Lessons in Cambodia: Photography and Cooking Classes

Cambodia is rich in culture and photography opportunities, such as this scene from Angkor Wat. Photo by KJ Gan
Cambodia is rich in culture and photography opportunities, such as this scene from Angkor Wat. Photo by KJ Gan

So I shot him.

Up against a wall with the love of his life – his beloved camera. Armed with my Canon 600D and fresh out of photography class, I was anxious to show the teacher I’d learned something. So, with his permission, I lined him up and took aim.

This last summer, I decided to do something a little different with my break. I wanted to try out a learning holiday, one where I wouldn’t just do the usual tourist thing, but where I would actually pick up some skills. So I flew from my home in Singapore to Cambodia, where Nathan Horton’s Angkor Weekend, a four-day photography course, seemed able to fulfill part of my goal.

Lessons began with a short theory session. I was hoping I would be able to concentrate, being restless and ADHD to boot, but I needn’t have worried. The breathtaking slides of South-East Asia Nathan showed us helped me stay focused. After lunch, we went for our first location shoot at Ta Prohm. It was great to be able to put theory into practice so quickly and the tree-engulfed temple was itself an eye-opener in many ways.

Scenes from Cambodia. Photo by KJ Gan
Scenes from Cambodia. Photo by Kam Jean Gan

Nathan is an Englishman who has been living and working in Cambodia for five years. A veritable mine of information on Cambodian temples and Cambodia, he checks camera settings while simultaneously providing commentary on the current political situation in Cambodia and interesting snippets of Cambodian history.

As he has become friends with some of the locals who work or live at the photographic locations, he was able to set up shoots with monks and villagers that would be out of reach of the average tourist. It was these little touches that made our lessons that much more enjoyable.

It was very useful to have someone right there to point out mistakes and suggest ways to improve the composition, the lighting, the overall effect, etc. And because, in spite of all our efforts, it still proved impossible to produce perfect shots, the last day of the course was a post-production session. We learned how to tweak our photos and make them look more professional. My photos improved a great deal and when I showed them to friends and family back home, their astonishment and admiration bordered on being insulting. (“You mean you took this photo???)

The next two days of my holiday were spent slaving over a hot stove. Almost everyone has heard of, and tasted Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but Cambodian cuisine is more elusive, so I just had to find out more.

Photographing crispy cake in Cambodia
Photographing crispy cake in Cambodia. Photo by Kam Jean Gan

“This is husband-killing cake!” the cooking instructor announced cheerfully. As she launched into the tale behind the cake, I stared hard at it. How would you expect a cake with a name like that to look? Slabby, dough-ey, brick-like, surely? I was surprised to see tiny, pure white glistening globes topped with snowy shavings of fresh coconut. And yes, they were sweet.

This class took place in the heart of Treak Village in Siem Reap, at a small boutique hotel called Sojourn.

Class began with a walking tour of the village so the guide could point out some of the plants I’d be using in the dishes: lemon grass, eggplant, amok leaves. Then we dropped in on a villager who had agreed beforehand to be part of my education. Her kitchen was a small attap hut with only three walls. On a low platform inside, a pot was boiling over a charcoal stove while she sat peeling bamboo shoots which she’d just harvested from her garden. As part of my tour, I presented her with a two-kilogramme bag of rice. I was also introduced to three of her ten children, who ranged in age from three to 19 years.

When we got back to Sojourn’s cooking pavilion, I found my apron and utensils neatly laid out for me on the black marble countertop, together with a portable gas stove. There was a sink with running water for washing up and a separate bottle of filtered water for cooking. The ingredients were brought over from the resort’s kitchen dish by dish, wrapped up in cling film.

I had opted for the full day class (US$35), so I spent from 10 in the morning till about 4pm at Sojourn and I learned how to make six dishes: Amok fish, Khmer mango salad, and sticky rice four balls with palm sugar (aka husband-killing cake) for lunch, and after lunch, Cambodian curry, rice rolls and nom tong noun or crispy cake.

The instructor had a matching set of ingredients and utensils and all I had to do was mirror each step as she demonstrated. Her explanations were very precise and given in clear English. I especially appreciated the way she explained the rationale behind each step. She scrutinized the way I minced the herbs and gave me some valuable pointers on how to use my knife. While the class didn’t make me suddenly able to chop onions the way Martin Yan can, I would say my knife-wielding skills improved considerably.

When I was done, the instructor put the finishing touches to the dishes and I ate in the dining pavilion, which was set over a lotus pond.

At the end of the class, before being ferried back to my hotel by tuk-tuk, I was presented with a booklet of all the recipes.

I signed up for another cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier, a charming restaurant in the heart of Old Market or Psar Chas, the main eating/shopping district in Siem Reap. All the guide books recommend tourists to sign up for cooking lessons with Le Tigre because the proceeds go to the Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant School. This school gives young Cambodians from underprivileged families a solid foundation for careers in the hospitality industry, so the feel-good factor is high when you do a class with them or even if you just buy the recipe book.

I chose three dishes from the menu: a fresh shrimp salad, amok chicken and mango with sticky rice. The class cost US$12 and lasted three hours.

Cooking classes in Cambodia
Savoeun, my instructor, led the way, pointing out the ingredients I would be using in the dishes as well as other produce typically used in Cambodian cuisine. Photo by  Kam Jean Gan

The first hour was spent visiting the nearby market. Savoeun, my instructor, led the way, pointing out the ingredients I would be using in the dishes as well as other produce typically used in Cambodian cuisine: freshwater fish, jackfruit, mango, basil, coriander, banana flower, broccoli leaf (which can be substituted for amok leaf), turmeric root, galangal, ready-made kreoung for curry.

The market will put you on a sensory overload with its sights and smells. Do wear non-slip shoes and tread carefully, the aisles between stalls can be narrow and the floor is wet in some places. You’ll see all sorts of fresh food here – from wriggling catfish to a whole pig’s head (fortunately not wriggling).

Back at the restaurant kitchen I was issued an apron and a chef’s hat and invited to wash my hands in a big basin of water with a few slices of lime in it. Once again, I had to mince and pound herbs under the exacting eye of an expert. Savoeun’s instructions were very clear, she also shared many little tips to give that extra something to the dishes, such as using banana leaves in the presentation of the food.

I must admit I wasn’t the most hard-working student, especially when it came to pounding the herbs with the giant mortar and pestle. However, the end results all tasted quite nice, even though I do say so myself! When I was done eating, I was presented with a certificate of training and recipes in the form of an email attachment – videos of 30 different dishes demonstrated step-by-step.

‘Summer school’ in Siem Reap was a unique way to experience the country and learn about its culture. Completely different from the usual shopping and eating tours — though I did my fair share of both! – it gave me a different perspective of Cambodia and Cambodians. I truly appreciate being given the opportunities and insights that would have been missing on a conventional tour.

If You Go

Nathan Horton Photography



About the author: Kam Jean Gan is a writer who takes the occasional photo. A third-generation Singaporean, she knows more than her fair share about saris, sambal and Sembawang. www.kjgan.com


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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
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