Sunday, July 14, 2013

Blog catchup: SE Asia!

[I did terrible at blogging during my last trip to SE Asia, but this time, I will do my best to update on a regular basis!]

Day 1

Pretty much all day was traveling – left my friend’s apartment at 9 a.m., 2 hours to Narita Airport, 3-hour layover in Shanghai before reaching Siem Reap at 10 p.m. It was nice hearing Chinese again, and I practiced a little by reading the magazines on the plane, plus everyone assumes you’re Chinese if you’re East Asian so they approach you in Chinese. I flew China Eastern, which my friends have often criticized, but it was a pretty good flight with a free meal on each leg. Surprised by the brown sea that greeted me in Shanghai – is the pollution this bad or is it something else in the water? Bought water and a red bean bun at the Shanghai airport for around 1 USD – ah, this is how things should be.

Got to the airport and got my visa in less than 10 minutes, only to wait for an hour and try to make a call to my hostel on the payphone with no success. There were tons of people holding signs with names and clamoring me if I was the person they were picking up. Finally, a guy who had also been waiting for an hour asked me if I was Ms. Feng. I said no, but he offered to call my hostel for me. Turns out the reservations had been mixed up and they had overbooked. A tuk tuk driver came to get me and transport me to a sister hostel. The guy was nice enough, apologizing for the mixup and making conversation on the way. I got the “You’re Korean! I love Korean dramas!” but his knowledge of Korean actors was far superior to mine. Then he talked about the Cambodian monarchy and said the young people probably wouldn’t accept another heir once the current king passed away. I realized how ignorant I was of Cambodian history and vowed I would read more about it as soon as I got the chance.

The hostel was a little sketchy, but I guess I’m used to these things by now. The water was pretty smelly, so I decided to brush my teeth with bottled water. I shared the night with a lizard that kept scuttling around my room – good thing I don’t mind reptiles. On the other hand, I got a 3-person room to myself because of the booking mistake and slept pretty well because of the generous air-conditioning.

Day 2

I had considered waking up early to catch the sunset at Angkor Wat, but I didn’t fall asleep til around 2 so I thought it might be better to rest up for the all-day trip. I woke up naturally at 6 anyway (I have a curse for terrible sleep when I travel) and rented a bike from my hostel for $2. I biked around the streets of Siem Reap, asking for directions to Angkor Wat and grabbing breakfast at a stand – a red bean bun with an egg yolk in the middle. I gave the vendor a dollar and she gave me change in Khmer Riel; this is the norm when you’re in Cambodia, but be sure to spend all the loose change before you leave!

Bike rental for $2 - pay attention when you're biking through the streets though! Pretty crazy and congested...

It was 7km from my hostel to Angkor Wat, and I absolutely loved the bike ride. Guess I haven’t really biked regularly since livin g in Japan for the year. Angkor Wat itself didn’t look as stunning as the pictures on the Internet, but that’s to be expected. I parked my bike in front and a vendor insisted I buy something from her for parking there. She was probably just lying, but I needed water anyway, so I gave her a generous $2. I ignored all the kids though who kept trying to sell me postcards – and boy, are they persistent!

Angkor Wat and some monks also being touristy

Next was Bayon, famous for its 200 faces of Lakasvera.


Then Preah Kahn, said to be like a hall of mirrors because of all the consecutive doorways that create an illusion when you look through all of them. 

Preah Kahn

I had lunch afterwards, ordering some sort of pork sandwich, only to realize it was also prepared with a variety of raw vegetables. I probably shouldn’t have eaten it, but so far no sickness yet. Maybe my summer in China has given me some long-term immunity to certain things.

I also stopped by Mebon Rup and Pra Rup along the way. Even though they’re not as famous as the other temples, I enjoyed them as there weren’t any crowds here.

Pre Rup - yes to no crowds!

Last temple was Ta Prohm, famous for the gigantic tree vines growing into and around the ruins (as well as being one of the filming sites for Lara Croft Tomb Raider). This was one of my favorite temples because you really felt the age of the ruins.

Vine growing over one of the entrances to Ta Prohm

I biked back for a late afternoon view of Angor Wat before heading back to Siem Reap. Then I got lost on my way back to the city, but the clerk at another hostel was kind enough to look up directions for me.

