Monday, September 30, 2013

Chuseok 2013: Shopping, Drinking, and Dining in Siem Reap

MsC and MrL in tuk-tuk, somewhere in Siem Reap.  This was how they traveled most of the time.
As MsCaroline promised in her last post, she really is going to get to the temples of Angkor Wat soon - just not today (if you really need to see them now, they're a dime a dozen on Google, although MsC bets that none of the other bloggers will have Maharaja faces anywhere near as fabulous as MrL's.)
For those of you who aren't interested in  lengthy rambling blog posts about shopping and dining all the details, let MsCaroline offer an executive summary up front:  Siem Reap was awesome.  Should you be interested in hearing more, read on.  If not, come back tomorrow for temple photos.)

Today's post, gentle readers, is about Siem Reap, which is the closest major city to Angkor Wat and where almost all tourists stay when they visit.  Most hotels have English-speaking staff (and many have staff who speak Korean and Chinese as well, due to the huge number of tourists coming from Korea and China) and every shop and/or restaurant had English-speaking staff.  In other words, Siem Reap is an easy place to visit if you are an English-speaking foreigner.
tuk-tuks - cheap and widely available - were everywhere in Siem Reap

MsC realizes that there are numerous travel writers and travel bloggers out there who are much better at this than she is who have covered most of the basics of Siem Reap, so she will limit her observations to her own personal highlights and encourage those of you who are thinking of taking a trip of your own to check out the Lonely Planet Travel Guide To Cambodia, which really turned out to be incredibly helpful for just about everything from historical information to restaurant suggestions.

Most of the shopping/dining/drinking action for tourists -when they are not clambering around temple ruins in Angkor- happens in and near an area of Siem Reap called Psar Chaa, in the Old Market vicinity.  The Old Market is a sort of a warren of covered alleyways full of booths selling everything imaginable, but heavy on tourist favorites such as t-shirts emblazoned with 'Angkor Wat,' items made out of silk, jewelry, and so many silver, wood, stone, metal, and rattan objects d'art that MsC can't really describe them.

Rice in bulk?

Spices, mixes, nuts, food....anything you can think of.

 Amateurishly painted sunrise over Angkor Wat? It's yours for a few dollars (For you, I make special price, Madam.)  What? You've already bought a traditional Khmer scarf? (You need another one, Madam! I give you special price!) Similar items can also be found at the Night Market (which actually opens at 4:00pm in case one isn't a night owl.)  There are also numerous other shops, galleries, and boutiques in the city selling merchandise ranging in price from  a dollar (most transactions take place in US dollars) to several thousands.

Note:  While MsCaroline (who is an information junkie) realizes that Cambodia is now the fastest-growing economy in Asia (an average of 6% per year), it would be wrong to pretend that Cambodia is not still very much a developing country, due primarily to the 30+ year regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  When one considers that Cambodia really just emerged into the world community in 1997, it is truly remarkable to see how far the country has come, and it will be exciting to see its development in the next few decades.  However, there is still much ground to be covered, and - despite the obvious indicators of modernity - many Cambodians still live in relative poverty.  In addition, scam opportunities for  'voluntourism' have increased in Cambodia, with well-meaning foreigners making donations or paying fees to 'volunteer' for a few days in various institutions, including 'orphanages'.  Many of these turn out to be scams populated by local children who have been recruited to play the roles of 'orphans' for a day and thus diverting resources away from the truly needy.  Adults and children peddle books, postcards and trinkets (many of them made in China) in the streets and at temple sites - and there is no way of knowing where one's money goes if one buys from them - so MsCaroline didn't.  All of that being said, MsCaroline tried her best to spend her money in ways that were guaranteed to support local workers and the local economy, which explains why she spent so much time, money, and- eventually- blog space on these two places:

