Kitchens Nature Stories Travel

Friends in the Kitchen

Kitchen B

We spent last week in the distant forests of Preah Vihear province. Go to Angkor and head northeast three hours. Follow the bumpy dirt roads through empty lands, past ancient temples rarely visited, past CMAC camps and fields delineated for landmine clearing. Turn down a sand road to Tmatboey, a village of 1,800 people and a couple hundred huts on stilts. There in the nearby Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, you will find two of the world’s rarest birds, the giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis. These magnificent birds feed and nest around watering holes known as trapaengs, which were built in the Angkor era.

That’s why we visit, to see the birds, to work on a story about the Tmatboey ecotourism project established with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Accommodation is rough — a communal room of slat beds and mosquito nets, bath by bucket, car-battery power for one light and a fan at night. But the village is the picture of quintessential Khmer life. And the kitchen: full of good vibes and good food.

A few of the Tmatboey village women have joined the project’s “Cook Team,” waking each morning by 3 to feed birders at 4 before their pre-dawn treks to the field. The women have learned to cook Western dishes such as spaghetti and omelet, but they quickly discover my taste for local food. In the early morning darkness, I forgo bread and jam, and ask for rice with fish instead. “Fish? You like fish?” They are delighted. The nearest river is many miles away, but the women arrange for a fish to be bought for my benefit. Every meal afterward, I am presented with a personal plate of fish, fried with garlic or mixed in a lemongrass, shallot and peanut curry. My love of chili intrigues the women further, and along with each fish they serve me a side bowl of hot red peppers.

I make several new friends on this trip, through my interest in their work. We form a bond. And when I leave for Siem Reap, for a return to bright lights and paved roads and telephones, several of the Tmatboey women tell me they will miss me like a loved one; they will love me like a sister.

You see, when people ask me why I travel or what makes me go where I go, it is days like these (rather than days like these). Just a few days in a hot wooden house in a faraway forest. Just a few days in a dark kitchen with stoves of fire and women who tend them — and so quickly the bond that forms. They speak no English; I practice my sketchy Khmer. But all we really need to get started is the language of food.


11 replies on “Friends in the Kitchen”

I read with interest your blog about your rustic stay in Cambodia at the Wildlife Sanctuary. I run an ecotourism lodge directory and was wondering if the lodging you stayed at had a website, or how would you get in touch with them? I only have 1 lodge listed for Cambodia and would love to list others. The only perequisite is that they have a website. If they don’t, I can still blog about them.
Lise Tyrrell

Hi Lise. The only website (as far as I know) is the WCS site already linked in the post. The best way to get in touch is through the WCS Ibis Project (contact info on page linked) or through the Sam Veasna Center in Siem Reap, 063-963-710, 012-507-424, or That\’s the contact info I have. Check out the new website,, as well as Karen\’s comment below on new contact info.

I stumbled upon your blog today and really enjoyed reading several of your posts! I’m a homeschoolin’ mama in southern Indiana and your blog is a wonderful journey for me to embark upon and to share with my hooligans. Thanks so much for taking the time to post! I look forward to more adventures–both past posts and future.


Ecotourism activities in the protected bird areas such as Tmatboey complement WCS’s ( work of wildlife conservation by providing an alternative source of revenue to local communities, tying their increased income to program success.
In furthering efforts to implement best practices in ecotourism, WCS has formally partnered with the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation (SVC) in Siem Reap, for the management of tourist access to the protected bird areas.
Please contact SVC for more information on visiting Tmatboey and other protected birding sites in Cambodia. (

Hi Karen,

I’ve been lurking so long that I feel like I should pop up and say hello. 🙂

I really loved this post. Well, actually, I love most of your posts. I like the sense that I’m there with you, visualizing how you go about your day, how you try and learn from the people as you research your stories.

Thanks for the info, Karen!

And thanks for popping up to say hi, Wandering Chopsticks. I’ll try to spare you the endless hours of sitting on boats and buses, trudging through sweltering jungles, or just waiting for something to happen. I love my work, but patience runs thin on some days!

Dear Karen & All,

How are you doing up there? So far so missing all of you and the lovely porjects I used to serve for.
Please kindly share my greeting to all of our family members. My heart is still going on with the project.

I may help the project on some option if required and Hope to see you sometime again!

Warmest Regards,
Former Office & Eco-Tourism Coordinator
SVC & Osmose.

Rath, so nice of you to comment! I wish we could return to Cambodia soon. Sadly, our plans for winter break have changed, as Jerry won’t be able to travel there in the next few months due to his current medical condition. Maybe in May….

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