Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Cambodian City Hopping Adventure

Courtesy of AirAsia, I managed to snag a pair of shiny return ticket to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Psyched and excited, as Cambodia was one of the countries in South East Asia I've yet to visit (at the time of post, Philippines, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to go).

Fillin' the Arrival/Departure Card
The dilemma though, it takes about 8 hours bus ride to Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat (which was where I really wanted to go). The more expensive option on the road but lesser stops compared to bus is to take a cab, and the fastest and costliest option would be taking a flight.Wanting to maximize the free flight to and from via Phnom Penh, we decided to just take the bus and travel between the two cities. I am the type of person who would arrange and pay for accommodation/ travel/entrance fee/food whenever possible prior arriving to the destination.

Bad a*s drivers who goes against the flow like a boss! Actually they do that with skills, and honk along the way to warn road users .
The travel route was KL - Phnom Penh - Siem Reap - Phnom Penh - Siem Reap. For the transportation, we took a comfortable slot of 11.30 a.m. departing from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh for USD $16 via Giant Ibis on the 12th of April, 2014. However, we couldn't, or rather we chose to take a calculated risk to catch an early bus upon arriving Phnom Penh to Siem Reap on the 10th of April, 2014.  The flight arrives Phnom Penh on 7.35 a.m., and we expect to reach the city at 8.30 a.m. after clearing immigration and such. Thus, we thought of widening options and get to the bus stop upon arriving to catch a 9 a.m. or 9.30 a.m. bus to reach Siem Reap by 4 or 5 p.m. to catch the sun set in Angkor. We exited the immigration area, bought ourselves phone data/local number for USD $10 (two phones) before heading to town.

The ride to Siem Reap by Rith Mony
Oh, upon taking the tuk tuk driver, and we specifically mentioned the bus that we wanted to take (Giant Ibis), he suggested another bus operator as the one he recommends is less crowded and chances to get tickets would be greater. Trusting the local, we soon arrived to the Rith Mony bus stop, only to find out that the earliest that we can leave is 12.30 p.m. Since there was not much of an option anyway, and we decided not to jump to the next bus station, we took the bus, for USD $13. We had a stroll along the busy streets of this part of Phnom Penh, and had lunch before boarding the bus. The currency for Cambodia is Riel, but USD is widely accepted as well.

(The general conversion is USD $1 = 4000 Riel, so effectively the Riel is used for cents calculation.)

The Pit Stop
Rith Mony has a more local feel compared to Giant Ibis. The reason I said that is because the driver drops off and picks up the locals along the way, delivers item from town to town and it is very apparent that the locals uses this bus service as a mean of transportation. Comparing the two bus services, Giant Ibis has Wi-Fi, better air conditioning, some snacks and lesser dubious obvious stops. But who am I to complain? This is probably one of a good experience to blend in with the locals.

Fried Rice with Lok Lak (Khmer : ឡុកឡាក់ - Stir-fried marinated, cubed beef served with fresh red onions, served on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes and dipped in a sauce consisting of lime juice,sea salt and black Kampot pepper). Had the pork version of Lok Lak and BEER! Bro Notes : Angkor beer is better than Cambodia beer ;)
After a looooooong ride (and multiple stops for pickups and pee break), we arrived at Siem Reap and was greeted by our pre-arranged tuk tuk driver, Mr.Borin who agreed to pick us up and drop us to our hotel room free of charge. After the long ride, we decided to just crash in since we had to wake up early for the Angkor Archaeological Park trip the following day (Read about it here).

The room we chose was Angkor Paradise Hotel (USD $86.74 for two nights), which is less than 10 minutes away drive from Angkor Wat. Since we had Mr.Borin, getting around was very convenient. After the park trip, Mr.Borin dropped us at the Pub Street, and we had some decent dinner, beer and dessert like a true tourist. Perhaps it was approaching the New Year for Cambodia, the place wasn't as crowded as it was expected to be.

The famous (or infamous) Angkor What bar.

The third day, after breakfast, we headed to the bus stop and yet another loooooooong bus ride, this time to Phnom Penh. The journey via Giant Ibis is much more comfortable, with its spacious leg rooms, complimentary croissant and water, and slightly inaudible movies played on the bus's telly. There's also Wi-Fi but it was not stable enough to properly surf.

