woman with live spider and very dead fowl in the bowl

I generally like my bugs to remain at a distance. That especially applies to arachnids, which I prefer far, far away from my person or, maybe behind glass in a terrarium at some zoo’s insect house.

But some Cambodians like their spiders up close and personal, preferably on a plate, deep fried and steaming, with competing but oddly complementary textures — crispy legs balancing the more fleshy, gooey abdomen.

Cambodians have a higher threshold than us weak-stomached westerners when it comes to food – especially the once-living kind – and its presentation. While we like our meats shrink-wrapped and filleted, usually bearing little resemblance to the original animal, Cambodians are brutally honest about where their protein comes from – likely in part is because refrigeration is a luxury many can’t afford so fresh meat means keeping it alive as long as possible before chowing down.

Here you see big slabs of bloody meat lying out in the markets under the tropical sun, or tables piled high with severed pig heads and hooves, baskets full of gasping fish waiting for the relentless cleaver of a market woman doing her thing on the pavement inches away from passing scooters and pedestrians. Often you’ll see whole bodies of steer driven through with a spit and left roasting on busy intersections. Last year, I was offered frog-kabob by a roadside seller. I politely declined.

Dig in. There's plenty for everyone

This year, on a weekend trip to the town of Kompong Cham, about two hours by car north of Phnom Penh, my friend and I noticed we were passing through Skuon, Cambodia’s fried spider capital. I lobbied for a stop, to notch up the food revulsion response. Pig heads and piles of mysterious innards had become old hat.

Skuon has learned to capitalize on its notoriety. The little town has erected a sign that has a sculpture of two big spiders at its base. We pulled into a little market a little further down the road and the driver pointed to our left. Sure enough, there was a woman carrying a bowl piled high with a blackish, leggy mass – tarantulas, ready for the eatin’.

Of course, the sight of two westerners getting out of a car and gawking brought over a swarm of sellers, mostly young girls, some of whom spoke surprisingly good English.  While I was snapping away at the bowl of crispy critters, and the fried crickets nearby, a girl’s voice behind me said, “Here, do you want to hold it?” I turned around and inches from my face was a live one, a tarantula taking up most of her palm, starting a journey up her wrist.

'They're sweet, really'

I erupted with a “Whoa! No, no, no thanks” while simultaneously jumping back about a foot. “But they can’t bite, look,” she said, turning it over and showing how the tips of the spider’s fangs had been cut off. The spider then made its way up to her neck while she tried to convince me to take it off her. My courage failed me. I bought some bananas and pineapple from her. The spider and I remained physically unacquainted.

Not every Cambodian likes to snack on spiders; some find the thought as disgusting as my western palate does. Some sources say the delicacy is a recent phenomenon, perhaps arising from the desperation of the Khmer Rouge years, when people were starving and would eat anything they could get their hands on.

The spiders are harvested from their underground burrows with long sticks. I saw a big bucket of live ones, for sale as well, I guess, to some industrious cook who will fry them up in oil with maybe some garlic and salt, perhaps some sugar.

The taste? I don’t know. Some say chicken; some say prawns. I’ve read the legs are best, but then I heard one man say the moist and juicy abdomen is the real delight – if you like your snack time to feature appendages filled with a slushy paste of organs, eggs and most likely, excrement. I’ll stick with Doritos for now.

Caption

Infinity pool

To mark the half-way point of the workshop in Phnom Penh, my colleague and I had decided to take a weekend trip down south to Kep, a sleepy little place on the Gulf of Thailand and just a stone’s throw from the Vietnamese border. (See slide show below.)

A luxury resort tucked away on the coast, fresh seafood and a respite from the capital’s traffic for a few days were refrains of a siren song I had no interest in resisting.

Our driver picked us up on Friday morning and slowly made our way out of the city, heading south past various government ministries, including one that used to be the American embassy, and which was the scene of a hasty US evacuation just days before the Khmer Rouge took the city in 1975.

As we got further from the center, the constant swirl of scooters, cars, carts, bicycles and pedestrians that make up the city’s streets began to thin out. Buildings were replaced by small plots of land and then the landscape opened up to reveal large rice paddies, watery green carpets of spindly stalks.

