Last Day in Siem Reap, 2013

As we finished our tour of Ta Prohm and headed back along the forested path to our bus, Steven suddenly brought our group to a screeching halt by a cluster of unassuming bushes. He excitedly picked off one of the leaves and peeled it apart at its midrib to reveal a sticky, clear mucus stretched between the two halves. He explained to us that he and all the other kids in the village used to spend their playtime staring into these leaf-juice-bubbles like a telescope or using them as magnifying glasses.

steven's leaf

Growing up in the middle-class suburbs of LA, I found it fascinating that kids could get so much enjoyment out of a leaf. It was humbling–made me realize how (and I really hate this word because of its overuse in social media, but here it is) privileged I was. My playtime as a kid was lazing around in front of the TV, watching Scooby-Doo and Pokemon marathons, or playing Zoo Tycoon on my computer. Not to say that playing outdoors is inferior in any way; it’s just that I had greater access and freedom to do different things. Go hiking? Sure. Play house with my Beanie Babies? Totally. Go to the movies? Yeah, why not.

band of tro players

A cheery band serenaded us on the tro as we said our goodbyes to Angkor Wat.

A boy and his cow.

A boy and his cow.

Our time in Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without a delicious lunch–a light cucumber roll with picked bean sprouts and carrots, paired with sweet and sour sauce; red curry vegetables with a dollop of coconut cream to go with rice [“bai bai” in Khmer]; a delicious sesame roll; and a mini fruit platter of papaya, pineapple, dragon fruit, and and mango to boot.

last lunch in siem reap

I practically rolled out the door with such a filling lunch. Thankfully, our tour had arranged for us an hour-long massage for this very purpose.

massage parlor

Refreshed and no longer feeling the weight of a pot of curry and rice, we headed to the airport. Siem Reap airport is wildly busy for such a small hub–make sure you have enough time before your flight! Even though there were only 5 families in our group, it took the check-in counter more than an hour to get us all through.

siem reap airport

Goodbye, leah hai, Cambodia! How unfortunately quick 3 days passed, and how unforgettably magical was my experience here.

siem reap sunset

Advertisements

Ta Prohm, 2013

tree rising from rubble

The legs of the jungle, like the legs of a giant octopus, slither into the abandoned orifices–windows, doors, arches–of a decaying Buddhist monastery.

a scene out of tomb raider

It ensnares the sandstone columns, driving its roots deep into the veins of sanctuary walls. Ta Prohm.

entrance to ta prohm

Ta Prohm was constructed in 1186 AD and dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. Sanskrit inscriptions provide statistics on the temple’s wealth–housing 80,000 workers, 2,700 officials, and 615 dances. It was home to 500kg of gold, copious amounts of diamonds, pearls, precious stones, and silks.  (This all turned out to be an exaggeration of the actual numbers, in order to honor the king).

carvings and collapsed hallways

Its abandonment over the centuries left it susceptible to looting, and many of its relics are lost. Our guide, Steve, pointed out that many of the carvings, interestingly enough, were of dinosaurs (see the stegosaurus-like animal 2nd down). The Khmers may have known about dinosaurs for longer than we have!

central pavillion

Fig, banyan, and kapok trees parade their embellished home: hermit crabs of the forest. This is the central pavillion (I believe), where one must fend off pushy tourists for your share of this captivating stranglehold of stone terraces and flora. The impasse of centuries.

snapshots of ta prohm

 

collapsing arch

Angkor Thom, 2013

After our sunrise photoshoot, we met up with the rest of our group by the parking lot to head over to Angkor Thom [“thom” meaning “big”, so the larger of the Angkor temples and the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire].

women cooking by Angkor Wat

A tent was already setup by the trees by local women, who tossed fresh vegetables sizzling in fiery woks and stirred soup bubbling in cast iron pots.

our tuk tuk

Our tuk tuks were embroidered with a tapestry of kaleidoscope fabrics.

