Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Weekend In Phnom Penh

The good thing about being in KL is that Airasia makes it easy to take supershort (and super cheap) weekend trips to the neighbouring countries.

And so it was that one Friday morning I found myself on a flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia with my most favourite (and definitely most generous :D) shopping buddy - my mother!

the gorgeousness that is Cambodia from the sky
I simply love that bird's eye first view of a country you get from the plane although some times I get too excited and forget to take pictures.

a triple room for 10USD!
We stayed at Blue Dog Guesthouse which turned out to be a little bit far from the center of town. But fear not, it's not that far from the riverside and till today, it is the friendliest of all the guesthouses I've stayed in. For just USD 10, we got a triple room with an attached bathroom with hot water! The room was spacious, had a nice big window as you can see in the above picture and the whole place was super clean with a nice area to lounge outside and watch movies. The family who runs it are nice and friendly but they are very busy with their own little kids to attend to, so if you want a lot of attention from your guesthouse host, this is probably not the place for that. But no worries, for there's always Kok (no, I am not making up his name and yes, it is pronounced like the word for a male chicken) the brother of the owner and in house tuktuk driver to keep you company!

One of the places we went to was the Royal Palace. Entrance fee was a wee bit steep. Totally worth it though since it is very well maintained and huge enough that it would take you a bit of time to properly explore the place. There's a big room with the floor made entirely out of pure silver, long walls of Ramayana illustrations, multiple Buddhas and a few Hanuman (a figure in Hinduism) statues to keep you entertained

Cambodian version of apom

If you know me, you would know that one the things I like the most about this whole traveling thing is the food. Phnom Penh outdid itself in that department. Every meal I took was spectacular, everything I put in my mouth made me hear the singing of angels in the background. It wasn't particularly cheap but so worth it!

One of the places we ate at was the restaurant right next to the guesthouse. I can't remember the name of the shop :( but I do remember that every single dish on that menu was a fixed price of USD 2 and came with tea and lots of rice. It took two people to finish all that delicious goodness of ginger chicken. No picture, because I couldn't wait to dig in :D

At the Royal Palace
Since this is Cambodia after all, there are plenty of touts and a good number of them are little kids who look like they should be in school. This is the place to get your pirated versions of lonely planets and other books on Cambodia. Poorly printed, but at USD5 per guidebook I've got no complaints. The problem with little kids being peddlers is that it is very difficult to say no. They are too young! Add that to the fact that most of them speak perfect, unaccented English and can do complex currency conversions in their head, it makes you realize how fast they had to grow up.

Traditional musician, Royal Palace
We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. For the uninitiated, it is the school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a prison. Needless to say, it was horrifying. I took some pictures of the barbed wire, the tombs, the torture instruments, the prison cells and the blood stained floors but it doesn't feel right to put those together with the happy pictures in this post. Maybe another post, maybe not, since it is too depressing. Visiting the place makes Phnom Penh seem even more remarkable after wards. It's amazing and impressive how quickly they picked themselves up.

by the riverside
You see that boat in the picture above? Bargain hard enough and you can get that whole thing to yourself for a one hour sunset cruise for less than USD10. If I am not mistaken, you get drinks on board as well. Alternatively, if you are on a budget, you can do what we did and just take the local ferry for a ride to the other side and back, for less than 50cents per person! Plus you get the rather interesting experience of the ferry breaking down halfway and listening to Lady Gaga's 'poker face' dubbed in Khmer (Cambodian language) while repairs are done.

Next, the thing I'm most excited to share about, the shopping. Brands like Levis have factories in countries like Cambodia. Cheap labour, you see. The good news for us is, this means that the branded clothes which got rejected because of minor flaws you wouldn't even notice end up in the local markets!

In Phnom Penh, that would be the Russian Market, close to the Genocide Museum. Every tuktuk driver knows the place so getting there wouldn't be a problem. Branded apparel (including winter clothing) are really insanely cheap. I got a few tank tops for USD2 each, a nice velvety hoodie for USD 4 (!!!), a couple of blouses all ranging from USD 2 - 3. Navigating the poorly lighted maze of stalls is as hot and sweaty as it can possibly get but really, shopping has never been cheaper.


