15 August 2009
When I bought our tickets several months ago, the flight going to Siem Reap came out very cheap. However, the flight coming back came out expensive (tickets were expensive plus the heavy 25 USD departure tax levied upon foreigners) – so we decided, why not fly out from either Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh? We immediately scratched out the Bangkok option since the ticket was still pricey and besides we would be there during Halloween this year. It was decided that we would be flying out from Ho Chi Minh, 12 hours away by bus from Siem Reap.
The original plan was to take a direct bus ride to Ho Chi Minh and just spend the night there but since we have already been there before (and I was there for the second time last July), we decided to take a side trip to Phnom Penh and spend Saturday night there.
It was an early day again for us since the shuttle going to Phnom was scheduled to leave at 7:00 AM; there was a complimentary pick-up at our guesthouse at 6:30 AM so we had to wake up an hour before to prepare. The price of the 12-seater shuttle going to Phnom Penh was 11 USD and it promised to take us there in 4 hours (versus the 6 hours travel time if one takes the bus).
The tuktuk that took us to the shuttle terminal arrived 10 minutes before the scheduled departure, it turned out though that we were the last passenger that was picked up; hence we didn’t have to wait that much and at exactly 7 in the morning, we were bound for Phnom Penh already.
The ride to Phnom Penh was a horrible one; the shuttle we rode must have probably had a defective shock absorber, as it was very bumpy from my seat. It didn’t help much that I was seated just above the rear right wheel. It was a good thing though that I was very drowsy that morning so I just basically slept for the duration of the trip (although my sleep was disturbed a lot of times when we encounter some bumps on the road). In all fairness to the shuttle operator, we arrived exactly on time in Phnom Penh.
Upon stepping out of the shuttle, we were greeted by hoards of tuktuk driver each with all of them offering for a ride somewhere in town. They were very persistent and somehow rude (as they wouldn’t stop even when you say no) unlike their counterpart in Siem Reap who would immediately leave you alone once you say so.
First things first, we needed to get our ticket to Ho Chi Minh for the following day. The earlier the departure time, the better it would be since it would be a 6 hour ride and our return flight to Singapore would leave at 2:50 PM.
We headed to the nearest travel agency along the street and inquired about the earliest bus going to the capital of Vietnam. The earliest trip would be at 6 in the morning and costs 12 USD. It already comes with a free pick-up from the guesthouse. I thought this would just be perfect since we would arrive in Ho Chi Minh at approximately 12 noon and we will have an allowance of 2 hours before the counter closes. I was about to buy the ticket when I remembered that we still do not have a place to stay in the city. The travel agent recommended Waterview Guesthouse, which was located just around the corner. They even offered a free ride going there as I guess they will be given some commission for every guest they bring.
We took the free ride, as it was too hot to walk around. Upon viewing the place, we figured that it was good enough for a night and it came out really cheap (at that point, we were really in for a bargain as we were already running really low in cash). We checked-in for one night and bought our bus tickets there as well. I paid using my credit card and took a 3% surcharge just so we can have enough cash to survive for one more day in a foreign land.
After unpacking our stuffs, we headed out to grab some lunch. We decided to have lunch at the Boddhi Tree Cafe, a lovely restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, which was located just across the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. As the museum was still close, we had sufficient time to really enjoy and savor our lunch. As usual, we ordered some Khmer dish. One thing I noticed was that all of the customers there were Caucasians except us; it made me conclude that there were really a lot of western tourists in Cambodia. It made me somehow sad in thinking as to why the Philippines cannot have this many visitors as well.
By 2:30 PM, we were already finished and walked across the street towards Tuol Sleng. There were beggars at the museum entrance asking for money, the most noticeable amongst them was the landmine victim and the man whose face was horribly deformed by some sort of accident. I felt sad in seeing those poor people but the sadness was nothing compared to the sadness I experienced when I entered Tuol Sleng.