We set out on the dirt road, bouncing along to the beat of the rocks underneath our wheels. The lake we passed was blooming with pink waterlilies; how I wish I could join the women taking pictures!

women by waterlilies

Those opting for a better view traveled via elephant carriage.

travel by elephant carriage

We hopped off at Bayon, which sits at the center of the capital, the official state temple. Stone faces on the towers smiled gently down at us from, literally, every corner. A friendly reminder that the gods were always watching.

bayon architecture

There are 216 of these faces in Bayon, and it is hypothesized that they depict Jayavarman II himself. The other hypothesis is that the faces are of the bodhisattva of compassion, Lokesvara. Either explanation would fit, given that Khmer monarch traditionally saw themselves as a devaraja [“god-king”].

Sandstone friezes depicting everyday life in Angkor streamed across the walls. Most typical was a procession scene of elephants, mothers and children, and festivities or armies.

my mom and i having some fun at bayon

Kissed by the gods!

Bayon, with its rusting exterior and crumbling corners, is a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. There is a haunting other-worldliness that transcends the hustle and bustle of clicking cameras, waving tour flags, and bobbing visors.

Pieces of Bayon

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, 2013

a dark angkor watA small number of us shuffled bleary-eyed at the dark hours of 4 AM onto the bus, and back to Angkor Wat. We were going to catch the sunrise — one that, when lucky, is supposedly so vivid that it’s as if the sky were “an exploding volcano of ruby red magma” (Steven’s description).

tourists in the wingsWe weren’t the only ones. It was cold, in the high 30’s, low 40’s. We puffed small clouds of condensation, alongside dozens of other eager, amateur and professional photographers waiting in the wings for their next Instagram or 500px hit.

colors started filling the skyThe waning moon faded into gradients of blue and purple that began to color the sky, the silhouette of Angkor Wat traced in the background. Wrinkles of clouds folded in the peachy colors of sunrise.

angkor full sunriseIt had been an hour at this point, and slowly, but surely, the rounded head of the sun began to peek over the horizon. Inch by inch, it ascended.

my mom and IAlthough we weren’t able to see the “volcano”, we left Angkor Wat no less fulfilled. A perfectly still moat captured the sky.

reflections in the water

Siem Reap, 2013: the streets and nightlife

Snail cart

Snails were a common snack sold on the streets of Siem Reap. Wheeled carts overflowed with giant trays of snails parked alongside the roads, enough to pave a road with. The snails came cooked, and you could take home a small bag of chili sauce to go with them.

spice store

Storefronts of colorful spices and dried fruits could fill a library.

cherimoya cart

And one of my favorite fruits–cherimoya, or 釋迦 [shi jia]. Beautiful, custard-like deliciousness. Mmm. The cart owner patiently waited as Steven entertained our group with this fascinating fruit that you can’t find in the States.

a mid-morning nap

It seems like the most common form of transportation is these motorbike-carriage-things. Not sure if it’s because we’re in a touristy area or not.

sausage store

This fantastic array of sausages.

Dinner was back at the Sofitel–a rather standard buffet and underwhelming in comparison to their breakfast. The Cambodian desserts were delicious though!

khao dome and other dessertsI picked out some Khao Dome — coconut sticky rice filled with plantain and wrapped in banana leaves — and this coconut jelly with a gingko nut (can’t quite remember anymore?) center, also wrapped in a banana leaf. Couldn’t find the name of this dessert.

We were then treated to a private showing of the Aspara Dance. I was hoping we would be able to sit outside with the tealights and by the water, as I saw the night before. A treat nonetheless, considering  that this beautiful tradition was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, with 90% of artists and intellectuals eliminated during their regime.

apsara danceThe costumes of the Apsara are based on the devatas depicted in the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat. Delicate steps ticked in time with palms and fingers gracefully drawing out a story, arms pulling in and pushing out like soft waves breaking ashore. A mesmerizing performance, although I wish I understood more.

pub streetOur night ended by hitting Pub Street and getting at taste of Siem Reap nightlife. Neon lights laced the river and the viewing decks lining it. Every restaurant was bubbling with tourists gaily clinking bottles of beer.

souvenirs, silk, shirtsMy mom and I spent the better half of the hour we were allotted to explore, at the bazaar of beautiful Cambodian scarves and embroidery. Dozens of these stands ran along the avenue at the riverfront, like a fortress. It was all so cheap — 3 scarves for $10 USD!

