Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cambodia - Siem Reap. Life in this little tourist Mecca

The reunion with Karin and Mike,
delicious meal included
So time check into our mystery hotel. Paid for and waiting. The website showed a very nice room. Will it live up to expectation? We decided to book only 2 nights, just in case. Then we could explore later and change. Since it was just approaching dusk, when we arrived, and we were hungry and tired, we were happy for this choice.

When we arrive, out comes a porter with a luggage trolley. The kind found in any global 5 star hotel. He swiftly loaded our baggage. We must have appeared a strange sight after breathing and wearing red dust (gotta buy one of those little masks…even the locals wear them here!) for almost 10 km of travel along a dirt road in an open tuk tuk. But hey, they couldn’t reject us, could they? Don’t know if we looked more like road rats or river rats on arrival? Sorry not picture of this “look” for ya’ll to see.
Traveling in style! Our home for a week
We are shown to the elevator (Elevator!!!) and when we open the door to our room, we are shocked. It’s a room equivalent to many business hotels that Patrick stayed at during his travels in smaller cities within Asia. Everything was there that was promised: mini fridge, bathtub/shower, A/C, clothes closet, bath towel, toiletry amenities, and bottled water…not to mention a king size bed, large flat screen tv, and balcony. Plus it was in a quiet location; although compared to our last place, anything is quieter. There was a spa, restaurant, and even a fitness center (a treadmill and bike that looks like antiques). Hey they even had guarded private parking for our soon-to-be rented bicycles!

Jumping with joy
Levitation technique
It’s called: New Siem Reap Town Hotel. It was about 2 km outside the center but well worth the effort and with a bike: it was actually no effort at all once we learned how the traffic flow worked (more about that later). The price: almost $10 USD per night.

Incredible start to a day delicious omelet,
enough energy for a day out in the Wat's
And this included breakfast which beat our expectations again, as we expected a piece of toast and coffee/tea. Choice of 5 local and western items: our top choice became the large omelet, 3 pieces toast, fried potatoes, sausage and mixed fruit plus milk coffee. Our verdict: The breakfast alone was worth the entire cost of the room! Our verdict was: $10 for breakfast and stay free!

In our earlier Khao Lak update, we mentioned the second friend to join us along our travels was Karin. She joined us for a brief dinner and was so intrigued at the our plans to go to Cambodia, that she said she would try to change her ticket to Mumbai for a later date and join us, if her friend who was arriving in Bangkok agreed to join.

So, once we settled into our new home, we hooked into the free wifi connection to discover that they were arriving the next day! WOW. We haven’t yet figured out the award classification that will go to a repeat visitor! Maybe a silver award?! 

She successfully changed her ticket and her friend from London was thrilled by the idea after all he had already been to Thailand before. They arrived at 5pm, just in time for us to have dinner together. Patrick and I had explored Siem Reap during the day on foot and found a great restaurant area focused around a street call Pub Street - Yes we know, this is a very touristy spot, not the real Cambodia.

Where's the next Pub?
But after our experience on our first night in Siem Reap, when we ate at a local place next door and were very disappointed. Julane ordered pork noodle soup and it was pork organ soup. She got her iron dosage for the rest of 2011. If this is the real local food, we’d better return to Thailand. Pub Street is rich with tourists and consequently western and global Asian food to cater to every taste. We found a great place with free high-speed (!) WiFi combined with .50 cent mugs of cold draft Anchor beer, and comfortable seats. Cold wet towels are brought followed by delicious Khmer food. Paradise!

Let me briefly tell you about Karin and Mike. They both have quit their jobs in London to travel for some months. Mike is headed towards Australia, NZ and USA, while Karin is on her way to India having already been to Australia. They are like us: Travel freaks. We originally met Karin in North Sumatra in 2000, then for an evening in Germany on our way to Patrick’s dad’s home. Then Julane met Karin again for an afternoon while she was in London two years back, and Karin even stopped and stayed with us in Singapore just before we left. We are almost expecting to see her in South America for her Gold Award!

Food, food, food...
4 course typical Khmer menu
Green mango salad served
in a banana flower petal

Thai Tom Yam Gung Soup
Beef steak BBQ Kebab

Lovely Khmer Curry served in a Coconut
Now just in case you might think that traveling is just a holiday in disguise, this update will/might change that presumption a bit. We must admit Day #2 was spent finishing our blog updates and organizing the photos/films. The river journey ate up almost 5 GB!! Patrick just requested that I reveal my new pet name: Memory Hog. But I’m trying to tell him that I’m from the year of the Rabbit and he’s from the year of the Pig! ; )

Posing at Angkor Wat
After letting the midday temperature cool down a bit, we found a bike rental nearby where we all hired bikes and then took off in the direction of Angkor Wat for the sunset’s warm glow.
Patrick and Julane buy a 3 day ticket for 40 dollars each (there is a new version now of the 3 day ticket where you get 3 days within one week. Before, you needed to mega-dose your 3 days consecutively, no breaks allowed.)  By the way, this country really does use the US dollar as its major currency. We even get change back in dollars, credit card purchases are billed in USD. The only time you get the local currency is for the cents. They don’t have any coins in this country…neither USD nor Riel. Although the smallest note is 100 Riel, about 2.5cents US, which is then used for change.

