Tasty Frogs and Snakes. Alan wrote this from Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, the most amazing ancient temple complex on the planet. He’s always been a pretty adventurous eater, though as you’ll read he’s taken that adventure to new heights, or lows depending on your taste for food.
Dear Mom and Dad July 20
The mask I got in Bali has a funny story behind it. We were killing time in Denpasar on the morning of our flight, which took off in the afternoon, and we were wandering aimlessly around the ugly city. I saw a market and out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign that said art market on the third floor. We ran up and found a floor of wood works. They were staining some pieces in front of our eyes. Even though we weren’t getting the local price like they told us I was sure we were getting it cheaper than in Kuta beach. We saw some people there with notebooks and lists buying in bulk. I’m sure it was going to some touristy shop and would sell for twice the price. Peter got a very nice carving and I got a fantastic mask. We haggled a bit and got the price down a few dollars to $12 for my mask. I was a little worried that I’d paid too much but it’s a really nice mask and for us it’s really not that much money. Later that day at the airport I saw the same mask and went up to it to check the price. My jaw dropped when I saw the tag of $120 dollars. I smiled and went to the gate.
I had an experience today that I need to write about before I forget the details. So far it was one of the best experiences of the trip. We took a break from the main temple complex and decided to do the older, less magnificent ones east of Siem Reap. The Roluos temples are about three to four hundred years older than the ones at Angkor Wat, but not nearly as grand. One of them was magnificent, but the others were quite small and in disrepair. We finished up the temples quite quickly and flipped through the guidebook to find something else to do that wasn’t too far away and wasn’t in the main complex. We found Banteay Srei. I’m pretty sure we didn’t make it there when we visited four years ago. It’s about 30 km away from Siem Reap and is much smaller than the other ruins. However, it’s bas-reliefs and carvings are better preserved than any other Angkor ruins. It was pretty amazing. The stone is has an orange-pink hue to it and it’s in such good condition it looks like it was carved yesterday. It was built by one of the Hindu kings (before they were converted to Buddhism) and is dedicated to Vishnu. There are some spectacular carvings depicting certain scenes from Ramayana. The drive out there was really nice too because about 15 minutes outside of Siem Reap it becomes beautiful, quiet, and serene. It would have been worth it to do the drive without seeing the temple. But the drive and the temple weren’t the best part.
We started talking to our driver and found out that he has only been driving the Tuk Tuk for about a year. He was pretty young, 30, though like many Cambodians he looked much younger. His English was pretty meager, but he said he was taking lessons from a Monk at a Pagoda in Siem Reap every night. He also had been married a year and his wife is two weeks pregnant. Before moving back to Siem Reap he work on the Thai side of the Cambodian border building toy motorcycles. I don’t know how we got on the subject, but he started mentioning that he really enjoyed frogs. We shrugged and said that we might like to try them sometime… ya, you see where this is going.
On the long drive back from Banteay Srei he randomly pulls over by some stalls on the side of the road. He ran across the street and five minutes later came back with a plastic bag full of dark objects. He reached into the bag and pulled out a long stick with a dozen grilled frogs. They were whole, about 4 inches long, and skewered on the stick all in a row. It was one of about 6 or 7 sticks in the bag. The frog was darker than it normally would have been because of the barbequing. It was nicely burnt in some spots, the eyes were cooked black, and the frog gave off a bit of the shine that I can only guess was oil from either the cooking process or the frog itself. It did not look that appetizing. In another bag was chili sauce and mint leaves. He asked us if we wanted to try some. We looked at each other and shrugged. Peter tried the first frog. He dipped it in the sauce and grabbed some mint leaves and started at the legs. He took a bite and smiled. “It’s pretty good,” he said honestly. I grabbed a frog and went through the same process. I took a big bite from the legs and started to chew. It was crunchy and, even without chili sauce and mint, it was pretty good. It’s difficult to explain the flavor but it really was tasty. It’s cliché to say that it tasted like chicken, but it is a good basis for comparison. Peter didn’t agree. It has the same oily texture and flavor of good fried chicken (not KFC, the real stuff), but with a twist that just cannot be compared to anything that I’ve tried. The legs are only a small part of the frog and there was still the head and the torso left to do. There were also some weird black bubbles coming out of the frog’s stomach. I asked what they were and the Tou, the driver, said they were eggs. I was a little more hesitant to pop the body and head into my mouth whole, but I popped it in anyway and it tasted just as good. Even with the burnt eggs. I was a bit worried about how crunchy it would be, bones and all, but it was no problem. It was like biting into a hard pretzel or a pita chip. I had one more for good measure but didn’t want to have any after that because, even though he offered more, Tou had paid for them and said the rest were for his wife, who loved them.
