Yangchau and Spring Roll - beside Ben Thanh Market, Saigon.
Tonle Sap. Your chartered boat stays here for a bit before taking you to an area where you can feed a school of fish (much like Thailand's Chao Phraya River). Several floating vendors would offer you pho (yes, the population of the floating river is 99% Vietnamese). My boatman and his assistant had their snack, while I patiently waited. The cruise takes a little more than an hour, as you wait for your sunset. I didn't want to, so off we went. My tuktuk was waited at the wharf, and was surprised to see me back so early.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Reality is, one cannot possibly view all these temples in a day, though the temple grounds open as early as 5AM (for the avid photographers, this would mean daybreak photos overlooking the Western Baray and Angkor Wat) and close at 5PM. You need a minimum of 3 days (that’s $60) to appreciate majority of these temples.
You also need a comfortable ride because it is almost impossible to walk from one temple to the next, unless you have several weeks of holiday. A bike may be used but Siem Reap (SR) has prohibited bike rentals within the town’s confines (unless you have rented your bike outside SR.)
Some of these temples are poorly maintained, remote and unpopulated. Some can be found in the bowels of a jungle, thus not so safe especially for lone female trekkers (a couple of rape cases have been reported). Next important thing to consider upon visiting these temples: it is physically daunting! You need some stamina to climb up and down each temple. There may be limited mobility/activity for the physically challenged (the handicaps) or the elderly, unless they're happy watching the view from the outside. I had 4 shirt changes during my visit. The sun can get harsh - so bring extra shirts, bottled water, and maybe a face towel.
As I moved from one temple to the next, I would raise my soaked shirts against the wind (best sensation there is). Another must-have: a good sunblock with high level spf! I used enough and still got fried. Some of these temples, like Ta Keo, were very very steep. After persevering it’s very thin steps, I was petrified coming down. It was hard to maneuver your feet sideways (to fit the width of the steps), balancing yourself so you won't suffer a long, bumpy fall.
Another tip: if you have agreed on a $15 whole-day ride with your tuktuk, make sure that this includes Banteay Srey. I was emphatic to point this out to my driver - or it would be a “no-go”. Banteay Srey turned out to be “pretty”; it was a girlie temple, relatively small and with a pinkish hue! This "most beautiful" temple is some 30 minutes from the central congregation of temples.
I enjoyed the ride through the countryside on my way to Banteay Srey. Green fields, wooden houses that rise on stilts (typical old khmer architecture – as noted by a Chinese farmer who first visited the temples way back 12th century). This was a far advanced civilization, with a population of 1 million when London only had 100,000.
I noticed several “artesian wells” that had signage’s “donated by Mr. So_and_so of Toronto, Canada” or “By Fredirique of Nice, France”. There were signs that led to other temples further afield, but you had to risk landmines as well as hoodlums to visit such remote temples.
Outside Banteay Srey, there were stalls selling brass wares, paintings, souvenir shirts. Several young men offered Lonely Planet books of Cambodia and a Special Edition of the Angkor Wat Temples. It was sold at $13. I had no intentions of buying one, but these young boys were so persistent. “I wait for you, mister,” remarked one of them. I told him not to wait for me, but he disregarded my reply. After roaming the temple, I found him waiting outside. He kept dogging me every step of the way until I finally relented. "$9," he offered, but I wanted him out of the way so I said, "$6" or I'll go! He stared at his wares then finally handed the book over. I almost felt sorry for him, but this was a book I didn't need! Was I bad? He was the persistent one! Over at Shangrila's Powerbooks, the Cambodian Lonely Planet sells at $36 (PhP1650)! This edition was a special edition of just the Temples of the Angkor Wat!
This is the Eye in the Sky!
I have since visited Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples for the 2nd time this year (July 2011). The actual travelogue is posteD here - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2011/07/siem-reap-bakhen-temples-golden-sunsets.html - and the successive posts follow.
One common mistake that tourists make on their Cambodian visit is ignoring Siem Reap altogether. The gateway to the Angkor Wat temples offers so much more. It is rather easy to ignore this town since the temples are natural spectacles, natural scene stealers. It’s easy to get enamored with the flurry of activities related to temple watching. The whole activity is physically exhausting and once all has been accomplished, the ordinary tourist would prefer to recharge and rest, or better yet, endure the 7-8 hour bus ride back to Phnom Penh for a more earthy social interaction! Heck! The bus ride will only cost $3.50! (These days, more direct Saigon-Siem Reap routes have been made available by bus companies - usually at $18 one way!)
