Revisiting Siem Reap

Siem Reap – a place that I immediately fell in love with when I went there 3 years ago. The idea of going there especially with my mom and two siblings made me go even more excited – because I really wanted to bring them there and showed to them that this part of the region used to be home to some of the best architecture in the world. Topping the list of the Travelers’ Choice Landmarks for 2015 where thousands of travelers from around the globe voted for their choice of best landmarks on TripAdvisor, it’s always worth to return to the magnificent Angkor Wat.

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The famous Pub Street

We stayed at a brand new hotel called Chez Moi Boutique Hotel and Spa. It was only opened a few months ago and was still in the process of undergoing some final touches. The walls were still naked without paint and they didn’t even have any mirror placed in the room so it was one of those times when I had to be creative and used my hand-phone to check out if there was something missing on my face. LOL.

We went for the sunrise and as usual found ourselves surrounded by hordes of people. Too bad, it was a cloudy morning so there was no sunrise. I felt bad for the people when they were still hopeful and staying put even after the sun had risen way off the horizon.

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Mom and siblings were immediately crazified by the grandeur of Angkor Wat once we ascended the ancient stairs. They were all over taking pictures and they came up with their own theories on how the Angkor Wat could have been built in the past. I was amused but just as excited as they were.

The top flight of the temple was still off-limit, just as it was when I went there 3 years ago. But of course there really is no need to go up there to experience its grandeur and magnificence. For me, the best monuments in the world are best visualized from a distance.

Then we went to Bayon – which is probably the only temple within the ancient city of Angkor Wat that has faces. My mom struck the best pose here.

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Then we went to Preah Khan – which is my favorite temple in Angkor Wat. This temple never failed to impress me especially the way they built the walls and the roofs. The roofs were made of stone blocks and there seemed to be no reinforcement to tie them together (except – may be those that they built recently as part of restoration project) so they rely solely on their own weight to support each other. It’s like playing lego where the dimension of each stone block has to very precise so that they can be fixed against each other.

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Preah Khan

We ended our Angkor tour by going to Ta Phrom – the temple which was made famous by Angeline Jolie through the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The film director didn’t choose this temple for nothing. It has those very ancient looks – thanks to the existence of giant strangler figs whose roots have now snaked all over the temple. Somehow this time, it wasn’t easy to find the famous fig thanks to the ongoing extensive restoration works. Many entrances were closed off so it was like being in a maze where you’d have to find your way around or you’ll find yourself tailing behind your own tail.

But then, looking for the fig among the ancient ruins of Ta Phrom was really part of the fun and we had the best of laugh while doing it. We were lucky to have found the fig when there weren’t many people around. Each of us took turn in striking a pose and just when all of us were done the whole place was suddenly flooded with people – all eager to take photo in front of the famous fig.

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My version of Lara Croft. LOL.

So we did a half a day tour but taking into account that we started off at 5am, we were actually there for some 9 hours. By the time we pulled out of the Angkor Wat area, everybody was quit tired and sleepy. We went to have lunch at a local restaurant – which served authentic Khmer food and which we found almost by accident – and had the best of meal in Cambodia. I could not believe my eyes (and nose) when we found a dish which is very similar to our ‘bosou’ or ‘pinasakan’ in Sabah. It really is true then that the best things that you find in life are those that you find by accident. Heh.

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Our second and last day in Siem Reap was allocated especially for shopping but there was one last place that I wanted to bring them to before we started going on a shopping spree. It was the Angkor Silk Farm which is located some 15kms from the town center. Going there on a rented Tuk Tuk, we were amazed by the beauty of countryside of Siem Reap – the greenery and the expansive paddy fields.

The best thing about the Angkor Silk Farm is probably the free tour that they provide. We were taken to a tour that shows the process of manufacturing silks – right from the hatching of silk wombs right to the traditional weaving to produce silk clothes. Mom and siblings showed such a great interest in every single thing in the process. My sister especially was not quite fond of the idea of putting the cocoons into hot water to kill the wombs. Taking them out manually without killing them might be a good alternative but it will be very time consuming.DSC04719a

We didn’t buy anything from the shop (felt a lil bit guilty) – because the prices were crazy – but then we are talking about silks so it is quite understandable. We returned to Siem Reap when the sun was already up ahead but not before we stopped at one of quite a number of roadside food stalls to have a taste of – well – these.