We arrived to the Night Market (Phsa Reatrey) overseeing the Tonle Sap river esplanade and we got adventurous, walked our way through the night streets of Phnom Penh, passed by the Royal Palace, Independence Monument and esplanade before reaching our accommodation in Phnom Penh. Technically we have visited *most* of the places that we wanted to see in Phnom Penh, just that we did not snap enough picture as it was already late and we were exhausted.

Visit Malaysia 2014 billboard spotted across the busy Phnom Penh road. 

Before reaching the hotel, we did bumped across Chatime, Gong Cha and several other familiar brands, but surprisingly Starbucks and McDonalds have not penetrated the market here. Oh well, no tumbler for me then. We had some western cuisine before crashing in for the night, after two consecutive local cuisine dinners. (Some indulgent splurge for us).

Oh, we stayed at Patio Urban Hotel & Resort ($71.99) and after maneuvering the streets to reach this place, we found our little concocted paradise. The room is definitely chic and clean, with Wi-Fi or course as well. Breakfast is fairly simple to blow us away, but what we were impressed by was the roof top pool that oversees Phnom Penh (okay, it is not skyscraper, but the city view is amazing none the less).

Although the accommodation is within reasonable distance for Phnom Penh sight seeing, and about 30 minutes drive away from the Killing Fields which we had intended to visit (planned before coming here), we had a change of mind and went for some coffee indulgence instead. We dropped by Brown Cafe, which was not too far away from Patio.

We did do a 'quickie' tour around Phnom Penh though, but we did not enter those places of interests per se. Merely checking in and as any quickie tour, snap snap snap and that's about it. Notable places were The Royal Palace, Wat Phnom and the Independence Monument.

Wat Phnom

Independence Monument
All in all, it was a great journey I had in Cambodia, hopping between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and blending in with the locals. Phnom Penh surprised me really of how developed it was (surpassed my expectation). Siem Reap was worth it complementary journey and I would probably fly back here (given the chance). That's all I have for Cambodia, and cheers to the possibility of my next South East Asia trip!

The Khmer words we used the most here.
Hello - Chom Reab Sour (ជំរាបសួរ)
Goodbye - Lea (លា)
Thank You - Som Or Kun (សូមអរគុណ)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tips and Tricks : Angkor Archaeological Park

You might be thinking, how long do I need to cover the Angkor Archaeological Park, and subsequently what is the admission period like for that long of a period. Passes are sold in one-day ($20), three-days ($40) and seven-days ($60) combo to be used on consecutive days. Wait up... seven-days? Unless you are spending 2 weeks to a month in Siem Reap, I doubt the seven-days pass would be worth it. Three-days pass is more feasible BUT if you're following the same packed itinerary I had, then a day pass would be sufficient.

We had pre-arranged a personal tuk-tuk driver for a day, and for all its worth, I do think it is better to get a secured driver ahead of time. Our driver was Mr.Borin, you can get his contact here. He charged only $20 for a whole day trip, and he provided us with cold water that sustained us throughout the day. It does save you time looking for another driver to take you from a spot in another in the park (and mind you, the park itself is HUGE). We opted for a day pass naturally, and by paying $20, we get a personalized pass which has to be shown upon entrance of the temples around the park.

I somehow love the mugshot. :P
Another debatable decision to make when you visit Angkor, to sunrise or not to sunrise? If you are a shutterbug, then it is worth waking up early (and by early, I mean like 4a.m. or so) and get yourself to Angkor Wat (the mainstream tourist destination for sunrise) OR opt for Phnom Bakheng instead (you may switch between those two for sunset as well). We reached there around 5-ish and it was already kind of bright for sunrise, oh well.

My Angkor Archaeological Park Walk-through - refer to the highlighted areas (Image : Tourism Cambodia)
If you're on a time crunch (aka only having a day in Angkor), the following route may be suitable for you to follow. 

1) Start your day in Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat (អង្គរវត្ត) was first a Hindu, then subsequently a Buddhist, temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Also the largest religious monument in the world, this temple was built by the King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaivism tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. Angkor Wat is Cambodia's most iconic places of interest (you may also recognize this magnificent architecture on the national flag of Cambodia).

Ideally, tourists and locals alike flocks here to catch the sunrise, but if you can't catch it, it is not the end of the world. Before the crowd starts to build up, do yourself a favour and marvel to the sculptures and carvings on the wall while getting your shutterbug modes on. We did not have a tour guide, so we did not get a guided route and explanations on the site, but none the less, the sights itself was enough to captivate our full admiration. 

