As Khmer New Year (KNY) fast approached it became quite clear from speaking with people who suggested Phnom Penh would be quiet during the festivities. Not wanting to miss out on what KNY is all about we decided to make the trip to Battambang and Svey Sisophon in North Western Cambodia .
First up was Battambang. We were travelling with our friend and fellow volunteer Bron; who suggested we do a bicycle tour through the countryside and naturally we all leapt at the idea. We decided to go with Butterfly Tours, who are quite new to the business. Our guides were two young Khmer guys who seemed really switched on about their business, how to look after tourists and how to show off their beautiful country.
We visited a number of families along our ride through the dusty dirt roads that wound between stilt houses and meandering rivers. Our first stop was to see how dried banana is made. We had ideas of what this would entail but were completely surprised with what was actually involved.
The women would use a certain type of small Thai banana that was known for being sweet. They would thinly slice it then place them overlapping on small thin bamboo boards then leave these out in the sun to dry. On a good day of sun they would take only 5 hours to dry out, but typically it could vary between 1 to 3 days before they are ready.
Once the bananas are dried the ladies would peel the now paper thin bananas off the bamboo in what are now long sheets of what can be best described as banana paper.
The sheets were quite strong and translucent—almost transparent in parts—but most importantly they were delicious! I’ve never really been a fan of dried banana chips, but these were something else entirely. I could liken them to a banana roll-up, but much much tastier.
Of course we ended up buying about 40 sheets from them for the bargain price of $4.
Next on our stop was a traditional rice-wine maker. We were told that many rice wine brewers would use purchased yeast, but the lovely old man here made his own from scratch from a number of ingredients including star anise & cardamom. The process of making the yeast was quite involved as it were already, but then our guide went on to describe the processes behind the brewing of the rice wines which was rather impressive. Showing us the big metal pans and old brick ovens, all contained within a very small shack.
Interestingly the making of the rice wine isn’t the most profitable aspect of brewing. The left over rice mash is very high in carbohydrates and undoubtedly full of alcohol as well. This mash is fed to pigs who as the guide described “get lazy and fat” and therefore are nice and plump for sale. Not a bad life for a pig!
Naturally after all this education we had to try out the rice wine. Whilst it is sitting at a mouth-burning 45% alcohol content the drink itself was very smooth and even sweet, with complex flavours coming though. Of course it was also quite warming, and we jumped at the chance of trying another type infused with honey. Again this was very smooth but the hint of honey made the flavours all the more complex.
The old man seemed very pleased with our reactions, undoubtedly proud of his craftsmanship. We thanked him well and wished him a happy new year in K’mai before we were on our way again. It wasn’t too far down the road before we made another stop to see how fresh rice noodles are made.
The whole operation was quite impressive to see, with the process taking days to produce the noodles. The noodles only keep for several days and each producer will make between 90-110kg each day—enough to feed the local villagers—so this is an operation that continues even over Khmer New Year!
The process involves grinding the rice, straining and cleaning it then placing me mixture in to large bags. These bags would sit compressed under large weights overnight, typically stacked up high with huge stones and buckets of water. Then the mixture is cooked and then pounded to ensure stickiness. The pounding involves quite a bit of legwork to operate the large ‘hammer’.
Finally the tacky rice goop is kneaded before placing in a bag to extrude in to boiling hot water. This forms the rice noodle shape that we know. Roughly three minutes is enough to set the noodles, which are then scooped up and dunked in to cool water where it will be washed in several buckets of water then rolled up and arranged in to small bundles, ready to sell!
Next stop was to enjoy a few local lychees on the side of the road from some ladies who were also selling a number of small fish. Our guides bought them out of all their fish stock, proudly proclaiming that it would be enough for them for 3 days, to go in soups and curries.
The lychees were small, tasty and not too sweet, naturally we couldn’t resist purchasing a kilo and again we were on our way.
Our final stop on our 5 hour bicycle journey was to see how bamboo sticky rice is made. If you’ve ever been in a bus trip in Thailand or Cambodia then there’s a good chance you would’ve seen these for sale at one of the many roadside stops. Sections of bamboo are cut down to size, then filled with a mixture of sticky rice, coconut and occasionally a few other thinks like taro, then plugged up at the top before being placed over a fire for several hours.
Once ready you peel back the bamboo to reveal a delicious rice package surrounded by a thin film of bamboo ‘paper’ which is perfectly fine to eat. The fire gives the rice an excellent subtle smoky flavour and the aroma of the bamboo and coconut are an excellent combination.
Naturally we bought a bunch of these for future snacks and then departed for the journey back to our guides office.
Our guides really should be commended, once back we were tended to, asked if there were any tips or things on which they could improve on and were genuinely concerned about our feedback. After some discussion about their all-Khmer business we discovered they had only been running for 8 months, and prior to that had spent many months researching the business and putting together a plan.
We couldn’t recommend these guys enough and I wish them all the best in the future for their business.
Sus’dey Ch’nam T’mey! (Happy New Year!)