Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Siem Reap, Cambodia - A Primer

Siem Reap, Cambodia
24th to 27th July 2007 (about 3 full days)
Xueling, Xuemin, Alvin Pek and John Doe
Low tourists monsoon season
Midday furnace causing sunburn and over-exposed photos

More photos here. Comments encouraged, critiques more than welcomed.

Sleep: Bou Savy Guesthouse
Driver: Mr. Ra. - two thumbs up. very pleasant and humorous chap -
contact: dara_siemreap[at]yahoo.com - +855 92 98 69 46

Return Air tix: S$187 from Jetstar

$$$: Less than US$200 or S$300
Departure tax: $25
Accomodation: $18 * 3 nights / 4 heads = $13.5
Temples: $20
Boat to Tonle Sap: $20
Museums: $4
Tuktuk: $10
Food: $30
Shopping: $60
Tips/donations: $12.5

Highs - Experiencing the simple and delightful Cambodian life outside of the tourist traps
Lows - Discovering that hundreds of photos were ruined by the shitty wide angle lens causing severe chromatic abberation. :(

Khmer - is pronounced ke-mare.

Initial worries about overly aggressive tuk tuk/cyclo drivers soliciting for your ass, as suggested by the excellent www.talesofasia.com, were unfounded. Sure they offered their services along the way, but you can always decline with a smile/ignore/wave them off/engage in light banter, all of which i tried. Even after declining his service, I had no problem asking a helpful tuk tuk driver for directions on the map.

Siem Reap is safe, as far as I can tell from that short 3 days. I'd have no qualms about walking alone at night.

Shopping. There are a few places, but forget about the Old Market (Psar Chaa) and Central Market (Psar Kandal). Go straight for the Night Market, which I heard opened only weeks ago. The stalls there sell just about everything you can find in the previous two markets, and at a cheaper price. Very comfortable shopping environment.

Horning among vehicles is common as I found out, but not in a oei-fuck-off manner. The drivers' blaring is more exuberant than rude, and is no more than a little oncoming notification.

Roads are dusty. The face gets sooty after half a day of travelling. While face masks are common, contrary to what I read, the krama (scarves) are hardly used. However during the temples hopping day, I wore the krama that I had bought and it served me well against the dust and sun. Works for photos too.

Girls in general are more scrupulous at bargaining. They will hold out for say, $2 for something instead of the 'lowest price $2.50' like it's a matter of life and death at times. Reality check - $0.50 or 2000 riels isn't really that much though it means more to them than us. Taking it a little easier makes the world goes round. That said, bargaining off the starting price is still a must since it is already expected of you. If you don't, they will certainly think that you're either extremely charitable or an ill-informed idiot, either of which will make them like you a lot more than the last chap who didn't buy anything after 15 minutes of bargaining.

Eat the local Khmer food. I tried the roadside stalls, an eatery for locals and a Khmer restaurant called Socheata, and all were good. The most disappointing was the American breakfast offered at the guesthouse.

Angkor Archaeological Park. A one day visit is only enough for a brief look at the more famous temples. Mid day is scorching hot, demoralizing and a terrible time for photos.

Angkor Wat is a photographer's dream and nightmare. Simply overwhelming. Performance anxiety arises.

For Cambodians, it is inauspicious to take photos with three people in it. Same for touching them on the head.

Singapore remains one of only 13 countries who are still producing landmines. Why a rich and peaceful country like us continue to do so for commercial reasons is both baffling and shameful.

Siem Reap - Day 1

The important symbolism of Angkor Wat to Cambodia is apparent everywhere, from the flag to the immigration card to the mass-produced souvenirs to the beer.
We touched down at the Siem Reap International Airport at about 7am Cambodian time, via JetStar. We like promotional prices. There was a point of time before the trip though when I wondered if we'd even reach this far. One day Xueling asked if I wanna go to Siem Reap with them, them being the people whom I know from the Krabi trip and I must admit I had forgotten who Alvin was by then. We met up once to fix a date for the trip and that was the last I saw of them till the departure day itself. All I had was the Lonely Planet book to guide me through those dark period of uncertainties.

At the airport exit we located the guy holding a sign for the semi-fictional Miss Shermin Ng for our free pick up service to our guesthouse, Bou Savy.
The four of us shared a room like the cheapos that we are. At USD$18 a night, the room was pretty decent and resembles more like a 2-3 star hotel. They however complained of some rather mysterious itchy insect bites of which I was spared from. The kind girls even bravely saved me from any mosquito bites.

