Sunday, August 28, 2011

Setting steps on Angkor Wat: A dream come true!

I used to read about it in every articles I got the chance to scan. Since then, it drew in me a dream to one day set my foot on its ground. And now, here I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia to witness the glamour and intricacy of old world's wonder, the Angkor wat and other temples! From now on, I can tell eveyone "I was there!" like the usual t-shirt printing declares.

August 27 to 30 is a four-day long holiday in the Philippines. I expected that early this year so I booked a trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam via the Cebupacificair when it offered a promo fare. Saigon is my point of entry and exit as I cross the border to Cambodia.

August 26 came and despite the tiring business (work-related) in the Philippines, I flew to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) that evening and arrived in the city around 3 o'clock dawn. I initially thought of taking the bus in crossing the border to Siem Reap, but it will took me 13 hours which trip would put my August 27 to waste. Thus I opted to book a flight via Cambodian Angkor Air and reached Siem Reap at 11 in the morning.

I thought of doing the tour the Cambodian way, that is to ride a motorbike. What impressed me right away was that the tranport from the airport to any point of the city is regulated. You simply approach the booth at the corridors upon exiting the airport building. You'll see there the rate of the rides; they have the car ($7), the tuktuk ($5) and the motorbike ($2).

My driver was a young Rick. I say young because he's 28 and I am 35. The whole ride to my hotel, the Angkor Town Hotel, was all about him. He studied Banking but failed in Accounting. I told him, had it been that we knew each other earlier, I can teach him accounting, as I am an Accountant. And he was astonished by this fact. He as well took tour guiding courses; he only got license to guide English tourists or tourists that require English-speaking guides. He told me that most tourists visiting there are French and so he needs to study French language. However, the course is very expensive. I also learned that he's married, an arranged marriage at that, and had a 4-month old daughter. He said that his girlfriend is his first in everything: girlfriend, lady, wife, sex.

He claimed he's a poor boy. Thus most females disregarded him. And thus he's doing his best to got a college degree and tour guide lincenses. I believe he said those things to me so I would give him large amount of tip.

So the supposed driver, to simply drop me off at the hotel, has become my tour guide. He suggested to start the tour at the farthest temple, the Banteay Srei, then down to Ta Phrom, Bayon and then Angkot Wat. I believe him that only these four can be covered in an afternoon tour, so there we went. 

After paying $20 for the ticket, we rode the 35km to Banteay Srei temple. It was amazing, the red stones and bricks piled almost perfectly, the carvings and arts engraved artistically!

I spent an hour for every temple.

Initially not part of the itinerary, Rick dropped me off at the Phnom Bahkeng temple. I climbed the peak portion of the pyramid and found everything perfect, notwithstanding the wornouts of some, if not most, parts of the temple --- some figures lost its heads, some stones and bricks were moved, most were destroyed by natural phenomenon.

I cannot wait but see for myself the Ta Phrom temple. This is the place where Angelina Jolie shoot her Tomb Raider movie. Indeed the gigantic roots of every tree there artistically hugged the temples; and not just one but many. I rather invite you to see them now that the scenery is as old as it's been, because the government is starting its restoration projects, and I bet it would look different. Maybe way better... but totally different from what has been well-known to tourists.

Next was Bayon temple, the home of the four-faced buddha carved around all the towers from down below to the highest peak. Taking its picture from the ouside of the moat, with its majestic beauty and architecture reflected in the surrounding water, is really a bonus.

Beware that if you have fear of heights, climbing up may be easier, but the challenge is the way down considering that the centuries old pyramiding was so steep. And this is true to all temples, most especially the Angkor Wat.

Saving the best for last, Angkor Wat is indeed wonderful, with its unparalleled symmetry, huge moat, and intricate artistry! I longed for a very long time to set my foot on this temple. Been reading about it in books, magazines; watching about it in television, National Geographic in particular. And here I am roaming around it, touching my fingers on every engraved arts, climbing its walls and capturing its beauty in my low-tech camera. A marvellous creation of humankind!


My Hotel? I knew of the Angkor Town Hotel through my former colleague. I believe she chose this because it's near the shopping district, near the KFC for an immediate bite, and along the highway.

The hotel is enlisted as budget accomodation but for me the $25 room a night is expensive. It did not include any breakfast. The TV set is so small and still the old box model. I don't recommend this hotel to any of you, but in case you happen to pass the night there, bring your own shampoo. There is wifi access though.

When I asked Rick where's the best night out in town, he recommended the buffet dinner at the Angkor Mondial Resto. For a price of $12 per person, it was not bad. The bountiful dinner, which can be characterized as a fusion of chinese-indian-cambodian cuisine, is re-enforced with a cultural show --- they call it APSARA. By the way, make sure to be around by 6pm otherwise the place may be crowded and you wont find a best place for you. I happened to be very early, thanks to my guide, that I was accomodated to a front seat; got a better view of the stage. The cultural show is a plus; albeit educational.

