transparent rice paper and steamed.

"Dim Sum dishes can also be sweet rather than savoury," said Sok Mean. "For example, sweet egg custard tarts in the Macau style and taro paste buns are very popular as dim sum dishes as well."

Dishes at Mekong Village range from US$1.50 to US$3 a plate, and come with complimentary pickled cucumber, and sides of garlic, chilli and soy sauce. An a la carte menu of Chinese specialities such as Peking duck and tripe is also available daily.

Yi Sang Chinese Restaurant also offers dim sum daily in their elegant aquarium-lined dining room in the Almond Hotel.

Dishes at Yi Sang include rice rolls - thick sheets of rice noodles, filled with barbecued pork and cilantro, steamed and covered in sweet soy sauce, as well as deep-fried Cantonese shrimp balls, and savoury, minced shrimp and pork dumplings.

Guangzhou style
"Our dim sum cuisine is mainly Guangzhou style, from Guangdong province," said Tit Vy, manager of Yi Sang restaurant.
"This is why our menu contains a lot of traditional Chinese dishes like har gao, shrimp toast and, of course, fried chicken feet, which are very popular with Chinese and Khmer customers," he said.

...people like dim sum because the dishes are small, light and inexpensive...

With his team of Guangdong province chefs, Tit Vy also creates six new dim sum creations each week.

"Our regular dim sum menu and specials are well liked by all sorts of people; Chinese, Khmer and especially on weekends we get a lot of Western clientele who come to enjoy a relaxing brunch and great food," he said.

At US$2.50 a plate, the dishes at Yi Sang are served with sides of spicy chilli oil, chilli sauce, complimentary tea and a small dessert.

Sam Doo is another popular dim sum haunt, offering 18 fried and steamed delicacies on its special dim sum menu.

Dishes at the busy two-level restaurant include char siu bao, fluffy steamed white buns filled with tangy Cantonese barbecue pork; fun co, steamed dumplings filled with pork, shrimp, peanuts and mushrooms; and deep fried sesame rolls to name a few.

The menu also includes classic Cantonese fried meat and vegetable dishes and tasty soups. All dim sum meals are served with bottomless Chinese tea, and are good value at US$1.50 a plate.

"I think people like dim sum because the dishes are small, light and inexpensive, and they can be shared," said Sok Mean.
"This is the real Chinese way to eat fresh and delicious dim sum, together with family and friends."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hip Hop Culture Takes Root

Hip-hop culture takes root Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Thursday, 14 May 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

The Phnom Penh Hip-Hop Festival marks new cultural movement in Cambodia

French dancer and choreographer Sebastien Ramirez.
Hip-hop culture has always been about expression through art such as music, dance, visual arts or fashion, and in recent years Cambodian youth has become particularly responsive to this form of self-actualisation.

The Phnom Penh Hip-Hop Festival, which kicks off this Saturday, aims to broaden the awareness of hip-hop culture in Cambodia and give Phnom Penh's youth the opportunity to explore the diverse artform through workshops, films and performances with multi-talented international and local artists.

"In 2001, there wasn't really much of a hip-hop scene here," said Nico Mesterharm, director of Meta House, who made the idea of the festival a reality, along with Alain Arnaudet, cultural attache and director of the French Cultural Centre (CCF).

"I saw the first [Cambodian] hip-hop CD in a store in Phnom Penh in 2002, and I saw it as the beginning of something big," said Mesterharm.

The CD he refers to is the debut album of Prach Ly, a Cambodian-born artist who grew up in Long Beach, California, amid poverty, crime and the growing popularity of hip-hop.

Prach Ly recorded Dalama: The End'n' is Just the Begninnin in his parent's garage in the US in 2000. Over pulsating hip-hop beats, and rhythmic instrumentals, Prach Ly rapped about genocide in Cambodia and the brutal aftermath of the Pol Pot regime.

Little did he know that his self-produced album would make its way to Cambodia, where it would become a No 1 hit on the radio and in pirated CD sales, sparking a hip-hop movement.

