Colonial myths of Angkor Wat in ruins

One of the more annoying features of travel journalism about Cambodia is that it fails wholeheartedly to put Angkor in a modern historical perspective. Most travel writers tend to treat the site with breathless hyperbole, fixing the ruins within a mysterious, mythic past without attempting to locate them within modern Cambodian culture. For the most part, the movies of Angelina Jolie offer a more historically accurate vision of Angkor than recent newspaper articles. Thankfully, David Chandler was given a chance to set things right in an excellent article in The Australian newspaper today:

Cambodia is the only country that has a ruin on its national flag and it’s perhaps the only country to praise a ruin in its national anthem. The ruin is Angkor Wat, and these two facts say something about the way Angkor has become a key element in Cambodia’s national identity and its collective unconscious, especially since the country gained its independence from France in 1953.

The effect of the temples and of the myths surrounding them has been enormous and by no means entirely beneficial. Many of the myths surrounding Angkor and the Khmer developed in the colonial era (1863-1953) and only recently have been called into question. Contrary to much popular writing about Angkor, for example, the ruins were never forgotten by the Khmer, nor were the temples lost in the jungle, as many early writers suggested.

Buddhist inscriptions at Angkor Wat date from as late as 1747. When Siam annexed much of northwestern Cambodia in the 1790s, one of the provinces it took – the one containing the Angkorian ruins – was called Mahanokor or Great City. A Cambodian royal seal from the 1840s depicted a three-towered temple, much as the Cambodian flag depicts Angkor today.

In 1860, when French botanist Henri Mouhot supposedly stumbled across Angkor Wat, he was led there by a Cambodian guide and found a flourishing Buddhist monastery on the temple grounds.

See: Colonial myths of Angkor Wat in ruins


Grape Nuts
Image courtesy:

My favourite moments when discussing food with Cambodians come when I speak passionately about some particular foreign food and they look at me like I’ve just described to them the correct manner by which to skin and eat a human baby. For some reason, I often receive this blank stare of boundless horror when I try to describe muesli as a vaguely pleasurable breakfast experience. Possibly because at some unspecified time, Cambodians encountered Grape-Nuts.

Over the weekend, a friend was in town for a reciprocal visit from Laos and we did a run to Lucky Supermarket for a selection of processed Western goods unavailable in the Land of A Million Elephants. While I was perusing the specials bin, I spied a packet of Grape-Nuts. They sounded vaguely like an insult that you would throw around the playground as a child, so we deduced that they must be a good thing. They were also half the price of any other imported breakfast cereal available in Cambodge.

Kraft says: “One of the first ready-to-eat cereal products ever made available to the public, Grape-Nuts was first introduced in 1897. Made of wheat and malted barley, Grape-Nuts was so named because its inventor, Charles William Post, said that grape sugar was formed during the baking process and described the cereal as having a nutty flavor.”

I say: After completing the baking process, I would have bestowed the name Bran-Gravel on the product. The only positive that comes from this product is that it effectively sharpens your teeth as you eat it, or at least, polishes the pieces of teeth that have snapped off as you fruitlessly gnaw away.

My friend from Lao PDR says: “I concur, Grape Nuts suck ass”

Grape-Nuts are currently on sale at Lucky for US$1.90. Unleash the cereal wrath upon Phnom Penh at your peril.

Phnomenon formally welcomes UNTAC returnees

With the swearing in of judges for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the UN workers who rocked the 1992 election junket in Cambodia are back and this time they’re brutally severing food reviews in a semi-literate style:

Malis: For the best in Cambodian cusine in Phnom Penh it is hard to beat Malis. A little pricey for Cambodia but a wonderful variety of delicious options are severed in a really classy setting.

See: Gecko Cambodia for a list of restaurants where Landcruiser parking space will soon be at a premium.

Addendum (18 July 2006): Gecko Cambodia has disappeared into the aether. You can still read the Google cached version of it.

USA Donuts

USA Donuts

It was only a matter of time before a Cambodian returned from the USA with a head full of dreams and belly full of deep-fried rings o’ lard. With the opening of USA Donuts, the Californian-Cambodian cruller csardom has spread its greasy wings back to the homeland.

The insides of the store are literally identical to your average American Mom-and-Pop donut shop: wide selection of donuts behind plexiglass counter, cheap furniture, terrible coffee waiting tepidly in vacuum flasks on the counter. Unlike your average USA lard ring vendor, you can buy a taro-flavoured thickshake as well as a variety of other American junk foods. They serve fried chicken, but no sign yet of the elusive chicken and waffles.

After a small amount of confusion as to which of the seven women behind the counter worked there, I ordered one of the plain yeast rings, a chocolate-iced cake donut and a cup of their coffee from the vacuum flask dispenser (2500 riel). Of the three blends of coffee, I went for “Cambodian” flavour and to my surprise, it didn’t taste like either kroueng or prahok. Neither donut was too lardy and if you happened to catch the yeast ring coming fresh from the oven, it would be a fairly close match to Krispy Kreme’s Original Glazed.

