I hardly caught any sleep before I had to get up at 5.30am, on a day which usually involves recuperative sleep at the start of the weekend. It was a mad, mad rush the night before to get everything settled – stocking up on supplies, collecting my digicam from Stan, dropping of J’s car at my parents’, packing everything into my spanking new Vertikal backpack. Phew. Exhausting!
We congregated at Peanut’s apartment in USJ at 6.30am, where a cab was already waiting, where we also met Cat, another friend on the trip. Four of us, strangely enough, are designers by profession. The cab took us to the recently launched Low Cost Carrier Terminal or LCCT, at KLIA.
The airport for cheapskates
We expected a barebones terminal but to our surprise, wasn’t at all bad – with 2 restaurants, duty free shop and basic amenities. Forget cosmetics, as it is spartan at best. The ticket counters basic. The whole building looked like a warehouse from the inside. Kind of reminded me of Madras airport, the way the ticket counters looked, and the minimalist interior. Well, you want cheap flights? You got it, people. You get a cheap airport too! We’re all cheapskates!
Our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia cost us nothing as we got free tickets during the massive Air Asia promo. Flight back to Kuala Lumpur from Phnom Penh costs USD58, excluding airport tax of USD25. Cheap.
Once we got ourselves checked-in (without check-in baggage), we had a wonderful breakfast (not!) at McDs (ekkk!!!). We had about one and a half hours to burn, so we took our time, enjoying the Big Breakfast and just chatted.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
As soon as the time hit 9.20am we were on our feet and headed to the departure lounge. There was a slight delay (expected with Air Asia, nothing new) but once we got pass that, it was a smooth-sailing two hour flight in the Boeing 737. All four of us sleep-deprived souls got some much-needed shut-eye before we touched down at Siem Reap International Airport.
The airport is tiny, reminded me of the old Miri airport, just a small terminal building. Basic but effective. Actually, it was more like a huge hut once you enter. The immigration check was slow, but no unexpected funnies there. Malaysians do not need a visa to enter Cambodia, so the crowd of foreigners, mostly Caucasians had to fill up visa forms and cough up USD20-USD25 for visas, while we strolled along.
We instantly caught a cab, which costs a flat USD5 to get into Siem Reap. By the way, all cars are left-hand drives ala America. The cab we got into, some Toyota Corolla or Camry variant had a strange seat belt mechanism which activates once you open the front passenger door. It slides across and buckles you safely once you close the door.
Anyways, Siem Reap city (or should I say town?) is about 7kms from the airport. For your info, there is a commission-based system for cabs, tuk-tuks, guesthouses/hotels and tours in Cambodia. This is hardly uncommon practice in Asia, as observed through my experience of travelling to countries like India, for example.
So cab/tuk-tuk drivers will always do their best to push for you to agree on his recommendation of accommodation (for his benefit, of course). Peanut’s got a Lonely Planet guidebook as a bible, which proved to be an extremely useful tool throughout the trip. For travellers, and especially backpackers, I recommend you to buy one to assist you on your travels.
In any case, we agreed to have a look at the guesthouse he recommended. Wasn’t at all bad, USD10 per night.
We, however, wanted to be close to Phsar Chas (pronounced ‘Sa Cha’), or Old Market, so we opted for Popular Guesthouse, as rated quite highly by the book. Although travelling under strict budget constraints, we were wise to choose an air-conditioned room with an attached bath, looking at the dry, extremely humid weather we would encounter for the entire trip.
Guesthouses can cost as low as USD3-5 per night, but usually equipped with just a fan and a common bathroom and/or toilet. Our room cost us USD10 (approx RM36.50) per night, which is cheap in all sense of word. It came with TV and cable channels too.
A refreshing cold shower helped get rid of the stickiness, albeit for about five minutes, before we settled for lunch at the hotel. Tried some Khmer food, which was really Thai green curry and some spring rolls. Nothing impressive but we were quick to lap everything up because we were hungry!
Oh, by the way, the friendly guesthouse relations officer or perhaps just the caretaker, Phanaa, spoke Bahasa Malaysia, much to our surprise! Phanaa has been to Malaysia before. His English isn’t half bad either. What you can expect in Siem Reap is quite an English-speaking people, much attributed to the 4-hour per week English study in school. Even poor kids by the road side can speak basic English. The cab driver at the airport, for example, spoke very fluent English. Expect some to also speak Mandarin or Hokkien in some parts. Siem Reap, because of the great Angkor Wat, is no stranger to tourists, and therefore English as a language, is widely spoken and understood.
At around four, we took a tuk-tuk to the temple of Phnom Bakheng (built in the late 9th century) to catch the sunset. Phnom Bakheng or Bakheng Hill is a temple mountain, the first major temple to be built around the Angkor area. The Angkor tour area is huge. We chose to buy a one-day pass which allows you to catch the sunset on the previous day, then a full-day tour access the next day. All for USD20. A 2-day pass costs USD40. The 8km journey there was quite pleasing, the air cool and refreshing once amongst the tall trees.
We had to hike up the steep yellow, coarse terrain to reach the temple. There were floods of people. Some chose to go by a special elephant ride.
The view of Tonle Sap Lake and the distant Angkor Wat is spectacular, and we had a field day taking photographs. There were some monks clothed in bright orange robes and were a focus of some photographers and tourists. There was a mix of Japanese, Caucasian and local visitors who came to catch the sunset that occurred around 6.30pm or so.
Din-din at Club Street
Arriving back in the hotel later, we took a walk to Phsar Chsa for dinner. We settled for a Khmer dinner at Temple Club, at the happening Club Street. Club Street houses touristy pubs and restaurants, and a popular place amongst the gwailos. The food at Temple Club was brilliant, and we completely stuffed ourselves with the selection of local dishes, just a small part of Temple Club’s extensive menu (which also includes Indian cuisine).
We stocked up on bottled water before heading back to the guesthouse. Bottled water is recommended at all times. Tap water in Cambodia is not safe to drink. Avoid ice cubes as well, if possible, especially if you decide to sample local fare at road side stalls.
It was a long, exhilarating day but we agreed it was wonderful to be in Siem Reap, away from the bustle of hectic Kuala Lumpur. A deserving week-long break, no doubt. The unfamiliar pillow welcomed us as we laid our tired bodies on the alien bed and looked forward to tomorrow’s events.
Sunrise at Angkor and a 5am wake-up call!
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All pics by Verne, J, Peanut + Cat