Virtual meanderings

Tag Archives: Cambodia

Hanoi: Young women on scooters

I’ll devote this post to something one notices a lot on the streets of Hanoi yet I did not include it in the previous post, saving it for a separate blog entry. Here it is:

Woman on a scooter, Hanoi


Woman on Scooter, Hanoi


Woman on scooter in Hanoi 2


Women on scooters, Hanoi


These fotos aren’t mine but I too could confirm the massive numbers of dressed-up young women riding scooters in Hanoi. So much so that at one point I too gave in and immortalized this phenomenon: Read more of this post


Siem Reap Random Fragments

I decided to call this post on Siem Reap and Cambodia “Fragments”.

Gary Larson's Cartoon Far Side

Courtesy: the Far Side


            A quote attributed to U.S. musician Frank Zappa – “You can’t be a Real Country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer”.

Angkor Beer

Angkor Beer

Angkor Beer – check!


            In a similar vein. What do you need to have in order to be a Real Tourist place? A National Museum and an International Hospital for tourists, right? At the very least – Angkor National Museum at Siem Reap.

            Visited it on the last day of my stay and spent a good three hours there. Museum featured seven thematically organized exhibition halls devoted to different aspects of Khmer heritage and history. Hinduist (e.g. Angkor Wat) origins, short flirtation with Mahayana Buddhism (Ankhor Thom), fights with the neighboring empires, hall of the thousand Buddhas to remind of the  Theravada tradition…

           A suspicion: most artifacts ended in the museum after first being hacked off and stolen, then hidden and sold off –eventually ending back in the hands of the government. Might be wrong, though.


 Siem Reap Angkor National Museum Artefact Daemon - Siem Reap Angkor National Museum Artefact

Angkor Thom Main Gate

Angkor Thom Main Gate Passageway

..and tails..

          In the last hall of the museum on a huge screen you can watch a video of the sun rising above Angkor. Every twenty minutes or so. By the way, the International Hospital is just a couple of hundred meters away.

Read more of this post

Angkor IV: The life of a Khmer guy

We found our tuk-tuk driver (or rather he found us) at the famous Pub street during our first evening in Siem Reap. He was one of three drivers that approached us as we were coming out of a restaurant where we’d just had a “traditional Khmer dinner”.

The other two guys were older and could only say a couple of words in English. He was much younger, say 22-23-years old, and his English was above average. While it was obvious that he really wanted customers badly (there are thousands of tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap and in low season they struggle to find enough customers), he tried to not be pushy. I immediately liked him and asked Kara, my U.S. companion, whether she minded hiring him as our driver to Angkor on the next day. She did not object.

Siem Reap tuk-tuks are generally of the style of motorcycle and trailer.
Siem Reap tuk-tuks are generally of the style of motorcycle and trailer.

(note: the guy on the picture is not our guy, but similar age)

    The guy turned out to be 27 (by the end of our stay in Cambodia I began to suspect that Khmer people often look younger to the European than they actually were), yet he was not married yet. Just like the Khmer girl of my previous post did, he too went to English classes at some private school – and had to pay. He constructed his sentences in English with great care. Also, when trying to say something he often consulted a small Khmer – English phrasebook that he always held.

When we stopped at the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, he took out another “book” that comprised of A4-sized sheets – photocopied and bundled together – to read while he waited for us. We asked him what it was. He said that he studied the book in order to become a tour guide (obviously a step up in the hierarchy). I asked to have a quick look – the book contained descriptions of the major Angkor area temples (who commissioned the temple, what was this king like, when the temple was built, etc). The information was good but unfortunately the quality of the texts was very poor – they were written in broken English with many grammar errors and wrong spelling. I told our guy that he would be speaking very incorrect English if he memorized those sentences and that he should try to find a better book. Read more of this post

Angkor III: The life of a Khmer girl

Kids selling postcards and bracelets outside Angkor Wat

Kids selling postcards and bracelets outside Angkor Wat

Courtesy: Lyevkin @ flickr

    Cambodia seems to be the country where everyone smiles back at you (unlike Thailand which invented the “Land of Smiles” slogan). If you take it at face value, it is the happy smile of a person who takes life’s lemons and makes lemonade. But while sincere, it is still a very fragile type of smile. This is perhaps because except for a smile most people here have little else. It is their only weapon, their only leverage, their only instrument to win you over, their only way to maintain their dignity, their only way to save face regardless of the circumstances.

