Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Amazing Cambodia

BY JULIANA PHANG

The Angkor Wat

DURING
the last Chinese New Year holidays, my family and I visited Cambodia, a county of contrast and historical appeal.

We visited not only the historical monument of Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, but also witnessed the very moving and tragic heritage left behind at Tuol Sleng Museum in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

This is the site of a former secondary school used by Pol Pot, the mad, misguided prime minister of Cambodia in the 1970s, as a torture centre. He purportedly led three million (out of the population of eight million!) Cambodians to their death during his short four-year reign.

We then took a boat ride on the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, which is also a Unesco heritage site. We saw how the Vietnamese immigrants live their daily lives on boats – even their church, mosque, schools, clinic and basketball court were on boats!

It was an added bonus that we managed to catch the partial eclipse of the sun on Feb 28 and watched the fabulous sunset on the lake.

Cambodia is a country at a crossroad. While the people in the more popular areas like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are used to the influx of tourists, the locals in places such as Stung Treng or Banlung are less so.

Always ask permission before you take somebody’s picture, as many in the more remote areas do not like to be photographed, and some in the urban areas will ask for payment.

A surprising thing in Cambodia is that almost everything is more expensive than in Malaysia. Petrol is about US$1(RM3.20) per litre whereas in Malaysia, it is RM1.80. We silently said a prayer of thanks to our government for subsidising our fuel.

The cheapest food in Cambodia cost US$1.20 for a bowl of rice or noodles. Our guide, Ravin, told us that prices have rocketed in the last two years and many poor people are suffering the effects.

Some could only afford plain rice for their meals. Salaries remain very low – and the disparity between the poor and rich is getting wider by the day.

As this tiny country grows as the result of the boom in tourism, more and more international eateries have sprung up. You can even find roti canai, puri and capati in Siem Reap.

Sunset on the Tonle Sap
and (labove,left) in the
silence of the Angkor
Wat
We had expected Chinese and Thai cuisine (due to the proximity of Thailand and China) and western too (because of the influx of western tourists) but certainly not food from a place as far away as India!

But be careful about the accommodation especially if you are on a self-planned tour like we were. The hotel we booked through the Air Asia website (Khemera Angkor Hotel) was touted to be a four-star hotel but hardly can be called three stars.

At the promotional price of RM225 per night, we had expected a suite or at least a reasonably big room. But the room we got was standard (although the staff insisted that it was a deluxe) and the pool was tiny.

The hotel was badly lit at night, the corridors dark and the buffet breakfast was only average. And when we asked for another room, they wanted to charge us US$120 (RM420) per night!

We felt even worse when a Singaporean couple we met told us they were staying in a four-star hotel at only US$40 a night.

Luckily for us, our Cambodian tour operator got us US$15 (RM49) rooms in the Angkor Deluxe Inn, waiving his commission of US$5 after hearing of our experience. We moved out of the hotel even though we had already paid for three other nights.

The three-month-old inn had clean rooms with all the basic facilities like TV, aircon and even a ceiling fan. The only thing it doesn’t have are tea- and coffee-making facilities.

But at that rate and with friendly and helpful staff to boot, we certainly didn’t mind.

Another thing to be aware in Cambodia is hiring your own transport and guide.

The van driver who picked us up from the airport wanted us to hire his van for US$40 (RM131) a day to Angkor Wat. When our tour guide came to pick us up, the van driver became quite rude to the poor man when he discovered the guide was charging us only US$25 (RM82) a day.

All in, it was a truly memorable trip and we were thankful to have seen and learnt so much about the country in the short span of six days.