World blog: this time from Siem Reap, Cambodia
Few weeks ago I was blogging when sitting at Four Seasons in Cairo, Egypt. This time I am at internet cafe in Day Inn Angkor Resort in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Let me share with you some written impressions (pictures were uploaded after I returned to Warsaw).
How we got to Cambodia
We took Lufthansa flight from Warsaw to Frankfurt and from Frankfurt to Bangkok. I was surprised, Bangkok has a very nice international airport, much nicer than those I have seen in Europe, and I saw almost every major airport there. Very well designed, spacious, plenty of sushi and seafood bars. We then took a flight to Phnom Pehn, with Bangkok Air. This is just one hour and ten minutes flight so I could not believe my eyes when we were offered cold appetizers, hot meal (meatballs with green pasta) yoghurt and ice-cream. To compare on a two hour flight from Warsaw to Frankfurt we got a hard-to-bite sandwich. We are travelling in economy class. No doubt, in terms of air-travelling quality Asia is definitely ahead of Europe.
In Cambodia everything is priced in US dollars, which suggests that this country has a long way to go to establish its own currency credibility (1 dollar was 4000 Cambodian reals, sometimes they give change in reals when you buy small things, such as mineral water). Cambodian authorities should probably learn from Egypt how to implement far-reaching reforms and build trusted national currency. In Cambodia capital we stayed in Tai Ming Plaza hotel, about 10 minute tuk-tuk ride from major tourist spots. It was a reasonable hotel, clean, service was also good. We tried some chinese food and local Angkor beer, a bit too light for my taste, but I am a committed Guiness club member, so do not take me as a benchmark. From the airport we took a taxi, it costs 7 dollars, you can negotiate the price but we were too tired and one dollar makes no difference for us and makes a lot of difference for these very poor people. This a general comment, unless you are travelling on a very low budget do try to be generous, I was told that the average teacher and policeman salary is some 25-30 US dollars a month, and these poeple hardly can support their families with such a miniscule income. So when a little girl comes to sell some hand-made items to you, while she should be at school and some of then in the kindergarden, try to buy something from them. There is a small problem though, that if you buy from one girl, another ten girls come demanding that you buy from them too. We took candies (no chocolate as it would melt) to give to kids.
To visit Phnom Pehn one day is enough. I would recommend the Royal Palace (you will be asked to take off shoes ten times, so wear something comfortable, if you do not like walking barefoot – although most people do – you may wear socks) and the national museum. The pagoda located on the highest hill (north from the museum) was overrated, although we enjoyed watching little monkies playing along the stone stairs. It was very hot in Phnom Pehn (probably 35 degrees Celsius) in late November, but no rain.
Phnom Pehn, royal palace, featuring James Bond in front of the palace
After visiting historical and cultural sites we took tuk-tuk to see the killling fields. Tuk-tuk is a motor riksza, a small chinese made motorcycle with a small two-wheel compartment attached to it which can take four people although we have seen local kids returning from school when they managed to squeeze some 15 people in one tuk-tuk. By the way streets are messy, few cars and lots of small motorcycles, traffic is very chaotic, so crossing a street requires some courage, but we have not seen any accidents during our short stay. One interesting thing is that local people travel on small motorcycles in a way that would be unthinkable in Europe for safety reasons, three people riding a motorcycle is a norm, but we have seen may fours, some fives and one case when there were two adults and four kids (including a litlle one) riding a small motor bike.
Getting on tuk-tuk
We had lunch in a restaurant on the river-side, and the food was delicious (deep fried shrimps, beef, por). We had a small problem communicating with the waiter, he was a funny guy laughing all the time, especially loudly when he brought red chillis cut in little pieces, do not try them unless you want your mouth to burn, it is better to put few pieces in the very good pepper sauce to give it an additional kick. We paid some 30 US dollars.
On our way to killing fields we saw Phnom Pehn suburbs, many people live in little houses, many are falling apart, there is a lot of litter around. People seem very poor, they usually sell little things, or make something out of wood or metal. We saw the rice fields which does suggest that farming is a source of income for some of them.
