Getting there is half the fun. Unless you live in Penang which means getting to Cambodia is a pain in the ass. Anyone that’s visited KLIA, Kuala Lumpur’s luxuriously beautiful main airport gets an impressive first glimpse of Malaysia. Quite fond of first impressions, the government liked the airport so much they built a carbon copy. Known as KLIA2, this shiny new and totally unnecessary behemoth is a five-minute shuttle bus away and looks as modern and clean as any other large Asian hub. Unfortunately, many of us non-working retirees live in Penang. Although you’d never know it, the nation’s second biggest population center and main tourist draw is only a short 45 minute flight away but its pathetically dilapidated dinky airport looks more like an airstrip in the rainforest when compared to its big brothers.
Sporting a few fast food joints, an ATM or two and a newsstand, Penang International Airport desperately needs a multi million dollar overhaul, a new terminal or two and about ten more airlines willing to fly there. Offering non stop service to only a few destinations like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and recently Yangon, living in Penang makes getting to Cambodia a long, tedious and expensive proposition but proved worthwhile despite the government’s obvious ploy to woo everyone to its shiny capital city. Unsure why they neglect Southeast Asia’s most popular foodie destination so badly, Diane and I explored every possible option from flying to KL and connecting (impossible on the same day) to a train/bus combination (even worse) and concluded the only practical way was a four and a half hour bus ride from Penang to KL on the brand new KTM Express Train, a 65 kilometer Uber ride to the ridiculously distant airport, an overnight stay at the airport’s one and only lodging option, and an early morning flight to Siem Reap.
Recently overhauling the nation’s rail service to high-speed express trains (high for Southeast Asia, anyway), some genius scheduled the first departure from Penang to KL at 5 AM and then not much after that so we didn’t leave Penang until 2:55 PM. (There’s more mid day departures on weekends but we always travel during non peak days). Starting out at 1 PM, we hired an Uber driver friend and started the journey with a 45 minute drive to the Jetty where an antiquated ferry departs Penang for the mainland. Possibly the world’s stupidest connection, you carry your luggage down one set of long steps, up another set, walk 1/4 mile to the train station and then haul them up another set of steps. (In their defense, they are constructing a large new transportation station, but being in the state of Penang, it will probably be decades before it’s done). Thankfully, the new trains are an improvement and travel at 140 KPH making them the fastest in Southeast Asia. The cars are comfortable and air-conditioned but not as arctic as the last time we took the train. There’s a clean bathroom, snack car and just enough overhead space for a mid-sized suitcase.
Strangely, Malaysian trains leave exactly on time and usually arrive a bit early. In fact, if you’re hopping off at a stop other than the final destination, they give you about 24 seconds before taking off. Arriving twelve minutes early at KL Sentral, the Grand Central Station of Malaysia, we made our way out and called for an Uber guy. Charging seven ringgit for the tolls, we arrived at the five-star luxury Sama-Sama Hotel at about 9:00 PM. Making a connection to a Cambodian bound flight almost impossible if you’re not very close to the terminal, most regional departures on Air Asia leave KLIA2 at the crack of dawn. Having built the monstrously large and highly under used new airport mostly as a hub for the Malaysian based discount carrier and the permanently disgraced national airline, the airport serves as the starting point for six or seven short hauls per plane so convenience be damned.
Knowing we’d need to stay overnight, we searched and scoured the internet for an airport close enough to leave by 5 AM and found that a $200 USD per night five-star luxury hotel is the sole option. Unaware of any major hub that offers almost no affordable hotel options for connecting passengers, the logic leaves a lot to be desired and makes life very inconvenient for non urban dwellers like us. For what it’s worth, the hotel is beautiful but there’s only one restaurant and we waited almost 45 minutes for a small overpriced pizza. Offering a buffet for 110 ringgit, make sure you eat something ahead of time if you’re on a budget. Even stupider, there’s one shuttle to the terminal at 5 AM and then not another one until 7 despite how many flights leave during the early morning hours. We asked for a take away breakfast box but I can’t eat that early so the $205 price tag was exorbitant for a few hours of sleep. I’d almost consider sleeping in the terminal next time. (maybe not). As for the train, Sunday evening seats sell out quickly because every working class Malay seems to haul their large families to KL every weekend for reasons unknown, so it’s advisable to buy reserved seats ahead of time. They go on sale up to 60 days ahead and it costs 59 Ringgit (about $12 USD).