Over breakfast we decided to leave the temples till Day 2 and check out the floating village and Kampong Phluk via a boat ride across the Tonle Sap river instead. We were told a Tuk Tuk could only legally carry two passengers but we talked our way into squeezing all four butts into a single vehicle and were introduced to Ra our tuk tuk driver. Wasn't much of a squeeze as it turn out.

The floating school of the floating village which was towed along the river by a boat. The place is basically a community dwelling at one end of Tonle Sap and which wasn't that interesting

One of the young river peddlers bailing water out of her little wooden boat. They would paddle to wherever you are and offer plates of bananas for One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar! One dollar!

Mr. Ra. we all like him.
Moving on from there, the boat ride to Kampong Phluk, known for its flooded forest, took over an hour. Along the way there was absolutely nothing to see except for the murky muddy waters and unless monstrous dragonflies interests you.

looks like a descendant of the dinosaur era who will eat up its Singaporean counterpart for tea.

When we eventually arrived at the place, we found out that it was well worth the journey. The boat turned into a narrow opening and we caught sight of the locals fishing. Their looks that fell upon us revealed that it's not a place where tourists frequent. Indeed, during that couple hours, we only saw a handful others. It was the first time there for Ra as well, and that really says something.

From curious stares.. to friendly smiles in a minute.

For those who tire of the overly commercialised mood in Siem Reap's town and temple area, Kampong Phluk would be a welcomed relief. The evil lure of money haven't yet pervade this simple kampong spirit. We met three little angels at the temple who delighted themselves by asking for our names even though they couldn't really speak english. We in turn communicate with hand gestures and the handful of Cambodian words that we mastered, namely, hello, handsome/pretty and bye bye. From my memory, their names read something like Linda, Gaia and Tria. Damn nice kids.

As we were leaving, these two kids came running after us. Girl on the left was showing off her nail polish though i think i can do a better job of it. At the muddy river bank, I unfortunately slipped and landed on my butts. Still, that did not dampen their enthusiasm for us. The sight of them trying to handle the wooden boat and the over-sized oars while trying to follow ours was both heart warming and touching, hence leaving the deepest impression on me of Cambodia. I must also mention that according to my travel mates, as I slipped I landed gracefully while still holding my camera up in the air to keep it from the mud. Quite brilliant I must say.

On the way back, stormy conditions turned the Tonle Sap river into a rampaging sea. Our boat was tossed about mercilessly and her brave occupants were soaked to the skin.

Next up was the War Museum which was much slated in all the travel guides that I had read. Nothing but a collection of war junk, that was the general consensus, so I was somewhat reluctant to head there but for the fact that there didn't seem to be much other places within convenient distance. The 'museum' is operated by the 'Ministry of National Defend' as printed on the US$3 admission ticket. We opted to take the free guided tour. True to its reputation, the museum housed nothing but rusty weapons and army stuff salvaged from the brutal civil and not so civil war.

The only redeeming factor was our museum guide who was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Having fought in the war and amazingly survived 6 landmines; he walks with a prosthetic leg and is blind in an eye, and has several shrapnels still embedded in his body which can be clearly felt through the skin, he let us, the guide provides that bit of real life experience that is missing from the museum. He was like a walking encyclopedia of all the war machineries whom readily provided detailed information of the weapons, a tad too much for our interest in fact. At the end of the tour, it was revealed that he was going for an eye operation soon and solicited a small donation. We hence gave him USD$5.

Tips and donations are sometimes tricky affair. How much is enough, how to not look like a complete miser or an overly philanthropic soul when I can barely afford to? There's obviously no clear answer to that, so just give whatever is comfortable within your conscience and ability, that's what I feel. In poverty stricken Cambodia where the tourist dollars doesn't reach the majority of the civilians, it doesn't hurt to be a bit more generous if i can help it. Put in local context, a bowl of noodles cost about 1500 riels. 1 USD = 4000 riels. By giving US$5, he can effectively buy 13 bowls of noodles with change to spare. That's loosely equivalent to donating S$26 if we go by the noodles analogy in Singapore economics, each bowl costing S$2. So is that too much a donation? I don't think so. If US$5 or S$8 can buy a comparatively poor person 13 bowls of noodles, I think that's inflation put to good use for once.

That said, we made Ra bring us to somewhere nice and cheap for dinner where we can exercise the power of a higher currency as theorized.

Socheata Khmer Food Restaurant. The food here rocks. We paid only about US$3 per head for a sumptuous meal. The national dish called 'amoc' is a must try, as well as their green curry and.. oh everything else. Socheata is located in the Psar Cha (Old Market) area, down the street that houses Le Grand Cafe and runs parallel to the river that looks like a drain.

Finally, that's how dirty our face was at the end of the day, from all the dust riding along the road. Wearing face masks here won't make one look like an idiot.