Killing fields is a place when red khmers (soldiers of a Pol Pot regime) killed 9 thousand people and burried in mass-graves (in total they murdered more than two million) . There is a tree when they used to tie up kids and beat them up, there are still broken humen bones lying next to this tree. In places like that, visitor begins to wonder what makes people like Pol Pot or Stalin killl millions of citizens, torture them, and destroy nation’s culture and pride. And Khmer culture goes back more than a thoudsand years one one can hardly believe that they were able to build Angkor Vat (biggest religious site in the world) at time when our ancestors in many European countries were living in woodden huts.
Killing fields, tree where they murdered children
After returning to Phnom Pehn we went to the Russian market to do some shopping. It you travel with your wife make sure you do not go there earlier than three o’clock, unless you want to spend there a full day (market closes at five). The sell souvenirs (try negotiating in one or two stores before you buy, to get a feeling what is the right price). Most apparel things are priced at 2-4 dollars a piece. you may get some discount if you buy more items. The whole place is covered by a roof, very hot and humid, it felt like a sauna. We thought that we would take a walk from the Russian market to the hotel as it appeared close on the map, but it was much further than we tought and we finally took a tuk-tuk after unexpectedly bumping into the Polish embassy there. Actualy it was interesting, when we started taking pictures in front of the embassy a local fellow came and asked whether we need help. We wanted a tuk-tuk but there were none coming while there was one waiting in front of the embassy (a radio tuk-tuk, an upgraded version, with very soft seats). The driver refused to take us claiming he was waiting for someone from the emabassy, but the fellow working in front of the emabassy started to yell on the driver and he finally took us to the hotel. Sorry, Mr ambasador if we took you tuk-tuk.
In the evening we went to the recommended FCC club on the river side where we had dinner (4 people, 60 dollars), main food was OK, but starters were delicious, we ordered them twice (starters are served on plates stacked on a special metal handler). We had Tiger beer, which we liked more than the Angkor Vat beer.
I forgot to mention that in the afternoon we took a walk along the river to buy a boat ticket for next day trip to Siem Reap. There are very poor people living near the river, we gave a lot of candies to kids.
Phnom Pehn suburbs
Boat trip to Siem Reap
Do not take a bus to Siem Reap, take a boat. Boats leave at 7 am. and it takes 6 hours, you can come 15 minutes earlier and get a place at the upper deck. You might need sun lotion. During the trip you will see the river life, fishermen, small huts built on wooden pillars standing right in the water. In some places river gets very narrow, later you go through a large lake, such that you cannot see the land. We took a lot of pictures, see below.
Views from the jetty to Siem Reap
When you arrive at Siem Reap port you may be shocked. Therre is no infrastructure, boat hits the shore and they put a wodden trap for you to cross to the soil. It you are skilled and can manage with your luggage you can try, alternatively there are lots of locals offering to carry your luggage. There are also more tuk-tuks than tourists so pick one and go to town (half-and-hour ride, 1 dollar). During the trip driver will try to offer his rervices to drive you around full day, it usually costs 10-15 dollars per day. There were four of us so we took two tuk-tuk, and agreed to pay 35 dollars for two-and-a-half days per tuk-tuk (including a ride to the airport).
Arriving at Siem Reap port, tuk-tuk drivers with name plates (you may even find your own, they probably get info from hotels)
Siem Reap and Angkor Vat
It was worth it. It was definitely worth it. Bayon, Ta Phron, and Angkor Vat of course are one of greatest things I have sen in my life. It makes no sense to write about it, you can visit my blog in December to see the pictures. For example in Ta Phrom you may seem a huge tree on the roof of the temple, with root bigger than your chest around the walls, like giant snakes. Jungle wanted to take the temple away from human eye, but fortunately for next generations it was discovered and the jungle lost the fight. If I had a choice, go to pyramids or go to Angkor Vat, I would choose the latter.