There’s a LOT of gallivanting that Siem Reap can offer. A walk from Wat Bo area towards Siem Reap River alone can yield varying degrees of pleasure. There’s the park just across the river; a façade of the elegant Grand Hotel. I was standing at the center of the park when I noticed distant mice sounds. When I looked up, I began noticing hundreds and hudreds of bats hanging down the branches of the giant trees that lined the park. Aren't a majority of bats nocturnal? A few would fly off their perch, but they were still making lots of noice. Sat on the grass for 10 minutes, just observing them. There were so many of them, I couldn't believe I almost missed them.
There is the Royal Palace, partially covered by hedges on walls. The lawn of Siem Reap Museum is inviting too. A visit to the Central Market is an exciting shopping activity: several souvenir items, commemorative stuff, blankets, paintings, shirts and blouses, brass items, just about anything that is sellable. Buddhist temples are a dime a dozen: big or small. Then there is the French Quarter, where nearby, rows and rows of restaurants and specialty shops abound. At night, these dining places come alive! Think Eastwood and Greenbelt with a more eclectic mix of cuisine! Add a good serving of moolah-spending backpackers! It is a little wonder why the seat of government hasn't been transferred from Phom Penh to Siem Reap!
For the adventurous, one can visit “Happy Herbs Pizza” for the seasonal cannabis-laced pizza. You do have to remember to steer clear from their men in uniform. Cambodia is, after all, considered the second most corrupt country worldwide, although such nefarious practices are more concentrated in the capital PP (checkpoints that bleed with bribes for foreigners with imagined infarctions!)
My stay in Siem Reap had been one eventful experience. Due to the aforementioned Buddhist holiday, all the prices have been jacked up, thus most of my dinners would cost me $6, or $9 (when I feel like treating myself after a well-planned itinerary). When I found myself stuck in SR, I had to look for more reasonable dining places. I remembered emailing my friends, complaining about being stuck in an expensive "city", not knowing yet when I'd be able to leave. Was fretting like a baby, refusing to leave the Wat Bo premises - as if anybody cared if I boycott Siem Reap's nightlife.
From Wat Bo, crossing Tnor Bridge to the other side, there is a Sokimex (a petrol station) Express Counter; a mini fastfood and a 24-hour convenience store. I discovered some of the most sumptuous meals during my travel – at a very reasonable price. Eh ano kung gas station, basta masarap na nga, mura pa! Hehe. A chicken meal was $1.25, plus $0.40 coke in can. My dinner that day was from the same place – fried noodle with pork @ $3.50. An ice cream cup (with 4 scoops of different flavors) was $1.25.
Along National Route 6 (the national highway that leads to the airport), one can visit Wat Kesaram. From there, I flagged a motodup to take me to the SR Museum. Most locals are not even aware that such museum exists. Mr. Motodup brought me to the WAR MUSEUM instead (for $1). The latter charged a hefty $3 entrance fee – and nothing much to show. From the entrance pa lang, you would see a decrepit building which has seen better days. Located far from the center of town, we had to pass through an isolated street. If for some reason my ride left me, it would be a kilometer's walk (of an almost deserted road) back to the National Road. Scary. Anyway, I asked my driver to wait for me, then proceeded to the Central Market ($1.50). This town has 3 Markets: Angkor Market (which looks more like a department store), Psar Chas (Old Market) and the Central Market.
I bought a VCD of the Apsara Dance, where the world-famous Thai dances have been derived ($3 each); souvenir shirts at $1.50 each (instead of the usual $3); beautiful local paintings at $14 (from the original $40).
