Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cambodia - Day 1 Kingdom of Wonder

Cambodia... dreams of ancient stone wonders locked deep in the mysterious jungle, entwined with age old vines and giant roots of trees come to the mind. The face of Jayavarman, the serene face of Bayon and greatest priest king of the Khmer dynasty smiles enigmatically...

Today, I stepped onto the tarmac at Siem Reap airport, ending my almost year long wait to visit the self styled 'Kingdom of Wonder', so that I may wander amid the moist, humid jungle shrouded ruins of Angkor Wat, the Khmer people's greatest achievement and symbol of the current Cambodian kingdom.

Boy was I sorely mistaken. As the morning sun beat down onto the parched Earth, I realize romantic visions of the jungle conjured up by reading too many Rudyard Kipling didn't really reflect the reality that I was facing. I had stepped into a furnace!

Visiting Cambodia in April is perhaps the worse time to do in the year. According to wikipedia, it is simply the most hottest single month with temperatures soaring to the mid 40C, scorching the earth and kicking up dust clouds that stings the eyes every so often a vehicle passes over the parched dirt covered roads.

The period between November to January is described to be best, it being the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the dry season. Temperatures then would be a little bit comfortable than it is now. Still, I had found myself with an Air Asia ticket, paid 8 months in advance with Cambodia as it's destination scheduled for April 2009.

After clearing through customs and grabbing my luggage, I rendevoused with my travelling partners, Maxx, Wei Han, George and Er to find our 'Tuk-tuk' waiting for us at the airport parking lot. Little more than a motorcycle with a passenger carriage tied to the bag, I was at first rather sceptical as to whether it could really haul the weight of 2-3 grown adults and their luggage. My sceptism vanished as I saw the 'Tuk-tuk' loaded with the combined weight of Wei Han, Maxx and Er zooming off ahead leaving smoke and dust for me and Er to choke on as our own 'Tuk-tuk' tried to catch up.

Not that I was putting on the pounds or anything, nor was Er contributing unwarranted stress to our poor motorcycle. Rather it's strange chugging sound as it strained to pull our load was because it was a little thirsty. Thirsty for fuel.

The 'fuel' however looks strange indeed. In fact, in place of a petrol kiosk, you have what looked like road side sundry shops selling bottles of something that appeared more like cooking oil than petrol to quench the thirst of the motorcycles that ply the dusty roads of Cambodia.

Once filled with fuel, our 'Tuk-tuk' continued down the road, arriving behind the three others in front of our home away from home, the suitably vine entwined garden porch of the Golden Temple Villa (http://www.goldentemplevilla.com/ )in Siem Reap.

We were slightly early. Arriving at about 10am in the morning, our pre-booked rooms weren't ready for the 5 of us to move in. We therefore, decided to sample a small taste of Cambodia at it's cafe while we waited for our rooms.

The cafe seemed reasonably well furnished and stocked. Coffee and Cambodian tea is provided free throughout the day along with a complimentary supply of fresh bananas. The fare offered in it's menus also appeared somewhat enticing as with it's prices that average about USD2 to USD3 mostly. Yes, in Cambodia the mighty greenback is dominant here, easily overshadowing the 'weak' Riel, it's supposedly national currency.

We headed to the Old Market in Siem Reap after having our complimentary drink. It was a typical tourist haunt, rows and rows of little shoplots selling the odd trinket and souvenier to gullible tourists. The guide book says that you have to always haggle when buying stuff here, often having to start the bargain from half the price offered. We did some browsing, I ended up buying some magnets for my friends and family at home.

As the midday sun reached it's peak, we headed back to the hotel. It was getting unbearably hot and the constant flying dust had somewhat caked itself against my sweaty skin. We checked into the hotel shortly after, paying USD14 for two nights. A VERY cheap bargain.

I took a light shower, heading down to the cafe after that and having lunch with the gang. After that commenced the tour to the first place we will be visiting in Cambodia; the Tonle Sap lake.

If I could recall what my geography teacher had taught me a long, long time ago, Tonle Sap is the single largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. It is fed by the Mekong river which flows from the mountains in Laos down into Cambodia before ending at the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Tonle Sap is formed because the volume of water flowing into sea was too much for the small delta to cope thus, a significant amount of backflow is created, coalescing into the low lands of northern Cambodia.

It took us a while for our 'tuk-tuk' to reach the jetty where we will be taking our boat over to the floating village at the center of Tonle Sap lake. Along the way, we did stop for a while to take photos under the sweltering sun.

When we reached the jetty, I was surprised to see how much the lake had dried up. I guess the waters had receded a good 10 meters to it's current level since the end of the rainy season. But of more immediate concern was the payment to rent the boat.

A man claiming to monopolize the boat services told us that we had to pay USD12/person. We tried to haggle but the man wasn't in the mood to bargain. In the end we had no choice but to agree with his price before we went down to edge of the jetty to mount our boat.

It was a pleasant surprise to find out that our 'guide' could speak malay. (Gosh! I must be feeling homesick already!) He took us to the floating 'village' consisting of mostly poor people living in boats in the middle of the lake. He claims that they are mostly Vietnamese and that they are sort of stateless here. The people subsist on mainly fishing and craftmaking, bartering their wares to the people living on the lake's shores.

A ferry service also operates from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, costing USD35/trip. We saw the ferry boat floating about during our trip to the lake. It looked really impressive. The brochure advertising the trip says that a lunch buffet is also served onboard and the total travel time to the capital city will take 6 hours. We have however, decided to take the bus later on the capital. Compared to the extravagant price charged for the boat ride, the bumpy bus ride to the capital will cost USD6/person.

We were brought aboard a floating restaurant, kinda deserted since we have arrived during the 'low' travel season. There were some crocodiles kept in the lower decks, the guide telling us that their hides will be used to make bags and such. There was a souvenier store onboard as well but since none of their wares are a price tag and we don't really know the 'market' yet, we chose not to buy anything. We did take a few pictures on the highest point of the floating restaurant which offered a good view of the village.

Before we head back to shore, we stopped by at a floating school where we were introduced to a teacher. A few students were playing onboard when we entered their classroom but they paid us no heed. We were asked to offer donations to the teacher to buy school books and stationeries. I offered USD5.

Back in Siem Reap, we went to the Old Market, a bargain hunter's paradise. Here, I found out that you are expected to haggle for the best price as again there are no price tags shown on the wares sold here and that initial prices offered are ALWAYS overinflated. Of course, there is this conspicuous 'foreigner's' pricing, so bargain hard to get the lowest these people can offer. I got myself a number of Angkor Wat themed magnets for USD0.30 each. The rest got T-shirts, more magnets and other knicks and knacks.

Finally, we headed back to the hotel, where internet is freely available 24 hours a day. Here I stopped for a while to check my email and update my facebook. A quick bath later, we went downtown to one of the restaurants, which offers Khmer food for prices between USD1-USD4. Not surprisingly, we found out that the food presented to us doesn't really look anything at all like the food shown in their menus. :p
The night ended a compulsory Cambodian massage at one of the many parlours in Siem Reap town. Nothing hanky panky... all professional of course. :) The average price for a massage is USD6.After that is another session on the internet in which I found myself partially writing a portion of this blog before going to sleep and awaiting the next day's adventure!

No comments:

Post a Comment