Angkor Wat, 2013

The crown jewel of my first trip to SE Asia: Angkor Wat. I assumed it would be some long, arduous journey on the bus to reach the sacred city, but it took us a mere 20 minutes to roll out from the hotel into a parking space. Traffic was already starting to get heavy starting a few miles out from the entrance. Tour bus after tour bus queued up, shuttling the hundreds of photo-snapping, sunglasses-wearing, backpack-toting tourists that would soon flood the gates.

Angkor from beyond the moat

It was high noon. And hot. Monkeys stood guard atop wooden posts outlining the parking lot. Their eyes twinkled at every jostle of our backpacks, in anticipation of a tasty handout.

From the entrance looking backAngkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the early 12th century as a tribute to Vishnu, a Hindu deity, but the temple gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple near the end of the 12th century. Its architecture is based on Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology, with extensive bas-reliefs. The central quincunx of towers symbolizes the 5 peaks of Mount Meru, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding moungain ranges and ocean.

Angkor means “city” and Wat means “temple grounds” in Khmer. Interestingly enough, wat can also mean “small”. Thom, conversely, means “big”.

We crossed the moat, 190m (or 623 feet) wide, to reach the main entrance. The head of a naga peered down at us as we walked the causeway. Steven explained to us that the West door represents death (where those who pass must exit and funnily enough through which we were entering); the East door represents life; the South door is for commoners/civilians; the North door is for the “brainwashed” (can’t remember context anymore).

Tapping palm trees

Women in straw hats tapping palm trees for their sugar in bamboo tubes waved to us cheerfully as we walked down the city promenade.

Angkor Wat is built mostly out of blocks of sandstone. Elephants would haul giant stones from the quarries of Li Shi Shan, 50km (or 31 miles) away, to Angkor Wat. Engineers would drill holes into the stones for wooden piles to stand in. The stones would expand from water and the piles would get securely locked in as a result. Genius!

One of the most amazing details about Angkor Wat was that it never suffered damage from any sort of natural disaster. The sewage and piping was engineered so efficiently, that no matter the length or intensity of a downpour, all the rainwater would drain out of the temples within 15 minutes. Astounding!

Another testimonial to the architectural voodoo mastery of its designers and engineers was that the columns were completely in line with each other. As in, 500m of columns spanning the length of each side of the temple were so meticulously constructed that there is only .05cm difference at most in deviation from the center line.

perfectly aligned columnsEven more fascinating is that the column weights were calculated so precisely–i.e. each column was so identical–that they even crack in the exact same places. No more, no less. That level of accuracy and precision is mind-blowing to me. I can barely pin a ruler down hard enough to draw a proper straight line.

vendors and monkeys hanging around

Left: the drainage basin; middle: vendors; top-right: deity relief; bottom-right: monkey hoo ha ha

Running parallel to the promenade was an avenue of shacks topped by tarps, with vendors selling quintessential tourist tchotchkes–keychains, postcards, magnets–, fresh coconut, small bites, and beautiful linens embroidered with elephants.

the towersThe towers at Angkor Wat were used as a seasonal clock: the sun rises to the right of the complex in summer, and to the left in winter. Spring and autumn equinoxes rise directly above the center tower. This center tower was the symbolic center of Cambodia, the intersection of sacred and secular.

windows at sunset

Soft, sepia hues descended on the towers as dusk grew closer.

