Friday, January 20, 2012

Angkor Wat : The Star of Angkor

                  Even though I was tired, I did not sleep well. I kept on tossing and turning the whole night, maybe because of too much excitement for the Angkor tour. We got up early the next day and to my surprise the driver who would take us to Angkor was already waiting for us outside. I didn't expect him to show up that early. He approached us the moment we stepped out of our room and asked, " Are you from Philippine?",we nodded and hopped on to his tuktuk.
                  It was hard to ignore the cold early morning breeze as we drived through the tree-lined road to Angkor Archeological Park. Angkor is a region in Cambodia that was part of the Khmer Empire. In its vast plains dozens of ancient Khmer temples were built including the world- famous Angkor Wat. The driver pulled over at a booth where we could purchase our tickets from. For a one-day pass we paid $20 per person. They took our pictures and printed them on the tickets.

                  As the tuktuk continued to traverse the road to Angkor , I saw a body of water and I realized that we were close to the Angkor Wat because it reminded me of the moat that I knew surrounded the temple. Moments later I saw silhouettes of tall structures which at first I had mistakenly identified as trees but it quickly dawned on me that those were actually the towers of Angkor Wat. WOW ! It gave me goose bumps. I just had my first glimpse of one of the wonders of the world.
                We pulled over in front of the Angkor Wat complex. Bana , the driver was still giving instructions when I turned around trying to take another look at the magnificent temple which was already visible even in the dark. Bana sensed that I was so excited so he didn't finish what he was saying. We made our way to the temple through a causeway that crosses the moat. It's hard to put into words what I felt the moment I touched the balustrades of the causeway. Imagine , after almost a thousand years Angkor Wat has withstood the ravages of time and tourists from around the world continue to be in awe of its beauty and grandeur and it was my turn to see it, and experience it.
              We followed a group of tourists that had a guide so that we could listen to some trivia about the temple ( for free). We didn't sign up for a Siem Reap Tour for obvious reasons so we had to be resourceful.We groped our way to the entrance. From the entrance only three of the five lotus-flower-shaped  towers were visible. Two of the towers in front blocked the other two at the back due to their perfect alignment. The fifth tower was at the center. Most photographers and tourists would position themselves on the side when taking pictures so they could capture all the five towers. The exact spot I'm talking about is on the left pond of the temple. We joined a pack of early birds at the pond who were also there for the sunrise. A lot of them had already set up their tripods and cameras. It was quiet , I could only hear whispers every now and then. I felt like the Angkor Wat was a superstar that we were meeting that day and we're just waiting for her to appear under the spotlight which would be the sunlight. The area was teeming with vendors selling coffee that came with monoblock chairs to sit on while waiting for the sunrise. Moments later we could already hear tourists snapping away. Up in the sky we could also see a hot-air balloon hovering above the Archeological Park. A ride on the balloon is one of the attractions in Siem Reap but it's beyond our budget.

                  We were about to enter the temple when a guy came up to us. He was trying to get us to buy a book about Angkor by telling us that he needed  the money to start a business. I didn't buy what he said but I bought the book. From $15 I haggled it down to $8 (later I bumped into some kids selling it for $5 only). Anywhere in Angkor you could get swarmed by touts, kids and adults alike. They'd sell you all kinds of souvenirs and whatknots. It could get annoying sometimes as they'd follow you around. You would always hear " Hey Mister / Lady wanna buy?....only $3 okay?", in a high-pitched tone.
               We finally entered the temple. Every nook and cranny was full of ornate carvings. We'd pause once in a while to take it all in. No wonder it's considered one of the wonders of the world. All those bas reliefs that depict Hindu epics were just awe- inspiring. They're true testaments to the incredible talent of the Khmer people , even way before the advent of modern technology.    

The ornate carvings on the walls
             After being overwhelmed by all the reliefs we proceeded to the inner part of the temple. To my dismay we saw dozens of headless statues lined along the hallways. There had been numerous reported incidents of people stealing artifacts from the temple. There was even a carving of an apsara on the wall that wasn't spared, its face had been scrapped off.
                There were still a lot of things to see and corners to explore, after all the entire Angkor Wat complex covers a vast area. It's more than one square mile. The complex is actually just a tiny portion of the entire Angkor region which stretches as far as the eye can see. It was only 8AM but I was already sweating profusely due to the very high humidity so we took a break to eat breakfast at the guesthouse.

