Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tis the season to hang tinsel…

So after 30 hours of travelling, door to door, I’m home from Cambodia in time for Christmas with my beloved family.

A good night’s sleep has given me lots of holiday spirit and I’m about to start glazing the succulent ham with my friend Amanda’s spectacular recipe of orange marmalade, whisky, mustard and cloves.

Tiffy is ignoring me and I think she is writing a letter to Santa “Dear Santa, please don’t bring mummy any presents this year as she gave me a bath just when I was smelling nice from rolling in a dead bird on our walk this morning.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Is this how history will tell it? That Asia approached a political precipice while Nancy and I got our nails done?

It can’t be a coincidence that Nancy and I are visiting Cambodia just when the news of a certain North Korean leader's demise was made known to the world.

Nancy and I are two-thirds of the Charlie’s Angels team created in Edinburgh circa 2007, with the Edinburgh Film Festival as our cover. The team was made up of our very own Charlie, aka Olivier, and our third Angel, Rosalynn, using the EIFF press team as our cover.

It’s been four years since the original team has been together but we’ve managed to get a small enclave every so often. In the four years since we were recruited Nancy and I have managed to meet up in Rotterdam, New York, Vienna and now Siem Reap.

To lull suspicion about our movements I arrived in Cambodia first, landing in Phnom Penh on Friday 16th December. I maintained my cover of harmless food tourist, first established on my European travels this year. Aha, you say, there is a reason for all those pictures of food and wine after all. It was the natural progression for my cover to attend a Khmer cooking school in Phnom Penh. I worked hard at my cover, going to the markets and then making yellow and red curry paste by hand using a very large wooden mortar and pestle.

I’ve never been able to make it properly at home, always giving up halfway through in exhaustion at the amount of work. But that wasn’t an option with my cooking teacher prowling the kitchen exhorting our class to work harder. And my efforts paid off, with perfectly ground and pounded paste giving off a tantalising aroma.

Any family member who may be reading this and may be stuck for Christmas ideas: a large marble mortar pestle would be a welcome addition under the tree! And you’ll be repaid with displays of my new Khmer cooking skills, so win/win. Here's a few more examples: prawn salad and custard cooked in pumpkin.

On a somber note, I did visit the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh on my first day. I won’t go into too much detail as it was very upsetting, particularly seeing scraps of fabric lodged in the dirt tracks, all that remains of the three million victims of Pol Pot’s madness. All I want to say is that this horror happens the world over when someone decides they have more right to exist than their fellow man. That to me is the true meaning of evil.

My feeling of horror and nausea didn’t dissipate either when my tuk-tuk driver offered to drive me to a rifle range to ‘shoot things up’. I gave a vehement no and asked to be taken to the Royal Palace. Here the frescos along the corridors of the Silver Pagoda were a welcome balm.

Also calming to the spirits was an evening dining at Romden restaurant. Run by a children’s charity it helps street kids and orphans develop careers as chefs and in the hospitality industry. My cooking teacher trained at its sister restaurant, Friends, and I recommend both, the fish amok I had was absolutely delicious.

That was the first of several excellent amoks I’ve had since my arrival, and is a favourite along with papaya salad. I arrived early for my rendezvous in Siem Reap with Nancy, so I was able to do a reconnaissance of the important town features: restaurants, spas and shops.

Appropriate for two of Charlie’s Angels, we held our latest reunion poolside at the Sonalong Boutique Village and Resort.

 It was somewhere in between the hours we spent lounging by the pool and then pampering ourselves at the U & Me Spa in town that that world first heard about Kim Jong Il.

We didn’t hear the news straight away, we did spend a bit of time web searching on Nancy’s i-Phone but that was only to see if we could buy a Greek island for $100. We did find a site that accepts offers but they were coyly keeping the asking prices a secret. I’m thinking of offering $10,000 and then finding nine other people to stump up a thousand bucks each if it’s accepted. Anyone interested?

Today’s mission was a little more strenuous than our pool day, we were up early to visit Angkor Watt, the ‘official’ reason for our visit here.

I don’t think my snaps can do justice to the magnificence on the site, the combination of thousand year old temples, detailed wall carvings and encroaching jungle are spectacular. The view from the top of the temples is breathtaking, and not entirely due to the ladder you climb to get there.

There is constant conservation work going on all around the area, supported by UNESCO and international governments. I think it’s best that I let the photos speak for themselves and get back to my next mission…lounging by the pool!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Run Rudolf, run!

I love Christmas. Absolutely adore it. Wearing tinsel as a feather boa, breaking out into songs in shopping centres, sure I can do those things the rest of the year too but in December I don’t get odds looks from strangers.

I’m going to cause a bit of controversy here and come out and say I love tinsel trees. Yes the real trees are beautiful and I grew up on a farm where we actually had pine trees so every year we had a real tree, smelling of fresh pine needles. But I feel so sad seeing the tree drop its needles and slowly fade away, that now I always go for the tastefully fake option. Plus it means the tree goes up on 1 December and stays up all the way to the 12th Day of Christmas. In fact last year it made its appearance on the 30th November, just because I couldn’t wait anymore.

You’ll be pleased to know I managed to hold off until the 5th December this year, mainly because I was in Melbourne at the start of the month where I visited all the Christmas sites, from the exhibition of Christmas trees in Federation Square to the Myers window along Bourke Street.

While I was travelling in Europe I had many long debates about the most pressing issue of the day: is it better to have a white Christmas or celebrate with sand, surf and sun?

I’ve had the best of both worlds this year, travelling in Europe at the start of winter meant I could see Christmas markets in Budapest with brightly coloured matryoshka dolls and gingerbread and lights being installed in cities all around the continent.

I felt a particularly frisson of pleasure in Cardiff seeing the lights hanging all around the city, waiting for the switch to be turned on. Last year the cast of Dr Who threw the switch and the city went wild.

But just as I was feeling all aglow with the Spirit of Christmas, I discovered the dark secret of Cardiff’s Yuletide enthusiasm.

A street away from the city centre are the Cardiff markets and here was the sign below, advertising exotic meat. I admit I scoffed a bit at seeing kangaroo, it’s hardly exotic, I’d call it more ‘road kill on the Tuggeranong Parkway’, but then my eye went to the top of the board and I saw…reindeer!

Run Rudolf run, don’t look at the pretty lights, it’s a trap!

However you are choosing to celebrate this year, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

And don’t forget to come back and visit this blog in 2012!