After shopping, I went back to my guesthouse to pack my stuff, soaked in the tub, and relaxed before my flight. My tuktuk driver met me at the lounge. He was gonna take me to the airport. I asked him to take me to the roundabout where the restaurants and bars are. I wanted to see it again before I leave the city. There were several streets I wasn’t able to visit earlier while just walking around, and my driver went around these places without me telling him. He was a silent guy, an honest man, who works hard for a living. Night has fallen over Siem Reap, and the incandescent lights bade an indifferent goodbye as we turned towards the highway. It grew dark. I was finally leaving Siem Reap, a name I haven’t even heard of until early this year. A sense of serenity and a bit of sadness embraced me, as the cool night wind brushed against my face. We got to the airport ($3 entrance fee). My driver got off his tuktuk, offered his calling card and earnestly shook my hand. I was grateful that he made my stay safe and easy, though we hardly exchanged words (his English was serviceable, but not that good.) I paid more than what was earlier agreed. As I headed inside, I couldn't help but feel a sense of elation knowing that he will somehow think of Filipinos in a positive light (not as big tippers LOL), much as I'm made aware that Khmers aren't different from the hardworking, honest Pinoys back home.
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Comparing the countryside of Vietnam and Cambodia, it is obvious that Vietnam has succeeded in outpacing its neighbor by leaps and bounds, but taking into consideration the catastrophic history of Cambodia, I am amazed with the steady pace of slow-but-sure development in the country. The resilience of the people is nothing to scoff at, and economic gains are catching up. This is more obvious in Siem Reap.
In the early 70's, after a 5-year struggle, the Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh (PP), and by 1975, ordered the mass evacuation of all towns and cities. PP became a virtual ghost town and thousands were massacred (thus "the killing fields"). The Khmer Rouge was a devastating power, leaving no infrastructure. By 1978, institutions like education, money, social facilities, any form of commerce and industry were non existent! BUT the subsequent Vietnamese invasion drove the khmer rouge to the countryside, and the country had to start from nothing!
Ambulant vendors in NEAK LOEUNG, near the Mekong
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh & Siem Reap
“NEAR , FAR, WHEREVER YOU ARE…”
The road we travelled is well maintained, so it was one comfortable ride, except for the music that kept playing during the whole trip. I mean, how much more can you take of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” played 6x – it sure made me wanna hit some icebergs and sink the Titanic.
I amused myself by observing the scene as it constantly changed. Half way into the trip, we reached the province of Tay Ninh (famed for their local festivities), then, the border town of Mocbai. Our passports were collected ($25 fees were also collected from the other foreigners who needed visa, and none from me) by the bus assistant, and I relaxed. Everyone seemed so. The border building is an imposing structure. We got off our bus, made a queue at the border’s immigration counter, and waited for 10-15 minutes. Then our passports were returned to us. No interviews. We walked through the counter, passed a small duty-free shop; showed our passport to the immigration police at the exit, and went out. The very same bus was waiting for us at the other side.
Now here’s what I observed. As we got back to our seats, the driver and his assistants deposited loads of bottled water at the police quarters from each side. Bribe? Could be. This would facilitate a faster transfer. No more manual checking of baggages- as that would take forever. Every tourist should take a Sapaco bus when crossing the border to avoid transfering to a different bus at the other side of the border, and you didn’t have to disembark your baggages anymore. That said, I settled back to my seat.
Whew!! That was easy!
The next kilometers (a constituent of the province of Svay Rieng) were lined by big KTV establishments, casinos, and massage parlors; many of these places serve allegedly as prostitution fronts, much like the same establishments in Haiphong City (Vietnam’s 3rd biggest city) south of Hanoi.
It was a good moment to observe local color. The roadsides were underwater - farmlands, marshes and wetlands - water hyacinths of wild pink, lilies in white and purple lotuses were abloom. 75% of Cambodia lives off farming.
I took note of the town names as we passed them by - Chiphou, Prasot, then the provincial capital of Svay Rieng’s imposing building; Kraul Kor, then NEAK LOEUNG, where we stopped for a bit.
Now that was a treat!
Our bus got on a ferry to cross the river. I have been wanting to cruise the Mekong River. I regretted not having had enough time in HCMC for a Mekong Cruise (it was 2 hours away, and I'd need an extra full day to do so). MEKONG at no extra cost! I got off the bus for some fresh air as we sailed the Mekong. 15 minutes later, we were on land again.
As we reached Banteay Dek, the roads got a little rough. Potpoles abound and the last hour to Phnom Penh got a bit uncomfortable. I wasn’t complaining though.
Here's my 2nd crossing in the same border, but going the opposite direction a year after (2008):
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