At 05:00 in the morning, I got my pass to my birthday wish–A Visit To Angkor Wat!
It’s just a bit sad that my wish was granted without my brother, John. We were supposedly traveling together here on our birthday but time and budget only allowed us to celebrate our birthday on a 2-day road trip on his motorbike, that took us as far as Pagudpud Beach in Ilocos Norte from Baguio City (Philippines) and back.
With a cup of brewed coffee and cheese croissant we bought from an early opened coffee stand outside the complex , we sat on one corner just after the entrance to Angkor Wat. It was still dark yet people started flocking in. Everyone was hoping to see the sunrise as there was none the morning before. I was crossing my fingers that the Lao Cai sun dance will still be effective and the Philippine sunshine in our backpacks is still luminous as a grand sunrise is a must-see when here.
By 05:40, the horizon back-dropping Angkor Wat was a shade of blue. Five minutes later, with a faint tinge of orange. Five minutes more, turned red-orange. A minute after, it was muffled then became blue gray and that was the end of it. Like in Halong Bay, a grand sunrise never arrived.
The sky cleared up around 08:00. By that time we covered half of Angkor already, scrutinizing the detailed engravings on the walls that kept us wondering how the Cambodian forebears did it. It’s mind-boggling how they deftly engraved each stone slab and put them precisely together just as the King wanted. Wasn’t it easier or more practical to engrave after setting up the whole wall first? But I guess it wouldn’t be as exciting as it is now if that was the case.
The Angkor region borders the Great Lake which boasts off valuable supply of water, fish and fertile soil. Anthropologists say human settlement dates back to the Neolithic Age based on stone tools and ceramics found here and aerial photos showing circular habitation sites. Between the 8th and 13th centuries, Angkor was the hub of one of South East Asia’s most remarkable civilization– the Khmer Civilization.
History has it that Angkor used to be small independent states that occasionally merge into a larger empire. It was only by the 9th century that the empire began when King Jayavarman II reigned supreme over the region. Twenty-five rulers came in succession after him, with some ending in bloody revolts.
During that period, a string of Hindu and Buddhist rulers built stone temples, shifting the capital from one place to the other as they pleased, building new ones, improving or rebuilding some and even destroying others that were not in sync with their religious faith. Faith—Hinduism and Buddhism—that was introduced to them through trades with India.
Despite the fierce events that the temples endured in the past, the elaborate carvings and intricate architectural designs continue to enthrall, attracting hundreds of people across the globe every day since it re-opened after years of political turmoil in the Kingdom.
Restoration and conservation efforts are underway hence existence of scaffolding in many parts of the complex is pretty much visible. There are also areas of the complex that are closed to the public due to ongoing restoration works.
Theft-related incidents of artifacts declined in recent years due to improved efforts of the governments of Cambodia and Thailand to stop such from happening. Every one is advised not to buy khmer artifacts anywhere in the world so as not to encourage more incidents of stealing. Take note, the Angkor is a World Heritage so it is everyone’s responsibility to take care of it in any way possible.
Half of our one day stay in Siem Reap was spent at Angkor Wat. The place is so vast to tour around. If you are very much into history or interested in the detailed engravings, a day here is not enough. The temperature though could be quite warm by mid-day so make sure to bring plenty of water and if possible an extra shirt.
After lunch, we drove to the South Gate of Angkor Thom where the Temple of Bayon is located. Here you will find many stone faces engraved on the towers on the upper terrace. It was built during the time of King Jayavarman VII.
We later drove further where we saw in passing the Elephant Terrace that is already severely damaged, the Sur Prat Towers, the Ta Keo Temple and other smaller temples.
Capping my one-day tour of Angkor, I visited one temple nestled in a forested area a few meters from the road. I unfortunately deleted the photo I took of the signage now I am unable to identify it. Should any of you reading my blog entry or browsing through my photos have been to Angkor, maybe you could help me name the temple. I would be very thankful for the help.
The temple area was about to close when I got there. Thankfully the guard was kind enough to give me 10 minutes to wander inside. A large part of the structure has been reclaimed by the forest already. It felt creepy in there with those huge roots of the very tall banyan trees engulfing the walls and the roofs, encircling the beams and upturning the stone slabs. My heart was beating fast. It’s always best to visit here with someone…and not before the clock strikes 5:00 P.M.
One can visit most of the important sites nearby in a day. It all depends on one’s interest I guess and how much time you plan to stay in Siem Reap. We were not able to visit Banteay Srei, a must-see suggested by a lovely couple in their 60’s from down under —Bam and Karen, whom we met on the bus journey from Halong Bay to Hanoi. The monument is an hour drive North of Angkor. Ancient Angkor Book Guide says its name means “Citadel of Beauty”, probably referring to its size and its delicate decorations. Another interesting monument which I am keeping for a second trip to the Kingdom is the Kbal Spean for its sculptures carved in a river-bed. A hike to here makes it more exciting.
