Of the benefits of being extremely OC (Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand itinerary and investment)

When I started really getting serious with this blog a few months ago, I promised myself most of the posts here should have value to someone else other than me. I did not want this to just be a self-serving venue. Well, once in a while, the narcissistic posts come in, but I think most of the times I’ve been true to this principle.

In keeping with this vow, I’ve decided to do something very much like what I did after the KK trip in the hopes of helping out would-be travelers. Below are estimates of the money we invested for the memories that we made on that trip, with the corresponding itinerary that we sort of followed.

DISCLAIMER: Monetary values below are rounded-off based from the expense tally sheet during the time of my trip. For obvious reasons, this could change. My goal is to give everyone a rough idea of how much they should allocate for trips of the same nature. If for some reason you find that values quoted below must not be made available to the public (i.e. hotel rates, discounted packages, etc.), please do not hesitate to contact me so I may act accordingly.

Obviously, you can get way cheaper pa than that. Benchmark lang! :)

Ours was a perfect mix of planned (Cu Chi Tunnel and Angkor Wat) and spontaneous (Hello Gems International!) activities. I find that itineraries like this trumps those that are 100% mapped out and/or those that are unplanned at all. :D

1. For this one I took out all the discretionary costs like food and pasalubong. Adjust your budget accordingly to factor that in. In general, Vietnam has the cheapest cost of living, followed by Cambodia, then finally Thailand.

2. When in Vietnam, carry their local currency, the Vietnam Dong. (Millionaire for a day!) When in Cambodia, bring US Dollars. When in Thailand, have your money exchanged to Thai Baht. We found that with this set-up, transactions were a breeze. Oh, don’t forget your credit card too for unexpected expenses! We didn’t know the airport at Phnom Penh charged a terminal fee, so the CCs definitely helped.

3. Tip, tip, and tip. We’ve been fortunate to have at least one good tour guide experience per country so we didn’t hesitate on voluntarily giving an amount more than what was agreed upon. Think of it as you paying it forward. :)

4. Travel light! Woohoo! This was one of my accomplishments for this vacation. One backpack and a belt bag for five days and three countries? Ako na!

My best friends: TnF and Wenger. :D

I hope this helps! Read though the earlier posts if you want more details. (Bawal tamad, ok?) Also, don’t hesitate to sound off in the comments if you have any questions.

Postscript:

This post is dedicated to those who’ve been bugging me for this trip’s itinerary. Yes, that’s you Cha I., Cherry and Kuya Vin. Enjoy! :D

Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand, Day 3, Part 2: Of Khmer architecture, Angkors, history and legends (South Gate, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of Elephants, and Angkor Wat)

After an hour or so of a simple but very filling breakfast, we proceeded to continue our day tour of Siem Reap’s temples. First in the list was the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom, also known as the Big City, was another one of King Jayavarman VII’s legacy to the Khmer kingdom. (By that time we already figured the power he had. We recently discovered he has a bust in our office. Astiiiig…) The gate entrance was flanked by two rows of statues. Cheak told us that it was to depict what happened in the very elaborate Hindu story that is Samudra manthan or The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. (Trust me, it was a very complex story. Try Google. :))

That was in the middle of a public road by the way...

One of the gods. Interestingly, and quite understandably, the gods looked "handsome" while the demons looked "ugly".

We then proceeded to the next temple, Bayon, the trademark of which was the prominent display of faces believed to have either been modeled after the enlightened Buddha or King Jayavarman VII himself. There we were told about apsaras, how the temple was altered by the succeeding Hindu monarchs, what the lingam and yoni are (and the infamous Cambodian sex education banana story) among many others. Unfortunately, this was also where Leah’s DSLR’s batteries gave out. Good thing everyone else had their own point and shoot cameras as back-up. Prepared tourists we were!

The next temple, Baphuon, was undergoing major restoration work so we were not able to get in. We just viewed it from a distance from which we also saw huge blocks of stone strewn across the fields surrounding the ruins. I think that was the one place we saw where the repair effort’s being analogous to solving a puzzle was very apparent. We also saw the outline of the massive reclining Buddha the restoration group was working on.

