Saturday, January 7, 2012

Angkory Birds

Ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck down a rough gravel road? Of course you have. But have you done it for six and a half hours? That was what our bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was like. Except that we had seats and air con. And the air con was blasting through the broken vents that I shoved Maclean's inserts into to save us from frost bite. And I'm not going to describe in detail the condition of the onboard toilet. But I do respect Leah for making use of it. Twice. Must've been the Angkor beers. I purposely dehydrated myself to avoid such fate.
Aside from the facilities, we took this $10 VIP bus ride to see the Cambodian countryside.  As you leave PP the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers dominate the land: flooding into rice paddies and stretching across the floodplain as far as you can see. About an hour out of the city it becomes more arid and large piles of hay (in yards and on trucks) dot the fields and cattle appear at the roadside.  But it's still flat, aside from two large hills (think Pilot Mound in Manitoba).
I've noticed that people of similar skill sets tend to congregate - if there's one bakery on a block then there'll likely be more bakeries on the next block. And so it was along #2 highway. We'd see one guy carving stone statues and 30s later there'd be 4 more doing the same. Same for tiles, woodwork, etc.

Siy, who gave us all hugs when he dropped us off at the bus, had arranged for an old high school friend of his to pick us up in Siem Reap. He even texted our names ahead so that we would know which tuktuk guy was ours. Sure enough when we pulled into the dusty, dimly lit compound after dark, we quickly spotted the sign "Julie Andrews McBannister III Winnipeg" being held up to the window. We were glad we had the ride waiting since it felt pretty sketchy there.
Bondal was an amicable young fellow with a big smile and obviously very appreciative of our business.  We polished off the case of beer on the tuktuk ride in to town and noted the stark contrast between the area where the bus stop was and the bright, glitzy tourist area. And we hadn't even yet seen Pub Street that reminded us of Chaweng or Patong. As we neared our hotel, both Blaine and i were taken by surprise at the largesse of it, glowing across the river. It once again firmly placed us in the flash-packer demographic.  I hope got us a good price at the Angkor Riviera.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sigh, there's Siy again

Phnom Penh is chaotic compared to Hong Kong, but relative to Vietnam we think it's not quite as busy. For example, when crossing the street here you can wait for a break in traffic and make your move, whereas in Hanoi you'd be standing there all day waiting for a break,
We started our day by meeting a fellow named Siy. He'd a tuk tuk driver and he seemed to have claimed the spot outside our hotel. He's definitely a friendly dude but we passed him off in order to make our way to the Grand Palace since it was only a block away.
The Golden Palace of PP [ ] is very ornate by any standard and has lovely grounds filled with flowers and shrubs. But it'll cost you $6.50 and a $3 T-shirt if you're not appropriately covered up. Plus, the place shuts down at 11 (not 10am like Mr. Siy said as we walked past him) so we had to be quick. Fortunately none of us do a lot of research and the significance of most places are lost on us so we could easily breeze through the complex of temples in just over an hour before being asked to leave.  The main building, the Throne Hall, is an impressive structure but the good stuff is off limits and not really visible at all. Probably because the King still uses this as a residence.  One passes through a doorway in the surrounding wall to get to the Silver Pagoda that is nestled in another garden filled with bird baths of lilies, 2 large stupas and a statue of King Norodom on a horse. Strangely there is a large replica of Angkor Wat on the grounds as well - no need for that bus trip tomorrow!
Upon exiting the palace grounds we were immediately spotted by Siy. I'm sure this has nothing to do with the comment made by Blaine & Leah's taxi driver when they were dropped off at the hotel: "wow this place expensive, like 40 or 50 dollars a night". So obviously we're now targetted as the rich tourists. After some debate we decided to let Siy drive us around for the day for $25. First stop was lunch at a Khmer restaurant by the river. We were all taken by surprise how big and wide the Mekong river was here and it's hard to fathom the fact that during rainy season the river fills up and forces the Tonle Sap river backwards. Consider the Red River pushing the Assiniboine river backwards at the Forks in Winipeg.
Allow me to introduce you to my new friend Amok - he's a wonderfully tasty Khmer dish of curried fish smothered in thick coconut milk served in a banana leaf bowl. Variations abound but the one we had at this restaurant was the best we had. Too bad I can't recall the name of the place.

After lunch we took a siesta by the hotel pool to prepare ourselves for the brutality we would learn about at the "killing fields" of Choeung Ek. It was a heckuva tuktuk ride out there (40min?) but it did provide a glimpse of Camobian life - incredibly poor, corrugated metal shacks on stilts beside a garbage-filled ditch interspersed with new multi-story apartments covered in blue-tinted glass. Also the massages get cheaper the further out of town you go, $3 in PP dropping to 9000 Riel ($2.25).

