Monday, November 29, 2010

Rachel's picnic

Today's excerpt from To Cambodia With Love comes from Rachel Wildblood. Brit Rachel is a freelance consultant specializing in waste and environmental management. She worked for various NGOs in Cambodia over a four-year period from 2005 after arriving as a volunteer.

Rachel Wildblood takes a twilight picnic at Angkor Wat

Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

As dusk settles over the temples and the hordes of tourists take their buses back into town, the time has come for me to ride out to a local Khmer restaurant in the Angkor park and buy a ban chao picnic. There is nothing more beautiful than Angkor Wat at this time of the evening, when the orange glow of the day fades into nighttime.

Ban chao is a traditional Khmer fast food that you can eat in or take away. A large yellow pancake filled with bean sprouts and chopped pork or prawns, it is served with salad leaves, which you should wrap around pieces of the pancake before dipping the little package in the delicious accompanying peanut sauce. Because I am not accomplished at this kind of dining and tend to make a mess, I need a ready supply of tissues!

The food is tasty, but it needs to be said that it's the setting that makes it. After ordering my vegetarian version of ban chao, I head to the edge of the moat outside Angkor Wat. Gathered here are Khmer families, all with the same things in mind-eating ban chao and catching up on the weekly gossip. Each group sits on one of the large rented mats that line the temple walls on both sides of the causeway in the evening. As darkness falls, the picnickers light candles that are sold by industrious children. Sometimes, I might bargain for the rental of mats and candles, but it depends on how bold I'm feeling and how wily the kids are that day.

As the row of mats gets busier, the number of candles flickering in the dark increases. The atmosphere is relaxed and happy, but for me the main pleasure is to sit amongst Khmer families and to escape the foreign restaurants and bars that can dominate Siem Reap. Better yet, all this takes place against the backdrop of Angkor Wat, changing color from purple to red to green as the floodlights illuminate the massive towers against a blackening sky.

After dinner, the only thing left to do is to gather up my plastic boxes and bags and then pay the owner of the mats. By this time, the stream of bright lights from the tourist buses has long since died down, and their thundering engines are replaced with the noise of frogs, insects, and of course much laughter from those who remain, faces glowing by candlelight.

FACT FILE: Finding ban chao
Take the tarmac road directly opposite the main steps to the Angkor Wat causeway across the moat. You know you are on the right road because it has an obelisk in the middle. You will pass some toilets and an open templelike building on the right about 50 meters from the obelisk. Walk down the road approximately 150 meters. You will see two restaurants on the right-hand side. Rachel prefers the first restaurant, Ban Chao. It has a tattered blue Khmer sign outside it. If you cannot read Khmer, check to make sure that the restaurant next door is called Somnang Kohdot. The pancakes are incredibly cheap, and you can buy soft drinks and beer to take with you too. All the food is packaged for a takeaway, including vegetables and peanut sauce. You can request your pancakes without meat.

Keeping it legal
Rachel has not had any problems with going into the outer temple area in the day or night without a ticket, but you may get stopped and even fined if you actually go into the temples themselves. Stay on the public roads around the temples and you should have no problems-this includes the restaurant and picnic areas. Remember that it gets dark quickly here, so try not to leave it too late to sort out a mat and candles for a picnic-tricky in the pitch black.

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