Part II – Siem Reap
(Continued from Phuket Board)
BKK / BANGKOK AIR / SIEM REAP AIRPORT
Transferred in BKK from Thai Airway to Bangkok Air to Siem Reap on Nov 14th. Luckily we headed for the International gates early, because the passport control checkpoint for int’l departures was packed and the process longer than expected. We saw more than one group running to their gates after underestimating the time they’d need to get their passports checked.
Quick aside to plug Edelweiss Airline, whose plane Bangkok Air used for its BKK to Siem Reap flight. Cutest plane ever, with its jaunty blue lowercase logotype, its red nose and tail, and the adorable edelweiss drawing on its tail!!!
So, we got e-Visas for Siem Reap (http://evisa.mfaic.gov.kh/), and it was so easy. All I did was take two of our digital photos, crop our faces out and then use them for the applications. Even though it said it took about 3 days, I think we got our e-Visas back in less than 24 hours. When we got to Siem Reap I was really glad we got the e-Visas because the other line was long. Now, the e-Visas are not a new discovery—I think most people on the plane must have been prepared with them—but the non-visa process seemed to be taking more time. We would have gotten through quickly if not for the fact then when we got to the front of our line our agent left to go do something else—and didn’t come back. Leaving everyone in our line stranded for 20 minutes until they opened up another line. Grrrrr.
We grabbed our luggage from the International pickup area, where all the luggage was just plopped on the floor, then went out to meet our driver.
On our way back, the Bangkok Air counter wasn’t labeled, so we had to ask around. Also, we first tried to pay the $25 per person departure tax with the Visa credit card we used for most of the trip, but the system wouldn’t go through. Luckily the Mastercard worked, but it would have been more comforting if I had remembered to reserve the cash. It was the only time during the entire trip that we had a problem with the Visa card.
Once you get to the departure area there’s a nice café, shops, a florist, and a massage place. It’s also small enough so you can easily hear flight announcements.
JOHN TENG AND ANGKOR WAT
John Teng (firstname.lastname@example.org) sent his driver to come get us, and poor guy must have been waiting patiently. On the way the guy asked if we wanted to know about some good massage place (I assume, like all tourism guys, he was getting a kickback from the massage place) but we were tired and just wanted to get to our hotel and he didn’t pursue it when we declined. On the way there, he dialed John Teng, who confirmed our itinerary for the next day and our 8am pickup time. The same driver took us back to the airport and we tipped him nicely for showing up early to pick us up. (I’m always paranoid about missing planes!)
We had a great time with John Teng. His English is strongly accented, but clear and articulate. I know in some cases it was due to lucky timing, but he was really good at getting us to temples when there were the least amount of people. Some temples we practically had to ourselves, and when he took us down backroads behind temples it felt like we were the first Westerners to rediscover Angkor Wat. I had though about getting just a tuk-tuk driver instead, but I’m really glad we ended up with a full-fledged guide, because with only two full days I couldn’t imagine how to navigate the temples with my nose buried in the Dawn Rooney book. (Plus, the air conditioned car was such a relief at times!) Both of us are familiar with Hindu mythology and I had read enough about the temples to know the major details, but in person it was overwhelming and confusing. John was able to explain the history and point out interesting statues and bas reliefs that I know we would have missed, while we were at leisure just to stand and stare. He also filled in other missing pieces of knowledge for me that really added to my understanding of the temples. Plus, he was also good at reading our moods, so when we obviously had our fill of one spot he didn’t try to go through the entire explanation and just moved us on.
I was also impressed with his obvious pride in his cultural heritage. Especially when we talked about the political and socio-economic issues in Cambodia, his passion for his country and his desire to make things better really came through. He also had an unflagging sense of humor, and at the end of the day when we were hot, tired, and sweaty, he was still making jokes!