I'm not going to say much about the Killing Fields. It's a tad sickening although I haven't been to Auschwitz and Rwanda might be worse. Just Google it yourself:  But I will mention the jaw bones sticking up out of the ground and the tree where they smashed little ones' heads against to save bullets. Strangely enough I'm not thrown by the commander who said to do that, but wonder about the man whose job it was to do it and how his sleep was tortured by nightmares. We might try to buy the movie at the market once we return to PP.

The ride home was made much more pleasant by grabbing a case of Angkor beer ($11.50 for 24) and using it to wash the road dust out of our mouths.


Thursday, January 5, 2012


Phnom Penh, not Koh Pi Pi. The airport is like Brandon compared to the massive structure of BKK. Our e-visas were supposed to breeze us through security but the stewardess on the plane skipped us when handing out the landing forms. So we had a bit of reversing in the customs queue and were the last ones out. And then a security dude at the exit asked for another form that we didn't have. But our blank looks caused him to wave us through of exasperation.
Toyota has what appears to be 90% market share here, judging by the number of Camrys swarming the roads. Many have extra chrome trim around the taillights, or blinking lights on the hood or mirrors or stainless steel gas cap doors. Also can't ignore the plethora of Lexus RX300 SUVs, many of which have "Lexus" plastered across the side just in case you missed the fact that the owner is richer than you.
The King Grande Boutique Hotel greeted us enthusiastically and informed us that our friends were up by the rooftop pool. We quickly dropped off our luggage in our lovely, well-appointed room and navigated the overly complex security system in the elevator.
"Cambodia. Wow." Said Leah.
It was exciting to meet with friends and stories from the past few days were fervently exchanged. Alighting Thai balloons were contrasted with HK fireworks, then compared to the parties that the hotel staff here told of NYE. (For the record, it sounded pretty good.)
The view up here was great. A water and light show was going on the park on one side. A carnival with a large ferris wheel was on the other. Street noise echoed up from in between. Fantastic!

New Year's Day is a nice day to fly...

The roads are clear and the airport is barren. No lines. After the crowds of last night it was weird to see the place so quiet.

Since we missed having the good HK dim sum, we had the famous HK airport dim sum. It's good and all, but I think the Chinese lady at work has made better dumplings.

To get to Pnhom Penh we connected in Bangkok. And coincidentally our friends Blaine and Leah were connecting at around the same time we were. Since we had time to kill we thought we'd try and see them at their gate. But Suvarnabhumi airport is huge and I'm fairly confident that we walked nearly 2km to get from our gate to theirs. And since the airport is built so that incoming and outgoing passengers are separated, we had to avoid security (and a cleaning lady) to get there. Upon arriving at the gate we could not see them. We knew they had a tight connection and were beginning to wonder if they'd made it. Suddenly Julie started banging on the glass partition and yelling Leah's name. But those two had just sprinted the distance we had just casually walked and were borderline delirious so it took them a moment to see us and then recognize us.

Using frenzied sign language and doodles on our tablets we managed to determine that we'd see them at our hotel in Phnom Penh.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Julie leads us down the rabbit hole for breakfast

One of the challenges of travelling is determining what to eat, where to eat and how to eat. Fortunately Asia makes it easy – the answer is noodles. Noodles for breakfast, noodles for lunch and supper is also often noodles.  I had thought that I’d start the day with a Hong Kong waffle, but no, those aren’t for eating until midday.

Walking further down the street Julie abruptly turned into what looked like a warehousing area for the local florists and produce stands.  She reckoned that at least we could possibly get ourselves a banana or something to tide us over and satisfy my grumbling belly.  I asked the lady who sold us the token banana where we should go for a Hong Kong breakfast. She pointed further down the dim hallway crowded with pallets, boxes and industrial fridges. So we went, and popped out into an open space surrounded with stalls with large pots of boiling broth that filled the nose.

Would you go down here to find breakfast? we did.

A smiling lady caught our eye and sat us down. I naively thought that this meant she could speak english since we’re obviously foreigners. But on the flip side, how many foreigners venture into this industrial diner? So maybe she thinks we’re living here and can speak Chinese!

Commence ordering by pointing! Take one didn’t work out so well when I received a plate with one runny egg on it. Julie’s noodles looked good though. Julie tried again and this time I got the full meal deal: a few slices of ham, more eggs and a wiener.  The tea in the little plastic glass was super lemony and super sweet – just the way I like it! I think it was HKD46 for us both, about 6 Canadian loonies.

After brekky we wandered through Kowloon Park, which is a lovely park in the middle of this metropolis that can make you forget that you’re even in a city of millions of people.

the beauty and serenity of Kowloon park, surrounded by towering skyscrapers.

photos on smugmug -