The thing to do in the evenings is to join the locals and chill by the riverside. Lots of food stalls and the best part is, most are not tourist rip offs but authentic local stuff. I felt that the atmosphere was really nice, just like the rest of Phnom Penh. I'm aware that for some reason, the city isn't very popular with travelers and tends to get somewhat of a bad reputation.

I have no idea why anyone wouldn't like it, since I loved it! I feel like they have achieved a kind of interesting balance between being energetic, vibrant and yet staying true to their own culture.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Muang Ngoi Neua

This will be the last blog post about the Lao trip that I did ages ago! I'm sure you must be as bored reading about it as I am writing about it, so one last town (village?) to talk about that is Muang Ngoi Neua. I don't know about you, but I find these Lao place names impossible to remember tongue twisters!

Anyway, the whole riverside place consists of one street and is accessible only by boat, from Luang Prabang (which would take hours) or from Nong Khiaw (20000 kip, 1 hour). I wasn't even planning to go to this place until one other traveler I met on the song theaw from LuangPrabang to Nongkhiaw kept raving on and on about the insane gorgeousness of the boat ride. So of course I had to get here after hearing all that!

Them men in orange always get the front seat
I can't say for sure about the boat from Luang Prabang, but from Nong Khiaw there were 2 trips in the morning. They were supposed to leave one hour apart, but since this is Laos, both boats ended up leaving roughly 15minutes apart, about an hour later than the scheduled time for the 2nd boat. Moral of the story? In Laos don't bother rushing to get the boat (or anything at all) on time. It will leave late anyway.

Family of buffaloes chilling on the banks
Muang Ngoi is one of those places who seem to exist just for the dust covered tourist in search of the "real Laos" but that's alright in this case, because although touristy, the place is lovely and I loved it! Small, but interesting and lively. Do note that cellphone reception is next to zero (at least that's how it was when I was there) and there is only one place offering (insanely expensive and slow) internet. The restaurant with internet is easy to find but internet is only available at night because the generator isn't started up during the day.

On the way there
As for budget places to stay, they are all budget except for one fancy place to your immediate left at the boat landing. Most of them are doubles and cost 40000 kip per night, basic stuff with shared cold shower.

I stayed at Phonsavanh Guesthouse and if you are reading this looking for a place to stay in Muang Ngoi, I wouldn't recommend it. The stray dogs seem to congregate in front of this building every night and howl like they are possessed, the bathroom was very filthy, the rooms don't have much of a view, the flimsy bamboo walls mean that you can hear that couple two rooms away as though they are in bed with you. For the same price, you can get much better value accommodation and if you're lucky, one with a good view so speculate, people, speculate! Don't be lazy like I was and settle for the first cheap room you see.

Lovely Penny from Phonsavanh will approach you the moment you step off the boat into Muang Ngoi. Penny's a delightful host and the food is really good (buffet for 15000 kip), so go there for dinner. Just don't sleep there.

As always in less developed countries, bring your torches! The road is dark at night with no lights except for the occasional restaurant/GH.

Primary school on the left plus a huge field for the kids to play on

strong little girl!
There are a two caves a nice walk from Muang Ngoi. The trail is straightforward and well marked, about 5-6km one way if I remember correctly. The larger cave was alright, nothing jaw dropping but suitably large and well kept to justify the entrance fee, the smaller one further up was hardly a cave. (Or may be I missed it somehow and mistook a crack in the rock for the smaller cave? We'll never know.) Whatever it is, it's a nice walk. You can keep walking along the trail to get to tribal villages, but I couldn't as it was getting too late in the evening.

Trail (path?) to the caves

Shameless camwhoring after much walking, "Where the hell are these bloody caves?!"

Finally here!
 Also be forewarned that this place is also full of psycho roosters on steroids who start screaming their lungs out at 4 am, so no chances of sleeping in. Bring earplugs, please.

All in all, Muang Ngoi is a nice place. Chilled out, pretty scenery, good for a few days, might get a little bit boring after a while.

Bridge over shallow waters

So that's it. From now on I'll shut up about Lao PDR and stop boring you with minutiae on how pretty it is and how I dislike the food but love the coffee and blah blah blah...

until the next trip, of course!

This July :)