Feb 03

Monday Memories: Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus in Syria

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria. March 2007.

The last time we were in Syria, back in 2009, there was a sense of optimism in the air. Or at least the illusion of optimism. New hotels, bars, restaurants, and boutiques had been popping up in the old towns of Damascus and Aleppo, and tourism – thanks to the magnificent castles, atmospheric souks, expansive Roman ruins, and compelling cuisine – was going through the roof.

The last time we visited Syria peace talks were underway with Israel, relations with Lebanon were warming up, and the liberalisation of the state-controlled economy was underway. Everyone we met was positive about the future, even those who didn’t support the regime.

The complexities of what followed in 2011 are for the historians to argue over, but for me every day that I see yet another image of needless death and destruction, while the West sits on its hands, breaks my heart  – particularly as I scroll though images of Syria from our work covering the country over the years.

When I was looking for some Dubai images the other day, I plugged in an old hard drive labelled “Crete, Cyprus, Turkey, UAE, Lebanon, Syria 08”. Those were some of the places we were covering for magazine stories and guide books that year.

We did a huge journey through Syria in 2008, spending six very intensive weeks of research and photography on the road, traversing the length and breadth of the country with a driver. We had travelled to the country a number of times before that road trip, the first time in 1999 and the last trip in late 2009.

Even to this day I don’t think that there are too many Western travel writers who have covered that much territory in Syria, apart from the guidebook writer who wrote the first edition of the guidebook that we were tasked with rewriting and combining with another book, which we would end up updating twice.

After some years covering the Middle East as travel writers, by the end of 2009 we were getting a little restless. The instability in the region was increasingly making it difficult to sell the sort of stories we wanted to write. It was only the Middle Eastern in-flight magazines commissioning us to do features, on everything from the jazz scene in Damascus to street food in Amman.

I can remember when we did a story on the flourishing bar scene in Beirut in 2005, which the editor of the magazine called “Beirut is Buzzing”. By the time the magazine hit the shelves in 2006 Beirut was buzzing with Israeli jet fighters.

While we increasingly wrote more on Europe from 2009 onwards (which we had been covering for years anyway) and we started to cover other parts of the world, including Asia, we hadn’t abandoned the Middle East. In fact we had a book deal with a major publisher on Syria that we were about to finalise when the troubles began.

As I recently scrolled through my selects (images that I think are worthy of publishing), I kept wondering about the people I photographed and where they are now. We have been in contact with some of our friends who were lucky enough financially and politically savvy enough to know when it was time to leave, but there were countless other people with whom we lost contact.

Whenever I look at this photo above, taken at the Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus, I wonder what happened to the mother and son who dominate the image. They look as if they are in awe at an aspect of the exquisite detail of what was one of the world’s most sumptuous mosques, as if they are visiting the Umayyad for the first time.

I imagine they must have had the same expression on their face when they saw the magnificent minaret – the minaret that is no longer there, thanks to the civil war.

The scars so visible at Syria’s historic sites – those that still stand – can never compare to the collective mental scars of the nation and its people. How can Syria ever rebuild after the war is over? It seems like an almost insurmountable task – a task that, sadly, is hard to imagine even starting any time in the near future.

This photo taken on 26.03.2007 with a backup camera, a Nikon D80, while my main camera at the time a Nikon D2X would have been on my other shoulder with my 17-55mm f2.8DX mounted. One of the reasons for using the D80 was that it was so much smaller than the D2X (Nikon’s huge flagship camera at the time) so I’d often put the D2X (nicknamed the ’soul stealer’) in my camera bag and just walk around with the D80 with a 50mm lens on, making me much less conspicuous.

Details: Nikon D80, 80-200mm f/2.8D Nikkor @ 170mm @ F3.5 @ 1/250th second @ ISO400.

Feb 02

Gaeng Hang Lay Moo Curry – Northern Thai Pork Belly Curry Recipe

Hanglay Mu or Gaeng Hang Lay. A Norther Thai Pork Belly Curry recipe.

Of all the curries in Thailand, this Northern Thai pork belly curry called Gaeng Hang Lay Moo must be the most decadent and moreish of all. It’s a red curry on spice steroids and the extra kick and spice, as well as the richness of the pork belly, make this one of my favourite Thai curries and the one I’ve been cooking this week for our Year of Asian Cookbooks project.

The geographic origin of Gaeng Hang Lay Moo — in its Thai form — is the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, beloved by Thais for its laidback atmosphere, arty vibe and fiery food. This, combined with its cooler weather and nearby mountains, has seen Chiang Mai become a popular retreat for well-off Thais and a home for Bangkok creative types seeking a tree-change.

