May 14, 2012

Tonle Sap

The Southeast Asian equivalent of North America's Great Lakes is the Tonle Sap, a mammoth freshwater lake spanning nine Cambodian provinces and its neighbouring nations. The lake functions as the beating heart of Cambodia, shrinking and swelling according to the seasons. During the monsoon season the lake expands from 2700 square kilometers to almost 16,000 square kilometers, rising 8 metres higher than dry season. Water cascades into Tonle Sap from the Mekong River like Americans into a Taco Bell restaurant in Seoul.

Tonle Sap can be poetically translated from Khmer as "Large Freshwater River". The major source of protein in the average Cambodian's diet consists of fish caught here. The Cambodian currency, riel, is even named after a certain type of fish. Apart from being critical to Cambodia's economy, the Tonle Sap is also spectacularly beautiful. I hired a boat to explore this UNESCO biosphere for several hours, stopping by at a fishing village.

The locals reside in stilted homes designed to survive the ecological phenomenon of a lake whose direction of flow changes twice a year. I stepped off of my boat onto a stilted platform. Crocodiles snapped their massive jaws at me from an opening underneath. I wandered around, stopping briefly to examine a bottle of snake wine, before hopping back to the safety of my boat.

The lake provides both fertile ground for farming and plentiful fish for eating. With fishing and agriculture the mainstays of their life, ecotourism provides another source of steady income for the Cambodians. All visitors, irregardless of whether they happen to be selfless heroes dedicated to the cause of alleviating global inequity through education, are encouraged rather vigorously by the boatmen to purchase supplies from the local shops and donate them to one of the orphanages or schools in the vicinity.

May 06, 2012

Heads of State

Five thousand years ago the first Yandi ("Flame Emperor") ascended the Chinese throne. He was credited with introducing basic agricultural techniques and herbal medicine to the masses. The last Yandi was defeated by the first Huangdi ("Yellow Emperor"), who also got a lot of accolades for bringing about the invention of the Chinese calendar, astronomy, and character writing system. In the Chinese doctrine of five phases, fire creates earth, and yellow follows red, so everything fits together quite nicely. At the Yellow River Scenic Area near Zhengzhou, these two legendary figures have been immortalized in China's homage to Mount Rushmore.

A massive man made square separates the two stone figures on the mountain from the mighty river, which was barely visible due to the heavy fog. On the square, a reenactment of a royal procession kept me occupied for some time. A bevy of long haired beauties were dressed in colourful ethnic wear. After the show was over, my travel partner Swathish and I climbed swiftly to the top of the mountain to examine the two large sculptures of the emperors heads. On the way down we took a more circuitous and relaxing route, stopping three times.

The first stop was at the viewpoint from which Mao had stood and declared the Yellow River to be of great strategic importance. The second time was when we happened upon a fine artist who could very quickly modify traditional water brush paintings he had prepared in advance and add personalized calligraphy to them. Impressed by his handiwork, we commissioned the artist to create several parchments. The third stop was when several Chinese girls spotted me and asked me to pose with them for some pictures. Always the gentleman, I gladly obliged. My travel partner stood to the side, simmering with quiet jealousy.


"Arnab reveled in the some of his favourite items - Chinese beauties and concrete monsters." - Swathish

May 04, 2012

Finger Bowl

I was sitting at a restaurant in a Beijing alley with my coworkers when a dirty bowl of soup arrived at our table. One of my colleagues seized the opportunity to recount a Chinese pun:

Several friends were sitting together at a streetside eatery when the waiter arrived with a bowl of piping hot soup. His thumb was halfway submerged in it.

"Your finger is in the soup!" exclaimed one of the disgusted customers.

"Don't worry." the experienced waiter calmly replied. "It doesn't hurt."

April 21, 2012

ARNABites: It's Alive

After eating almost everything imaginable under the sun during my China years, I moved from inanimate to animate objects in Korea. At the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, dozens of fishmongers offer mysterious creatures of the deep to the public for immediate consumption. I was accompanied by my friend Zeki. As we exited the Noryangjin subway and turned towards the overhead walkway leading to the fish market, Zeki mentioned that I should have cash on hand as they probably do not accept credit cards. "No they don't." confirmed a foreign passerby who appeared out of nowhere for that brief moment as if performing a cameo in a movie.

After careful inspection, we selected a couple of octopi. I had wanted to share one, but Zeki insisted on two. He wanted to make sure that we each got a head. The fishmonger put the octopus in a plastic bag partially filled with water and handed it to me. We walked through a narrow opening between several stalls at one corner of the market and headed into a basic restaurant attached to the fish market. A lady roughly grabbed my octopi. I followed her into the back and watched in stunned silence as she quickly chopped off the tentacles and put the various squirming pieces onto a dish.

I had difficulty picking up the tentacles with the narrow metal chopsticks that Koreans generally utilise. I was accustomed to the better grip provided by the Amazon rainforest worth of disposable wooden chopsticks used by the Chinese. The strong suction cups on the tentacles were not helping matters either, resisting my attempts to pry them loose from the plate. After finally capturing one wiggling tentacle I dropped it into the signature Korean hot sauce. It twirled around by itself until it was fully sauced. The paste made it somewhat tasty as the raw tentacle generated little flavour by itself.

I avoided eating the head as long as possible, but soon the time came to devour it. Zeki warned me that it was too difficult to chew, and that I would have to swallow it whole. I did not want to do that, so I chewed valiantly for ten minutes after wrapping it in lettuce leaf. The head was about one and a half times the size of a poached egg, with a similar texture but much stronger composition. The membrane was not breaking down into something digestible despite my best efforts. My strength began to fade so eventually I had to swallow it as Zeki predicted. Overall, it was quite unappetizing but worth a try once.


And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. 
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
- William Shakespeare`s Hamlet

April 11, 2012

Luang Prabang: Almish Paradise

A rite of passage for travellers visiting Laos is waking up at dawn in Luang Prabang to watch a stream of saffron clad monks collect alms from a row of kneeling devotees. The monks accept handouts without discrimination from whomever chooses to participate in the ceremony, be it locals who have been following this Buddhist ritual of obtaining merit for years, or beer guzzling backpackers without the faintest idea of why they had to get up so early and buy some overpriced rice from a street vendor strategically positioned nearby almless alms givers. Some majesty is lost with popularity, but it is still a memorable experience.

I woke up a bit after sunrise and hurried to Luang Prabang's main street to catch the festivities. Everyone awake at that time was heading in the same direction, so I followed them. I waited for several minutes until the tiny specks of orange in the distance became larger and larger. As the first group of monks arrived, many tourists swarmed them like paparazzi. Strict behavioural rules such as the way participants should sit (with feet tucked in and not pointing at anyone), dress (modestly), and position their heads (below that of a monk) are all defined. The groups of monks that followed could collect their alms in greater serenity after the initial photo taking frenzy had concluded.


"A jug fills drop by drop." ~ Buddha