This could be viewed as the 3rd and final installment of my trip to SE Asia in 2006 - as a sequel to my two previous TRs outlining 1) my trip from OKC to SGN (view here), and 2) trip from SGN to HAN and a tour of north Vietnam (here ).
We'd pretty much planned out our trip before leaving the US and knew that we'd have a few spare days between returning from the north and departing back to the US. I suggested trying to make a quick trip to Cambodia, as I was very keen on adding another country to this trip and seeing the temples at Angkor. My friends agreed, and the guy who had arrived in SGN before us checked into prices briefly and they seemed reasonable. So before we left for our tour of the north, we found a very nicely priced 3 day itinerary including tours of both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap/Angkor and quickly booked it. The package included VN flights from SGN to PNH and REP to SGN as well as a speedboat ticket for the trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It would be a chance to visit another destination that's still off-the-beaten-track to some degree, and Cambodia being Cambodia, we figured it wasn't exactly a bad idea for this short a trip to have everything pre-arranged for us.
Date: August 4, 2006
STD/ATD: ~1145 (ontime)
ATD/ATA: ~1245 (ontime)
Equip: ATR-72 (VN-B248)
Duration: 45 minutes
Load: ~30-40% (one class)
We took a taxi to the International Terminal at SGN and arrived in plenty of time. Judging by the lines at check-in (there weren't any!), I could tell that this would be a very light flight. Interestingly enough, I had no idea what type of aircraft would be used on this route, as at the time VN had a very unusable website with barely any information available. Check-in was painless and we proceeded to pay the rather hefty departure tax of $14USD. Paying it wasn't too big a deal, but we realized that after we came back a few days later and left for good back to the US, we'd have to pay it again! Ah well. Proceeded upstairs to immigration where I had luckily kept my entry form - though I'm not sure that was communicated to us clearly upon entry. If I had one gripe about Vietnam, it would be that their customs agents sure take their time. Finally after what seemed like an hour (but was more likely 20 minutes), we passed through without any undue hassle and made our way to the departure gate. By the way, did anyone else get miffed that Vietnam immigration doesn't stamp your passport, but stamps the visa instead? I'd realized this after entering the first time but didn't build up the nerve to ask why. So I have no proof, in my passport anyway, that I was actually in Vietnam
I didn't suspect that we'd be on an ATR right away because so many departures there use remote gates, so it wasn't until we pulled up to the bird in the bus that I saw the turboprop. Good thing, too, as light as our load was today (I wonder how loads normally run on this route?). Boarded via the rear stairs as is the norm on ATRs and we revved up and departed swiftly. I'd been assigned an aisle seat, which was a bit annoying on such an empty flight, and I asked the male FA if I could switch to a window. I'm not sure he understood me completely, which is why I think he said "no." But I'm not sure and moved about halfway through. Just a beverage service on this flight even though it was lunch time (not even a snack!). As we approached PNH, I finally whipped out the Exilim:
We landed smoothly and taxied to the terminal:
And one of my favorite pics EVER:
Oh, apologies for the timestamps by the way. Right before we left SGN, I dropped my camera on the edge of the dresser at the hotel, shattering my screen, so we frantically got in touch with my friend's cousin who let me borrow his camera for the trip - and thank goodness as I don't think my non-A.nutter friends would have thought of taking these pics!
But anyway, after deplaning we proceeded inside to the visa-on-arrival area. We'd shrewdly gotten passport photos done in Saigon for approx 20,000 Dong I believe (barely more than a dollar), saving us whatever they would have charged us to have them done there. I don't know how much it would have been, but I'm sure more than I would have liked to pay! After filling out the mandatory tedious paperwork, we handed our passports and applications to an assembly-line style of workers. It seemed there was one person to take our materials, another to review them, another to tear off a sticker for the visa, another to place the visa in the passport, etc. But anyhow, we finally got our visas and made our way through immigration, baggage claim, and stepped outside into Cambodia!
We were met by our tour guides who took us to our hotel (Hotel Cara), which was GREAT - I highly recommend it! Here's a shot inside our room:
After that we went on a tour of some of the city's landmarks. Phnom Penh, the capital city, isn't near the tourist spot that Siem Reap has become, but it has it's fair share of attractions, and is probably a more realistic representation of Cambodia. In fact I'd argue that if you went to Siem Reap only, you're probably not seeing much of the "real Cambodia" at all. I'd read up on a little bit about Cambodia, Pol Pot, and the recent struggles with crime, child prostitution, and corruption, but I have a feeling I got a very "sheltered" tour - I never really saw the poorer areas of town (on the ground anyway). The area of our hotel was surrounded by what seemed to be upscale apartments - and everyone drove a Lexus or Mercedes! I got the feeling most of the residents in this area were foreigners or diplomats. We returned in the evening to our hotel, and a few minutes later we decided to cross the street and pick up a few beers from the Total. Never had a felt so creeped out in my life, I dont know why, but I just had a weird feeling about the place. After returning to the hotel I asked the clerk "Is it safe to walk outside at night?" "No," he said with a smile. Quite a bummer, because I really felt like going out and getting an "un-guided" tour of the city, but maybe that wasn't such a bad idea after all.
But anyway, here's the monument commemorating their independence from France:
The Royal Palace:
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - this was not a place for the faint of heart:
The next morning we awoke bright and early, the same tour guides met us at the our hotel and dropped us off at the boat pier for our ride. Here's a cabin shot:
Not our boat, but a clone:
We settled down inside, but I quickly became claustrophobic and it was quite loud where we were towards the back (due to the engine), so decided to have a look outside. Now I knew why half the seats were empty inside the cabin!
