Tea party

After water, tea is the most-consumed beverage in the world. It is produced in forty different countries in Asia, Africa and South America; China is the world’s largest tea grower, followed by India.

NJB_4728

The eastern Himalayan range as seen from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling.

NJB_4820

Recognize that famous red circle and blue bar logo?

India is particularly famous for its Darjeeling and Assam teas, from the regions of the same names. We visited Darjeeling, which sits at close to 7,000 feet and was a famous “hill station” during the colonial era.

NJB_4645

Tea plantation, Darjeeling.

In Darjeeling, tea is grown on steep slopes like these. Pickers – always women – harvest tea leaves into bamboo baskets they carry on their heads or backs. The pickers are paid about $2 a day for a minimum of ten hours of work. Leaves are harvested no matter the weather; the flush refers to the season when the tea was harvested. We visited during first flush, which is the first time the plant is harvested after its winter dormancy and produces the most flavorful and sought-after tea.

NJB_4643.1

Camellia sinensis, or tea plant.

All true tea – white, green, oolong and black – comes from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to Asia. Herbal teas, like mint, chamomile or lemongrass, are technically tisanes and not teas since they contain no camellia sinensis. Once a tea bush is healthy and established, it can produce healthy leaves for about eighty years.

NJB_5237

On the street, chai is sold everywhere in tiny terra cotta cups for 10 rupees (about 15 cents). After drinking, the cups are smashed on the ground.

India is famous for its chai tea, which is black tea blended with fragrant spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, and served hot, milky and sweet. On the trains, chaiwallahs prowl the carriages selling drinks to passengers. Sometimes you even get little cookies, too!

NJB_4568

As with any agricultural crop, monitoring temperature and rainfall is paramount.

NJB_4578

After harvesting, the green tea leaves are “withered” to reduce moisture.

The difference in teas simply comes from how it’s processed. White tea is the most expensive and only comes from the very best tips of the plant. Green tea isn’t fermented, leaving it delicate and soft; both black and oolong teas are fermented, which gives them a stronger flavor. True tea will always contain at least a small amount of caffeine; the amount depends on how the tea was processed and fermented. Herbal “teas” will only contain caffeine if it’s been added in.

NJB_4580

The tea leaves are exceedingly delicate before they’re dried and rolled.

NJB_4571

Withered leaves are funneled into rolling machines.

NJB_4584

The rolling machines crush the dried leaves to start the oxidation process.

The Darjeeling region is famous for delicate black teas that are traditionally served without milk or sugar. Because these teas aren’t as strong or tannic as Assam teas, they can be enjoyed straight. Darjeeling isn’t actually that big and produces a relatively small amount of tea; it’s common to find tea labeled as “100% Darjeeling” when it’s simply lower-grade tea from elsewhere in India. As with places like Champagne or Stilton that also produce unique foods or drinks, the name itself is a valuable brand and one that’s often misappropriated.

NJB_4570

The tea is placed into drying machines to remove remaining moisture.

NJB_4609

Moving the dried tea.

NJB_4593

NJB_4595

NJB_4623

The dried tea is sifted and graded.

After the tea has been dried and sifted, it’s separated into grades of loose tea and “tea dust,” for bagged tea. Tea purists will always opt for loose tea; it is definitely of much higher quality than bagged tea. There is no arguing the convenience of tea bags, however.

NJB_4614

Finished tea in linen bags.

True tea aficionados will swear that you must use exact measurements when brewing tea, such as two grams of tea for eight ounces of water. Like cooking, however, I believe that what matters most is your own palate. Start with the professional guidelines and adjust from there to find out what you like best – I prefer my tea much stronger than most “experts” recommend, so that’s how I drink it. Ultimately, it’s your tea and you should drink it the way you like it.

NJB_4588

Loose tea ready for transport.

NJB_4629

NJB_4628

Tea tasting.

Tea is without question one of the world’s healthiest beverages (when it’s not loaded with sugar, obviously!) and Americans are slowly starting to explore the range of delicious teas available. Interested in learning more about teas and how to taste properly? Try here, here or here!

