Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Killing Fields of Cambodia

The "Killing Fields" is a joint name for a number of sites in Cambodia, where mass murder of Cambodians took place during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Bones of Cambodians executed at Choueng Ek

As I mentioned in my previous post, in just four years of its rule the Khmer Rouge was responsible for killing of about 2 to 3 million of Cambodian people, or about 30% of Cambodian population at that time. The Khmer Rouge regime targeted and executed everyone that was suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals, intellectuals, Buddhist monks, Muslims, Christians, and members of Cambodia's ethnic minorities (Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese). The aim was to create "pure" agrarian and communist society.

There are over 20'000 mass grave sites in Cambodia. We visited one of them, Choeung Ek, located about 17 km south of Phnom Penh.
A mass grave of 450 people

A Killing Tree against which the children were beaten to death

Not a single of the buildings of the concentration camp that was here 30 years ago stands today - as soon as the Khmer Rouge rule was over, the local people disassembled the site. Still, Choueng Ek makes a strong impression. Several places are marked off as graveyards for men, women, and children that were killed there; there are also displays with bones and clothes found at the site; there is a memorial Buddhist stupa filled with more than 5'000 human skulls; and-most disturbingly-there are occasional bones spread out over the site, which apparently still come out of the ground after heavy rains. It's difficult not to question the future of humanity after a visit to a site like this.
A memorial stupa at Choueng Ek

Skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime

A tree twisting in pain 

Importantly, the site is well managed. It's kept clean and fenced off, there is an appropriate respectful and peaceful atmosphere, and the audio guide that is offered to tourists is very informative and objective. All in all, it's a gruesome but thought-provoking experience and, hence, I would recommend a visit to the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek.    

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Food of Future: Insects

Inspired by today's interesting BBC article "Future Foods: What will we be eating in 20 years' time?" I'm bringing to you photos of edible fried insects that I took in Chiang Mai on a street market.
Fried insects in Chiang Mai

The aforementioned article predicts that, in 20 years' time, the staple of our diet will be insects! But don't worry, we might not have to eat them in the same form as they are eaten today in Thailand, Japan, or Africa, but instead we might get them in a processed form resembling today's burgers and sausages :)

Silk worms

It's a Small World After All

Place: somewhere in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

- Where are you from? - I was asked tonight by a tall thirty-something guy standing behind me in the line to buy banana pancakes from a street vendor.
- I'm from Poland. Where are you from? - I asked back to be polite.
- I'm from the US. - He replied with hesitation.
- Where in the US? 
- Florida. - Again hesitation in his voice.
- I live in San Francisco. - I added.
- Oh, and I live in China. - He replied with a smile and relief and we both started laughing.

How is that for globalization :)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

If it Is Thursday, then We Are in Cambodia

Yesterday evening we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city of Cambodia

So far I'm very positively surprised how well the country seems to be recovering from its turbulent past. I'll give you just two numbers: (1) Cambodia's annual average GDP for the last twelve years was above 7%; and (2) Cambodia's population growth is 1.7% (that's higher than India's!). It also seems that the future of Cambodia might be even brighter: recently oil and gas reserves were found beneath Cambodia's territorial waters. I hope it'll translate to better lives for the citizens of the country, as they definitely deserves some good, peaceful, economically and politically stable years.

Cambodians, as people, seem very nice, polite, and modest, but they also seem to be beaten down. I guess that's not a surprise, since the Khmer Rouge's regime happened not long ago and it has strongly imprinted itself in the memory of the local people, most of which must be suffering from the PTSD. 

Today we visited one of the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, as well as Toul Sleng Genocide Museum located in the capital, and I have to tell you that it was an extremely disturbing experience. It's devastating to realize that we-human beings-are capable of such atrocities. In just four years between 1975 and 1974, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for killing of about 2 to 3 million of Cambodian people, about 30% of Cambodian population at that time. All of that in the name of building of a better society. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, justified the mass killings, including the ones of young kids, by saying that "to kill the grass you must also remove the root" and "since he is of no use anymore, there is no gain if he lives and no loss if he dies." I'm really at a loss to know what can we do so people like him wouldn't reach power in future. It seems to me that we-the people of this world-learn very little from the mistakes of the past, and are doomed to repeat them in the future.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thai Street Performance in Chiang Mai

What I love the most about traveling is that you get to see and experience many new things, and that they often come your way in the most random places and unexpected time. For example, a couple of nights ago while wandering around the Old City of Chiang Mai we got to see a street performance and photo-session from one of the local ballet and kick-boxing schools. It was fun to watch it, especially that the performers wore traditional clothes and were very happy to pose for the tourists too.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thailand: Good Quality, Reasonable Price

I’m quite impressed how inexpensive traveling in Thailand is. Every year Thailand is visited by about 14 million tourists (compared to 60 million Thai people!) and I would expect that this would drive the prices up. But it doesn’t it, at least not much, and I tend to think it’s because Thai people are smart and savvy businessmen. They seem to understand the economy of scale and repeated business, and continue to provide a quality service for a reasonable price. This attitude reassures me that the economy of the country will grow, and will continue to benefit from tourism (as of now tourism directly contributes 6% to Thailand's GDP and probably another 20-25% in indirect services contribution), eventually leading to further improvement of quality of life for the local people. 