However, it’s the earlier arrival of Indian traders bearing spices that is of interest here. Initially arriving in Chain Mai to trade textiles, their need for the classic Indian spices to satisfy a curry craving saw spices such as turmeric, fennel and cardamom become more commonly used in local Thai cooking.

With the use of these extra spices on top of a classic base red curry mix, there are many parallels with southern Thailand’s Massaman curry. Although the Hang Lay Moo recipe I am using here, by Bangkok-based Thai Chef Ian Kittichai of Issaya Siamese Club, does not contain mace, cinnamon and fenugreek, other dried spices that often appear in southern Massaman curries.

While the spices convey the influence of India and Malaysia, the origins perhaps are closer to the northern Thai border in Myanmar, where a pork curry called wet tha hin lay includes a sour component, just as the Thai version includes tamarind.

While there’s plenty of heat from the chillies in the curry mix, there’s also the added bite of the ginger — not normally an ingredient in Thai curries, where it’s lookalike, galangal, predominantly features.

Like many Thai curries, Gaeng Hang Lay Moo is a dish that was traditionally shared on special occasions due to the expense and time-consuming nature of making the recipe. Today it’s seen everywhere in Chiang Mai, in varying degrees of quality and numerous permutations when it comes to the spices used in the dish.

Like the best of the food from Northern Thailand, this dish packs an initial punch and lures you in after your taste buds have recovered from the first mouthful. Make a big batch, because it’s true that, like a Massaman curry, Gaeng Hang Lay Moo just tastes better on the second day.

Of interest in Chef Kittichai’s dish is the ingredient ma-khwaen or, more commonly, makhwaen. It’s a speciality of Chiang Rai, and is also found in the rest of Northern Thailand and Laos, where we had it in a jaow (dip). Its pods, used fresh and dry, are from a species of prickly ash trees.

Its botanical name, Zanthoxylum limonella, gives a hint that it has citrus notes, and the genus Zanthoxylum is the parent to the several varieties of trees that produce Sichuan pepper. While it doesn’t have that numbing effect so particular to Sichuan pepper, it packs a real peppery punch, cooled with those citrus notes.

In Chef Kittichai’s recipe it’s clearly used dried and you can find it in Bangkok as well as speciality stores outside Thailand that stock Thai, and specifically Northern Thai, ingredients. While you could substitute it for Sichuan pepper, the latter is such a distinct ingredient it may affect the balance of the dish.

During my research I found that there were many far simpler recipes of the dish and out of curiosity I made a couple of versions (the one pictured is one of them) but Chef Kittichai’s is far superior in flavour complexity. Although I do like to cook the pork out a lot more (two hours plus) than what the chef does in his recipe below.

The chef’s recipe only just cooks the pork out, but I found that giving the pork a really good sear and cooking it for at least three hours gave the best result, so that the pork had that fall-apart-with-a-fork quality. Because it’s pork belly, I found the meat still moist and delicious after a good four hours cooking. Really sublime flavours are generated using this method.

Also during my research, I noticed that many Gaeng Hang Lay Moo recipes — even those with an exhaustive list of ingredients — suggest making the curry paste in a food processor without even a passing reference to a mortar and pestle.

I’m not going to carry on about this in every curry or relish recipe this year, but as Chef David Thompson says in his Thai cooking tome Thai Food, making curry pastes in a mortar as pestle is “onerous and messy, but the result is quite superior”. See this post on how to use a mortar and pestle.

If you insist on taking the 120/240 volt route, a good tip from Chef Thompson is to use a blender, not a food processor. The narrow well of a blender is better suited to the paste coming together and the fact it has four blades makes it more efficient than ingredients being flung around in a wide-based food processor.

With the dried spices, if you’re not going to use a mortar and pestle, a coffee grinder or, obviously, a spice grinder, will do the trick.

This Gaeng Hang Lay Moo recipe may appear laborious, but the results are amazing.

Hanglay Mu (Northern Thai Pork Belly Curry)

Recipe based on Chef Ian Kittichai’s recipe from the Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook, used with permission.

To start this dish, you need to prepare chef’s Thai red curry paste first. Below is the second stage, producing the hanglay curry. I’ve modified the final recipe (bringing the curry and the pork together) for simplicity.

