Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cambodia (Siem Reap) 2013: Jolieing in the 51st State

A trip to Cambodia practically dropped out of nowhere. To be more precise, my usual sponsors had time off and wanted to go, but only if I was available to join in and provide logistical and organizational support. My workplace happened to be closed as well, and after weighing the options: staying at home to rot in bed, or a chance to knock off another country off of my travel list, I chose the latter without much thought. If you're a literary as well as statistical type, you may be asking hey now, shouldn't that be afterthought, and not thought?" In a scenario such as this one afterthought is more common, or so I imagine. Afterthoughts wouldn't be accurate here though, since I have now just remembered that I decided to go along with it, and justified the decision after.

Oh, and if you're familiar with how I now structure my travelogues... good on you. If not, here's a brief warning: you're in for a whole lot of text and close to no pictures (more here, assuming Facebook doesn't screw with my links- like they do all the time). Back on point- the logistics aspect was horrible. For one thing they had no particular reason for choosing to visit Cambodia- although later on they did let slip that during a visit to the bank, the teller had mentioned that she'd visited Cambodia recently, and had enjoyed it very much- this, for the lack of any other reason, was probably the main reason for them picking the place. The teller didn't say where in Cambodia she went to though, so in any case even with that intel, I wouldn't have had any advantage in planning. I did some general research and what I read about transportation scared me: trains aren't safe- apparently derailments happen all the time. Neither are ferries, they tend to sink rather often. The same goes for buses and taxis- drivers are often drunk. Most of this information was for journeying from the capital city of Phnom Penh to Siem Reap- I'd originally thought of working both cities in- but considering our limited time and the duration of the journey (4 hours by land), I decided to settle on Siem Reap alone, what with Phnom Penh (in my mind) being just another noisy Southeast Asian capital city. Might as well hit Angkor Wat, which is what Cambodia is mostly famous for, anyway.

Logistical issues didn't go away like they usually do once the destination is fixed, however. Even for a long distance flight (Istanbul in 2012) I'd somehow managed to find a one-way transit-less flight, much to the consternation of the others who'd bought their tickets during a travel fair and had to transit in Dubai. For Siem Reap, a mere 2 hour flight from KLIA turned into a trip to Changi Airport in Singapore for lunch, before flying off to Siem Reap itself. Go figure. For what it's worth I had a mediocre Portuguese egg tart and a sad curry laksa.

Before I forget- we had trouble even before the flight to Singapore. We'd initially thought of driving to KL's main train station to take the direct train to the airport- but not only did it turn out that we'd misread ("We" does not include "me", in this case) the train timetable, and the last train to the airport was long gone; what was worse was that we had to go through the predominantly Indian locality, Brickfields, to reach the train station, and it being Diwali, basically the Hindu version of New Year (?). I don't know what they were doing there, but before we could even draw near the center of the place we were stuck in a massive jam, moving an average of an inch every 30 minutes. We eventually gave up and drove home. I insisted on just driving directly to the airport, but dad overrode my suggestion by saying that we should just call for two taxis- good luck with that. I went back to bed while he tried to call one, but no one condescended to pick up the phone. He eventually had no choice but to fall in with my plan, and we reached the airport hotel around 2am, which pretty much laid waste to my plan of lounging for hours in the hotel's 24/7 sauna. I went and had a look and discovered to my delight that not only did they have a sauna, they also had a good steam room, and resolved to go back in the morning after breakfast.

More trouble came again before checking out. Somehow, our parking ticket was missing. I'd wedged it in between my wallet, which was in turn stashed in my sling bag. Without much time to spare, we paid a RM100 fine for it. I only found out what happened to it upon our return from Siem Reap (or to be precise, from Singapore): I came out of the shower to find the bag filled with sachets of instant tea and coffee, sugar, and creamer. Irritated, I grabbed it all and stashed it in my rucksacks pocket, telling my uncle (the culprit here!) that the sling bag was for important stuff like 'passports, money, and lots of tissue just in case I developed a flu in mid-flight and ended up expelling snot all over the place'. Well OK, I didn't go that far, but you get the picture. What happened was that when I grabbed the unimportant stuff he'd implanted without my permission, I also picked up the parking ticket by accident. Moral of the story? Don't put stuff in someone else's baggage without permission.

Where was I? Well. On the approach to Siem Reap Airport, we saw what seemed to be a huge area dotted with little islands- almost as if there'd been a terrible flood recently. I was right in that there was a flood, as our hired tour guide told us later on our second day, but I'm still not too sure if what we saw was the massive Tonle Sap lake, a portion of the Mekong River with little islands, or just receding floodwater in the outlying areas. Oh, and for what it's worth, Silk Air's (Singapore Airlines' regional wing) in-flight meal was rather bland. They did have one rather cute stewardess though, and international English-language papers though... not too shabby, overall.

