Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Capers in Cambodia - Siem Reap to Hanoi

The only thing better than going on a holiday is going on two. At least, that was the premise I was working on when I planned my Christmas break. A week in Cambodia sounded great, but there would still be a week or so left at the end before I was due back at school and it seemed a shame to waste it. Plus, Hanoi, which I'd been wanting to visit since my first visit to Vietnam, is much cheaper to fly to from Siem Reap than it is from Singapore. Especially if you book directly with Vietnam Airlines. I was a little dubious about paying in Vietnamese Dong at first, but I had a quick google and saw that a lot of people had booked via the airline no problem and went for it. So my ticket cost just over $100 (including taxes but with no baggage), compared to the $400 odd it usually costs from Lion City. Bargain.

So, a couple of days before Christmas, I wished my friends a safe flight back to Singapore and settled myself by the pool at Hotel Somadevi Angkor Resort and Spa for an afternoon of relaxation before making my own airport run. Which wasn't as smooth as I'd hoped it would be. I'd arranged my transfer with the hotel that morning for five o'clock. I was merrily sat waiting at the allotted time when a staff member informed me that the car had broken down and wouldn't be there until around quarter past, but assured me that I would still arrive in time for my flight at seven.

When half past five arrived and the car didn't, they suggested taking a tuk tuk to the airport instead. At which point I began to panic a little. Happily, the car put in an appearance at that point and it turns out I needn't have worried about its lateness. Siem Reap International Airport is only around eleven kilometres from the town centre. It is also quite a small airport and wasn't very busy, so I was checked in and had passed immigration by just gone six.

So I whiled away the time until my flight pleasantly enough, chatting to a nice Dutch couple I met and reading my book. Then I had a stroll around the terminal (it's pretty small - not much to see) and it was time to board. The flight was only an hour and forty minutes too, so I curled up in my seat (Vietnam Airlines planes are quite nice), had a snack which consisted of a bread roll, cold meats, salad and a dessert and then the lights went out for the descent.

As soon as I was off of the plane, I headed to the Visa on Arrival stand. Somewhat counter-intuitively, you need to go down the side of the booth to hand in your form etc before joining the queue at the front to pick it up. I'd already got a letter granting me permission to enter from the Vietnam Evisa Department, which cost $19 USD. I'm not sure how much time this actually saves when you arrive, but it seemed less hassle than doing it all there.

Anyway, I paid my $45 USD stamp fee and was through immigration and in the hotel car within about thirty minutes of landing. Then it was a mere forty five minute journey of fear to the Hoan Kiem district, with a driver who alternated between having what sounded like several arguments with someone on his mobile phone, blasting up the dance music between calls and tooting his horn aggressively as he wove through the traffic at a terrifying speed. The sign for the Meracus Hotel was a welcome sight. Christmas holiday number two had begun!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Capers in Cambodia - Siem Reap General Reflections

Described as the Gateway to Angkor Wat due to its being just a few kilometres from Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap wasn't at all how I'd imagined it. As I noted in my Siem Reap Attractions post, I'd pictured it as a place steeped in grandeur whereas actually, at first glance, it didn't look that different from the capital. Though smaller, it was still a lot bigger than I'd expected, and I liked that it was less dusty with less rubbish in the streets, but it still seemed fairly busy and there were tuk tuks galore (the drivers seemed more persistent in Siem Reap too).

But I really enjoyed the few days we spent there and would love to go back at some point. Of course, its proximity to Angkor Archaeological Park, which was the highlight of our trip to Cambodia, was the best thing about staying in Siem Reap. From the vast Angkor Wat to the the atmospheric Ta Prohm, the day my travel buddies and I spent exploring temples was unforgettable. If anyone is making the trip any time soon, I would definitely recommend getting the three-day Angkor Pass, though I doubt that even that would allow you to see half of what's on offer there.

Siem Reap was also the gateway to another side of Cambodian life - the incredible floating villages which can be reached easily from its harbour. The day trip we took with Osmose was definitely one of the best parts of the trip for all us. It was amazing sailing down the river past all of the floating houses, witnessing a completely different way of life, and I enjoyed our time in the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and our afternoon sail across Tonle Sap Lake.

It was a real eye-opener though. As with Phnom Penh, there were clear signs of poverty, especially in the floating villages, where children played in the same river you could see nappies floating in and many of the dwellings were in dire need of repair. It just looked like such a hard way of living.  But, also like Phnom Penh, everywhere you looked, people were smiling and working hard, so it was difficult not to feel optimistic about the future for Cambodia.

Besides the places easily accessible from Siem Reap, there was the town itself, where there was quite a lot to see, from the museums and galleries, to the craft places and, of course, pub street, with its countless places to eat and drink. And, just in case you hadn't had enough of temples after Angkor, there were several dotted about the town. Then there was the Cultural Village which, in the words of its website, allows you travel all over Cambodia in just half a day.

Overall, it was just a fantastic place. I think my favourite of all of the places I've been to in Southeast Asia. Scrap that - it's my favourite of all of the places I've been to in the world. The food was fantastic, the people friendly and the temples incredible. And it was just so different from anywhere I've been before. Like I said, I would love to return.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Capers in Cambodia - Siem Reap Attractions - Angkor Archaeological Park

That largest religious monument in the world - saw the sun rise over it. That's right, on our final day in Siem Reap, my travel buddies and I finally went to see the UNESCO World Heritage site that houses some of the most famous temples in the world - Angkor Archaeological Park. And exploring the centre of the old Khmer Kingdom was the perfect way to end our last day in Cambodia.