Onto the temples – my DH and I wanted to cram as much as we could into our two days. We’re also not huge photographers, so we were not interested in lingering. As a result, we powered through in two days what usually takes three. John Teng was quite accommodating when we asked him if it would be okay to continue after lunch instead of going back to our hotel too. So, the inventory—not in order of when we went: South Gate, Bayon (between the faces, the bas relief depicting every day Khmer life, and the sweet little black cat who wouldn’t leave us alone, my favorite), Terrace of the Leper King, Terrace of the Elephants, Royal Palace complex, Preah Palilay (loved the isolated feel), Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Preah Khan (not to be missed!), Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon (an unexpected favorite of mine), Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Pre Rup, Banteay Kdei (where we were the only people there for awhile!). We also got to see the countryside and passed by a village, which also added to our knowledge of the area.
We were lucky in that the weather wasn’t at its hottest, with breezes, but as a tip for anyone willing to skip the siestas—especially if you don’t care about sunrises or sunsets—because we toured from 8 – 4 both days, and toured during the hottest period right after lunch, it meant that between John Teng’s experience and the timing we really got to see many temples that were nearly empty of other tourists. So, if you can take the heat, it’s totally worth it.
HOTEL DE LA PAIX / SIEM REAP
The gorgeous, gorgeous hotel totally lived up to our expectations, even though we had the least expensive room. Service was as lovely as in Thailand, there was a computer with free Internet on each floor, and the location right by the Old Market and Pub Street was perfect. The only annoyance, which I knew in advance, was the lack of a clock. I know they have to switch to generator power in the evenings, but I really wish they could find a way to equip rooms with clocks. Sure, the wake up call worked (though they did wake us ½ early once), but a clock would have been more convenient.
Oh yeah - the refined, boutique style of the HDLP made me forget sometimes I was in a tropical country. However, even in our third floor room, we always got mosquitos in the room, and I got bitten one night and ended up wearing DEET to bed the other night when we knew we hadn’t found/killed the mosquito we’d seen earlier in the room.
Room service food was unexpectedly refined. For instance, they threw dill in my chicken noodle soup, the steak sandwiches were on herbed bread, the cheese plate was incredible, and the rolls—which I expected to be tasteless squishy ones—were crusty French rolls as good as any fine restaurant here in San Francisco.
We also tried their spa. Prices were as inexpensive as a local American massage school, but the taxes bumped them up to American day spa prices. Still, I was amazed to get the best Western-style massage (which they called the “Stimulator”) I had in a loooong time at their spa.
Siem Reap is an interesting town, but after touring the temples all day we were too hot and dusty to feel like exploring, so we got room service two nights. The first night we ate at the famous Khmer Kitchen, but after coming from Thailand the food seemed a bit bland for us. Portions were much larger than in Phuket, though, and the morning glory was both stir-fried more expertly and contained far more leaves.
Massages are cheap too. All the shops advertised $6 for an hour regular clothed massage, and $10 for two hours. Certainly not as skilled as the Thai massage therapists, but they were relaxing enough and, well, it was Cambodia.
I found it hard to haggle at the Old Market. Really hard to muster enough enthusiasm for hard bargaining when you see land mind victims everywhere, little children running up to you to sell you souvenirs, and continued awareness of government corruption stealing money from a poor town that should have hit the gold mind with its proximity to a World Heritage Site. I bought 6 zippered coin purses and a Cambodian scarf for $11, and later, at a shop, a set of 10 postcards for $1. Also, right across the street from the HDLP there’s a nice mini-mart where you can stock up on chips, candy, soft drinks and the like.
Final thoughts: my DH fell madly in love with the people of Cambodia, to the point where he was wondering what it would take to adopt a Cambodian baby! Instead, we’re sending donations to the Children’s Hospital close to by HDLP (http://angkorhospital.org/default.php) which my DH ended up visiting. Between John Teng’s stories, and meeting all the other Cambodians on our admittedly short trip, it was hard not to come away feeling lucky for our lives, impressed with the people working toward the betterment of the Cambodian people, and wishing we could make a difference in anyway we could.