                 After maybe 45 minutes we went back to Angkor Wat. The walk to the temple from the causeway when the sun is up is like Siem Reap's version of the Bataan Death March. It was a long walk under the scorching heat of the sun and it was not even noontime yet. We made a detour and walked through the tree lined path instead on the side of the temple. This time we checked out the center of the temple where the towers stand. There were very steep stairs leading to the towers. I remember watching a travel show that featured the Angkor Wat. The clips showed tourists having a hard time climbing up the towers. I wondered why the builders hadn't figured out a way to make the stairs easy to climb on. Later, I learned that they had done  it on purpose because the steep climb symbolizes humility and sacrifice. Well , enough with humility and sacrifice as  I was dehydrating already.

Stairs leading to one of the Angkor Wat towers

                  There was restoration going on so we're not allowed to go up to the towers . Too bad because the view from the top would have been spectacular. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Siem Reap : "Not Handsome"

                  It was around 3pm when we went out for a walk around the city of Siem Reap just few hours after arriving from Bangkok. It was the perfect time to explore the place by foot as it was cooler in the afternoon. Siem Reap is a city but there's a rural feel to it. It's very laid-back. There are no high-rise buildings or huge malls. There are still a lot of trees within the city center.
                  I forgot to bring a Cambodia map  so we just started walking until we came across a temple and checked it out, we also checked out the Summer Residence of the Royal family and a park in front of the Raffles Grand Hotel d Angkor. Everywhere we went we had to pause and admire the architecture of the hotels and other buildings. They're not the usual gleaming glass buildings but they have distinct characters.

                  Around 5 pm we hailed a tuktuk to the Old Market. We had planned to buy souvenirs and try a local dish called "amok". The Old Market area was teeming with interesting shops.We came across a store that sold different types of tea including a " lotus flower tea". Aside from souvenir shops, there were also a number of restaurants and pubs that lined the street called -what else?- the Pub street, making the entire place really colorful and vibrant. It made me realize that Siem Reap had the best of both worlds. It's not chaotic like other cities but it's not boring either. I bought a miniature rickshaw and a set of apsara key chains all for US$ 10. I also couldn't help but shell out $7 for a table cloth with the Angkor Wat embroidery on it.

At a souvenir shop in the "Old Market" area

Fish Spa?


                 After shopping for souvenirs we ordered amok and Angkor beer at one of the restaurants for only $5. We chose the fish over the beef and chicken amok. It tasted like curry and was really good. Our trip coincided with the World Cup so there were many European tourists that trooped to the Pub Street to watch the matches. We could hear all the screaming and cheering from the streets. Every now and then a bunch of kids would come up to us and try to sell us souvenir items ,books about Angkor and whatknots. They were very aggressive and if you ignore them you could hear them utter God-knows-what in their language. There was one boy carrying a basin full of fried crickets, I took a picture of him and his companion demanded that I pay them for that. What? We ignored him but he kept on following us and he was calling me (in English this time) "not handsome! not handsome! hahaha. It's called ugly kid. However , in the same area another boy who was selling the same stuff dared me to try the crickets for no charge. I thought of trying it but I had noticed that the crickets were still dripping with oil after being deep-fried. That made me think twice. I wondered how they had prepared those and if they had used clean cooking oil. No thanks! It was just day one , I didn't want to be sick already. After dinner at another restaurant we called it a night and headed back to our guest house.

Pub Street

Friday, January 13, 2012

Angkor What? Where? and How? : How to Travel from Thailand to Cambodia

            For my second trip abroad , I had thought of visiting four countries in eight days. On my list were Singapore, Malaysia , Cambodia and Thailand. You might ask why eight days only. Well , there were several things to take into consideration such as availability of vacation leaves , money , and transportation .Then I thought eight days in four countries sounded like "Amazing Race". In such a short period I wouldn't have enough time to explore much of each country. I might even spend half of the time on the road or on a plane as I would proceed from one destination to the next.
                I dropped Singapore and Malaysia from the list as Thailand and Cambodia for me had more to offer. I had been wanting to visit the world-famous Angkor Wat and I had been curious why everyone is raving about Thailand.
                After a heated deliberation with....myself , I picked June as the best time to travel because of the cheap airline tickets on sale .The downside though was that it's one of the hottest months in Southeast Asia. This time, I had second thoughts about inviting my friend Anna because I didn't think she could keep up with me. It would be for a little more than a week and I didn't think she had the stamina for it.Then again who would take my pictures? Anna had to join me , I decided. Tickets were booked way ahead of our trip (we bought them in March).
              Our departure time from NAIA 3 was at 9:45 pm.We arrived in Bangkok at 11PM (midnight Manila time as the Philippines is an hour ahead). The flight attendant announced that we had landed at the "Suwanaphoom Airport" (Bangkok Airport). SUWANAPHOOM? How in the world did it become Suwanaphoom when it's spelled as S-U-V-A-R-N-A-B-H-U-M-I?