    I did not take the picture above of these gorgeous kids outside Angkor – some person whom I do not know did. But I saw plenty of those little vendors there myself. I, too, fell for their irresistible charm, and parted with some dollars.

    So, the question is, what will these kids become when they grow up? I do not know. But since this post’s title is “The Life of a Khmer Girl”, let’s get on with it:

How old are you?

Are you married?

Where did you learn to speak English?
I take English lessons at a school in Siem Reap – a one-hour lesson each morning before work.

Is it free?
No.  A lesson costs two dollars. Read more of this post

Discovering Angkor

“Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.”
― Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities

    You have been told that there exists a huge temple in the jungle, the biggest anyone has ever seen. But what do Khmer people know about big? Have they ever been to Europe to marvel at the magnificent French cathedrals? Of course not…

     You are on your way to that temple. Your Khmer guide stops and points his finger forward – and then you see it for the very first time – half immersed into the jungle. How old is it? Why is it almost abandoned? What happened? When? Why?

    You are a French guy called Henri Mouhot, and it is the mid 19-th century. You move closer and here is what you see-

Henri Mouhot's drawing of Angkor

Henri Mouhot's drawing of Angkor

You enter the compounds. Cambodia is a place where Theravada Buddhism has ruled for centuries, but you immediately take notice of the hundreds of statues of beautiful half-naked women. You are not sure how come they abound here. Then you reach the central building – a temple of sorts for the few locals living in the area. You spend the day marvelling at its hundreds of meters of bas-reliefs – whose scenes inexplicably resemble episodes from the Indian epic Mahabharata. Then you remember those strange creatures above some of the entrances – don’t they look like the garudas you’ve seen elsewhere? And the half-naked female dancers – could they be apsaras? Read more of this post

Angkor Wat | Angkor Thom photos (a taste of things to come)

   I thought that Angkor Wat was supposed to be the world’s largest religious complex. But could it be that like many other “largest, biggest, best” places to see, it would turn out to be mostly hype, smoke and mirrors? I mean, you call this big?

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat - not as big as they want you to believe!!!


    By the way, that’s not me on the photo (in case you wondered). And now, let’s get serious.

    I’ve been to many locations that are hailed as architectural masterpieces. Ankgor Wat just blows them away. Even the ruins of Ayutthaya (Thailand’s ancient capital and source of national pride) are no match for Angkor’s magnificence.

     I prefer to not add comments to the photos below… Enjoy them for what they are. Make up your own explanations. A picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case a thousand words will do no good to any of the pictures. And when you are done, prepare to read my next post for some explanations.

All the photos were taken using a cheap digital camera. If you like what you see, the credit is neither mine, nor the camera’s.

Angkor Wat || Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat || Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat II Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat II Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat || Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat || Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat || Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat || Angkor Thom

Read more of this post

How we found a place to stay in Siem Reap

As I already mentioned in the previous post, we made our tuk-tuk driver take us to a hostel – called “Rosy” by insisting we’d booked a room there (which we had not). This was the only way we could block his attempts to take us to a hostel of his choice (which would then pay him a good commision).

Rosy” occupied an old house built in the times of the French colonizers. It looked quite nice (having been renovated). During the reign of the US-backed Khmer Rouge regime such houses had been neglected to crumble. But as the country and the city started opening up for tourism, colonial-time houses that still remained began being renovated and transformed into bars and hostels (little wonder – most of these houses are located in the central parts). “Rosy” was one such example.

Rosy guest house front

Rosy guest house front

We asked for a room and a nice and smiling Khmer girl took us upstairs to show us a double room with a bathroom and air-conditioning – it looked just perfect. The price was reasonable too – something like $15. “We take it.”