Artisans d'Angkor  This workshop in Siem Reap near the Night Market provides vocational training for young Cambodians in the traditional Khmer arts, including wood- and stone-carving, silk weaving, lacquering, gold leaf embossing, and silver casting, among others. Proceeds not only go to the deserving craftsmen, but also toward training programs for new students.  Master craftsmen- and women train students in a number of open-air workshops throughout a small campus in Siem Reap, where visitors can take a free guided tour and watch them at work.  Also featured are displays that show, step-by-step, what is involved in making certain pieces.  Arriving visitors are assigned to a guide from the school who directs them through the workshops (at no cost), explains the various processes involved in creating the artwork and answers any questions (tours are available in several languages.) Masters and apprentices go about their work as visitors wander through (note:  all photo credits for Artisans d'Angkor go to Son#2, who actually took photos while MsC just gawped.)

Carving display from step 1 (far end, raw wood) through priming and lacquering to final product.

Reproduction in early stages

Carving in progress.

Silver molds

Artisans d'Angkor are also responsible for much of the restoration and all the reproductions found throughout the temples of Angkor (many priceless items have been stolen, damaged, or simply removed for safekeeping, and subsequently replaced with high-quality reproductions.)

At the end of the tour, visitors are invited (not pressured) to visit the gift shop, which features finished products ranging in price from a few dollars for smaller souvenirs and spice mixes up to thousands of dollars for enormous stone carvings or temple statues and archways that MrLogical was too cheap to consider shipping felt would be too logistically difficult to transport back to Seoul.  MsCaroline ended up with far less than she would have liked because MrL is a meanie and thinks that a full-size Buddha won't fit in the apartment a few nice pieces similar to those she had seen in the workshops and could have spent much more than she did.  She was very happy to note that the Artisans maintain a gift shop at the Siem Reap Airport, which - shockingly - features exactly the same prices as the workshop (MsCaroline doesn't even know if this is legal in airports and hopes she didn't get anyone into trouble.)  If you don't have time to visit the workshop while you are in Siem Reap, spending a bit of cash at the airport can still support a worthwhile program.

Fortunately, MsC did not spend all her money at Artisans d'Angkor, which gave her a chance to spend the rest of it some at the next stop, Senteurs d'Angkor, which specializes in products that are both locally sourced  and which provides employment to over 100 Cambodian workers, 10% of whom are handicapped.

 Their serene and tastefully-appointed shop in Siem Reap is a nice change from the crowded and overflowing marketplaces.  It sells much of the same merchandise (at very reasonable - although just slightly higher-prices, and also supports and stimulates the local economy.  Win-win.

One of the showrooms

Wood carvings

Silk:  scarves, tablecloths, pillowcases...

And more silk...

Handmade soaps in exotic fragrances

At a very reasonable price!

Exotic teas...

Peppercorns and spice blends

One may also tour the Senteurs d/Angkor workshops (a shuttle will take you from the store) but unfortunately, MsCaroline did not have enough time to visit.

MsCaroline is happy to say that she saw Senteurs products for sale in a number of places in Siem Reap, including in her hotel's gift shop, and that the prices were (once again) not artificially inflated.  You can also order their products online, should you wish (catalogue PDF and order form links are on the left.)

Lest readers begin to roll their eyes at all of MsCaroline's earnest do-gooderness, let her quickly move on to a different topic:  drinking. This particular incident (there were several) took place on a late afternoon in an eye-catching - but nearly empty - bar in Pub Street called  'Linga', which MsC vaguely remembered as getting quite good reviews for its cocktails in her Lonely Planet Guide.  As it turned out, the cocktail menu was, indeed, extensive and interesting,

This is the 'G'-rated part of the drinks menu
and MsC and MrL seated themselves streetside for prime people-watching (next to a lovely French family with three busily-coloring children) and drank Singapore Slings, which seemed like just the sort of thing to drink in a former French Colonial city in Southeast Asia.