Our experience culminated in a steep ascension up the stairs of the central tower to greet Vishnu’s statue. Keep in mind that your clothing needs to be respectful if you want to go up the towers! I wore shorts that day and had to buy a skirt to cover myself up.

walking up the steps to the towerWe were given half an hour to pay our respects and tour the towers before queuing up in a line so long that it wrapped the perimeter of the towers, to begin our descent. The slope of the staircase is not for the faint of heart or those with acrophobia (me) — you couldn’t even see the next step when going down! It was terrifying.

angkor wat in 4 images

From left to right: pineapple shucking; flower reliefs; Vishnu; my group and I having some fun imitating 千手觀音 [qian shou guan yin], or Thousand Hand Guan Yin

The sun set behind the clouds and our visit came to a close. We returned to our bus via the causeway. Women skinned fresh pineapples by the water with unmatched efficiency and precision, skewering them before exchanging with a thirsty visitor for several thousand Cambodian riels.

Siem Reap, 2013: Amok Restaurant

Day 2, 12.26.2013

street of restaurantsOur first Khmer lunch of the trip was at Amok Restaurant on Street 9, near the Old French Quarter. The entrance is down a glass terraced corridor, with old neon sign for “Air Cond ->”. Amok is a delightfully colored, lilac building with blue chairs and cute, lacy, red tablecloths. The restaurant’s namesake arises from a Cambodian delicacy, amok fish. A curried stew made from coconut cream and milk, and a base of traditional Khmer spice-herb paste–lemongrass, kaffir limes and leaves, galangal (similar to ginger), garlic, nhor leaves (like kale), turmeric, shallots, and dried red chilies. The fish in amok fish are sourced locally in Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Snakehead, carp, and catfish are most frequently used in the stew–I believe we were served carp that day.

coconut waterWe were shown up to the second floor and seated. Everyone was provided the option of having one free glass of fresh, cold coconut water, which I gladly gulped down in the heat of noon. Too bad about no free refills!

My mom and I were served individual party platters of different curries, grilled vegetable kebabs, green papaya salad, and spring rolls. Each dish was served in a bowl made of banana leaves, and the platter itself was also lined with banana leaves.

Every dish was so delicious! The red curry in the center was paired with perfectly al dente jasmine rice. Creamy and rich but not heavy, laden with bell peppers, onions, scallions, tomatoes and other veggies.

Vegetable kebabs and a banana leaf boat of stir-fried veggies had just the perfect amount of char. The vegetables came with a small bowl of what I would guess is the Cambodian equivalent of BBQ sauce. Spring roll wrappers were thin and expertly fried to a golden crisp, bubbling with fresh cabbage and vermicelli on the inside. And of course, you can’t have spring rolls without sweet chili sauce!

khmer degustation

The green papaya salad was bright and fresh–tangy with from several squeezes of kaffir lime and the hint of anise/pepper from fresh leaves of basil. Also in a banana leaf bowl was a green curry paste with blended veggies and flaming red chilis. They also drizzled a spoonful of coconut cream on top. Mmm.

Dessert was 芭蕉 [ba jiao], the short, fat bananas you typically see in Southeast Asia. They’re apparently called “Lady Finger Banana” (just looked this up).The bananas are grilled in banana leaves and served in a sweet coconut sauce. Our dish was served with warm, tender, and deliciously caramelized bananas that were delicately arranged, alternating with fresh, pink banana flower petals, around a dipping bowl of palm sugar syrup in the center. Tasty! I think the dish is called chet ang nung tirk doung, but please correct me if I’m wrong. 🙂

chet ang nung tirk doung

Siem Reap, 2013: Angkor National Museum

Day 2, 12.26.2013

sofitel angkor breakfastSofitel has the best breakfast buffets. That’s all I have to say. Highlights included amazing butter croissants (consistent with the perfect ones we found at Sofitel Wanda Beijing) and a fantastic assortment of fresh, local fruits. I had never seen fresh jackfruit cut open before! Nor have I ever tasted it. Now I’m in love with the stuff, but it is nigh impossible finding it on the East Coast.

sofitel angkor fruitJackfruit has a fascinating texture–crispy but also chewy at the same time (?). I would’ve unashamedly taken the entire platter had my mom not told me that eating too much will cause me to 上火 [shang huo]. In Chinese medicine, this indicates foods that are “inflammatory”, which personally means poor sleep and lots of acne for me.

