Sunday, August 08, 2010

Same Same... But Different

July 25th - July 29th 2010:  5D4N in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Famed for its presence of Angkor Wat and rich Khmer history, Siem Reap has been on my to-see list for quite awhile now.  Finally, in July this year, I set off to experience firsthand this little city with a bloodied past.

Bat-mobile or Tuk tuk?
There are not that many international flights going into Cambodia, most of which start from Thailand, Vietnam, or Singapore.  For more information, see the official airport website here.  Luckily for us Singaporeans, JetStar flies from Singapore to Cambodia 3 times a week - Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.  The flights leave at 6 A.M. Singapore time and arrive in Cambodia at about 7 A.M. local time.  Since arrival into Cambodia is pretty early, you'll want to check with your lodging site if they can accomodate an early check-in for you.  Else, it'd be a good idea to just drop your bags off at your hotel/hostel before heading out for some breakfast or a walk through the markets.  Siem Reap International Airport is about 8 KM from from the city centre, and a motorcycle or tuk-tuk ride should cost you about US$1, cars maybe about US$5 based on information from other travel websites.  Personally, we took the tuk-tuk everywhere as it was inexpensive and a great way to take in the sights of the city.  Plus, you get to feel every dip and bump in the roads, adding an additional thrill factor to the ride!

Day 1 - R&R
Since our hotel was a 5 minutes' walk away from the Angkor National Museum and our room was not ready, we decided to walk over and take in an early tour of the musuem.  Check out the Museum's website for any ongoing promotions - until September 30th, 2010, there are discounts for museum tickets reserved online, and no payment has to be made upfront.  Perhaps we went a little too early, we were one of the less than 10 visitors around, but we found the museum to be a tad stuffy, maybe the AC was still warming up or not on at all since there were too few guests around.  Coupled with our tiredness from lack of sleep the previous night, the museum tour bordered on average to poor.  Many of the relics and statues recovered were incomplete, making it a bit difficult to appreciate the craftsmanship of the statues completely.  One could only imagine what the full statue would have looked like based on the worded descriptions attached to them.  Unless you're an avid history/museum buff, the Angkor National Museum does not make it to my list of 'Must-See' places in Siem Reap.

After an hour-odd long walk through the roomfuls of incomplete relics, we walked back towards the hotel.  On the way, we passed some souvenier shops were I luckily found SD memory cards to purchase, albeit at a rather hefty price.  But under such circumstances, it was buy or no-photos-for-the-entire-trip.  So I haggled for a bit, and got a 2GB card for US$18 - ouch.  Note to self: remember to double check camera bag before going to bed before a flight out... Back at the hotel, we headed to the pool to cool off before lunch, which was a traditional Khmer cuisine menu included in our hotel booking.  The lunch kicked off with a Green Mango Salad with some sort of dried fish, and the sharp tastes in the salad did not go down well with our taste buds, so we did not touch most of it.  Looking across at another couple's table, we noticed they had the same reaction to the dish as well, so we felt a little less guilty at having to waste that dish.  Perhaps the hotel should look into refining that dish, or taking it off the menu altogether.  The next few dishes were pretty alright - stir fried vegetables, fish and beef, Amok fish in neat little pandan leave baskets, followed by a rich dessert of yam in coconut sago.  Stuffed by a full lunch, our room was finally ready so we headed up for a much needed siesta, and would wake up in time for dinner out in town.

Tuk-tuks are ever present in Siem Reap, especially near hotels, so we got one easily and after settling on US$2, we rode out toward the Old Market Area.  This is a very popular tourist spot both during the day and at night (Pub Street).  In the evening, the many dining establishments are brightly lit and the air is filled with an eclectic mish-mash of sounds - music coming from the foreign establishments, the clanging of ladles against woks in the neighbouring local food stalls, the beckoning cries of shopowners enticing you to soak your feet in a tank of deadflesh-eating fish (they look very different from the usual doctor fish I've seen in Singapore, though), and the beeping of horns from tuk-tuks and motorcycles along the busy lanes - all racing to get their hungry/thirsty passengers to their destination.  After some recommendations from friends and some research online, I arrived in Cambodia armed with a list of 'Must-Eats' (see attachments at the end of this post for the full listing).  After having sampled Khmer cuisine earlier in the afternoon, we decided we would go with something more familiar and comforting for dinner - so iViva! Mexican Bar and Grill it was.  With frozen margaritas at US$2 per glass, it was not very hard to decide on drinks.  Food wise, we had Chimichangas, nachos, BBQ-ed wings, onion rings, pork tenderloin and Carne Asada.  Comfort food - 3 mains, 3 sides and 3 drinks for under US$30!

