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A Perfect Day in Angkor Wat

Today’s guest post is by Sara, who runs the blog The Bag Under the Bed.

Among all Asian countries I have visited, Cambodia is one of my favorites.

It’s true, it’s not as popular as Thailand, or posh as Japan but this country holds a special place in my heart.

In October 2015, I flew there for a short time before heading to Vietnam.

Even if my husband and I didn’t have much time to spend in Cambodia, we knew, for sure, that we couldn’t miss a stop at the famous Angkor Wat complex.

According to the Unesco website “Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple that with its countless sculptural decorations, one of the most widely recognized temples in Siem Reap because of the giant stone faces. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging program to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.”

angkor wat

Really impressive, isn’t?

Angkor Wat is more or less 330 km (205 miles) far from the capital city, Phnom Penh.

To cover this distance was the main problem to solve since we were traveling on a tight schedule.

By doing some online search, I found out that there are several domestic flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the closest city to the temple area.

The problem was that, even if the flight was only 50 minutes, we were worried about the time we had to spend at the airport. We calculated that we were going to waste, at least, half a day for a very short flight. As if this was not enough, the cost was around 200$ return per person.

We felt discouraged since we had no clue about how to make it to Angkor Wat but we didn’t want to give up on our goal! I don’t know how much time I had spent on the Internet before I stumbled upon the Giant Ibis website. This Asian bus company connects Phnom Pehn and Angkor Wat, daily.

But…surprise, surprise, they also have night buses (departure times 10.30 pm – 11.00 pm – 11.30 pm) This turned out to be the perfect solution for us.

The night buses are modified vehicles (they feature single sleepers with their own recharge stations). A blanket and bottle of water are included in the price ticket. On the bus, there is also a toilet.

All of this for 15$ (plus 1$ for the credit card processing fee).

We spent in total 32$ return for a 6 hours ride. The bust departed from the Central Market in Phnom Penh (immediately outside the Giant Ibis office).

We slept comfortably during the entire ride.

Very early in the morning, we were in Siem Reap.

We had made prior agreements with our tuk-tuk driver to come and pick us up at the bus terminal.

angkor wat passHis name was Mr. Phally.

We had found his website on the Internet and decided to contact him while organizing our excursion to Angkor Wat. The several positive reviews about his services convinced us to hire him.

He offered to take us around the archeological site with his tuk-tuk and to provide also an English guide, for more or less 50$

After the meeting, we arrived at the Angkor Wat Ticket Center (it opens at 5.00 am and closes at 5.30 pm)

We paid the ticket to get a one day pass.

On the pass there was our picture too, that was taken directly at the counter. This because the passes are strictly personals.

Back then the ticket was 20$ per person (quite expensive if you consider that the monthly average salary in Cambodia is 80-100$).

UPDATE: The price has almost doubled, from February 2017.

The one day pass costs now 37$ (a quite substantial increase, I would say).

Passes are available for 1, 3, 7 days and both cash and credit cards (Visa, Mastercard, UnionPay, JCB, Discover and Diners Club) are accepted.

We knew very well that we were going to enter a religious place so we made sure to have our shoulders and knees covered.

Since when traveling, we feel like guests in a foreign country, we try our best in being respectful of the local religion, custom, and culture.

Our first stop was Angkor Thom, the grandest iconic temple, and then we continued to Bayon, one of the most widely recognized temples in Siem Reap because of its giant stone smiling faces. During the rest of the day we had the chance to visit the Victory Gate, Thommanon, Chau say Thevoda, Ta Keo temples, and the Elephant Terrace. Our English speaking guide was always with us, providing explanations about the architecture and the history of the Khmer Empire. After each stop, we were offered fresh water and towels from Mr. Phally that, in the meantime, was also guarding our backpacks.  We had lunch in a local restaurant inside the complex and we could rest and relax for a while. Our visit continued to Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider Temple), Banteay Kdei and Srah Srang temples.

It was incredible to see how the vegetation and the majestic trees had been able to become part of the architecture style in itself. We couldn’t help but sit down on a rocky bench, admiring in awe, the fairy scenario in front of us.

We appreciated very much not only the visit but also the time spent with our guide. He allowed us to ask several questions about life in Cambodia, about the challenges of living in a developing country and what do locals think of the hordes of tourists invading the Siem Reap area.

It was a truly enlighting excursion, very spiritual and carefree.

Yes, mere words can’t express how it feels to visit Angkor Wat.

We also met some of the “Angkor Wat children”. Every day, the kids living in the area, enter the complex and try to sell postcards or pens to tourists.

They are friendly, maybe a little bit pushy, but really sweet. You can’t help but be moved to compassion toward them. A little girl stopped us; she wanted to sell us something. We didn’t buy anything, instead, we gave her some small money and we asked her for a picture. Maybe, not everybody would agree with doing this but we felt that, at the end of the day, that money could just give a help to a struggling family.

Our day just flew away.

We left the complex after having enjoyed a magical sunset.