Gaeng (Kaeng) Hanglay Curry
Ingredients
20 g dried red finger chilli peppers
10 g turmeric fresh
10 g coriander seeds
10 g cumin seeds
12 g ma-khwaen (Thai prickly ash, optional)
90 ml vegetable oil
40 g ginger (young)
150 g of red curry paste (see recipe here)
1.5 l water
1 g salt
200 ml tamarind juice
20 ml fish sauce
50 g palm sugar
80 g garlic

Directions
1. In a dry pan, toast chilli peppers, turmeric, cumin, coriander seeds and ma-khwaen together on low heat for 10 minutes. Once cooled, finely grind in a mortar or use a food processor to blend smooth.
2. In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat oil and sauté the sliced ginger. Add the red curry paste and cook until the oil separates. Add water and ground spices.
3. Bring to a boil. Add salt, tamarind juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and garlic.
4. Simmer for an hour.
5. Curry can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Final Hanglay Mu dish preparation 
Ingredients
150 g Hanglay curry (see above)
200 g taro roots, diced,
200 g lotus roots, sliced
500 g pork belly*
50 g young ginger, julienned
5 g coriander sprigs

Directions
1. Boil taro roots and lotus roots in a pot of water until cooked (about 10 minutes). Drain and set aside.
2. Sear pork belly in a pan at high heat.
3. Pour curry into the pan until meat is covered and simmer on low heat for half an hour.
3. Add cooked roots to curry.
4. Ladle pork belly curry into serving bowls and garnish with coriander sprigs and young ginger.
5. Serve with steamed jasmine rice on the side.

* Chef gives no directions on how it should be sliced. I like to make cubes so each piece has that transition from the rind through the fatty layers through to the meat.

Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
+66 2 672 9040
www.issaya.com

CORRECTION: The recipe in the cookbook calls for ’200 ml fish sauce’, which would result in a salty, fishy disaster that even a hungry soi dog would reject. This has been amended to a more human friendly 20 ml. Chef Kittichai has confirmed it’s a typo in the book, but adds that fish sauce should always be added ‘to taste’.

This post is the latest in my Year of Asian Cookbooks project. Next up: a 120 year-old Geng Gari Gai aromatic Chiang Mai chicken curry recipe from Northern Thailand from Chef David Thompson of Nahm restaurant in Bangkok.

Feb 01

Travelling Responsibly – How To Shop Ethically and Sustainably

Garment workers leaving their factories, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

One of the easiest ways to travel more responsibly is to shop more sustainably and more ethically. Living in Cambodia, where the recent news has been dominated by garment worker strikes and the deaths and injuries of protestors – young people who slave for long hours making clothes and shoes for a pittance for some of the world’s biggest global brands – has led me to further evaluate how I spend my money.

Below you’ll find my tips on how to shop ethically and sustainably, when you’re away or at home. I’ve been following these for some years, however, I’m now also going to refrain from shopping at fashion brands I used to buy, such as Zara and H&M, until those companies demonstrate that the workers at their Cambodia factories are being paid fair wages that are sufficient to live on.

According to a study by UK-based Labour Behind the Label and the Phnom Penh-based Community Legal Education Centre, workers in Cambodia require a minimum of US$150 a month to cover basic needs. Those working for Zara, H&M, and other global fashion brands with factories in Cambodia, including Gap, Puma, Adidas, Nike, Debenhams, Next, Esprit, and Levi Strauss and others, haven’t been receiving that.

I monitored the news closely in Cambodia throughout December and January when young textile workers like those above were injured, died, or were detained during a brutal police crackdown while protesting for their right to fair payment for their work. Many of the global retailers I mentioned above signed letters condemning the government’s actions and the shootings that resulted in the deaths and injuries.

However, those big, rich, global retail companies came to Cambodia because the labour is cheap, they can make their products more cheaply here than anywhere else, and they can therefore reap far greater profits – off the backs of workers who can barely survive on the meagre wages they are paying them. They need to take greater responsibility here.

But it was a recent encounter with a former garment factory worker who now works in the travel industry that really brought home the situation for me as she described firsthand how she lived for several years. She described how she slaved for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, working overtime for a measly $5 monthly bonus, to take home a total of just $65 a month.

She told me that she only ever had a day off when she called in sick from exhaustion and she maintained that relentless pace for three years until she finally couldn’t take it anymore and found another job. If you find that story shockingly sad, I also recommend reading these firsthand accounts here on the Phnom Penh Post.

Catch the bus in or out of Phnom Penh early in the morning or in the evening and you can’t help but notice the young workers starting or ending their day at the garment factories on the dusty outskirts of Cambodia’s capital. As we were heading out of town on a day-trip a few months ago we saw the bleary-eyed young women, above, tumble out of trucks, tuk tuks and ox carts, and on our return to the city in the early evening we witnessed them wearily pile back on again.

Cambodians are generally a cheerful lot. We often say they seem to be the happiest people in the world because they are so generous with their smiles and salutations. We’ve met the poorest of the poor in villages outside Siem Reap and Battambang and even after a hard day in the rice fields they have beamed at us as they warmly welcomed us to their simple homes. Yet, the women above weren’t smiling. They looked exhausted and unhappy.