After a short walk along a seemingly forested area, we got to the unassuming Phimeanakas. I say unassuming because we didn’t even see this one coming like the others in spite of the fact that it was a tall and steep tower. The steps were so vertical, my acrophobia kicked in. The really interesting tidbit on Phimeanakas was on the tale of the king being “forced” to make love to a lady on top of the tower regularly. Legend goes that if he doesn’t, the beautiful woman will turn into some sort of snake monster and wreak havoc in the city. Did I mention this tower was inside the Royal Palace’s complex? I just love these stories…

(Author’s note: Apologies for the lack of imagery. Most pics from these temples will be included in the pictorial post. :))

From there we passed along two historical swimming pools (big ones at that) before we were led to the way out of the complex. Welcomed by the blistering heat of the noon sun, we exited at The Terrace of the Elephants. It was a long stretch along the wall of Angkor Thom adorned by, well, elephants. Cheak told us it was a venue where the king addressed his subjects. Siya na ang may maangas na podium.

Smiling under the intense March sun at the Terrace of Elephants.

It was half an hour after one, intensely hot, but luckily, breezy. Everyone knew what time it was: lunch. Cheak brought us to this carenderia-ish place behind the restaurant directly in front of Angkor Wat. We insisted he and our driver (Gaaaawd. I forgot his name! :( Leah, Maan, Cha, Anthony, do you guys remember?) share the same table as ours. I think by that time we have subliminally decided to give the two a lunch treat in appreciation of their service so far. Over a rather down to earth lunch of amok (a popular Cambodian fish dish), tofu and veggies, we learned more of our hosts and their lives. The most attention-grabbing information he shared was that of his years as a tour guide, he had only two attended to two Pinoy groups – ours and Frankie’s. I hope more Filipinos visit Cambodia. I’m being redundant here, but it’s a place everyone should have in their bucket lists.

Khmer nomnomnom. :)

The best was saved for last. With our tummies and Leah’s camera batteries’ fully charged (Yey!), we were off to Angkor Wat.

Welcomed by Vishnu...

One of the many striking corridors inside Angkor Wat.

And another one...

It dawned on us how majestic the place was. Angkor Wat, literally translated as Temple City, overwhelmed us in a way that we wanted to be overwhelmed. It was and still remains to be the world’s largest religious building. From the large-scale manmade moat surrounding the complex, to the statue of Vishnu that greeted us at the gate, to the various architectural wonders that presented themselves one by one, to the many intricate bas reliefs and adorned walls and corridors that we passed, to the grand view on top of the central tower, we were awestruck. I’m (obviously) running out of words to describe the magnificence that we experienced that afternoon. The amazement was borne out of the fact that the structures were built centuries ago (Cheers to man’s creativity, ingenuity and engineering skills!) and that they have been preserved, maintained and even restored masterfully (Cheers to the Cambodians, the French and the Japanese!).

Ancient grills.

Just looking at this again re-invokes the sense of wonder I felt that day.

View of the Angkor Wat gate from the top of the central tower.

Architecture ba kamo?

The day turned out to be an epic history class for our group as well. Lessons included Hindu gods and goddesses (with a pop quiz pa!), how to differentiate Hindu and Buddhist temples (Hindu: multi-tiered, Buddhist: flat-ish. Cheak! I hope I remembered correctly!), and what Siem Reap literally means (It’s “Defeat of Siam” by the way…). Our minds almost went on overdrive. We were fortunate our tour guide explained it so charmingly.

At the rear exit of Angkor Wat, Cheak retold the whole story of the Churning of the Milk Ocean in front of a huge mural depicting the tale. Our day long exploration – sadlyhad officially ended. It was half an hour after four.

Pinoys at Angkor Wat. The mandatory jump shot. :)

***

Next: Bus tickets, massages and a bustling night life

Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand, Day 3, Part 1: Of sulit tour guides, epic sunrises and jungle temples (Cheak Chuom, Angkor Wat sunrise and Ta Prohm)

Monday. It was THE day. I was so excited I didn’t have to force myself to wake up after sleeping for just less than four hours. I was so ready for the pièce de résistance of the trip. Or so I thought.

We were picked up by Cheak, our tour guide, half an hour before six in the morning. Leah had arranged for that for two reasons: first so that we can maximize the sole day we had at Siem Reap and second, so we can catch Angkor Wat’s famed sunrise.