I, for one, am likely to come back to Thailand sometime in the future, and I’ll be recommending traveling to Thailand to others. 

And now, to give you a better idea what I’m talking about, I’ll show you what $20 can buy you in Thailand:

(1) A very comfortable accommodation in a room with a private bathroom, AC, fan, large bed, AND breakfast - $11 a night.

My room at Gap's in Chiang Mai: lots of light and green surroundings.

The room has a private bathroom, AC, fan, mosquito net, big bed, and a small desk.

Gap's living room is very stylish, but the best thing about it is that it's outdoors!

Breakfast is included.
(2) A whole body Thai massage or foot massage - $4 per hour.

(3) A typical Thai banana pancake made by a street vendor - $0.66.

A street vendor making banana pancakes.

A banana pancake with milk.

(4) A large (650 ml/22 oz) bottle of bear - $1-1.50.

(5) A vegetarian buffet with six dishes, rice, fruits, and mineral water - $3.

Agnieszka and Wojtek enjoying the buffet.

Fresh fruits: pineapple, bananas, lychees. 

Yellow curry with tofu.

Another curry with bamboo shoots. 

Veggie spring rolls.

Green curry with eggplant.

Stir-fried veggies.
Red curry with tofu and mushrooms.

Life in Thailand is good, isn’t it? :)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Durian and I

Durian and I won't be friends.

Not because of its smell, for which it's famous (or rather infamous), but-surprisingly-because of its taste, which I find a bit revolting.
I'm so brave, I'm so brave...
In Thailand, and in many other Southeast Asian countries, the durian is considered to be the "king of fruits" (in case you wonder, yes, there's also a queen, but that's a different story). Some people love it, but many hate it, and it's even disallowed on planes and in many other public places (including hotels). I'm not sure if our hotel has this rule too, but just in case we decided not to risk it and munch on the "forbidden fruit" in a park.

The durian is quite large (up to 30 centimeters/12 inches long and 3 kilograms/7 pounds of weight) and has a characteristic thorn-covered husk. The husk is green-brown and is not edible, wheres the edible flesh can range in color from pale yellow to red, depending on the species. 

You don't have to buy a whole durian. It's possible to buy a tray with durian's flesh that's ready to eat (durian can be eaten raw).

It's the flesh that emits the odour. The odour is so strong that it can be smelled when the husk is intact, and sometimes it can even be smelled from several meters/yards!
Personally, I didn't find the smell particularly repelling. It wasn't pleasant, but it wouldn't discourage me from eating the fruit if I found it tasty. However, one of my travel companions-Agnieszka-insisted that the durian smells like onions. Still, as you can see in the picture below, even she didn't think that the odor was bad enough as to warrant not eating the durian. It was the taste that she also had trouble with. 

Agnieszka was not too impressed by durian's taste.
The first few bites of the durian weren't too bad and I was almost ready to proclaim the whole hype about the fruit as unwarranted. But the third or fourth bite made me feel a bit nauseated, and I didn't feel like eating more.
Here I am about to take the first bite of durian.

Here it is and I am still alive and laughing :)

Even though my friends, Wojtek and Agnieszka, had similar experiences, surprisingly, we weren't able to agree on what we think the durian tastes like. I thought it was a bit soapy (it reminded me a bit taste of fried plantains), Agnieszka tasted onions, and Wojtek couldn't think of any other food that would taste similar to durian. I guess it means that if you want to know how durian tastes, you'll have to try it for yourself!

Wojtek is clearly not too impressed by the durian.

PS There is a fruit that looks similar to the durian but has a quite different taste: the jackfruit. If you're in Southeast Asia, make sure that you don't confuse the two.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Live from Thailand

Here is something new: I'm going to post "live" from my travels through Thailand and Cambodia (and wherever else the fate will take me).

In a spur of a moment I decided to take my netbook with me, so I should be able to post something once in a while, and even have some pictures to accompany the posts too. I'll try to post every other day or so, but I'm not sure if I will manage. So far I wasn't too good about it: I arrived in Thailand already a week ago but I haven't found the time yet to write anything (but at least I managed to download all the photos that I took thus far and select a few worth sharing here).

Off to the cooking course, back with a longer update in the evening.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Himalayan Viagra

As some of you may know I've recently spent several weeks in Nepal, sightseeing historic sights in the Kathmandu Valley and backpacking the Annapurna Circuit.