 

 

 

 

 

Kolkata flower market

Early on the morning of our first full day in India, we took a tuk-tuk to Kolkata’s wholesale flower market, near the city’s famed Howrah Bridge. What a bold introduction to the country! Flowers arrive around sunrise each day and are sold by the kilo to retailers who then resell the blossoms for weddings, temple visits and puja ceremonies.

NJB_4098

Kolkata’s flower market as seen from Howrah Bridge.

NJB_4118

Making a delivery.

NJB_4087

Many of the market’s vendors also live in their stands. 

NJB_4086

A rare female vendor selling fresh greens for cooking.

The market is almost exclusively male; we saw very few women. As in most parts of India we’ve traveled – except in the larger cities – women remain largely behind the scenes, caring for the home and the children.

NJB_4113

Let the haggling begin.

Marigolds are the primary flower sold at the market. The Portuguese introduced marigolds to India in the 1600s, and they’re now ubiquitous at all sort of ceremonies. Their rich shades of saffron and gold dominate the scene.

NJB_5412

NJB_5410

Stringing a marigold garland.

Marigolds now bear enormous cultural significance here; the blossoms are threaded onto string and used as temple adornments and offerings. They’re also made into necklaces and given as gifts to welcome honored visitors, similar to Hawaiian lei tradition.

NJB_4076

The white garlands are made of jasmine flowers, and they smell absolutely amazing.

NJB_4082

Immense quantities of flowers are sold every single day; the market operates around the clock.

NJB_4089

Women negotiating prices with the seller.

NJB_4092

Loose blossoms are sold by the kilo.

NJB_4088

NJB_4129

NJB_4101

NJB_4110

Unsurprisingly, a market like this generates a lot of waste.

NJB_4999

Marigold blossoms are used in offerings like these aartis, which are set alight and floated on the Ganges.

NJB_5415

The streets of India are filled with small altars; shops selling flower offerings are always nearby.

Like everything else in India, the market was loud, hot, chaotic and messy…but completely worth a visit!

 

 

Welcome to India

A friend mentioned recently that she describes India with “the three C’s”: color, chaos and contradiction. We couldn’t have said it better. There is literally nothing in the world that can prepare you for this country – not the noise, the heat, the traffic, the pollution, the incomprehensible number of people, nor the breathtaking beauty. India is almost too much – too much to absorb, to photograph, to process – but we’re doing our best. This is not easy travel, that’s for damn sure, but it is amazing and completely unlike any place we’ve ever been.

NJB_4926

The iconic sacred cows are found just about everywhere, most often in the middle of the street.

NJB_4122

Chickens on their way to market.

NJB_4142

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata.

NJB_4429

The hill station of Gangtok, plus efficient solar drying of laundry.

NJB_5297

Milk delivery.

NJB_4318 - Copy.JPG

Mandala prayer wheels at a Buddhist monastery.

NJB_4068

Outside of New Market, Kolkata.

NJB_4444

Car and motorbike parts for sale.

We have been absolutely amazed – both in India and in southeast Asia – at the sheer number of tiny storefronts and street stands selling all manner of goods, from food to housewares to fabric. The typical American “big box” store definitely isn’t part of the lifestyle here.

NJB_4217

It’s election season in India and there are lots of flags, posters and rallies.

NJB_5247

Tractor repair shop.

NJB_4134

A ferry on the Ganges.

NJB_4228

See those apples? They’re from Washington! The U.S. is not the only country importing produce from thousands of miles away.

NJB_4056

Street scene, Kolkata.

NJB_4065

India’s classic Ambassador taxicab.

NJB_4225

Spices and aromatics for sale at a basement shop.

NJB_4363

No room to build? Just put it on top of something else.

NJB_4304

A monk at Rumtek Monastery in Gangtok.

NJB_4389

Much like geisha culture in Japan, families often rent traditional costumes for photo shoots, like this group at a temple near Darjeeling.

NJB_4690

Prayer flags at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Darjeeling.

Scenes from the Banana Pancake Trail

We’ve never claimed to be the world’s most adventurous travelers, and our travel in southeast Asia definitely adhered to the classic Banana Pancake Trail. Nevertheless, we had a phenomenal time here and loved seeing countries that were new to both of us. We visited Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand in just under a month; below, some of our favorite images from this portion of the trip. We’re off to India!

NJB_3399

Illuminated lanterns in Hoi An’s Old Quarter.

