Saturday, April 08, 2006

Cambodia: The temples of Angkor... a few hours in heaven

Weather forecast today: Mixed clouds and sun with scattered thunderstorms. High 88F. Winds ESE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 60%. I woke up this morning at 5:30 a.m. and was ready to leave at 6 a.m. since the motorcycle was picking me up at that time, only to find out that it was drizzling. And it seemed this was the type that won't stop.

I checked the weather forecast since I was thinking of postponing it to the next day. It was going to rain as well. And it's supposed to be the dry season. I think it's some sort of blessing from heaven since the Khmer New Year is in a few days. If it didn't stop raining at 8 a.m. I told myself, I'd take the risk and check out the sites nevertheless. Anyway, I had breakfast at a popular tourist restaurant. I ordered a beef sandwich. Unlike the Philippines where our sandwich bread is usually tasty bread, in Cambodia, as well as in Vietnam, they use baguettes, since they were former French colonies. Expect a one-foot sandwich to arrive. I paid US$2 for it but I'm sure you could get it cheaper at less popular places. It was great!

The gamble I made paid off! Even though it was drizzling, it wasn't that much a bother. But because it was drizzling, Angkor Wat was quite empty. No droves of tourists! But seriously, I am amazed with the number of people the temples of Angkor are able to attract. I mean there were busloads of them speaking in different tongues. Listen up DOT, this UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts more people than the entire island of Boracay. And each pays US$20 for a one-day pass, US$40 for a three-day pass or US$60 for a one-week pass! So I suggest we start focusing on inbound cultural experiences as well as heritage tours and not just Boracay. Foreigners know Boracay already and thus, there in no need to promote it. You should find new destinations and work on them instead. Maybe even help have some more UNESCO sites declared in the Philippines.

Anyway, Angkor Wat was breathtaking. It's definitely a must visit for any trip to the temples of Angkor. Constructed by Suryavarman II in the mid-12th century, the apex of Khmer military and political dominance in the region, it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. But today, images of Buddha can be found.

The walk across the moat was simply awe-inspiring. It was as if you were about to enter Heaven. And the chants from Buddhist monks really set the mood. The massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five beehive-like towers rising 65 meters makes you wonder how on earth that generation of citizens of the world were able to construct these monuments when today, new monumental structures are a rarity.

We then entered the Angkor Thom South Gate. Welcoming you was a row of soldiers and a large monument of Jayavarman VII. Angkor Thom is a 3 square kilometer walled and moated city and the last capital of the Angkorian empire. Inside Angkor Thom, I visited Bayon (below), the other must visit temple of Angkor. It is most known for the 37 towers with carved faces oriented towards the cardinal points. A topic of debate, many say the faces are a composite of Jayavarman VII and Buddha.

Also inside the Angkor Thom are the Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King among many other structures.

We exited the Victory Gate (left) and stopped over at Thommanom, a small but attractive temple built at the same time as Angkor Wat. A few meters away was the Ta Keo. Down the road was Ta Prohm (below), another Jayavarman VII built temple which saw the limelight as Lara Croft's Tomb Raider temple. The thing I liked about my visits to the different sites was there was traditional Khmer music meeting us all the time. Just like our blind rondallas in the Philippines, the musicians were victims of landmines playing on traditional Khmer instruments.

I had an early lunch in front of Ta Prohm. I had another sandwich, this time pork. But since we were in a heavy-traffic tourist area, expect costs to go up. It was US$2.50 and US$1 for a 500ml bottle of water. Imagine the profit they make charging at US prices with their costs much lower. See what tourism can do. And to think the big serving of rice toppings I ate yesterday night and tonight at this new restaurant in front of CCB Bank Siem Reap, Sivutha Street, is just US$1 each!

Further down the road was Pre Rup (below right), another Hindu temple which is architecturally and artistically superior. Next was East Mebon, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. Ta Som was a few kilometers away. It is the most distant temple on the grand circuit, they have two set routes around Angkor, the small tour and the grand tour which tourists can pick from depending on time.

