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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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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.

If you liked this post, please come and subscribe to my new youtube channel focused purely on travel.

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Buying a Balisong in The Philippines

buying a balisong knife in taal

taal, hometown of the balisong knifeFor my last day in the Philippines, my new friends drove me out to Tagatay, to see the large lake with a volcano in the middle. It was about a two hour drive outside of Manila, most of which was spent just getting through the city traffic! As we got out of the city the air turned clean and fresh, and the temperature dropped slightly. The driving was still crazy though! Tagatay is a small town on the side of the lake, which is essentially a volcano with a lake in the middle, which has another smaller volcano on an island in the middle. We picked a restaurant and had lunch while admiring the view. Our lunch consisted of a local specialty of bone marrow soup and garlic rice, along with fresh coconut juice to drink. After lunch we drove further on, to the town of Taal, where the famous Balisong knives (aka butterfly knives) are made.

Taal is a fairly small town, with a descent amount of old Spanish houses and a very large 500 year old buying a balisong knife in taalchurch. It has a crumbly, run down feel to it, but has a definite charm. The streets were literally lined with shops selling knives and we found a decent looking one to check out. The girl selling the knives told us that usually the knives are homemade in the town, and she showed us a few tricks. After looking at a few blades I settled on a medium sized one which had a nice handle and seemed decent quality. I bargained the price to 450 pesos, so was fairly cheap.

After buying a knife we headed to the old church to take a look around, and also the old houses surrounding it.

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Mantis Exchange in Manila

On the second and third day in Manila, Arnold had a couple of students take me around Manila to see some of the sights. The first day, we went to Intramuros, the old Spanish colonial area of town. Intra means inside, and so this area is surrounded by a huge stone wall, built by the Spanish to protect themselves from uprisings or invaders. There are a few cobbled streets and many old houses and churches in this area. It is much quieter than the rest of Manila, and so is relaxing to walk around. We visited Fort Santiago, as well as a renovated Spanish house and a museum about Chinese-Filipinos.

Later that evening we went to Mall of Asia, the largest shopping mall in Asia, for a buffet and some drinks. Arnold and the students were celebrating their victory in the Macau lion dance tournament.

The third day I spent exploring Chinatown and more of Intramuros, before heading to Quaipo Cathedral and the large market behind it. The market is a haven for pickpockets, and it only took five minutes of being there before I had an old lady following me, constantly trying to stuff her hands in my pockets! She wasn’t even discreet about it! They have this idea that all white people are rich; but comparatively we are, as the level of poverty here is high. The market sells all kinds of things from amulets and charms, to folk medicine and fake DVDs. I didn’t buy anything though, I think I may go back another day to look at the amulets, and explore the Muslim district nearby.

Later we went over to Arnold’s school. The school is sponsored by the KMT, the government of Taiwan, so there are a lot of pictures of Chiang Kai Shek and Taiwanese flags up. Out of nowhere, Arnold asked me to teach the class. Without any preparation, I stuck together and warm up, did some stretching, then took the students through the basic stances of Taiji Mantis, showing them how to check their structure. I then introduced them to some basic partner exercises as well, arm conditioning, and Jie Hai Chui, and then adding some basic applications in. The students demonstrated some forms for me, and I showed a few Taiji Mantis forms to them as well.

For me, this was just day 3 in Manila, but was the last chance to hang out with them, as in the morning they left for Sinagpore, to take part in a lion dance competition. They really treated me well as a guest and I had a great time with them. I hope I can visit again, or they can come and visit me too.

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The Undiscovered North of Bali (and why hiring your own driver is awesome)

temple in the north of bali

Bali is one of Asia’s most popular destinations, and for good reason: the culture, the people, the natural beauty; however a lot of the island has suffered from over-development. When I visited with my family, I didn’t even bother with Kuta or Seminyak, instead I spent most of my time in the north of Bali, an area called Lovina.

temple in the north of bali

The northern area of Bali is much less visited, the only foreigners tending to be here either for the diving or dolphin watching, as well as a handful of retired Australians who have huge villas hidden away in the hills. In fact, this areas largest weakpoint also turns out to be its strongpoint: transport is very limited. The best thing you can do is either hire a car or hire a driver. We chose to hire a driver for two reasons: firstly, I don’t really want to drive on the windy roads with the crazy traffic, and two, a driver also acts somewhat as a tour guide. They can recommend sites, restaurants, and help you negotiate lower prices when shopping.

The driver we hired, a man called Agus, really made the trip for me. Balinese people are stereotyped to be really laidback, super friendly, and constantly happy. For Agus, this was definitely true. He organised some really cool trips, stuff I never would have found just relying on a Lonely Planet guide. For example, we decided we wanted to go to see the dolphins at sunrise, followed by snorkelling on the reef. Agus got us a boat that took us well away from the typical crowded snorkelling spots and we had a reef all to ourselves. Granted, seeing the dolphins, there were a lot of other boats, but there were hundreds of dolphins, and they only feed in one area.

The northern area also had some beautiful temples, some perched on rocks overlooking the sea, some in the jungle clad hills more inland. Hinduism in Bali is much more laidback than what I’d seen in India; there is no discrimination of caste, and no ill-treatment of women. It was a common site in Bali to see colourful parades and ceremonies, in fact my mum was joking that she was surprised Balinese ever get anything done with all the praying and rituals they do! For those interested in the more spiritual aspects of Balinese culture, the classic Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia is a must read.

If you are visiting the northern area of Bali, I would highly recommend the services of Agus. You can contact him at +6281805699660 or a.widiada@gmail.com.