You would start your Angkor journey from the main entrance at the West.
(BRO TIPS : There will be a LOT of seemingly legit locals with incense/joss sticks who would approach you and encourage you to place the incense near the Buddha statues for good luck, for a sum. My advice, AVOID eye contact with them and move along, if you're planning to save your bucks.)

Walk along the lower premise before ascending to the Bakan, the inner gallery which requires some climbing (here on forward, proper attire had to be adhered, as there are guards over there to screen the visitors ascending). From here you would be able to have a good overview as well overseeing Angkor Wat from it's built peak.

2) The faces of Bayon
After spending a good 3 hours in Angkor Wat, we moved on to Bayon (ប្រាសាទបាយ័ន, Prasat Bayon) , essentially located in the center of Angkor Thom. Bayon, the official state temple of Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII was built around the 12th-13th century. You wouldn't miss the impressive carving features of the faces here. 

3) Baphuon
The Baphuon (ប្រាសាទបាពួន), located at northwest of the Bayon was our next stop. Built in the mid-11th century, it is a three-tiered temple mountain built as the state temple of Udayadityavarman II dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. Baphuon is relatively quieter than the its more famous counterparts in Angkor Thom, but it was still a very photogenic location non the less. Noticeable features includes the waist height pillars at the base of Baphuon and the uniform frames on its peak.

4) The Angkor Thom Trail - Phimeanakas, Elephant Terrace, King Leper Terrace. 
It was a walking trail from the Phimeanakas (a temple within the vicinity of the Royal Palace Area), making our way through to the Elephant Terrace, which is a reminiscence of a Khmer version of a gladiator arena and lastly to the King Leper Terrace, a simple labyrinth-like pathway with high walls (what the terrace is for, nobody knows).   

Elephant Terrace

5) The Lesser Known Twins - Thommanon & Chau Say Tevoda
Thommanon (ប្រាសាទធម្មនន្ទ) and Chau Say Tevoda (ប្រាសាទចៅសាយទេវតា) are Hindu temples built during the reign of Suryavarman II (from 1113–1150) at Angkor, Cambodia. Thommanon, directly opposite the Chau Say Tevoda and just 500 metres east of the Victory Gate on the way to Ta Keo. After spending hours in Angkor Wat, you would notice that the devatas sculptures would very much look repetitive (then again, may I remind that I did this tour without a proper tour guide, hence pardon my ignorance to this matter).

Elephant Ride for as low as $20

6) Ta Phrom - The Twisted Trees
Possibly the second most popular location in the Angkor Archaeological Park, the primary attraction to here is the twisted trees made mainstream by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Brief walkthrough of the temple's story, this temple was dedicated to Lord Brahma (Prohm) and built during the period between mid 12th century and early 13th century by Khmer King Jayavarman VII. We did ask our Mr.Borin where was the tree everyone raved about, and he simply replied, the entire temple has the trees. Well, it's true though, trees, trees, trees everywhere but we did not locate the most iconic spot. Gah!

Rubble Rubble
7) Lunch Interlude and Back to Phnom Bakheng for Sunset
We settled for lunch around 1pm or so, and had some local dishes to fill our tummy. We did try the amok, which was palate pleasing as the usage of spices and way the dish is presented, is not too foreign to what we have in Malaysia. After lunch, we made our way to a quick stop at Ta Keo for a brief walk before settling back to the hotel for a quick shower and out again for the trip closure at Phnom Bakheng. Luck wasn't at our side again as it was relatively cloudy and it was slightly drizzling. We decided to skip the sunset wait and made our way down instead and meet Mr. Borin for a ride back.

Chilling with Angkor Beer (Which taste better than Cambodia beer IMHO) for as cheap as $1.50 (Cheaper than water)
Amok (pork instead of fish)
Phnom Bakheng
If you do have more than a day in Siem Reap, the other alternative to Tonle Sap visit, you may attempt to visit the lesser known temples there (the map above might inspire you to get yourself during the park trek and who knows, you might surprise yourself with your self discovery). 

The park itself is relatively safe, but of course be wary of when it is getting dark or so. Also, there would be plenty of pretty persuasive salespeople who would approach you with items for as low as USD $1. Follow your conscience in this matter. The locals here are just trying to make a living and that single dollar could go a long way for them.

Personally, I was not as blown away compared to when I was in Borobudur, Indonesia but Angkor does gives a different kind of grand perspective to the treasured marvels in South East Asia.Would I revisit Cambodia? I would give a non-hesitant yes if I've been given a second chance to do so :)