Khmer girl: “Oh, no, no. This room taken tonight – available tomorrow.”
Us (thinking) “Ok, so why did you show it to us anyway?”
Khmer girl: “Just for tonight I show you room on third floor – just a bit smaller than this. It cheaper. Then tomorrow you take this room”
Us: Very good. Can we see the other room? Read more of this post

Crossing by land into Cambodia – Part II (4 real)

If you missed the first part of the border-crossing adventure, you can read it here. This second part came out a bit long, and I am well aware of the fact that people resent reading “long” posts that – gosh! – contain a lot of text. But any additional shortening would do a disservice to the Poi Pet Thai-Cambodia border crossing.

Heaving read dozens of traveller reports at the TalesOfAsia website, undertaking felt more than ever like participating in “By Any Means” episode minus the filming crew, the bigger budget, the local interlocutors and the nonchalant attitude of Charley Boorman. I was no Charley, and Kara – who was going to be my company – was no Eoin McGreggor. Read more of this post

Crossing by land into Cambodia – Part I (the research)

     This is going to be a two-part post.

     First, some background: When I arrived in Bangkok, I had not any plans for my next destination (city or country). Those that read my earlier posts know that I eventually decided for Chiang Mai (but it was not so simple), and subsequently – for the Koh Phi Phi island. However, all that time there was the bigger question to answer – which country is next? Sure, it was to be one of Thailand’s neighbors – Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia. But which one exactly? When? How? Why? 

    For various reasons Myanmar fell off the list (will make it up next time). Hence, two contestants remained – Laos and Cambodia. As simple as tossing a coin. Or was it? The information about travelling in these countries I found online, at tourist bureaus and by talking to other travelers was patchy, inconsistent and – as I would eventually find out on the spot – plain wrong. Ask yourself the question – when was the last time you heard anything about Laos on the news? What about Cambodia?

    At some point I was even contemplating giving up Cambodia, but then I realized that returning home without visiting Angkor, despite being so near to it would be a total shame. Deal sealed: next stop – Angor Wat.

    So, crossing from Thailand to Cambodia should be trivial, right? After all, these are two neighboring countries, occasionally trading gunfire near the temple of Preah Vihear, but overall relations are friendly and cordial (when not trading gunfire near the temple of Preah Vidhear). Тhe temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and each side has pledged that it’d rather bomb it into oblivion than see it fall forever into the hands of the other. It’s all about the BBB (whose army got Bigger Buddhist Balls). However, for the time being and for the forseeable future – the temple is standing proud in Cambodia)

    My options for arriving in Siem Reap (the town where Angkor is) were three: flying, taking a special tourist bus from Khao San Road or going at it all on my own.

    Read more of this post

Thus spoke Issac: The words of the wise man

     There are those who want to know about a destination as much as possible before they visit it. Then there are others who prefer knowing very little in order to avoid bias and feel the place themselves. Then there is me, who cannot make my mind which way I want it. For this travel I decided to stick to the second approach. As there is not a clear-cut boundary between the two approaches, it seems to be more of a personal attitude. In the former case you tell yourself “I will learn as much as possible to avoid any problems”. In the latter case you say “I will deal with whatever happens on the spot, one way or another”.

     That just said, for my first days I did not think it wise to rely on the travel guidebooks candy – and I tried to get in touch with someone who lived in Bangkok (using the popular website). As I kept postponing this task to the last moment, I almost missed my chance – one never knows when and if the person you are trying to contact will answer. After losing three days on one attempt that did not work out, I made a second try just the day before I left for Istanbul.
This time it worked – and I got back an extensive answer from Isaac, an American PhD student living in Bangkok with his fiancée (also American). Luckily, I was able to read his message midway – at Abu Dhabi airport. Isaac happened to be in neighboring Laos, but was coming back to Bangkok today. I provide his email in full here, as it is a must-read (all credit goes to Isaac):