"In the beginning, people here would take beats and lyrics from the US, and often just change the lyrics into Khmer," said Mesterharm. "A few years ago artists started experimenting with Cambodian lyrics. At first it was just imitating what was happening in the US, but now it has evolved into a unique Cambodian trend; they have invented their own styles."

I saw the first [cambodian] hip-hop CD in a store in Phnom penh in 2002.

Alain Arnaudet of the CCF agrees that hip-hop has gradually evolved into a real cultural movement in Cambodia.

"With this festival, we hope to ... showcase some of the masters of hip-hop dance and choreography who are an example of success," Arnaudet said.

Quest for identity
The festival kicks off with a dance performance by the French dance company ACCRORAP at Chenla Theatre, followed by 10 days of films and dance performances centred on the quest for identity and voice through the various mediums of hip-hop culture.

Two workshops will also be held during the festival, where local performers will work with international dancers and choreographers to produce a fusion of dance styles.

One such collaboration will be between internationally renowned dancers and choreographers Niels Robitzky (aka Storm) and Raphael Hillebrand from Germany, and 20 young dancers from Tiny Toones, a Cambodia-based sociocultural dance training centre that reaches out to at-risk children.

"Hip-hop in Cambodia is a very recent movement, so I'm trying to teach the kids the basic steps, rhythms and philosophy of hip-hop. I want to pass on this positive energy and give them the skills to develop their own styles," said Hillebrand.

Storm echoes this sentiment.

"These kids have good hearts, and if we can give them the fundamentals, then when we leave they will still work on the skills we gave them and continue to develop, and that is the most important thing."

French dancer and choreographer Sebastien Ramirez, who combines b-boy dance styles with the spirit of Capoeira, is collaborating on a joint dance project with Phnom Penh classical dancer "Belle" Chumvan Sodhachivy.

Fusion of styles
Although predominantly trained in traditional Khmer dance, Belle looks forward to creating something new.

"Hip-hop and classical Khmer dance are quite different, in that classical dance is very slow and has strict rules, while hip-hop is much faster, stronger and open," she said. "I'm enjoying working with Sebastien very much because it is giving us the opportunity to be creative and think [about] how we can combine these two very different dance styles."

All participants seem to agree that hip-hop culture has the potential to open up doors for youth in Cambodia, and can offer a way of life that is both healthy and rewarding.

The founder of Tiny Toones , KK, hopes that the festival will show that hip-hop is not a bad thing for Cambodia.

"For example, if a kid is writing out lyrics, then he or she is learning to spell," he said. "I also want the kids to see that they don't have to hide their lives. They can aim for their goals, and it doesn't really matter where you come from or what your family background is."

The Phnom Penh Hip-Hop Festival starts this Saturday at Chenla Theatre and will continue with films and performances through May 24, ending with a hip-hop jam at Wat Botum.

Mekong Island:Fresh Food and Fresh Views

Mekong Island: Fresh Food and Fresh Views

There is nothing better than spending a lazy Sunday afternoon indulging in food and beer with friend; especially, when someone else is doing the cooking. Basking in the shade of a thatched hut while watching the sunlight dance on the Mekong River can prove to be the key ingredients for a perfect end to the week.

Mekong Island (or Silk Island) is a destination close to the city but not yet overrun with tourists, 4x4s, or rampant development. To get there, you simply drive over the Japanese Friendship bridge, and travel north along National Rd. No. 6 for approximately 7 kilometres until you see a small sign on the right indicating a turnoff to the ferry.

The best part of spending the day here is that nothing is rushed. You’re free to spend as little or as long as you like here. And after the initial vendors do their rounds on you, they tend to leave you alone to enjoy the sunlight, water and fresh food.

The ferry is typically Cambodian in that it has no set schedule and leaves only when loaded with enough passengers (be they people or bikes) or quite simply when the driver feels like pushing off. But what’s the rush – it is a lazy Sunday after all, right?

Fellow travelers include groups of teenagers ready to spend the day frolicking in the river and flirting, families having a Sunday outing away from the city, and old ladies returning home from the markets with giant bags of garlic, chilies and rice.