Paragraph 7 and I've finally gotten around to clearing immigration. Still with me? I did say that there'd be a lot of text. I'd booked our first two nights in a place called the Heritage Suites, and one feature of their service was an airport-hotel transfer... via two ancient Mercedes cars, both of which were drove by two English speaking Guest Relation Officers (if that's not their job title, it might as well be). I'd read on Tripadvisor that both cars are somewhat of a highlight in the town, with kids gawking at the cars when they pass- granted, the two cars were unique in that they were bloody old (but well maintained)- what was it, 50 plus, 60 plus years each? I fancy that either the locals have gotten used to seeing the two cars and don't really care for them anymore- either that or whoever wrote that post must have greatly resembled Mao Tse Tung, or for a bit of local flavor, Pol Pot. Before driving us to the hotel (over dusty and rocky roads damaged by the recent floods- or simply made worse, which seems more likely), they drove us past Angkor Wat itself for a brief look at the complex while we knocked back the complimentary pineapple juice they had ready.

It was pretty late already- what's more the sun sets earlier around these parts. Malaysia is actually on the same time-line as Bangkok and Phnom Penh if I'm not mistaken. I've gone around telling Cambodians that ex-Prime Minister Mahathir was responsible for this, for wanting Malaysia to be on the same time zone as Hong Kong, but after briefly reading the convoluted history on this matter (Time in Malaysia), I think I may be wrong. Not that it matters, really, since the bloke is really a bogeyman who's been around long enough to be credited/blamed for pretty much everything whose providence is uncertain. Anyway we dumped our stuff in our overly spacious rooms- two regular suites, but one had been upgraded to a larger 'royal suite' for some reason, at no extra cost, and then returned to the lobby to discuss our plans for the night and the following day with our GRO/butler/concierge or whatever he's called.

We settled on having a buffet dinner at the Koulen restaurant, which would be accompanied by a traditional 'Apsara' dance show. We took two tuk-tuks to the restaurant, and were quite surprised by the size- it was a large hall, with a small stage. Unfortunately our table was located quite far from the stage- all the tables in front were fully booked, but once the dance started we found that it didn't really matter, as it was rather simple and plain, and really looked rather similar to Thai performances anyway. Instead we enjoyed our proximity to the buffet tables. The spread was rather good, although drinks were not included in the admittedly cheap price of 12 USD per person. We abandoned the show partway through, being too full to take further servings, and bored by the performance, for a quick jaunt through a supermarket across the road. I was surprised to find that even here, prices were listed in USD. Once we returned to the hotel, the concierge asked how the show was- I didn't have the heart to tell him that we found it dull, but did say that it was alright, if rather similar to Thai dances- he seemed rather crestfallen upon hearing that (faux pas on my part?). I ended the night with a short stay in the attached steam room, and then with the open air shower, which was unexpectedly not as exotic as I'd hoped, due to the surrounding bamboo trees blocking out the starry night sky. Not that I'd have been able to see the stars well in the first place with my glasses off (who showers with glasses on anyway), but still.

The day after. An early start with the hotel breakfast. Our driver and guide (named Chan, which apparently means Saturday- or was it Tuesday- in Khmer), were outside waiting for us. We headed off on our day trip to the nearby Angkor National Park- firstly stopping at the ticketing counter to get our day passes, which cost 20USD- probably the most I've ever paid for entry to a historical area, but the Angkor Park is massive. Whether you'd be able to make any sense of it is, or appreciate it at all, is another matter however. Unless you're pretty knowledgeable about the place it's recommended that you hire a guide. If you don't care about the history but like looking at pretty old buildings... forget the guide then. We started off at the larger Angkor Thom, where I shocked a bunch of Japanese tourists by speedily clambering up a set of extremely narrow and steep steps (they tried to imitate my method immediately after that); before moving on to Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple- the one with the trees all over the place, before breaking for lunch, and then heading to Angkor Wat itself, ending the day with a view of the sunset. We continued the night with dinner at the hotel- the manager came out to greet us, and he asked if there was anything he could do for us. I couldn't think of anything, but my aunt later said that she should have asked for a discount on the spot (jokingly or not, I couldn't tell). After that- a short jaunt through Pub Street and one of the nearby markets, before truly ending the day at Miss Wong's a pub, which led to me getting the "Your First Gay Bar" achievement on Foursquare. WTF moment, definitely. Google that term if you've no idea what it means.