I will not elaborate what I saw inside but suffice to say the Genocide Museum really got me affected. I am not an emotional person but dark history behind the place was simply too much for someone to imagine. One can simply wonder as to how evil a person can become if given the power. I felt deeply sad when we stepped outside the museum compound.
We headed back to the Boddhi Tree Cafe and grabbed something to drink; it was comforting to be inside that restaurant again after the visit in Tuol Sleng. After a few minutes of silent reflection, we regained our sanity and immediately hopped into a tutkuk for a ride to the Royal Palace.
It was already too late when we reached the Royal Palace as it was already closed for the day. We did the next best thing by walking around outside the complex and took some pictures. Phnom Penh is quite similar to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh - wide streets, tall trees lining up the sidewalks and old colonial houses; call this French influence as these places used to be colonies of France.
We headed down towards Sisowath Quay and checked out the various stalls along the streets. The FCC branch in the city caught our attention and we did not hesitate to avail of the happy hour promo where draft beef costs just a dollar. The good location that we got at the topmost floor that offered a good view of the Tonle Sap River plus a mug of cold (and cheap!) beer and pan of all meat pizza satisfied our soul.
Slowly, we started walking back to our guesthouse. Just like the two previous mornings, it will be an early day again tomorrow. The pick-up time will be at 5:30.
I said a quick prayer before I called it a night; for the thousands of people who were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime and most especially to those who met their gruesome end inside Tuol Sleng…
However, just like the Cambodians, I know that I have to move on as tomorrow will be another day and I have a plane to catch.
14 August 2009
The 2nd day in Siem Reap started very early; the alarm went off at around 4:15 and we wasted no time and hurriedly prepared ourselves. Snacks, guidebooks, notebook and camera in tow, I was all set to witness the mystical sunrise once more in Angkor Wat.
We went down from our room a good thirty minutes later and were met at the front desk by our guide whom we hired the day before through our guesthouse. We went on to meet Seth, who was patiently waiting for us (we agreed to be fetched at 4:30 AM), in the main road. Immediately we went inside the tuktuk and headed towards Angkor Wat.
While on our way, our tour guide introduced himself as Vanna. He is a 24-year-old guy who has been in the tour guiding industry for the past three years. He came from a village just outside Phnom Penh and came to Siem Reap in order to earn a living from the booming tourism industry.
A good 20 minutes later, we were outside the western gate of Angkor Wat. Briefly we stopped just before we reached the first causeway and Vanna explained some basic stuff we need to know about the temple.
It was still a bit dark when we entered the temple grounds but you can clearly notice that the color of the sky on the east was beginning to change and brighten. It was a chilly dawn, the air was cool and damp – a hot cup of coffee would be more than welcome at that very moment. Unfortunately there wasn’t any establishment in sight; we continued walking until we went past the front gate and into the second causeway. From there, we can already see the spires of Angkor Wat.
Vanna suggested that we find a good place somewhere near the northern pond as that spot offered one of the best places to witness sunrise. We were not surprised to see other tourists who came much earlier than us and already positioned themselves for the much-awaited sunrise.
As if the gods heard my longing for a hot cup of coffee, a woman approached me and said “buy hot coffee from me sir for 1 dollar and I will lend you a chair” – I said “sure, give me 2 cups of coffee and 2 chairs”. A few minutes later, we were comfortably seated very near the northern pond with a hot cup of coffee in hand.
The wait for the sun to rise from behind Angkor Wat was one of those rare moments in my life as a traveler wherein I really felt a sense of inner peace within myself. In that brief moment, I sat down, enjoyed my coffee and really savored the moment without a care in the world. Cheesy as it may sound but yes, I considered it as one of those magical moments in my life. It really was a joy and beauty to see the sky brighten up and changed colors while the rays of the sun slowly light up the ruins of the ancient temple.
We finished the sunrise viewing with a photo taken by Vanna, it was his first shot of us and it was a lovely shot.
Afterwards we started the tour of Angkor Wat; we entered the temple from the NW entrance. The bas-relief on the Battle of Lanka was explained to us, we learned from thereon that this was one of the more famous Hindu legends in Cambodia.