In fact, the Slings were so good, that they had a 2nd, which resulted in a certain amount of high spirits.

obligatory maharaja shot at Linga Bar.
It was sometime around the 3rd Sling after a random comment from a fellow drinker that MsC muzzily recalled a few more details about the origin of the word 'Linga,.'  This included the fact that the place had been referred to in her guide as a 'chic gay bar.'  She subsequently turned her attention to the nearby poster highlighting the regular Ladyboy drag show that would take place that very evening:

At this point, MsC and MrL were faced with a terrible dilemma, because the Ladyboy show did not begin for a good 3-4 hours, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the bartender was pouring quite generously:  could they - two middle-aged persons who normally were in bed by 10pm - possibly continue to sit there and drink for the next 3-4 hours in order to see what would surely be an outstanding performance?

The answer was - sadly - "no."  It was absolutely necessary for them to find food as they were, by that time, both on what Son#1 the University Student coarsely refers to as  'the Struggle Bus."  They decided to get some dinner and, should they find themselves feeling alert enough afterward, consider a return to see the show once they had absorbed some of the alcohol in their stomachs and decided whether they could stay awake or not  assessed their levels of fatigue.

Fortunately for them, directly across the alley was a Cambodian Barbecue establishment.  Being familiar with Korean-style barbecue (where the meat is grilled at the table on a portable tabletop grill and accompanied by a number of side dishes,) they were starving and it was the closest restaurant curious to see what the Cambodian version looked like.  They walked the few meters across the alley and ordered dinner, which turned out to be fantastic:  meat cooked on a tabletop grill surrounded by a deep well full of hot broth.

As the grill cooked the meat, the juices ran down into the heating broth, which was full of a variety of vegetables and noodles.

Once everything was cooked, diners enjoyed steaming bowls of meat-and-vegetable noodle soup.  

Obligatory maharaja-at-the-bbq-shot.  Most likely a direct result of all those Singapore Slings.

Had they been aware of its existence, they would most certainly have followed their meal with a stop at  The Blue Pumpkin, a French bakery and ice-cream parlor, which they (sadly) only discovered on their last day and which would have been just the thing to top off their evening, featuring, as it did, pretty much the Best Ice Cream In The Entire World, including all the standard flavors as well as many more exotic ones:

caramel and cashews, ginger & black sesame, khmer to choose?
Passion fruit? Banana? Or just vanilla?
The Pumpkin also featured a cool lounge upstairs, as indicated by this sign:

Yes, the lounge was, in fact, cool.  
It is probably just as well that they did not visit at that point, since the Cool Lounge included a sort of reclining couch-and-table arrangement, which might have led to someone falling asleep and embarrassing herself  themselves.

Instead,  MsC and MrL - as much as they prefer to think of themselves as the sophisticated and worldly clubbing types - boarded a tuk-tuk and headed back their hotel, where they lounged around the Maharaja Suite dozing through watching Tomb Raider (DVD thoughtfully provided by hotel - nice touch, eh?) with Son#2, and turning in just about the time the Ladyboys were probably starting to do their thing. 

As it turned out, it was a good thing they got their rest, because they would need it the next day when they started visiting the temples of Angkor.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chuseok 2013 in Cambodia: Getting to the Victoria Angkor

Although MsCaroline knows you are all slavering with anticipation for temple photos, she is going to tell you up front that this post has little (if anything) to do with temples and, instead, is about the town of Siem Reap, which - as far as MsC can tell - exists in 2013 solely for the purpose of housing, feeding, entertaining, and generally catering to the tourists who come to see Angkor Wat.  (MsCaroline apologizes if you already knew this, but, until she started planning this trip, she didn't, and can only assume that some of you may be in the same boat.  She is also including a certain amount of detail that will be obvious to frequent travelers in S. E Asia, but which may not be quite so clear to readers who are used to traveling in Europe or the US, and might come in handy for some of them who are planning their own adventure.)    