                 We decided to just stay in the airport for a few hours as we would be heading to Cambodia early the following morning anyway. We settled at a corner hoping to get some sleep but there was enough distractions that we remained awake. At their airport we felt like we're still in NAIA because the Thai look like Filipinos , unless they open their mouths, you wouldn't think that they're of a different nationality.
                 We left the airport at 3:20 AM and headed to Mo Chit Bus Station.We took a cab (no other options in the wee hours of the morning) , it cost 450 baht, quite expensive compared to Manila's rate.From the Mo Chit station we would be taking a bus to the Thai-Cambodian border. It didn't take so long for us to reach the station as it was early in the morning (before the rush hour) so we were spared from the dreaded Bangkok traffic (which I heard could be worse than Manila's traffic at times). We bought our tickets for the first trip to Aranyaprathet at 4:30am, it cost 212 Baht. Aranyaprathet is the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border. On the same bus were two Filipino Musicians who spoke Cebuano.Before we left I rushed to a 7-11 store and bought four bottled water, a liter each. Yes, I carried four liters of drinking water to Cambodia. It's better to be safe than sorry as I had no idea what Cambodia was like. I was afraid nobody sold bottled water there.The trip was uneventful. I attempted to catch up on my sleep but my position wasn't conducive for sleeping. We traveled across the countryside of Thailand and if not for the signage in Thai and the temples that we passed by I would have thought that we're just driving through a province in the Philippines. The sights were familiar. One noticeable difference though was the road. It's very wide , flat and no sharp turns , making our trip really smooth. I also noticed that the Thais love digging out canals. On one side of the highway was a canal, a few meters wide that flows from Bangkok to the border.
               After four and a half hours we reached Aranyaprathet. We saw hordes of people getting in and out of the border. It was such an amazing sight. I felt like I was watching a scene from a movie depicting Burma or Vietnam as the people were pulling their carts loaded with goods.

            After clearing the Thai Immigration , a young man approached us. At that point I was being alert . Anyone coming up to us could be a scammer. I'd been warned about all sorts of scams in that part of the world. I forgot the man's name but he seemed nice, he was smiling all the time and was very engaging. According to him he worked for the transportation group in Cambodia. He acted as our guide.He took us to the Cambodian Immigration on the other side of the border which is part of Poipet, a place in Cambodia known for its casinos. The young man patiently waited for us until our passports got stamped, (lucky for us we didn't need a cambodia visa)then he asked us to get on a free bus that took us to a terminal maybe fifteen minutes away from the border. From there , we'd be taking a taxi to Siem Reap where the Ancient Angkor Wat is located.While on the bus , the young man regaled us with stories and was giving us tips. When he learned that we were Filipinos (there were only four of us including the two musicians) he asked us if we knew Justin and Julianne. We looked at each other puzzled, then I reckoned that he must be referring to Filipino actors. I'd read somewhere that ABS-CBN's soaps are syndicated abroad even to far flung Ghana in Africa.Apparently Justin and Juliane are the actors name on the show as we hadn't heard of anyone famous in the Philippines that go by those names. According to him it's widely watched in Cambodia and its time slot was 7pm (unfortunately we would be exploring the market at that time).
                 We arrived at an almost empty terminal. We exchanged some of our bills to Cambodian riels.Although dollars are accepted in Cambodia I had read that it wouldn't be wise to pay everything in dollars as the exchange rate is constant at 1 USD : 4000 riels. I didn't get it but I heeded the advise.The taxi to Siem Reap was expensive, we paid $40 or P2000. We decided not to travel by bus because we could not afford to waste time waiting for the bus to be filled (we really wanted to get to Siem Reap at noontime). Arriving early would give us time to explore the market.It was only Anna and I in the taxi as the musicians were heading to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
                Contrary to what I'd read, the road to Siem Reap is now as impressive as the ones in Thailand. Lucky for us the construction of the new highway had been completed before our trip. What used to be a four-hour ride through a dusty road from the border to Siem Reap had been reduced to two and a half hours.Along the way I saw haystacks that dotted the vast plains.Also, in each community that we passed by I couldn't help but admire those elaborate arches , usually painted in gold, that welcome visitors. They reminded me of their counterparts back home, a simpler version, that also greet visitors to each barangay.

