Angkor ’08 – Day Zero 18/11/08

ANGKOR ’08

PRELUDE
The idea of visiting Angkor Wat – and possibly playing boardgames there – was first mooted way back in Oct 2006 (in the Boardgamecafe.net forum). However due to my work commitment on a consulting project (with Antony Consulting) that required me to be spending about a week in Brunei at least once a month, I didn’t really have the time to plan this trip. I probably didn’t even have the time to go for this trip. 😦

A year.. and a half quickly passed by and we are still, ahem in “contemplating” mode. Not until a fantastic offer from MAS came up in June ’08 – $ZERO to Siem Reap!! It was simply an offer too good to miss out.

After roping in two more boardgamers – cmun and shrapnel – we were good to go for a party of four! (Note: chengyee – a fren of cmun – joined us later to form the fabulous five!)

The $0 ticket offer from MAS actually came up to RM496 after including airport taxes and other fees. It’s still cheaper than the full fare of RM990+

PREPARATION
I seldom go into any trip unprepared.. and I do not take one of those tour packages where you get to visit like ugh… 7-8 cities in 4d/3n. Yeah sure… 7 cities… all in a whirlwind!

My choice of travel is to get the flight ticket, make my own hotel arrangement and then drop-in and explore at our own time! I believe you haven’t really visited a place until you’ve walked its streets (and not just visit the key tourist spots and do the typical tourist thingie) and get to know some of its people.

Flight.
Booking the flight is easy – done via MAS Online. Finding suitable accommodation is not easy but with the resources from the Internet, it’s fairly quick for us to pin down roughly the type of hotel/guesthouse, relative location within Siem Reap and it’s accessibility.

Accommodation.
Initially we’d a little logistic problem as cmun & chengyee wanted to stay at a guesthouse which is quite far away from where me & waiyan were thinking of staying (ie Queen Villa), with shrapnel yet to decide which side of the boat he floats on :P…..

We then lengah-lengih (procrastinate) and in the end when the travel dates are near, the preferred hotels that we’d wanted – Queen Villa (USD25), The Villa Siem Reap (USD35) – were fully booked and by a strange twist of fate, all of us ended up at the Khmer Inn Guesthouse (USD15). Hah!

Note: The rate above is for an aircon double room per nite.

Itinerary.
Now this is the hard part… I’d done a quick google and came upon a site – The AngkorGuide.org – which recommends a 5- or 6-day temple tour vs the typical tourisee 3-day tour. The site does include temple itineraries for 3-day, 2-day and even 1-day for those who are either short on time or does not wish to do too much temple visits.

But for me – and I hope to say I’m speaking for the rest of the group – my main objective for this trip is to visit the ancient temples of Angkor, and not for other distractions so it’ll be the 6-day itinerary for us.

Note: cmun & chengyee had initially expressed their interest to branch-out after Day 4 to visit Phnom Penh and possibly Saigon/Ho Chi Minh. Therefore we planned to do the key temples in the first 4-days to ensure both ladies have this flexibility.

To prepare for this trip’s itinerary, I bought 3 books from Amazon after scanning various forums to determine which books are highly recommended. They don’t come cheap… at USD104 (incl shipping) that’s quite a hefty investment to buy books for a single trip!

Books to prepare for Angkor

Buying these books is the easy part (you just charge them to your card, right?) – finding time to read them is the tricky question. The books arrived in July and I thought with the trip only in mid November, I should have plenty of time to finish reading them.

Hope springs eternal…

Alas! Work kept pilling up, the months passed by pretty fast and I hadn’t even touch a single page of those books!! :O

Thankfully I’ve waiyan to thank for pulling the rabbit out of the hat for this one. She picked up those books and devoured them from page to page. I guessed they must make interesting read for her though she did mention the Khmer Civilization book initially bored her to sleep. Hmm….

Anyway waiyan did get a tentative 6-day itinerary for us that look something like this:

  1. Angkor Thom
  2. Small Tour Circuit
  3. Grand Tour Circuit
  4. Roluos
  5. Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean
  6. Tonle Sap

Certainly looks doable and interesting; 4 1/2 days of temple visits, half day of trekking(Kbal Spean) and one day visit to the great freshwater lake Tonle Sap and its floating villages. Looks good! We are set to go!! Siem Reap here we come….

Travel Essentials.
Some things are must-have when we travel.. and if it’s to a hot, and dusty place like Siem Reap you better make sure you pack the following into your luggage bag:

Travel Essentials

  • Sun Lotion – Nivea Sun Block spf 50
  • Dettol Instant Hand Sanitizer
  • Moisturizer

Note: Special thanks to shrapnel for bringing along the Dettol hand sanitizer. What a life-saver! 😛

DAY ZERO 18 Nov ’08 (Tue)
With an early morning flight, we needed to get up around 7am to give ourselves more time since our departure date fell on a working week-day. My trusty taxi driver Mr. Yap (msg me if you wish to have his number) was booked a few days earlier and as usual he reached our place with about 10 min to spare, and waited until we are ready.