We spent the rest of the evening exploring Siem Reap and its vast local market. There were also stalls selling typical food: snakes, cockroaches, scorpions, and other various insects. They were all boiled or fried, ready to be eaten. Sorry to say but we couldn’t make it, we ended up having a burger at the Hard Rock Café.

At around 11.00 pm we took our night bus to come back to Phnom Penh.

We still cherish wonderful memories of this experience and we highly recommend it to everyone.

Just in case, if this post has made you want to visit Angkor Wat, here you find some practical tips:

-Plan your visit well in advance, according to the weather conditions (the wet season is from May to October).

-Rely on a local guide/driver to bring you around the complex: it is massively huge. It’s easy to get lost.

-Wear comfortable shoes. If you plan to visit during the dry season, especially, remember to have some water along with a hat and sunglasses.

-Check on the Tourism Cambodia website for updates about entrance fees, opening hours and other information.

-Even if at the Sales Ticket Counter they will take a picture of you, bring a couple of passport photos. (You never know)

-Unless you want to spend 7 days inside Angkor Wat, make some research to find out which are the places or temples you don’t want to miss.

-Don’t forget your camera.

Finally: relax and enjoy your unforgettable experience.

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The Misty Mountains of Jirisan, South Korea

wild tea of jirisan
wild tea of jirisanJirisan is a mountain range in the far south of South Korea. The surrounding county, Hadong, is home to Korea’s “wild tea”, which has been cultivated here for over 1000 years.
I arrived late in the afternoon with my wife and we took a bus through beautiful scenery following the river to the village of Agyang. We got off the bus and walked up the hill to a quiet and quaint little village of traditional Hanok houses. There were a lot of shops selling pottery and tourist souvenirs but they were all closed, it seemed as if we had the village almost to ourselves!
After a dinner of local noodles we found a small shop selling the local tea and had our first try. It was the first pick of the year, before the rain season. The green tea was smooth and had a note of toasty rice to it with a fresh finish. We drank about three pots and then headed to bed.

Ssangyesa Temple: the Most Important Site in Jirisan

We got up early and took a 30 minute bus ride to Ssanggyesa, passing many tea plantations on the way. When we arrived the first thing we did was go to see the original tea plantation which was started by Dae-Ryeom, who was sent to China as an envoy in AD828. Since then, the field has been preserved and the current tea trees are unkempt, left to grow naturally, and so it is called “wild tea”. I picked a few buds off a bush to take back and brew later.
After that we headed up to the temple, which is the first Korean one I have been to. A major difference from Chinese temples I noticed is that it is an active place of worship ad cultivation, rather than a tourist site. As you enter the temple signs appear in multiple languages asking for silence. There were several natural wells you could drink mountain water from, which I collected to brew my tea leaves I picked with.
The temple is also famous as being the place where abbot Jingam created Korean Buddhist music after studying in Tang Dynasty China.
Hiking up the beautiful trail behind the temple the only people we saw were monks on their way to a meditation retreat in a bamboo grove. There were truly wild tea trees growing on the side of the path, which looked as if they had been heavily picked, I’m guessing by the monks who do produce their own tea.
Later, we headed back to the village for lunch, which was a vegetarian meal consisting of lots of small dishes, one of which was tea leaves pickled in vinegar (unfortunately, I can’t say I was a huge fan of it).
In the afternoon we first visited a small shop and sat with some local monks drinking a black tea. The Hadong black tea was fairly light, quite similar to Tanyang Gongfu, a Chinese variety from Fujian. I personally think it would have been better had it been brewed with more leaves. After we left the shop we saw a very old woman by the roadside selling herbs picked from the mountains. She had some rough tea leaves in a bag for a very cheap price, which we decided to buy. As you would expect from rough leaves the flavour was fairly course and bitter, actually it reminded me of cheap green teabags you would buy in the UK supermarkets.

The Tea Museum

Just below that original tea plantation I mentioned was the Tea Culture Museum. The museum exhibition itself is really of little interest, with some inaccurate information on the history and classification of tea, and some pieces of ancient teaware, but one part that did interest was offering hands on lessons on making green tea as well as performing tea ceremony. Unfortunately the making tea lesson was only available to groups of people who prebooked, but we did get to try our hand at Korean tea ceremony.
I will talk about the ceremony later, first I want to mention the teas we tried and bought in the museum shop. The green tea was excellent. We tried a “pre-rain” first flush, the cream of the crop so to speak. It’s flavour was bold and powerful, but not overwhelming. Unfortunately this tea was way out of my price range, so I went for a third flush, which still didnt come cheap. We also tried a Wulong, which to me tasted very similar to a light black tea, different to Chinese or Taiwanese wulongs.
On the whole, the Hadong wild teas are very good, especially the greens. They are expensive which I think is due to several factors; the small amount grown, the organic and fully handmade processing and for Koreans it is a national pride. I have often found, like in Britain, the Koreans will pay much more for locally made produce than for imports, while China is exaclty the opposite.
In the tea cultural centre they were offering free classes on tea ceremony. The lady who taught us was very cultured and polite. The first thing we learnt was how to properly sit, and how to handle the tools. Sitting should be kneeling, but you must not step your feet on the cushion as you kneel down. When you handle something you should use your right hand, palm up, and the left hand also palm up pointing at your right elbow.
To start the ceremony you bow and say to the guest “차 한잔 드십시오” (tsa hanzan te sip siyo), which means “please enjoy a cup of tea”. The tea ceremony is more ritualised than a Chinese ceremony, but simpler than the Japanese one. The ceremony is full of Confucian etiquette, with a definite hierarchy of who is given tea first and who drinks first. It generally starts from the oldest male present.
The room was layout was very beautiful, all wooden with tea sets layed out on the floor and a risen platform at the front where the teacher would give lessons to larger groups. It gave me the feeling of an ancient Chinese Confucian academy. I think Korea does a very good job of protecting and preserving the traditional culture, but they don’t always give due credit to their Chinese influences. I wish in the future I can see China work harder to promote these kind of activities as they have so much to offer.
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Koh Chang Thailand – Perfect Place to Chillout

