The Cambodia Chronicles – Part 1

Sitting idle comes naturally to TW (The Wife). TW can while away zillions of hours doing nothing. And living a packed schedule comes equally naturally to her. But there has to be a good enough reason for her to snap out of her inertia.

Recently the reason came in the form of an impromptu trip that TW and TH (The Husband) planned. While TW was visiting TH in KL, she had no plans of moving out of the house for anything except may be food. She was carrying two huge books with her to keep her company. The purpose of the trip was to get her dependent’s visa stamped and hence there was no agenda of travelling anywhere from KL. The KL immigration office did the stamping in 3 days and there she was with her PP and visa on Thursday.

TH being TW’s soulmate, had the wildest idea and TW being his, instantly agreed. And they decided to take off from KL and land in Cambodia on Friday. Cambodia offers visa on arrival for Indian passport holders and that was their primary reason to visit this country out of so many on their bucket list.

Cambodia has always been TW’s long cherished dream destination since the time she had read about it in the National Geographic Magazine as a child. For some reason, the idea of a grand Hindu temple (Vishnu temple) in a faraway land fascinated her.

TW spent the entire Thursday doing research on internet and planning their Siem Reap itinerary as they only had 2 full days. TW is an enthusiast traveller; however, her lack of knowledge of Geography is unparalleled. She will probably know the roads in a foreign city that she has visited, but ask her to plot it on the map and she will be lost for a while. So… she had no idea where Siem Reap is. She googled Angkor Wat; without knowing that she has to stay in Siem Reap to be able to visit Angkor Wat! There aren’t too many places to visit in or around Siem Reap. Hence, their smallish but packed itinerary was ready.

TH came home from office in the eve when TW had already prepped for the trip. Their flight was at 0650 hrs on friday. That meant being at the airport at an ungodly hour. Calling and getting a cab at that hour is a stressful job plus there is a surcharge. TH and TW try to be budget travellers and hence TW suggested that they reach the airport by last airport metro and spend the night there itself. TH and TW agreed on this too! Talk about being made for each other.

So they gulped their dinner, packed their 2 day travel bags and off they went to the KUL airport. Now staying overnight at the airport is not at all comfortable when the airport is as sad as KUL. The eateries serve nothing. There aren’t any recliner chairs. No lounge is open at night. Hence you have to make do with the uncomfortable chairs around the check-in counters. TH was obviously very tired cuz he had worked through the day and had already travelled back and forth. So he snoozed happily and TW was supposed to be the responsible one and look after the luggage. Observing people is TW’s hobby and she can do that for hours together, especially at the bus stands, railway stations or airports. Observing Asians has its own charm! They are the most messed up travellers you will ever see! And they travel in packs. Or rather, herds. And hence there always is a shepherd herding them from one counter to other. It comes as a relief of some kind when you see there are worse travellers around than us Indians!

They got onto the plane for Siem Reap and within no time they had landed in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Now TW is socio-politically challenged as well, as she did not know that Cambodia is a Kingdom! :D Setting her foot in a Kingdom actually made TW very happy! She had never been to a Kingdom before. The arrival at airport was smooth, and Visa on Arrival was the smoothest of all airport proceduresviz. Immigration, customs, baggage etc. You fill up a very simple form, stand in a queue, hand over your Passport, photos and USD 30 and go stand in another queue. Done! The visa is approved, stamped and verified. Fantastic experience and that’s how a country becomes travellers’ favourite.

Siem Reap International Airport

Siem Reap International Airport

Tuk Tuk driver & the roads

Tuk Tuk driver & the roads

They had booked a boutique hotel and the hotel had offered airport pick up. So once out of the airport, they spotted their driver and he was the most jovial, happy and extremely friendly soul on earth! He told them to wait till he got his vehicle. And so they waited and Voila! He comes back in a Tuk Tuk!! TW and TH were grinning from ear to ear while riding that tourist-friendly vehicle. It offers perfect speed to soak in the surroundings. The hotel was a beautiful boutique property with swimming pool right at the entrance. And a very efficient, smiling and dynamic lady as its caretaker-cum-manager-cum-chef. It is located hardly 5mins away from the city centre of Old Market/ Pub street. TW and TH wanted to take the helicopter ride over Angkor Wat and hence that was the first thing that was explored upon arrival, but the helicopter service did not have a positive answer at that point of time so upon checking in, they booked their tour to Tonle Sap for the afternoon and took a much needed nap on a mega comfortable four poster bedJ.  Lunch was humble Burmese soupy noodles with Angkor beer. Cambodia is hot and humid beyond our imagination. Us Indians should not complain about weather at all. Cambodian heat is energy sapping to say the least.

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Royal arrangements in the kingdom :)

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Having read a lot about Cambodia being mosquito infested and how travellers should carry suitable clothing and mosquito repellent spray with them and as abundant caution, TW and TH had carried full-sleeved clothes and pants. And that added to their misery in that hot climate. But even the Cambodians wear full sleeved clothes with gloves even when it’s sunny. So there must be some real threat of mosquito related diseases.  It is better to be safe than sorry.

They embarked on their guided tour to Tonle Sap, the biggest fresh water lake in South East Asia and it is spread across five provinces of Cambodia. It has a unique eco-system and people live around the lake area on houses build high on bamboos and hence the neighbourhood is called “Floating Village”, as when the lake is inundated the houses seem to float on water. There is abject poverty, lack of basic sanitation, education, healthcare, food. From our high pedestal, where we get a wide variety of food options, it is very easy to judge these people for what they eat or how they live. At times, we even mock that the weird animals they eat are a “delicacy”. But, if you look around, you will realise that it is their “necessity”. Basically nothing goes waste, not even the snakes, scorpions, or rodents. Everything is edible and needs to be consumed. It is survival of the strongest. As one turns towards floating village, there is a board welcoming travellers in the land of crocodiles. So TW wanted to see the crocodiles and asked the guide will they catch glimpses of any. He laughed and told TW that all crocodiles are finished as people ate them. Now, if it was some other part of the world TW would have thought it’s a joke. But strangely, in this land of stark deficiency, it sounded quite normal and highly probable. TW had a hard time digesting the entire concept of living in a bamboo supported meagre households with nothing growing around. TH had a completely different take on how things seemed staged and his keen eye had even spotted television antennae atop these floating houses! According to TH this could very well be staged and poverty was purposely being put on display. With these conflicting opinions about the lives of people of that floating village, they arrived at the mouth of the tributary and halted at a boat-restaurant for some refreshments as they waited for the sun set. Here TW was convinced that what TH suspected could be right. There were UN mission stalls on the boat that were selling tickets for USD 10 for a ride through mangroves. These boat rides are apparently designed to support the widows and single mothers. No-one tells you how they became widows or there is no way to verify that. It is just that a long queue of canoes awaits foreign tourists to shell out money. It looked freakishly staged to TW’s eyes as well.

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Mangroves & UN sponsored widow rehabilitation project

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Floating Village – Tonle Sap

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Offering food & beer to ancestors

As they waited for fellow tourists to finish their part of humanitarian rides, it was time to head out to the great lake and to experience its vastness. And in all honesty, the lake is GIGANTIC. It is like an ocean with wild waves rocking your boats and it looks menacing with its murky water. Ideally water element is supposed to calm your senses. But ironically Tonle Sap appears hostile quite unlike the people of Cambodia. Throughout the trip, one thing that stood out was the generosity of Cambodian people. They are exceptionally well mannered and good natured. It paints a unique picture on the backdrop of such living conditions. Maybe the Haves are meaner than the Have-nots!

Link to The Cambodia Chronicles – Part 2

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