As you drive off the ferry and onto the dirt road that rings the island, you’re transported to a completely different world than the one you just left. Tall, leafy trees form an archway over the dirt road, and chickens run amok under the stilted houses, pursued by small naked children. Wherever you look, you can catch sight of women weaving raw silk on the looms built directly under their houses.

After driving past these sights of rural domesticity, as well as temples, rice fields, and banana trees, you come to the end of the road where lies a gate and teenage boys waiting to charge you the entrance fee of 3000 riel per person.

Drive on through, and you reach your picnic destination – a sandy beach with a dozen or so wooden huts built on stilts above the shallow shores of the Mekong. The cost of renting a hut for the day is a mere $3 – a steal if you consider that each hut comes complete with a mat, a thatched roof to protect you from the sun, and an idyllic view of the Mekong.

Everything you could possibly want is brought to you, with wandering vendors selling mangos, eggs, crisps, cold soft drinks and beer, amongst other delicacies.

Choosing a hut is made simple for you: they are all roughly the same size, and the hut owners will make sure that you’re promptly (and sometimes aggressively) installed in one of their huts.

Usually, the hut owner will ask you if you want a lunch, and he or she will quote a price, which includes a massive culinary spread as well as the rental of the hut. Lunch choices include, barbecue fish, chicken, or pork, fresh river shellfish, water greens, rice, or even fried crickets and worms. All drinks are extra, but arrive refreshingly cold, resting in a bucket of ice.

Most proprietors use only the freshest ingredients for their picnic lunches, as the island hosts few electric freezers or refrigerators. Island goers can enjoy fish that was freshly caught that day, chickens that could have been chased by naked children minutes before, and steaming plates of aromatic Cambodian rice.

After the meal, there’s not much else to do but relax and watch the boats glide by, the children splash and play in the water, and de-stressed Khmers float around in black rubber inner tubes. The river is also an ideal place to take a dip if you get too hot, as this side of the river doesn’t have the accumulated garbage flow that the city side has.

The best part of spending the day here is that nothing is rushed. You’re free to spend as little or as long as you like here. And after the initial vendors do their rounds on you, they tend to leave you alone to enjoy the sunlight, water and fresh food.

Back at the ferry crossing, waiting for the ferry to arrive or depart you can stop for another beer and some customary Sunday boxing on the television at the small bar at the top of the road leading down to the ferry. Or you can take in the sunset over the river, a sight that seems that much more beautiful when your stomach is full of delicious local fare, and when you’re away from the madness of the city.

Aug 5, 2008
The Advisor, 6th Edition

Pennylane Cafe Review

Freshly roasted bean coffee is all the rage Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Friday, 15 May 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

Phnom Penh’s newest Italian cafe, Pennylane, develops the art of roasting coffee beans to perfection to satisfy the capital’s caffeine lovers

Photo by: Sovann Philong
Pennylane Cafe.
The fine art of roasting coffee beans
Roasting green coffee beans causes a chemical reaction that transforms the small green coffee bean into a dark, rich and oily product that has a totally different taste, smell and density to the original. For a stronger taste, the bean requires a longer roasting period, and this is called a dark roast as opposed to a light roast, which produces a more delicate subtle flavour. Beans from famous coffee regions such as Kenya and Java tend to be more suited to a light to medium roast, which allows the flavours of origin to permeate into the final product. Dark roasts are typically while a lighter, more American-style
roast generally used for black espresso styles, works best with milk coffees. However, a good cup of coffee is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s “skinny weak soy latte” is another man’s “why bother”. Coffee is typically dry roasted over high to medium heat for a period of between 12 and 15 minutes depending on the degree of roast. The most ideal time to grind the coffee is straight after the coffee bean has had time to cool down after the roast. Coffee purists buy their beans green and roast, grind and brew them as quickly as possible after purchase to ensure maximum freshness.
Tom Hunter
Every morning Penny Tang roasts up small batches of fresh green coffee beans in varying shades, smells, and flavours at Pennylane Cafe, Phnom Penh's newest Italian cafe/restaurant and coffee bean roaster.