Other fruits available were the largest green dates [奶棗 nai zao in Chinese] ever, sweet pineapple, red papaya, dragonfruit, and my favorite, mango. I could write a paragraph for each fruit, but I will refrain. I definitely recommend getting your hands on some fresh, green jujube if you ever come across it! Good ones are crisp like a Granny Smith apple without the tartness (just sweet), and the juice almost has a sort of milkiness to it. Hence the 奶 [nai or “milk”] part of its name in Chinese.

After a lazy breakfast, our tour group gathered and filed onto the bus to visit our first sight of the trip–the Angkor National Museum. Cambodia has over 2000 years of history, making it one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia. The written language of Cambodia originated from West India, Brahmi; it sounds like Sanskrit when spoken, which makes sense given that 95% of Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism. Even more interestingly, Hindu and Cambodian can’t be read by the opposite party, but when read out loud, both Hindus and Cambodians can understand completely! Furthermore, most of Cambodian history is passed down through oral tradition. Not sure if that resulted from the fact that 60% of text on Cambodia’s history was written by China (and thereby heavily biased).

sofitel dining area

A taste of old-world luxury.

Our tour guide stopped us outside of the museum to point out the palm trees growing by the entrance. Sugar palms are the national tree of Cambodia and provides income to many Khmer. None of the tree is wasted: timber is used for construction and utensils; leaves are used for roofs, baskets, fans; branches can be used for fencing or thongs; and the juice and fruit are harvested for eating, cooking and making palm sugar.

IMG_0801The juices of the tree’s flowers are used for drinking, and any excess is brewed into sugar. Khmer unsurprisingly don’t use white sugar at all. Don’t blame them–palm sugar is much tastier!

Our tour guide, Steven, explained to us how the Khmer Rouge lay waste to the country during their rule. Over 3 million were murdered in the several-years’ reign, 1 million of which were Chinese. (Also interesting is that the name “Ong” comes from the Chinese surname “Wang”). Men and women who had undergone proper brainwashing would be separated into lines and whomever they stood across from was whom they were forced to marry. This was to ensure that brainwashing was passed down to their children.

Educated people were actively executed and institutions were torn down. It was really admirable how bubbly and enthusiastic, Steven was in spite of his family’s history with the Khmer Rouge. His aunt was a teacher and was thus sought out to be eliminated. However, none of her students nor her children were willing to rat her out in school, so the Khmer Rouge raided her home and killed all her children in front of her. One of the babies were thrown and smashed against the trees. Absolutely horrifying to listen to, to think about, to even begin to fathom. I forget how his aunt escaped, but I’m glad she was able to. And unfortunately, that’s the most helpful thing I can do or say.

driving through siem reapWhile it has one of the fastest growing economies today, Cambodians are struggling. The government is riddled with corruption and bribery. The longevity of an average Cambodia peaks around 60-65 years of age, due to the lack of education regarding hygiene and access to proper medical care. In fact, doctors kill more people than they save.  Land mines yet to be uncovered, dangerously pockmark the country. There is at least one land mine for every person in Cambodia, and many civilians die each year from mistakenly stepping on one.

The average Cambodian family has about 7-8 kids, to increase opportunities for income. A typical laborer makes around $60 USD/month. That’s about how much white-collar Americans spend on drinks on a thirsty Thursday night. Ironically, Cambodia used to be a very rich country because a ton of gold mines. This was heavily exploited by nearly every Western nation, as well as India and China, and left nothing for Cambodia. There is a rather dark joke in Chinese, that plays on Cambodia’s name in Chinese, 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai]. Instead of calling it 柬埔寨 [jian pu zai], Cambodia is instead nicknamed to 錢不在 [qian bu zai], or “no money here”, because all the gold was stolen.

siem reap streets

Waiting for the bus.

