Sunday, 29 December 2013

Tales of Angkor

During my summer internship stint, my travel buddy, Sue Lyn and I were casually discussing about planning a holiday before I head back to the UK and when the rest of my besties were travelling to Seoul. Finally, we decided to go ahead with our plans and booked our flights for Siem Reap. Since I am obsessed with ancient sites and Sue Lyn likes those gigantic trees, the Angkor Archeological site would be the perfect fit.
Initially, we wanted to spend 4D3N in Siem Reap but then we shortened it to 3D2N because I wanted to travel only after the Hungry Ghost festival ended (call me superstitious la) and Sue Lyn needed to be back for her mom’s birthday. So, we are left with only 3D2N.

We flew on Malaysia Airlines and the flight was pretty decent but the thing I can’t comprehend is why the short 40 minutes flight from Penang to Kuala Lumpur had in-flight entertainment but the 3 hours flight to Siem Reap didn’t have any entertainment. Imagine being stuck in a tiny seat for hours and my companion was asleep half the time. Minus the meal service and take off and landing, I had about 2 hours to kill. So, I took tonnes of photos of the wing of the plane and the clouds and read the in-flight magazine about 3 times, cover to cover.

One of the countless shots taken from my seat on the flight to Siem Reap. Feels like I was doing an advert for Malaysia Airlines

As we are approaching Siem Reap International Airport, the view was filled with lush green fields. Definitely something you don’t see everyday. Despite doing research on the place etc, we had a massive panic attack at the immigration. Everyone was filling in the visa application form and it needed a passport photo. Although I carried a huge stack of my passport photos in my wallet, Sue Lyn had none. Luckily it was a FALSE ALARM because ASEAN citizens do not need a visa to enter.

Approaching Siem Reap International Airport - those green fields look so pretty!!!

We were picked up by a tuktuk arranged by our the hotel on arrival but everyone else seems to be leaving in air-conditioned taxis. I guess a tuktuk is all you get when staying in a midrange hotel. The journey to the city centre took about 15 minutes and the road from the airport to the city centre is probably the proper highway in Siem Reap. Luxurious resorts are blooming on both sides of the highway all the way to the city centre. Approaching the city centre, there road narrowed into tiny single lane roads with branches of alleyways and local small shops were lined on both sides of the road. The air was dusty due to the untarred walkways.

From behind our tuktuk driver to the city. Apparently most people don't wear helmets and at times there are 3-4 pillion riders.

The hotel of our choice, Apsara Centrepole Hotel is located right in the middle of the city centre. The hotel resembles a huge bungalow with rooms distributed on 2 floors. Our double room with balcony cost USD40 per night and I personally felt it was reasonably priced for the location and standard of the room. Located about 50m in an alleyway from the main road, the hotel was a stone throw away from the Night Market, the famous ‘angmoh’ hangout spot, Pub Street and the Psar Chaa (Old Market).

After checking in, we were undecided if we should head to Phnom Bakheng for sunset or visit Tonle Sap. Persuaded by the hotel and the tuktuk driver, we chose Tonle Sap and honestly, it is a waste of money and a clever scam plying on the sympathy of tourist. We were taken out to Chong Khneas on the Tonle Sap using a small boat which sits about 10 but we had the boat to ourselves. So how does the scam work? It all starts with locals pedaling their tiny sampans with little kids of a very tender age towards the tourist boats asking for donations. Then, the ‘tour guide’ (often locals who tells sad stories about lack of education opportunities, how difficult life can get) on the boat will discourage giving any donations and advise to tourist to donate directly to the floating orphanage by buying from the community market. From online reviews, it was very much a scam which works by getting tourist to spend on the bulk items and then have donated items returned to the community market. So, it works like a vicious cycle to con money off tourist and nothing much goes back to the locals who are really in need.  Being sympathetic, we fell prey to the trap. During the visit to the orphanage, it seem evident that the vicious cycle does exist as there wasn't exactly any of the bulk item like huge 50kg rice bags etc. at the orphanage at all. Surely if there are so many people donating, there is bound to be some left to be stored in the orphanage. The only yield from the exorbitantly priced ride was a nice sunset over the lake despite the cloudy sky.

Sunset at Tonle Sap

Our first dinner was at the Touich Restaurant Bar which is literally located out of nowhere. I found the reviews on tripadvisor to be quite impressive and we decided to give it a try since we are unable to get a table at the rank #1 restaurant in Siem Reap on tripadvisor. We showed the receptionist the address and he arranged for the same tuktuk driver who had been driving around to take us there. The journey was fine all the way until we turned into this tiny dirt road with countless potholes and no street lamps and can fit only one tuktuk at a time. At some point of the journey, the overgrown branches of trees were hitting me from the side. AND, the potholes was so bad that we were jumping off our seat when the tuktuk went through a hole. It was quite funny that the tuktuk driver would look back everytime we passed a massive potholes as though he was making sure we were not thrown off the tuktuk. We had the fresh spring rolls, sand grilled red snapper and pork ribs on glowing ember. Unfortunately, the lighting was really bad and we were too hungry to bother taking pictures under the low lighting. The food was however, extremely delicious and the fish was especially fresh. BEWARE MOSQUITO ATTACK!

Also be careful about paying the tuktuk driver. Often they demand more than agreed. Our tuktuk driver demanded more than we agreed with the hotel. We totally comprehend they don't make much each day but it really comes across to me as extortion. We took a stroll along Pub Street and the Night Market. Pub Street was very alive with tourist drinking and having a good time in the many pubs along the street and there are tonnes of locals offering foot massage, manicure and pedicure for only USD1. The Night Market lacks a feel of authenticity and culture and was extremely modern.