Ta Som (below left) is currently being restored with the help of the World Monuments Fund. Imagine hundreds and thousands of dollars pouring in Cambodia to help restore these temples.

I also noticed each site had a counterpart donor like Japan, China, France and India, who helped fund the restoration of the sites. I wonder why the Philippines does not ask for Japanese funding to rebuild Inramuros since the treasures were flattened as a result of the Second World War anyway.

The US should fund also since it was their carpet bombing that flattened most of Manila. Spain should help also since they benefited from this former colony, once the Pearl of the Orient, for over three centuries! But I guess government is too busy with their own useless squabbles to even think of preserving heritage.

The last two major sites on the grand ciruit were the Neak Pean, a small island temple, and the Preah Khan (below), a really huge monastic complex which was highly-explorable thanks to the many carvings and passage ways. We went back in Angkor Thom via the North Gate. Then it was off to Siem Reap town.

It's great seeing so much heritage. But a sad note was the headless statues all over the place. Looters really made a lot of money from Angkor. Oh these collectors!

Anyway, it looks like I will have a lot of time to relax. My bus to Bangkok leaves at 7 a.m. on Monday so I'll be free the whole day tomorrow.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Cambodia: Tuol Sleng is a reminder of Cambodia's brutal past

I was up this morning at about 8 a.m. After packing my stuff, we went straight to the Psah Toul Tom Poung or Russian Market where you can find the best souvenirs and Cambodian products, gems and silver, as well as export overruns! I was not expecting to buy a lot of stuff, but it turned out to be a shopping spree and now I'm low on funds. Haha! After buying some replicas of Cambodian temple bas reliefs and bronze Buddha heads, I checked out the export overruns since Mongkol said there were a lot of designer clothes in the U.S. made in Cambodia. I found the store which sold Gap shirts. They could be counterfeit but the colors were just so nice and so Gap! And the shirts... US$2.50 each!!! So I bought all the available colors. Haha!

After shopping, we had a quick breakfast in front of the market. I had pork and rice and lemon juice for a drink. Nice! It was then off to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

A former high school that became a prison and interrogation center known as S-21 during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, it serves as a grim reminder of the reign of terror, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. They said that once you entered the prison, you will never leave alive.

According to the brochure, "Out of the roughly 14,200 prisoners at the prison, there were only seven known survivors. Only three of them are thought to be still alive: Vann Nath, Chum Mey and Bou Meng. All three of these men were kept alive because they had skills judged to be useful. Vann Nath had trained as an artist and was put to work painting pictures of Pol Pot. Many of his paintings depicting events he witnessed in Tuol Sleng are on display in the museum to this day. Bou Meng, whose wife was killed in the prison, is also an artist." I was lucky to meet two of them (Vann Nath and Chum Mey) since they were shooting a documentary film at the time we were there. In the photo with me is Chum Mey.

Here is some text from the museum brochure about the horrors of S-21 which is also found in Wikipedia: "Quality of life of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng was terribly harsh. Upon arrival at the prison, the prisoners were photographed and required to give complete biographical information. After that, they were forced to strip naked, and all their possessions were removed. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The prisoners had to sleep on the cold floors, while still shackled.

The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards. Likewise, health conditions were awful. The unhygienic living conditions caused skin diseases, lice, and other ailments, and few of the inmates ever received any kind of treatment."

Seeing the individual torture rooms and photos of the victims when the Vietnames found them in 1979 was just horrible. The cells of the prisoners were so small. They were shackled to the floor so they couldn't move. It's hard to imagine how life was for them. At the end of the last building was a shelf with the remains of some of the victims of S-21. Sigh!

Anyway, time was running out. We went back to Mongkol's place for a while so that I could repack my stuff and put in the stuff I bought. With that done, it was off to the bus station. But not before I was able to get a photo at the Independence Monument. Hehe!