Having arranged a tuk tuk for the day through the hotel for $22 USD, we were picked up by Jim the tuk tuk driver at five in the morning. Then it was off to a ticket booth to get our day passes ($20 USD). Which doesn't seem like a lot to see one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, especially when you consider that a couple of cocktails in Singapore will cost you about the same. I promise you, it's worth every cent (though I can't imagine many people visiting Siem Reap and then balking at the cost of the pass).

Tickets purchased, we got back into our tuk tuk and headed into Angkor Archaeological Park. Our first stop, of course, was to Angkor Wat, the best preserved of the temples at the site, built by Khmer King Suryavarman II, dedicated to Vishnu and made famous by the Tomb Raider films. Here, we sat on the wall on the far side of the moat to eat breakfast while we watched the sun come up over the complex that now features on the national flag. Which was a pretty fantastic way to start day.

Once it was fully light, we headed over the bridge which leads into the temple complex (where we discovered that there were much better places we could have watched the sunrise from) and began to explore. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that it was amazing. As we headed in, the crowds were a bit overwhelming - apparently, over two million people have visited the site so far this year - but the temple complex was so vast that, once we were properly inside, it just seemed to swallow them up. While we could usually see other people as we walked around, they were only a few parts that felt really busy.

Which was good, because there was so much to see and no one wanted to wait in a series of lines to get a glimpse of things like the ninety metre long bas-relief dedicated to King Suryavarman II in the western part of the South Gallery. It was fascinating to look around, not least because of the different styles of architecture  in the different parts which showed how, while the site had originally been a Hindu place of worship, it had become a Buddhist temple towards the end of the twelfth century. And it was just so ordered, so beautifully designed and so big. In fact, it was a little overwhelming (my photos really don't do it - or any of the temples we saw - justice).

Overall, we spent about three hours inside and definitely didn't see all of it. However, there are over a thousand temples in the 400 square kilometre park so, with a last look and a few cheeky Lara Croft-esque photos, we headed out. Not very far though, as there is a cafe called the Blue Pumpkin just opposite Angkor Wat, and it turns out that exploring temples is hungry work. So we had a quick snack and a coffee, then set off in our tuk tuk once again.

The next temple we visited was Srah Srang, the temple remodelled by Jayavarman VII in the twelfth century. Though little remains of it now, barring some stone nagas and lions, it offered a fantastic view of the lake which shares its name. And was handily located opposite Banteay Kdei, which I loved. Another work commissioned by Jayavarman VII, the temple was originally a Buddhist monastery and the bas-reliefs clearly reflect this. Considering they were nearly a thousand years old, some of them were still surprisingly clear in detail, as were the intricate patterns around the surviving windows.

This contrasted dramatically with the crumbling walls surrounding them and the jungle that is gradually encroaching on the ruins. Having been left largely unrestored, walking through it was a pretty surreal experience and you could easily imagine how it felt for the explorers who rediscovered it, especially as we didn't see anyone else while we were there. Barring the stallholders at the entrance and exit, of course, who were selling souvenirs (though there were some fantastic oil paintings to be had there if you were, or had a friend who was, willing to haggle).

After that, we went to Ta Prohm, which was easily my favourite of all the temples I have visited. Ever. I mentioned that Banteay Kdei was being slowly immersed by the surrounding forest, but Ta Prohm was something else. Again, left largely unrestored, the temple, which was built in the Bayon style in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries WAS immersed in the surrounding forest, with tree roots growing out of the ruins. Despite it being fairly busy, it was one of the most atmospheric places I have ever been. It must be truly incredible when its deserted. I loved it.

Following our visit there, we headed to Bayon, another product of the reign of King Jayavarman VII, with all its carved faces. I really enjoyed walking around that one too, which was a lot larger than it appeared at first glance, though nothing compared to Ta Prohm for me. Then we headed to Baphuon, which had an immense reclining Buddha built into it on one side, though I must admit, we were too lazy to climb the steps to explore that one properly. Actually, much as I hate to admit it, we were all a little temple-d out by that point. I think if I were to do it again, I would definitely get the three-day pass, as there was so many other places to see.

Anyway, after that, we took a stroll through the forest (vaguely thinking that flip flops might not have been the best footwear option, given the vast spider webs that covered the ground) to the Elephant Terrace, which forms part of the walled city of Angkor Thom, named for the elephants carved on its eastern face. Then we walked to the Terrace of the Leper King, in the north-western corner of Angkor Thom's Royal Square, where we met up with our tuk tuk driver once again. He suggested that we watched the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, a temple built at the end of the ninth century and, rather handily, at the top of a hill about 1.5km away from Angkor Wat.

That seemed like a good idea and, after a short tuk tuk ride to the bottom of the hill, where we saw some real elephants, we clambered up to it. It was really crowded though and, from the only space we could find, we saw more trees than temple. So one of my travel buddies and I headed back down and had a tuk tuk party instead while the other two persevered there. We were all happy with how the trip ended. Then it was time to head back, for a final beautiful meal at a restaurant called Aha. It was the perfect way to end an incredible day.