Hoi An, near Da Nang on Vietnam’s central coast, was most certainly our favorite place in the country. We loved its antiquated feel and the charming Old Quarter, which is decorated with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns hung all over the shops and streets. Strolling here after sunset was such a pleasure.

NJB_3433.1

A fruit vendor in Hoi An.

NJB_3349.1

Early morning gardening in Vietnam.

In Hoi An, we participated in a sunrise bicycle tour that took us to the daily market, an organic farm and out to the rice paddies. Truthfully, most small village farms in developing countries are organic because labor there is cheap and chemicals are expensive. In the U.S., unfortunately, the opposite is true.

NJB_2552

The stunning interior of a village temple outside of Siem Reap.

This gorgeous temple was on a dusty road leading out of Siem Reap; from the outside, you’d never know that the interior was this incredible. Each fresco had a number painted in the corner; this indicated the amount of money raised by the village to pay for that particular painting.

NJB_3491

Vietnam’s favorite son is absolutely revered in this country.

Vietnam’s national hero, Ho Chi Minh, is celebrated all over the country but nowhere more so than in his namesake museum in Hanoi. The museum is one of the strangest and darkest – both in terms of actual light and the overall mood – places we’ve ever visited. It’s an unsettling combination of blatant propaganda and modern art installation, and worth seeing just for the weirdness.

NJB_3495

See how dark this museum is?

The placard on this exhibit in the Ho Chi Minh Museum read, in part, “The models in this hall give visitors information about how scientific and technical achievements have been made use of for peaceful and beneficial purposes. The models at the same time condemn those who have utilized these achievements for aggressive and destructive purposes.” What?

NJB_3717

A ferocious temple guardian in Chiang Mai.

NJB_3353

Look closely: the labeling on these boats in Hoi An lets everyone know you’re a tourist.

NJB_3482

Trainspotting might be a bit risky in Vietnam.

NJB_3827

Adding decoration to our handmade paper.

In Thailand, we took a papermaking class and created gorgeous papers with leaves and blossoms. It’s simple and rewarding and beautiful; we’re hoping to make our own to wrap our handmade cheeses in at Quiet Farm.

NJB_2953

Fishing boats on the river in Nha Trang.

NJB_3700

One of Chiang Mai’s many elaborately decorated temples.

NJB_3138

Da Nang’s famous (and very expensive) Dragon Bridge changes colors – and on weekend nights, it also sprays water and breathes fire!

NJB_3389

We found this lion dancer at an international food festival in Vietnam.

NJB_2917

The building boom in Nha Trang, a beach resort popular with Russian tourists.

Vietnam is in a mad rush to modernize, so hotels are constructed at a breakneck pace. This means that not only are there hammers and saws competing with motorbike horns at all hours, but that a lot of construction is left partially finished when workers move on to the next project.

NJB_3550

A “skinny house” in Hanoi.

Even more common than all the new construction is making do with what’s already there. The skinny house above has been tucked in; notice that the bamboo poles are actually structural and are keeping the two buildings from leaning in. Presumably something will be quickly built in that empty space. But there’s a fancy coffee shop! With gelato!

NJB_3565

The exterior of the traditional lanna house we stayed at outside Chiang Mai.

NJB_2742

A monk studying at a temple in Phnom Penh.

Monks in orange robes with shaved heads are a common sight throughout southeast Asia; it’s amusing to see them with earbuds and mobile phones, too. Even monks have to modernize.

NJB_3747

Is this for here or to go?

And we leave you with this photo, and dare you not to smile. While dogs are still eaten in southeast Asia, as the region grows in economic prosperity, its people want what they perceive as middle-class luxuries – and that includes house pets. So now it’s more common here to see dogs on a leash rather than on a grill.

Street food

After the markets, street food vendors are one of the most colorful sights in southeast Asia. From fresh fruits and vegetables to juices, meat and snacks, just about anything you fancy is available from a street stall. Although you might not know exactly what you’re eating, it’s worth watching just for the show.

NJB_2928

A lobster stall in Nha Trang setting up for business.

NJB_2926

Crocodile farming – for both meat and leather – is big business in central Vietnam; the industry is definitely not PETA-approved. This enticement is outside a restaurant in Nha Trang.