We arrived just in time. And after a photo and a short goodbye, I was off to Siem Reap, deep in the heart of Cambodia. The bus ride was going to take about six hours but it was most definitely worth it since one would be rewarded with the best views of the Cambodian coutryside.

The good thing about the bus was it had a bathroom at the back and a bus stewardess who gave us wet towels, a box of pastries, and mineral water. She also made announcements where we were stopping over and gave short descriptions of important places as we passed by. Maybe Victory Liner and other bus companies could learn a thing or two from here. Although I heard that Victory started a new bus service to Baguio which had bigger chairs and a stewardess.

Anyway, I arrived here at about 6 p.m. Since Sok had an uncle who just opened a new guest house in Siem Reap, he made arrangements for me. His cousin picked me up at the bus terminal. The place, Heng Khim Guest House is very new and charges US$10 a night for a comfortable air-conditioned room. Although it's a bit far from the town center, their staff were kind enough to take me here where I had dinner. If you want to contact them, Chea Hak's mobile number is (012) 97 19 79 or (016) 67 77 87.

Dinner was fried rice noodles with pork which I had at a place near the internet cafe. I'm off to bed now. I want to make the most out of the US$20 day pass at the Angkor National Park. Hehe!

Cambodia: Around Phnom Penh

I was off to Suwannabhum. That is the nickname the Khmers call their country which literally means land of gold. The flight from KL to Phnom Penh was quite short. As we prepared for landing, below us was a vast expanse of rice fields up to the eye could see. Wow! I arrived in Phnom Penh at 4:10 p.m. It was a quick transit through the airport and I was out in about 10 minutes. Meeting me outside were SSEAYP batchmates Mongkol and Rathana.

We went straight for Mongkol's place where I was going to stay for the next few days for me to rest and freshen up. We were meeting more PYs for dinner at Lucky Bright Restaurant for my introduction to Cambodian cuisine. Hehe!

For dinner, we had octopus with young pepper seeds, fried fish with pineapple, and green mango salad with smoked fish. Really great! And I had the local beer, Angkor Beer, to go with it. In the photo are Thyda, Sophy, myself, Theary, Mongkol, Lucy, Rathana and his friend Vinh Anh.

After dinner, Mongkol and I went for some coffee at a local coffee shop. I ordered caramel cake only to realize it was leche flan. Hehe! My earlier order was durian, taro and jackfruit ice cream but it was out of stock. Sigh! Then it was late night on the net. Hehe!

I had planned to wake up at 7 a.m. the next day to accompany Mongkol to his workplace but I was in deep sleep when he checked on me so he just came back for me. Hehe! Anyway, for breakfast, we had kuay teow with soup and beef balls, cha kwai which is the Chinese version of churros, and dimsum. Then it was off to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.

The ticket was US$3. I was pleased to find out that US dollars were accepted all over Cambodia and can be used together with the local currency, riels. Prices in establishments are quoted in both riels and dollars and the usual exchange rate is US$1 is to KHR4,000. So I didn't need to have my money changed. Good!

At the center of the grounds was the Prasat Tevea Vinichai or the throne hall which was quite grand inside. However photos aren't allowed inside! Sigh! Beside the throne hall was a Western building which was actually a gift of Napoleon Bonaparte to King Norodom. The adjacent complex is that of the Wat Preah Keo Morokat or the Silver Pagoda which got its name from the over 5,000 solid silver floor tiles that line the vihear or temple. Inside is an emerald Buddha as well as other important artifacts including an 80 kg gold Buddha statue encrusted with 1,086 diamonds, the largest being 25 carats!

Outside the temple where stupas honoring the kings and queens of Cambodia. This is where the ashes of the late rulers are laid to rest. After the Royal Palace, we went to get my bus ticket to Siem Reap.

The ticket to the gateway to the temples of Angkor costed US$9. I was to take the last bus which was going to leave at 12:30 p.m. I should be there in 5 hours or so just in time to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. Hehe!