The weather in Cambodia was unpredictable during our stay. We were here in September. It was gloomy in the morning then bright and warm until late afternoon. Heavy downpour ensued in the evening, marring our plan of finding a restaurant serving authentic Cambodian cuisine.
The spicy beef curry we had for lunch at the hostel’s restaurant was not as we expected. But since we cannot go out in the evening with the heavy rain, we settled for a meal by the hostel again. After our meal, I was just glad having devoured a huge coconut from a local earlier. Of all the coconuts I had in the last 10 days of our Indo-China trip, that was the biggest, cheapest and tastiest!
With so much more to see and experience here, the Kingdom of Cambodia definitely remains on my travel bucket list. And next time, I’ll make sure to feast on real Khmer cuisine.
It was an energy-draining journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Phnom Penh then to Siem Reap.
Our 10:45 PM flight to Saigon from Hanoi onboard JetStar was an hour delayed. Ha was right all this time. JetStar flights rarely depart on schedule. Having spent more days in Vietnam than planned, we had to find a way to adjust our timetable so we could spend more time in Siem Reap, Bangkok and Phuket. Flying of course is always the easiest way to get to where you want to be next but clearly NOT the most budget-friendly. We finally decided to fly to Saigon then take a sleeper bus from there to Siem Reap to cut short the 36-hour sleeper train travel time from Hanoi to Saigon which we initially planned, to merely 4 hours.
We found a guest inn by Pham Ngu Lao Street which we managed to get 3 dollars less. Haggling at 2 in the morning when you are tired and dying to sleep was so uncool. It really got the best of me. You just had to do it. A dollar off may not be much but it’s still a dollar that may get you a long way. By the time I doze off, it was 3:30 in the morning.
The guest house we stayed in offered to arrange for the bus that will take us to Siem Reap come daylight. The travel to Siem Reap will take a whole day including border formalities and a sitting bus or coach is just too tiring. The Phuket-Bangkok bus ride was more than enough long trip to endure. We clearly specified we wanted a DIRECT trip on a SLEEPER bus so we could be able to comfortably sleep. They promised yes and they offered us the 11 A.M trip. This means we have a couple hours to visit nearby places of interest in the city. Having spoken to someone who could speak English well, we hit the sack unworried of our next trip.
We were all set by 07:30 only to be told all trips were full except for the 08:00 A.M. Not letting the setback ruin the rest of our day, we let it pass, even chatting and taking photos with the owner and her daughter as we hanged around by the lobby waiting for someone to pick us up
By 08:00, a guy arrived to pick us up. A few meters away by the main road, there were buses waiting, but not one was a sleeper bus, all coach. We asked why was there no sleeper bus and the guy who picked us up handed our ticket, saying there is no sleeper bus to Siem Reap only for provincial trips. Then he asked, “Do you want to take the bus or stay?” Irritating but we had no choice but hop in or be behind schedule.
In the bus, we met Linda, a Cambodian lady traveling with her mother. She said such happen if you are not dealing directly with the bus company. It happened to them before and since they travel often to Ho Chi Minh for her mom’s treatment, she had to find out how to book directly from the bus company.
We stamped out of Vietnam at Moc Bai border with ease. At least that was a good way to cap my Vietnam experience…or so I thought.
Five minutes later, we had Cambodia Immigration Bavet border stamped on our passports. Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia!
Our bus stopped over at a huge restaurant for lunch. As we waited in front of the food glass stand to order, one of the restaurant crew came by and started yelling at everyone waiting on queue, asking rudely, “What you want?!”
We ended up eating steamed corn, papaya and watermelon from these food stalls outside the restaurant. As we feast on fruits, the guy who yelled at everyone was sitting by the corner and could not keep a straight face. Linda commented, “Now that’s the reason why we never eat here.“
The same thing happened at the next bus stop when I went to buy from the mini-store outside the restaurant. The young lady sitting behind the register was arrogant whenever you ask how much. Then again, patience is the key or your whole trip will be marred completely.
Arriving in the capital City, Phnom Penh, we were told that we had to wait for 2 hours for the bus to Siem Reap. Looks like we’re not yet done with the Vietnam experience. The early morning frustration haunted us until here. The ticketing office explained that the bus company’s only direct trip from Saigon to Siem Reap leaves at 06:30 A.M. And should we wanted to take an earlier connecting bus to Siem Reap, we had to pay US $3 more each. Irked but we did anyway. Arriving earlier in Siem Reap is a lot better than to stress so much over it.