NJB_2645

These delicious little packets contain sticky rice stuffed with bananas, eaten as a snack or dessert.

NJB_3735

These lovely women are running a rotee stand. Rotees in Thailand fall somewhere between a crêpe and a pancake and are filled with sweet or savory ingredients.

NJB_3723

Carts are set up along just about every street.

NJB_2923

This woman is making Vietnam’s world-famous banh mi sandwich, sold for about 75 cents.

NJB_2911

These tiny bananas (about the length of a finger) are so much more flavorful than the standard Cavendish variety we get at home.

NJB_3173

Fancy some whiskey or red wine with your street food meal? You can have it.

NJB_3743

Perhaps you’d like a meatball skewer?

NJB_2496

Salted whole fish, ready to eat.

NJB_2486

Fried sweet potato, banana and other tasty treats.

NJB_2597

The “special meat” restaurant outside of Siem Reap. Sit, stay…good dog.

NJB_2488

Little sweet cakes, served hot.

NJB_2781

Skewers and more, ready for the grill.

NJB_2755

Baling sugarcane on the streets of Phnom Penh.

NJB_2479

The sugarcane is crushed through a press to produce delicious juice, which is flavored with fresh lime and sold in little baggies as a refreshing drink.

NJB_2656

Chefs demonstrate their stir-fry skills at Siem Reap’s night market.

NJB_3740

Honestly, I don’t know. But what colors!

 

Vietnam by train

Thus far on this trip, we’ve used just about every imaginable method of transportation, so long-distance trains in Vietnam fit perfectly into our plans.

NJB_3279

Hazy sunrise over the rice paddies.

Long-distance trains were established by the French in Vietnam in the 1880s; the North-South line, connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), opened in 1936. The line was cut in 1954 at the beginning of Vietnam’s war against the French when the country divided into North and South. It was rebuilt in 1976 and is still known to many as the Reunification Express.

NJB_2900

No one is striving for architectural greatness at these train stations.

NJB_2985

Though it’s officially called Ho Chi Minh City, the station signage and the timetables still use Saigon. We’re not certain which one is socially correct.

NJB_2904

It is advisable to purchase snacks for the journey from the station vendors, though they will almost certainly shortchange you.

NJB_2982

This doesn’t show the large family groups camped in the room behind, but the waiting rooms are clearly both luxurious and comfortable.

NJB_2986

Unlike the precision of Japan, Vietnamese trains are on a bit more of a casual schedule.

NJB_2992

A four-bed “soft sleeper” cabin.

Train accommodations in Vietnam come in fairly self-explanatory flavors: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper; sleepers can be either four-bed or six-bed. We first used soft seats for day trains, but learned the hard way that this meant we’d be subjected to Vietnamese musicals played on the communal televisions at ear-splitting volume. Presumably this was very enjoyable for the Vietnamese passengers, but it did diminish our love of train travel somewhat. So did the physically aggressive food vendors who hopped on board at stations.

NJB_2994

NJB_3000

NJB_3005

This rice paddy photo is clearly lacking the iconic tiny Vietnamese woman in a conical cap.

NJB_3023

Everything – and we mean everything – is under construction in Vietnam. This includes every single hotel we stayed at.

NJB_3018

Railway crossings are not automated, so the train employee runs to shut the barrier as the train passes.

NJB_3025

NJB_3016

Almost every house we passed had a large vegetable garden.

In addition to the vegetable gardens we saw at most homes, families also harvest part of communal rice paddies. Their allotment is determined by the size of the family, so there is certainly an incentive to have more children. Obviously, no one actually owns land here; land is theoretically owned collectively by the people, but of course in reality controlled entirely by the government.

NJB_3010

On many occasions, we passed close enough to touch the buildings outside.

NJB_3026

We were a little surprised by the cavalier attitude towards crossing live tracks, but when in Vietnam…

Here’s the honest truth: trains are not the most efficient way to travel around Vietnam, and unfortunately they’re not the most economical, either. Though we had planned on doing all of our travel up the coast via train, budget airlines like AirAsia and JetStar have made the decision much more difficult. From Da Nang to Hanoi, for example, it’s sixteen hours by train and about ninety minutes by plane. The trains are by no means particularly comfortable or clean, and the airline tickets are often cheaper! So we’d love to tell you that we honored the backpacker credo and traveled slow, but that’s not the entire story. This is a complicated, difficult country, and the vagaries of train travel are just the beginning.

