Tuesday, October 30, 2007

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.

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