The Big Trip: Day Six - in transit from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

I woke up to a slow Sunday morning in Phnom Penh. The weather wasn’t clear, and I was worried that it would dampen my bus trip from the Cambodian capital to Siem Reap later that day. I freshened up, and headed to Sisowath Quay for some breakfast.

As fate would have it, the restaurant I ate at (which was just a couple of blocks away from my guesthouse) had a great view of Sisowath Quay, as well as the Philippine flag that was there. There were several national flags flapping in the breeze along Sisowath Quay. Unfortunately, the flags looked like they have all been flapping there for quite some time now, as most of them have begun to fray along the edges. I hope whoever’s in charge finally decides to either take down the flags, or replace them with new ones. Maybe when whatever construction work that’s still ongoing is finally completed?

Sisowath Quay

After breakfast, I hired a tuk-tuk for some last-minute sightseeing in Phnom Penh. My first stop was the Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium.

Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium

The Olympic Stadium was designed by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann and built in 1964. The complex was built for the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, but that event was cancelled. The stadium fell into disrepair in the following years, but was purchased and redeveloped by a Taiwanese firm in 2000.

I was greeted by the sight of many Cambodian men of all ages playing football on the grounds of the Olympic Stadium. Territory was marked by what looked like small traffic cones. Some were even playing barefoot.

Sunday morning football

It was a fascinating sight, and it really drove home how different mainland Southeast Asia was compared to the Philippines. In the Philippines, we’d have the male population playing basketball on the streets with makeshift basketball courts. In Cambodia, it was football (or soccer) that was all the rage. And as if to drive home that point, the basketball court in Olympic Stadium was completely empty, while there was a professional-looking game starting in the football field.

The stadium itself looked really nice, with many Cambodian and Khmer flourishes to distinguish it from other similar stadiums around the world.

Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium

It’s just sad that this complex fell into disrepair (it was even used for executions during the Khmer Rouge era, apparently), and that it took a foreign company to help bring it back to life. Hmm, I guess Cambodia isn’t that different from the Philippines – or most developing nations, for that matter – after all.

This was the kind of experience I enjoy while traveling: Being able to see what a normal day in the life of a local is like. It felt a little more immersive than simply looking at things and taking pictures. It wasn’t a typically touristy thing to do. In fact, if I weren’t so shy, and if I spoke and understood a little bit of Khmer, and if I weren’t worried about missing the bus to Siem Reap, I might have joined them for a game of football. Maybe next time.

After spending some time at the Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium, I decided to head off to the Russian Market for a bit of souvenir shopping. It was smaller than the Central Market, and it felt a lot more crowded than I was comfortable with, but there was so much to see inside. There were clothes everywhere, from all sorts of Cambodia souvenir shirts (for example: an image of Angkor Wat, the logo Angkor Beer, even the Khmer alphabet) to designer clothes (a lot of brand name clothing is Made in Cambodia) to “designer” clothes to underwear. There was a lot of Cambodian silk products and other local handicrafts. And naturally, this being Southeast Asia, there were stalls selling pirated DVDs and CDs.

Moving from one alley to another definitely wasn’t a fun experience, but it was an experience to remember. The alleys were very narrow, and when you have tourists haggling for a better price on whatever it is they were buying, it gets even narrower. Still, it was interesting to listen to what people were looking for and how they were haggling for the best price. I even overheard a Filipino couple haggling in English, then talking to each about how to haggle in Filipino.

I eventually bought a nice cotton shirt with a drawing of Angkor Wat in the back; the shirt itself was made in Cambodia, so that was nice. I also got a mobile made up of Cambodian silk elephants for myself; it’s now hanging over my head in my bedroom. I got Cambodian silk elephants for some of my friends as well.

After my last-minute bit of souvenir shopping, I started to head back to my guesthouse. But I wasn’t going to let my stay in Phnom Penh pass without a photo op at the Independence Monument. The monument, also designed by Vann Molyvann, was built following the country’s independence from France in 1958. It is in the form of a lotus-shaped stupa, a design that calls to mind the glorious Angkor Wat (and other similar temples). Before heading home, I asked my tuk-tuk driver to make a quick stop at the Independence Monument to have my photo taken in front of it.

Independence Monument

I headed back to my guesthouse to pack my bags, get some lunch, check out of my room, and wait for the shuttle that would take me to my bus to Siem Reap. The ride back to the guesthouse was nice, with the air rushing towards me as the tuk-tuk sped through the streets of Phnom Penh. I decided to take a little video of the trip from the Independence Monument back to my guesthouse.