Hygiene hazard

Hygiene hazard

As Phnom Penh receded, so did those city scenes of young Cambodians on scooters chatting on mobile phones and hulking Lexus SUVs daring any other vehicle to impede their way. Country concerns took over. Scooters here might be loaded with precariously balanced pig carcasses or even live ones, on their way to a meeting with the butcher’s knife.

Twice small motorbikes passed from the other direction with what looked like, from a distance, big bunches of dark foliage tied to a pole balanced behind the driver. They were dead chickens, a lot of them.

Out here, more men and women were wearing the krama, the traditional Cambodian checked scarf that can be used as head covering, sarong, bag, washrag, towel or blanket. Houses got humbler, many up on stilts in the midst of the paddies, some not more than thatched walls and a roof. Often a family would be gathered under it, one or two people in a hammock, others sitting around talking, holding babies, just taking refuge from the tropical sun.

Car-side service

Car-side service

In the villages we passed, small, ramshackle shelters housed shops selling cigarettes and gasoline decanted from old soft-drink bottles. Pigs and dogs ambled among customers of the open-air butcher shops, surely eyeing the large hunks of bloody meat hung on hooks.

On one section of road, roadside stands offered a local delicacy, frog. Smaller ones were a kind of finger food, I suppose, kind of like the fried tarantula other regions are known for. Here, the larger amphibians came bunched on a spit: frogkabob. We politely declined when offered one at the car window.

Kep-on-Sea

Kep was not always the quiet, you-can-hardly-call-it-a-town kind of place it is today. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a swanky resort town for the French colonials and Cambodian elites. It was known as Kep-sur-Mer, here the French built large villas along the waterfront and King Sihanouk had a mansion built on a hill overlooking the Gulf.

But as the country descended into civil war and then into full-on living nightmare, Kep was dragged down too. Eerie reminders of that rise and fall are scattered about in the form of those once-grand villas, whose ruins still stand – quiet witnesses of the Khmer Rouge’s lust for destruction.

Ideological victim

Ideological victim

Since the buildings were seen as examples of bourgeois decadence, they were gutted and burned by the radical egalitarians in their red kramas and black pajamas, and left for the jungle to retake. Where their residents went is unknown to me. Probably some got out of the country before the KR came; others perhaps were not so lucky and ended up in a work camp or those notorious fields.

Some of the villas have disappeared all together, only a gate and stone fence on prime real estate remaining. Others just stand there, crumbling, too far gone to be brought back to life. And besides, superstition prevents many Cambodians from doing much of anything with them. Places where bad things happened are to be avoided.

In fact, the region around Kep was one of the last hold-outs of the Khmer Rouge. One man told us that as late as the mid-90s, Khmer Rouge fighters would occasionally emerge from their jungle hideouts to rob and pillage and generally terrorize everyone.

Paradise regained

However, some buildings in Kep have been saved and been brought back quite spectacularly, including a few at the most fabulous resort we stayed at, Knai Bang Chatt. It preserves some of the flavor of what I imagine Kep to have been in its heyday, a little sliver of paradise by the sea.

Two Belgian men found several buildings that had been built by students of Cambodia’s leading architect, Vann Molyvann, who was himself a student of the European modernist masters.  As one of the current owners is the son of a well-known Belgian interior designer, as you probably suspect, the design concept is not exactly High Holiday Inn.

Resort with a view

Resort with a view

The rooms are simple, almost sparse, but lovely – filled with ochre surfaces, cool tiles, and small touches such as a pitch-perfect bowl or rough hewn table that keep them from being cold and unfeeling.

The landscape is lush, and spills down to the sea side, crossing an infinity pool on the way along with lounging beds and a breakfast table perched out almost on top of the water.

Next door is a sailing club with a former fisherman’s house that is now a restaurant/café, from whose deck we saw one of the most amazing sunsets ever (and I don’t usually gush about these things).

Needless to say, we hung around the grounds most of the time, completely satisfied by the surroundings. I got a class ‘a’ sunburn because I am a class ‘a’ idiot and spent a great deal of time in the pool sans sunscreen trying to figure out why I look like a fish out of water when I’m in it trying to swim.

