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 #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.

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.