MAS flight MH762 departing KUL for REP (Siem Reap) at 1145 and arrival 1420.

The four of us met at KLIA, checked in together – we’d seat numbers pre-allocated thru MAS online ticketing – and then adjourned to McDs to catch a bite before passing Immigration. chengyee who was taking the Air Asia flight had arrived much earlier than us and would have been sleeping waiting for us at the guesthouse.

The flight was rather uneventful. However it was not a direct KUL-REP flight as I’d thought. The plane touched down at Phnom Penh (PNH) first and hmm….. we’d to leave the plane… hang around the Phnom Penh International airport for about 45 min before we get to board (the same) plane to Siem Reap.

The rather long travel time (3.5 hrs if you factor in Cambodia’s one hour ahead of us) should have alerted me that this is not a direct flight. What a waste of time when all you wanted to do then is to get your feet into Siem Reap!!

Since there was nothing much for us to do but wait, we took the opportunity to start snapping some photos of the Phnom Penh airport – and what would eventually become our photo fest!

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A pub creatively called…. Angkor Pub.


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waiyan at Phnom Penh
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me and shrapnel at the waiting area

cmun’s not in the above photo-shot @ Phnom Penh….. becoz she excused herself to the ladies, hehe.

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Aerial shot of the Siem Reap River as our plane reached the airport

After the almost-an-hour wait at Phnom Penh, getting back onto the same plane.. we finally landed at Siem Reap International Airport which is about the size of our Penang Intl Airport; and surprisingly (or maybe not-so surprising) we find Siem Reap Airport to look much better than Phnom Penh Airport!

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shrapnel, waiyan and cmun at Siem Reap International Airport

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The MAS 737 that took us from KUL to REP

From Airport to Siem Reap town
Most hotels & guesthouses in Siem Reap will provide a transit to pick you up from the airport to their hotel. Firstly, it’s always Cambodian manners to welcome you to their homeland. Secondly, I think they don’t want you to be wandering around and end up checking into another hotel or guesthouse probably with some influence from your tuk-tuk driver.

We booked our accommodation online. They didn’t ask for any deposit but they did ask for a credit card number to lodge against the room charges. If you are looking for accommodation in Siem Reap, you can try the following sites:

  • http://www.wotif.com/ – has some good prices but the only snag is that they only accept bookings for up to 28 days in advance only. So can be hard if you intend to book much earlier… in fact as you come up to 30-40 days, most of the better hotels in Siem Reap would be fully booked.
    .
  • http://www.hotelclub.net/ – one I’ve used personally for my trips last time to Shanghai and even Barcelona. Pretty good rate, need to sign up as (free) member before booking. But only covers the more expensive Siem Reap hotels (ie. > USD30/nite)
    .
  • http://www.hostels.com/ – if you are not too fussy about your accommodation and are looking for a nice & clean guesthouse, this site offers a good selection. We found Khmer Inn from this site.

As our transit (van) took us on the short 7-min ride from the airport to our guesthouse, we passed through many good-looking hotels that seem posh… The rapid development of these hotels, no doubt spurred by the increasing demand of tourists flocking here to see the famed temples of Angkor are causing serious upset to the ecological balance which threatens the collapse of the temples! (see this article)

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Khmer Inn Guesthouse (website)
We met up with chengyee at the guesthouse; which did not “impress” us on first look but we did slowly warm-up to it over the next few days. IMHO the rapid pace of development of the hospitality industry in Siem Reap has outpaced Khmer Inn.

Perhaps a few years back, Khmer Inn would have been one of the better guesthouses. Now there are more options and some of the newer ones certainly give good value for money (or so they appear). However Khmer Inn is very affordable – at USD15/nite for double room (2 pax) – and most importantly it’s bed is clean and comfy.

If you need more comfort, frills and the amenities of a more modern hotel then you should look elsewhere but if all you want is a nice comfy bed to rest after a long day visiting the temples, this is a very affordable option.

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The deco at Khmer Inn seems to suggest there was a restaurant here once….

WALKABOUT
After checking into our rooms, unpacking, and taking a quick shower; we met up to i) take a quick walk around our neighbourhood, ii) get ourselves to the happening place in Pub Street, and iii) get some dinner, and iv) watch an Apsara dance performance.