The show started at 8:30 in the evening. Before that, since I started eating at 6:30, I transferred my picture from the digicam to my laptop computer. I never noticed that I have savored a lot of food; I believe I have used 8 plates all in all which means I toured the table 8 times. As my uploading completed, so as my tummy being so so full. So I ordered soda hoping it will help the bolus settle down. But when the couple occupying the table on my left ordered an angkor beer, I got jealous. I really have to taste an Angkor beer. When I gulped the whole content, I found my stomach flinched. I was so guilty of gluttony... that for the very first time I vomitted. Fortunately, I only threw up the bubbly beer.

I took a side trip to Phnom Penh on my way back to Ho Chi Minh City...
I rose from the bed very early that morning of August 28 in Siem Reap to prepare for the trip to Phnom Penh at 7am. My alarm woke me at 6am and found myself very early; I forgot to reset my time to Cambodian time which is 1 hour late from Philippine time.

It took us 6 full hours to reach Phnom Penh city. This city indeed is surrounded by water; three rivers crossing in and around it.

I chose Asia Hotel simply because it looks attractive and classy in the pictures. I browsed about it in the internet early that morning to pass the time waiting for the sun to come up and the bus to pick me up. My motorbike driver, the one I picked at the bus terminal in Phnom Penh, warned me that Asia Hotel is "expensive". And I replied, "no, I'm ok". So I checked in and was ushered to my room. I was greeted by the smell of cigarettes around the deck corridors. Fortunately, my room did not smell such, except for the toilet which smelled a septic tank. Anyways, I don't have time to relocate as I am in a hurry to complete the afternoon tour. The $25 room was inclusive of breakfast; this is much cheaper than the Siem Reap's. After the early morning breakfast, the whole hotel decks smelled septic tank. So, if I were you, look for more decent hotel.

I booked a tuktuk at the hotel counter which cost $15. But the tuktuk driver told me that the hotel guy only gave him $5 to cover for 3 tourist destinations: silver pagoda, royal palace and the toul sleng prison. So I assured him I pay for $5 more; basically to shut him up. Anyway, a total of $20 is within my budget.

Silver pagoda was first in line. I climbed up after paying $1 as its entrance fee and took some pictures.

Then I asked Draka, the name of the driver in as far as I can remember, to go direct to the Toul Sleng Prison. I call it cemetery --- the most important destination for me--- because of its ambiance, there was some kinda eerie feeling, so creepy and quiet. There were some tombs on the ground, the school classrooms where exhibits of old torture tools exist like a dead spot, and I happened to reach a room where robes of dead victims are stored, and it smelled so foul. When you're there, you can really feel the hostility vis a vis the pain and sufferings, the misery. I paid $2 for this; I don't know if its compulsory.

After more than hour of viewing all the rooms of the four school buildings (two on the right section were used for torture and the other two in the left were used as prison), not finishing the film showing, I hurried to the tuktuk for the viewing of the royal palace. In the palace, you need to pay 25,000 riel, but you're not allowed to take pictures inside every temple, the royal palace where the king's chair is most particularly.

My tour concluded at the Central Market where I hurriedly bought North Face backpack counterfeits; 4 pieces for $55.

One astonishing and notable experience was crossing the murky Mekong River from Phnom Penh side to Prey Veng. I never thought that there is never a bridge there. Our bus positioned into a corner of a barge resembling a section of the bridge; other cars, trucks and buses did the same until it was full. Then the barge ferried us to Prey Veng point, docked, and the transports moved out to the highway one by one. It was clever and kinda weird.

Crossing a border of any country is strenuous. But I was more fearful this time. Only after packing the 4 backpacks I bought that I realized I will or these will pass through Vietnam's customs. I don't know how strict they might be, but bringing along with you several pieces of counterfeits product might be dangerous. This has bothered me the whole night. But the risktaker as I am, I told myself, I will take chances.

First thought that came was to make use of two bags, wrap the other two with shirts and put them inside one backpack, cover the whole stuff with more clothes. The second thought was to simply put the two backpacks inside one of them without need of wrapping it with shirts or clothes. I take chances of telling the truth and plea for considerations since I bought them only for souvenirs and gifts to my siblings.

But for the whole while, I was praying to God with the intercession of Blessed Mother Mary to help me cross the border without delay.
The Asia Hotel booked my bus trip via Sapaco Tourist Bus. The tour buses' system is to gather all passengers' passports and hand them to immigration altogether. The immigration agent then stamped the exit in Bavet, Cambodia and entry in Moc Bai, Vietnam; and call our names one by one.

So I passed the immigration agent freely. But then the xray machine came... I dropped my 2 bags, with 2 more bags in it, carefully... and it made through without question. I grabbed them immediately and headed back to the bus. Whew! It was heart-pumping, strenuous indeed. I will never do that again. Ever!

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