I DREAM OF APSARAS

For the benefit of people who don’t know where Siem Reap is, here’s the map of Cambodia. I have a friend who thought Siem Reap is in Thailand.


Day #2
Saturday, 15 July 2006

As we were on a holiday, we started the day rather late, which proved to be a big mistake. If you are in Siem Reap, it is advisable to start the day early as the weather could be quite exhausting to keep up with. When you wake up late, the sun is already up on your head – as it is an hour late compare to Malaysian time.

Authentic Pho, Saigon Kickstart (Coffee) and Cheese Omelette

We had breakfast at this nice restaurant called the Soup Dragon at Pub Street. It has Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai and Western food. Compare to other restaurants that we went to, this one comes with reasonable pricing. They have quite a lot of locals dining here, so I guess Chan brought us to the right place to have breakfast. In fact, throughout our stay, we had 3x breakfast here as most places do not open for breakfast and Red Piano’s prices are too exorbitant and choices are quite limited. It is a mistake too for getting a guesthouse without breakfast. Probably we could save more if we were to get a guesthouse which comes with breakfast, but we are not complaining.

We got all excited after breakfast to see the Angkor Wat. When we got there, it was already 10 am local time. The sun was bright and it was really hot. There were so many people walking on the pavement towards Angkor Wat. A third of the pavement was blocked for restoration. It is quite a pitiful sight. Reminded me of our perpetual construction back at home (MRR2?). Being our ignorant self, we didn’t know that the pointed gopuras were inside and not outside. I kept on playing some pictures that my friends took and my mind couldn’t seem to register. Are we in the right place? Then, as we walked inside after the first entrance, lo and behold, it was a magnificent sight. Stupid-nya. Because of the large scale, it was indeed difficult to cram the whole structure into our cameras.

Angkor wat in its splendor

There are some spots closed for restoration. It is indeed a long process to make this place look like the old days, but I think the feat is near impossible. I guess with the looming number of visitors – it is quite difficult to preserve the ancient temples. Some visitors really disgust me by speaking so loudly in the temple – afterall, this is a temple, we have to keep silence to show some respect. They even have a signboard telling people to shut up.

Some visitors – with their designer glasses, Gucci bags, stilettos (yes – some idiots actually wear stilettos to Angkor Wat), etc totally had no respect for the temple. It saddened me that I saw one guy spitting on the ground of the temple. I wish the police there would slap some summons on him. So much for respect huh? Some local kid even pee in the compound of the Angkor Wat – adding rancid uric smell to the guano-smelling Angkor Wat. Siem Reap authority should limit number of visitors to its ancient temples or perhaps ban all hooligans from temples.

We spent approximately 2 hours loitering in Angkor Wat. At first, I refused to climb on the steep staircase, fearing that the clumsy me might fall off. I guess, it is quite safe to climb, as long as you exercise extreme caution. Never mind of stories of people falling to their deaths. The fatality rate is low, though. Nothing to worry about. Serious.

I don’t understand why people would want to bring their children as young as a few months old to Siem Reap. It is not a place for children and elderly people. So I suggest, if you have not hit mid life crisis – it is time to go to Siem Reap NOW. With the fast deterioration of some temples, it is highly advisable to go as soon as possible before the structure came tumbling down. And please – keep your hands off the carvings on the stone as they are delicate things.

We had lunch at the nearby stall within the vicinity of the temples. The increasing number of visitors to Angkor Wat had spurred many stalls mushrooming along the road of Angkor Wat.

South Entrance of Angkor Thom

The next stop was one of my top favorite – the Bayon. The Bayon is in the vicinity of Angkor Thom. We entered Angkor Thom via the Southern Gate – where most heads of the statues alongside the road towards Angkor Thom are still intact. As it was already afternoon, it was difficult to get nice shots of the place – this is just one of the pictures I think quite alright.

Bayon is the place with many giant faces. I guess this is the temple that one shouldn’t miss. Frankly speaking, I love this temple more than the great Angkor Wat. There have been some speculations of whose face are on the carvings – some said the faces belongs to King Jayavarnam, some said it’s Boddhisattva’s etc. It is good to read up a little before you go on a historical trip.

