Monday, April 20, 2009

From Saigon to Siem Reap

We left Saigon Mini at 6AM, and walked the stretch of Bui Vien to get to Sinh Cafe. We looked funny because we all walked in a straight line, and some of us had luggage. We made it to Sinh Cafe though and ate our packed breakfast there. We left promptly at 6:30 AM, in a comfortable bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

We arrived at the border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia around 1 and a half hours later, around 8AM. We were asked to get down and take our luggage with us. We entered the immigration hall, where our bags were scanned leniently. Our passports were collected by our bus guide, and we were called one by one, like we were in a raffle draw. That was our exit from Vietnam. After that, we boarded the bus again, but soon after a minute, we were told to get down again. Our passports were collected again, for our entry to Cambodia. 

For this part, we weren't asked to go to the immigration hall anymore. The bus guide just collected our passports and we were free to have a meal in a nearby restaurant. After 30 minutes, we boarded the bus and the passports were distributed, all with a stamp of entry to Cambodia. The entire process was relatively easy, contrary to the stories I have read.

Our entry to Cambodia was really a change of scene. It was dustier and grew hotter. There were some casinos at the border, which really looked dubious. The Cambodian countryside revealed itself as we wound down the smooth and paved highways going to the Neak Loeung Ferry Crossing. 

The ferry crossing was short, around 10 minutes. We crossed the wide Mekong river, along with several other trucks, buses and cars. I was wondering why a bridge wasn't being constructed, since it was a busy crossing. From the other side of the river, it would take us 3 more hours to get to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
We arrived in chaotic Phnom Penh at around 12:30PM. It was scorching hot, and we were dropped off in front of the Sinh Cafe branch. We were told to wait until 2PM for our bus to Siem Reap, the tourist city base of the Temples of Angkor. 
Some of us had lunch in the Sinh Cafe, while the others, including myself went to this roadside eatery beside it. We had a satisfying fried rice meal. It was so hot, so we didn't try going further out to explore whatever was around us. There was a corn vendor nearby as we walked in the nearby streets. The corn had an odd ginger sauce that made it taste like tinola. 

We finally boarded our bus to Siem Reap. The bus was less comfortable than our previous one, but we had more space at the back. We were told that the drive would take 5 hours. So we braced ourselves for another long journey.

We made several stopovers en-route to Siem Reap. Some of the stopovers were interesting, as a lot of vendors swarmed us with weird merchandise. Some were even selling turtle soup!

The long journey was making us very uneasy and restless. It was already night time, and at 7PM, we were still on the road. The running time has already been 13 hours, and we were famished and tired from sleeping. We were actually getting boisterous at the back of the bus, cracking jokes and eating whatever food we have left.

We finally arrived in Siem Reap and was picked up by our guesthouse for free. We checked in Taney Guesthouse, which was located in a quiet back street around 10 minutes from the Old Market. Now, I wasn't particularly paying attention to the town, but when we got out for dinner, I was amazed at the transformation Siem Reap underwent in the past 3 years.

I was so shocked at the immense development. The roads are now paved. Pub Street is livelier and bigger, overflowing in new cobblestone alleys that houses new restaurants and bars. I even saw the place that I stayed in before during my first visit, and the surroundings looked very different. The Old Market was cleaner and more organized. There was a night market, that resembled D'mall in Boracay. The town had a chill out vibe, brimming with energy that is found in most popular South East Asian resort cities like Bali and Phuket. Siem Reap is already a world-class tourist hot spot.

So with all the new places to eat and drink in, we settled in this charming little Italian restaurant that was owned by our supposed guesthouse, Le Tigre de Papier. We wanted Italian as well, so it was a quick decision. Turned out, it was one of our best meals for the entire trip.

We had great authentic Italian fare, from oven baked pizzas to ravioli and gnocchi. The gnocchi was superb and probably one of the best I have tasted. The saltiness of the cheese was just right and the softness of the gnocchi was perfect. The Four Cheese Pizza was our favorite, and it was easily swiped out off the plate. 

After a very satisfying meal, we headed out in Pub Street and took pictures. We walked around, and ended up in the night market where we surveyed items to shop.  

We went back to Pub St. and had dessert and drinks at Red Piano, probably one of the oldest bars around and already a landmark in Siem Reap. They had a lot of Angelina Jolie signatures and memorabilia, since she had frequented the place during her shooting of Tomb Raider. So, after that, we headed back to Taney, and prepared for a long day ahead. We would be leaving the guesthouse at 5AM to catch the sunrise at the magnificent Angkor Wat.

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