                  I asked the driver to take us to Jasmine Lodge when  we reach Siem Reap (Jasmine Lodge was my guesthouse of choice since I'd read nice reviews about it . I really did a lot of research on transportation, food and especially accommodation so as not to waste time and money (so please excuse me if I keep on repeating that I'd read something from somewhere).The driver pretended he didn't understand me, " No speaking English", he uttered. BASTARD!, of course he spoke English and even if he didn't Jasmine Lodge should at least ring a bell.

                   As we were approaching the city center we passed by a number of posh hotels.The sight was quite different from the Siem Reap that I'd imagined. Moments later the driver pulled over in front of a building and a shirtless man came up to us while putting his shirt back on. " Hi I'm Lucky ", he introduced himself. I'm not good with names but later you'll find out why I remember this one. "Where are you from?", he asked . I noticed a signage that had the word "tourism" on it so I thought the man was connected with the Department of Tourism in Cambodia. " The taxis are only allowed up to this point , a tuktuk will take you to your hotel or guesthouse", he explained. "Don't worry it's for free", he further assured us. We hopped on to the tuktuk ( their version of the tricycle in the Philippines which according to many is named after the sound it makes) and told the driver to take us to Jasmine Lodge.Lucky acted as a guide while we're driving through streets lined with guesthouses. He's in his twenties and he spoke good English. After probably ten minutes we stopped in front of a three-storey building that looked like a guesthouse. Lucky and the driver ushered us into the reception. I was about to ask them if we were already at Jasmine Lodge when I saw a sign that says "Banana Leaf Guesthouse". Did they think we were illiterate? "This is not Jasmine Lodge", I complained ( At this point Anna had a little participation , maybe she was thinking of her boyfriend back home). "Yeah" , he replied quickly "but the owner of Jasmine Lodge bought this place." hmmm. Very smart. I insisted that they take us to the real Jasmine Lodge. I told them we would come back if we didn't like it there.
           While we're checking out the real Jasmine Lodge , Lucky and the driver waited outside. The nerve! Of course, I did ask the person at the reception about the real story and I found out that Lucky was lying indeed. I went back to the scammers and gave them a dollar which is the regular fare for a tuktuk ride in Siem Reap. "You lied to me ", Lucky said after I'd told him that we're staying at Jasmine." You're the one who lied to me I  retorted. I walked away and went to our room.
                We got a room at the ground floor,a double air-conditioned room with two king-size beds. The bathroom was spotless and it had a cold and hot shower.There was also a spacious closet,cable tv and on top of it all were free breakfasts and internet, all for US$13 or US$6.50 per person/night. Despite what had happened I thought we're off to a good start. I also booked the tuktuk for our Angkor tour at the guesthouse. We paid US$12 for a whole day tour. I told the guy who booked us to tell the driver to pick us up at 4:30AM so we could catch the sunrise at the Angkor Wat. After making all the arrangements the first thing that we wanted to do was to freshen up after a long trip.
               After taking shower (one at a time of course) Anna and I were both dog-tired so we decided to take a quick nap but before that we had to sort out our paper bills . In less than 24 hours we got hold of pesos, dollars, bahts and riels . It got really confusing.