As it was afternoon when we were at Bayon, the light was too bright for photographs. Nevertheless, I tried my best to get nicer shots. It was quite hard to get pictures with the sunlight emerging from the top.

The Magnificent Bayon

After Bayon, our energy drained fast because of the heat. It was scorching hot as we tried to find some shades from the sun. I had down the entire 1 litre of bottled water but it didn’t have any effect. As we walked out from the Bayon, we went to Baphuon but it was closed for restoration. There was a guide who was speaking Japanese to two Japanese tourists – I was glad that I understood what he had just said.

By the time, we walked towards the Terrace of the Elephants, it was already almost 5 pm. We rushed to Bakheng to see the sunset. I was already at the end of my energy level. When I saw the walk uphill to Bakheng, my legs turned jelly. Elephant rides are available up the hill for USD15. Not wanting to waste that amount of money, I decided to climb onto the steep terrain. It took me awhile as I need to rest almost at every 20 steps I took. I blamed it on lack of exercise. Our tuk tuk driver followed us as he would guide us through an alternative way to get down from the hilltop once the sun set. He couldn’t help but chuckled at my lack of stamina. @#$%^&*

After climbing to the hill, I was shock to see the ordeal was far from over. We still need to climb another flight of staircase which was even steeper compared to the one we climbed in Angkor Wat. As I went up, I cursed. I wonder how the ancient people climb the stairs? I wanted to ask Chan whether they purposely built it this way to prevent enemies from climbing in the temple quickly, but didn’t managed to, as I was already out of breath the moment I reached the top. I was tickled at the thought that some of the climbers looked like the female ghost, climbing out of the well, in the famous movie – the Ring – only much clumsier and has no long hair.

The Treacherous Bakheng

Then, bad news. It started to drizzle a bit and we were glad that we brought along umbrellas. It was kinda ridiculous to wait for the sun to set on a cloudy day. As expected, we didn’t get to see the sun set as it was too cloudy. There were many people on top of Bakheng – I felt like a fool, waiting anxiously for the sun – but the sun sets behind the clouds instead. I guess we had to come again if we wanted to watch the sunset but the thought of climbing the steep staircase again put me off. If I were to come again – I am going on the elephant ride! Like Bali – actually we were very lucky to have caught the sunset at Tanah Lot as our guide told us, sometimes, it would be too cloudy to see the sunset. I guess we just cannot plan according to nature.

After basking in the sun the entire afternoon and waiting in vain for the sunset, we went back to our guest house. On our way back, we passed by the Jayavarnam VII Children Hospital, run by Kantha Bopha Foundation Dr. Beat Richner. Dr Beat Richer plays cello music by J.S. Bach and songs by Beatcello. The Kantha Bopha Foundation gives free medical services to Cambodians, mostly children as most Cambodian families cannot afford a proper medical treatment. Hence, this Foundation relies heavily on donations.

We would love to go to the concert, if not being too tired and worn out. My mind just told me to go back to the guest house. We should have gone to the concert. Apart from monetary donation, donation of blood is welcomed as most Khmers do not donate blood due to religious beliefs. If I were to go to Siem Reap again, I would definitely go and support this cause. Beatocello concert is on every Friday and Saturday, starting 7.15 pm at Kantha Bopha Centre, Jayavarnam VII hospital. Probably, I could just mail them a cheque.

We headed to have Happy Pizza (sprinkle with marijuana) at Happy Herb Pizza. The egg plant with cheese is delicious!! I remember I had beer at Happy Herb in Phnom Penh for 50 cents each but this place didn’t seem to offer buy one free one beer and, the service was rather slow. Don’t try the bolognaise spaghetti – it is quite shitty. I think you could try any happy pizza at any pizza parlor, not specifically have to be at Happy Herb.

We were too tired to think of anything towards the end of the day, so we went back to the guest house for early rest as we wanted to catch the sunrise tomorrow at 5 am in Angkor Wat.

The moment I closed my eyes to sleep, I could see Apsaras dancing gracefully in my dreams.

PHNOM PENH #2

Monday, 3 April

We woke up early to make the most of the day. Since Phnom Penh is one hour late compare to Malaysian time, the sun is bright by 7 am and by 6 pm, everything is dark.