Khmer Inn is located very near to the Center Market / Old Market area which is the most busy part of the town. Siem Reap itself is not unlike one of the small towns in M’sia with most of the buildings here being distinctively low (the tallest I saw is the 3-storey mall).

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Siem Reap….. a really nice town (except for the dust!)

CENTER MARKET
The Center Market was just 5-10 min walk from our guesthouse. There are two main market places in Siem Reap; the older (and aptly named) Old Market (which is called Psar Cha in khmer language) and the newer Center Market. Both markets – not unlike M’sia’s very own Central Market – are havens for buying locally made souvenirs!

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Phany’s shop in Center Market selling various Angkor oil paintings.

One thing you need to know about shopping in Siem Reap is that you really need to bargain! They’ll open with what seems like pretty reasonable prices (from our cost of living) but most times you can buy those stuff at lower prices. Siem Reap traders are also very good business people…..but they conduct their sales honestly and you can always trust a deal once it’s struck.

I liked one of Phany’s painting (of Angkor Wat) so much that I actually paid her USD10 as deposit to reserve it and promised to come back on our last day of this trip to get it from her. There were just so many things that’s lovely but seeing that this is just the first of an 8-day trip… it’s probably wiser to keep our cash for the other expenses and return here to shop in the last day.

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They used a cross-based traffic light symbol in Siem Reap.. nice!

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Nice to see a familiar sight – a Public Bank in Cambodia!

PUB STREET
cmun has wanted to visit the Old Market as she has heard of the many shopping bargains you can get there for items like silk scarf, t-shirts, dresses, etc So after our brief stop at Center Market, we proceeded along to the Old Market.

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shrapnel checking out the Happy Herb Pizza (near Pub Street)

We passed by Happy Herb Pizza near Pub Street and shrapnel having read about their special “Happy” pizzas (from the Lonely Planet book) that can make you happy after eating them decided to check them out quickly. We didn’t stop to find out more about their happy pizza but we did return to this place for brunch on the last day of our trip.

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Baguettes (they are not you char kway) like those above seem very popular in Siem Reap as we can see many hawkers selling them but each comes with their own fillings! The one near to our guesthouse uses siew-yoke (BBQ meat) while the one above seems to use tuna/sardine.

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One of the fancy restaurants in Pub Street

Pub Street is the happening place in Siem Reap; their answer to HK’s Lan Kwai Fong and KL’s Bangsar! Here is the place where most tourists hang around in the evening; some having dinner, most just chilling out with some beer and watching the crowd pass by as the crowd watches them likewise.

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This is also where you can find the famous Red Piano Restaurant. This restaurant’s profile shot up the sky when Angelina Jolie and the crew of Tomb Raider decided to make this their “2nd home” while they were filming at Siem Reap.

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Kamasutra – interesting name for a restaurant. 😉 Pity we didn’t get to try its food since it’s fine Indian dining and we were more looking to sample local Khmer food.

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Chic-looking bookstore that said it’s the #1 choice in Asia! Not sure about that claim though.. but browsing thru its books, it does have a good collection. Some 2nd hand books too.

What’s interesting is that they have an art gallery on the 1st floor. We went up to take a quick look around; saw some nice photo-prints, not cheap.

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shrapnel & waiyan doing some audition photo for the next Wong Kar Wai movie?

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waiyan at the D’s Books art gallery

TUK-TUK OR VAN
There are two generally accepted mode of transportation while in Siem Reap; their local tuk-tuk (ie. rickshaw pulled by motorcycle) or van/car. As we’ve five, I’d initially thought only a van would fit us since both tuk-tuk and car can take only four.

In Siem Reap, tourist can’t drive – even if you hold an international driving license.

While a van (aircon) is more comfortable, I’d rather go for a tuk-tuk which would offer us a very different experience. Both modes of transportation are not cheap; with the van going for USD35/day and the tuk-tuk around USD12/day. This fee includes the driver but not a tour guide (which would set you back another USD30/day).

Most van or tuk-tuk drivers have some general knowledge of the temples you are likely to visit in Angkor so most times, they can act as your “tour-guide”.

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Picture of a tuk-tuk in Pub Street

It is here at Pub Street that we met Man, our tuk-tuk driver cum tour guide cum buddy for the next 7 days. We just reached Pub Street and were looking around when he and a few other tuk-tuk drivers approach us (which are their normal modus operandi) asking if we needed tuk-tuk drivers for temple visits and getting around Siem Reap.

We waved off most of the tuk-tuk drivers as I’ve an arrangement with Khmer Inn to use their van service. That is until Man came over. He asked if we are from Malaysia… and when we answered Yes, he started speaking to us in Malay!

