Sunday, February 19, 2017

Highway 6 Revisited

Monk Walking Along Highway 6 In the Morning

Fifty years ago, I graduated from high school back in Groton, Connecticut.  My last year of high school I spent much of my time sick.  Back in the Fall of 1966 and the Winter of 1967, I was sick with a diagnosed combination of Whooping Cough and severe Bronchitis. From Thanksgiving until Valentine's Day, my physical activity was limited to going to school only.

I spent much of my free time at home listening to Bob Dylan albums on the family stereo in the living room.  Bob Dylan had recently undergone a transformation from folk singer to rock star and I was entering into my transformation period ... a period that all teenagers experience.  As great as my transformation ended up becoming, it did not compare to the world shattering Bob Dylan transformation.

In his sixth studio album, "Highway 61 Revisited" released on 30 August 1965, Bob Dylan's music had become electrified and electrifying.  His lyrics, always strong and poignant, were now showcased by, as well as competed with, rock beats and more complicated rhythms. My favorite song of the album, although not the title song of the album, was "Like A Rolling Stone".  The title song of the album, "Highway 61 Revisited", made an impression on me back then.  Today the lyrics seem non-nonsensical and Bob Dylan's intentions as well as motivations for writing them is suspect to me.  However the title does form a nice foil and segue to this blog entry "Highway 6 Revisited"

In December we returned to Cambodia, Siem Reap specifically, for the third time in nine years.  Why a third time?  I was once asked why I had returned to Machu Pichuu for a second time.  Being polite, I did not reply that I had because I could. I gave the honest answer that I had returned because I had a new camera.  I had purchased A Nikon D2H digital camera and there were some photos that I had not taken on the previous trip that I want to take.

The same was true for our second trip to Angkor Wat  in November 2014 - we could and I had another new camera - a Nikon D700.  However I also wanted to experience and document life on Tonle Sap that we had only gotten a small introduction to back in August 2007.

Our trip in 2014 was great and we wanted to return the following year only later in the year to better experience the fish harvest on Tonle Sap.  However in 2015, a drought had severely impacted the flood levels of the great lake.

Last November, I contacted some people in Siem Reap and was informed that the water levels had returned to their height back in 2014.  I then determined when the full moons would e in December and in January 2017 since I wanted some photos of Tonle Sap as well as Angkor Wat with a rising Full Moon.  I ended up choosing December for our trip.

One of my objectives, in addition to Full Moon photographs, was to take photographs of the vendors that prepare and sell food along  National Highway 6.  I had wanted to take photographs of them during the last visit to Cambodia but one thing always seemed to lead to another with the end result is that I never took those photographs.  It takes discipline and resolve to take the necessary time to stop and take those photographs as the opportunity presents itself rather than believing or convincing yourself that a better opportunity or even more opportunities lay ahead.  The promise of the future is often broken or does not exist.

National Highway 6 is one of the main roads in Cambodia.  Used in conjunction with National Highway 5, it will either take you to the border with Thailand or to the capital city of Phnom Penh.  On our trips to Angkor Wat, Highway 6 was on our route to Koh Ker, Tonle Sap, and the market town of Damdek so we have become quite familiar with it.

About one-half the way from the city of Siem Reap and Tonle Sap there is a section of the road in Sot Nikum district of Siem Reap Province where many local people have set up stands where they prepare and sell a local specialty food - "sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with black beans inside bamboo over a wood fire".  Of course there is a much more simple name in Cambodia but I don't know it.  Actually we have the same tasty treat here in Isaan that is called "ban khao lam".

As you drive down Highway 2 here in Udon Thani Province towards the intersection that leads you to Kumphawapi, both sides of the highway are lined with little stands where "ban khao lam" is sold - some where it is actually cooked, too.  It is common here in Isaan to discover sections of highways where the local specialty products, such as salt, produce, sausages, carved walking canes, or ban khao lam are sold by the local people.

The specialty food, "sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with black beans inside bamboo over a wood fire", is also available in Malaysia - good food especially sweet treats knows no borders.

We set off on a rainy morning to visit Tonle Sap.  We left Siem Reap around 7:00 AM and we were quickly surrounded in the morning traffic of students on motorbikes and bicycles, as well as workers being transported on all manner of mechanisms on their daily commute to fields, factories, and work places.

Fortunately the rain was only very light showers so it did not impact our journey.

Breakfast is being cooked for a villager

We stopped at on of the first concentrations of vendors that we encountered southeast of Siem Reap.  Fresh batches of the specialty food were being cooked on primitive grills made from bricks placed on crude tables.

A roadside vendor preparing food
The rice-coconut milk-black bean mixture is packed into bamboo tubes.  The ends of the tube are plugged tightly with rice straw.  To create a more consumer friendly and efficient cooking container, the vendors whittle down the bamboo tubes to create a thin skinned container that can easily be peeled apart by the consumer to access the cooked delicious rice mixture inside.

The bamboo tubes are cooked in a horizontal position over wood coals supplemented with bamboo scraps.  At the other end of the grill, finished tubes are placed in two slanted vertical rows, tepee style, over the coals awaiting to be purchased by people.

Many of the vendors along Highway 6 utilize a marketing technique that I had previously seen in Vietnam on the way back to Halong City from Hanoi.  In Vietnam, the vendors were selling either fruit or coconuts along side of the road.  These were small family run stands.  To encourage people to stop and buy their products, the family had their young daughters run the stand.  The young women were beautiful and were fully made-up to further enhance and emphasize their natural beauty. Unfortunately in Vietnam, I was only a passenger in the van speeding along the highway.  However in Cambodia, it was only my wife with our hired drier and guide.  We stopped where ever I wanted and for as long as I wanted.  It is a very effective marketing technique and I suspect that it was one of the first techniques.

We had revisited National Highway 6 and it had satiated our appetite literally and figuratively.  We had been fortunate to be able to return and experience what we had only glimpsed on previous visits.  Our trip was great with many places revisited and more stories as well as photographs to share.

I have yet another new camera but although we intend to return to Cambodia once again this year, we will first be going to Bhutan ... off to Bhutan for the first time with a new camera to experience another corner of Allen's World.

Hopefully I will apply lessons that I have learned elsewhere to stop and take those photographs the first time.  I must remember to take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves rather than expecting it to be better a little further up ahead. 

So it is in life - we need to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves rather than expecting or waiting for things to be better later, for often later never comes.  Unlike Highway 61 or National Highway 6, we are unable to revisit life.

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