Not wanting to repeat yesterday’s night mistake by asking for 2 tuk tuks, we decided to charter one big tuk tuk for 6 people. Economies of scale, mah!

We were not surprised to see the same tuk tuk driver whom we thought didn’t turn up last night, waiting for us at the hotel entrance. I apologized to him and said, we needed only one big tuk tuk and his tuk tuk was too small for the 6 of us, especially when yours truly is grossly horizontally challenged.

He told us to wait for his brother to come over with his bigger tuk tuk. In less than 1 minute after he said that, a young handsome man turned up. His name is Wan Nak.

We were apprehensive that his tuk tuk could carry the 6 of us. Anyway, we relented as the tuk tuk driver seemed to be quite nice and reliable … and not to mention cute too! (Yeah lah. Menggataling lah) It was only a city trip – very short 10 minutes trip to almost everywhere. The price quoted (USD15 per day for city tour) was quite reasonable. Thanks to the helpful New York Hotel staff who gave us some pointers, when they picked us up from the airport the day before. (Short rides range from USD2 to USD3 if you take tuk tuks and USD1 if you take the motorbike)

Central Market (Phsar Thmey)

First stop was the Central Market since it is just a 5 minute ride away from New York Hotel. We would like to browse around first before we could start to splurge. This is indeed a market with so many things to see. The market smells like Chow Kit Road (I once helped my aunt to sell vegetables in Chow Kit Road market before) but selling more things other than perishable goods compare to Chow Kit’s market. The uniqueness is probably the huge yellow dome of French influence since Cambodia was once colonized by the French, followed by the Khmer Rouge and the invasion of the Vietnamese. Ms Popiah splurged like mad but the things there were indeed cheap, despite the traders refusing to budge when we haggled for better price the good old Malaysian way. I managed to get a nice t-shirt here.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom was the next destination. This temple was built in 1434 to house sacred relics. It seemed there was this lady, by the name Lady Penh fished out a four Buddha statue from the Sap river and built a temple at the hill to house this sacred finding. The pagodas are quite unique, less elaborate compared to the ones in Thailand, nevertheless, they looked quite Siamese to me. There were school children and young adults playing at the leisure park near Wat Phnom. You may go for elephant rides if you wish to. There were beggars everywhere, waiting at the staircases to the temple. I cursed myself for forgetting to bring along the ½ kgs of Mentos sweets I brought for this purpose, especially for the children. Entrance fees: USD3.

National Museum

National Museum has nothing much to brag about, other than housing some ancient stuffs from Angkor. Or maybe I missed a few display rooms. It was quite boring and dry. I guess if you really would want to see the real thing, might as well make a trip to Siem Reap – which is the norm. Well, don’t ask why I separated my trip to Cambodia twice! Entrance fees: USD3.

Independent Monument

Since it was already lunch time, and the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda closed from 11.30 am to 2.30 pm, Wan Nak suggested we go to Russian Market instead. We agreed and crammed into the tuk tuk. He made a brief stop at the Independent Monument to let us snap some pics. He couldn’t really operate a digital camera properly, maybe due to lack of experience. I told him, he should brush up his skills in taking photographs if he wants to be a good tour guide cum tuk tuk driver. He smiled shyly when I complained about the pics he took of us. Haha. I can be a bitch at times.

Russian Market is just like Central Market, only more chaotic. When we went there, there was power failure, which is a norm in Phnom Penh. We did some shopping in the dark. I wanted to get DVDs so bad as they were selling at USD2 per piece – but did not as we could not try the DVD before purchase due to power failure. The few of us shopped till we drop here and we had to remind ourselves, this is only the first day in Phnom Penh and we simply couldn’t afford to run out of money first day alone! Ladies! Always a shopaholic. I didn’t buy much, apart from a backpack and some post cards from a lady, whose face and shoulders were badly scalded. I was thinking of saving up some money till the last day.

Russian Market (Toul Tum Poung)

We had lunch in Russian Market itself. Not wanting to suffer possible purging due to unclean water, we stick to hot or canned drinks, except for Chubby and Amy who were adventurous enough to try the iced coffee. The coffee was surprisingly tasty. I guess it must be due to the condensed milk that they use; Alaska.