Then it was off to the highest point of Phnom Penh which is Wat Phnom. The place marks the legendary founding of the city in 1372 A.D. when a lady named Penh fished out a floating Koki tree from the Mekong River and found four Buddha statues inside. She built a hill and a small temple on what is not Wat Phnom. The area surrounding the hill came to be known as Phnom and its builder Penh which thus became Phnom Penh. At the bottom of the hill, we bought some chook or lotus seeds for me to munch on. Hehe!

Then is was time for lunch. We had pizza at the Pizza Company in Sorya Shopping Center which is among the few modern malls in the city. From there, I was able to take photos of Psah Thmei or the Central Market. Although it literally meant new market. One of the city's unique landmarks, this gargantuan art deco building towers over the vicinity.

After lunch, we went to Mongkol's workplace at the Institute of Foreign Languages of the Royal University of Phnom Penh since he had a class to teach. Since it was very hot outside, I decided to stay indoors and check mail for the meantime.

After class, we took a drive along Norodom Boulevard which had elegant colonial mansions. Some of these mansions have been freshly painted and restored and are serving as offices of institutions such as banks and embassies. We stopped by Sisowath High School which was a complex of large colonial school buildings (above right). Wow!

Here are photos of some of the houses. The one on the left is being used as the UNESCO office in Cambodia. Really nice!

For dinner, we had some lot cha or fried noodles (being prepared below), ku chai which were fried rice pancakes stuffed with vegetables, and sugar cane juice with lemon. Accompanying us was Mongkol's former classmate Sok.

After that we then went for a stroll along Sisowath Quay which becomes so alive in the evening. On one side, you hade dozens of hotels, cafes and bars filled up with foreign tourists. On the other side of the road, you had the locals enjoying street food, playing New Year's games since the Khmer New Year was fast approaching, or just hanging around.

We had a pitcher of Angkor beer at one of the cafes while we enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh's nightlife. After the beer, Mongkol and I went for a traditional Khmer massage. Hehe! What a way to cap a great day in Phnom Penh. It's off to bed now for me. I still have a lot to do tomorrow before I leave for Siem Reap.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Malaysia: Lessons and notes from Kuala Lumpur

Since the room I was staying in had no windows, I didn't know it was already morning. I think I was up by 9 a.m. After freshening up, I was off to the KL Sentral Station where buses to the LCC-T left every 15 minutes. It was a short walk from the lodge to the nearest MRT station. But I got to marvel at all the freshly painted pre-war buildings and shophouses. I also got to see KL Tower from a distance. I've been up there twice before.

Talking about adaptive reuse, check out the photo of Burger King in a 1909 building! They do not touch the building at all! I saw a McDonald's in an old building in Singapore as well. Really nice! Attention Vigan, your biggest crime was demolishing the remains of a centuries-old convento and replacing it with a McDonald's building which most heritage people have been criticizing. Sorry to say, it does not blend with the rich heritage fabric of your historic city. You don't put a belltower replica right beside the real belltower.

This goes as well to the parish priest of Lingayen. Instead of demolishing that perfectly preserved convento of yours, you could have done some adaptive reuse instead. And for Mayor Lito Atienza, adaptive reuse was the best thing to do with the Jai Alai Building. The City Government demolished it and now they do not even have funds to build the proposed Hall of Justice when they could have used the Jai Alai Building for the very same purpose. Oh well!

I got to the station and took a short subway ride to KL Sentral which was a kilometer away from the old KL Train Station. I saw the old station on the way to KL Sentral. Magnificent old building! I wonder what got into Mayor Atienza when he had most of the Paco Train Station demolished into oblivion.

Finally got to KL Sentral and went straight for the bus. An middle-aged Chinese Malaysian businessman sat beside me and he started a conversation. When he found out I was from the Philippines, he started reminiscing. He said he had wanted to visit the Philippines for the longest time. When he was in high school, the Philippines was a leader in Asia. Everyone wanted to go there. It was so well-developed. It's sad that because of political instability, the country is now at the bottom.