USA Donuts

For those of you rendered incapable of leaving your abode, USA Donuts will deliver by the dozen in the Phnom Penh area.

Location:No.15, St 136, Phnom Penh

Khmer: The National Alcohol Beverage

Khmer Beer

Brewer: Some guys out in Daun Mann

As I opened this bottle of cold Khmer, I was reminded of an edition of the blog Steve, Don’t Eat It!. Not content with eating corn smut or the original Steve Urkel breakfast cereal ten years past its use-by date, Steve decides to brew his own prison wine (or “pruno” in the American prison vernacular). He refers to the Jim Hogshire 1994 classic “You Are Going To Prison”:

One of the problems you have right away with making wine in prison is the difficulty getting yeast. It’s a strictly forbidden item and you might not be able to get any. In this case you can improvise the by using slices of bread, preferably moldy (but not dry) and preferably inside a sock for easier straining.”

The initial aroma wafting from my Khmer smelled as if it had been created with moldy bread strained through a sock. A sock that Satan himself had been wearing on a particularly loathsome day in the sulphur mines. The rotten egg notes continue through to the flavour, where they seem to cut through the mouth-puckering sourness and overwhelm anything else in this beverage. The brew has a slight natural effervescence which only serves to make things worse. Alcohol by volume was listed as 4.5%, so there wasn’t much hopes that a few swift gulps could anaesthetise my tastebuds into submission.

There are at least one hundred uses for the ubiquitous sugar palm tree in Cambodia and this is the very worst.

If this beverage was jailed, it would be for: Grand Theft Hydrogen Sulfide

Availability: Bottle only, in drink stores.

See also: Taipei Times interviews the Khmer beer manufacturers.

The Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung)

Assigned its Soviet moniker due to its proclivity for stocking Moscow’s goods during the Cold War, all manner of pirated wares and locally made trinkets now replace Communist comestibles at this crowded, ramshackle bazaar. Instead of being housed in a single building, the Russian Market has mostly grown by a process of agglomeration whereby individual store holders piece together their patch of real estate with sheets of corrugated iron, cut-rate cement, and hubris. The result is mayhem but there is some semblance of organisation thanks to the Khmer tradition of grouping like businesses together.

Psar Toul Tom Poung

The northeast corner is full of Daelim and Honda motorcycle parts and tools, the northern outside edge is fruit (both imported and local), and the northern central section contains meat, veggies and dried foods. There is a band of small fast food vendors through the centre on the western side. Slender alleys of pirated clothes and shoes are on the eastern side and run all the way to the southern end, with a centre section full of cheap tailors. The southernmost edge is pirated DVDs/CDs, software, and tourist t-shirts. The southwest corner is carved paraphernalia and stoneware. Nestled amongst these spontaneous provinces, you’ll also find practically everything else that you’ll want to ship home from Cambodia: crockery, lamps, handbags, silks, jewelry, photocopied books, Buddhist kitsch at prices lower than practically everywhere in Asia.

Prahok and dried fish at Russian Market

As a food destination and much like the above photo, Russian Market is a mixed bag. Thanks to the low zinc-coated ceiling, the dull oppressive heat is your inescapable shopping companion and due to this, the standard of fresh fruit and vegetables is passable if you arrive in the morning and slowly degrades as the day progresses.

The meats of wrath
This little piggy went to market.

Fresh fish at Russian Market, Phnom Penh

For fresh meat and seafood, the produce is generally not of the same quality as the larger Central Market and very little of it is kept on ice. You’ll occasionally be able to cut a good deal for prawns (bawngkia) on ice, live langoustine (bawngkang) or mudcrabs (kdaam) simply because the demand isn’t as high at the Russian Market as it is elsewhere.

Prahok and dried small fish at Russian Market, Phnom Penh

If you’re easily overwhelmed by the smell of fermented and dried aquatic life, then this is not the place for you.

The central group of fast food stalls seems to be the only area where there is a common roof, now stained jet black from years of cooking oil smoke and charcoal fire. By Western standards of hygiene, it looks unreservedly grim, especially as the decaying cooking detritus builds to an olfactory crescendo of putrefaction shortly after lunch. There are a handful of great Khmer meals to be had here that are hard to find in Phnom Penh’s restaurants, a few of which I’ve only ever seen cooked on a mobile cart. One of these is the Khmer version of the Vietnamese pancake, Banh Xeo.

Num Banh Xeo at Russian Market

This banh xeo (2500 riel, US$0.62) was at least a foot long and had enough lettuce, fishwort (chee poel trei) and Vietnamese coriander (chee krassang) to sustain a large warren of rabbits. The egg and rice flour crepe had an almost perfectly crispy, wok-tainted skin and was packed solid with cooked ground pork, whole small-ish prawns and bean shoots. While I had a tough time eating the whole thing, a tiny Khmer woman seated next to me managed to inhale two in quick succession, in a trick akin to stuffing twenty clowns into a comedy Volkswagen. I wanted to ask her if there was anything up her sleeves, but my Khmer just doesn’t stretch that far.

Location:The Russian Market, Cnr St. 155 and St.444, Phnom Penh