First-time in Siem Reap
Flying over Tonle Sap Lake, the small houses and boats were first barely discernible until figures of Buddhist temples and typical Asian architecture came into shape that I realized we have truly arrived in Siem Reap, gateway to the famous Angkor Wat. We disembarked at the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport and were brought by the tuktuk (a tricycle-type mode of transportation) to our lodgings, passing through a row of five-star hotels, markets, huts, and sights like the Cultural Village.
The time difference of one hour less in Cambodia from Malaysia, the early morning flight and the scorching sun had us huddled in our hotel to catch some sleep and rest before embarking on a tour of Siem Reap. With already half a day gone by, it wasn’t wise to proceed to Angkor Wat and so we reserved the whole day of tomorrow just for Angkor.
The Hélène and Thadee welcome in Phnom Bok Hotel
Our tuktuk driver, Buri, brought us to our hotel, Phnom Bok, run by a Cambodian-French couple. It was only KHR(Cambodian Riel) 8,000 or equal to US$2 for the tuktuk ride (others charge at US$3 but you can bargain). The staff and the owners were very gracious to us as they brought us to our respective rooms.
Our rooms, this time, were bigger than the ones we had at KL. There was air conditioning unit, a hot shower, lots of electric sockets, and a TV set! Most of all, breakfast was part of the hotel cost.
Noon was already knocking at our doors and we headed to the Old Market to grab for something to eat and to book our bus tickets to Vietnam. Buri dropped us off at the Post Office, which is part of the Old French Quarter with a nice view of the Siem Reap River, and then we set out on foot towards the market.
Red from heat? We headed to Red Pizza
Tired from walking and wanting to escape the hot weather, we stopped at the nearest restaurant, called the Red Pizza, and ordered for lunch. We ate pizza (of course!), pasta and chicken wings. When the bill came to our table…lo and behold, we were charged in US$.
In Cambodia, most of the stores and establishments deal with their customers and clients in US$ and they sometimes differ in the currency conversion of Riel to Dollars and vice versa. Our lunch was KHR75,500 or US$17.95. Explaining we already changed our dollars at the airport, we paid in the local currency and lost some value with their conversion rate. Nevertheless, we stopped at the travel agency next door to get tickets to Ho Chi Minh.
We were supposed to stay in Siem Reap for four days and three nights but with a long road trip ahead of us and given how small the city was, we decided to make a stopover for an overnight stay at Phnom Penh instead of going straight to Vietnam so we won’t be on the road for one whole day and we can avoid missing our bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh due to the bus transfer.
Sweating out at the Old Market
Phnom Penh was out of the plan but this last minute change was a welcome thing so we can rest from a long road travel, avoid bus schedule mishaps, and see the capital even for just a night. We headed to the old market to look for an internet shop so we can research for the most affordable lodging in Phnom Penh and secure our booking (like a scene in Amazing Race).
There we were trailing each other under the sweltering heat until we found our way to the Old Market which was surrounded by bars, posh restaurants (and obviously expensive ones), and boutiques. We went around the market buying some souvenir items and local clothes. Mind you, the prices were not too cheap for a marketplace but then again, haggling was a common thing here as well. We told ourselves not to buy so much and reserve our funds for a Vietnam shopping spree. And so we purchased less – only the necessary stuff and little Cambodian souvenirs.
We’ve circled the entire block of the Old Market and as we checked our map we saw that there was a temple nearby. We went to Wat Damnak, across the Old Market Bridge. There were some sort of gathering of monks and before we could make inquiries, rain started pouring down. We hurriedly took some snapshots and ran back to the market. Too much heat and a short rainfall were not healthy at all.
It was still early afternoon so we decided to get some sleep (again!) back to the hotel to re-charge ourselves for the Siem Reap nightlife and the day-after jaunt to Angkor.
Our feet led us to Pub Street
The sun started its descent at about 6:00pm, something that has been natural to me. Although it couldn’t be avoided to think of the time zone back home, I have mentally psyched myself to stick to local time.
We opted to walk along National Route No. 6 where our hotel was located. We passed by the wet market and saw some pre-New Year festivities. Little children were wearing colorful costumes and did some singing, dancing and role-playing. Those who give some offerings were blessed by an adult in the group.
The long stretch of the Route No. 6 highway had us stop at a convenience store for a quick bite and soda drink until we continued our hike to the Siem Reap River down to the Old Market where Pub Street could be found.
Along the way, we spotted a modern building, the Angkor Trade Center (which we dubbed as ATC), which was the only mall in that part of the town. Restaurants at the Old Market were already filled with foreigners enjoying a drink or two.
Should you long for a party at Siem Reap, Pub Street is the place to be. We walked the small alley and checked the menus which had staggering prices for a meal. (One restaurant was selling fish barbecue at US$10!!!)
At the end of Pub Street, small local stalls were put up at the side of the street. These temporary stalls were small eateries offering local food at very affordable price. We immediately got a table and ordered for dinner. I tried putting chili paste with garlic on my rice meal and found my meal utterly delicious. It wasn’t too spicy but that little spice was a good introduction for the after-dinner treat of Angkor Beer. By the way, you have to be specific because there’s Angkor Beer and then there’s Anchor Beer. (I’m biased but I still think San Miguel tastes better than the other beer brands I’ve tasted.) I gulped down my drink and didn’t ask for more.
Night Market Shopaholics
Would you believe that the Night Market price was a lot cheaper than the Old Market? Of course, you have to exercise your bargaining skills. But apart from shopping under the moonlit night and neon lights with naturally cool air, getting items at a bargain price was really worth spending some money.
Not only cheap items can you find at the Siem Reap Night Market but also bars, bookshops, movie malls (small room that showed “Killing Fields” at that time), foot massages, and fish massages (those little fishes that feed on your dead skin cells).
It was still early at night as the clocks in Siem Reap seem to be ticking slowly. Yet, our body clocks were already telling us it was time to go to bed. And go to bed we did. Next day would be a long, historic day in Angkor.