Tourism was so strong then. He said that today, no one hears about the Philippines anymore... attention DOT, I think this is a comment from a Malaysian who knows much about the Philippines but hasn't seen it yet. Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising tool and in order to utilize that, we have to attract the ordinary backpacker to visit the country among others.

He was well-read since he knew all our presidents from Marcos to GMA. He said that the people power thing is not giving a good image of the country. It makes investors feel that the Philippines is unstable and that anything could happen anytime. I guess one EDSA was enough for a proud moment. But the second, the third or even a fourth is just too much.

He said that people like him were very scared to invest in the Philippines. And it also has a lot to do with how the media projects the country. Attention Philippine media, he was right in saying that you have the prerogative on how to present the country. There are so many good things you can show the world and yet you chose all the negative things since that is what sells. Can we please do something constructive and productive.

In the eyes of a foreigner, the coup was bad and the fact that it was immediately crushed sent good signs abroad. Listen up GMA and the opposition, quit the bickering! If you really love our country, sit down, settle your differences and start doing your jobs right. No more family members and their cronies taking advantage of the people's money, no more unlawful arrests or human rights violations, no more street rallies and other disruptive exercisies, no more grandstanding at legislative inquiries. Stop it! While both sides are in a power struggle, Juan de la Cruz is getting poorer, his standard of living going down ever further. Sigh!

Then he said it was good that I travelling while I was young. While one is not yet committed to his family, he should try to visit the world since the knowledge one gets from travel is much more than what we get from any formal education. Once you have a family, you will no longer have any time for educational travel.

It was nice listening to his thoughts. Anyway, I arrived at the LCC-T at about 1 p.m. and had lunch at a fast food which served local food. It was another nasi lemak. Ever since that trip to Kota Kinabalu last year, it's one of the dishes I crave for especially the sambal sauce. When I get back to KL on the 17th, it's Indian food I will be looking for.

On another note, Kota Kinabalu is one of only 12 cities in Malaysia. In fact before 1994, there were only five. At least they know what a city means. Here in the Philippines, some rural municipality for some reason becomes a city only because it satisfied land area and population. Hehe! At the same time, they are merging localities globally. The opposite is happening in the Philippines since we have so many LGUs. I think we should cut the number in half!

I was quite early for check-in for the Phnom Penh flight but it's better to be early than to be left behind. On the bus, there was this American girl who was close to tears since she was already late for her flight. Low cost carriers are very strict with time and counters close exactly one hour before departure. So don't even think of being late. Hehe! Left Malaysia at about 3:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Singapore: Sunny island set in the sea

I had been travelling for over four hours by now but it was still a long way to Singapore. It was a one hour and a half bus ride from the new KLIA LCC-T (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) to Kuala Lumpur. I reached KL Sentral Station at about 10:15 p.m. and took another bus from there to the Pudu Raya Bus Station. From there, I took a bus to Singapore which was about six hours. For dinner, I had nasi lemak on the plane and mee rebus at the stopover midway between KL and Singapore. This is the second time I've done this border crossing to Singapore so it wasn't much of a hassle. I got there at 4 a.m. after 12 hours of non-stop travel!

As soon as I got down, I gave my SSEAYP friend Leon Ong a ring. Hehe! He had thought I was arriving the next day but he went straight
to fetch me at the Golden Mile Food Centre where the bus dropped us off. And of course, since we were in Singapore, we went straight for food. Hehe!

Breakfast was soya... tau huay and soya milk. I hope I got the spelling right but that is taho to us Filipinos, although the Singapore version does not have syrup or sago, just boiled peanuts. After breakfast, we went straight to Leon's flat and it was off to bed for me.

Obviously, I slept the whole morning. I had been to Singapore several times before so I've seen most of the sights. Things you shouldn't miss include walking tours around the colonial district or even better, a boat ride on the Singapore River which comes complete with a narrated recording of the history of the former British colony and the buildings you pass by; and trips to Sentosa Island, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay and of course, Chinatown and Little India. In the evenings, there is the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo.