We moved in a counter clockwise direction with Vanna carefully explaining to us the meaning of the various reliefs and pointed out the important sections of the gallery. There are some sections of the gallery wherein the reliefs looked like polished sandstone; this was the result of years of rubbing by pilgrims.
We spent probably at least an hour and a half inside Angkor Wat before my stomach went grumbling; I guess it was telling me that it was time to have breakfast. I let Vanna and Seth decide on where we will eat as I have read somewhere that they will be getting free food for every tourist they bring to the food establishment; getting free food will certainly go a long way to these guys. They took us to this small Khmer restaurant inside the ancient city Angkor Thom where I ordered a spicy Khmer beef dish. It turned out to be very good; these guys know the places to eat.
The next 2 hours after breakfast, we explored the ruins inside Angkor Thom. We restarted our tour at the Bayon; this is one of the most famous creations of the god-king Jayavarman VII. There were bas-reliefs in this temple as well, which depicted everyday life in ancient Cambodia. The highlight of this particular ruins are the 54 stone towers that each comes with 4 mysterious faces.
From the Bayon, we stopped by the Terrace of the Elephant and the Terrace of the Leper King. The famous Jayavarman VII (or simply J-7 according to Vanna) also built these two structures.
We left Angkor Thom shortly after and headed out towards Ta Prohm. This particular temple was pretty much left in the same condition as when it was found. The giant trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings helped made this ruin becoming one of the most popular temples with visitors. And yes, this was again built by J-7; specifically as a temple to honor his mother.
Pretty much exhausted from all the walking and the heat of the sun, we left Ta Prohm at slightly past noontime. We had lunch at a small Khmer restaurant recommended by Vanna before we headed out towards Kbal Spean, a temple that is more than an hour away from the city.
As it was a very long tuktuk ride, the breeze was too much to resist. I managed to get some shut-eye for more than half the time on the way to our destination.
I arrived refreshed from that brief siesta which turned out to be good, as we needed to hike uphill for approximately 1.5 km before actually reaching Kbal Spean. It took us approximately 30 minutes before we reached the site. Not much to see here except for some stone carving in the riverbeds depicting Hindi gods. There was a small waterfall nearby, it was just too bad that we were not aware of this otherwise we could have brought with us extra clothing for swimming.
Another 30 minutes of trekking going down plus another 30 minutes in the tuktuk and we arrived in our final destination, Banteay Srei – a site that was highly recommended by my brother. Arguably, this is considered by many as the crown jewel amongst the Angkor temples. Although very small in size as compared to the other ruins, it makes up in its carvings, which are very fine and intricate. Easily, this became my new favorite temple.
It was already past 5 in the afternoon when we headed back to town; we were very tired, weary and dirty from a fully packed whole day temple tour but nonetheless we were very happy and we got a dose of a good adventure.
It really helped a lot that we got a guide for this as it enabled us to understand and appreciate the wonderful ruins that we saw. It also helped a lot that Vanna can take good photos, so at least we got to document wonderful snaps for posterity sake. If you happen to be traveling in Siem Reap and would want to get a guide in the temple, please contact Vanna by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We got back to our guesthouse at around 6 in the evening, we rested a bit and freshen up. We bought our van tickets to Phnom Penh and had a brief dinner for one last time in Siem Reap – at least for this particular trip that is.
13 August 2009
It was Thursday and I finished working at around 2 in the morning and afterwards I hurriedly went back to my apartment to prepare for a much-awaited trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia – my 2nd visit actually. The first one was with some college friends more than a year ago.
I managed to do some quick packing before going out of the apartment at around past 3:30 AM, no choice but to take a taxi – 15 minutes later, I was already in Terminal 1 of Changi International Airport. The check-in process was a breeze as it was still very early, too early in fact for any stores to be open inside the airport. It was a good thing that I had a Priority Pass membership, which enabled me to have 2 free access to selected airport lounges all over the world in a given year. We availed this at the Rainforest Lounge inside Changi Terminal 1. The food they prepared inside was not very fancy but it was enough to keep our stomach warm and most importantly we did have a place to stay before our 6:00 AM flight.
