Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Burpppp...! - More Gastronomic Delights from Vietnam and Cambodia

These are just some gastronomic delights that I haven't posted yet!

Yangchau and Spring Roll - beside Ben Thanh Market, Saigon.

Their halo-halo at VnD 10,000 - mas masarap ang atin! (Ben Thanh Market)

A coke bottle for someone. (I have canned coke too but I can't seem to rotate it. :-< ) Hanoi

My ice cream cup at Tokimex - $1.25, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Fruits of the season include pomelo, atis, papaya, banana, longans, plums, macopa and dragon fruit. Ha Long Bay.


Ha Long Bay & Thien Cung Cave

A serene sea greets hundreds of tourists in Ha Long Bay, which campaigned heavily (but failed to make the grade) for the New Seven Wonders of the World. If we have our own Hundred Islands in Pangasinan, Ha Long boasts of 3,000 of limestone islands with dramatic peaks. From the ocean, some of the shoreline reminded me of those magnificent Cliffs of Dover in England.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

These boats will take you around Halong Bay and through Cat Ba Island & Haiphong City.

The way to Thien Cung Cave and Pau Gu Grotto.

"Fighting Cock" - Ha Long Bay's esteemed symbol/mascot


Hanoi - Understated Sophistication at the Vietnamese Capital

Sometimes, no words are needed to enjoy the beauty of a place. This is Hanoi, Vietnam's sophisticated capital.

Vietnam's national hero's resting place, Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum.

Hoan Kiem Lake

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Mesmerizing Hanoi

Hanoi is mesmerizing. It welcomed me with a certain degree of trepidation. I have always heard of Hanoi but I didn't have any idea what to expect from it. I didn't have pre-conceived ideas about this capital city. Hanoi enjoys 4 seasons, in comparison to HCMC's dry and wet seasons.

My Pacific airlines flight from HCMC was uneventful. My Phanlan guesthouse booked me a taxi to the airport. The domestic airport is smaller, darker, and the personnel hardly smart a welcoming smile. There were lots of scowling faces. My local fare included the departure tax so I didn't have to pay more. There was a small snack bar at the waiting area - just before the pre-departure area - and the waiting took "forever".

I was impatient, a little worn out from the constant move for the past 3 days or so. I also noticed more locals traveling. Boy! Jeans isn't "in". Ako lang ang naka maong! The trip took 2 hours to
Noi Bai Airport which was smaller than Siem Reap's airport. I was (as usual) nervous, as I wasn't sure if my taxi booking (when I booked for my accommodation, they offered me a taxi pick up - and when I inquired at travelfish, there were complaints about the reliability of the taxi pick-up from this guesthouse) would show up.

To my relief, paglabas ko, my name was waved on a white board. Embarassing. What was more surprising was that it was a huge car - almost like a limo service. Comfy airconditioning. All these for US$12 - and no haggling! Tried to strike a conversation with my driver but it was obvious we were not communicating at all! Sayang lang that I didn't know about Pacific Air's free bus ride to the city center. Oh well! $12 lang naman. Better safe than sorry - especially that this was a long ride to the city center - and on to my guesthouse.

I liked Hanoi right away. The tree-lined roads are a lot wider than Saigon's congested streets. There are more cars than motorcycles than in Saigon which meant less noise.

My guesthouse (Tung Trang Hotel, 13 Tam Thuong St. Hoan Kiem District, Ha Noi) was located in a quiet neighborhood, after some blocks of small eskinitas of walking. It was also a few walks from a main city street that has rows of shops - and ultimately leads to
Hoan Kiem Lake (which literally means "returned sword"). My guesthouse was run by a very friendly and accommodating family. The "concierge"was the owner's daughter, a charming Vietnamese lass named Luongthong. Spoke good english too. And always willing to help. I've had a few correspondence with her prior to this. (Had to make sure my reservation was good.) Directly facing Tung Trang was a Temple. Five strides from my entrance and I was with the gods. Nice.

My first object of the day, after checking in, was to look for a money changer. After checking out my room - and depositing my luggage, I asked where I could change my dollar to dong. She just pointed me to the main street. I left but not before she gave me a little calling card with sketched directions to the guesthouse.

