When I was a kid it felt as though I was forever being dragged about by my parents on the most unimaginably boring activities. One of their favorites was driving to see wildflowers bloom. I would spend hours squashed in the back seat of our old brown station wagon jostling with my three older siblings for some elbow room while my parents had NPR on the radio cranked up to full blast to drown out the sounds of our whining and tattling. Once we got to these magnificent wildflowers we would turn back around to go home, sometimes without even leaving the car! It was enough to make 7-year-old me scream, which as the youngest of four I did often and loudly.
Why am I telling you this? I have noticed an alarming trend recently with Tom and I. More and more often we find ourselves seeking out things just like those damned wildflower fields to explore, while listening to NPR podcasts of “This American Life” with headphone splitters plugged into our iPhone. We went to The Cameron Highlands to learn how tea grows and is produced, and spent months figuring out how cacao is grown and then made into chocolate. We were ecstatic to figure out how coffee was produced in Colombia, pisco in Peru and positively giddy about learning about the tobacco process in Cuba. There is no denying it, we would officially bore my seven-year-old self to tears.
When I found the website for the tours given by Dani at Bees Unlimited, I knew I had found something right up our alley. My Father-in-Law is a beekeeper and Tom spent several years working on the bee farm in high school. Though I don’t have the background that Tom does, I think bees are neat. Much more so after learning so much more about them. It’s basically a requirement of becoming a Krones.
Dani’s tour promised not only a visit to some Cambodian beekeeping spots, but also a look into how many other things are made and produced around Siem Reap. We met up with Dani the day before our tour, as he likes to get a feeling for people and what they are looking for to better individualize the tours. We knew after the first meeting that this tour was definitely something our grown-up selves were going to enjoy. We told Dani we were interested in seeing how things are made and he promised to take us to a backyard tofu factory, to see rice noodles being made, to see several types of bees and to see how honey and other products are harvested. Spoiler alert, after our tour was finished the following day I realized that this was one of the rare experiences when my seven-year-old self would have enjoyed the day just as much as my grown-up-self did!
The day started off with an early pick up in a tuk-tuk from our guesthouse and a visit to the backyard tofu factory. Though my parents both worked in the soy dairy on the commune that I was born on, it was the first time that I had actually seen it made.
Dani led us down a small dirt alley between two buildings. It was our first stop of the day and I wasn’t sure where we were going yet. Dani was walking quickly and confidently and so Tom and I quickened our hesitant footsteps to catch up as he turned left off the road and into someone’s backyard. The smell and the heat hit me first. It was a surprisingly chilly morning for Siem Reap (maybe 24 c 75 f) so the instant warmth felt good, and the smell bathed me in memories. The air seemed literally drenched with the smell of tofu. Something I have smelled often in my life, but never to these proportions. It was if every oxygen molecule had a tofu molecule attached to it and the muggy air seemed thick enough to slice, and then maybe cook up in a sandwich.
Under a tin roof and set against a bare brick wall four or five people worked quickly around each other, each competent in his or her own job in the way that speaks of having performed the same actions over and over again. Two huge metal bowls sat over roaring little fires that were occasionally fed more logs by one of the tofu makers.
It seemed to be a visual version of the beat of a chaotic experimental jazz song. Though at first it was hard to figure out how each person’s actions connected to the others, after 10 minutes of watching and immersing ourselves into the tofu drenched warm bubble we understood the rhythm of the whole operation. Each step fit into and around the others to create, not the random cacophony we were greeted with, but a veritable symphony of soy production that ended with a motorbike basket full of neat little bundles of tofu to sell at the market.
We continued our tour at the market and walked around with Dani as he answered questions about things we were curious about, or pointed out things of interest. We saw a man straddling a huge bundle of lemongrass, using a tool to quickly shave off tiny pieces of the fragrant stalks. We saw people selling the usual piles of tropical fruits and veggies, and the expected pig, chicken and fish parts as well as the not so usual piles of snakes, turtles and insects.
The day continued in the same vein, we drove about in the tuk tuk, stopping to see things Dani had in mind to show us, like charcoal being made, a fruit he was sure we had never tried (we hadn’t) or thick brown palm sugar being made, and sometimes stopping when he saw someone doing something that just looked interesting. I would not be surprised to find these stops firmly set as part of his routine for future tours.
Bees are what originally drew us to the tour and bees we definitely saw. We saw stingless bees that bite, and honeybees that you’d think were stingless by how mellow they were, disdaining to sting us even when a frame of them were dropped. We saw large honeybees that are apparently haughty enough that we had to approach while hunched down under their flight path, as they may sting you just for getting in their way. We saw bees in boxes and in trees, and on branches placed at just the right angle in deep marsh.
The whole day could have been set to the music of flight of the bumblebees as we flitted from project to project, gathering information as if it were drops of nectar from each experience. Throughout the day we were occasionally joined by other little bees just as curious about us as were about what has happening in their backyards.
I think my personal favorite moment of the day may have been watching the fermented rice noodles being made. I was familiar with these noodles as the main ingredient of my beloved Khanom Jeen in Thailand. I loved watching the women use their entire bodies to operate a huge wooden lever to smash up blocks of fermented rice. Seeing the broken-up rice then squeezed through a tin can poked full of holes brought to mind the play-doh toys I always drooled after when I was a kid. Remember the ones that you could squeeze to make dolls grow long play-doh hair, or to make big plates of make-believe play-doh spaghetti? This glorious grown-up version of those toys made me itch to try it out for myself.
All in all a more appropriate name for the tour may be “Rambles with Dani” or “How It’s Made – Cambodian edition.” You can call it whatever you like, either way we would sign up again.
The tour costs $35/person for the day. Dani likes to meet each group beforehand to tailor the tour to their particular interests.
Dani is a Vegetarian so is also a great fount of information for vegetarian Khmer food. I also think that he would be willing to set up a vegetarian food tour of the area if that is your main interest.
E-mail for Dani- [email protected]