SETTLING IN SIEM REAP

When I told my boss I am going to Siem Reap for 5 days and 4 nights, he just smiled and was puzzled what I am going to do there for such freaking long time? The place is so dusty – all they have there are merely temples and some ruins. He could never understand why people would find ancient buildings at the verge of dilapidation are worth anyone’s time. He gave an example of a place in Istanbul where he visited – “There are some rubbles and ruins, and some pillars still standing. The tourists went “Wah….” and took turns to take pictures. I don’t understand what is so interesting! It is just some collapsed structure.”

Well, I made a mental note of what my boss had said, he is a well traveled man to begin with, so I guess everyone is entitled to their own sets of opinions. I told him I am going there to take some pictures. He encouraged me to travel to Nepal or India, as these places are still developing, and there would be a nice photography subject. As for Europe, the places are already well developed and the buildings will still be the same in a number of years to come. I thanked him for his suggestions. I had wanted to visit India very much. I guess India would be the next targeted destination.

To sum up Siem Reap – it is freaking hot and the three of us (WY, Viv and myself) almost wilted under the sun. Most of my friends advised that it is not a good idea to go to Siem Reap in July as it is the rainy season. We were lucky that throughout our 5 days stay, it didn’t rain much, apart from sudden drizzles and the rain went off as soon as it came.

Traveling to Siem Reap is relatively easy. You don’t really need much guidance as there is abundance of travel guides and maps for tourists made available for free at all guest houses and hotels as soon as you arrived there. The locals speak fairly good English, and getting around Siem Reap is also easy – like Phnom Penh, there are plenty of tuk tuks around for you to make a choice.

Day #1
Friday, 14 July 2006

It was slightly cloudy the moment we reached Siem Reap. The taxi driver who picked us up said, today is a good day to go to the floating village, as it might be raining in the afternoons tomorrow or the day after.

We had drawn up an itinerary to follow, but we guessed it would be better to follow advice and change our itinerary accordingly to the weather.

As soon as we settled down at Red Piano, our designated tuk tuk driver, Chan Boramey, was already waiting outside for us. I got the tuk tuk driver’s reference from a fellow colleague. Chan is a skinny fella with very thick eye brows. He speaks very limited English, but he is quite an honest fella.

However, I couldn’t stop myself from comparing Wan Nak; the tuk tuk driver that I had in Phnom Penh with Chan. Wan Nak by far is a better tuk tuk driver as he is able to advise you on the routes to take, familiar with the closing times of markets and places to visit, and best times to visit the places of interests. Chan is more like a yes-man, you asked him anything – he would leave everything to you. I guess it is good for someone who planned his/her trip well. He, nevertheless, is quite an entertaining fella.

At Khmer Kitchen
Dumplings, Fried Spring rolls,
Stir Fried Pumpkin with Shrimps, Amok Fish and Minced chicken in basil leaves

First stop, we had to ease our hunger pangs first by going to this Khmer Kitchen situated at Pub Street. The dumplings and spring rolls are great. The Amok Fish is a bit too watery for my liking. I like the fried pumpkin though. The Khmers tend to like pumpkin very much.

If you must visit the Tonle Sap, the biggest lake in South East Asia, then it is advisable for you to make a trip to the Floating Village. We had to pay USD10 at the entrance to the floating village as the money would be given to the boatman for transporting us for an hour cruise along the river towards Tonle Sap. It is not particularly a pretty river. It was more like the biggest teh tarik lake in the world.

The Floating Village and Tonle Sap

I asked the boatman, why the water is so yellowish and murky. It was the monsoon season, he said. If we come during non-monsoon season, that is from November to February, the river would be clear that you could see fishes swimming inside.

I looked at both left and right of the river towards the Great Lake – there were people spilling motor oils in the water, people washing their plates, people used the water to cook, children taking a dip to cool off the afternoon heat, they even have a pig sty floating on the river, schools, basketball court, hospital, church, shops etc. Well, I don’t think we can see fishes swimming inside the lake with all the daily activities of the inhabitants of the floating village. It was quite an interesting journey. Viv and WY however, looked rather sleepy and bored. Probably effect from the very hot sun.

It was a mixture of emotions of amusement and sadness to see children floating themselves on the river using the wash basin and pails; totally ignorant of danger and tried to get some money from tourists traveling on the boat. Instead of giving them money, we gave them some biscuits we bought from home.

After the long boat ride, we tipped the boatman USD5 after he told us of some sad stories of his family, etc. I guess, this is the way how people do things here – they always try to get money out of sympathy. It was indeed quite a sad place. The road towards the floating market is littered with small little huts made of leaves and bamboo; acting as homes and shelters for Cambodian countryside families. We were amazed to spot little black and white tvs in almost every home that we passed by.