Until the government recently announced a raise of the garment workers’ minimum wage to US$100 a month, they were earning $75 minimum a month, and last year many of the 600,000 or so workers were earning as little as $60 a month or $2 a day. I have a hard time understanding how the workers can survive on so little.

In fact, the study I mentioned above (cited here) found that many garment workers suffer from malnutrition and fainting is common. At the time of writing, there appears to have been no real outcomes from the letters the global brands sent to the prime minister, and the more mass protests are scheduled for early February. Until these retailers can assure consumers that the workers who produce their clothes are earning more than the price of a shirt or pair of jeans each month, I’ll be spending my money elsewhere.

Here are my tips to how to shop ethically and shop sustainably whether you’re at home or away:

1. Buy Ethical Brands
Do some research and read the labels and tags on the clothes you buy to ensure you’re buying products that are ethically made. When we were in Paris, Christelle Bonnivard, who opened ethical boutique Mademoiselle Bambû after being inspired by the gorgeous garments she saw at an Ethical Fashion Show, said she only sells ‘ethical fashion’, that is, clothes, jewellery and accessories made by small independent designers who only use materials whose origins they know. “The products must respect the environment, respect human beings, and be 100% biologique (organic),” Christelle said. “In France we have a strict certification and standards system – the tags should say where the product was made, what it’s made from, and whether it is organic cotton or 100% biologique.” Look for similar information on tags, labels, in shops, on company websites, and online.

2. Support Fair Trade
Fair Trade goods are ethically made products that are produced and sold according to World Fair Trade Organization principles that require that education, training and employment opportunities be provided, that people be paid fairly, and that production be environmentally sustainable. When we were in Bali, for instance, we could have bought souvenirs at the markets, but we had no idea where they came from, whether child labour was used, and whether workers who made them were fairly treated. Instead we went to Ubud’s Threads of Life, which works with traditional weavers in villages too remote to benefit from tourism, helping to feed their families, educate their kids, train them, maintain their traditions, and enable their communities to prosper and grow. By shopping at Fair Trade businesses you’re helping too. To know whether a business is Fair Trade, look for stickers on shop windows and certificates on walls confirming their Fair Trade status.

3. Keep Traditions Alive
Wherever possible, try to seek out traditional crafts or at least contemporary applications of traditional techniques so that you are contributing to keeping traditions alive rather than contributing to their death. I like to give the example of the distinctive candy-striped Catalan textiles, Les Toiles Du Soleil or The Cloth of the Sun, produced in Saint Laurent de Cerdans in the French Pyrénées for over 150 years, which enlivens everything from espadrilles to shop awnings. Once, the entire village was devoted to the textile’s creation by traditional techniques, but as machine manufacturing expanded business declined. Fortunately, thanks to three designers working under the umbrella ‘Made in Céret’, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the fabric.

4. Shop Local and Buy Direct
Make a habit of asking staff in shops where things come from and quiz them about the source if you have any doubts as to the origin. By buying locally made products from local business owners, you know what you’re buying, and by buying direct from the source, from artists, designers and craftspeople, you know you’re directly supporting their work, helping to create demand for local products in a retail climate that increasingly favours cheap, mass-produced trinkets and clothes. Local small business owners tend to re-invest profits into their community, whereas foreign business owners tend to send it home, so shopping locally is much more sustainable as well as helping ensure places maintain their distinctive local character, the kind of character shaped by quirky one-of-a-kind shops like one of my favourites, Giovanna Canela Miranda’s Ave María In San Miguel de Allende, which specializes in quirky, kitsch and cool Mexicana. Everything is made in Mexico, the owner either commissioning Mexican artists or travelling around Mexico to source things directly from artisans and designers.

5. Be Eco-Friendly and Go Organic
When shopping for gifts and mementoes when you travel, look beyond souvenir shops. If you’re settling into a place for a while, buy organic produce at local markets. Wherever possible we always seek out farmers markets and buy local, seasonal, organic produce, which leaves a smaller environmental footprint than imported products that have been flown in or travelled considerable distance. I will always try to buy recycled, handmade and eco-friendly gifts whenever possible, such as these in Venice from Pied à Terre, which sells vibrant velvet slippers with soles made from recycled tyres inspired by those that peasant farmers once made from jute seed bags, bicycle tyres and recycled rags for gondoliers. I also love Dietro Langolo, owned by architects Federica Serena and Sylvia Saltarin who sell eco-friendly fashion, accessories and design objects made from recycled electric cable, silicon, candy wrappers, and fire hoses.

