Saturday, December 29, 2007

Day 1: Hello Siem Reap, Hello Shinta Mani

Our flight landed at 11.35 a.m. We got off the plane and crossed the hot tarmac to the spanking new Siem Reap International Airport building. It was blazing hot but we were happy to note that it really wasn't that humid. Passing through Customs and Immigration was a breeze.

Outside, a troop of drivers were waiting, armed with a plethora of placards. We looked around anxiously for a placard with our names, and Sony Cheaba, the driver we had made prior arrangements with. We had originally approached Kim Soryar, a highly rated driver on the Tripadvisor forum, but he was not available for the period of our stay. Instead Kim had suggested his brother-in-law, Sony, and we had agreed, but where was Sony?

It was at least ten minutes before we spotted our names.

"Sony?" I said.

"So yah" was the reply.

Who was this man? For a moment there, I was confused. Then it dawned on me that this might be Kim.

"Kim?" I asked tentatively.

"No, so yah," the man said again.

It took another minute or so before the penny dropped. He was Soryar, Kim Soryar! That's when I realised that, for Cambodians, family names come before first names. That was the first of many communication boo boos we would experience during our trip. This was going to a cross-cultural experience indeed.

Soryar piled us and our luggage into his van while apologising on behalf of Sony who had had to back out because of some test he had to sit for. In fluent though accented English, Soryar explained that he had arranged for someone else, another associate of his, as a replacement. At this point, I had a moment of discomfort - were we going to be palmed off to some less reliable person? Still, Soryar had come personally to pick us up. I decided to ignore my niggling doubts for the time being.

The drive into town wasn't a long one, especially with Soryar providing running commentary. The road from the airport was lined with big hotels, with big tour buses parked outside. Without a doubt, Siem Reap was experiencing a tourist boom. We were struck by the number of shops, restaurants and hotels with signage in Korean. When we commented on this, Soryar enlightened us, with barely a suppressed snort, "The Koreans - they do not help the Cambodians. They stay at Korean hotels, eat at Korean restaurants, do business with Koreans..." The short ride with Soryar was turning out to be most instructive!

Shinta Mani

We arrived at our hotel, Shinta Mani. The exterior of the hotel was nothing much to write home about. Fortunately, that was a fact Lonely Planet had prepared us for. I had picked Shinta Mani because it was in fact a hospitality training facility for young Cambodians and because it ran community projects. Oh, and it didn't hurt that the hotel's spa, Sanctuary Spa, was rated "Asia's second best spa".

We were greeted by the receptionist for the day. We were early and our room wasn't ready yet. Instead, we were ushered into the hotel's restaurant for lunch and welcome drinks.

welcome drink

While we waited for our food, we noted that the staff in the restaurant were mostly trainees. Lyna, our waiter and a more senior trainee, was so polite he was almost obsequious. He was most eager to practise his English, like the other staff who were just as keen to please. And then there was a loud crash from the area just outside the restaurant. I was seated directly opposite the glass door separating the airconditioned restaurant from the bar area outside which the serving staff had to cross to get from the kitchen to the restaurant, and so saw it all happen. Someone had closed the glass door and a trainee carrying a tray full of dishes walked right into it! The poor boy looked so dazed after that. Lyna and his colleagues then went round to all the tables, asking us and the other guests to excuse the disruption, because the boy was new. All of us were bemused and, after some quick reassurances all round, lunch service resumed.

Our first meal in Siem Reap:

poppyseed bread

accompanied by pesto dip

duck pancakes

pomelo salad with chicken

stirfried pork loin with rice

banana and sago in coconut milk

coffee (check out that cute milk dispenser)

It was a good first meal. The food was reminscent of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, but definitely more subtle, less in-your-face. It was less spicy than Thai food, allowing the melange of flavours to be in the forefront rather than obliterated by the heat of the chilli. HM missed the sourness that characterises Vietnamese salads, but even she enjoyed the meal, particularly the bread (give it to the French for teaching their colonies to make the best bread), the duck pancakes and the pomelo salad. And at US$22 in total, it was reasonably priced for a hotel meal though not exactly cheap.

Before we left the dining room, we had a very short conversation with one of the waiters. HM and I could not remember whether Cambodia produced its own coffee but the cuppa we had just had was not bad at all. It reminded us of Doi Tung, the Thai highland coffee.

"Is the coffee from Cambodia?" "Yes, it's from the market."

It was a relief to find out that most everyone spoke some English but whether they understood us was another story altogether.

Our Room at Shinta Mani

After lunch, we were ushered to our poolside room.

Room 103

our sofa


Our room was comfortable, not quite luxurious enough to be 5-star, but the decor was tasteful and welcoming. HM would go on to rate the Shinta Mani toiletries the best of the four hotels we would stay at in the two weeks.

Our First Look Outside

We spent several hours just enjoying the room. Our plan was to leave for the temples just before five. Entry to the temples was free after five, for those who bought passes for the next day.

While waiting for Soryar and/or friend to pick us up, we did a quick trot around the hotel.

