“Sensational Siem Reap”
Sun.Star Davao, June 11, 2016
"Remote and dusty".
These two words were recently used to describe Davao in an international article and, as expected, it generated a slew of strong reactions from proud and unabashed Dabawenyos. Netizens proudly posted photos online to highlight our beloved city’s present progressive state as if to retort, “How dare you call our city remote and dusty?!”.
I admit though, I had the same impression before setting foot in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Save for being curious to explore its renowned temples, I hardly harbored any other expectations that can arouse any first time traveler to this exotic destination. There were even times I had doubts whether it would be better to go light and easy with just me and my hubby on this tick-off-our-bucket-list trip.
However, all these changed as soon as our Cambodia Angkor Air plane landed at Siem Reap International Airport from Ho Chi Minh City. From relief to pure excitement and readiness to explore, we were met with cool air conditioning, modern facilities and courteous staff as we lined up for our turn at the immigration area. A money exchange counter could be found at the airport. But, as we soon found out, there was really no need to convert U.S. dollars to the local Cambodian Riel because both currencies were widely accepted in Siem Reap. Free WIFI was likewise available in most tourist-related establishments so purchasing internet SIM cards was not necessary.
Meeting us at the airport was Bayon Boutique Hotel’s amiable driver who spoke fluent English. When he discovered that we were from the Philippines, he eagerly intimated that he, together with his fellow Cambodians, always rooted for Manny Pacquiao during his boxing matches. Just like us Filipinos, they would go as far as taking the day off from work to watch his fights live on TV.
Khmer and more
Our contemporary Khmer-styled hotel, which I serendipitously chanced upon via Booking.com, exuded a homey feel with its attentive staff and distinct interiors. The spacious family room was quite a steal with two queen sized-beds, separate bathtub and shower and two bathroom sinks while our mini bar was complimentary for the first set of assorted beverages.
After a leisurely swim at the hotel’s pristine saltwater pool, we walked a few steps from the hotel to take our early dinner at Kuriosity Kafe. Because we worked up an appetite after our swim, we ordered Fish ‘n Chips, Beef Lok Lak, Puttanesca, Pad Thai and Chicken Fingers with Fries. These came in huge American-sized servings and were fairly priced.
With over an hour to spare before our circus show, we boarded the tuktuk (a hat tip to the Thai pedicab) to the Old Market for some souvenir shopping. Seeing all the international restaurants lined up along Pub Street (another instance showing the openness of Siem Reap to foreigners) thrilled the foodie in me. It was as if Boracay’s vibrant food scene was transported to Siem Reap. While indulging on our delectable gelato, I made a mental note to carefully plan our gastronomic agenda for the next two days. Ahhh…so many food choices, so little time!
A 10-minute tuktuk ride took us to Phare, the Cambodian Circus. It is Siem Reap’s highly rated evening entertainment where energetic performers weave historical, folk and modern Cambodian stories through theater, music, dance and circus arts. An association called Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) empowers the disadvantaged but talented young Cambodians through arts education in Battambang, Cambodia. In a brief moment, our family was transported back in time as Cambodian history was entrancingly unfolded before us, giving us a glimpse of the country during its golden age, through its bloody upheaval and eventually its modern renaissance and resurgence, all along impressing on us its peace-loving people and culture.
After the show, we returned to the hotel for a good night’s rest to energize us for our whole day temple tour the following day.
At 5:00 a.m. and with the hotel’s breakfast boxes in tow, we were picked up by our very efficient driver Phalit Ngin (E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org) whom we booked via e-mail a few weeks before. This guy swiftly responded to our email and initial queries before we left for Cambodia, and constantly expressed his thanks for giving him work to do.
At Angkor Archaeological Park, there were three kinds of passes to choose from: US$20.00=one-day pass; US$40.00=3 days visit with one-week validity (Any 3 days in a week and 3 holes punched at the checkpoint); as well as US$60.00=7 days visit with one-month validity (Any 7 days in a month and 7 holes punched at the checkpoint). And, good news, kids 12 years old and below were free of charge provided that their passports were presented.
Catching the sunrise at Angkor Wat was the first order of the day. When we arrived, there was already a sizable crowd gathered behind the lake with their cameras in position, all set to capture their winning shots. As the sun gloriously rose above Angkor Wat, I silently said a prayer of thanks to the Lord for allowing me to witness this enchanting view with my family.
After taking a couple of snaps, we basked in the rich and orangey glow of Mr. Sun and made a slow retreat back to our rented car. En route to Bayon Temple, we passed by stone-carved devas (guardian gods) on the bridge to Angkor Thom.
Splendidly decorated with smiling stone faces and countless bas-reliefs, our family unanimously chose Bayon Temple as our favorite temple at Angkor. It was believed to be built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. For her Littlest Pet Shop Instagram account, my youngest daughter positioned her LPS toys against Bayon’s baroque style Khmer architecture and came up with dramatic results.
Among the most recognized temples at Angkor is Ta Prohm where Actress Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider” movie was filmed on location. Deserted and neglected for centuries after the Khmer Empire’s fall in the 17th century, Ta Prohm’s most characteristic feature were the ancient fig, banyan and kapok trees growing out of the ruins amidst its jungle surroundings. It became part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1922.
Laughter in the rain
Each time we boarded the car, Phalit would thoughtfully offer ice cold bottled water. The kind gesture was always appreciated because the 38 degree Celsius-temperature left us dehydrated and sluggish. He also allowed us to take brief breaks inside the car with the air-conditioner turned on in-between temple visits to recharge our not-so-little ones’ depleting energy.
Upon Phalit’s suggestion, we added Banteay Kdei to our temple tour after lunch. Also known as “Citadel of Monks’ Cells”, it was a Buddhist temple with a Bayon architectural style constructed in the mid-12th to early 13th centuries AD during Jayavarman VII’s reign. Until the 1960s, it had been occupied by monks at different periods over the centuries.
Returning to Angkor Wat in the mid-afternoon, we were greeted by a much-welcome rain shower. The 30-minute rain refreshed our bodies and spirits and made exploring the “City of Temples” a more comfortable one. Regarded as the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat began as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire but was eventually recreated into a Buddhist temple around the 12th century.
Famished after our day-long “temple run”, we bade goodbye to Phalit at Pub Street where we then enjoyed chimichangas, quesadillas, nachos, and hearty tomato soup at Viva Mexican Restaurant. For reaching my maximum step target for the day, I treated myself to a huge glass of frozen margarita which only cost US$1.50. Salud!
Another round of ‘chillax’ swimming and lounging by the hotel pool was done on our final day followed by late lunch at Angelina Jolie’s well-loved Siem Reap hang-out, The Red Piano. Their scrumptious Cambodian Fish Amok and Smoked Salmon were instantly devoured by our hungry brood. There’s always room for dessert in our family, so we headed to Blue Pumpkin for yummy ice cream and pastries.
Afterwards, we did last-minute pasalubong shopping at the Old Market and Night Market. More eating ensued, with fruit shakes and local stir-fried noodles, this time around. As we sat contentedly on the plastic chairs by the road savoring our street food, it dawned on me that this short vacation was surprisingly among the best family trips we’ve ever had. We did not just enjoy Siem Reap but endeared ourselves, kids included, to this magical place.
How can one not fall in love and be charmed with Siem Reap? The Cambodian people were genuinely warm and hospitable; the food choices were exceptionally diverse; and the temples, breathtakingly out-of-this-world!
E-mail the author at email@example.com. Visit www.momabouttowndavao.blogspot.com.