Arriving in Cambodia was a lot easier than getting there. E-visas are easily obtainable from the Cambodian government website and will save time at the airport. Valid for 30 days and up to 90 days after issuance for most nationalities, you need to print a copy and show it to the very sterile and stone faced customs officers. Unlike Penang, Siem Reap’s terminal building is new, clean and modern. As one of the world’s most visited tourist sites, they know how to process visitors without much hassle and our bags were already at the modern and digitally signed carousel by the time they stamped our passports.
SIM cards are available right before you exit and like most Southeast Asian developing nations, they’ve wired Cambodia with reliable 4G LTE service for so there’s no reason to be unconnected. 30 days with 3 Gigs of internet service and ample phone time costs about five bucks. Bring US Dollars because that’s mostly what they take now. Change of less than one US dollar is given in Real, the local currency, at a generally accepted rate of 4,000 to one USD. Although tourist books still tell you to bring only shiny spotless new bills, this is not important any more as long as the bills aren’t ripped or written on. Most hotels will make small change since most small merchants don’t accept large bills.
So thanks to the stupid schedules, we walked out of the terminal building at about 8 AM (there’s a one hour time difference). Greeted by one of those blasting sunny and cloudless days not usually seen in Malaysia, we gave our taxi voucher to the friendly but overly ambitious taxi driver cum tour guide and climbed into the car. As for the weather, we always like to travel in late shoulder season. Usually producing a 75% chance of clear skies with some rain that’s not usually enough to ruin most day trips, the advantage is less tourists and prices often still reflective of mid rainy season. In Cambodia, this means mid October to mid November. After that, peak tourist season begins, the rain stops, prices go up and the unlike Malaysia, temperatures drop to a very comfortable level for a tropical nation. Timing it perfectly this time around, skies stayed mostly sunny with occasional light evening rain during our five days in Siem Reap time and mostly cloudy but humid afternoons and heavy rain during early evenings in Phnom Penh.
Traveling through slow traffic, we headed to our hotel. Normally trying to stay under $150 USD per night, this time we splurged a bit on the best mid range boutique hotel in town. With every possible option from backpacker’s hostels to the exquisite and lavish Raffles Hotel, Siem Reap offers a range of lodging options and we recommend The Shinta Mani Resort. Conveniently placed ten minutes walking distance from Pub Street and the main entertainment districts in town, this quiet and inviting two-story hotel offers impeccable customer service, tastefully decorated and comfortable rooms with king beds and a very tasty breakfast that features a small buffet selection and a variety of main entrees including eggs Benedict or Florentine all served with real western style bacon (a big deal for us). Rooms are well air-conditioned with balconies overlooking the pool and they also own a more expensive “Club” across the street although having viewed it, we liked the hotel better.
Also offering a moderately priced array of lunch items and little perks like free ice cream at the pool in the late afternoon, it’s a perfect place to return to after spending a complete day exploring the temples or enjoying the nearby Tonle Sap Biosophere Reserve, where you’ll find opportunities to enjoy a beautiful bird sanctuary, visit floating villages in the flooded forest or cruise boats on Southeast Asia’s largest lake which is also one of the world’s largest sources of freshwater fish. But since it was too late for a full day trip and too early to check in, we simply opted for an afternoon at the infinity pool since the sun was shining brightly. Pampering to guests wishing to relax at the large but strangely salty pool, staff is always on hand to help carry lounge chairs, set up umbrellas and even offer free ten minute back massages which Diane immediately warmed up to. Like Penang, you’ll find the friendliest and most ambitious locals in the tourist mecca, not the big cities and during our stay we got to know several staff members who shared their personal lives as well as catering to our every need from cold towels when we entered the hotel to restaurant recommendations.