Siem Reap - Day 2

Day 2 in Siem Reap is dedicated to the temples and 12 hours is barely enough to scratch the surface of it all. Angkor Wat is but one of the numerous temples situated within the Angkor Archaeological Park though it is the most famous one and rightly so, once you've witness it for yourself.

Our day started at 4.30am so that we can make it for sunrise at Angkor Wat as recommended by Ra, and ended with the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. And it's all wrong, not just because we missed the breakfast that we had already paid for.

To most people, catching the sunrise probably means seeing dawn breaks with the sun rising from beyond the horizon and catching the first ray of the day. If you're at a beautiful place like Angkor Wat you can't go there without wanting to take photos. The part that goes wrong is that the main facade of Angkor Wat actually faces the west hence going there at the end of the day would make more sense. At dawn, the sun lights up from behind the temple and you see tons of tourists trying to take shitty photos with flash that reveals the lighted sky and nothing else, unless silhouette shots are all that they want.

Phnom Bakheng was recommended for sunset because it is situated on a hilltop and the sprawling landscape could be seen, including the Western Baray, a huge reservoir. Thousands of tourists probably get the same information from their local guides. However it means that one would have to bask under the scorching sun for ages while waiting for the sun to drop while squeezed together with ALOT of people at a place where architecture-wise, there is nothing much to see.

A better plan would perhaps be to visit the enigmatic Bayon at dawn and Angkor Wat at the later part of the day.

We only bought a 1-day pass to the Archaeological Park though i think the 3 days pass for $40 is more appropriate. I would love to spend another more thorough day at the temples. Our itinerary for the day hence goes:
Angkor Wat --> (long ride through the country side) --> Banteay Srei --> Landmine Museum --> Pre Rup --> Ta Phrom --> Bayon --> Phnom Bakheng.

After words come photos. Lots of them.

Angkor Wat - Say Whattt?

Part of her keep-fit regime.

Bas-reliefs along the outer walls.

In front of one of the ancient libraries.

The Eastern Gate in the background. That yellow blob is a touristy hot air balloon.

Inner courtyard or something. Perfect place for meditation or kick ass kungfu.

I like the snapshots.

Vendors selling mass-produced artwork that you can find everywhere in Siem Reap.

The ancient moat that protects the place against invaders.

Along the countryside

While stopping to refuel along the roadside stalls.

The beautiful Cambodian landscape. Grass was at her greenest, the skies blue, yet for some strange reasons, my travel mates keep sleeping on the tuk tuk.

Volleyball is a surprisingly popular game there. Snapshot from the tuk tuk.

Lunch was some simple fare.

Banteay Srei - Midday furnace

The afternoon sun was so bloody hot I was worried for my camera. Too hot for photos. The only decent shot is of this artist doing his stuff under the shade. But Banteay Srei and her intricate hand carvings is worth a visit. Just don't go during midday as you'll be at the mercy of the sun.

Landmine Museum

More worth the while to visit this place rather than the War Museum. It's opened by a Mr. Aki Ra who fought in the war and devotes his time to detonating land mines around the country. Used to be free but now charges US$1. The place is quite small though.

Pre Rup

In the ancient times all the Cambodians must have really tiny feet or they are all acrobats. The steps leading up to every single pagoda in the archaeological park that we visited were small and steep. The width of each step is only about half the length of my US size 10 sole.

Ta Phrom - The temple eaten by giant trees.

A tree with a gigantic buttress root. One side of it is more than enough to fit the three of us in.

This is the tree that makes the tree-engulfed temple ruins famous. Archaeologists gave up trying to restore the temple as nature has since became an integral part of it.

We got split up while exploring and couldn't find each other. It's really much larger than how it appears on the map.

Bayon - Temple of many faces

First sight of Bayon. Simply breaktaking.

Buddha resides within.

There are 216 faces in all but we didn't have time to fully explore the place.

Withstanding the test of time. Courtyard.

From his perspective.

Passing through Victory Gate. Each statue has a different face and holds part of a giant naga, a mythical snake/dragon with multiple heads.

Phnom Bakheng - Disappointing sunset

Streams of monkeys..

joining those who are trying to look cool while being roasted. See how packed it is.

Took some photos and left.

That pretty much sums up day 2. At night Ra brought us to a real local place near where he stays with his aunt, at our beseech, where the Cambodians eat. It was so local that the people there don't speak English. We had some kind of noodles with gravy that is similar to laksa. It wasn't too bad at all actually, except for the fact that everything is strangely cold. Dinner was rounded off with cold dessert that taste like our bo bo cha cha. Local food = local price = everything is cheap. Noodles cost 1500 riels if i'm not wrong while the dessert cost a bit more.