Traditional  Khmer Cuisine @ hotel, Cheap drinks all day along the famed Pub Street

Pub Street in the evening

US$2 frozen margaritas at iViva! Mexican Bar & Grill
80% tequila, 20% strawberry freeze!

It started to pour just as we left the restaurant, so we ducked into nearby The Blue Pumpkin for shelter and some ice cream.  TBP has many tricks under its white roof - bakery, ice cream, restaurant, lounge and catering all rolled into one very zen setting.  The pastries appear pretty popular, because even at 8 P.M. people were still streaming in to buy whatever was left on the almost-empty shelves.  Us rain refugees on the other hand, plonked ourselves on a seat downstairs, ice cream cones in hand, people watching till the rain let up.

Once the rain lightened to a drizzle, we ventured back out and found ourselves at the Siem Reap Night Market diagonally across from Pub Street.  If you've ever been through Bangkok's Chatujak Market or Suan Lom night market, the stalls at all the day/night markets in Siem Reap are highly reminiscent of those.  Typical tourist items are on sale - silks, local handicrafts, t-shirts, sundresses, alibaba pants.  Bargaining is an aboslute must, offer to pay only what you feel the item is worth - without insulting the shopkeepers of course.  My travel mate quite easily haggled a recycled bag for US$3 down from US$13, imagine that!  Overall, the markets are a nice walkthru' for souveniers, silk products and summer clothing without burning a hole in your pocket.
Nice textured paintings, typical market bazaar lane

Day 2 - Sunset ATV Ride
Another leisurely day which began with a hearty breakfast at the hotel, followed by a walk through the stalls at Old Market which were closed the evening before.  The wet market was open too, and this was quite a sight to behold.  Mats were laid on the floors in the lanes of the market area, and vegetables, fish were strewn on display.  Hordes of houseflies swarmed around, most unsanitary.  We have wet markets in Singapore too, but they are still proper stalls and not a mess on the floor like this.  An eye-opener for sure.  After some shopping, lunch was at the Khmer Kitchen - another popular tourist restaurant for the local cuisine.  A good lunch for three just over US$10.  Gotta love the cheap drinks and eats here.

Wet market, dried goods (snakeskins!), recycled bags, Khmer Kitchen

Knockoff Lonely Planets & other books, knockoff Ray-Bans,
More handicraft akin to Chatujak's alleys, bicyles are common form of transport

Post lunch, we headed back to the hotel where my mates got massages and I my internet fix, while waiting for our pick-up to take us to our Quad Bike Adventure sunset ride which we had booked the previous day.  True to what is stated on their website, some tour operators we walked-in upon, and even our hotel, told us that the Quad Bike was no longer in operation - later we found out from the owner that this was mostly due to disputes over commission, etc.  Well, so if you can't find a tour operator to book you on the Quad Bike, just give them a call direct and they'll provide free pick-up from any location.  Easy peasy.