We began our museum tour with a statue of an Asura, a demon that represents the sinful nature of man. You’ll find as you explore the history and culture of Cambodia that much of it originates from Hinduism and Hindu culture. Many of the same gods such as Naga and Ganesh (to name a few) have a strong presence in the artworks we saw.

asura

Asura

It was also empowering to learn that King Jayavarman II–who founded the Khmer Empire–delegated his kingdom to his two wives whenever he was away. Jayarajadevi and Indradevi implemented social systems that provided their people, both men and women alike, the right to education, property ownership, political power, and public healthcare. They distributed property to the poor, focused on developing public infrastructure, and both were actually professors who taught and educated Khmer women. In fact-checking my notes from my trip, I came across this detailed article on the contributions of Jayarajadevi and Indradevi (if you’d like to read more) here.

We also visited an exhibit that follows the journey of Siddhartha and his path to Enlightenment. If you’ve ever looked at a statue of Buddha, you’ll notice that the right hand always sits on top: this represents removal from temptation, as the left hand is considered “dirty” and the right “pure”. I’m not sure if this is why in Indian culture you only eat with your right hand? Anyone care to enlighten me 😛 ?

faeries

This beautiful sandstone piece has 1700 faeries carved into it, “cheerleaders of the deities”. Women were believed to have been borne from the sea: from the bursting bubbles of the foam and mist.

There’s also a popular statue of Siddhartha with Naga the serpent protectively wrapped around him. Naga shielded Siddhartha from the rains on his 47th of the 49 days he spend in meditation, out of respect and in return for Siddhartha protecting him from an eagle that was eating Naga’s 6 other heads in the early days of Siddhartha’s journey.

ganeshaThe last story from the day was about Ganesha: the god of fortune and money. There are many different takes on the mythology of Ganesha, but the one following is perhaps a Cambodian take on it. He ran from home as a child and brought demons back with him. His mother took him in, but kept him facing the front of the house to ward off the other demons coming towards them. His father mistook him as a demon and cut his head off. Out of devastation, the parents prayed to another god for help, who told them that Ganesha’s head must be replaced within 25 steps to live. On the 24th step, they found an elephant head. And that is why Ganesha has an elephant head.

Siem Reap, 2013: a first dinner

I started my series on Cambodia all the way back in January of this year, only to flip flop to writing about other trips. It’s always nagged at me how lonely my one post on Cambodia was–so now it’s finally time to revive this series!


Day 1: Arrival at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra

sofitel roomThe Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra is a travel guide, textbook case of what you would imagine a luxury hotel in Southeast Asia to be like. It is, in the long line of luxury hotels off of Charles De Gaulle Road, a glorious bubble for the fortunate traveler to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the outside. There was none of that New York impatience: “is my room ready?”, “why is the line so long?” “when will my bags be brought in?”. No, this world moved at 0.6x fewer frames per second. French colonial elegance with Cambodian influence. A zephyr would peek under the legs of sheer, white curtains shyly covering poolside villas. The soft tinkling of a roneat ek–a xylophone used in Khmer classical music–danced through the air. Plump coconuts jostled jollily under the shade of glimmering, verdant fronds.

sofitel cookies

Complimentary butter cookies!

I could go on forever, but I won’t. There are more aspects of this day to fond over: dinner. After settling down, meandering through the grounds of the resort, our tour group reassembled in the lobby to head to dinner. We were shuttled down the main road through Siem Reap, Charles De Gaulle, for no more than 1/4-mile before our bus driver masterfully backed into the cozy parking lot of our restaurant. Stepping stones led the way over a small pond, past baby palms, into the warmly-lit accommodations.