This was going to be tricky and I was a little wary I might not find my way back. The streets were small, tortuous, labyrinthine, and the directions from the card were inaccurate (much like their maps- the steets were unnumbered, misnamed, etc.). I walked like 5 blocks until I found a Western Union shop that I wasn't sure would change my dollars. They did! Traced my way back and found an elegant little confectionaire that had sumptuous looking donuts ! Eeeek! Expensive, but it was alright. I was a
millionaire after exchanging $70 - almost 1.5 million dong! Haha. It was a gift to myself for not getting lost so far! PhP 200 worth - 2 donuts and a coke in can.

Successfully found my way back to Tung Trang, and took a 2 hour rest, just reading Lonely Planet and my web infos. I decided to get a "tour package" (booked by my guesthouse) instead of traveling on my own to Halong Bay.

I realized that if I were to go at it on my own, the money saved is very minimal, something like $5 or even less. And all the hassle of finding your way to the train or bus, etc... wow, i would pay a LOT more to get to Halong than just a measly $20 - and this was inclusive of a van, some "new" acquaintances (my van seatmate was a 20 year old park ranger from Adelaide; my boat seatmate was an English guy who now works in Perth but moving soon to Hanoi and a Thai-looking Japanese scuba diver); Halong Bay cruise; lunch while on the boat... that is one cheap deal!

After my needed rest (I haven't slept much since my 11PM arrival from Cambodia last night - then my early morning flight to Hanoi), I wanted to see the famed Hoan Kiem Lake. I took my map with me and approached some motorcycle taxis. If they refused my 10,000 dong, it's a no-go! That was the asking price in HCMC. Whew. That took forever. They were asking for 15,000. Finally, on the 6th try, I said yes to 15,000 - only to find out that Hoan Kiem Lake is just straight ahead from where I was. Far but walkable! Like 10-15 blocks far!

I was amazed how adept Hanoians were riding at the back of the motorcycle. I'd see them reading a book, sitting upright without touching their driver, etc. I was embarassed to hold on to the shoulders of my driver but I didnt wanna die falling off a moving vehicle.

On my way to the lake, we encountered a vehicular accident between a car and a motorcycle - in the middle of a very busy intersection. And witnessed a very violent argument. Fists were flying off. The guy from the car threw the first punch, but when Mr. Motorcycle Man retaliated, car man realized he was outclassed. He took a very nasty 2-inch lacerated wound over his left eyebrow. Blood was profusely dripping down his cheeks! We were directly at the back of Mr. Motorcycle, so there was a cause for concern. My driver was cursing, probably saying "Get out of the way!" Traffic was on gridlock and we were in the middle of what may soon escalate into a full rumble! My heart was pounding! But mr. car man who threw the first punch started to calm down, probably coz he realized he wouldn't win in a fisticuff; and mr. motorcycle guy was already punching the other guy next to him for reasons I couldn't understand. Scary! What a warm welcome!

To cut a long story short, I got to Hoan Kiem Lake. It had a calming effect; very serene (despite the touts trying to sell maps and Lonely Planets). An american girl exasperatingly shouted, "I do not want any of your fucking books!" Can't say I'd blame her too.

The red bridge was a poetic sight to behold; and so was the little palace in the middle of the lake - where the legendary turtle is supposed to live. I walked around the lake, bought a cup of tea from an outdoor cafe, and noticed as the street lamps started to reflect their lights from the lake.

I was alone in a strange land, and I was at peace.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Floating Village - Tonkinese River and Tonle Sap

This village is a good 1-hour ride from Siem Reap, taking the roads directly opposite the ones going to the temples. For just an additional $2 (from our agreed temple excursion, which is good for a whole day), my good natured driver offered this sidetrip. I felt generous and offered him a tip that was otherwise "imposed" by the boatman and his assistant! He was deserved more than those scabrous, opportunist pigs!

I didn't realize it was far, and by that time, all the tension of continuous travel started to catch up on me - on my 2nd day of visiting the temples. My driver did tell me that it was 25km from Siem Reap, so I thought it was on the way back to town. Of course not! We had to go back to Siem Reap and take the opposite route from there. Before reaching the wharf, he dropped me off a make-shift station where I had to purchase a ticket for the sunset cruise. $20! Was it worth it? I'm just glad to get it over with! We came from Banteay Srey which was 37km from SR, plus the 25km to the floating village - that was a long journey! On my way back to my hotel, I took my shoes off, raised my feet up my seat, and enjoyed the mild afternoon wind. Tuktuk is the best option for viewing the temples and Siem Reap..