MsCaroline promises to get to the temples very, very soon.  Really.  But for now, the nuts and bolts of the trip and a bit about the hotel:

The Journey:  The AsiaVu family (well, 3/4 of them:  Son#1 is at Uni in the US, presumably with his nose to the grindstone) arrived at 10:45pm (12:45 Seoul time) at Siem Reap International Airport.  As in many SE Asian countries, a  tourist visa had to be purchased at the airport upon arrival, and MsCaroline braced herself for a certain amount of chaos during the process - unnecessarily.  The visa process (which includes a photo) was the fastest MsCaroline had ever experienced.  Forms having been handed out and completed on the airplane, it was a simple matter of handing over paperwork, passports, and $20US, and they were on their way in a matter of minutes, past the baggage carousel (carry-ons only for this trip - nice time saver and allowed them to get ahead of the enormous Korean tour group traveling on their plane) and out to the airport entrance, where a throng of drivers and guides were waiting to meet their clientele.

The driver from the hotel - the Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa- was waiting - as arranged in advance via e-mail with the hotel and family and baggage were whisked quickly into the waiting car (which had not only AC but also - be still Son#2's heart - in-car WIFI) and driven the short 15 minute distance to the hotel.  Son#2 - possibly reflecting on the 3-hour drive through mountainous roads populated with livestock and cyclists that he had endured after the 7-hour flight to Bali - was sold immediately and declared he would be perfectly happy to come back and spend his winter break here as well without even having seen anything.

The hotel:   turned out (to MsCaroline's great relief) to be exactly like the online reviews and photos described:  a lovely French-Colonial-style building made to look like something from the mid-to-late1800s but - having been built around 2003 - with all the modern conveniences. 

Facade of Victoria Angkor, complete with vintage automobile available for everything from guided tours to airport pickup.  Popular with honeymooners.
 The Victoria Angkor's downstairs reception area looked like something out of Rudyard Kipling: an open-air arrangement decorated with rattan furniture placed in conversational groupings, sepia-toned photos of historic landmarks and early explorers, lovely Asian art reproductions, teak everywhere, and cool tile floors just off an enormous veranda that housed the bar, pool, and breakfast area.  The building itself - only 3 stories high - was built around an open central courtyard with koi ponds and towering trees.  Having such a lovely place to return to after fighting the temple crowds, shopping crowds, rain and mud (keeping in mind the Asia Vus had arrived smack at the height of the rainy season with typical impeccable planning) was an absolute godsend.

During check-in, the concierge made a comment about crocodiles in the koi pond, but MsCaroline - who had now been up at least 3 hours past her normal bedtime - dismissed this as a joke, which it turned out not to be when she strolled down the next morning for breakfast.  The Victoria Angkor did, indeed, boast a small plexiglass tank of crocodiles smack in the middle of the koi pond:

Granted, they were not exactly large specimens - more like the size of a mature iguana - but they were clearly crocodiles, and that was good enough in MsCaroline's book.

While generally satisfied with the room they had booked, the AsiaVus decided to inquire as to the possibility of an upgrade to a larger room or suite if MrL deemed it within the budget This was based on the inevitable clash of early-morning expectations in a room shared by 2 adults and 1 16-year-old (eg, the adults wished to rise at 6am and drink coffee on the veranda, which required light, activity, and open curtains.  The 16-year-old - not surprisingly - felt differently.)  Fortunately for all concerned, a suite was available at a reasonable cost, and the Asia Vus were moved into the somewhat grandiose-sounding 'Maharadja (sic) Suite,' which boasted - in addition to the lovely rattan furniture and tastefully placed objects d'art - a series of vintage sepia-toned photographs of Maharajas of the Past hanging on the walls (the fact that Maharajas were Indian and the hotel was in Cambodia was really not worth quibbling about.  MsCaroline just appreciated the vibe.)  These august personages and their unblinking 19th-century stares became the source of untold mirth during the subsequent days of the visit, from their regal poses to their 'crazy eyes' - which were then imitated by MrL -and, occasionally, #2 - and photographed by MsC all over Siem Reap and Angkor Wat proving once again that the AsiaVus are not sophisticated enough to be traveling to UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

'crazy eyes rajah'

'tight shirt rajah'
MrL practices his 'maharaja pose.' Note lovely - yet impractical - furniture.