Great to hear from you. Thanks for the complements on the blog. I wish I had more time to add more content to it, but I’m busy with my thesis. We would love to meet up with you in Bangkok for dinner or a drink. We’re not hosting right now just because we’ve been so busy with school. As far as places to stay go, I don’t have any great advice since I live here so I never look for a place to stay. However, most of the budget stuff is located on Kao San Road. Kao San Road is famous or rather infamous for being one of the world’s most famous backpacker places. This offers a lot of convenience as far as food, alcohol, travel agents, and sights go, but it has also attracted a lot of scams, drunken backpackers, sex workers, and shops selling “Thai” souvenirs. Some love it, some hate it, personally I would only want to stay there for a few days. On the plus side, it’s easy to show up there and just walk into guest houses, look at a room and decide if you want it or not. Be wary of noise from the street though. I’ve heard that there are a few good hostels in the Silom area too. You can always find a CSer who is hosting as well. A week in Bangkok is a bit long in my opinion, but you’re right that it’s probably a good way to get over jet lag and culture shock. I think you can see and experience most of what Bangkok has to offer is two to three days, but that is just my opinion. If you only have two weeks though, I wouldn’t stay in Bangkok for a whole week. There are many other great places to go in Thailand.

If you stay in Kao San Road or go the sits in the old city (This is where Kao San Rd. is located) then watch out for scams. In particular, I would advise to never take tuk tuks (three wheeled open air taxis). They always try to over charge and they will take you to a shop (jewelry, suits, travel agent) instead of your destination. It’s the same price or cheaper to take a metered taxi.

Laos is great. I’m actually there right now, but I’ve only been to Vientiane. It’s far quieter than Bangkok. Also, the people are friendly and honest. There is a lot of natural beauty too.

Vietnam has a lot of nice things to do and it’s popular among backpackers. I’ve only been to Northern Vietnam. You should go to Sapa, but pay extra money to have a guide take you out of Sapa into the actual villages on an overnight walking trip. Don’t pay anyone to only take you to cat cat “village.” Hanoi is interesting and Ha Long Bay is not to be missed. I’ve heard good things about Hue too.

For Japan, you have to spend at least a few days in Tokyo. You should also go to Kyoto for a few days and probably Nara. Himeji Jo is great as well. Skip Osaka since it’s nothing after you’ve seen Tokyo. I’ve heard Hiroshima is good too. I also recommend Nagasaki, but it’s out of the way. Budget at least $100 dollars a day for Japan to be realistic. Be careful you have enough money for a visit to Japan last. It’s painfully expensive. I would recommend staying in a capsule hotel in Japan. There is a good one located in the Akihabara neighborhood (a geek’s paradise).

Korea is great. You have to see Seoul, especially the Kongbokgung (Palace). Cheongdokgung (palace) is also good. I also recommend walking along the Changichong (stream) for good people watching. For food eat Korean barbecue, bibim bob, bulgogi, kimbob, solentang, and anything else that looks interesting (You could try boshentang which is dog soup. It’s not too easy to find, but you can if you look and ask middle aged to older men where it can be found) Eat kimchi at every meal, you will be addicted by the time you leave. You also have to hike up a mountain in Korea. Go on a weekend day when a lot of Koreans are hiking too. They will probably give you food and alcohol (soju) at the top of the mountain. Also, try to make it up to the DMZ. Go on a USO tour. If you don’t go with the USO, then don’t take any DMZ tour that doesn’t take you to Panmunjom/Joint Security Area (JSA). You should also go to Gyongju (old Silla/Korea capital). Probably the most beautiful place in SK is Soraksan National Park near Sokcho. Busan has busy beaches, but the best beaches are on Jeju Island, but if you’ve been to Southeast Asia you will not be impressed. However, Jeju Island is quite fun and unique. I would recommend driving a scooter along the coast and across the island. You should hike up Halasan (mountain) and go to the tiny but great Udo (Island). Near Seoul is an island off the beaten path called Gangwado. It is a great cross section of Korea offering traditional food, lots of ginseng, mountains, temples, rice fields, and a mud flat beach. I would also recommend visiting public bath houses in Japan and Korea. You can actually sleep at them in Korea for about 7 dollars a night.

You’re phone won’t work in Thailand, but you can buy a sim card for 100 baht and top it up at any 7-11.

Finally, you have to go to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom outside Siam Reap in Cambodia.

If you have any more questions, feel free to ask.

    By the way, Issac has a personal blog that I highly recommend. His posts on Thailand in particular offer a lot of information and deep insight on things Thai (especially politics) which will help you get beyond the “Land of Smiles” level of knowledge. Check it out!