NJB_3040

We finished our train journey about halfway up the coast at Da Nang, or “China Beach” to Americans.

Walk this way

We believe that one of the best ways to explore a big city is by walking it. During this adventure, N and I have tackled Kyoto, Tokyo, Auckland and Wellington, plus numerous small towns and villages. Never before, however, have we encountered as much danger as we did when exploring Ho Chi Minh City (formerly and still sometimes Saigon) and Hanoi in Vietnam.

NJB_2811

NJB_2791

It’s every man (or woman) for themselves out here.

Imagine the biggest non-motorway road you can. Now envision it filled entirely with cars, and fill in the empty spaces with thousands of motorbikes. Add more motorbikes. Throw in pedestrians, elderly women on bicycles, wheeled carts filled with vegetables, tuk-tuks, and a few more motorbikes, just for good measure. Feel free to paint in lane lines and dividers on your imaginary road, but don’t worry too much as everyone will assiduously ignore these. Now imagine that everyone who has access to a horn or a bell or any other noisemaking device is using it – at the same time. Oh, and don’t forget to let everyone text while they’re driving. Now you might just barely have the tiniest inkling of the risk involved in walking Vietnamese city streets.

NJB_3544

Southeast Asia is absolutely overrun with motorbikes. Tourists can rent them, but do so at your own risk; serious accidents are common.

NJB_3542

We love walking (maybe me just a touch more than N, especially in the southeast Asian heat) but never before has it been quite so difficult. Even on the sidewalk – ostensibly a safe haven – we faced myriad obstacles.

NJB_3474

Sidewalks in Vietnam aren’t so much for walking as they are for sitting down to catch up with friends.

NJB_3529

If the road traffic is too much, the motorbikes will join the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Also, feel free to park your car wherever you’d like, as demonstrated on left.

NJB_3475

Pop-up meat markets, like this one, also make navigating sidewalks in Hanoi somewhat challenging.

NJB_3458

Oranges, anyone?

NJB_3176

We regularly saw bicycles and motorbikes loaded with two, three or four family members. Child safety seats? Not so much.

NJB_2858

The kid sandwiched on the motorbike in the foreground apparently doesn’t need a helmet.

NJB_2869

Even when the crosswalk light says it’s the pedestrians’ turn, this is typically the gauntlet you face. Beware.

NJB_3535

No, that isn’t a crashproof bike helmet.

NJB_3531

We saw motorbikes carrying all manner of goods, from extension ladders to mini fridges to lengths of steel pipe to balloon bouquets.

NJB_3486

The bicycle on the right is loaded with ceramics for sale. Imagine how heavy and unwieldy it must be to ride.

We learned quickly that the only way to make progress was to take a deep breath and step out into traffic. No one is actually driving all that fast, and the motorbikes will elegantly navigate around pedestrians like a shoal of fish. As long as you move smoothly and consistently – and don’t stop in the middle – the system actually works, surprisingly. It defies all Western conventions. Numerous times, we saw panicked tourists frozen on the side (or the middle!) of the big roads. Know that a good degree of faith is required.

NJB_2521

Apprentice monks have places to go, too.

NJB_2853

Yes, N was crossing the road when he snapped the shot. Risky job, this.

NJB_3195

Drivers wait for a fare…these carts only seat one passenger, so they’re not practical unless you’re traveling solo.

NJB_3476

Notice here that lane lines and directional traffic are merely a suggestion.

NJB_2887

NJB_3465

We read a helpful travel trip: “If taking a motorbike taxi, ensure your driver is sober and lucid.” Honestly, how would you know? Our airport shuttle bus driver fell asleep with alarming regularity along the journey.

NJB_3553

4AM and we can finally use the pedestrian crosswalk safely.

Navigating Vietnamese cities on foot has been one of the trickiest and most tiring parts of our travel thus far, but it certainly qualifies as an adventure!

 

To market, to market

For a chef and a photographer, traditional food markets are a wonderland. We visit markets whenever possible and do our best to capture the scents, sounds and tastes through our words and photos. These markets are often messy, fragrant, hot and noisy, to say the least, but they capture a place and its people the way few other tourist attractions do.