Before you're allowed to go for the full fledged tour on the quad bike, everyone is subjected to a short test on the bike to see if you're able to handle and manoeuvre the bike alone.  Having a driving license isn't a must, but is preferred.  Once you've passed the test, we gear up and off we go (the gear must be a new addition, because fongie wasn't so lucky on her ATV ride, or perhaps they learnt a thing or two from her unfortunate experience)! :P

Buffaloes grazing under watchful eyes of the herder dog, sliver of a sunset out in the padi fields

The ride begins through some slum areas, and we're riding on the roads, not some specially paved out lanes for the quad bikes.  It was quite heart breaking to see all the little kids along the way, whom are barely clothed or well-fed, but have the sweetest smiles and laughter when you wave back at them or say 'hi' back at them.  Awwww.  The adults, however, look less pleased to see us roaring by on the noisy quad bikes.  It made me wonder if they found it invasive, or if there was some previous unfortunate incident with the quad bikes which eventually led to the boycotting of the this quad bike company amongst some locals.  Personally I felt a bit bad going through the housing area as well, 'cos these are real lives the people are living, and they're not animals on display in a zoo.  Nevertheless, I tried my best to keep my eye on the road (to avoid piles of cow dung, stray animals dashing out, and especially the small kids) and to wave/hi back whenever I felt confident enough to steer the bike one-handed.

Because it rained earlier that day, the roads leading up to the paddy fields were caked with mud, and it was quite an experience to see mud specks dancing up on either side of you like confetti strewn at a party.  I didn't know whether to laugh or frown (frown because I kept wondering what the state of my new camera bag was in by now, what with the flying mud and all), but it's always best to immerse yourself in the journey itself, so I let the low humming of the bike's engine and the wind whipping across my face lead me onward.

Best fun ever!

Quad bike adventure over (my bag surprisingly emerged unscathed from the mud, thank God), we got a ride out into the Wat Damnak area for dinner at Alliance Cafe.  An art gallery cum restaurant housed in an old colonial building, Alliance Cafe has both Cambodian and French cuisine on its menu.  We had the fried spring rolls from the Cambodian menu, and everything else from the French menu - French onion soup, Pork mignon, Duck confit (melts in your mouth - must try!), and a beef steak.  Food was good, but the house wine was a bit sharp, have had better.  Prices at Alliance Cafe are slightly higher than the average restaurant, but the food quality is there.  After yet another sinful dinner, we head back to the hotel for an early night in wake of the next day's activity - full day tour of Angkor Wat.

Alliance Cafe interior/exterior, French onion soup, Red label duck confit

Day 3 - Angkor Wat's Its Name?
After having read that tours to Angkor City were easily arrangable through hotels or tour operators in Old Market area, we scouted out a few operators in Old Market area and ended up with a shared tour organized by Holystone Travel.  At US$15 per head, the tour consisted of to/fro pickup, transportation from temple to temple in Angkor City, cold water supply, and an English speaking guide.  For the day's tour, we would be visiting what is known as the small tour - Angkor Thom complex, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Pre Rup, Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng for the sunset.

As with most religious temple site visits, do remember to dress modestly if you want to head into the more sacred areas - ladies, this means no sleeveless tops.

Arrival at Angkor Thom complex, the site is clearly flooded with hordes of other tourists as well.  We get a short Khmer history lesson from our knowledgeable and fairly fluent guide (whom we find out at the end of the tour is also the director of Holystone Travel, Mr Vithyea Chhoun himself)!  As we made our way around the temples, it was mind boggling how much effort the people had put into building these gorgeous temples, not only in its design, but the sheer detail of all the bas reliefs were simply awe inspiring.  However, the number of headless statues around and fallen passageways also reflect the painful past of the Khmer folk.  With each new King rising, the nation gets thrown into disarray by conflicting religions, until one King finally sought to unite both Hinduism and Buddhism, in an attempt to unite the bleeding country.  But even to this day, one still gets the feeling that the country has yet to firmly establish an identity of its own.  There is nothing outstanding, apart from the presence of Angkor City, that you would distinctly remember Cambodia for.  Perhaps the country is still healing, and hopefully one day they would be able to distinguish themselves for something great other than the sacred ruins of Angkor Wat.
Don't blink the second you step infront of the webcam (negative example here!), restoration efforts to replace the stolen heads of the statues - discolouration over the years will make the head & body uniformly coloured in time to come.

My personal favourite amongst the temple crawl was Pre Rup.  A temple mountain built as a state temple for a Khmer king, one can sense the serenity the place brings when you make your way right to the top.  It is a bit of a climb being 3 tiers up, but the breeze and view from the top is worth the effort.  Steep and narrow steps are pretty common amongst the temples, but some are now accompanied by wider man-made staircases alongside.