I looked across the street at the stall where he bought them and decided to go an take a look before we drove off. I ran across the street with my camera (just instinct I guess) and immediately turned to Peter. “Get over here,” I yelled. Peter crossed the street to see what I had gotten so excited about. Sitting on the table was an array of strange and exotic grilled food. There was snail, deep fried fish, dried ray, a jerky that we later found out was snake, a weird looking thing that I guessed was a rodent (turned out to be mouse), and whole snake on a skewer. We snapped a bunch of pictures and the people at the stall found it very amusing that we were so interested in the food. I leaned in to get a closer look at the snake. Peter was either reading my mind, or more likely, had a similar idea brewing. “Want to try the snake?” he said. “Definitely.” We asked Tou if it was good and he said that it was quite good, and went along very well with a beer. We Got a snake and two beers and went across the street to eat on the back of the Tuk Tuk
The snake was also skewered, put into the shape of and ‘S’ so that it would all fit on the stick. It had an orange-pink coloring (like the temple) and was a bit thicker than my thumb. I couldn’t tell how long it was because it wasn’t stretched out, but if I had to guess I’d say two to two and a half feet, but definitely not longer than a meter. I opened my beer then pulled a piece off the stick. I squeezed it and some juice came out of the hole where the skewer had been. Unlike the frog, this looked quite appetizing. This time I tried it first. It tasted fantastic. Again, I hate to use the comparison, but it tasted like a combination between chicken and fish. Like the frog, it had a unique flavor that is indescribable. I’m sure Andrew Zimmern from bizarre foods could conjure of a nice description, but I’m having a hard time putting it into words. I would compare it to guinea pig, not in flavor, but in how difficult it is to eat. Though it tasted great, there wasn’t much meat and you had to work pretty hard to get it. I would also compare it to fish that hasn’t been de-boned because every now and again I would have to pick a bone out of my mouth before swallowing. There were a couple things I didn’t like about it. There was something that looked a bit like fat, and it might have been, but it wasn’t as chewy and very soft. It didn’t taste good and the texture was horrible. Fortunately there wasn’t much of it. Also, toward the tail end there were a bunch of burnt eggs, similar to the frog. They were the size of the salmon eggs you would get at a sushi restaurant. They didn’t have much flavor, but it wasn’t anything special either. Tou was right, washing grilled snake down with Angkor Beer really hit the spot.
It was turning out to be a slow, uneventful day until Tou pulled over to surprise us with a treat. Both the frog and the snake were pretty good and we got some great pictures out of it too. We really enjoyed having him drive us around and we asked him to pick us up tomorrow for when we finish Angkor Wat. We also decided that when we’re finished were going to give him a nice tip. He’s not as aggressive as the other drivers, which is a detriment in getting customers, but nicer once they’re in the in the back. Also, he didn’t mention his English lessons, his wife, or his expected baby until we asked, so we knew he wasn’t tugging at our heart strings. All in all Siem Reap and Angkor Wat were fantastic. I love the market in town and there is a pretty bumping night life. I’ll be back one day for sure. When I write you again it will be from Phnom Penh. We’re just dropping off our passports at the Burmese embassy and then were going to find something to do in the area. In the guidebook I read about and elephant reserve where you can learn how to be a mahout and drive the elephants. It’s in the least populated province in the country and it’s supposed to be beautiful. I’m going to push for that one. After the big cities, we’ll be ready to get some real Cambodian culture. In the couple days that we’re actually going to spend in the capital we’re going to S-21, the infamous school turned prison/torture building, and the killing fields. Should be an emotional day. I’ve written a lot in a booklet about the trip from the Togean to Siem Reap so I won’t forget it, you’ll get that letter eventually. Sooner than later I’m sure. I’ll call you again sometime in early August. Until then, looking forward to reading you next email.