P.S. If you’re in the Denver area, I’m teaching an incredible cooking class on exploring ethnic markets in June at the Botanic Gardens. Learn more here!

NJB_2489.JPG

Chile paste, fresh chiles and ground turmeric.

NJB_2513.JPG

This little piggy went to market…

NJB_3271

The morning fish market in Hoi An.

NJB_2504.JPG

Fresh herbs, delivered by bicycle.

NJB_2491.JPG

Rice is the staple food for more than two-thirds of the world’s population, unsurprisingly, there is a lot available for purchase here.

NJB_2510.JPG

Know where your meat comes from.

NJB_2317.JPG

Siem Reap’s famous Night Market.

NJB_2503

Fresh pineapples are often sold peeled and cut for an easy to-go snack. 

NJB_2472.JPG

The “blackfoot chicken” is just one of the many poultry options available. Every conceivable type and size of bird is eaten here.

NJB_2763.JPG

Lots of unusual fruit varieties that I’ve never seen before!

NJB_2500.JPG

This is what chefs mean when they talk about “nose-to-tail” cooking.

NJB_2477.JPG

Most markets we’ve seen are conducted primarily on the ground.

NJB_2519.JPG

This is not the gluten-free section.

NJB_2493

Spices ready to blend into fiery curry pastes.

NJB_2306

NJB_2304

Markets in southeast Asia aren’t just for food; Cambodia and Vietnam produce a great deal of the world’s “fast fashion,” typically in abysmal working conditions.

NJB_2507.JPG

Everything you need to garnish pho.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to cooking again when we get home!

 

Temples of boom

We thought of calling this post “Angkor what?,” but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. To sum things up rather simplistically, tourism in Cambodia exists primarily because of one place:

NJB_2392

The famous view of Angkor Wat at sunrise. 

Over two million tourists visit Cambodia each year, and the vast majority – like us – make Angkor Wat and the nearby temples central to their trip. Last year, the government-run organization that recently took over management of the temples (some sources claim this cultural treasure is actually owned by a businessman) announced a dramatic increase in the price of a one-day temple pass, from $20 to $37.

NJB_2336.JPG

You’ll want to arrive early, since you’ll be jostling for space with hundreds and hundreds of other tourists angling for the same sunrise shot.

Based on the throngs of people already at Angkor Wat at 5AM, it seems very few tourists have been put off by this price increase, despite concerns to the contrary. Although there are hundreds of temples in the immediate area, most tourists – like us – visit just a few and if we’re speaking honestly, it’s because this is a tourist attraction we’re supposed to see, rather than one we’re really interested in. It’s easy to get “templed out” here very quickly, especially in the blistering heat and pervasive dust of the dry season.

NJB_2372

One of Angkor Wat’s towers.

NJB_2369

Stone carving detail, Angkor Wat.

NJB_2349

Angkor Wat is the largest and best-preserved of the main temples, hence its overwhelming popularity.

As good tourists with unlimited access to travel guides and “places to go before you die” lists, travel too often becomes a series of boxes checked off, mostly based on others’ experiences (or glossy Instagram photos). Angkor Wat and its compatriots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and regularly cited as one of the world’s most important historical monuments. The reality, however, is that unless you’re a devoted student of history, archeology and/or crumbling stone, you might actually find the endless piles of rubble and maddening crowds rather underwhelming.

NJB_2399

Temple entrance at Banteay Srei.

NJB_2414

Banteay Srei is carved from red sandstone, making it particularly unique amongst other temples in the area.

It’s also difficult for us, at least, to feel charitable towards a government who might have made somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million last year (based on a conservative 1.5 million visitors buying $20 temple passes) plus about $35 a head for visitor visas (again, conservatively about $70 million) but can’t seem to find the resources to organize clean drinking water or trash collection for its citizens. Where, exactly, are these millions going?

NJB_2407

Stone guards on duty at Banteay Srei.

NJB_2416

Carving detail, Banteay Srei. The temple’s name roughly translates as “citadel of the women;” one possible explanation is that men couldn’t have managed the intricacy of the carvings.

NJB_2439

Some of the thousands of tons of rubble at Beng Mealea.

NJB_2432

Beng Mealea’s grounds were only recently cleared of landmines and opened to the public.