Before I continue, let me just get this out of the way: Cheak is the best tour guide I have EVER met. We were fortunate that Frankie, another friend, had been to Cambodia a few months before us as he had the pleasure of experiencing Cheak first. (That didn’t sound right… :P). Frankie had only good words for the guy so we contacted him via Facebook and booked him for our own trip. Friends, I am telling you, if ever you are going to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat (I keep telling people that everyone in the world should.), Cheak Chuom is your guy. He is so personable, warm and friendly; the entire day with him was such a blast. His English was really good too (He goes on night school to study the language.), his every word was enunciated well enough that I can’t think of a moment we had difficulty understanding him. I also did a quick check when we got home and confirmed that everything he said about all the places we visit were true (Ako na ang nerd.). Oh, he takes good pictures too! (Pimp lang? Haha!) Kidding aside, add him up in FB when the need arises. (Pictures of him later…) Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this dude. He even sent well wishes days after the trip. Awesome guy. :)

So back to that Monday.

We were so desperate to see the sun rising that we didn’t even have breakfast. The plan was to go to Angkor Wat, catch the sunrise and go back to the hostel afterwards. We arrived at Angkor Wat just minutes after leaving and we were welcomed by an outline of the main entrance of the temple with the subtle light of the emerging dawn. It was pretty much dark still, but there were already throngs of people inside. Cheak led us to a corner just behind the main wall where he thought we can get a good view.

All smiles waiting for the crack of dawn.

We waited for I think about half an hour when we decided to move towards the main temple to snap some pictures. By that time, I was growing impatient because all I was seeing was an orange sky. That, in itself, was not bad – actually, it was very scenic and dreamlike especially with the superimposed view of the temples – but it seemed it was falling  below expectations.

But we kept on waiting…

Don't get me wrong, it was gorgeous...

…and waiting…

...but not quite what i was expecting...

I told myself “Uhm? That was it?”. Even Cheak was resigned that we will not be seeing the sun the way he wanted us to see it attributing it to the weather or some clouds. Then, suddenly, our co-tourists started crowding and yelling the words “There it is! There it is!”. True enough, there it was…

...until we saw this. <3!

It was just… surreal. I don’t recall myself seeing the sun that way before. It was so bright and huge, but not glaring, not blinding. Only then did I understand what the raves were all about. It was beautiful.

Mandatory group shot. :)

After taking some more snapshots and a few more moments of utter amazement, we were just itching to have breakfast. Cheak had other plans for us, though. He convinced us that we head to our first stop first so that we won’t have to deal with a heavy crowd. He led us to Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm, also known as Jungle Temple, is one of the more famous of the temples of Angkor Wat. A Buddhist monastery and university built under the reign of King Jayavarman VII during the 1100’s in honor of his family and his mother, it attributes its fame from the publicity it got from Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider and the fact that it is the only temple that still had visible traces of the flora that engulfed it when it was abandoned a long time ago.

In front of Ta Prohm.

Of the many stories Cheak shared about that place, one that I found the most interesting was about this small hollow tower we went to. He told us it was a place where people told the gods what one aspired for. What made it mystical for everyone was that no echo can be produced inside except for when one pounds his or her chest with his or her fist. (For a Physics graduate, I was baffled. I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that phenomenon, but I just didn’t have it then. Physics friends! Help!). As Cheak explained, people used to light incense, pray, and fist-bump their chest to send the message to the heavens. Freakishly cool. :)

Ikaw na Cha, ang pasaway... Hahaha!

A good part of the morning was spent exploring the place. They weren’t kidding when they said it was going to be an experience. It was just the first temple we saw during that day, and I was already floored. The roots embracing the ruins were enchanting. The architecture was gorgeous and absorbing. It was also the start of the Angkor Wat photo-shoot field day. Hehehe… (A separate post is dedicated for that. :) )

Ta Prohm was the only temple the restoration group decided to leave untouched. I'm glad they decided to keep it that way.

Glorious construction inside Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm's bas relief and ruins.

We left Ta Prohm craving for more of what Siem Reap had in store for us.. We dropped off Cheak in front of his home so he could have breakfast as well before the van got us back to Siem Reap Hostel. We were welcomed by a buffet spread of cereals (muesli!), toast, pancakes and fresh fruits and juices. It was already 10 AM.

Breakfast of champions. :)

***

Next: Temples, temples, temples and oh, have I mentioned temples?

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