Old Spice

Sunday rolled around and as a last outing we hopped in a tuk-tuk and asked to see a pepper plantation. The region’s pepper is supposed to be some of the best anywhere. But who knows how pepper is grown? I sure didn’t.

Fruits of the harvest

Fruits of the harvest

So, under a scorching sun, we bounced down a dirt path off the main road and came upon a collection of thatch-and-wood shelters, a few mangy dogs and a hen and her chicks pecking around – Tara it wasn’t.

But all around were mango trees and tall, leafy columns that turned out to be pepper vines on poles. Our driver told us to eat some of the green berries off the vine. The taste was sharp and intense and stayed with me for several hours.

Mouths tingling, we set off to look around a bit. As I was heading back to the tuk-tuk, sweating gallons, I heard a sudden noise behind me. I turned around to see a teenage boy in a red krama holding something coming my way. I think I let out an audible gasp as visions of gun-toting teen soldiers, brainwashed and merciless, flashed in my head. The guy just smiled, whirled his stick, and walked on by.

I made a mental note to read no more books on the Khmer Rouge, at least while I’m here.

IMG_5796I didn’t have any idea about Mongolia’s capital before coming here — I mean, who does? Ulaanbaatar is far removed from, well, pretty much everything. It’s light years away from the Paris-London-Barcelona tourist circuit and even those who do venture further afield generally don’t make it as far north as the world’s coldest national capital. And after being here a week and a half, I can see why.

I don’t want to be unfair. This windswept city on the steppe emerged from seven decades of communism less than twenty years ago. Seventy years of Soviet-style city planning and architecture would take the shine off just about anything. But, my god, UB (what those in the know call the city) takes being dreary, dowdy and down-at-heel to new heights, or lows, as the case may be. I wonder what the proud Chinggis Khaan (the current spelling of Mongolia’s national hero, Genghis Khan) would think of the administrative and cultural capital of the country that descends from his massive Mongol empire – at his death, it stretched from the Caspian Sea to today’s Vladivostok. Well, truth be told, UB didn’t even exist when he was around. All the better.

A fairly representative apartment building

A fairly representative apartment building

I’m not recommending saying no to a trip to Mongolia – the countryside is spectacular. The wide steppe—startling, empty landscapes rolled out under a towering sky broken by occasional herds of sheep and horses—is overflowing with austere beauty. But the built landscape, that’s another thing. I’d relish a week out on the steppe, living in one of the traditional yurts, the round, felt tents that many Mongolians, especially those still living a nomadic lifestyle, call home. I’d even put up with the boiled meat and dairy products that make up the traditional diet for a while.  But I’d likely give the capital, something of a sore on that mightily impressive landscape, a pass.

What to say? It’s mostly a collection of concrete, prefab buildings in various states of disrepair, dropped around crumbling sidewalks and murderous traffic. Once you get maneuver the open manholes and rock-strewn walkways, its takes a powerful death wish to attempt crossing any street. Drivers actually appear to speed up when approaching pedestrians and one more than one occasion I’ve almost been taken out by a packed city bus whose driver took a corner like he was trying to keep his lead in some urban Grand Prix.

IMG_5395

Crossing the street is like a real-life game of "Frogger"

The ugliness of some of the city is actually oppressive, and not just to the effete aesthete whose idea of nirvana is sipping espresso among the lovingly restored medieval buildings of Paris’ 4th arrondissement (err…not referring to me, of course). Once I spent the better part of a lunch break looking for a café to get a break from the meaty, greasy stuff that Mongolian cooks at the Press Institute provide. It was apparently just around the corner from where we’re working, in a particularly unattractive corner of this unattractive city.

After spending half an hour tripping over crumbling concrete, dodging accelerating vehicles, squinting at faded street signs in Cyrillic mounted precariously on cracking facades, I gave up, and got back to an interior as soon as I could (almost losing a foot to a car in the process), anxious to leave behind the urban landscape outside. All the better, again, since I later learned the last trainer to find that particular café spent the next two days on the toilet.