The cafe's Malaysian manager and co-owner, Tang, is passionate about quality and knows more than a thing or two about coffee.

"Preparing a good cup of coffee requires a special technique," said Tang. "When I moved to Phnom Penh, I noticed that it was very difficult to find a good quality cup of coffee, so I set out to open a place where coffee lovers could enjoy exactly that."

Her quest has led her and two business partners to develop a process for roasting their own coffee beans that she says has been a mixture of overseas training, patience, and trial and error.

"In Phnom Penh, many people use the traditional method of roasting coffee beans," Tang said. "This method includes roasting the beans in a pan, or in a large metal drum over a fire."

This method, she says, often takes a long time and can yield unpredictable results if the beans are not constantly monitored.
"At Pennylane Cafe we have a state-of-the-art roasting machine which takes about 20 to 25 minutes to roast the beans, and we can control exactly how strong and flavourful to make the coffee, depending on how the customer likes it," she said.

It's not surprising, then, that the drink menu at Pennylane Cafe is dominated by such favourites as long or short espresso, cafe latte, cappuccino, mocha and the Italian-inspired affogato (a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of rich, dark espresso).

The freshest ingredients
Besides freshly roasted coffee, Tang strives to serve authentic Italian food, made with the freshest ingredients and prepared in the slow and attentive style that was passed down to her by a veteran Italian chef.

"In Asia, a lot of food is prepared very quickly, for example a stir fry, which is often just about throwing ingredients into a wok with oil and frying them for a short time. But Italian food is much slower and requires a lot more preparation, especially if you want to get the best flavour out of all your ingredients," she said.

Over 90 percent of the food at Pennylane Cafe is made in-house, including the pizza dough, tomato sauce, pesto sauce, biscotti and assorted desserts, and whenever possible Tang tries to avoid using ingredients from a can or bottle.

The attention to detail shines through in the presentation and flavour of the food.
Take, for example, one of the cafe's more popular starters, calamares fritos. The lightly battered and deep-fried squid rings arrive a pale golden colour, lacking the heavy grease that so often accompanies deep-fried foods. They are cooked to just the right tenderness, slightly firm but not rubbery, and served with a tangy tartar sauce.

The pizzas also manage to bypass the oil factor, with thin yet chewy crusts, and a range of choices such as the Romeo Special, with thin slices of crispy bacon, juicy chunks of pineapple, sliced mushrooms and whole black olives; or the spicy Mexicana with peppery salami, hot red chillies, sliced onion and garlic.

And for dessert, a must-try is the house speciality, the Pennylane tiramisu. Served in a chilled glass, the tiramisu is a rich blend of soft sponge cake, soaked to saturation in coffee liqueur, layered between swirls of creamy mascarpone cheese and topped with a thick dusting of cocoa powder.

"Our restaurant motto is ‘good food at reasonable prices' because I try to ensure that even though we are using the best ingredients and preparation methods, customers should not have to pay ridiculous prices for good food," said Tang.

Pennylane Cafe is located in a leafy garden setting with outdoor and indoor seating at the corner of Streets 111 and 242. Delivery is available at 012 593 000.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wat Kuk's macabre images invoke Buddhist hell

Wat Kuk's macabre images invoke Buddhist hell Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
The Phnom Penh Post


Torture awaiting those who sin in this lifetime.
Just outside Koh Kong city towards the Cambodian-Thai border stands Wat Mondul Seyma, a seemingly pleasant place of worship that harbours a macabre lesson to all those who stray off the Buddhist path.

Wat Mondul Seyma, or Wat Kuk for short, lies among shady trees and fluttering prayer flags, a peaceful setting to gaze over the bright frescoes illustrating the life and teachings of Buddha.

Behind the temple there is a short, unmarked path that leads down to the sea and is open to all visitors. It is beyond this path where one cannot help but feel disconnected from the peaceful surrounds of Wat Kuk.

At first glance, the path opens up onto giant grey boulders, with the blue-grey ocean in the background, and what looks like a lively scene of stone and concrete statues emanating from the cliff's edge.

