Monday, October 28, 2013

Siem Reap 1

This is another holiday story. This time, it was a short 3-days sojourn to Siem Reap, Cambodia. With the company of Alan and Joyce, we took an Air Asia flight from the LCC Terminal. Departure of the flight was far too early, at 6.50am in the morning. We had to wake up at 4.00am (groan) to prepare and get ourselves to the airport. The plus point about this early flight was that we also arrived early. Cambodia is one hour behind us, and after the 2 hours flight, we landed just before 8.00am local time. And we had the whole day ahead of us.

Siem Reap airport is small but very modern and nice. It was raining when we disembarked. Apparently it was the monsoon raining season. It was a good and bad time to be Siem Reap. Good because it was the low season - hotels were cheaper and places were not too crowded. Bad, of course, was the persistent rain.

At the airport to meet us was our pre-arranged tour guide Chet - with a small van and a driver. He would be our guide for the duration of our holiday. He spoke perfect English, with an American slang. He turned out to be a great guide. The first place he took us was to this ticketing plaza, where we bought our tickets to visit the various sites. There are numerous temple ruins in Siem Reap. The tickets we bought entitled us to visit all the sites over a 3 days period.

Siem Reap was the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire that lasted from the 9th to 15th century. In its day, it was the most powerful empire in South-east Asia. It encompassed the present day Cambodia, Laos, and parts of Thailand and southern Vietnam. It started as a Hindu nation. Later, Buddhist influence took roots and prevailed till the present day.

The first place we visited after the ticketing plaza was Prasat Banteay Kdei. Prasat is the Cambodian term for an ancient temple or palace. This prasat was a typical temple ruin of the many in Siem Reap. Outside the prasat was this rustic hatched make-shift structure where vendors sold all sorts of souvenirs.

The entrance to the prasat was this humble ancient archway. Because of the rain, we had to negotiate a pool of water before we could get into the prasat compound.

Inside, it was complex of ancient ruins in the midst of so much greeneries. It was such a beautiful sight - so peaceful and serene.

We explored the ruins - inside and out. There were small chambers and open compounds. Everything were carved out from rocks. The structures were not that very big but the intricacies of the carvings and sculptures were profound.

Many parts of the ruins were at the point of collapse. There were some vain attempts to prevent it.

This was the symbol of Naga - the great dragon-snake in the Hindu mythology. The greatest enemy of Naga was Garuda, the gigantic eagle king. The names and story sounded very familiar.

The influence of Hinduism in the ruins was inescapable. The sculptures and carvings were everywhere.

Today, it is Buddhism what they practise.

As we explored Banteay Kdei, and when we later visited other ruins, we were pestered by young kids selling all sorts of souvenirs and bric bracs. It was a real heartbreaking experience. All of them were obviously very poor. They were walking in the rain, some without protection, some without any footwear, all of them were soaked from head to toe. They begged us to buy from them. It was a real dilemma whether or not to do so. They were very likely exploited by their parents or other adults - perhaps out of poverty. If we had bought from one kid, we would be swarmed by the others. And it would directly encourage their adults to exploit them further. On the other hand, if they did not sell enough, would they be punished? I asked this to our guide Chet. He was rather evasive in his reply.

From Banteay Kdei, Chet brought us this small restaurant for an early lunch. I don't even remember the name of the place. My picture of the front does not show the name board clearly. I guess it really does not matter. I just remember it was facing a water way - either a river or canal.

It was a small yet huge place. The entrance was inconspicuously small and modest. Inside, it was a big dining hall. Because of the early hour, we were their first customers of the day. In spite of our repeated invitation, Chet and the driver did not join us for lunch. They left us at the restaurant and drove off elsewhere. Perhaps to their own secret place for better food.

The pictures of the present and previous monarchs hung reverently on the wall. Like the Thai, the Cambodians are very respectful to their king.

The staff were all very friendly and brought us our drinks while we perused the menu. All of them spoke English. I was rather surprised that so many people in Siem Reap spoke good English. Even the apparently unschooled kids selling souvenirs spoke English. Perhaps it is because Siem Reap is a tourists place. I wonder if the rest of Cambodia is the same.

The Chinese tea and fresh coconut were all too familiar.

But their pre-meal titbits was one class above. It was salted nuts with curry leaves. Very very nice and appetising.

Our first experience with Cambodian cuisine started with this beef lok lak. It was a sautéed beef with onions in a peppery sauce. The flavour was rather neutral. I did not find it to be exceptional.

I felt the same about this chicken stirred fried with lemon grass. In it were onion, chilli, and other spices. It was rather oily and the flavour was not great.

The tom yam was mild too. Unlike the Thais, Cambodian take their tom yam with less chilli, spices and sourness. It suited me fine for I am not a fan of hot fiery tom yam soup.

Our final dish was the fish amok. Amok is a kind of Cambodian curry. They use a lot of coconut milk in this cooking. The pieces of fish were cooked with a vegetable not unlike our sayor paku. Of the 4 dishes, I liked this best. The flavour was very much like our sayor masak lemak.

This was a picture taken by a waitress before we dug into our meal. On the right are Alan and Joyce.

After our meal, Chet returned with our driver and brought us to another temple ruin. This was a more famous ruin known as Prasat Ta Prum. The fame of this place came about after Angelina Jolie filmed her movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider here.

This place was characterised by the many big trees among the ruins. The root structures of these trees were very elaborate and majestic.

Some of the large trees invaded into the temple buildings.

This large magnificent tree was the epitome of such invasions. I could help but be awed.

Like Banteay Kdei, the Hindu influence here was very much in evident.

The temple ruins were under extensive restoration. Chet told us the restoration was sponsored by the Indian government. 

More pictures here to show the beauty of this place.

After Ta Prum, our guide drove us to the city to check into our hotel. We stayed in the Royal Angkor Resort and Spa. It was a beautiful hotel.

After a couple of hours of much needed rest, our guide and driver returned to fetch us down town. We  walked around, soaking up the local atmosphere...

And dropped by the local pub for a couple of Angkor beers. Their Angkor beers were bottled quite alike our Anchor. And tasted similarly good. And with the similar sounding names, I wonder if they are the same brewers.

We were then driven to the Smile of Angkor Grand Theatre for dinner and a live show. The facade of the theatre was bright and impressive.

We bought our tickets at the reception counter. It was expensive - more than 40 US bucks per person for the dinner and show. But what the heck. We were on holidays.

I had expected it to be a dinner show, both at the same place. But it was not to be. Dinner was in a large dining hall, buffet style.

There was a large spread - mainly Cambodian dishes. Variety was certainly not lacking.

But the food was not great. Like most buffets, it was not quality food. Kind of mass cooking.

The dish we enjoyed most was this pork soup noodles.

After dinner, we proceeded to the theatre for the show.

The show was fantastic. The dances, the music, the lights, the stage props and the effects were all magnificent. I have seen many international performances in KL and in other countries. This show was certainly on par. They even had English, French, Japanese and Chinese subtitles on a running ticker above the stage. I enjoyed the show totally.

That ended our first day in Siem Reap. We debated whether or not to catch the sunrise at the Angkor Wat the next day. That would mean another early morning wake up. The weather forecast for the next day was to be another cloudy and rainy one. Chet told us that the chances of seeing the sunrise would be quite remote. That was the decider. We opted to have a good rest.