6. Choose Vintage
As we’ve travelled the world over the last decade or so I’ve been noticing vintage shops popping up everywhere, from Melbourne to Vienna, Edinburgh to Berlin. Wherever we go I like to ask locals to point me toward vintage stores and charity shops, which always tend to be located in more interesting inner-city areas. Buying vintage clothes for many is about creating an individual style statement from rare old pieces. I love buying clothes as souvenirs so that whenever I wear them I’m reminded of the place I discovered them. But what also I love about buying vintage when I travel is that if it was rare in the place I bought it, it’s highly unlikely I’m going to see anyone wearing it elsewhere. But most importantly, I’m recycling something old, which is far better than buying disposable fashion. Now, more than ever.

Resources I like:

Labour Behind the Label

Fashion Karma: 7 Steps to Shopping Ethically

Shopping with Ethics: A 5-Step Guide

Shop Ethical: Your Ethical Consumer Guide (Australia)

A Guide to Buying Sustainable, Fair Trade and Cruelty Free Clothing (US)

Shopping Guide to High Street Clothes Shops from Ethical Consumer (UK)

Slavery Footprint

Fashioning Change

Sustainable Table

Jan 31

Exploring the Lost City of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen Cambodia

Srah Damrie, Mount Kulen, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

We’ve been fielding questions about exploring the so-called lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen or Phnom Kulen in northern Cambodia, which we wrote about extensively last year, following the New York Times’ recent mention of it under a Siem Reap entry at #47 on its 52 Places to Go in 2014 list.

While the elephant statues, pictured above, are indeed impressive, there are no “majestic temples”, as described by the New York Times writer. Aside from those splendid animals and a handful of small dilapidated towers, the many archaeological sites on the mountain are in a ruinous state.

If you are expecting another Angkor Wat, Bayon or Beng Mealea you will be extremely disappointed. That’s why we don’t recommend that after seeing Angkor Wat you make a beeline for Phnom Kulen if you’re keen to see more of the same. In my Angkor Wat and Around in Three Days itinerary on The Guardian I suggest a drive there for the third day, after you’ve seen the star attractions, such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm, and you’re not yet templed-out.

A trip to explore Phnom Kulen, home to the ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata (that was never really lost, but read on) and a smattering of other atmospheric sights, as well as countless archaeological ruins, is as much about the journey of getting there as the experience of seeing the sites themselves.

There’s a real sense that you’re on an adventure of discovery as you bounce along the plateau on the backs of motorbikes, seeking out hidden archaeological sites buried deep within jungle forest, seemingly ‘secret’ mountaintop villages that suddenly pop out of nowhere, and isolated pagodas, monasteries and secluded shrines. Here’s the story of our first visit to the remote plateau and it’s even more isolated sights.

Exploring the Lost City of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen

The silhouette of an enormous, squat, snake-like figure that seemed to be slithering along the surface of the earth suddenly appeared to emerge from the rice fields. Was I seeing things in the dark? I rubbed my bleary eyes, for I’d not long been awake.

It was pitch black when our Cambodian guide Raftanak arrived at 5am in an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicle to collect Terence and I from our hotel overlooking the river in Siem Reap, the city that’s a popular base for exploring the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat and other spectacular archaeological sites in the area.

The night before I’d fallen asleep with a book on pre-Angkorian history that told the folk-story of Kaundinya, a Brahman prince from a solar dynasty of Indian origin, who had arrived in the area and threw his javelin to identify the site of his future capital. That decision made, he married a snake-woman called Soma (moon), the daughter of the naga or cobra king, thereby uniting the solar and lunar dynasties. So maybe I was dreaming.

Thirty minutes later, as the sun began its rise from behind the mountain, its light piercing the low-lying clouds above, a strange phenomenon had me rubbing my eyes once more.

Enormous pink, peach, apricot, and gold puffs of cloud rose in a formation resembling smoke signals from old Hollywood cowboy and Indian movies, then disappeared as quickly as they had came.

The sun illuminated the sky and the countryside between the road and mountain range, revealing clusters of coconut palms and ramshackle wooden huts on spindly stilts reflected in the still waters of the sodden rice paddies.

“Is that Phnom Kulen?” I asked Raftanak, pointing to the python-like plateau. ‘Phnom’ means ‘mountain’ in Khmer.

“Yes, that’s Phnom Kulen – Mountain of the Lychees!” he confirmed, his white teeth glowing in the dimly lit interior of the car, as he turned to face us in the backseat.

“It’s our holy mountain,” he announced proudly, “Our ancestors called it Mahendraparvata, Mountain of Indra, King of the Gods.”

Indra was also the Hindu king of men, the god of the sky and rain and prosperity, who was frequently seen with his steed, the elephant Airavata, often depicted with three heads. Yet it was the gods Shiva and Vishnu who were more important to indigenous Khmers, who adopted the Indian deities easily to worship alongside their own.