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My mom and siblings liked them so much that they actually bought quite a lot to be eaten with our meal later at our lunch table. I was like – erkkkkk!

Of course, every short trip has to be ended with shopping. It was not really the best time to come to Cambodia when the Malaysian Ringgit is very much low against USD which is unfortunately the dominant currency in Cambodia. Still, Siem Reap remains one of the best shopping towns in the region. Imagine, a good T-shirt is sold at about USD2 per piece – which is actually less than MYR8 based on current exchange rate. Imagine – just imagine – if our money is at its usual MYR3.5 against USD1. Heaven. Uhuks.

But still it didn’t stop them from buying quite a lot of stuff, in fact, even exceeded the 15KG that I purchased on Air Asia as an add-on.

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So, that was about it – my #CambodiaRevisited2015 trip – together with my mom and two of my siblings. They had fun, I had fun and we are already thinking of another trip. In the meantime, I have to face the bitter reality that I’ve got a lot of things coming right my way this year.

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Hello Again Phnom Penh!

If there was one country that I wanted to go back to – and this time with my mom – it’d be Cambodia. My mom is very much into history, especially those related to humanity so I decided it had to be Cambodia. It was more like a family trip this time – with two of my eldest siblings tagging along.

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So I traced back the route that I took when I went to Cambodia for the first time back in 2011. I touched down at Phnom Penh, took a bus to Siem Reap and returned to KL from there.

We stayed at a hotel called Pandan Boutique Hotel right in the middle of Phnom Penh. I didn’t really like the location but it was located in a rather quite area of the city, surrounded by other hotels and posh apartments and I did see good restaurants within the vicinity but they were more like for the tourists so I didn’t go to any of them. The hotel was good and the hospitality was superb despite the fact that most of the staff looked very young as if they have just finished secondary school or something. Priced at some USD38 per night on Agoda, the room was quite comfortable, spotlessly clean and very spacious. I couldn’t really ask for more.

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My sister is an avid traveler – or rather a tourist – because she is more into tour packages so she was very excited about joining me and having her very first taste of traveling without subjecting herself to a tight schedule and restricted movement offered in tour packages. In fact she was the one who was so eager to taste just about every weird food that we came upon on the streets of Phnom Penh and later in Siem Reap.

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My brother is a house builder – and in almost total contrast to me – is one of the handiest persons that I’ve ever known. So coming to Cambodia really made him excited especially for the fact that Cambodians are famous for their craftsmanship that traverses back to the time when the Angkor Wat was built. He was so amused when he first saw a Tuk Tuk outside of Phnom Penh international Airport that he actually took photos from just about every angle of the 3-tyered vehicle. “I could make this back in Sabah” he said confidently. Knowing him all my life, I actually believed him.

Phnom Penh really has changed a lot from the last time I went there. There seems to be more people and the number of vehicles seems to have doubled and it is much more busy and noisy and bustling now. It is so difficult to cross a road during peak hour that there were times when we were left stranded on the side of the road so we had to ask any of the policemen that we saw around to take us over to the other side of the road. The traffic really can be so scary and very intimidating.

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The Independence Monument

Of course, traveling with mom on a Sunday means I had the extra chore of finding a church that we could attend before anything else. After a lil bit of googling, I managed to locate St Joseph’s Catholic Church on the east part of Phnom Penh. The church looks very much dilapidated from the outside and it was actually quite nice and well-maintained on the inside.

The church compound is a combination of a beautiful school building of European architecture (probably Dutch) and probably built during the colonial time. Co-joining the school building itself is the church where the local mass is held. I was there just in time to see how the mass was performed in Khmer (national language of Cambodia) and I couldn’t help but seeing a significant influence of Buddhism even in its decoration. They even had incense sticks placed at the altar – the kind that they burn at temples.