See the Goddess?
Sunset at Angkor Wat
We arrive at the Angkor Wat just prior to sunset and watch it descend from the vantage point of the outer walls. Then we go inside and explore until the guards kick us out. By this time all the tour buses are gone and we flip on our bike lights and pedal the 8km back to our hotel.

This was the teaser; our first full day at Angkor begins the next morning. Stay tuned for our next Blog update on Angkor Wat

I have to tell you about my “office” where I’m writing from at the moment. We are traveling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by double-decker bus. Since we had such a good time on the last double-decker on the way to Bangkok, we thought that we’d do it again. Well this bus is no where near as modern as the last bus. It is a luxury version but probably one passed over from exhaustion from Thailand! 
Julane's "office" writing this
Blog entry
The sway of the bus in like a lumbering boat on choppy waters and the roads are not really smooth either…and the shock absorbers retired many years ago. The major highway is not very wide, so our bus is often ground to a halt especially when an oncoming car appears and a bicycle is in front of us too. No space to pass! Normally a two lane road here becomes a 3 lane highway in the mind of Cambodian drivers, so currently we are on a 1.5 lane highway! Yes, there are many bicycles in this country and also motorbikes! Cars are less prevalent. The driver also uses his horn to introduce himself to most of the bikers.  All the while, we hear someone downstairs playing a game device that repeatedly calls out, “Fire, fire, fire”….Patrick has been using his iPod and Julane wishes that her ear plugs weren’t below in the luggage hold. The window beside Julane’s bus “office” has a peculiar hole and crack in it that goes down the entire length of the window. It sort of looks like a bullet hole, but it is filled in with clear silicone-for safety reasons, clearly! So today, I sit office-bound for 6 hours of work! Did I mention that our job as travelers is full time with rarely a day off? We work on the road and off the road…too.

Well the fringe benefits make the “job” worthwhile. Stress is only self-induced. Everyday is new and fresh. And Patrick and I only have each other to boss around. People often ask us how expensive is it to travel this way? We have met travelers managing on 10 USD a day which is quite possible. When you travel overland or stay on one place for a bit longer, the costs drop exponentially. We are spending about 60-70 USD per day for both of us, including visas and 2  one-way flights (SIN-BKK & Ho chi Minh-SIN). We are traveling in comfortable standard and usually have rooms with A/C and TV. Our rooms include ensuite and sometimes breakfast. So let’s say, it’s moderate class for a local business man. We aren’t hiring private cars/drivers though. We try to get around with public transport when it is available and convenient and hire a motor rickshaw otherwise. We hire a bicycle or motorbike when we want to explore on our own.

Our meals so far have been relatively restaurant oriented, mainly because the choice is so great.
We do enjoy local street food but often when we stop to eat, we’ve chosen places with free WiFi so we can keep up with the rest of the world. So far haven’t found a street vendor (roadside hawker) with internet connectivity!
Our last meal in Siem Reap.
 7-course Khmer tasting sampler
The Starters
The Mains
The Sweets
Our one minor luxury has been getting a massage. They are so good and plentiful in this part of the world. Which reminds me, I think it’s time to get a massage again once we arrive in Phnom Penh!

They are attacking me!
Talking about spas: we finally decided to do “the fish-attack”. Some years back, these sprouted up in Singapore and we always chuckled at them as we passed. Then in Bangkok, there were a number available in the tourist zone. But Siem Reap takes the cake for the number of people selling the fish bowl experience. In the center of town, every block had 2-3 mini swimming pools filled with loads of small fish. We don’t know what kind of fish these are. Thankfully, we’ve never seen their bigger brothers while diving.
The fish spas are usually square clear glass panels filled with a foot of water and surrounded by a bench along the perimeter used as a seat. The four of us bargained a group price and hopped on. We now became the sidewalk spectacle. As Julane trepidly puts her toes into the water and the fish immediately sense her presence and must have been hungry as they swarm towards her. The sensation is weird, really, really weird. It kind of tickles, in a most uncomfortable kind of way. 
What's the big deal?
Julane quickly pulls her toes out in a squeamish squeal. Karin is undergoing a similar experience. The boys are taking pics of the girls as they shriek with each attempt to submerge the entire foot to the ravenous beasts underneath.

Finally, the boys join in. No shrieks, but clearly a concerned expression. Finally after about 10 minutes of “in and out” repetitions, all feet are dangling in the fish pond! Once the fish have 4 victims, it’s easier to tolerate the sensation for the remaining 20 minutes. Strangely enough, the fish prefer the guys. Perhaps, they have more delicious morsels of dead skin and calluses than the girls have. The pictures show the images, but the “feeling” is hard to capture…it’s definitely worth a try though.


We end up extending our hotel booking in Siem Reap twice and still have trouble pulling ourselves out of Siem Reap after a week’s stay. It’s such a delight for all the senses. We’ve been well fed, culturally enriched, physically strained, heated then cooled, and thoroughly enjoyed this lovely place.