Best to ignore the ground and focus the gaze upwards

Best to ignore the ground and focus the gaze upwards

The city of one million (which got its current name, “Red Hero,” from the socialists in 1924) is ringed by mountains, which are lovely. The city is growing fast, since many traditional nomads are finding they can no longer sustain themselves herding animals, so they move to the city and further strained the creaking infrastructure. (About one-third of the country’s population lives here.) UB is ringed with these new settlements, ramshackle collections of yurts, or gers, and small houses, often without electricity or plumbing or much of anything. They are heated with coal and I’ve heard that in the winter, the city lives under a thick blanket of smoke. That, in combination with temps that drop to -40 degrees, is a concoction that must be pure hell.

It's dinner time!

It's dinner time!

And the food…don’t get me started. Perhaps consuming fatty, boiled meat all winter and dairy products all summer was a diet that appealed to Chinggis’ marauding armies or sheep-herding nomads eking out an existence in a hostile climate, but I and my heart don’t want any part of it.

Still, there’s some great cashmere sweaters and blankets to be had. We’ve met some very cool Mongolians, who are trying to make the most of a difficult situation. Corruption is rampant in the country and is hindering development. The global economic crisis has snaked its way into the steppe, with crashing demand for costly cashmere hitting herders hard. But democracy is established, the country is eager to overcome its geographic isolation and join the international community. And, UB now has two vegetarian restaurants. Things are looking up.

We met some Australian women who have been here working in Ulaanbaatar for about a year. They took us out on a trip to the countryside on the weekend. One of them summed it up for me: “Well, UB is kind of a shithole, and I probably won’t ever be back. But in the end, I’m glad I came.”

Welcome to this blog, which I’ve decided to start keeping to keep track of the various things I see on my various travels, which have been very frequent these days. Not that I’m complaining. Jumping on a plane headed to some hitherto unknown region of the world is about my favorite thing ever, well, maybe after chocolate-covered raisins. But it’s a close race. Anyway, I’ve been back in Berlin for a full 11 days. Time to hit the road again.

Even though, I’m not 100% sure I’ve gotten completely over the stress/aggravation from the India assignment, but no matter, duty calls and today I’ve been engaged in the time-honored and, at this point, slightly repetitive exercise of packing the old suitcase.

I know I forgot something...

I know I forgot something...

The ritual becomes easier the more you do it…be sure to throw the three chargers in there somewhere; dispense with the jeans, which don’t really work in Asia’s torrid climes; keep the outer pockets of the suitcase empty, since some baggage handler (I assume) once stole some dirty socks out of them; and then, pull at least two items you’ve already packed out of the thing. Discipline!

Today’s destination, after what will surely be a cramped day and a half on three different flights in economy class, is Macau. Once the jewel in the Portuguese crown, today’s it’s the Vegas of the Orient. Colonized by Lisbon in the 16th century, it is now one of China’s Special Administrative Regions, the other being Hong Kong.

Apparently Macau’s industries include electronics, textiles and toys … but really, it’s all about the slots. The gambling industry is huge there, and three years ago, revenues from it surpassed those in Las Vegas. The crème de la crème of this development is the Venetian Macau, a 10,500,000-square-foot behemouth modeled on The Venetian in Las Vegas. It’s apparently the largest single structure hotel building in Asia and the second-largest building in the world.

The Opulence! The Kitsch! -- maybe some of both

The Opulence! The Kitsch! -- maybe some of both

Haven’t seen it yet, but there are reportedly canals and singing gondoliers and miles and miles of hallways, casinos and surely the best entertainment this side of Saigon.

Beyond the roulette wheels and craps tables, there is supposed to be another side of Macau. Under the shiny Vegasesque sheen is the old Portuguese Macau, with the fortresses, churches and the cuisine of  its former colonial masters. But we’ll see how this more genteel world of the past has fared in the face of hordes of mainland Chinese looking for a jackpot, a hotel buffet and some Wayne Newton-style entertainment.

In the face of the current economic crisis, Macau’s tourist numbers must be down. I’m fine with that, since this city of a little over 500,000 saw more than 30 million visitors last year. That’s a lot of track suits.