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Mom at the entrance to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Phnom Penh

The English mass that we attended was not performed there but at another building which was more like a rundown half-concrete and half-wooden 3-storey. I could only assume that the reason why the local mass is performed at a different building is the need to take off shoes which is not a necessity when attending the English mass – and probably the exclusion of those Buddhism-influenced deco and rites.

So, after having lunch at one of the restaurants that overlooks the mighty Mekong River, we dared the blazing hot sun and the dusty air of Phnom Penh to go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  I found it quite difficult to explain about the genocide to them in the beginning due to its complexity so I just led them to the tour according to the numbering provided on the brochure.

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I later found it wasn’t quite a smart move because they wouldn’t see anything interesting in those empty rooms without really knowing what exactly happened in those rooms during the genocide. I should have brought them to those rooms with those exhibited photos and illustrative paintings to fastidate their understanding of what really took place right there during what is considered one of the worse genocides in the modern era.

Just as I was, they seemed to be so much disturbed by the mug shots of those who were cruelly prosecuted at the Tuol Sleng. My mother was especially affected by the mug shots of children who were killed in the name of ambition and power. She couldn’t help but thinking of her grands. She couldn’t imagine if some of those in the photos were actually her grands. By the time we made it out of the compound again, they were all quite, probably trying to chew in whatever that they had learned from that rather brief but very eye-opening tour.

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Then from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, we headed out of the city towards the Killing Field where most of the mass prosecution had to be carried out during the night when the number of prisoners at the Tuol Sleng was too big for them to handle. That was when all of a sudden a very heavy downpour suddenly took over from what appeared to be a very hot day earlier.

It was so heavy that it felt almost like a thunderstorm but the Tuk Tuk driver seemed so adamant about pushing on. In fact he kept assuring us that it was very normal – which was actually evidenced by the fact that vehicles were still galloping by – but then it was the ladies who couldn’t take it any longer. I had to ask the driver to stop and he stopped at a marble slab manufacturer where we took cover behind a parked car. It really was a raging rain.

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Brrrr!

We continued over to the Killing Field when the rain slowed down and it was still drizzling when we reached the gate. The most significant improvement at least through the eyes (or rather ears) of a Malaysian like me is the availability of audio guide in Malay. My mom and siblings seemed so immersed in the audio as we traversed along the path of the tour across the killing site that in the past had witnessed some of the darkest history that the world has ever seen – or rather not seen since what happened in Cambodia during the genocide where 3 million Cambodians were killed within a very short span of 3 years was largely unknown to the outside world.

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By the time we arrived at the last stop of the tour – which was the multi-level racks where dozens of dug-out skulls of those who were prosecuted at the killing field were placed in – my mom seemed quite so stressed out, and angry especially for the fact that Pol Pot – the man who was responsible for the genocide had never been prosecuted and actually died a happy man (and with a young wife) at 90.

“God will punish him anyway” she said, in a very church-ly way.

“I don’t think they were smart enough. 3 million people could fight back if they were smart (enough)” said my brother when I told him how Pol Pot targeted the intellectual Cambodians who he thought could pose a threat to his ambition.

Needless to say, the genocide became our topic of conversation for much of the rest of the day.

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We ended our tour in Phnom Penh by going to the Central Market – something that I didn’t get to do when I came to Phnom Penh 3 years ago. They were jumping in excitement as they discovered more and more things at the market. Of course what made them really go wow was the sight of exotic food, especially the fried tarantula. I bought a stack, supposedly one tarantula for each of us but I ended up being the only one who didn’t eat. Huhu.

Shopping started quite early especially for my sister who was all over to buy whatever she thought was interesting enough to buy. She only stopped when I assured her that there’d be more to buy in Siem Reap. I mean, we had a bus to catch anyway.

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It would be our last day in Phnom Penh and we returned to the hotel to prepare for our bus trip to Siem Reap. A van came to pick us up at the hotel about an hour before the departure time at 12.30pm. BY the time we pulled out of Phnom Penh, it was almost 1pm. My sister kept saying how her wish to see the Angkor Wat in real since she was 17-years-old would finally be fulfilled.

I mean, there’s always something so exciting about fulfilling a dream and wish even though it is not even ours.

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