As always, the carnivores and omnivores of our group were lovingly lavished with a banquet of fresh seafood plated in carved boats, and colorful arrays of satay and skewered meats. Not to say that we vegetarians were forgotten (completely)! My mom and I were treated to a few pretty tasty dishes that had surprisingly Chinese flavors, rather than Cambodian.

dinner day 1First up was a piping-hot vegetable soup with seaweed, cabbage, tomato, silken tofu, and deep-fried tofu skin. Perfect for the highly air-conditioned room we were sitting in.

Next up was deep-fried tofu strips stir-fried with bean sprouts and some sort of lily plant (?) that looked like chives or string beans. The veggies were fresh, crisp, and sweet like all vegetables should be. Not too oily either.

Dessert–which we unfortunately had to share with everyone else 😉 — was nom plai aiGlutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and topped with copious amounts of shredded unsweetened coconut. Freshly-cut pineapple slices served on the side. Out of this world. I’ve had my fair share of glutinous rice balls [湯圓 tang yuan in Chinese], usually filled with black sesame paste, but there’s something special to be said about coconut. Anyway, I’ve linked to a recipe for nom plai ai above and may be trying it out soon myself.

I was also able to catch a glimpse of the Robam Preah Reach Trop, or Khmer classical dance, that was happening for those who decided to dine at the Sofitel. Such beauty in small movements.

khmer classical dance

24 hours to Cambodia, 2013

I spent my final winter break of college on a trip through Cambodia and Vietnam with my mom. Getting to Siem Reap was unimaginably exhausting, especially having just flown from Boston to Los Angeles 3 days prior.

taoyuan

From LA to Taipei it was 14 hours of sleeping uncomfortably, waking up with neck cramps, drowsily shoveling airplane food down, and crocheting a beard hat to keep myself from getting motion sickness. I could not have been happier for a 90-minute layover in Taoyuan Airport. This place is beautiful now! Free food samples everywhere, pull-out workstations with unlimited free Internet, and even a digital library where you can read e-books using iPads.

After discovering the glorious taste of a flaky pastry with taro and mochi filling, it was off to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for our second layover. Three-and-a-half hours later, we landed for another 2 hour layover.

hcm airport

Mum and I encountered some of the most stone-faced airline representatives when we arrived and didn’t know how to get to the transfer gates. Every attempt to catch their attention failed; none of the 5 women sitting at the desk, scrolling through random pages on their computers, bothered to look up for the 5 awkwardly silent minutes we stood at the front of the line. It was only after loudly stating my question did I make eye contact with the woman in front. She shooed us towards the right direction with annoyed brows and a frown.

Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd Siem Reap! Finally! After another 90 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh, we were able to put an end to hauling around our backpacks and rest our bloodshot eyes.

siemreapairport

The airport at Siem Reap was adorably small and tropical. Palm trees and hibiscus flowers adorned the entire pathway to the terminal. We were tricked by the immigration officer into paying $10 for the both of us. Ah, bribery. Apparently it’s illegal, but the immigration officers still do it since they figure that tourists caught off guard will pay up anyway. Walking through customs went really smoothly; there weren’t any officials to take our Customs Declaration cards. In fact, all the cards went straight into the trash bag (literally). There was a pile of 3-4 extra large garbage bags full of declaration cards.

sofitel

Our hotel, Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra, for the next 3 nights was an unexpected paradise. Fruiting palms, bananas and coconuts ripe for picking off the trees, and soft, billowing, white curtains.

sofitel2

The pool was amazing; it flowed under bridges and wrapped around small islands and gently sloped up to the deck. There was a pool bar that you could swim right up to and ask for a fresh, green coconut to be cracked open and to sip out of.

sofitel3

The hotel served complimentary, iced lemongrass tea in a martini glass that you drank out of a straw of fresh lemongrass. After an arduous journey and one of the most challenging college semesters, this was just what I needed.