But on further inspection, this is no ordinary scene. This is a macabre, Dante-esque vision of what will happen to those unfortunate souls who commit sins in this life and are reborn in Buddhist hell.

The first scene at the bottom of the path is of a group of three terrified and naked people scrambling up a tree, while a maniacally grinning demon and his barking dog wait at the bottom, as if knowing that the others have no chance of escape, just waiting for them to fall.

Little chance of escape.
To the right of this scene are three figures on a rock, two white-skinned demons kneeling and using a large lumberjack saw to hew a grimacing naked man in half, while an eagle sits behind the unfortunate man's head, gnawing on his severed hand.

A helpful sign in Khmer explains that this is what happens to those who steal other people's husbands or wives, or in other words, those that commit adultery.

Further on down the path is a bizarre cluster of figures on the giant rocks looking out onto the sea. These figures include a few white-skinned demons and a handful of half-human, half-animal figures. A demon gleefully guts a man with a human body and a pig's head, while another slits the throat of a half-man, half-duck. Meanwhile, a half-man, half-chicken watches on somberly, as if stoically awaiting his fate. Other strange stone figures also look on, blood dripping down their anxious faces and bodies.

On a rock jutting out over the sea, an emaciated man lifts his head up to the sky, his tongue lolling out of his mouth, and his expression pained, while what looks like a female figure with arms and legs missing lies motionless on the stone beside him.
Another figure in the background kneels on all fours with a giant circular saw erupting out of his back and blood dripping down his face.

The sign nearby explains that all those who take the life of another living being will surely have these horrors to endure in their next life.

Looping back to the entrance of this bizarre theme park, there is a large granite cliff with rock shelves jutting out from the wall of stone. On one of these shelves sit two female figures, arms tied behind their backs, with petrified faces looking down on the scenes of torture.

Two men wearily hold up a section of the rock face, blood streaming down from the places where the giant cliff rests on their shoulders. This is the torture that inevitably must be endured for stealing land or property in this life.

Holding up boulders for aeons awaits those who steal land or property in this life.
While these scenes may be grisly and morbid, they are actually common images in the Cambodian Buddhist tradition. Just like Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and many other organised religions, Buddhism in Cambodia makes use of scenes such as these to warn people against the dangers of straying from the precepts of what is morally right in society.

Most visual representations of hell in Cambodia are painted on the walls of temples across the country, but it seems that the artisans who created these images over 30 years ago wanted to be sure that viewers would walk away with a much more realistic representation of the dangers of sinning.

Cambodia's jungle refuge a hit with ecotourists

Cambodia's jungle refuge a hit with ecotourists Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

Koh Kong is becoming a magnet for travellers seeking something a little off the beaten track

Rainbow lodge bungalows provides a peaceful sanctuary.
Cambodia's southwestern province of Koh Kong is fast becoming a magnet for intrepid ecotourists eager to explore the region's vast array of flora and fauna in a remote part of the Kingdom once bypassed by the majority of travellers.

Koh Kong, a region often seen as merely a passageway to the Thai border, is home to lush virgin rainforests, waterfalls, mountains, crystal-clear rivers and kilometre upon kilometre of undeveloped coastline and islands.

The region has enjoyed relative sanctuary from poachers and loggers. This is no accident as the local communities have been working together with various NGOs and government agencies to preserve one of Cambodia's most pristine regions.

Located 7 kilometres from Koh Kong city, Pream Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary is a 25,897-hectare protected zone established in 1993 to conserve one of the world's last intact coastal mangrove forests.

The local community of Boeung Kayak, in partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Cambodian government, has endeavoured to make the mangrove forest an environmentally friendly and sustainable tourist site.

Everything you see here was built by local villagers and is maintained by local people.

For a nominal fee of 5,000 riels (US$1.22) for foreign nationals or 3,000 riels for Cambodians, visitors can meander through the mangroves on a shady 1-kilometre stretch of locally built, Robinson Crusoe-like walkways and viewing platforms.