The floating village is populated by Vietnamese immigrants. Like Puerto Prinsesa's Vietville, these immigrants sought asylum to escaped the socialist rule and found their home here. By November, the rivers would have subsided by more than 60-70%, as the waters drain back to the Mekong River. Many seaside areas will turn into drylands again until around March. By April, the waters start to rise up, once again submerging these villages, thus its name "floating village".
From my boat, I could see people doing their daily chores: laundry inside their huts, cooking, sleeping, chatting.

Floating Village at the Tonkinese River. There's a grade school, a high school, restaurants (an on-going wedding reception at one of them), a Catholic Church, seafood market (of course)...

Tonkinese River near the tributary leading to the Tonle Sap (Great Lake). Hydrofoil boats take this route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - a 5-6 hour ride (and allegedly not very comfortable).

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!

Temples of the Angkor Wat Complex

In the morning, I was in a quandary. I was told that Siem Reap was already celebrating the Buddhist Water Holiday and for the next week, there will be no outgoing buses. I was stuck in the expensive “town” of Siem Reap! What to do? In a couple of days, I had a flight from Saigon to Hanoi - and I was stuck in Cambodia! The morose-looking “mom” made her calls to the other bus companies, but I was out of luck. My only option was to book a flight (read: expensive - add to this is Siem Reap’s airport departure tax - $25). So I was to fly from Siem Reap to Saigon! I withdrew cash at a nearby ATM machine and handed $120 to "mom". She was still sporting her characteristic smirk, but by this time, I was sure it wasn't personal. With that taken cared, I was now set on conquering the Angkor Wat temples. The options were varied: a taxi could be arranged to take me around the temples. And there are tuktuks and the motodup as well.

I wanted the wind on my hair, and I wanted a comfortable sit as well, so I hired a tuktuk (a motorcycle pulling a 3-wheeled roofed carriage). Passing through the town center (luxury casinos, resort hotels, golf courses – a far cry from the squalid capital Phnom Penh), my driver drove me to Angkor Wat’s central office. A foreigner has to buy a $20 day-pass. This “pass” is randomly checked - and you have to show this at every temple entrance.

My first stop was the main temple, Angkor Wat, looming majestic with a moat and a baray (body of water). My driver waited outside while I navigated the temple. Stepping on the moat leading to the Wat was like stepping back in time. One can’t help but be mystified by the history and regal bearings of each structure. I had goosebumps.

The complex of temples spans around an area as big as Manhattan. Some are closer to each other, while others are far away, like Banteay Srey which is 37 km from Siem Reap. Each temple has specific features. My personal favorites were: Ta Promh (where they filmed Indiana Jones and Lara Croft) – with gigantic trees growing out of temple structures, a case of nature’s triumph over men; the Bayon, a part of Angkor Thom, which has more than 200 enigmatic faces in half-smiles looking down their visitors; and finally, the magnificence of the main Angkor Wat. If you closely observe the details of the designs, they tell stories of the 12th century. Every part is picture perfect.

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.

Banteay Srey

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.

Siem Reap - Gateway to Angkor Wat

After an arduous bus ride from Phnom Penh (see October entry, “An Amorous Khmer”), I found myself in a dark, wet and muddy bus station in Siem Reap. It was a moderate downpour that lasted the whole night. I scampered to the nearest shed, with bag on my shoulder. Stood there wondering how I could get to anywhere. This is barrio! There were motorcycles waiting. Like Vietnam, most of these motorcycles double as motodups (motor taxis). I approached one and asked how much it would cost me to get me to Two Dragons Guesthouse (supposedly along Wat Bo Road with clean aircon rooms starting at $7 or about P336) OR at Family Guesthouse (they have aircon rooms from $6 – about P260) I read from wikipedia. We couldn’t understand each other. Finally, a young lady approached us and offered to translate. Turned out my $2 offer wasn’t good enough; that it was too far. He had to agree at $3.

Hmmm. I knew I didn't have much choice. I just wanted to leave the damp station, and relax in some dry comfortable bed. I stepped behind the driver, with my 13kg backpack flinging to my side. Put my cap on, and held on to the driver’s shoulder, as he slowly sped southward. Rain was falling; water dripping down my face. I was starting to feel the weight of my luggage from my right arm. We passed by rows of expensive looking hotels, and then turned left to Wat Bo Street. I noticed that majority of these hotels were named after specific temples, e.g. Banteay Srey Hotel, Kbal Paean Resort Hotel. My eyes were trying to catch any familiar name from Lonely Planet.