Siem Reap river

Standing by the river, we could just about imagine what life in Siem Reap was like before the onslaught of tourism. This must have been the sleepy small town to which the colonial masters retired to for a relaxing holiday.

Off to the Temples

Back at the hotel, Narin, Soryar's associate, was already waiting for us. His car was clean and he spoke good English. Phew, that was a relief. The drive to the temples brought us past all the major hotels, including the Le Meridien, and the Jayavarman VII Children's Hospital, a route that we would become rather familiar with in the course of our stay. Then the buildings receded and it was all scrub and bush to our left and right. At least the road was well-paved.

At the ticketing booths, we realised that we needn't have brought passport-sized photos; the booths were all fitted with webcams. The staff fussed and adjusted the cameras as we took turns to stand in the right spot. The whole process took at least ten minutes, fifteen minutes before we got our passes. Everyone had a good laugh as we realised that the photos, taken with low resolution cameras, looked nothing like us. Still, we had our 3-day passes (US$40 each) and were ready to proceed to the temples.

I was all excited - our first look at the glories of Angkor.

our first sight of Angkor

We weren't the only ones on the road. Judging from the number of tuk tuks, cars and mini-vans parked outside Angkor Wat, sunset visits were popular, no doubt because the Angkor Wat is the only west-facing temple in the complex.

you never see the hordes in the documentaries

We did a quick stop at Angkor Wat, for a few photos, and then Narin hurried us to Phnom Bakheng. Like a mother hen, he fretted that we would be late for the renowned sunset view. At the bottom of the hill that Phnom Bakheng sits on, we realised why Narin was concerned. We would have to take a long walk up the hill to get to the temple. There was the option of an elephant ride, but we decided to do it under our own steam. For HM, the gym bunny, this climb was a cinch. As I trotted breathlessly behind her, the thought that ran through my mind was "this view had better be worth it".

the masses on Phnom Bakheng

When we arrived at the top, we were disappointed to be confronted by crowds. To actually see the surrounding countryside, we had to climb up the temple structure which was crumbling in parts. The steps, such as they were, were six inches wide, of uneven heights. Even so, we would have climbed it if entire groups of tourists weren't also trying to do the same thing. The glimpses of the countryside that we could just about see through the bushes lining the path up the hill were spectacular. However, the early birds, mostly independent tourists, were already perched on the best spots, and, bus load after bus load of tourists were still rushing past us and clambering up. We watched as the old, the young and the infirm hurled themselves up the structure, and decided to turn back. We admired the chutzpah of the people who threw their walking canes aside to be pulled and pushed up by their tour guides and compatriots, but no way were we going to risk being injured or killed by falling (in some cases, overweight) tourists. We had our holiday to look forward to!

Then came the big rush down the hill. As darkness fell, people practically stampeded down the hill to get down the unlit path before it became too dark. Notes to self: (1) go to Phnom Bakheng at any other time than sunset (2) take the elephant ride.

our first encounter with an orchestra of the maimed and disabled

As we arrived at the bottom of the hill, we were serenaded by lilting Cambodian music. That moment reminded me of my favourite place, Ubud in Bali, where gamelan music can be heard wafting with the wind throughout the day. The orchestras of the war wounded would become a familiar sight over the next two days.

Traditional Khmer Food Restaurant

We got Narin to drop us off downtown at Pub Street, where the restaurants and, what else, pubs could be found. Recalling a friend saying that we had to try a Khmer restaurant in that area, we wandered into Traditional Khmer Food, located in a side alley just off Pub Street.

guess what this place sells?

Our first dinner in Siem Reap:

winter melon soup

cucumber salad

"Siem Reap" set - fish amok, khmer chicken curry and stirfried pork

This was our first taste of fish amok, the national dish of Cambodia. The mix of spices and the texture - fish covered in a spice paste - reminded us of fish otah, especially the peranakan version available in Singapore. Good stuff! The cucumber salad - cucumber, basil, chicken, peanuts - was refreshing. Overall though, the meal was not great. The cooking was mostly mediocre and there was way too much MSG and salt in the soup. The bill came up to US$15.25, for the meal, one Coke light and bottled water. Ok, this probably wasn't the restaurant our friend was referring to.

On The Way Back

We took a quick look around at the shops and then made our way back on foot. On the way we passed by the Hotel De La Paix, Shinta Mani's sister hotel, and No.1 on the Tripadvisor forum.

Hotel De La Paix - a bit much not?

We were glad we had picked Shinta Mani, the smaller and definitely less pretentious sibling, instead.

Downtown Siem Reap was very easy to navigate. We walked along the main drag of Sivutha Boulevard. Every five metres, someone asked us if we needed transport. We turned them down. In the end, the walk didn't take very long. The only dicey part, for poor old nightblind me, was walking down Oum Khun Street, the road that Shinta Mani sat on. Beyond the first stretch which was flanked by Korean restaurants and reflexology joints, the road was unlit. By day, we had noted the potholes and uneven surface, so I followed HM's lead blindly till we reached the lighted path outside Day Inn Angkor.

Finally we retired for the night. We had an early day ahead - sunrise at Angkor Wat awaited us.

Shinta Mani's pool by night

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