Category Archives: Cambodia

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!)


Travelogue SEA 5: Ho Chi Minh City – Phnom Penh

24-26 December 2011

Up and out at way-too-early o’clock, our shuttle got us to the bus stop in time to catch our 7am bus to Cambodia.

The bus hostess handed out Cambodia visa application forms and Viet Nam departure forms and collected all the forms with our passports and US$25 visa fees to take care of the rest of the process for us. What a pleasure.

She then handed out fresh white bread chicken, ham and pate sandwiches (am sensing this is a local speciality combination after the last few street vendor baguettes) and water, which was a far sight more appealing than the take away breakfast the hotel had sent with us (toast, jam and milk sachets).

We were treated to a little surprise when some time into the journey the bus speakers switched from the warbling local music to Christmas carols and who should appear from the bus WC cubicle but Father Christmas himself! Bearing gifts nogal! He had a big red sack filled with gifts and gave everyone on the bus a little woven reed parcel, which turned out to have a cloth scarf inside.

We have marvelled at how into Christmas South East Asia seems to be. There are street decorations up, carols on loop in the hotel lobbies and blaring from street vendors, loads of bell-ringers in Santa suits around the town and loads of shops and stalls selling not only the usual Christmas decor paraphernalia, but also little kiddie dress-up suits (made of the usual red felt with furry collars and cuffs. In this weather?!)

Anyway, we got through the border crossing quickly and painlessly and could see the difference between the 2 neighbouring countries right from the border post signage, since Cambodia uses the Khmer alphabet so the writing is all curly whirly like the Thai writing, as opposed to Vietnamese writing which is the same alphabet as ours but with loads of added accents, cedilla and kappies. The people do seem to speak more English though and we had no trouble asking questions and ordering food at the truckstop (the food looks very different to Vietnamese, with lots of fish and atchar looking gravies, so we played it safe and had a fried rice with chicken and veg and a pork and noodle stirfry. Both delicious.)

The countryside is beautiful, with wooden houses on stilts where the area is marshy or the water levels erratic alongside the riverbank. The inhabitants seem to use the area under the house for dining, socialising and parking (their scooters). Have seen some quite impressive brick temple complexes in drier places, with big golden gates and long statue-lined driveways leading to big pagoda buildings with golden decorations on the roof eaves and guttering.

Heading into Phnom Penh, the first impression is that it’s busy and bustling but not as chaotic as the Vietnamese cities we visited (bearing in mind that it is Cambodia’s capital, but the country only has 14 million people, 2 million of which live here). The road system seems from our map to be more of a grid than the winding alleyways we’ve become used to – and the roads are numbered rather than named so, for example, our hotel is 26-28 Street 130, Phnom Penh. It does seem that the roads don’t follow strictly in sequence, so the seemingly simple system has the potential to be fraught with danger.

Our hotel is nice enough, but very well placed being just off the main riverfront, so again close to the action but not affected by it. The Central Market is also on our road, heading away from the riverfront, which is where we made our way to in search of a Khmer curry as an afternoon snack while we waited for the NZ’ers to arrive.

The market is big and under roof in a 5 pointed star shape and – as usual – divided into sections of like industry or wares. It was easy to find the food section just by following the nose because of the wide selections of fresh fish and roadfront cooked food vendors. Despite the BBQs tempting us with fresh crabs and enormous prawns and the woks ready to make-to-order, we stuck to our guns and held out for the (chicken) curry. The curry is thinner and soupier than we’re used to, but deliciously creamy with lots of coconut milk base laced with khmer spices, which only have flavour but no burn at all (you’re given whole, diced and dried chillies to add your own zing).

Leaving the market, we accidentally took the wrong feeder road and ended up taking an unintended walking tour of Phnom Penh, which wasn’t altogether unpleasant as there are wide pavements and manageable chaos as compared to where we’ve already seen on this trip. We also got to stop and peruse menus to see some of the weird and wonderful delicacies that they serve (fortunately none as icky as the horse on the spit that I saw in HCMC), giggle at the Engrish (am sure that “crapsticks” were meant to be crab) and gauge beer options and prices.

We were well versed to spot a bargain by the time we met up for dinner – at the restaurant at the riverfront end of our road that served Angkor draught at happy hour (which never seems to be a single hour and often stretches to as much as 5 or 6!) for US$ 0.60. Perfectly paired with a Beef Lok Lak (wok fried seared beef cubes in Khmer spices, traditionally served on rice in a banana leaf cup).

The riverfront is perfect for pub trawling and crawling and our Street 130 was neatly between Pub Street 136 and Pub Street 104, although we ended up spending most of the night at a second level bar overlooking the river, picking up 2 Kiwi girls and (unintentionally) an Aussie couple, who we took with us when we moved on to an Irish pub (Paddy Rice’s, cute name) we’d spotted that offers live music. Turned out to be a good move with free Christmas vodka jelly shots, buckets of Angkor on special and the opportunity for a breather from the Aussie bloke, who Aaron convinced to do a rockeoke debut, resulting in a complete butchering a Chilli Peppers song. Irish pubs are always good for festivities and merry-making so it was the perfect place to herald in a very unconventional Christmas.