Fresh spring roll with prawns at The Touich Restaurant Bar.
The next morning was extremely exciting. After reading reviews on tripadvisor, we booked for a private tour with Angkor Temple Guide. (Yes I'm a big fan of tripadvisor) Our tour was a full day tour including sunrise at the Angkor Wat, Bantreay Srei, Beng Mealea, Angkor Thom and Phnom Bakheng and it costed us USD85 excluding entrance ticket and meals. Our tour guide, Chaya picked us at our hotel at 4.30am and we headed towards the Angkor Archaelogical Park which was about 15 minutes drive away. At the ticket counter there is a crazy queue of SUV and flocks of tourist trying to buy entry tickets. Somehow epic things always befall on me! Everyone had to have their face captured to be printed on the ticket and for whatever reason a Japanese or Thai lady's face instead of mine was printed on my ticket. How can this even happen?! The worst part is they can't do anything about it because the ticket can only be issued when a payment has been made. So I'm stuck with a stranger's face on my ticket as souvenir.

The whole fiasco totally delayed our journey and it was a race of time to capture the sunrise because the colour and contrast of the skyline at daybreak changes with every minute. Chaya was excellent in bringing us to different spots to get a different view of the sunrise. Unfortunately by the time we got to the reflection pond, it was very crowded and the sky was already quite bright. Nevertheless the view was still spectacular and despite the crowd and chatters, watching the sun rising from behind the Angkor Wat accompanied by the morning chanting from the nearby monastery was extremely calming; a rare kind of peace and serenity. Soon after the crowd dispersed and Chaya brought us around the complex of the Angkor Wat explaining the meaning of the paintings engraved on the wall. Seriously all we did was walk, climb stairs, walk then climb more stairs and more stairs after. We were done with Angkor Wat by 8.30am and by then, my extremely active sweat glands managed to soak my shirt and jeans with buckets of sweat and it felt like I was wearing my clothes straight out of laundry. Although the weather is somewhat similar to Malaysia, it's much more humid. Being higher north than most South East Asian country, the best time to visit is actually in December when the weather is more cooling.

Views of Angkor Wat at daybreak- mesmerising shades of red and orange in the sky

Angkor Wat from the reflecting pond with the sun rising from behind

After a stop for breakfast at a local eatery nearby, Chaya brought us out to Bantreay Srei which is about 40km away. The best part of the ride is the 25 minutes of air-conditioned ride! Bantreay Srei is a temple of a different period from most of the temple in the Angkor complex and it was built with red clay bricks. I love how this temple is surrounded by green fields and secluded from others.

Engravings on Bantreay Srei

Details of the naga on the roof of Bantreay Srei

We headed back to Beng Mealea nearer to the main Angkor complex. The unique feature of this temple is the gigantic trees growing out of the archeological remains. Definitely somewhere that vegetation triumphs! According to Chaya, it was believe that birds and other animals had dropped seeds onto the temple and after decades the gigantic tree grew from within the temple. The temple gained fame after being featured in one of the Lara Croft films.

An overgrown tree from the roofs of Beng Mealea

We took a short break after Beng Mealea and Chaya took us to a nearby Khmer restaurant. We ordered the popular Khmer dish, Amok which is a fish stew with local herbs and spices. Tasted like a non-spicy and creamier version of Thai green curry to me. Not quite a fan but it's definitely a must try. With the crazy walks,  by the time I remembered to take photo of our food it was half eaten. In the midst of lunch, it started pouring and us being 'smart alecks' brought huge golf umbrella all the way from Malaysia only to leave it in the hotel. Chaya told us the afternoon showers are common and it would be over in an hour or so which was indeed true.

We continued to the complex of Angkor Thom which has massive gateways and houses the Bayon temple; famous for the hundreds of Buddha faces on the stupa. The gateways were really an impressive work of art. The details of the faces of Buddha at that period would require great skill and the gateways were massively huge which made me wonder where do they find the technology to support such massive structure. Finally, we climbed endless steps to the top of the Bayon temple and we were surrounded by the view of hundreds of Buddha faces. I didn't even know where to begin taking photos. Chaya gave a couple of great suggestions and the view we would get at different angles. Amazing advice!

The gateway to Angkor Thom after the afternoon showers

One of the many faces of Buddha on the Bayon Temple

Touching noses

Finally we headed to Phnom Bakheng for sunset but we were really pushing our luck with the extremely overcast sky. The sun was hiding behind the clouds and our hike up to the temple on the hill was all in vain. We headed down with the rest of the disappointed crowd and Chaya drove us back to our hotel, officially concluding our full day tour. I would definitely recommend hiring Chaya as tour guide for the Angkor Archaelogical Park. He was really friendly and had quite an extensive knowledge about the temples. We were well taken care off with countless bottles of iced water and cold towels along the whole journey.

We had a late dinner at Haven Training Restaurant right across our hotel (it was rank #1 in tripadvisor). The food was delicious but I find it a little too salty for my taste. However, I am impressed by the intention of the owners of the restaurant. It is called a training restaurant because the restaurant trained orphans after they leave the orphanage so that they have skills to make their own living.

Fish fillet with sweet chilli sauce served with rice and stir fried vegetables

 We were totally knocked out by the end of the night. Before heading to the airport, we walked to Psar Chaa (Old Market). Situated in a old French colonial building, the outside were filled with souvenir shops while the inside of the market was a typical wet market. A great inside to the life of the locals and the ideal place to get souvenirs.

Local goodies from Psar Chaa - always remember to bargain because very often you will win the war of price
Finally headed for home after a short adventure in the land that was once known as Angkor. Definitely a place not to be missed in one's lifetime. Plus, a voyage to Siem Reap served as a great reminder for appreciate everything I have in life. Seeing how many struggle to make ends meet while I am blessed with luxuries of life gives a great wake up slap to be thankful for every small things in life.

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