After the long journey, we asked Chan to stop us at the Old Market to do some shopping. We didn’t buy much apart from lurking every corner to check out some of the goods. We ended up buying our dinner at this baguette stall at Riel 3,000 each. Being tourists, we were conned. The locals bought theirs at only Riel 1,000 but of smaller portion. (Check out their portable toaster!!).We bought some other stuffs to eat as well, a pao and some Khmer dumplings and made ourselves comfortable at the nearest coffee shop we can find to get our caffeine fix.

We went back to the guest house and get ready for the night out. Pub Street, just a few minutes walk away from Red Piano is quite a happening place. Beer comes as cheap as 20 cents at Temple Club. To secure the foreigners, both entrance and exit of the road were sealed off from vehicles – it is sure difficult to cross the road with the tuk tuks zig zag in between when you are sober. What more, when you are pissed drunk.

Temple Club at Pub Street

We settled early for the night as we would be having a long, long day tomorrow. What a long, long day indeed.

PHNOM PENH #5

Tuesday, 4 April

Tea Break at Mekong River

We headed to a Restaurant called the Mekong River in Sisowath Quay as Popiah was complaining of being hungry. We forgot totally about lunch! I sort of lost my appetite after the visit to the Museum. Nevertheless, I pulled myself together, and tried to accept this as history and there would be a better future for the Cambodians.

We had Amok fish, it was quite good that we ordered another helping. The rest of the food in this restaurant did not suit my fancy. Probably I just lost my appetite. We decided to walk back to the hotel, at the same time, checking out the streets. We were surprised that there was an evening market near Sisowath Quay. Not much like our Malaysian’s pasar malam – most goods sold here are perishables. Cousin sis decided to have a go at the flies-infested pumpkin dessert. For the rest of us with weak stomachs, decided not to take risks.

The busy evening market

Crossing roads in Phnom Penh is rather tricky. The key word here is to remain calm and patient. Even little kids crossed the road without much effort. As for us, we crossed the road only when the traffic is clear.

Since it was still early, 6 pm when we reached hotel, we decided to rest before we go out to check out the night life.

We decided to check out Street 51 – where a row of bars were situated. We went to Heart of Darkness at 8 pm. It was too early. Before going in, we checked the warning notice at the entrance. No guns, no grenades allowed. We were even frisked before we go in. I was surprised by the tight security here. At first, I was thinking it is all because of the fucking terrorists, but then realized that, in Phnom Penh, owning a rifle, gun or grenade is legal, which the government now trying so hard to eradicate. There were instances where people were gunned down on the streets.

This was where I tried to unwind after a long day. The list of cocktails was dirt cheap!! Margheritta at only USD3, tequila at USD1.50, Long Island tea at USD2?? Since it’s happy hour, the drinks come with 25% discount! I asked Chubby if we could have everything on the menu. She stared at me and thought I had gone nuts.

We ordered drinks upon drinks. We get the pool table all to ourselves as there were nobody in Heart of Darkness, except for a few workers and a few mat sallehs. We went wild. As Popiah, Cousin sis and Ms Tambi were practicing their zero skills at playing pool, the rest of us drank like a fish. We downed 12 tequila neat in less than 30 minutes. That was when I started to feel tipsy and told them to go bar hopping. We hopped to the next bar – Howie’s Bar. I was already feeling nauseated.

The few last things I remembered were; we had some fried chicken as Popiah was complaining of being hungry (yeah – again!!), all kinds of profanities came out from my mouth, I sent an sms to Takeshi saying I am drunk – as if he could help me; thousands of kilometres away, Chubby puking her guts out, they had to haul my ass to the tuk tuk, I puked my guts out in the sink and clogged it, I instructed my cousin sis to pay USD2 to the cleaner to unclog the sink, Cousin sis rubbing some tiger balm on my head way too hard till it hurts, and then, I passed out.

Wednesday, 5 April

I woke up in at 3.30 am, and puked my guts out again.. and again. I was sleepless till the first morning light. I felt okay but still nauseous.

Busy Streets of Phnom Penh

I was glad that I could do some last minute shopping at Central Market and Russian Market, despite a stomach being turned upside down from too much drink the night before. There, we spent money like crazy. I myself bought 7 pairs of Adidas track bottom at average USD2.50 each and picked up some nice handmade handbags made of silk. There were stacks upon stacks of pirated versions of Lonely Planet, selling at USD2 to USD9. We even had another round of coffee in Russian Market where the lady boss remembered us before going back to the hotel; and bid good bye to Wan Nak and Phnom Penh.

Summary:

Phnom Penh is indeed an eye opener for us. Instead of always holidaying in idyllic beaches, places with good food, good music, etc, we went to a once war torn country and overwhelmed by the sufferings of the people here. It was good to immerse ourselves in the camaraderie of the survivors, and utterly inspired by their instincts to survive.

