January 19, 2009
It was our first time to take a Cebu Pacific international flight. It was our first time at the NAIA Terminal 3. We didn’t know that there weren’t many options for dinner. We left our home in a rush, having left the office later than planned. We decided to take a late dinner at the airport. By the time we cleared immigration, we were famished. We decided to get food from the first outlet that caught our eyes – a San Mig food stall. Needless to say, our dinner was filling but not satisfying. It was too late when I spotted Seattle’s Best, directly behind San Mig’s booth (yes, I was that hungry!). I opted to get tea from SB since I was nursing a queasy stomach since weekend.

We boarded the plane on time. The flight was uneventful and we soon found ourselves walking out of Tan Son Nhat International Airport. I was actually surprised at how much it changed since my last visit in 2004. Back then, it was dark and gloomy not much different from abandoned buildings you see in horror stories. This time, it was bright and cheery and buzzing with activity. As we exited, we were shocked to see hundreds of people waiting to greet family and friends from their trip – at 12:30am! It was difficult to get out of the crowded arrival area into the taxi cue. My friend N who is based in Ho Chi Minh gave specific instructions on where to wait for a cab, what cab company and how much the usual fare would be. She told us to take ONLY a Vinasun or Mai Linh taxi. There was none in sight. We waited for a couple of minutes and nothing. By this time, several taxi drivers had been pestering us to take their cab for VND 200,000 (about USD 12) which is way above the usual fare of VND 60,000 (about USD 4). Finally, one cab agreed to take us to N’s place for VND 100,000. Ariel and I were both exhausted and we didn’t have the energy to argue (we’ll never win Amazing Race Asia!). And besides, they hardly spoke English which made the experience doubly challenging.

We needed a place where we could rest for a few hours and freshen up before heading of to Siem Reap, Cambodia. N graciously offered her home which also meant that she will have very little sleep because we are arriving late and leaving early. N lives in a modest 2 bedroom condo unit in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed in her air-conditioned guest bedroom with a queen-sized bed covered in satin sheets. There are two chairs and a small coffee table, a desk with cable TV on it and cream colored built-in closet. Her glass-paneled wall/windows covered with vertical blinds look out to the street five storeys below. We chatted with N a bit, fighting off our exhaustion. It had been years since we last saw her and it was good to catch up face to face. We fell asleep at around 2:00 am as soon as our heads touched the bed.

January 20, 2009
It was so difficult to wake up at 4:30am having lacked sleep for the past few nights. N was already up and fixing us breakfast – I wasn’t actually sure if she slept at all! We fixed our things and enjoyed a light breakfast of bread and butter. My tummy was still queasy so I just drank a cup of hot water with honey while Ariel opted for coffee. It was almost 6am when we went out and got into a Vinasun taxi to take us to the Mekong Express Bus station along Pham Ngu Lao St. – the city’s backpacker district. When we got there, the bus was about to leave with only one seat left. We immediately proceeded to Sinh Café at Da Trahm St., just a few blocks away from the Mekong Express office. The bus was not full but it left at 6:30am, we missed it by about 5 minutes. With relentless optimism, I reassured Ariel that we will get to Siem Reap. I booked an 11:40am flight for us via Vietnam Airlines for USD169 each. Like an Amazing Race contestant, I asked for the earliest and fastest flight to Siem Reap.

We reached Tan Son Nhat airport at 7:30am – three and a half hours before boarding time. With time to kill, Ariel decided to work a bit (he brought his laptop!) while I roamed around to take photos.

By 8:30, we were hungry and decided to share a bowl of instant noodles which at USD6 is the most expensive instant noodles we’ve ever eaten. The warm soup calmed my tummy and provided a bit more energy – we were almost spent from the lack of sleep and proper meals.

I was falling in and out of consciousness as we waited in the pre-departure area and was relieved when we finally boarded our plane. By the time the plane took off at 11:40 am, I was already dreaming of Cambodia’s beautiful temples.

In an hour’s time, we landed at Siem Reap International Airport and we were greeted by a very nice structure, designed in typical Cambodian architecture. We rushed past immigration (Westerners still had to line up for same-day visa issuance) but had to wait a while to get our luggage (we were carrying a heavy backpack and one hand-carried luggage each). The drive to the hotel took about 30 minutes courtesy of the hotel car (a Toyota Rav 4).

We stayed in a deluxe room at the Claremont hotel which I booked through the internet (USD5 discount on the room rate if paid through Visa – USD60 net including breakfast and airport transfers, USD20 cheaper than published rates). The hotel is situated near the Siem Reap river and is only a few minutes walk from Pub Street. Our room was quite spacious, albeit very simple in appearance. There is one queen-sized bed and one double bed, a huge desk, cable TV, ref, coffee-making facility, safety deposit box, complimentary bottled water, and a fully loaded bathroom. There is free wifi at the lobby and three desktop computers with internet connections for those who don’t have laptops at no extra cost (which I took full advantage off during our entire stay!). We just dumped our luggage and went up the roof deck to have lunch at the Indian restaurant called East India restaurant (Tales of Asia described it as the best in the area). Ariel ordered the Khmer-Style Beef Curry while I opted for the spicy Mutton Biryani. The food was quite good (or maybe we were too hungry to be discriminating) but pricey – USD 20 for our meal!!!

Mutton Biryani

Khmer Style Beef Curry

After lunch, we decided to take a long nap. We were not in the best physical condition to start our tour. We were sleep-deprived and exhausted. In fact, we were actually quite happy that we traveled by air since it gave us enough time to recuperate and prepare us for our adventure in the next couple of days. If we had taken the bus, we would have arrived in Siem Reap at 7:30pm, and there is no way we could have slept soundly for the entire duration of the bus travel. So anyway, we slept until about 6pm. Then we unpacked, showered and got ready to go out and explore Pub Street, the famed tourist night spot in Siem Reap.

Before we left the hotel, we confirmed our early morning temple tour and requested for an English-speakin guide and a tuktuk. Yes, a tuktuk instead of a car (USD15 vs. 30). We told the hotel staff that we want to be at Angkor Wat by sunrise and we were told that there will be a USD 3 additional fee for the tuktuk. The guide fee is USD25 a day which is quite standard in the area. The lady at the front desk got us a tuktuk to take us to Pub Street. Then she told us it would be the same tuktuk to take us to the temples the next day. We paid USD 2 for the short drive to Pub Street – quite pricey considering it’s only a short distance away and it’s a tricycle!

The whole street was packed with tourists. It was the peak season and people from all over the world trooped to Pub Street for dinner. We wanted to sample the local dish so we decided to eat at the Khmer Family Restaurant. We were seated at a table outside the main restaurant so it was quite breezy. We ordered fresh spring rolls which Ariel and I both loved. So delicious!

Ariel also got the “Fried shrimps with garlic and pepper” which he thought to be similar to those offered in the Chinese restaurants in Manila. Turned out “fried” actually was “stir-fried”, and “garlic and pepper” actually were bellpeppers. So, it was actually a saucy dish.

I sampled the Chicken Amok which I really, really enjoyed! It’s similar to curry but milder in flavor.

Ariel and I really enjoyed dinner and decided to come back for more of their yummy spring rolls.

To read part 2, click here.

Written by Alby Laran

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