Shiva, to whom many temples were dedicated, was supreme protector of the empire, responsible for the kingdom, while Vishnu was protected universal order and harmony. Shiva was identified by his three eyes, representing the sun, moon and fire, the trident in his hand, and the ox that carried him.

Vishnu carried a wheel-like chakra, club, conch, and a ball representing the earth, and rode a half-eagle half-man garuda.  The Khmers worshipped Shiva in the form of a linga, a stone phallus that represented the essence of the god that was mounted on a pedestal representing a yoni, a woman’s organ, and it was the focus of ceremonies conducted by Brahman priests.

We were headed for Phnom Kulen to see what we could find of what was left of Mahendraparvata, for it was on the mountain that the Khmer Empire was founded in AD 802, when a Brahmin priest performed a ritual that made Jayavarman II ‘universal monarch’ of what would become one of Asia’s most powerful empires.

The young prince Jayavarman II had initially established his capital at Hariharalaya, now known as Roluos, not far from what is now Siem Reap, before moving it some 30km or so northeast to Phnom Kulen, and then some years later moving it back down to the shores of the Great Lake, where he ruled until his death in 835.

Until recently, archaeologists working on the mountain had long suspected the ruins scattered across the plateau of isolated vine-covered towers, massive moss-covered statues of elephants and lions, and sprawling carvings of lingas lying on the bottom of the streams, among other sites, suggested that Phnom Kulen was the location of Mahendraparvata.

Inscriptions on porticoes and stelae found at archaeological sites across the Khmer Empire, many now on display in the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, also supported this. But according to our guide, Kulen’s locals residing in the nine villages that dot the plateau had always known this was the case – the people of Mahendraparvata had been their ancestors, after all.

However, it wasn’t until July 2012 when Australian archaeologists Dr Damian Evans and Dr Roland Fletcher of Sydney University watched the results of a hi-tech airborne survey that Evans had spearheaded unfurl before their eyes, that there was finally confirmation that Mahendraparvata was buried beneath the heavy vegetation that blanketed Phnom Kulen.

Not only that, but the data on their computer screen in the form of precise digital models revealed that Mahendraparvata was far larger than anyone could ever have predicted – as was Angkor Wat.

Collected by a laser instrument known as LiDAR that had been strapped to a helicopter that criss-crossed 370 square kilometers of Khmer Empire archaeological sites, the data confirmed what Fletcher and other archaeologists had surmised some years before.

Angkor was one monumental, highly engineered urban landscape, one without parallel in the pre-industrial world, and Phnom Kulen, along with Koh Ker, another remote ruinous city that had been included in the survey, were probably later incorporated into the conurbation as service cities.

Phnom Kulen after all was resource-rich, the source of the spring water that flowed down the mountain into the Siem Reap River and along streams and canals to the massive barays and smaller ponds built to store water for the colossal city.

The mountain was also home to the quarries that provided the stone that built stupendous Angkor Wat and other temple cities, and skilled artisans and craftsmen who carved the elaborately decorated stonework and exquisite statues.

It wasn’t until June 2013, when a peer-review process was completed of the report on the findings, authored by Evans, Fletcher and others from a consortium of archaeological groups – including Cambodia’s APSARA authority, which manages Angkor – that the news was publicly released.

Terence and I had returned to Siem Reap at the time and had already revisited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other temples, including the Roluos group, but we hadn’t been to Phnom Kulen and were eager to experience the mysterious Mahendraparvata about which so little was known.

Half an hour after the sun rose – the 32-kilometre long plateau teasing us each time it came into view on the way there, reeling us in closer with its history, myths, legends, and its recent news – we reached the base of the 492-metre high mountain. It was another hour of measured driving over a rough road, cracked and pot-holed from monsoon rains, to the River of A Thousand Lingas.

There we met APSARA Authority archaeologist, Mr Hak, who was responsible for maintaining the Phnom Kulen sites, and we hopped on behind local guides on motorbikes who Raftanak organized to take us on a daylong bone-rattling ride to see some dozen sights. The additional guides were needed because much of Phnom Kulen, once a Khmer Rouge stronghold, was still riddled with landmines.

While few foreign tourists explore the plateau of Phnom Kulen – Raftanak and his moto-guys do the trip on average twice a month – the River of A Thousand Lingas, its waterfalls, and the nearby massive 16th-century reclining gold Buddha carved out of solid rock at Preah Ang Thom is a popular destination.

Buddhist pilgrims, picnicking families and groups of friends, along with expats, come here looking for respite from Siem Reap’s sticky heat. Other than that, only the occasional hikers, dirt-bike enthusiasts and bird-watchers visit.