July being part of the peak wet season in Cambodia, it rained for a short bit in the afternoon that day as well, and by evening we were quite beat from the scorching morning sun and the day's temples that we decided to skip Phnom Bakheng for what would have been a dismal sunset since it was a cloudy evening anyway.  Moreover, we were not enticed by the long climb up to squeeze around with a thousand other tourists who flock there daily.  I think partly I was also tired out from being stalked by the numerous children peddling goods for US$1 at Angkor Wat.  I think it would have been so much better if they had setup makeshift stalls by the sides instead of going up to tourists to force their goods on them.  People are always more receptive to buying when they are not being forced into it.  I passed by a group of young boys painting pictures to peddle, and his artwork looked pretty impressive.  I was almost compelled to buy one, but I feared the other kids circling nearby would pounce upon me the minute I flashed some greenbacks to this one, so I kept my money in my pocket and carried on walking.

Marked as an UNESCO heritage site, quite a number of the Angkor ruins are under continual conservation and restoration works, so it is not unusual to see scaffolding and construction tarps around. These may spoil an otherwise postcard photo opportunity, but such works are crucial to keep the temples standing and open for public viewing.  There are several temples within Angkor City, some further out than others.  If time permits, it would probably be a better idea to break the tour of the city into a couple of days - there is a 3 day pass for US$40 available, rather than cram everything into 1 day like we did.  You'd be able to absorb more of the temples' beauty and not be tired out that way.

Out and about in Angkor City, Angkor Wat.

Requisite postcard photo of Angkor Wat & its reflection in the lake

Black & white photo (subscribe to our blog for a link to see my small gallery of B+w photos during the trip!)

More comfort food for dinner at Happy Herb Pizza.  Our hotel did not allow us to order-in (maybe we shouldn't have asked, duh), so we tuk-tuked out to grab our grub.  Good pizza, and interesting take on the garlic bread - bread slices with actual chunks of raw garlic in between.  Truly only for the garlic lovers!

Day 4 - Thunderstorm, Struggling Powerboat, Tonle Sap Lake
Not having anything in particular planned for our last day in Siem Reap, we got online after breakfast to see if there was anything interesting left to do in Siem Reap.  From the 'activities to do' list off TripAdvisor, we picked the Tara Riverboat, ranked #13 of 77 attractions.  Since the tour only began at 3.30 P.M., we headed out towards Sivatha Road for some foot reflexology and mani-peni at Lemongrass Garden which we came across in one of those tourist guide maps.  The verdict?  Pricey and weak massage, and average manicurists.  Little wonder we were the only ones in the salon that morning.

A light brunch of BBQ-ed wings, fried gyoza and fries (they served up wedges instead - the interpretation of 'fries' really varies from restaurant to restaurant, as our experience proved) at Nest, then back to the hotel for a quick dip in the pool.


Lady commandeering her boat
out of the docks
The skies began to darken later that afternoon, and sure enough by the time we got out onto the river, it began to rain.  Seems like my trips of late have been hankered by rain, eh.  Well, no harm, we were prepared with ponchos this time!  So, the whole tour group consisted of only 1 other Australian girl and my party of 3.  We thought there may be other smaller boats headed out to the big Tara Boat as well, but it was apparent when we reached the Tara, it was just the 4 of us as guests, with a crew of about 10 people enjoying themselves at the back of the boat on the hammocks.  It was a rainy evening anyway, and we weren't very hungry for more Khmer food, so we gave the kitchen an easy time by ordering only 1 Khmer green curry and an order of fries.  Drinks onboard were free-flow, but somehow we weren't feeling very alcholic that evening and settled with soft drinks instead.  Maybe the inner OCD inside of us felt that sticking to canned drinks were safer looking at the rather dank conditions of the 'bar'.  When the rain cleared up and the sun began to set, we headed up to the roof for a clearer view, but we were greeted by giant cobwebs instead.  I had never come across such thick, white, cobwebs in my life (fake ones at halloween parties not included), and tried my best not to freak out.  I didn't want to be swallowing any cobwebs either.  So after a few quick clicks of the camera, down we went to the non-cobweb infested deck.  I wonder how long it's been since people last went up on the Tara's top deck?!