While trekking in the high Himalayas I was intrigued to see one local using a toothbrush to clean something that he referred to as "an insect." I was even more intrigued to find out that the thing that he was cleaning was apparently worth lots of money. If I remember correctly the local man claimed that each "insect" was worth at least $10 and I have to admit that I didn't believe him. I thought that either he was exaggerating or he was not too good with numbers.

Shame on me and my ignorance. The "insect" turned out to be the caterpillar fungus–also known as the Himalayan Viagra–the most expensive fungi in the world that sells for about $50,000 a pound.

Caterpillar fungus is a specimen created when a parasitic fungus infects the caterpillar of the ghost moth, ultimately killing and consuming it. After the fungus mummifies its prey underground, it shoots out of the top of the dead caterpillar's head and thrusts out of the soil. It's this tiny protuberance that the harvesters search for each spring.

In Tibet and Nepal the fungus is known as yartsa gunbu, whereas in India it goes by the name kira jari (or Indian Viagra). As you might have guessed from its English name, the fungus is thought to be an aphrodisiac. In traditional Chinese medicine it's also used for a treatment of cancer and aging, and it is used by some athletes as a performance-enhancing drug.

The fungus is especially popular in China where it fetches the highest price (of up to $100,000 a kilo). When sold by harvesters to a middle man, a single fungus fetches about 2-3 dollars, depending on its size and quality. That's much more than the average daily worker's wage, so the search for caterpillar fungus in the Himalayas resembles a bit the Californian gold rush. (Yes, some people even got killed over this precious fungus.)

The good news is that some people are able to collect lots of them in a single day, and use the money to build a house or finance their own or family member's education.

Read more on: BBC, CNN, NPR, or National Geographic.

The "Big Four" Killer Snakes of India: the Count Is Three (So Far)

The "Big Four" is the name given to four venomous snake species responsible for causing the most snake bites in India/South Asia.

During the last three weeks of my stay in India (in the center of 12-million-people metropolis, I should add) three out of four members of this "killer" group have visited our garden.

First, about three weeks ago, we hosted a Common Krait, which venom contains muscle-paralysis-inducing neurotoxin that leads to death by suffocation.

Then, about two weeks ago, a deadly and fearless Naja naja (Spectacled Cobra) made the appearance. Local people seemed to be much more scared of the kobra than they were of the krait. I was told that Spectacled Cobras are very aggressive and, unlike most other snakes, they don't run away when people approach them but instead they attack. That was indeed the case with the kobra that came to our garden. It wasn't at all afraid of the group of five people observing it closely, and it was "starring" back at us with anticipation painted all over its agile body. It was clearly ready to attack if anybody would be foolish enough to make even a one more step in its direction. This suspense lasted a good hour giving me the opportunity to take several pictures of the kobra.

The kobra's venom contains both post-synaptic neurotoxin and cardiotoxin, so it can cause death either by paralysing muscles needed for respiration or by causing cardiac arrest. (Pick your poison, literally.)  

After about an hour, the kobra got bored waiting for the people to leave and decided to look for a more peaceful rest place for itself. Unfortunately, it didn't look far and decided to enter cool and cozy pipes of our house! Needless to say, since then I open the bathroom's door with a lot of caution. I also insist on sleeping with closed windows, despite the heat.

Last week the third member of the Big Four group visited our lot. It was a young Daboia (Chain Viper, Russell's Viper), which is responsible for causing the most snakebite incidents and deaths among all venomous snakes present in India because of its wide distribution and frequent occurrence in highly-populated areas. Daboia's venom induces thrombocytopenia, and eventually leads to death either from kidney, respiratory or cardiac failure, or from sepsis.

The last member of the Big Four group is Saw-scaled Viper. It hasn't visited us yet, but I'm sure that it will. In fact, I expect it to show up this week, as the other three venomous snakes paid a visit with uncanny regularity within a week of each other.

Other frequent visitors to our house and garden include: monkeys, lizards, chameleons, geckos, and squirrels.

Geckos are a very common sight. Every day I see at least twenty of them running on the walls and ceilings of the house. They are very well behave, so we let them live in peace.

The monkeys, on the other hand, are not so welcome, as they occasionally get inside the house and steal food. They can also be quite aggressive and, if threatened, throw sticks and stones at people.

Chameleons are fun to watch, especially as they slowly climb the trees.

Another frequent visitor is a family of squirrels, which makes a nest in Anil's parents bathroom about four times a year. The squirrels have just moved out, as their little ones came of age and were ready to face the outside world. But we do expect the parents to be back with new kids in three months or so.

Orange-head lizards are a common sight too. 
It's nice that we don't even need to leave the house to see all of these interesting animals.