When it was obvious that my driver didn't know where my intended guesthouse is, I instructed him to turn around and head back to Mom’s Guesthouse (no. 0099 Phom Wat Bo, Siem Reap) just a few walks from the main highway (National Route 6). It was way past 9 and a friendly looking girl in her mid-20s met me. The place was well lit and looks like a small hotel with a chandelier and a spotless marbled floor. She suggested that I dry myself first and come down later to fill up the registration. We went to the building annex at the back and went up a stair. Ooops, it was occupied, “I forgot my uncle is staying here tonight,” she explained. We went down again and up to the 3rd floor of a room that was facing Wat Bo Street. I got a room with a view and a veranda as well. Nice drawn curtains. Very clean. Split type aircon, beautiful bathroom with a tub and a huge double bed. All these for $15.

I told her later that this looked like a “hotel” more than a “guesthouse”. The male owner joined us later, explaining why they opted to keep the name, “Mom’s Guesthouse” instead of “Mom’s Hotel”. Any establishment with “Hotel” on it is straightaway taxed more than a "guesthouse". He kept asking where I was from (“Hmmm. You don’t look Malaysia coz they have beards on their faces”), or how I learned about Mom's (I don’t have to tell them they weren't my original choice. In fact, they were not on my 3 picks at all. I later realized that travelfish had several complaints about them, and that the site refused to place them on the recommended lists. This was mostly due to the stern faced matriarch who frequents the front desk. She was morose looking, and seemed like she'd rather be elsewhere than deal with you. On hindsight, I believe she was just “made” that way. She booked my tuktuk to the Temples. She offered me a $2 breakfast. She booked my plane ticket back to Vietnam when I found myself stranded in Siem Reap due to a Buddhist holiday - a water holiday, to be exact-that I wasn’t aware about.)

My inexpensive meal in Siem Reap @ Tokimex Station
(a gas station with fastfood/convenience store)

After a few chitchat, I headed out in the rain- to grab something to eat. It was almost 11 and I realized I haven’t had a proper meal since the long bus ride from Phnom Penh. I went to a restaurant nearby. Everything in this place was quoted in US dollars. It’s practically their monetary unit of choice, instead of riel (KHR). You pay them in dollars, they change with riel unless you specify that you want your change in “US dollar”. Even the nearby internet café quoted in cents of dollars. Here’s my expenses: $0.50 for bottled coke, $3.50 for Amok (their National Dish – curried chicken – the khmer dish is characterized by a sweeter taste; in fact, their curry has sweet potato in it!), $2.50 for grilled pork (their barbecue sauce is well recommended and not to be missed). I had to emphasize to the waitress that it was “pork” and “NOT FROG” coz she sure sounded like she was saying “f’og”. This caused hilarity among the waitresses, but I had to make sure, since frog was actually on the menu! After the late dinner, I proceeded to the internet café ($0.050/hour) to check my mails. The shop closes at 12 midnight (it was still 11PM in Manila). I retired to my room 135 and planned my itinerary for the next morning. Set my alarm early, then drifted to a peaceful sleep.

Wat Kesaram

Monks texting

Tnor Bridge
connecting the backpacker's area of Wat Bo and the French Quarter

Siem Reap International Airport (small, intimate, relaxed)
BUT with a steep airport tax of US$25

Siem Reap: In a Nutshell

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.

An Amorous Khmer - The Ride From Phnom Penh

Buddhist Monks waiting for their ride.

Royal Hall

Phnom Penh Museum

Preah Sihanouk Boulevard

Independence Monument

Everyone becomes a different person once uprooted from his native land, whether for employment, education or a simple holiday. I am no different. I am polite and patient more than I usually am. I am also decisive and careful. But I take chances when doors of opportunity open up. It is in this vein that I tell of an amusing anecdote that, though it was uncomfortable and constricting at that time, I now look back with fondness and a hearty laugh.

My bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap started rather uneventfully. Someone drove me to a corner in front of the Phnom Penh Cultural Center where I was to wait for my bus. A couple of middle-aged Chinese guys (who I initially thought were Japanese) waited with me. We were both trying to make conversations, but all they could mutter was
“Temp’l? Temp’l?” – so I gave up after a while. I stood infront of an apothecary where an old lady was smiling, spewing words in French, and all I could say was, “Sorry, je ne parle pas le français.” She must have understood me - she offered me a seat – which was so sweet, as I didn’t have any business for her, and sheepishly offered back my Merci beaucoup.” An old lady offering me a seat! Imagine!