After yet another dismal sunset in Siem Reap, we departed back on the smaller riverboat for the floating villages.  Now this was truly an eye-opener for me, never having really seen third-world living conditions firsthand.  Home was a shabbily constructed mash of wood on stilts.  Water supply was the river outside your door - for cooking, bathing, and everything else you can think of.  I doubt there were water heaters in there either.  But in some houses you could see they had a TV still - reinforcing the power of TV media.  It reaches even the poorest of homes out on the river.  The 'rich' folk on the river were the ones running the provision stores.  I guessed some of the other homes do not even bring home US$1 a day, and this was confirmed by our guide later on.  Again, it felt a bit bad to be taking too many photographs of the floating villages as we went by, I really did not want the people to feel like they were being paraded - even though in actual fact, that's what it was.  Hopefully, more awareness can be brought to these river folk, and their lives could be bettered.  I can't imagine having to move my house everytime the river flooded.

Small river boats, brothers fishing, big Tara boat, kids peddling photos of them in buckets + pythons around their necks for, you guessed it, US$1, river housing

Tour over, skies darkening and thunderstorm appearing, we attempted to head back to shore, but the ride was painfully slow.  Seems like the riverboat was experiencing some engine woes, and even though every other boat and sampan whizzed by us, we thankfully made it back to shore eventually without having to swim.

Last indulgent dinner for the trip - Paris Saigon in Wat Bo.  In a very cosy but elegant setting, the restaurant is almost a hole-in-the-wall, and could probably seat about a maximum of 20 people.  Menu is French and Vietnamese, the food a bit bland for our taste.  Good choice for the health conscious though.  My meal of fried fish slices, ratatouille and pasta turned out to be the tastiest dish of the evening.

Some cheesy bread appetizer, french onion soup,
Bœuf bourguignon, Fried fish with ratatouille and macaroni.

Day 5 - Back to civilization as we know it
Hooray for budget airlines.
Again, an early flight out back to Singapore.  Our hotel ride took us on a short detour to see the last bits of sunrise at Angkor City, a very sweet gesture on their part.  We worried that we would end up late at the airport, but turns out, Siem Reap ain't that big after all.  Traffic isn't a problem either.  A half-hour stopover at Phomn Penh, and back to Singapore it was.  I could sum up the whole trip's sights and tastes as "same same... but different" (got the idea from the printed t-shirts at the markets, and now perhaps I understand why).  The only unique thing I will remember about Cambodia, apart from the beautiful Angkor ruins and cheap eats/drinks, are the voices of the shopwomen going, "Lay-dee, lay-dee, you buy scarf? You buy cold dreeenk? One dollah...."

Hotel Review

Tara Angkor Hotel
A relatively new kid on the block (opened in 2007), the Tara Angkor Hotel is a 4-star hotel, and generally lives up to its star rating by local standards.  Room rates are quite pricey from US$120 per night per room, so unless there's a suitable promotion going on, this hotel does not exactly scream 'budget'.  I would have preferred to room at a guesthouse, but there're always the travelling companions to take into consideration when making a consensus on lodging.  Split 3 ways, Tara was still manageable at US$170++ per person for 4 nights, though I'm sure this still borders on expensive for the average stay in Cambodia.  Something new to me too, was a list of items in the room for sale.  Basically anything you could find in the room, there was a price tag attached to it - right down to the ceramic tags on the bottles of shampoo/body wash. -__-"

Raves:  Clean rooms, small but nice pool, nice poolside snacks, daily paper.

Rants:  We noticed they wash the floors quite often, like every half an hour? Perhaps they are not short on water there..  Housekeeping is done twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the evening.  Remember to put a 'Do not disturb' sign on your door if you want to take an afternoon siesta.
The hotel takes on a more grandeur appearance at night as compared to in the daytime.

Posted by dawn.wong on 8/08/2010 04:37:00 PM in , , , , ,