Beautiful, beautiful day at Angkor Wat park

Several things from today:
-       Although it’s terribly cliché – it’s more about the journey than the destination. I loved exploring the temples, but I enjoyed the bike ride just as much on a beautiful sunny day.
-       Maybe it’s just because it’s super touristy, but I had no trouble communicating in English, even talking with the vendors on the street.
-       I was surprised by the number of Khmer guides who could speak other languages fluently – everything from Spanish to Korean. I wonder where they ingrained the language so well. I guess this is to be expected, but I’m not used to Japanese tour guides who can speak other languages well while I traveled in Japan, for example. (But large Korean tour groups are sometimes the worst. Shoot me the day I sign up for a large Asian tour.)

Day 3

Took an early bus to Phnom Penh, with convenient free pickup from my hostel. The guy at the front desk gave me a much lower sum at checkout than what I expected, but I wasn’t complaining. But I guess he was pretty persistent because guess who showed up as I was about to the board at the bus station, saying he accidentally didn’t charge for me for the second night. Oh well, it was fair enough. The 6-hour bus ride was pretty comfortable, and I sat next to a Filipino woman who was living in Vietnam for some time. She was surprised I was traveling alone, but so far, everything has run smoothly. The bus showed a couple of movies, but then entered into a strew of cheesy karaoke videos – first in other languages, like English and K-Pop, but then a streak of Cambodian ones in which the girl and guy always ended up breaking up and reflecting on their good times together. I didn’t find this too entertaining, so I caught up on some sleep before we entered the city.

I was in a hurry when I checked into my hostel since it was already 2 p.m. so I got a tuk tuk driver to take me to the Killing Fields, site of tens of thousands of deaths during the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). Again, I am very ignorant of Cambodian history, but there was a pretty good audio tour at the site. Phnom Penh was virtually abandoned as people had to return to their villages to create an agricultural society. Many intellectuals, engineers, and other professionals were executed for being a threat to the government. Signs are posted by mass graves/torture sites/landmarks to explain the atrocities that had been conducted here only 40 years ago. Apparently, you can also still find random pieces of bones and clothing around the entire field, although I wasn’t one to go looking for them.

The skulls of some of the victims kept in the stupa in the middle of Killing Fields

Afterwards, we went to the museum – the former prison site for people captured by the government in which they were tortured until they confessed to be CIA agents, etc. The place has been pretty much left the way it was found, the prison cells and barbed wire still intact. The most moving thing is looking at the hundreds of victims’ photos. Often, entire families were rounded up, so there were many pictures of children as well. I looked at the photos and all I could think was so much suffering...

Bed for torturing victims still left intact

One of the hundreds of victims' photos at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)

Afterwards, my driver took me past the National Monument and the Royal Palace for a few photos before stopping at the Sisowath Quay riverside for dinner. The meal was all right – I ate some Khmer curry, but I bet you I could’ve found something a lot more tasty and cheaper from the street vendors. But it was a nice way to end the evening. My driver dropped me off at my hostel and I snapped a photo with him – he was a pretty good driver and although, I knew he overcharged me for the trip to the Killing Fields, I bartered down the rest of the trip so much that he gave up asking for a specific price. I’m usually pretty generous when it comes to bargaining though – even though I know people are ripping me off, I feel like I can afford a few extra USD to help them put food in the table.

Beautiful sky after a brief rainstorm

My tuk tuk driver and I

During the evening, I decided to venture out into the crazy streets of Phnom Penh. I thought Beijing traffic was bad but the roads in Cambodian cities are something else – no stoplights, motorbikes making lanes where you didn’t think possible, and bike gangs (is this the appropriate word?) of young supporters for the Cambodian People’s Party waving the Cambodian flag and cheering everywhere. It is possible to walk, but you should keep an eye out in ALL directions and you will be haggled by tuk tuk drivers anywhere. I went up to Wat Phnom, which is somewhat of a hangout place at night for the locals and spotted a concert nearby with more of those young Cambodian Party people. Last of all, to the riverside where I people-watched guys playing hackeysack and ladies selling various trinkets.

Wat Phnom lit up at night - ahh I need a better camera for night photos...

Phnom Penh in tuk tuk was a nice break from sweating it out all day in Angkor Wat yesterday. I have to get my Vietnamese visa taken care of tomorrow through rush process because I'm leaving in the afternoon. Hopefully, I'll have time to squeeze in the Royal Palace!

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Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're having an amazing time--I look forward to reading more about it!

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