Having enjoyed our first afternoon after such a tedious excursion from Penang, we set out in the evening to search for some dinner. Unlike some of our European expat friends that never stray from Western style food, Diane and I always want to sample the local cuisine and our guide recommended a Khmer style restaurant that we liked so much we went back again. Combining Vietnamese and Thai but noticeable less spicy than Thai and with less pungent vinegar and fish flavors than Vietnamese, Cambodian style cooking is a toned down combination of neighboring countries and the national dish is called Amok. Featuring a base of coconut cream and galangal, it’s basically a thick soup similar to a mild curry cooked with fish, meat, veggies, eggs and coconut milk. Only ten minutes from the hotel, Pub Street is a touristy street similar to Thailand’s Kho San Road but more subdued and with less street food. One block around the corner is where you’ll find Khmer Kitchen, our choice for the best local foods at very reasonable prices.
If you fancy curries but can’t take hot and spicy you’ll love Cambodian curries. Reminding us of what we hoped for when we first went to Thailand and asked for less spicy (they laughed), Cambodians prefer the mildest chili peppers and use pumpkin, a wonderfully flavorful ingredient that’s hard to find in soups. In addition to the two national dishes, we also sampled a non spicy mango papaya salad (delicious) and some homemade spring rolls with a delicious dipping sauce laced with star anise instead of the overwhelming taste of vinegar and sweet chili sauce typically found in Vietnamese dishes. Served fresh and amazingly fast, this place fills up quickly so if you arrive early, you’ll have no problem. Four dishes came in at less than $22 and fruit drinks and beer are readily available. After dinner, we walked around the tourist shops which sell lots of locally produced goods, crafts and a world-famous pepper called Kampot that’s only grown in one southern province. Amazingly pungent and flavorful, we took some home and found it to be one of the most flavorful spices we’ve come across in Asia.
Returning later that evening, we enjoyed a great night’s sleep and prepared to meet our guide for the first of three jam-packed days of touring. Recommending you secure a guide ahead of time, the choices are overwhelming and range from dirt cheap to luxury priced. Besides the famous temples of Angkor Wat, there’s a multitude of day trips in the surrounding area ranging from the very popular to the hardly known.
While the temples are overtly fascinating and filled with history, having a personal guide that speaks good English and explains the history and culture adds a dimension not possible if you visit yourself. Additionally, personal guides take care of admission fees, get you there at the right times when everyone else isn’t around and often become lifelong Facebook friends like our guides from earlier trips to Borneo, Ecuador and Costa Rica. Sadly, our highly recommended guide answered every email for months but then ducked out of his commitment for our third day and dumped us on a friend with no explanation other than “personal business”. While unavoidable issues are understandable, I found this last second surprise with no real explanation highly unprofessional after corresponding by email for three months so I can’t recommend someone who does this but I will promote his replacement in a future post detailing our day with him.
Having chosen one full day of the “must do temples” including a sunrise trip to Angkor Wat and two-day trips that visited the less touristy Mechrey Floating Village, Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, highly educational Cambodian Landmine Museum, amazingly beautiful Banteay Srei (a temple built all by women) and a waterfall with thousand-year old carvings on the riverbank, I’ll share more about each day in upcoming posts. Meanwhile it’s time to take advantage of the 16 hour time difference and watch our Edmonton Oilers play the Anaheim Ducks on live streaming TV from last night.
And one last note: While highly disappointed in the American electorate, the bottom line is Diane and I are among the fortunate ones that voluntarily fled the bullshit and hatred before it started. After sixteen months of blindly telling closet racists, childhood Facebook friends and ignorant voters why they’re all deplorable, I’ve simply had enough so unless my moderate Muslim host nation kicks us our for being citizens of a nation that just appointed a white supremacist denounced by the Anti Defamation League as the nation’s Chief Strategist, I won’t raise the topic in this blog again. We lived through most of the Bush administration in Calgary and for the second time in our marriage, we’ll spend another horrible presidency outside the homeland. And barring a death in the family, I will never step foot in a nation being run by an intolerant piece of shit.
Life goes on.
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