Mong Kok : Haggling the Chinese Way

                   The last stop in our Hong Kong trip was Mong kok. After enjoying the view of the Hong Kong skyscapers from the Peak we rushed to the famous shopping area via the MTR. We alloted enough time for shopping for souvenirs and "pasalubongs"(gifts) for friends and families . Mong kok  resembles Greenhills in Manila and maybe most markets in Asia ,but still with a twist. For me ,one of the distinctive aspects of the place was the haggling part. The vendors were more aggresive and the whole procedure of haggling was hilarious. Anna wanted to buy keychains for "pasalubong" so we checked out one of the stalls. Anna asked for the price and the asking price was HK$120, Overpricing ! She checked other items instead (feigning disinterest in the first one). At this point the haggling officially began. The moment Anna picked up another item the price of the key chain began dropping, “100″, offered the vendor. Anna ignored her and looked away . “Okay….okay…Filipina you want cheaper?” (by the way they addressed both Anna and I Filipina). “Ninety”, the price dropped again , still we started walking away. One step you make is equivalent to HK$20-decrease in price, “70 !”, the vendor shouted as she was chasing us and was trying to grasp Anna’s hand. “Okay…okay…how much you wanna pay? Tell me !..tell me !”. Anna was only paying HK$35. “Forty”, the vendor almost begged. In the end Anna got two sets of keychains for HK$35 each. On to the next stall. This time around Anna’s haggling talent already had a track record. Since we were in a rush as it was already noontime we decided to cut to the chase. We approached vendor number 2. “How much?”, while pointing to the item. One of the things I’ve learned from this trip to a non-English speaking country is to communicate with the locals using phrases or words only, with the help of course of sign language. Speaking in straight English will just confuse them, what is important is they hear the key words or phrases. “One hundred !”, the vendor answered. “Thirty !” we said. “Get Out!”, the vendor screamed. We were stunned. Though embarrassed , we dashed away laughing at ourselves and at the experience. We pondered afterwards that maybe she was gonna sell the items at the price we’re willing to pay  had we followed the procedure.


Friday, January 6, 2012

The Peak, Hong Kong

                 On our last day in Hong Kong our first stop was The Peak, the highest point in Hong Kong island. We had already figured out how to get there as a result of the previous day’s misadventure when we took the wrong tram and ended up somewhere else.It turned out that there's a specially designated tram that takes tourists to the Peak and its station is near the HSBC building in Central, Hong Kong.Before the tram arrived we had our pictures taken at the tram terminus where an old tram and a machine of some sort that probably ran the tram in the early days were on display. The fare was a lot more expensive compared to the HK$2-regular tram , but it’s worth it because it offered a different kind of ride. The way up to The Peak was so steep , it looked like a 45-degree slope. Every now and then on our way up, the tram would halt leaving us practically hanging. The thought of the tram sliding off the mountain scared the wimp out of me. Although based on records there has been no reported accidents from the time it started operating more than a hundred years ago .   

           We got to The Peak unscathed. We went inside the Peak Tower which is basically a mall. There was a nice souvenir shop full of interesting trinkets. I liked the items a lot for "pasalubongs"( gift ) but they’re expensive so I decided to do the shopping in Mong Kok which would be our next stop anyway. Aside from souvenir shops there were also fancy restaurants at The Peak Tower. The Madame Tussauds wax museum was also located there. The ticket to the museum was ridiculously expensive. I don’t get why one would pay HK$185 to see wax figures of celibrities. No freakin’ way ! I just had my photo taken beside Pierce Brosnan’s figure displayed outside. Visitors could also go up to the viewing deck for an additional fee to get a glipmse of the harbor and the skyscrapers below. “Puritas” or poor tourists like us just contented ourselves with doing the sightseeing at a lower level outside the Peak Tower. The view was spectacular. Hundreds of tall glass buildings , gleaming under the sun made it look futuristic. I had not seen anything like it. I felt like I had been assigned to watch over the  goings-on of a modern world beneath.

Victoria harbor : The Symphony of Lights Show

                 The skyscrapers of Hong Kong are the stars of the Symphony of Lights Show. I had read that the best place to watch it from was at Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side. In that area you can also visit the Avenue of Stars which is Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Along the avenue ,which is facing the ocean, you can find hand imprints of local celebrities. While waiting for the show to start we searched for what could probably be the most famous hand imprints  we could find, that of Jackie Chan’s. We found not just Jackie Chan’s hand imprints but also Jet Li’s. It’s interesting to note that both gentlemen have small hands. The show started at exactly 8pm. The buildings were emitting colorful neonlights, lasers and all sorts of light effects that seemed to be dancing to the music played in the background. We could also hear a narration in Mandarin or maybe Cantonese, I’m not sure ( how could I tell? ). The show lasted for less than 20 minutes. It was kind’a disappointing that there weren’t that many buildings that participated but still it’s one of a kind show. I was also disappointed that while we were at the harbour we only saw one junk, a traditional Chinese boat with its signature sail.

          After a full-day itinerary we ran out of camera batteries so we failed to take as many pictures as we had wanted. Even with a number of letdowns, I was still happy and in awe of the sights.I regret not having gone there at daytime as the view would have been wonderful as well. We forgot that somewhere in that area was the famous clock tower of Hong Kong , I don’t know why we just lingered at one area on the avenue while waiting for the show to start.
         It was time then to call it a night , so we headed back to where we stayed and had late dinner again.