Wow! A Cambodian speaking fluent Malay (ie Bahasa Melayu which is Malaysia’s national language) surely caught our attention. 🙂

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That’s Man handing out his contact details to shrapnel

It turned out he has worked in Malaysia for a few years – factory, odd jobs etc – and has only recently came back to Cambodia (getting married, recent daughter – more about this later) and is now driving tuk-tuk for a living.

We chatted a fair bit and since we were looking to watch the Apsara dance tonight, asked him where’s a good place to catch an Apsara performance. He recommended us to Jasmine Restaurant where they served good buffer dinner for USD12/pax with their Apsara dance performance. Looks like a good deal!

As it was still early we told him we would still like to drop by the Old Market first before adjourning to Jasmine for dinner. He told us he’ll wait here – near the Soup Dragon – for us..

OLD MARKET
The Old Market – Psar Cha – is just a few blocks away from Pub Street. On first sight, it resembles a wet market where you see all types of vegetables, fishes and meat being put on sale. I suppose this is where the locals get their daily supplies.

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However there are also shops around it selling souvenirs, scarves, t-shirts, paintings and wooden carvings – not unlike the Center Market. I would think with the simpler setup of the shops here, price would likely be cheaper than at Center Market. We didn’t find out since our objective is to locate the place but come back towards the end of the trip to do our shopping.

JASMINE RESTAURANT & APSARA DANCE
Having found the Old Market, we then headed back towards the Soup Dragon to (hopefully) meet up with Man for our dinner at Jasmine. He was indeed waiting for us there……

Apparently tuk-tuk drivers get a free meal when they send tourists to Jasmine (and according to Man, most other restaurants practice the same “incentive” scheme). He doesn’t get to dine in the same area as us but there’s a separate area at the site where they serve tuk-tuk & van drivers free meals!

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Chomping down into our first taste of local Khmer food… we like it very much!

This is the first time we are sampling local Khmer food and honestly we didn’t know what to expect. A quick survey of the food on offer at the buffet table and our taste buds all fired up! The food is prepared very much like Chinese cooking but they just look appetizing!

Dinner starts at 7pm so we get about 1 hr to gorge ourselves on the food before the Apsara performance starts (830pm).

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The performance started with a pinpeat orchestra playing some traditional Khmer pieces (see above). Pretty soothing music to get us into the mood. Next up were some young dancers doing basic dance routines… before the Apsara dancers with their distinctive head-dresses get on to the stage.

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The Apsara dancers do not speak nor sing… they just performed some deliberate movement with many hand gestures.

There were about 3 different Apsara dance performances; the one I liked most is called Robam Sovann Macha, about the monkey Ming Hanuman wooing the mermaid Sovann Macha.

Here’s a translated text of the Monkey-Mermaid dance::

“A Prince’s lovely wife Sida was kidnapped and taken prisoner; the Prince, Hanuman, and a few other people were on a journey to rescue Sida. As they were moving on with their journey, they came to an ocean. Hanuman called his friends and asked them to help him build a bridge so that they can all cross the ocean. They decided to use boulders to build the bridge. After struggling to move a boulder into place, the monkeys turned around to get another boulder. When they returned with the next one, the one they had set down disappeared. This happened again and again so they decided to tell Hanuman.

Hanuman told his friends to dive in the sea with him so that they can figure out what is the causing the disappearance of the rocks.

They found mermaids swimming around and the mermaids had the boulders with them. Hanuman quickly realized that these mermaids were the ones removing the boulders. Slowly the monkeys crept up on the mermaids trying to catch them but ended up chasing them around. Hanuman spotted Sovann Macha, the leader of the mermaids. He decided to catch and convince her to tell the others to stop destroying the bridge.

He tried to reach her without letting her see him. From the back and the side he tried to grab her. But she kept swimming in her beautiful, graceful style, not even aware Hanuman was there. Eventually he knocked her down. She got mad at him and swam away while he swam after her. He did somersaults and cartwheels trying to catch up as she kept swimming.

While they were involved in this struggle, Hanuman realized that he had fallen in love with Sovann Macha. He tried to woo her rather than attack her. Sovann Macha realized too that she had fallen for him. She told the other mermaids to stop interfering with the building of the bridge and to help build the bridge.

The bridge was completed and the Prince was able to walk across the ocean and in the end they were able to save Sida.

Note: I’ve some videos of the Apsara performance that I’ll upload to Flickr (or YouTube) later.

That ended our plans for the evening. We adjourned back to Khmer Inn for a much-needed rest before waking up tomorrow for our 1st day of temple visits..

Day 0 Collection Mosaic

PHOTO SETS of Day Zero at Flickr:

Angkor ’08 collection of over 2,300 photos at Flickr.

Continue reading the next instalment of the Angkor ’08 trip – Day One of Temple Visits…

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