The scene at the bus terminal in Siem Reap was also something. We arrived around 09:30 in the evening. Haggling for a tuktuk ride that takes you to town is quite difficult. Arriving earlier, if possible before dark, is best. I was just so glad we hopped on one and left immediately at $2 for 3 passengers.
After a few attempts by the driver to bring us to lodging houses he “seem” to know well, we ended up at The Backpacker Hostel at $2 less per night. We wondered why he didn’t stop by here. If we did not insist to turn around to check on the hostel, he would not have. I would find out later from the hostel’s Manager that tuktuk drivers shun the place because they do not get any commission.
I had no more energy to go out for dinner so my companion went out alone and I settled for some cookies and milk from the hostel’s convenience store.
For all of the good and all of the bad that happened that day, I was just thankful I was going to bed, excited about the upcoming fulfillment of a wish I had 7 months earlier.
With so much hours to kill before our flight to Ho Chi Minh, we decided to take on a day tour. A last minute decision that brought us 100 kilometers South of Hanoi.
Hoa Lu in the Province of Ninh Binh is Vietnam’s ancient Royal Capital (Dinh Dynasty, between 968 and 1009 AD). Aside from the visit to the ancient royal palaces of Dinh and Le (the kings who ruled during that period), another highlight of this trip is the rock formations. They refer to this area as Halong Bay on land as limestone peaks stick out on, where else, land—the rice fields, marshlands.
On a cruise down Ngo Dong River in Tam Coc, on a small wooden boat rowed by a fisherman using his legs, more peaks greeted us. We passed through caves as we rowed down the river. As we were not given any information before the cruise, I never thought the caves we passed through were actually the cruise’s highlight. I didn’t even bother to count how many or identify which one was the longest. I just enjoyed the landscape and hunched down whenever the boat enters a cave, making sure I won’t bump my head onto a stalactite. It was only when I was writing this blog when I noticed this information on the flyer I got from our Thai friend back when we were sitting by the Hoan Kiem Lake. In another brochure I got from the guest house we stayed in Saigon, it identified the caves as Hang Ca, Hang Nai and Hang Ba. And the reason why they called the place Tam Coc is because it means Three Caves! Did I really miss something the tour guide said on the bus?
I’ve been noting down the information he was telling us on the bus. I have noted that there were two kings and two dynasties between 968 to 1009 AD, that Vietnam has an area of 329,470 square kilometers and resembles a letter S which stands for strength and satisfaction and that the shape looks like a Vietnamese lady, that there are 8 million people in Hanoi with 3.5 million Honda oms (plus 2 in asterisk—one for him and one for his wife he kidded), that due to the climate change Vietnam already lost more than 3 kilometers of its land area to water and so their government sent Vietnamese people to The Netherlands to learn how to construct dikes, that North Vietnam have 4 seasons in a year, that South Vietnam have the same climate as Indonesia and Malaysia, that 30% of the 90 million population of the country are below 25 years old and that Samsung Galaxy is the biggest company in Vietnam. Oh, he talked about the food for lunch too and that we will be going on a boat trip after and even said that 2 Vietnamese ladies will be paddling the boat. How come I missed the cave information if any? Sigh!
The guide took us to a temple nestled beneath limestone formations and was given 5 minutes to visit it claiming we don’t have much time. We pushed our bikes to here only to see the fasçade of the temple and cycled harder and faster back to where the bus is waiting because the rain god already let go of the rain. An adrenaline-rushing way to end our $25-worth tour.
Personally, if you’ve been to Halong Bay already, I would not recommend taking this tour. Had we decided earlier on what to do after Sapa, we should have gone to Van Long Floating Village or Perfume Pagoda. A city tour would have been more interesting. But then again, it’s all part of the experience. You’ll never know unless you give it a try. And if we didn’t, I might have not taken these photos I just shared. (“,)
My companion and I were very zealous in promoting the Ifugao Rice Terraces since we started our Indo-China travel, encouraging people we meet along the way to visit the Philippines, offering help in providing information on places to visit, getting there, accommodations, with my companion even offering free stay at his place in Baguio and I, offering discounts at my parents’ place. Yeah, I know, if I offer my parents’ place for free for every guest then they would be out of business for good. So that is probably the best friendly offer I could give! (“,)
I am proud to be Ifugao and Pinoy. However, I have to be honest that I was muffled (even my companion was) when we made the trip to Sapa. Throughout the 1-hour journey to Sapa Town from Lao Cai, everyone on the bus was twitchy, heads turning from left to right, looking up and down, everyone was busy taking a snap of the scenery. Conifers, rich tributaries and yellow-green rice fields carved on the slopes of the mountains awestruck us.
