Travelogue SEA 6: Siem Reap – Phuket

27-28 December 2011

The last few days had been marred a bit by some hitches in the travel plans.

When we first arrived at the beginning of our trip, we received an email from Nok Air saying that our flight from Bangkok to Phuket (28 Dec) had been cancelled due to maintenance and that we had the option to move to the 11h30 or 13h30 flight or get a refund. We knew that, even with the private taxi we had booked, we would never get to Bangkok in time for the 11h30 flight so accepted the 13h30 flight and contacted our Siem Reap driver to move our departure to a searing 05h00 in order to get to the airport on time. The Siem Reap driver was accommodating, but the airline didn’t reply, despite several follow-up emails from us.

They eventually replied on Christmas Eve saying that they were sorry, the earlier flights were full and we could expect a refund in about 45 days (and if not, to follow up with them in writing!) Great Christmas gift that was! We sent a strongly worded reply saying this was unacceptable seeing as we’d replied to their email (sent 15 Dec) as soon as we’d received it (16 Dec) and it was their delay that had led to the capacity issues. Again, no reply.

We started doing research into options… Which were few and unappealing. Being the busiest time of year, there were no flights available out of Bangkok at all. Next option was the sleeper train. Fully booked. Then the sleeper bus. Nobody could tell us. We even looked at cancelling the taxi and taking the bus from Siem Reap through Bangkok to Phuket. A gruelling 20 hours on a bus, with only a reclining seat 🙁

We resolved on retaining the early departure from Siem Reap (although at a more civilised 7am) and get dropped in Khao San Road in Bangkok to assess overnight bus options from there. Not ideal, but at least we had a plan. At the very eleventh hour – mid-afternoon the day before we were due to leave for Bangkok – we got word from the airline that they could now accommodate us on the 14h10 flight. Hallelujah!

Lousy for our NZ friends as there were no seats on the flight available for them (we did ask Nok Air), but there was hope in sight for us.

To take the sublime to the ridiculous, we received a second email from Nok Air later that afternoon saying that the flight had been delayed to 15h00 – exactly the time of our original flight!! All that stress and a cloud over us while we were seeing and doing such amazing things… to end up in the exact place we started!

But, back to Siem Reap… It’s a charming little town that exists because of and thrives on the tourists that come to see the famous Angkor Archeological Park temple complex, with its 400 square kilometres of over 200 monuments and temples built between the 7th and 13th centuries by Khmer kings when the civilisation was at its height and dominating most of South East Asia.

The town itself has the same combination of markets, restaurants and pubs that everywhere else has, but is far more relaxed, with considerably less traffic and roads closed off so that Pub Streets are tables spilling over the pavements and people milling around creating a buzz, rather than the roar we’ve been seeing throughout our journey.

We’d arrived mid-afternoon, so dropped our stuff at the hotel (very lush Riverside Hotel, with lovely pool area, US$25 per room per night), grabbed a tuk-tuk into town and explored the markets.

There was lots more of the same stuff we’d seen in all the previous markets, but even cheaper! Lower starting prices and even more amenable to a haggle! We bought a few bits and pieces and then headed off to meet for dinner. The food was also much cheaper than anywhere else we’d been before and we chose a really nice Khmer restaurant at an upstairs table overlooking the market and Pub Streets. Everything on the menu was under $2! Main courses, curries, seafood, BBQ, everything!

We were tussling between options so decided to just get all 3 things we wanted – chicken lok lak, beef in spicy basil and beef & broccoli. Good thing too because they were all delicious and I’d hate to have missed out on any of them! We settled for Cambodia beer because 3 quarts earned a free t-shirt, which ironically ended up going to Aaron (who was the only one not drinking beer) because it was his size.

We had a sunrise start the next morning, so just walked around the night markets and around some of the town and then called it an early night.

5am came all too soon and we were up and out with our driver, Kriss. We got to Angkor Wat by about 5.30 and watched the sunrise behind the main temple buildings and then explored the buildings until about 8. The buildings are in surprisingly good shape for their age and there is free access everywhere with no demarcated routes or cordoned off areas as is commonplace in most sites we’ve visited elsewhere. You really can create your own value for the US$20 per person (per day) that they charge and it’s refreshing that one tickets cover all the temples in the area.

We spent the morning exploring the main temples – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (‘Big City’, walled ancient city with Palace, Bayon temple and 12 towers), Preah Khan (another temple), Ta Prohm (the jungle temple with trees growing through the buildings) and ending off with Banteay Srei (a pink sandstone temple with very intricate carvings). By lunchtime we were all templed out and returned to our hotel to spend an afternoon by the pool relaxing.

Refreshed, we returned to town (by tuk-tuk) to grab a sunset appetiser – the enormous prawns we’d seen the night before. Individually selecting our prey, we delighted as they turned from grey to pink and the shell crisped from the searing BBQ fire. They were served up with a simple sweet chilli sauce… And were worth every penny of the $2! 🙂

Next up was a foot massage. I’d had a sore throat and burning sinus for a few days (undoubtedly from all the polution and scooter fumes; no wonder the locals all wear face masks) and wanted a reflexology treatment to see if it’d help at all. We ended up having a fish treatment (where you put your feet in the fishtank and they eat the dead skin off you – very weird, but very cool) and a foot massage. Not the reflexology I was after, but US$6 for both of us for half an hour including a free beer each, so can’t complain.

Popped into the pharmacy and got some Cold caps (conventional, US$1) and White Siang Pure Menthol Balm (traditional, 3000 Cambodian Rials or US$0.75) so seemed to have all the bases covered.

Met up with the others and had a selection of local fare from the market restaurant for dinner – again, all good curries, noodles, rice and stir fries – and hit the town for a bit of a pub crawl. We were spoilt for choice with lots of activity and drafts for US$0.50 a pop! What a pity I was feeling lousy so we had to cut our evening short(ish). Still, a good time had while we were having a good time.

Great Trek day started a bit better than expected with us managing to get the hotel to feed us (we were getting collected at 7 and the restaurant only opens at 7 and the Cambodges are reeeally inflexible), both drivers bat-out-of-helling for us (comparatively speaking, nothing like home of course) and the border crossing and taxi changing going quite smoothly.

We got deposited at the airport at 13h30, well in time for our 14h00 check in… And allowing a leisurely lunch at McD’s, where I had the Samurai Pork burger, which would definitely be a regular order for me at home if we had them. Pork patty (which tastes like pork sausage) grilled in BBQ relish, served simply with creamy mayo and crunchy lettuce. What’s not to love?! 🙂

Glad for the refuelling, since there was another hour delay before take off which would have been hellish if we hadn’t eaten since breakfast! Even more inconvenient though since I’d bought anti-histamines at the airport pharmacy and taken some with lunch so was dozing off at the departure gate – but great because I slept like a baby from the moment I sat down in my seat on the plane until when we touched down.

Phuket airport is very jacked for tourists so we not only easily managed to arrange transfers to Patong Beach, but also managed to get them chucked in as a freebie by booking an island tour (full day with speedboat to 3 islands, including lunch and snorkelling at Phi Phi etc) same time. As always, cast out the rate card and haggled a 55% discount – and a money-back guarantee for if we can get it cheaper elsewhere (can’t hurt).

Felt good to be arriving in one place for 3 nights – it’s been a real go!go!go tour so far! (But wouldn’t have changed a thing!)