A Tour of Rural Cambodia with Bees Unlimited

Thursday, 15-01-2015. Day 148.

Tofu, markets, incense, and hot cupping. Oh, and bees.

The day arrives early when you have a tour at 7:15 a.m. So we got up and got down to get the included breakfast provided by the hotel—it was going to be a long day, and we'd need all the fuel we could muster.

We finished up just in time to see Dani, our tour guide from Bees Unlimited we'd met the night before, pull up in front of the hotel with two tuk tuks and two other tour participants. After brief introductions, we were off for a day of adventure.

This was not our tuk tuk. But you get the idea.

This was not our tuk tuk. But you get the idea.

Andrew, one of our tour mates (the other was his daughter Elka) was a former cheese maker, so he wanted to see how tofu was made, so our first stop was a local family-owned tofu factory. They made a batch of tofu in this small space every half hour, and we arrived jsut as the first batch was coming off the press.

The entire tofu factory.

The entire tofu factory.

After we got to try a few tofu slices, it was back on the tuk tuks and off to the nearby market. This was a Khmer market, and we were the only Western faces in the place. There was a lot of stuff being sold here, and a lot of it was recently butchered animals (pigs, snakes, frogs, chickens), some of which were still twitching. It was hard to take, especially for city-dwelling kids, but it was also a fascinating look into how the Cambodian people (those who weren't in the tourist trade) made ends meet. We also got to see the lemongrass cutter in action—he could really cut that lemongrass.

Lemongrass cutter in action.

Lemongrass cutter in action.

The main reason we were there was to sample a number of food items Dani wanted us to try, like the ginger silken tofu and deep-fried banana-filled rice balls, and after we'd had a little breakfast, it was off to the Angkor Archaeological Park. We wouldn't be visiting any temples yet (we didn't have our park passes); instead we'd be visiting some villages inside the park and checking out the local beekeeping situation.

On our way into the park, we got to see a motorbike rider who couldn't wait to get into town to go to the bathroom. We saw this sort of thing a lot during our visit to Siem Reap—even in town itself. You have to watch where you're walking; that probably isn't a puddle of water on the sidewalk.

Quick stop on the road.

Quick stop on the road.

Once we got inside the park, we made a quick stop alongside Srah Srang, a type of reservoir that was built along side Banteay Kdei, a nearby temple. We saw young Khmer wading neck deep into the water. I asked if they were fishing, but Sen, our tuk tuk driver told us they were cutting the weeds to make the sunset on the water look good. They do this every day.

Cutting the weeds.

Cutting the weeds.

A short ride later, we made a stop at the toilet next to Pre Rup, the first wat in Angkor we laid eyes on. We couldn't go in and we only stayed long enough for a bathroom break before we sped off to visit the villages.

pre-rup.jpg

Life in a village inside Angkor is challenging. There is no electricity, so every job that needs to be done is done by hand, usually with tools that were built by hand.

Our first visit was the family who made palm sugar. We watched as a man, after cooking the palm sap he'd collected to boil off the water, mixed palm sugar distillate with a huge stick into a smooth paste. We got to try some; it was, of course, very sweet. Then he bottled it and started cooking another batch.

Cooking up the palm sugar.

Cooking up the palm sugar.

That was also the first place the Cambodian kids who sell trinkets really showed up in force. Before we were off our tuk tuks they were shoving bracelets and flutes and neclaces in our faces saying, You buy, sir! One dollar." They were persistent—even if you told them no they took it as encouragement and pressed harder. We found that if we ignored them, they eventually gave up.

We stopped off at the home of an 84-year-old woman who used to cook for the Khmwer Rouge. These days, she rolls sticks of incense by hand and sells them to local villagers and, when she can, tourists. She was very gracious and showed the gals how to roll incense.

Jackie makes incense.

Frankie makes incense.

Remember the Petrol Warungs from Bali? They've got them here, too, but it's different.

Petrol stand, Cambodia.

Petrol stand, Cambodia.

 This gas is cheaper than what you can find from the petrol stations in town. Sen told us it wasn't as good; most of the time it came from Thailand and had impurities.

We stopped to visited a family who made rice noodles for a restaurant in the village. They did it all by hand, from grinding the rice, to making dough, to making the noodles. It was really hard, labor intensive work.

Handmade, hand-powered mill to grind rice into rice flour.

Handmade, hand-powered mill to grind rice into rice flour.

One of the most popular stops on the Discover Cambodia tour is the house where they perform hot cupping. The Khmer use it for general well-being and to treat all sorts of maladies. For $1 you can have as many kerosene-heated cups placed on your back as you want. We all tried it. I thought it was weird, and it took a good ten days for the marks to completely vanish.

Hot cupping.

Hot cupping.

And then we entered the beekeeping portion of the tour. We first stopped at a remote temple where bees had built a hive inside a Buddhist stupa (a ceremonial relic chamber). Actually, there were two species of bees—one was the Japanese honeybee, and the other was an unknown (to me) species of stingless bee that builds a very plastic looking tube hive entrance.

Bees in a stupa. The tube (not plastic, made by bees from wax) is for the stingless bees.

Bees in a stupa. The tube (not plastic, made by bees from wax) is for the stingless bees.

Then we went really deep into the Cambodian countryside to the home of a honey hunter who took us out to a hidden spot on his property to see a hive of giant honeybees (apis dorsata) they call rafter bees.

Honeycomb.

Honeycomb.

We saw two different rafter hives, and in both cases, as we were observing them, the hives got angry and started to buzz really loudly. When that happened, the honey hunters got excited and it was time to get away—which was hard to do because we were in a swamp. But these bees were some pretty big ones.

On the ride back to Siem Reap, we drove bty Angkor War, the most famous of the wats in the Angkor area. This one looks best at sunset, so we hung around for a little while to get a look as the sun started to go down. We'd be visiting it more fully the next day.

Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat.

On our final approach into town, it happened. The motorcycle pulling our tuk tuk ran out of gas. Not a problem, though, the driver just grabbed a bottle from a nearby petrol vendor and we were back in business.

Outta gas.

Outta gas.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was well into the evening. The day had indeed been a long one. It was one of the best tours we've had yet, and for your tour dollars, Bees Unlimited certainly gives you your money's worth. We were so happy, we did two more tours with Dani later in our stay.

is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. He also drinks coffee.

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A Tour of Rural Cambodia with Bees Unlimited
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