Thursday, July 14, 2011

Siem Reap - Bakheng Temple's Golden Sunsets & Floating Village's Scams

Phnom Penh - I'd have wanted to make a second visit to Tuol Sleng and S21, both documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, but that wouldn't happen today.

All packed up, I found my tuktuk driver, Mr. Heard waiting for me outside the Green House ($6 for a ride to my Mekong Express bus). The terminal was located at one of the streets branching from Sisowath Road. I found a local restaurant that served sweet pork (a la Tocino) with rice and fried egg at a measly 5,000 riel, just across the Mekong Express office. At 7:30AM, I was already seated in my 8th row chair, bags stowed and ticket checked by the bus stewardess.

The passengers were a sprinkling of locals and foreigners. A Mexican couple (named Armando and Gimena) and a middle aged American guy named Steve were seated behind me. It was a very comfortable bus, the best in Cambodia, actually. It had working AC, comfortable seats, a toilet, and it looked well maintained.

My ride would take 5 hours with it's only stop over at Kampong Thom (where notorious criminal Pol Pot grew up on a house on stilts) at 10AM. This was the requisite lunch hour - at Stung Sen Restaurant with very affordable meals; mine was a $2 serving of Chicken Fried Rice and a coke ($1). In 3 1/2 hours, I finally found my way back to Siem Reap, this time with its new bus terminal. Memories came flashing by when I first arrived here - at 7:30 in the evening on a drizzling, muddy night. I had to haggle for a motor ride at a pricey $5 when it should have been $1 or 2. But that was then. This time, I did not only book a tuktuk ($2) straight from the bus stewardess (one of the new services offered by the Mekong Express to help curb tuktuk scams).

By the time I got off my bus, someone was already carrying a huge card with my name on it. Thus making my similar Mekong Express reservation redundant. But I didn't care. What's $2? I just wanted to be sure I had an easy transit to my hotel - the Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse 2, which is the annex of the first one located right across Siem Reap River. My driver would be Sana who spoke good english and knew well about his temple histories.
The guy at the counter was extremely accommodating and friendly. I got Room 105 at the 2nd floor, you had to take your shoes off to get up the room. This hotel had the trappings of a great hotel - it's new, it has a pool, gleaming new tiles, new AC's, well appointed curtains, a balcony, tasteful light fixtures, cable television, a mini-ref, the works.

Sana would meet me at the lobby for a trip to the nearby Floating Village some 30 kilometers from the city center. This wasn't Kampong Phluck, but the same village I visited the 1st time I was here. Things have indeed changed. The make-shift stall just beside the road where I was to secure my $12 boating ticket wasn't there anymore. A spanking ticket counter has been constructed right beside the river - the Tonle Sap ("Great River"). This was a well organized site - gone are the walk towards wet planks beside shanties; this was a beautiful jetty.

Vietnamese refugees and a number of muslim population congest this village that is submerged with water from the Tonle Sap at a particular season (May to November). After that, the Tonle Sap drains most of its waters back to the Mekong River, and most of the Floating Village dries up once again to become a dry land community. I saw a Catholic church, a pool hall, a basketball court, sari-sari stores, houses, a videoke bar, and the funny sight of a 3 year old boy pooping straight into the waters. Now imagine its implications if majority of its hundreds of occupants does the same? What becomes of the fish in this riverine tributary? The community do get their food here, their daily sustenance; and the market of Siem Reap get their fish produce from this poop-rich waterworld.

My boat passed by a crocodile farm, with shops at its periphery. There was a view deck at the upper level, in an area choked with water hyacinth. The boats needed to maneuver their way through these hyacinths as they were floating heavily over the waterways.

There's also a form of a scam disguised as charity here too. While navigating the riverine bowels, I was advised to "donate" food or school supplies (pencils and notebooks) for the dispossessed children. I could smell that 10 kilometers away.

I was taken to a floating store where a set of 8 pencils would cost you $4. These pencils, once purchased, will be given as donation for the children (300 of them are being fed daily - they learn 3 languages here). A stack of inferior quality notebooks would cost me $50, I almost jumped into the water to scurry away from such ridiculous rates. $4 for 8 pieces of pencils? Anyway, I bought 2 sets of pencils, then we proceeded to the floating school. There were gigantic pots of cooked rice, some sauteed vegetables, another huge pan of noodles. This charitable school is being funded by the government, but people like those who own the floating stores financially benefit more than the kids. 10 notebooks and 8 pencils for $50? You gotta be kidding me. Anyway, I handed my meager donation to the teacher then readily bade them goodbye.

We sailed away back to the shore where my tuktuk was waiting. This little detour would cost me $10 but I didn't mind the redundancy (I've been here before). Before getting off my boat, I was reminded to tip the driver and the "guide" - exactly like before, which somehow left a bitter taste in the mouth.

This practice has always been traditionally enforced. But aren't tips voluntary? I "always" tip, but I didn't like being reminded of them because it rids the element of good will. After all, tipping should be optional and should depend on the discretion of the tourist. Oh well, some things remain.

From the Tonle Sap cruise at the Floating Village, we drove straight to the oppsoite side of town, to purchase entrance ticket for my Angkor Wat tour tomorrow. Even here, there are innovations. These days, they will snap a photo of you while purchasing the ticket. Your mug gets printed into your own ticket. This makes temple checks easier, and avoids re-use. After getting my ticket, my tuktuk was allowed to get into the archaeological park. This was going to be a preview for tomorrow's tour. I was taken to Phnom Bakheng, a temple set above a hill, overlooking a vista of Siem Reap.

A 15-minute trail took me up a hill (place closes at 5:30PM so if you get there at 5:31, you'd have to say goodbye to Bakheng's view). It was my first time here. This wasn't part of the itinerary back then. In fact, I was never offered this site before.

The temple wasn't as impressive as the others, but sunset from that vantage point was spectacular. Unfortunately, there were too many people to truly enjoy this singular experience, watching the sun dip down the horizon.

But sunsets are never complained on. Not when they boast of different hues of orange and salmons, yellows and light blues. They remind me that tomorrow is another day to roam. The thought comforts me.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

An afternoon beside the Siem Reap River. This photo only courtesy of Michael Lewis, taken from

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