Cambodians, albeit being marred by the horrific history of genocide which probably be remembered for a few lifetimes, is a growing country. I am truly amazed and inspired by the people of Cambodia. They may not possess many material wealth, but one common thing that they have, even worth more than gems and jewels; their ever generous smiles and determination to survive. On the contrary to what most people think, it is perfectly safe to travel to Phnom Penh.

Wan Nak needs to brush up his English before he could be a good tour guide. He doesn’t talk much and would smile shyly whenever we tried to talk to him. Nevertheless, he took good care of us – guiding us across the crazy roads of Phnom Penh, taking care of our shopping goods while we went sight seeing, bring us water when we were thirsty, bought us face masks. For those who are going to Phnom Penh, if you cannot find a reliable tuk tuk driver, you can always call Wan Nak (012-241 250). I think he would remember us – the 6 girls who almost break his tuk tuk, on the way to Tonle Bati! Ha ha!

I am ever grateful to Takeshi for some useful pointers prior to my trip to Phnom Penh. The candies indeed come in handy. I guess biscuits and cookies would be a better choice for my next trip to Cambodia.

PHNOM PENH #1

Independent Monument

It was a mixed feeling trip. It was enjoyable and yet, there was a nagging feeling of sorry and deep sorrow inside, especially when we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

As I was recuperating from my trip since Wednesday night, I still couldn’t sleep. The moment I closed my eyes at night, the tormented look in a woman’s face carrying her young infant, while waiting to be electrocuted, flashed across my mind. I felt so sorry … and yet, I knew feeling sorry is not enough. I couldn’t understand why people could be so cruel. The inhuman torture carried out systematically by the Khmer Rouge is beyond comprehension. It had caused the country 30 years of sufferings, trying to catch up with the rest of the world. I still the evidences of the torture, especially beggars with amputated legs caused by land mines, faces badly scalded, no arms, blind, etc. There were also poor little children, running around naked with carefree attitude as if nothing has happened. Sometimes, ignorance is indeed bliss.

The six of us (6 ladies – myself, my cousin sis, Ms Tambi, Chubby, Amy and Popiah) touched down in Phnom Penh one hour late, after some avoidable confusion. We were actually relieved to get on the plane albeit half an hour late, rather than 7 hours, as suffered by James in his recent Bangkok trip.

Then, an old lady – whom I believed suffering from Alzheimer disease, forgot to hand over her boarding pass. Based on record, her luggage was in the plane but the person was not. She couldn’t even remember her own name when the stewardess called out her name. Well, if my parents named me “SOS ATIKA”, I doubt I would admit that is my name, I guess. It took almost another half an hour to identify this Sos woman.

Our journey there was quite a scary one. The plane took off quite roughly and upon landing, it was even worse. It was a bumpy ride. All of us clung onto our seat belts for dear life, as if it would make any difference if the plane were to crash. I think Air Asia should send their pilots to more simulation training. No wonder some people died from heart attacks while flying.

We headed for our hotel the moment we got down the airport. The immigration checkpoint in Phnom Penh had just newly installed computerized system to check in visitors, it took them sometime to clear the counters. It slipped our minds to fill in immigration forms and we did it immediately when we got down the plane. Always remember to get immigration forms from KLIA or for this instance, the LCC Terminal before flying. Also, to fill up another form – the declaration form.

Not knowing what to eat, we took some pointers from the Tuk Tuk drivers we befriended at our hotel. We had dinner at Sisowath Quay in R. Ponlok, a restaurant specializing in mixture of Khmer, Chinese and Western Food. We had everything Khmer – the curry, the steamed gobi fish in spice, minced pork with noodle, satay beef and fried spring rolls. Their food is rather similar to their neighbours’, the Vietnamese and the Thais, only slightly sweeter. After dinner, we were served fruits and a coconut pastry for free. It was quite a pricey dinner – considered reasonable though by Kuala Lumpur standard. The reception given by the waiters and waitresses here were warm. They showed us some pictures of their boss’ family, trying to chat in their limited English. They were amused to see my cousin’s sis t shirt, showing Nanta cartoons, popularized by the Koreans and claimed that they have similar Nanta show in Phnom Penh – Cambodian style.


There was a misunderstanding among the Tuk Tuk drivers when we went back to the hotel. The two Tuk Tuk drivers who told us that they would come back to get us – one didn’t arrive. So we went on another Tuk Tuk as the other driver said, he was his friend. We were shocked to see the other guy came eventually, just a minute late. He was yelling at the tuk tuk driver who took us. We were alarmed that they might argue because of this. When we got back to the hotel, we paid all 3 drivers to avoid them from arguing with each other. Afterall, it was only USD2 each.

Not a good thing to start a journey, but we believed, there would be a better day waiting for us tomorrow. I was glad it was.