Sunday, July 11, 2010

100706 Phnom Pehn - Siem Reap, Cambodia

We got up bright and early and decided to head out to get breakfast, our bus tickets to Siem Reap, and something to see and do before then.

Streets of Phnom Penh in the morning

Getting out of the Capitol Guesthouse and onto the streets, we were mobbed by over-enthusiastic tuk-tuk drivers who were desperately trying to get our attention. Screaming "Lady! Tuk-tuk for you? Cheap price for you. Lady! Lady!", I wonder if they know or understand how the harrassed tourist feels when being mobbed by so many of them at once. It is a very unsettling feeling.

Capitol Guesthouse also has a travel agent and a restaurant on the first floor, and a bowl of pork noodle soup with iced milk coffee settled my breakfast problem. The waiter said to me in broken English, "Oh! You Cambodian!", when I placed my order. Apparently pork noodle soup and iced milk coffee is what the locals have to kickstart the day.

Halfway through breakfast, the weird Australian guy from last night came to sit at our table with us, and repeating about how LKY was his idol and how he loves Singapore. He was definitely getting on our nerves. Firstly, we are no fans of Singapore or the dictatorship of LKY. In fact, it pisses me off that things are still this way. Secondly, what is an Australian guy like him who loves Singapore so much just bumming around the streets of Phnom Penh and talking to random travellors for the last 13 years? Creepy!

In the end, we got our tickets to Siem Reap for 18000R (riel is the currency in Cambodia) (US$4.50) for later in the afternoon, and also booked a bus to take us to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Center) for US$3/pax (in the end, we paid US$4.50 each because it takes 3 people for the bus to leave.)

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, or what the local people called the Killing Fields, is the National Center for recalling and honoring the victims murdered throughout the country during the Pol Pot regime. During the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), it was an active extermination center, and was second headquarters to the larger security prison, S-21 center (present day Tuol Sleng Museum), where interrogation and torture also took place.

Memorial House

The entrance fee to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and Museum costs US$2, and guides are available for a small charge. Upon entry, we are met with a tall, modern stupa-like structure, the charnal memorial house. This memorial was constructed in 1989, and consists of 17 levels of human skulls, bones, teeth and clothes - all excavated from the mass graves behind it.

Skulls excavated in the Killing Fields
(this is first level of the 17, where levels 1 to 11 are all skulls)

Clothes of the dead that have been washed up in the rain

There are 85 excavated graves in the Killing Fields, and a large area behind that (presently a lake), that has not been excavated yet. The areas surrounding the Killing Fields are farmland. The place is so peaceful and serene that it is difficult to imagine people being gruesomely murdered there just decades ago.

The holes in the ground are all excavated mass graves.

The lake behind the excavated mass graves.
This is definitely one huge mass grave too.

Teeth of the dead can still be seen on the ground

Clothes of the dead are still being washed up in the rain

After the Killing Fields, we went back to Phnom Penh and walked around the city. The city was not as clean as Singapore and the moto (motorcycle) traffice was just scary. Traffic lights were pretty much ignored and we had to almost walk into oncoming traffic. Thankfully, this is normal and the cars and motos would give way to the pedestrians. Walking around the market, I realized that the hawkers just leave raw meat and fish out in the open and in the hot sun.

Market in Phnom Penh

We stopped by a streetside stall selling noodle soup and had lunch there. Although the people did not speak English, through pointing out things and hand gestures, we got our lunch and it only cost 3000R (US$0.75).

After lunch, we headed up the bus to Siem Reap.


After 6 hours on a bus, we arrived at Siem Reap! It was about 7.30pm in the evening, and we asked around at Capitol Tours for tours to Angkor Wat the next day. In 2 mins, a guy (friend of someone at Capitol Tours) arrived in a tuk-tuk and agreed to take us to Angkor Wat the next morning for US$30. We wanted to enquire about the tour but he did not give very convincing answers, and looked away when we asked to see his certificate (Angkor Wat has certified guides). We asked to visit his tour agency, but he said it was already closed (most tour agencies open till 10pm and others were still open then!) He proceeded to convince us to go on his tuk-tuk to find a guesthouse so that he knew where to pick us up tomorrow. Finding this all very suspicious and shady, we got off his tuk-tuk and decided to look around for guesthouses and tours ourselves. That was surely a close call! For future travellors to Siem Reap: Please don't book anything other than buses with Capitol Tours, they run an extremely shady business.

Two steps (literally) away from Capitol Tours, we walked into this place called Eden. Love that name! It is a new guesthouse/bar that was impeccably clean. They had one room on the top floor (4th floor) for US$12 a night, including hot shower, cable TV and A/C. The American girl from upstate NY (we asked) who ran the place with some other caucasian and Khmer people gave us a good feeling and we eventually stayed there for the next three nights.

This is what US$12 a night buys you in Siem Reap

After dropping our stuff, we decided to explore our surroundings. Having no prior knowledge about Siem Reap, we found out that we were in the main touristy area of Siem Reap, a place we would later nickname 'Disneyland' because it was so touristy and unreal.

My only picture of Disneyland, Siem Reap

We walked around and enquired at about 10 tourist agencies before settling on a deal with Avista Travel to take us to Angkor Wat the next morning. For US$20/pax, we had a certified guide, a tuk-tuk driver who was going to drive us around all day, and a planned itinerary that included visiting the Angkor Wat at sunrise and 7 other temples in the area. This deal was definitely more legitimate than the one with Capitol Tours (we had a receipt and everything), and that made us feel good!

After settling the itinerary for the next day, we went in search for dinner. We chanced upon iViva Mexico, a Mexican-Khmer cafe that had $1 margheritas and nachos, was screening the World Cup, and had free wi-fi. WIN! :) I had the Pork in Amok Spices (traditional Khmer curry-like spice) (US$2.50), and Leah had a vegetarian burrito (US$3.25) which she claims to be the best Mexican food in Asia that she had tasted. We also had margheritas and daiquiris (US$2)! They were good and cheap!

Leah is happy with her margherita

Leah's burrito!

Emy is happy with her strawberry daiquiris

Emy's stir-fried pork in amok spices

After dinner, we decided to head back to our guesthouse to sleep, before waking up at 4am the next day to catch sunrise at the Angkor Wat.

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