Day 3. We checked out and headed to our next hotel, the Raffles, although Raffles isn't mentioned on the main building's signage, for some reason. Instead, it was labeled as the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, for some reason. We were early and couldn't check in, but instead took two tuk-tuks to see the Landmine Museum, taking what seemed like an eternity to get there. It was a small exhibit featuring disabled mines, photos, maps, a mine remover's costume, and a small shop. Not much for me to comment on, but it did bring home the fact that the country is still littered by mines. On the way back we paused for lunch at a touristy restaurant, and paused at a roadside stall to pick up some local coconut candy, our tuk-tuk drivers (one of them named Sarin, though I am not sure if he was named after the gas) translating.

After lunch, we continued to the Old Market- walking through row upon row of stalls selling the same things: silk scarfs, pewter and silver (supposedly) trinkets, rings, buddha statues, flavored lip balm, ugly crocodile skin wallets, sweets and other snacks. I picked up some lip balm as souvenirs to give away. We had drinks and some Indian bread (naan and chapati) which got my uncle satisfied for the day. The restaurant was called the "Taj Mahal"- no need to visit India for it, we joked. The service was rather odd too- they made and served one drink at a time, taking long minutes in between each one. We walked back to the hotel for a bath- discovering the 'Sakura Recycle Shop' along the way, a shop supposedly carrying used stuff from Japan- drab and dull. We took the hotel's suggestion and booked a table at a fancy restaurant called 'Aha'- the food was reasonably good. Ignore all the Foursquare tips praising their honeycomb ice cream- it's good, but overrated. A walk through the night market, and a disappointing supper and we were done for the night. Back at the hotel, curiously intending to use the supplied bath salts, idly wondering if it was some sort of tropical stimulant related to whatever caused one American guy to go on a cannibalistic rampage a few months ago- I came to a spiritual understanding with the Japanese mentality regarding the pointlessness of having a bath tub without a separate shower. Nevertheless, when I finally climbed into bed after a long soak, it felt as if every bit of my body just sank into the bed, unable to move. Whether it was the bath salts, or how comfortable the bed was, or just plain fatigue, I'll never know.

Final day. We woke up early for the breakfast, and were one of the first to attach the buffet tables. The restaurant's decor was done up in a pretty French style- the offerings unfortunately were not quite up to par. Too much pork for our tastes- we're more used to international style buffets. Pork sausages, eggs, crepes, bread, and some local bits, if I recall correctly. It's a shame that they didn't make it more... French, given the setting. I'll be damned if bread and crepes are all that actual French actually have for breakfast, though. The champagne was a surprising touch, though. After breakfast I ditched the rest and headed to the health club- it was still empty, and a worker showed me around- the men's dressing room led to the showers, a steam room, a sauna, and then a jacuzzi. Beyond that, he didn't explain, but I soon found out for myself when I wandered into the ladies' changing room (fortunately empty at the time). Oops. I'd read up beforehand on sauna culture in Europe- apparently when saunas are separated for each gender, the dress code is basically nil. I'm a bit of a prude when it comes to showing my own skin, but no one was around to see, which helped quite a bit. I thought of it as training before hitting the public saunas in Northern Europe. Clothing was a required for the jacuzzi, however, it being a shared facility- but I jumped in for a quick dip anyway (and did not get caught, luckily).

I'd chartered a van and driver for 35 USD, to take us to the Tonle Sap lake- an interesting place in that the lake has a wet and dry season, and in the dry season, the lake recedes inland, and the floating houses move along with it. It's actually possible to take a cruise down the Mekong river all the way to Vietnam- I was told that it takes about a week to get there. What about our little boat? One whole month, was the guide's estimate. Speaking of whom. We'd separated from our driver, and were hustled into one boat with a guide and, ah... captain? That sounds too grand, but whatever. We were taken on a short cruise around the lake, looking at the first floating village- a temple, church, police station- most of them painted blue. There was an empty Korean restaurant for some reason, and one grand-looking tourist trap belonging to a hotel in town. We stopped at a 'crocodile farm'- really just a small enclosure with some small crocs lying around in the sun, and looked around some silly souvenirs (crocodile skins and the like). We were then brought to a small shop selling rice- supposedly for donation to a nearby school. There are claims about whether this arrangement is genuine- we (well, I stood in a corner and had nothing to say about it) bought 50kg of rice for some 30USD (or was it 50? I forget), and then cruised over next door to a 'school' where uniformed kids sat at desks, and a bored looking teacher sitting in front next to a blackboard. I had several doubts about the whole affair, but whatever. No point thinking too much about it now. Whether the whole arrangement is real or not is difficult in this (mostly) corrupt backwater country.

Hours later we were on a flight back to Singapore for tea, where we received a minor shock- as the final destination on our tickets wasn't Kuala Lumpur but Singapore, we would actually have to exit immigration and then check back in, even though we already had our boarding passes. Silly fact but useful to remember, though I have to wonder if that requirement applies within federations such as the EU. Perhaps we should test it next year?

No comments:

Post a Comment