When checking out prices of backpacks, we bumped into a chap from Johor, Malaysia. He overheard me speaking in Northern Hokkien to my cousin sister, cursing that the backpack outside Russian Market is so much cheaper! As I was mumbling, he suddenly asked me, if I were from Penang? I was shocked and embarrassed. He introduced himself as JJ and he helps his dad, who owns a garment manufacturing company in Kandal – one of the smaller towns near Phnom Penh. When I told him I was on a holiday here in Phnom Penh, he offered to arrange for us cheaper trip to Siem Reap but I told him, I am only going to Siem Reap this July, and told him not to ask me WHY!

He recommended that we should go and get some genuine branded sports goods from Russian Market and volunteered to take us to his friends for a good bargain. We ended up following him to Russian Market again. He showed us how to check if the labels are original (Oh heck! I don’t really remember how) and bought a Nike blouse for my sister and a GAP shirt for my dad, both for USD4 and USD3 respectively. He gave me his name card, warned us in Hokkien not to be cheated by the traders and bid us farewell. It’s nice to have bumped into someone from home, this far away.

We extended our shopping at Russian Market for another half an hour. I had to blow the whistle and drag the rest to the tuk tuk as we were running late for Royal Palace. It was already 4 pm and Royal Palace closes at 5 pm!! As I was waiting for the rest to come, Wan Nak brought me some water. He is one heck of a tuk tuk driver with excellent customer service! I reminded myself to tip him at the end of the day.

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are on the same site, where Prince Sihanouk resides officially. Not much to see as I had been to the Grand Palace in Bangkok before, nevertheless a good place to snap some pics. The architectural designs are more or less the same as the Grand Palace of Bangkok, even with a mixture of influence of French and Khmer architecture. While we were there, there was a ceremony being held at the throne hall where coronation take place, and we were not allowed to go inside or make much noise. Entrance fee: USD3.

After one whole day walking around, frenzy shopping and photo-taking, Wan Nak sent us to Sisowath Quay for dinner. This time round, we decided to check out the dirt cheap Angkor beer – buy one at USD1 and get another one for free (Happy hours) at this pizza parlor. There were many pizza parlours along Sisowath Quay and we chose this Happy Herb’s Pizza. Not knowing what Happy Pizza is, I ordered a medium sized. The waiter asked me if I would like special herb to be added. Being the typical kiasu Malaysian, I asked him if the herbs are for free. He said yes. So I told him to add some.

He then proceeded to ask me if I would like the herbs to be mild, medium strong or strong. His question aroused my curiosity. I asked him, what is the name of this special herb? He sheepishly told me, it is actually marijuana. Good lord! I asked him then, what would happen if we take marijuana. He said, we would be a bit sleepy. Oh heck! I told the girls to have a go and ordered medium strong herbs.

Sisowath Quay

We were all very excited when we got the Happy Pizza, but the so called special herbs didn’t have any effect on me even when I took 3 slices. After we downed a few Angkor beers, we headed back to the hotel, totally pooped.

As I was soaking myself in a hot bath, I overheard my cousin sis saying loudly, “What??? Pengsan already??”. I quickly dry myself up and got dressed. It was Popiah. She was a bit dizzy and tipsy. This mangkok was okay till she took some Po Chai Pills as she was having a little stomach discomfort, less than an hour after we took marijuana and beer.

We made some hot drinks for her and told her to sober up before taking her bath and waited for her to come around. In half an hour, thank God, she was alright.

Actually, we were worried shitless as JJ warned us not to fall sick in Phnom Penh. The standard operating procedure (“SOP”) here is “Tiu sui” (intravenous tube). If you get diarrhea, fever or fell off the tuk tukTiu Sui lah. The rest of us were fine. So I guess it must be Popiah herself who cannot take alcohol too much. I had 3 beers and I was fine. Angkor beer is quite bland and has no character. It was like drinking watered down beer.

After all the “drama” – Popiah refusing to go to hospital because of the SOP, and making hot drinks for Popiah and myself as well, etc, we went back to our room and called it a night.