So insted of writing about what we saw let me share with you little stories. During the the first full day we stopped for lunch in a very nice and clean restaurant near the small lake (rectangle shape). We invited our tuk-tuk men for lunch, which was unusual and they did not want to join us, but we insisted. During lunch we chatted about life in Cambodia, they spoke reasonable English. Both are 26, work from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. in tourist season can make up to 150 dollars per month, after the season their income falls dramatically. They come from little villages near the Phnom Pehn. For one of them, whose name was Vissal, parent bought a second hand tuk-tuk which cost 350 dollars. He studied for two-years tourism but had no money to continue and dropped. Vissal and Vesna told us that very poor people living near the river are immigrants from Vietnam (we saw kids wearing no clothes playing in the mud, really poor people, I keep wondering what is World Bank doing with its money, these Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia need help). I think that many local people in Siem Reap will be better off year after year when more and more tourists discover what a great place is Angkor Vat. Our tuk-tuk men told us that there are a lot of Korean investments in the region (more than Chinese) but they hate Koreans becasue they are humble poeple, and they come only to Korean-owned hotels and there is no money to be made by local people. I do not know why there is so much rasism in Asia. When I lived in Japan, Japanese treated Koreans and Chinese badly, now I hear that Koreans treat Cambodians badly. Vesna told us that men buy wifes in Cambodia, it costs some 2000 dollars, although Vesna paid only 600 dollars for his wife becasue she comes from a poor region (we did not ask if she was pretty).
There are lot of kids selling souvenirs in front of every temple. In front of Ta Phron we met a kid, not older than six-seven years asking where we came from. “Poland. I know, capital Warsaw. You are in European Union but you do not use euro. Can you give me a coin from your contry”. I was stunned, we gave him a collectors coin featuring ancient Polish knight.
We also found that the medical service in Siem Reap is very efficient. Before coming to Cambodia I injured my leg, it was OK but when the sweat started to come in to the injury some infection has begun (quickly widening red spot around the injury). In the international clinic in Siem Reap they cleaned it, gave me antibiotic. It was a good choice to go there (at a cost of 55 dollars, I will get refund from my insurance) becasue the antibiotic I brought from Poland was very bad for my stomach, and I started to throw out further that I could see, not to mention the diarhorrea (I am not sure about the spelling). This morning I feel like a piece of shit, so my wife and friends went to visit more temples (so called grand tour) and I stayed in the hotel to rest, and to blog.
In our first day in Siem Reap we went for dinner to place called Master Suki Soup, when they had hot pots on every table (what Japanese call nabe, as I learnt during my one year stay in Japan in 1990, I am not sure how to call it in English). When we entered the restaurat the smell was bad, but you get used to it within five seconds, and the food we cooked in nabe was great (we had a seafood nabe). Before taking our places we wanted waiter to clean under the table where there were plenty of used napkins, I do not know why Chinese have this habbit of throwing naplins under the table, athough it is nothing compared to a movie theater I went to in Istanbul some twenty years ago, there were at least two layers of litter and seats were sticky from dirt.
Despite little health problems I had here (all was my fault) I enjoyed my stay in Cambodia immensely. People are very nice and helpful, hotel in Siem Reap was great (lovely swimming pool) although it contrasts sharply with poor Vietnamese living near the river. Many new hotels are being built so in a few years this place will be very crowded. One thing I did not like was already big crowd visiting the temples, I just cannot stand mini-crowds of Japanese pushing every body aside and taking zelions of pictures (has anyone ever told them they should not behave like that). We wanted to take a picture of a beautiful tree. which has roots around the temple wall, but we cound not as there were always some Japanese tourists posing in front of that tree. And do not get me wrong, I love Japan, and I love Japanese food (I eat sushi every day for lunch).
My wife and friends went to have a full body massage last evening, it was relaxing they told me, they also chatted with one girl, which makes 50 bucks per month, pays 25 bucks for a room rent, sends 15 bucks to support her family in the countryside, pays 7 dollars per month to learn English (one lesson per day) and she has 3 dollars left (plus tips) to make living for a full month. Boy, my kids should thank God they were born in Europe.
It is high time to finish writing this blog in Siem Reap, excuse any spelling errors, but the internet is a bit slow here (they probably have a broad band, but it cannot be faster than 128K, so reloading takes some time. Internet costs 3 dollars per hour in this hotel, but I also saw internet cafes in town.
We have to make a decision today. I will go to the clinic again to see how my leg is doing, at least I stopped vormiting. If it is OK we then fly tomorrow to Burma (Myanmar) for a week, if not I break the holiday and fly back home. As you know Burma is a repressed state rulled by military, so there will be no interent connection there, and no doctors assistance either. Anyway, I will finish this story and upload pictures in Warsaw.
As you can see from my later post on Myanmar we continued our holiday and we had a great time. Below I attach few some pictures from Siem Reap and Angkor Vat.
Lunch with our tuk-tuk drivers, Vissal and Vesna
Good bye at the Siem Reap airport, next stop Yangoon, Myanmar.