Typical lakeside dwelling:
It was definitely a bit nervewracking - you're basically walking down a 2 inch plank of wood with only a thin railing to hold on to - but the ride out here was definitely worth it. I borrowed a "Lonely Planet Southeast Asia" from another passenger and it mentioned the poor safety standards on these speedboats and the drownings that have occurred. I just pretended not to know that for the rest of the ride. About 4 hours we slowed down and were met by the "tugboat" that would tow us to Siem Reap:
A floating village close to Siem Reap - the poverty there was unlike anything I'd seen. It was quite a strange experience too - as many of the younger children would eagerly wave to the tourists, who would wave back. I just that that was a bit eerie. You just wonder what will happen to those kids:
And finally we arrived at Siem Reap pier, if you can call it that! It consisted of a 2x8 (feet) piece of wood connecting the boat to terra firm (sorry about the big head in the way!):
We carefully made our way down and paid a tout $2 each to get our bags for us which were still stuck in the back cargo hold of the boat. That's quite a rip-off for Cambodia but I wasn't too enthusiastic about trying to re-board and get my 50 lb suitcase down that plank. We were met by our guide for the next two days and quickly realized that it was going to be a long two days, lol. He just tried too hard to be "cool" and entertain us, and told really bad dirty jokes. But anyway, here are a few highlights of the temples at Angkor. Just some quick background info: the Angkor temples were constructed by kings of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from about 800 AD to 1400 AD, when it was sacked by the Thais. The ruins of the temples and city were stumbled upon in the 1500s ago by European explorers, and work has been underway since then to restore the temples. Siem Reap has since entered the tourist circuit, in fact almost excessively. Our tour guide told us that such a large chunk of tourist revenue is leaving Cambodia that the vast majority of people are not benefiting. Nonetheless, the temples are truly stunning pieces of architecture and places of worship! Really overwhelming to the senses, especially if you follow or are interested in Eastern religions. Here are some highlights:
Ta Prohm Temple (I believe Lara Croft:Tomb Raider was filmed here):
India-Cambodia cooperation - not sure if this is a good thing haha:
The main show, Angkor Wat:
Offering a prayer Khmer style:
Bayon Temple - temple of the Buddhas:
These girls were too cute - one of them asked where I was from - I said "India" - then started singing "Dhoom chale dhoom..." hahaha - and yes I did buy postcards from them
Dinner and dance show strictly for tourists:
Well soon enough it was time to head to REP for our flight to SGN. Check-in went smoothly - lines weren't bad but I could tell there would definitely be more people on this flight than our inbound to PNH. We weren't aware of the hefty $25 departure tax that's not included in the ticket price - thank goodness they took Visa because I was running a bit low on cash! By this time I'd worn out my borrowed camera's battery and I didnt have a chance to charge it, so I just have a few very crappy photos inside the terminal. This is a VN F70 departing for SGN, left about an hour before our flight:
I would have taken more but I was paranoid as usual and asked one of the airport employees whether I could take photos, but she obviously didn't know english so I didn't, then took some really quickly. I doubt it would have been a problem though. In fact, Jsnww81 proves me wrong here quite nicely. See his report for much better pics of REP.
Date: August 6, 2006
Equip: A320 (didn't catch the reg )
Duration: 45 minutes
Load: 100% in Y
The flight was delayed for a bit because the Captain announced that we were waiting for late-arriving passengers. They must have been important! Or maybe VN is just nice and doesn't leave without people Either way, the flight went smoothly - we were served a snackbox that contained a meat sandwich of some sort (probably better to not ask in Vietnam!), grapes, and some water which I thought tasted weird, but hey I lived to tell about it. As usual, the Vietnam immigration officials took their time, and this time I actually got asked a few questions "Why are you visiting Vietnam?" "How long are you staying this time?" - I guess not too surprising because the officer could clearly see that I'd already entered and exited. But he seemed satisfied with my answers and sent me on my way.
I thought Vietnam Airlines was very satisfactory for our trip. They seem to have pretty good service for what they do and are reliable. And the trip to Cambodia was amazing. I just felt a bond with the place that I can't really describe - maybe because so much of what I saw reminded of me of India, including their culture and customs. Many of the people looked really Indian too. I was thankful that we'd managed to hit Phnom Penh as well as Siem Reap, although you could argue that we didn't get to spend enough time in either place by doing that. I really hope they can move past the dark days of Pol Pot quickly and develop as a nation. I'd definitely recommend visiting and will definitely go back when I get a chance - and hopefully spend a bit more time soaking it all in. It was a bit too quick to really see much and we agreed on this after arriving back to the US, but oh well, always easy to play QB on monday morning.
Well that pretty much concludes my Asian adventure for 2006. We departed SGN the following evening and returned to OKC via the same routing (through NRT and DFW), the only difference was we flew VN from SGN to NRT. Their service wasn't bad for an overnight flight, but there was no IFE that I noticed of any sort which would be their only shortcoming. Otherwise the cabin was comfortable enough and the service was also quite good. A beverage was served after takeoff (around 1230 AM), and full breakfast was served before landing at NRT. Upon landing the purser came on and said "Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Kansai.....(awkward pause)....Excuse me, welcome to Narita." That's more like it! I had a little less than 5 hours at NRT so I tried to leave the airport for a bit and possibly catch the train to Narita City, but they warned me that I probably didn't have enough time In hindsight, I would have loved to just get a Japanese stamp and see at least the departures side of NRT, but oh well, maybe next time!
As always thanks for reading - hope you guys enjoyed - and be sure to leave me some comments!!!