Working on our crazy eyes.
Regal posing at poolside breakfast with coffee.
Old and Young Rajahs, poolside (when it finally stopped raining)
Regal pose in front of crumbling ruins of PreRup Temple
Young Rajah posing before the ruins of Beng Mealea - milliseconds before being swarmed by a Chinese tour group.

Overall, the suite was very lovely (although the low rattan furniture-while appropriate to the style and period - would not have been MsCaroline's first choice for comfortable seating,) spacious, and -best of all - allowed MrL and MsC to indulge their early rising habits and drink their morning coffee without disturbing their somnolent offspring.  

Another part of the 'maharadja suite.'  Includes not only closing doors but also light-blocking curtains for benefit of #2.

The rest of the hotel was just as charming and provided excellent service,including a breakfast bar which included nearly every imaginable breakfast item from Europe, the US, and Asia, as well as a diy mimosa bar and a traveling chef with omelette trolley for those who were hungry but too lazy to walk the 2 meters to the actual egg station.  Daily Happy Hour poolside (5-7pm), 3 restaurants, a gorgeous gift shop, and complimentary performances by traditional Apsara dancers made this one of the best hotel stays the Asia Vus had experienced in Asia.  

Elephant head makes a nice touch by the entrance.
All the rooms were located in open-air corridors overlooking the central courtyard.
Vintage lifts in entryway added to 19th-century French Colonial ambiance, although they were a tight squeeze for 3.
The free Apsara dance performance was a nice surprise, as MsC had been debating whether or not to arrange a trip into town to see one.  Since they performed in the poolside bar area directly after Happy Hour, the AsiaVus were pleasantly surprised and well-placed to enjoy the show.  MsCaroline - who had not been expecting an Apsara performance - took this grainy shot with her phone.

While Son#2 - who went nowhere without his camera - took these, which were significantly better:

Located directly across the street from the hotel were the lovely Royal Gardens,, a formally-landscaped (well, as landscaped as a tropical place can be) park full of towering jacarandas, magnolias, and a number of other plants that MsCaroline could not identify.  On the far side of the park were a number of huge trees which hosted a thriving, twittering colony of what MsCaroline fondly assumed to be birds, and she thoroughly enjoyed watching them swoop and squeak each morning as she drank her coffee.  
View of the hotel from across the street in the Royal Garden.

On their last afternoon in Cambodia, the Asia Vus took a brief stroll across the park, where MsCaroline hoped to take a few photos of the birds that had so enthralled and entertained her during the last 5 days.  As they drew closer, it became apparent that the 'birds' were not exhibiting much typical bird behavior - in fact, although they were occasionally visible swooping here and there, none of them were visible perching on branches - very odd, considering that their cheeping and squeaking made it obvious that an enormous group must be nesting in the trees.  Frustrated, MsCaroline dug out her zoom lens and, fixing it on one of the nearest branches for a good shot, saw this:

Not birds.
Yes, the Royal Gardens is home to an enormous colony of Giant Fruit Bats, and not the cheery flock of toucans or whatever MsCaroline's naive imagination had conjured up.  While the AsiaVu family are not scared of bats, there was a general consensus that, while the Royal Gardens had been quite delightful, it really was getting late and they beat a hasty retreat returned quickly to the hotel.  

When the Asia Vus were not lounging around in the hotel or scrambling through ancient temples, they were usually eating, shopping, drinking, or taking in the sights of Siem Reap, highlighted in the next post (and yes, we're getting to the temples soon - really.)