Arriving town, one can easily notice how tourism encroached the place already. It’s like subdued Sagada, Mt. Province in the Philippines except that the structures were taller, bigger, and there were more shops selling souvenir items, tour packages and trekking stuff (the North Face is the most popular brand), guest houses, bars and restaurants abound. The climate felt more like Baguio City or home in Banaue, Ifugao.
Nice, sunny weather greeted us the next day. Something the mountain gods deprived many tourists before us. Seems like my sun dance upon arriving Lao Cai Train Station the day before appeased the gods.
The hotel designated Tiu (Chu) to our group of four tourists. Tiu is a pretty local tour guide in her early 20’s. Dressed in her traditional Black H’mong garb, she led us down to the main thoroughfare.
All the local guides were women from the same ethnic group. Some of the younger ones carry their babies on their backs as they work. This is because women here are married of at a very young age. The men or I mean their husbands, are either busy tilling the fields or out of the village in search for jobs.
Down at what seemed to be a market, more local women were waiting, some carrying big baskets and all were having green-brown straws in their hands, pulling and winding them around their hands. We were told by our other local guides that they use these straws to weave their clothes.
I said “other” guides because we had two more who tagged along. Xing (Zing), the younger guide and Sung, the older woman, were among the women we saw at the market. When we started moving further off the street, away from town and down to the rugged road to the village nestled at the foot of the terraced mountains and close to the riverbank, they kept us company despite telling them we already have a guide designated by the hotel. When I asked our guide Tiu, she said it is okay. They seem to be assistants of the main guides. That’s how it is here.
Unlike the hotel guides, these assistants speak limited English and they’ll be bugging you with the same questions throughout—how are you, where you from, you married (seriously until here?!), how many children—stuff like that. You are not obliged to pay them at the end of the trek but they are adamant at selling you bags, textiles and bracelets they made. Hard selling is common here. The older woman even tried to play on my conscience saying she has been following me the whole time so I must buy. I was heart-broken to see these little girls, the youngest I believe is aged 3, following tourists, trying to persuade them to buy these tiny handmade bracelets with a pitiful look. Then again, at times like this, patience is the key. Arguing is of no use because you don’t speak the same language. While it is comforting to know that somehow when you buy from them you are leaving something beneficial to a community whose only main source of income is farming, earlier notice from tour organizers or guides on what to expect would have been very much appreciated. It keeps negative vibes at bay. It would have been easier to understand the situation being a member of an indigenous tribe myself.
We reached Catcat Village a quarter before 02:00 in the afternoon. Lunch was served at a restaurant owned and managed by a Kiwi guy named Ian. Holding a bottle of beer, wearing walking shorts and a shirt with “good morning Vietnam” emblazoned on it, he walked barefoot from one table to the other talking to guests. He pulled a chair near our table, puts down the bottle and started talking to us.
Ian shared that he fell in love with the place the first time he visited and been coming back and forth since. The community welcomed him so much so that they call him Papa. A reverence that made him decide to put up the restaurant business. He relates one rainy evening when a lightning lit up the whole valley as it cracked out in the sky and how he wished he had a camera to capture that moment. “Those pictures in postcards were not taken after a single trip to Sapa. These came after several visits and countless attempts,” he quipped.
Thanks for that Ian and hope to see you again next time!
The landscape in Sapa is too enthralling to just be viewed in a quick pace. Its grandeur requires time, a moment to relish it, to understand it. It’s just too beautiful to turn your camera off. Even the villages do not show major signs of tourism encroachment just yet. Except for the school building, the houses here kept its traditional architectural style. I even saw black native pigs loose in the backyard.
What’s quite interesting for me about Sapa’s rice terraces is its similarity to Ifugao’s, my home. I just wished I had more time to learn about their farming system, the inter-relation of nature and the people’s way of life, whether they also have a muyong system like we do, or perform rituals, get to know the issues besetting the terraces, the culture and the people. Who knows this interest might be a way to learn a thing or two that could be beneficial to the Ifugao Rice Terraces restoration and preservation efforts. Sorry I just can’t help thinking big. I should start learning the language now then huh.
From the restaurant, we boarded two Honda oms to where the shuttle was waiting. Because we arrived late for lunch, we missed the opportunity to go to the next village, cross the river and see the waterfalls. Now I have more reasons to still keep Vietnam on my travel bucket list. And next time, I will stay for a couple more days and skip the organized tour. Not that I did not like the service, it’s just that organized tours could be very limiting in finding hidden wonders.
Back at the hotel, I had a chance to catch a late afternoon glimpse of the valley below as I sat on the swing by the garden. Time flies so fast I muttered. A moment there wrapped up my Bac Ha-Sapa tour.