We went to Phnom Kulen to see the sites few people see, so after photographing the carved lingas that lay beneath the water as best as we could, we were on our way, bouncing along rough tracks, volcanic rocks and muddy courses. We crossed dilapidated wooden bridges and whizzed through rapidly flowing streams.

We climbed slippery clay hillsides and hiked narrow trails lined with towering trees. We puttered along routes through thick forest only our guides could identify, and when none existed they carved out one with a scythe. That was our routine for the day, each arduous journey ending with a reward.

We gazed in awe at gigantic stone elephants and lions resting in the dappled light at Srah Damrei (Elephant Pond) and a massive moss-covered elephant at Damrei Krap (Kneeling Elephant). Time and again, we wearily alighted from the bikes in a shaded clearing only to be startled to life by the appearance of a solitary temple or trio of towers hidden beneath foliage.

There were the tumbledown brick temples of O’Thma, Prasat Neak Ta and Prasat Chrei, surrounded by long grass and grown over with shrubs, some decorated, others bare, their riches having been stolen long ago. At the latter we felt like Indiana Jones when we discovered a lintel, adorned with lotus flowers, abandoned to the undergrowth.

The most impressive site was the lone tangerine-coloured temple tower of Prasat O’Paong, tufts of long grass sprouting between its bricks. Also enchanting were the carvings of Shiva, Vishnu and a row of rishis (wise men) on immense lichen-covered boulders at Poeng Tbal, where we got caught in torrential rain. 

But the most special experience was not the most impressive visually.

After scrambling over the tumbledown remains of the laterite three-tiered pyramid temple of Prasat Rong Chen, we arrived at the top at the very pedestal that had held the linga that marked the place where the Brahman priest performed the rite that made Jayavarman II absolute monarch.

The photos I took aren’t much to look at. There were no enormous statues or intricate carvings. It was enough to know that this was the birthplace of the Khmer Empire.

When to go to Mount Kulen

The best time to visit Mount Kulen is December to February when the skies are clear and humidity and rainfall are at their lowest (but unfortunately crowds are at their peak). March to May is also good, but this is when it’s hottest and the heat builds up until monsoon starts. There are still the odd heavy showers and oppressive humidity.

Closer to monsoon, short showers are welcomed although downpours can inhibit your temple scrambling as the stones get slippery. June to November is monsoon season when there’s every chance of heavy rain and localised flooding, especially up at Mount Kulen. Things get very wet and muddy and many tracks are impassable. You can read more about the monsoon season in Cambodia here.

How to get to Mount Kulen

You can visit Phnom Kulen on a long day trip from Siem Reap. We recommend leaving in the darkness so the sun is rising as you get there for the best light.

We travelled with Backyard Travel a couple of times on something of a bespoke adventure that we developed with the company, guided by the temples we had wanted to see on our first trip, and by local archaeologist Hak on the second.

Backyard Travel runs a one-day Kulen Discovery Tour, which covers what we think is the best of what we saw over a few trips. It includes return transfers from Siem Reap to Phnom Kulen, entry tickets, motorbike hire, guides and lunch for US$160/UK£90 per person, based on two travelling together. Backyard Travel can also organize longer trips covering all the sites we visited, or shorter tours only covering the more popular sights.

This is the only tour company we have used to explore Mount Kulen so it’s the only one we can recommend until we test out others.

If you decide to go it alone you can hire your own moto drivers when you get there, but they speak little English. You’ll get more out of it with a guide. Either way, you shouldn’t simply wander off on your own and start slashing your way through the jungles looking for temples as parts of the Phnom Kulen plateau are still riddled with landmines. If you do a hike, stick to the well-worn paths.

What to read about Mount Kulen

There is little information in travel guidebooks about Mount Kulen. For more information on the history and period see Angkor and the Khmer Civilization by Michael D Coe (Thames & Hudson, 2004), widely available in Siem Reap.

For more on the LiDAR survey and its results see our other stories in The Guardian, on CNN Travel, and in National Geographic Traveller (UK), based on interviews with Dr Damian Evans, Roland Fletcher and other archaeologists working around Angkor, and trips into the field.

You might also find our guide to experiencing Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples helpful. We’ll soon be adding guides here on Grantourismo to some of the more off the beaten track temples, such as Koh Ker.

A shorter version of the story above appeared in Wanderlust magazine in October 2013.

Jan 30

Firecrackers, Marigolds, Lucky Money: Celebrating Lunar New Year, Tet and Chinese New Year

A ferry transports marigolds, a symbol of good luck for celebrating Tet. Hoi An, Vietnam. ©Copyright Terence Carter 2014. All rights reserved.

The pop and crackle of Lunar New Year firecrackers going off around our Siem Reap neighbourhood over the past few days has punctuated the otherwise uninterrupted soundtrack outside of birdsong, motorbikes, barking dogs, crowing roosters, laughing tourists, and “Tuk tuk? You want tuk tuk, Madam?”