Beach life.
The intricate network of pathways traverses lush mangroves using elevated walkways and suspension bridges.

At one point, a 15-metre viewing platform emerges, uncovering a stunning view of faraway mountains, while below the platform local fisherman harvest green mussels in the shallow waterways of an estuary.

The same fishermen offer boat rides, which provide an entirely new perspective of Pream Krasop's mangrove system from a small canoe-like wooden vessel.

A chartered boat costs $25 and usually includes a trip to an old fishing village deep in the forest where fresh local seafood and vegetables can be purchased and prepared, or a trip along the coastline to search for various types of sea birds, fish and even dolphins.

"Everything you see here was built by local villagers and is maintained by local people. We sell the crabs to some of the restaurants in town, and catch fish and small squid to sell or to make kapei," said a local fisherman known simply as Chea.

Kapei is Koh Kong's unique version of prahok - a thick, pungent, plum-coloured fish paste, which can be eaten with rice, vegetables or sour fruit.

Tatai waterfall. STEPHANIE MEE
Jimmy the dog on the Tatai river. STEPHANIE MEE
Tatai waterfall
Tatai waterfall is another protected area 20 kilometres east of Koh Kong city. The turnoff to the fall passes a police checkpoint where officers act as both law enforcement officials and part-time park rangers.

Depending on the amount of recent rainfall, visitors can clamber over massive rock shelves, take picnics next to the falls or simply cool off under the thundering cascades of clear mountain water, streaming fresh from the Cardamon mountains.

Rainbow Lodge is Koh Kong's only eco-lodge, one of only two in Cambodia, the second of which is located in Ratanakkiri.

Owned by the friendly and down-to-earth barrister-turned-green business owner, Janet Newman, the lodge is located on a quiet, verdant patch of jungle overlooking the Tatai river.

The lodge can only be reached by boat and was built in 2008 using local labour - and whenever possible, local materials. It is powered almost entirely by solar panels and staffed by locals from the Tatai region.

"When I was researching how to build an eco-lodge, I learned that the most environmentally damaging structure is one that is built in a straight line, which forces people to make multiple paths directly to the building," Newman said.

"This is why the bungalows here are laid out in a rainbow formation, this way each bungalow has a great view of the forest and the river," she added.

For $50 a night, guests receive three meals a day, including a three-course dinner in the evening with different options for starters, mains and dessert.

Local involvement
"I buy all the food here locally at the markets," Newman said, adding that this way she can provide the freshest food for guests while still supporting the local community.

During the day, Rainbow Lodge guests can swim in the peaceful, slow-moving Tatai river, take boats and kayaks out on the river or take small nature walks around the property to enjoy the greenery and the ever-present and brightly coloured butterflies and birds.

The lodge also offers day trips to the Tatai waterfalls, guided treks and boat trips to a set of rapids one hour up stream from the bungalows.

There is also the option of spending the night deep in the forest, and while this may seem daunting to some, the opportunity to dine on local produce under the stars is one not to be missed.

The rapids offer a perfect example of the serenity and pristine nature of Koh Kong.

Virtually deserted, the rapids are made up of a jumble of huge boulders in the river that cause the water to pool and form a small lake before tumbling over the rocks and down the river.

Visitors can picnic on the small beach nearby, sunbathe on the large rocks or swim in the pure, natural pools with only the sounds of running water and chirping birds to be heard.

"I think I give visitors a lot of independence. People can do pretty much whatever they want during the day. However, the only thing I'm pretty adamant about is that people do not attempt to go trekking in the forest without a guide," Newman said, adding that people sometimes underestimate the fact that they're in a jungle and it's just way too easy to get lost or hurt.

The road to Koh Kong is now in good condition and can be accessed from Phnom Penh by bus with the Virak Bunthan bus company, or by share taxis, both of which take about five to six hours.

Alternatively, travellers can also reach Koh Kong from Sihanoukville by bus (five hours) or boat (four hours).
To contact Koh Kong's Rainbow Lodge, call 099 744 321, or check out its website at www.rainbowlodge