Thirty minutes later, the bus arrived, and a flurry of embarking activities followed. The stowage compartment from the side of the bus was gradually filled with a potpourri of stuff that city dwellers bring home to their folks in the countryside. Sacks of what-have-you's, packed garments, crates of yam and bananas, everything went inside the compartment, including a live chicken in its cage. I slowly made my way inside, looking for my seat, where I was pointed to a seat whose number doesn’t match my assigned ticket. The assistant implied that my seating had been changed, so that’s it.

From the looks of it, this was gonna be a packed ride, with a strictly local population – except for the two Chinese guys and myself.

I refused to part with my 12-kg bag, which was a good idea, since the bus would drop passengers along the 6-hour (and later, 7-hour) ride, and the aforementioned compartment outside would be constantly subjected to disembarkation. With a window seat and airconditioning – I couldn’t complain. This will be a breeze.

Then came a group of Khmer ladies. One of them sat beside me, while her friends were behind us. She closely looked at me and smiled, so I said,
hello. She had a friendly face, long hair pinned on a twirling bun. Turns out she couldn’t understand a single word of English. Not even a “yes”, a “no”, “thank you” or the word “English”. I would have loved chatting with locals. Oh well. An interesting 6-hour bus ride flew off my window. Or so I thought.

The bus started playing on video a Chinese comedy-adventure series dubbed in Khmer. Every hour or so, the assistant would change the disc for its continuation. The passengers totally lapped it up - hook, line and sinker! They love this rollicking slapstick! I was grateful that it wasn’t a continuous barrage of Cambodian videoke, as I was forewarned.

My huge baggage settled snugly between my legs - so I couldn't move much, and I just had enough leg room which didn't allow me to slouch down. Nor did I have enough elbow room to make a comfortable side maneuver. Moreover, all the aircon vent were decidedly set elsewhere but my direction. I thought,
“alright, this is your country, so be my guest…” I wasn’t gonna argue with a bunch of Khmers when I didn’t even know where I was gonna sleep that night, not having made any reservations – again! I was gonna wing it!

Two hours into the ride, the bus made a stop at some
carinderia, not much different from those we see on a bus ride to Baguio City. Everyone got off the bus but I waited until I didn’t have to squeeze myself from anyone. My khmer seatmate stood, looked and smiled at me, and invited me down. I nodded and said, “Later. Thank you.” Once back to our seats, my amiable seatmate started talking, whatever it was about, I just nodded and smiled. It felt like I’ve swallowed a lizard’s tail too. She pulled a pomelo from inside her bag and offered a piece. I politely declined. It is gastrocolic, and i refuse to risk any unscheduled bowel movement, thank you. Later, She took a paper-album, literally threw the stuff on my lap, and motioned for me to scan through.

Hmmm… so she’s been to the temples before. And she had lots of friends with her too. Does she live there? Or is she on holiday? Then I saw a picture of her standing across the moat of Angkor Wat, all pregnant. She kept smiling, annotating some of her photos… and slid her arm into mine. We were best friends. Some hospitality, I thought. At times, she would push her arm against mine and I was pasted against my window wall, I couldn’t move my feet, nor my arms,
but I am not gonna make advances to someone who was once pregnant. Maybe this is usual Khmer camaraderie, who knows?
I vacillated between my window’s view and the Chinese video. As the sun begins to set, some 3 long hours into Siem Reap, she removed the sandals off her feet and comfortably settled her bare feet over my left shoe. She would slide her feet against my leather. Was it a Khmer ritual too? I wasn’t sure if it was
polite to shake her feet off my shoe. This went on for a while. Every time she pulls it off my shoe, I'd try to pull my left foot under my seat – in vain. The hours stretched long and uncomfortable. Six hours became 7, and the last 30 minutes stretched like 30 days.

I comforted myself with the fact that she was, in fact, being friendly and was doing me a favour. A human skin shining my shoe would save me several Rials worth of shoe shine.