NJB_2447

Crumbling walls at Beng Mealea.

NJB_2470

It’s a bit of a fixer-upper…

NJB_2455

Need any more convincing that nature rules absolutely?

Please don’t misunderstand: the temples are absolutely amazing. Most were built during the 10th or 11th centuries, and the Angkor area once comprised the world’s largest city. The history and craftsmanship carved into this stone is palpable. But it’s also hot, crowded and dirty, and it’s essential to acknowledge that when you travel, you will probably visit some “touristy” spots.

Look past the trash and the hordes, close your eyes and imagine what life might have been like in these temple complexes over a thousand years ago. Birth and death and war and famine and joy and love would all exist then, just as it does today. The main challenge we as tourists face now is how to appreciate significant places like this while still preserving them for future generations. Is there really such a thing as sustainable tourism?

How things are made

Hi! We’re in Cambodia! Adjusting to southeast Asia’s extreme temperatures (currently 96°F with 43% humidity) after New Zealand’s temperate climate has been a bit of a shock, but we’re adapting. The key? Drinking plenty of water and a hotel with a pool. Plus, no heavy-duty touring activities (like dusty temples) between the intense hours of noon and 5PM. One must take good care of oneself when traveling.

NJB_2321.JPG

$29 a night gets you quite a bit of luxury in Siem Reap.

One of the benefits of traveling in less developed countries like Cambodia is often the opportunity to see things being made by hand that are almost always created by machine elsewhere. We participated in a tour that took us through small villages outside of Siem Reap where we had the chance to see incense, rice noodles, and tofu, among other things, all crafted by hand.

NJB_2608

This incredible woman has been making incense sticks since she was 15. She’s now 76.

NJB_2614

Scented bark, used as the base for the incense sticks.

Bark and other raw materials for the incense are collected from the surrounding area, then sifted and made into a paste with water. The paste is rolled around bamboo sticks, dusted and dried in the sun.

NJB_2609.JPG

61 years of making incense by hand might be the embodiment of mastering one’s craft.

NJB_2620

Dusting the incense sticks before they’re left to dry in the sun.

NJB_2613.JPG

The finished incense sticks are collected into bundles and sold at the market for ceremonial use at altars such as the one below.

NJB_2558

An altar at a village pagoda.

We stopped at a home in a village outside of Siem Reap where fresh rice noodles are made. As with most of the homes we visited, this business is a family affair, with everyone participating in the household’s livelihood.

NJB_2583

The dough for these noodles is simply finely ground rice and water.

NJB_2592

This contraption uses the well-known engineering theory of “playground seesaw” to knead and pound the dough in shallow pans.

NJB_2577

The noodle dough is placed in the cylindrical press and tamped down with a wooden plunger.

NJB_2584

The boy wasn’t heavy enough to weigh down the press, so another family member joined in.

NJB_2580

Noodles gently dropping into their hot bath.

The family’s press is a simple yet ingenious human-weighted device that forces the thick, dense dough through a metal sheet pricked with tiny holes, creating the thin noodles. The noodles are quickly cooked in boiling water, then removed and drained.

NJB_2590

Bundles are carefully weighed, although these women are so skilled and accurate that the scale probably isn’t even necessary.

NJB_2576

The noodle bundles are packed in bamboo-lined rattan baskets for transport to the market and local restaurants.

Another stop was a house near Siem Reap’s wholesale market where a local family makes fresh tofu. Batches and batches are made every day and sold at the market or to a multitude of small restaurants. The “production kitchen” is of course also the family’s home.

NJB_2525

The wood-fired stove used for heating the soymilk.

Tofu is made in a manner very similar to cheese: fresh soy milk is heated, a coagulant is added to curdle the milk, and the mixture is pressed to remove liquid.

NJB_2537

The hot soymilk curdles immediately after the coagulant is added. 

NJB_2526

The curd is drained through fabric before being placed in the press.

NJB_2527

The drained curd is placed in a tray and pressed to remove liquid. Note the clever use of a bottle jack!

NJB_2529

Finished tofu.

NJB_2531

Tofu cubes, ready for sale. Tofu is always stored in liquid (usually filtered water) to keep it fresh and moist. 

If you’re interested in making your own homemade tofu, start here!