A few hardware shops at Old Market have been selling potted cherry blossom trees and red Chinese lanterns, but otherwise there were few signs that the Lunar New Year was approaching – until today, New Year’s Eve. The new Lunar New Year – and Chinese New Year – begins tomorrow, Friday 31 January, the start of the Year of the Horse.

Today began early with the hum of monks chanting at nearby wats (temples) and a steadily increasing pop and crackle throughout the day until an hour ago, when proper fireworks went off a few blocks away with a bang. Now? I can hear the tuk tuk drivers playing drinking games and Cambodia disco music in the distance.

The Khmer New Year – or Chal Chnam Thmey – actually takes place on the traditional Solar New Year over three days in April, when it’s also celebrated in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and parts of India. The Cambodians, however, love a party, and have been embracing holidays like they’re going out of style.

On our New Year’s Eve here in Siem Reap, there were far more Khmers dancing in the streets than foreigners. I read in a story today that a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture said that the “Universal New Year” was the third biggest celebration in Cambodia after the Khmer New Year. The second most important, while not an official holiday, was the Chinese New Year.

Cambodians without Chinese ancestry are celebrating because they believe it will bring them good luck, prosperity, and the natural consequence of that – happiness. If you’ve been through what Cambodians have been through then you’d be setting off firecrackers at every opportunity too.

Of course, many Cambodians are of Chinese descent. The Chinese Association in Cambodia estimates there are some 700,000 Cambodian descendants of Chinese heritage, although you don’t realise it until holidays such as these when all of a sudden your travel agent stops answering emails, your neighbours have pulled down their shutters on their shops and homes, and even your tuk-tuk driver has gone on holidays. Fortunately in Cambodia it’s only for a few days.

Across the border in neighbouring Vietnam, where the holiday is called Tet, the Vietnamese have been preparing for a couple of weeks. There, official Tet Holiday began a couple of days ago so people could start the trek back to their hometowns and villages to begin helping their families with preparations.

In Vietnam Tet is the most important holiday of the year, so they’ll celebrate Vietnamese New Year tonight, Vietnamese New Year tomorrow, and then take another five days off to spend with their families and close friends before making the journey back to their place of residence and work.

At roughly the same time last Lunar New Year – I can’t say “this time twelve months ago” because the Lunar New Year dates shift according to the Lunar Calendar – we were in Hanoi and then Hue while they were bustling with preparations for the holiday.

Everywhere, shops were selling vibrant red and gold lanterns, Chinese couplets, paper-cut decorations, red envelopes (to hold gifts of money) and fake flowers. People were buying new clothes and busy cleaning every inch of their homes.

After, they hide the brooms and cleaning products for a few days to prevent the good luck from being swept from the house. At nearly every eatery we ate at or shop we went to in Hue, we saw family members arrive with plastic bags full of fresh bottles of cleaning products, new cloths and sponges, and brand new brooms, ready to begin scrubbing their businesses until they were spotlessly clean. Some also had tins of paint and brushes to slap on a new coat even if it wasn’t needed.

We arrived in Hoi An two days before New Year’s Eve, to witness last minute purchases of cherry blossom and marigold trees – it’s also the Spring Festival, according to the Lunar New Year – and see dozens of the trees crammed onto ferry boat after ferry boat, along with scores of people and motorbikes. As if the things weren’t overloaded as it was.

The most bizarre sight during Tet that for me has become the quintessential image of the holiday is that of a motorbike buzzing through the streets with tall potted flower and orange trees strapped on behind. The quintessential smell is incense, which locals light for their ancestors at a shrine they decorate more elaborately than usual with fruit, fake money, rice wine or bottles of liquor, and plates of food.

We spent New Years Eve strolling around the crammed streets of candle-lit Hoi An until an hour before midnight when we hired a boat belonging to a smiling old lady so Terence could capture the reflection of the fireworks on the water. She rowed us around for a while and it was magic – so still, just us and a handful of others on the water, while the riverbanks were jammed with people.

A short time before midnight the old lady stopped at the dock so we could dash to a toilet, which fortuitously happened to be where her family – her daughter and grandkids – were waiting to board. We didn’t mind one bit. Just minutes before the fireworks crackled directly above us the sky opened up and it began to rain, and it rained so hard we all got absolutely drenched.

I didn’t quite figure out whether our soaking was good luck or bad luck. I guess it must have been a good omen, as it wasn’t a bad year. Let’s hope for the same again. I’m off to hide the brooms.

Happy Year of the Horse!

You might also like to read Terence’s reflections on Photographing Tet Celebrations in Hoi An.

Older posts «

» Newer posts