It started to rain as we drew close to
Siem Reap (which garrishly meants “Siam Defeated”, by the way). As the bus drew to a stop at the garage, I scampered off with my baggage. Rain fell heavily. She glanced at my direction with a blank look, and I nodded my goodbye. Rushed to the nearby shed. It was late and dark, and i was cold and near-drenched. What was she gonna say, I couldn’t tell.
I was unhappy though that the shoe she painstakingly rubbed clean was gonna be muddied up by this torrential rain. Darn!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Cambodian Countryside

A roadside market in Prasot. Notice the hundreds of antenna jutting out from the roof.

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!

Another market in Kraul Kor

Ambulant vendors in NEAK LOEUNG, near the Mekong

A ferry ride at the Mekong River

My bus' ferry ride at the Mekong

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh & Siem Reap


Crossing Mocbai-Bavet Border

I have to admit I had lots of apprehension crossing the Mocbai-Bavet border to Cambodia. Land border-crossing is never my favorite.
(I remembered taking the night train from Paris to Madrid. For the convenience of the passengers, a train steward would take our passports before bedtime – so that we can supposedly enjoy out cramped couches without being bothered with the immigration formalities! Meanwhile, at a particular city in Spain, the train would make a stop. The last 5 cars will be detached from the front cars that will then proceed to Madrid’s notorious Atocha station. I was pins and needles thinking, hmmm, what if they leave my passport behind while I was enjoying a sound sleep? What if I hopped on the wrong section?)

Though my itinerary’s been planned, it took all my guts to finally buy a bus ticket to Cambodia. I also knew that once I buy my $20 ticket, there’s no turning back. Would be all-systems-go from there. If I wasn’t alone traveling, it would be a no-brainer, but traveling alone is trouble waiting to happen. I have read soooo many horror stories of border crossing from Lonely Planet to Fodor to web/blog entries.

One article mentioned that it’s a lot easier to get out of Vietnam than get right back in, and this statement actually echoed persistently in my mind. Wikipedia says, and I quote,
"Immigration is notoriously strict." Not only that, some of them would allegedly ask for imaginary tariffs, currency exchange that's way off the market rate, etc. (Although such things were more common in less-visited borders, i.e. O Smach (Cam)-Chong Jom (Thai), Prum (Cam)-Daun Lem (Thai), and even the regularly traversed Poipet-Koh Kong border from Thailand.)

Another source of concern is, I have never met a Pinoy who has crossed the border (there should be thousands now). Common sense dictates though that Pinoys must have passed this way before. Nevertheless, it didn't offer relief. Assumptions never do! Most Pinoys I know “fly”; and those who do not, have passports other than a Philippine passport. Since Pinoys are visa-free, I reckon it would be easier for me than other backpackers who had to pay $25 passport processing fee on site. So…

I mustered enough courage and off I went. John Williams’ “Jaws Theme” was humming in my head.

I was ready as early as 5AM. I went down and didn’t have the heart to wake the lady sleeping at the foyer. I wanted to go out and look for food, though I wasn’t hungry. A nearby go-go bar was still blaring loud garage music. I turned toward DeTham and got offered, “Good girls! Good girls!” Some Caucasians were already carrying their Vietnamese girls. It’s really the same everywhere – Paris or Luxembourgh, Patpong or Jakarta. Although I have to admit that this trade isn’t as pronounced in Vietnam as it is elsewhere. Further on, some more guys offered their business, “Cheap girls, very pretty!” or “Nice girls work hard for you!” What a way to start my morning. One was tugging at my sleeve, pointing to a girl at a dark corner. She can't be over 16. Geesh! She was licking a lollipop. If that was meant as a tease, it looked awkward and silly to me.
I was told that my bus would pick me up at 5:30AM. Someone finally came at 6. We rode a car to where the Sapaco bus was parked. Our baggages were deposited at the backseat, and I took my seat 2 rows in front of the bags. Three Canadians were seated in front of me; an old French guy infront of them. The whole row of seats was all mine so I was pleased with myself. Ten minutes into the departure, the driver’s assistant started giving away a packed meal (ham sandwich and a bottle of water) which was amazingly part of the $20.

Our SAPACO bus - airconditioned, spacious, and only 60% occupied

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.

Border immigration counter (the 3 Canadians at the center)


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 road: Vietnam Side (Mocbai, Tay Ninh)

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!

The road: Cambodian side (Bavet, Svay Rieng)

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.

Cambodian Immigration Police

Here's my 2nd crossing in the same border, but going the opposite direction a year after (2008):