Flight 3K 599 of Jetstar left on time and as soon as the plane was in cruising altitude, I was already in slumberland. It was a smooth ride as my sleep was uninterrupted until the stewardess asked me to adjust my seat back into upright position, a sign that we were about to land in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The plane touched down a few minutes after at the Siem Reap International Airport. This said airport is very small (small for an international airport) but I was very impressed with it. It looks very modern and is very clean; I guess they must have invested a lot for this place, as it is the gateway of the Temples of Angkor – a massive tourist attraction in which the town heavily relied on.
A local driver picked us up from the airport and from there we got a free tuktuk ride to our guesthouse, Green Garden Home. We were given an early check-in as requested and immediately I took the opportunity to get some rest.
I woke up at around an hour before noontime with a grumbling stomach, it was a clear sign that we should find a place to eat in the next hour or so. We went out of the street and were immediately greeted by touts who were offering their tuktuk service around the Angkor temples. We managed to get the service of Seth, a driver who agreed to pick us up at sunrise and to drive us to temples that are more than an hour away from town for a decent price. He also agreed to drive us in the afternoon to get our tickets as well as drive us to one of the temples for a glimpse of the sunset.
Seth gave us a complimentary ride to the gallery of John McDermott, an American photographer who now resides in Cambodia; his striking sepia-style images gave us a preview of the temples in a different light.
After admiring the excellent works of John McDermott, we strolled down the river and found ourselves around the Bar Street area. We settled down and had lunch in this chic restaurant called Blue Pumpkin. Food was okay, better than average but the ambiance there was just so relaxing.
I was fully recharged after eating and having a power nap; immediately we started strolling around the area. The shops in bar street proved to be very interesting – lots of restaurants, pubs, travel agencies, galleries, spas and various shops.
As it was still early for us to start our afternoon tour, we availed of an hour long Khmer Massage at “U & Me Spa” – what we had was pure reflexology in a very relaxed environment. It was something we really need before we start our fully packed temple tour.
It was almost 4 in the afternoon when we stepped out of the spa, just in time for us to meet Seth. He drove us to the ticket booth for us to buy our temple pass. This temple pass is available 1 (20 USD), 3 (40 USD), or 7 (60 USD) days. The 3-day pass is valid for a week, while the 7-day pass is valid for a month. Since we bought the ticket late in the afternoon before the first day of the pass, we can use it to enter the park after 5:00 PM to view the sunset. These passes are non-transferable and includes the photo of the owner.
Phnom Bakheng, the first temple mountain constructed in Angkor was our sunset stop. This temple had a very good view of the surrounding area and is an extremely popular place for sunsets. We went up the hill via an elephant which was quite expensive, but then again we paid for the experience so I guess it was not so bad.
There were crowds all over the place (as expected) when we reached the top. We managed to climb all the way up the steep temple stairs. The view on top was good, and we did get to explore the place a bit before it got dark.
The hike going down took approximately 10 minutes, and it was already dark when we arrived at the foot of the hill. Seth took us back to our guesthouse and bade farewell for the day.
We relaxed for a bit by dipping in the small pool inside the Green Garden compound – this pool was the clincher as to why we choose this guesthouse over the other names we initially considered.
It was time to head back to Bar Street after refreshing ourselves. The place was different at night, it was so lively, colorful and loud. We found ourselves in The Alley and had supper at this place called Khmer Kitchen Restaurant; it was said that Sir Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones once ate on this joint. It was a good place for us to be initially exposed to Cambodian food.
We then had a few drinks at this place called Banana Leaf while watching Cambojam, a local band composed of 2 Filipino vocalists.
Shortly thereafter, we called it a night as there was a sunrise appointment at the Angkor Wat the following day.