My bus trip to Siem Reap was scheduled for 12:30pm, and I was at the bus station (really, it was the office of the bus company, Mekong Express) shortly before noon. It was more than enough time to eat my packed lunch (a cheeseburger from Happy Herbs Pizza – and no, the cheeseburger did NOT contain any “happy herbs”) and load my backpack into the cargo hold of the bus. The bus itself started loading passengers shortly before 12:30, and then…

First, they turned off the ignition on the bus. Then some people started looking into the engine; it looked like they were fixing or adjusting something. Then they asked us to get off the bus. Then we got on the bus again, and they started the bus. Then the stopped it again, and did a little more fixing. We were delayed for approximately 30 minutes. Annoying, but I’d rather be delayed while the bus was still in Phnom Penh than have the bus break down on the road somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Maybe it was because it was a Sunday, but the bus was filled with Cambodian locals rather than tourists. They were a loud and boisterous bunch, and while it was entertaining and interesting for a couple of minutes, it got grating and irritating shortly after that. I was thankful for my iPod during that time. It didn’t rain as I feared it would at the start of the day, thank goodness, and in fact the day was getting to be pretty hot. The bus made just one pit stop at Kampong Thom at around 4:30pm. There was a lively marketplace and some interesting buys on the streets, but I used the time to go to the bathroom and buy some water.

Kampong Thom Market

The bus arrived at Siem Reap at around 7pm. The bus company, thankfully, had its own tuk-tuk service, so it wasn’t difficult to get a tuk-tuk to the hostel I wanted to stay at. (Of course I didn’t have a reservation/booking!) I was surprised by how close the hostel was to the bus station; I really didn’t know what was where, because neither the bus station nor the hostel was on the map. I then talked to my tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Bill, about plans to hire him again for my trip around the temples the next day. With that settled, I stepped into my hostel.

The Siem Reap Hostel was awesome. If you’re ever thinking of going to Siem Reap, I highly recommend this hostel. The Siem Reap Hostel occupies a building made specifically for the purpose of being a hostel, and it was built by Cambodian hands, too. The dorm rooms were big, and there was enough space for bags and just to stretch out; the rooms weren’t stuffed to the edge with bunk beds. Inside the rooms, the toilet was separate from the bath, allowing one person to use the toilet while another was taking a bath. The rooms were clean, and the lockers were on the beds, so they weren’t too far away from you. The hostel itself has a restaurant and bar, complete with its own Happy Hour, so one didn’t need to go to Pub Street to get drunk (not that the hostel was far from Pub Street; more on that in a bit). There was an internet room with laptops hooked up to the internet which you could use for free. The hostel held several events, including a Pub Crawl (bar hopping, essentially) every Saturday night (too bad I missed this) and movie night every night at 5:30pm. Best of all, The Siem Reap Hostel had a big and clean swimming pool, perfect after a long hot day of touring temples.

After settling my accounts, I moved into my dorm room which, at that moment, I shared with a British guy whose name and information I never got (a pity, I know). After unloading and relaxing a bit, I asked how to get to Pub Street. I was prepared to take a tuk-tuk, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was just a short walk away. At Pub Street, I decided to have dinner at a restaurant that served Khmer food. I ordered a chicken amok, which is a Khmer dish with thick coconut milk and curry, wrapped in banana leaves. It was delicious! It was a like a creamier curry. I really liked it; I wish there were a source for Cambodian food here in the Philippines.

chicken amok

Shortly after dinner, I met up with some CouchSurfers in Siem Reap. This was going to be my first CouchSurfing meet-up ever. Just what is CouchSurfing? I’ll have them explain it themselves:

“CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding.”

As a community we strive to do our individual and collective parts to make the world a better place, and we believe that the surfing of couches is a means to accomplish this goal. CouchSurfing isn’t about the furniture- it’s not just about finding free accommodations around the world- it’s about participating in creating a better world. We strive to make a better world by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. We open our minds and welcome the knowledge that cultural exchange makes available. We create deep and meaningful connections that cross oceans, continents and cultures. CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world!

Anyway, I responded to a message on the Cambodia group, and on my first night in Siem Reap, I met an interesting group of fellow CouchSurfers: A British guy getting ready to teach English in Phnom Penh (it was his last night in Siem Reap), another British guy working for an NGO in Siem Reap, an Australian guy working as a helicopter pilot (for those helicopter tours above Angkor Wat), and a German woman working as a teacher in India. We met at a restaurant, then moved to Temple Club, smack in the middle of Pub Street, which offered a good view of the goings-on in the street (including a group of male tourists wearing women’s clothes, with their female companions wearing men’s clothes; I never found out the context for that, though). It was a lot of fun meeting such a diverse group of people, and we swapped stories during the entire night.

However, it was still a Sunday night, after all, and between my exhaustion and the others having work the next day, we called it a night. I went to bed anticipating the glory of the Angkor temples.

You can check out these photos and more at my Flickr account.