As always, a good time was had by all… And it became too late all too soon.

We felt the late night and short sleep when we had to meet our driver at 09h00 for our sight-seeing tour! First up was the Killing Fields. The tour (US$5) includes an audio guide that talks you through a path around Choeung Ek, a real working human abattoir during the Cambodian genocide implemented by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Although a lot of the landmarks have been removed (the buildings were stripped by poor farmers for the raw materials) there are monuments and displays… And fresh clothing, bone and teeth artefacts that the eco system and weather continue to dredge up from the mass graves, which makes the experience very tangible.

It’s horrific what that regime did, killing not only perceived threats but their wives and children too so as to leave no survivors that might want to later seek revenge. It sounds like these camps were brutal, bussing in victims under the cover of darkness and killing most in very hands-on ways, like using knives, sharp jagged palm fronds and beating babies to death on tree trunks. It’s very difficult to reconcile how ordinary people can be brainwashed into performing these atrocities, or how they can live with themselves with the burden of retrospect.

The S-21 prison (entrance fee US$3) was no better. Having once been a school, the classrooms were transformed into cells and torture chambers, some of which still have the metal beds and torture implements on display. In the quad is a large wooden frame that was used to hang prisoners, mostly by their ankles until they lost consciousness and then dunk them into buckets of rank water to revive them, only to repeat the process. Some classrooms were used as is for groups or divided into individual cells a metre wide with either bricks or wood. You can freely access all the areas and there are still specks of blood on some of the floors.

The Khmer Rouge kept detailed and meticulous records so there are many rooms with display boards of prisoner registration photographs and induction transcripts. It’s very scary to see how many thousands of people were shunted through this prison and sent off to killing fields – and how young the victims were. Since most of the trafficking was done under subterfuge and the people often didn’t know they were being taken to prison, let alone where, families were split up and separated with no concept of where their relatives were. Stories told post fact also describe how family members intentionally didn’t acknowledge each other in the prisons because the policy was to remove all possible future vengeance (“to kill the grass you must remove the roots”) so, by implication, if one family member was killed, all would have to be killed as well.

The UN have put together programmes that have helped more than 6,000 Cambodians to travel from around the country to come to these prisons and killing fields to trace what happened to their relatives. It’s hollow comfort, I’m sure.

It’s unsettling to know how recent this barbaric slice of history is, with the Khmer Rouge still recognised as the reigning government until 1989 (even though the Vietnamese had deposed them 10 years earlier) and only disbanded in 1999. So many people lost their lives (3 million people of a population of 8 million over 4 years!) that it’s uncomfortable to see a 50 year old Cambodian now and wonder exactly what they had to do to still be here today, since it was literally a ‘kill or be killed’ time.

It’s atrocious that Pol Pot died a free man in 1998, at the ripe old age of 82, and that his 3 top leaders were only detained in 2007 and are only now standing trial, with fancy lawyers from all over the world defending them (how do they sleep at night?!). The only charge so far is a chap called Duch who headed the S-21 prison and has received a measly charge of 35 years imprisonment for the more 15,000 deaths he was responsible for! Shameful.

After a morning of quite sombre sight-seeing (there are even official signs at the prison with a smiling face with a line through it), it was good to head back to town where we ditched the museum in favour of lunch. I finally got the duck I’d been hankering for, served in a delicious noodle stirfry. Things were looking up!

We were a bit culture and historied out so opted to just take a few snaps of the Palace and pagoda and a stroll along the waterfront… To prepare for a long and much-needed pre-dinner nap.

Very solid thinking on the nap and we were good to go for a refuel at 7. Found an excellent curry house that lured us in with a mega meat platter (steak, chicken, pork chop, sausage and sides for US$8.50), which kept us happy alongside my very tasty butter chicken and garlic naan. Aaron had the all day breakfast, which had us convinced that we’d be back in the morning!

We did a walk along the promenade to work off some dinner and popped in at our regular spots to have a beer here and there. My mission was too get a snap of (at least) 5 people on a scooter, which is quite commonplace and a sight to be believed. It’s normally dad driving, with toddler standing in front of him on the foot platform, a kid wedged behind him, then mom with a baby on one thigh being held in place with an arm across the chest. I kept missing the opportunities with my camera being away or the flash taking too long. Oh well.

We opted for an early night, based on the long drive with the morning’s transfer to Siem Reap (which we’d already moved from 9am to 10, just in case). Was a good call and the extra hour’s sleep was well enjoyed this morning.

We did go back to the Indian restaurant for our breakfast and I bucked convention by having my second choice from the night before rather than any traditional form of breakfast. It was amazing – a chicken breast cooked in a tomato relish and served with mozzarella melted on top and then drowned in creamy mushroom sauce, accompanied by fried potatoes mixed with sliced onions and fleshy bacon. All my favourite things!

We’re now on the road to Siem Reap. A seemingly manageable 300km journey, hampered by the 30km speed limits in the towns, hay-smothered tractors and threshers in the countryside and hooting and wild lane-changing throughout! 3 hours and we’re only halfway…