Anyway, I had breakfast take two when I woke up prepared by Leon's mom since he was at work. After lunch, we bought my bus ticket back to KL. Driving around Singapore is indeed refreshing. It's an urban jungle. Not the concrete one but literally, the island is very green with trees! You have modern buildings right beside virgin forests. I hope Mayor Atienza learns to follow the Singapore example. He should stop cutting trees at the Arroceros Forest Park and should even start planting trees all over Manila! I also wonder where Bayani Fernando got this idea that trees cause slow traffic. I still remember that Katipunan incident where he wanted to get rid of all those big trees. I heard Singapore even imports big trees for their downtown areas.

Check out the photo of the East Coast Parkway (ECP). In the middle island, you have trees and bougainvillea shrubs in full bloom. At the sides, you also have trees and flowering shrubs. All pedestrian overpasses and flyovers have hanging bougainvillea shrubs on either side and ivy crawling up the concrete posts. It saves up on paint since the green ivy does the trick of covering the concrete. I laud Bayani for the cadena de amor but I think he should first make ivy crawl up the MRT posts then let the cadena vines to grow over them so that even if the cadena vines dry out which happens quite often, it's still green underneath. Maybe the NLEX and SLEX could also learn a lesson or two from the ECP.

Another thing is the urban planning is nothing but excellent! You feel there is so much space despite the fact that land is scarce in Singapore. In the Philippines, it's the opposite. We have so much land but everything feels so cramped up. Sigh! Can our mayors please create forest parks in their jurisdictions. We need trees to breathe! At the same time, Singapore was able to eradicate its slums thanks to the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Maybe Gawad Kalinga and the HUDCC could learn a thing or two from the HDB.

And all over Singapore, you had centuries old buildings and shop houses freshly painted. Hello again Mayor Atienza, please see how Singapore does it. They don't go around demolishing old buildings like the Jai Alai, YMCA and San Lazaro or plan trashing the Army Navy Club and Elks Buildings. In fact doing that in both Singapore and Malaysia is a crime. The trend in most old cities all over the globe today is urban renewal and renaissance or "re" which stands for restoring, regenerating, rebuilding, reviving, resurrecting these old urban centers, not demolishing old buildings like Mayor Atienza does.

Later in the afternoon, we met up with Dawn Pereira, another SSEAYP batchmate and went for some kaya roti at the Ya Kun Kaya Toast along China Street. Yummy! Hehe! I had a Horlicks drink to go with it. I wonder why those Horlicks candies are no longer available in the Philippines. I used to love them as a kid.

After that snack, it was off for early dinner. I really consider Singapore and Malaysia as food havens since there is so much to eat thanks to the mixture of many cultures which includes Chinese, Malay and Indian. The photo of the hawker centre above is in Ang Mo Kio. It is however a regular Singapore scene which you can find almost everywhere. I definitely had to have some char kuey teow which is a fried noodle dish with scallops. But aside from that, we also ordered oh-luak which was oyster omellette with wansuy and green onions, and chendol for dessert.

Then is was off to somewhere I haven't been to before. The best place to take a photo of the Singapore skyline is a bridge which is rarely visited by tourists. You park at Suntec City and it's a short walk from there. Wow! Great view!

And we weren't done eating yet since we met up with Singapore PYs Vincent and Francis. I had satay which is the Malay version of our barbecue, ice-cold sugar cane juice, chai tow kway the Chinese version of carrot cake and roti john. We were done eating at 10:30 p.m. since I had to catch my bus back to KL which was the last bus for the night. The first one in the morning was at 7:30 a.m. and I would be late for my flight if I took that one. So it was less than 24 hours in Singapore but it was most worth it.

I arrived in KL at 4 a.m. Tired from all that travelling, I got myself a room at a backpackers place for less than US$10 which was good enough for a few hours of sleep and a shower before I left for the airport. Zzzzzzzz!
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