koh chang beach

I’ve been in Asia eleven years now, and still never been to Thailand! I decided to change that, and got in contact with my friend Kieren Krygier, who runs The Martial Man, and he suggested I go to Koh Chang. Koh Chang is Thailand’s second largest island, and is right up on the border with Cambodia.

How to Get to Koh Chang

The island itself has no airport, but you can fly to nearby Trat and then take a ferry across. However, this is an expensive option, and so your best bet is either a taxi from Bangkok (about 4500 baht) or the cheapest but least comfortable is by bus. The journey is about five-six hours. Note that if you book a taxi via an online service, they will include the ferry ticket in the cost. We went with the taxi, as my wife gets car sick easily.

Where to Stay

Basically there is one road which goes around two thirds of the island, with almost all activity based on the west coast. There are several small towns along the windy and sometimes steep road which clings to the jungle-clad hills of the island. These towns are centered around a beach and are made up primarily of hotels, restaurants and other facilities catering for tourists; locals make up a very small population of fishermen and fruit farmers. We chose Kai Bae beach as by all accounts it was the most chilled out area, without the rowdy parties of the areas like White Sands beach or Lonely beach.

koh chang beach

For our week long stay, we stayed in two resorts, Gajapuri Resort and Awa Resort, which were right next to each other. Of the two, we prefered Gajapuri as it had a more personal feel. From the moment we checked in, the staff were constantly smiling and very friendly. We had some problems with our wifi, but nothing seemed like too much trouble for them. All of the rooms were small wooden huts, which were cool inside and had all the amenities you could need. The private beach was very small, but had several swings hung from palm trees right over the sea, which was a nice touch. You could have drinks or dinner on the sea, or even a massage. Awa was very nice too, I can’t say anything bad about it but it had a more commercial, large scale feel to it. We booked a beachfront room and somehow got upgraded to a suite! The rooms were all in one large building, which didn’t feel as intimate as Gajapuri’s individual huts. The deco was very cool though, very modern but with lots of Chinese ornaments and calligraphy, giving it a museum-like feel. Awa didn’t really have a proper beach though, there was an area of sand, and then a sudden drop off into the sea, but they also offered massage and drinks overlooking the sea which was nice. Breakfast had a massive buffet, more variety than Gajapuri, I guess as there were much more guests.

 

What to Do

As I said before, Koh Chang is mainly just a great place to chill out. The biggest draws are definitely diving/snorkeling, or trekking in the jungle. We went snorkeling with the company BB Divers. I had a look around at various diving companies, and decided either BB Divers or Scubadawgs were the best choices. They provide pretty much the same services (the Scubadawgs boat was behind us for the whole day out), but we chose BB just because the website had more information about the various sites. It seems for snorkeling, most people go to the Marine Park, although we chose the shipwreck and some local reefs. The reason for this decision was that the Marine Park tends to get masses of tourists, so I had read, and so while the wreck and local reefs were less suitable for snorkeling, the atmosphere was much nicer. The main downside was that as a snorkeler, you kind of feel like you are just tagging along with the divers; you are just left to do your own thing. We were however, really well looked after by one Chinese instructor and the Thai boat captian, as my wife and our Chinese friends got very seasick.

The rest of our time in Koh Chang was just spent eating, getting massages and chilling on the beach. I had a massage almost everyday, the cost was about 250 baht for an hour, and I tried several places. I didn’t have a bad massage once; all of them were excellent and some of the best massages I’ve ever had!

Should You Visit Koh Chang?

While it doesn’t have the most spectacular beaches I’ve ever seen, I think this is a trade off. The fact the beaches are fairly average (combined with the difficulty of getting here) means less people. While the island pretty much solely caters to tourism, its not overrun with people. The other thing is that you aren’t going to get much in the way of culture, temples or monuments here. Koh Chang on the whole is just a place to come and relax. So if thats what you want, then by all means come here.

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