Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cambodia Trip '08 – Day 01: Getting There And Settling In

After months of planning, the day that we were to start on our Cambodian adventure finally came!

As planned, both my traveling companion and myself left my apartment at Sunway around 11 am to catch the KTM Komuter heading into KL Sentral. We were suppose to meet up with some of the rest of the traveling group there but due to some last minute changes, the meeting place got changed to the LCCT at a later date. Since there was not much for us to do at KL Sentral, we headed out to take the AirAsia Skybus service to LCCT which took awhile before leaving the terminal for LCCT. We both kept track of how many times the bus people called out that they were leaving in 5 minutes time and yet never moved from the terminal.

Eventually the bus did leave and we arrived at LCCT without incident. This trip was my first time since they moved the bus stop at LCCT closer to the new building extension where the new food court was. I did think of checking the new section out but in the excitement of going on the trip, I totally forgot to do it. We did, however, do the customary pre-flight meal at the terminal McDonalds since the rest of the traveling troupe had not arrived when we got there.

Once everyone got to the meeting point, we proceeded with the check-in process and immigration control. Thanks for the items that we brought with us to distribute to the people who we would be meeting in Cambodia, the check-in process took a little longer than I’m used to. I usually just breeze through this process but then again I have never traveled with a group this big. There were 15 of us on this trip which consisted of people who worked in my friend’s office and some of their families. It was interesting trying to figure out how to fit in such a diverse group when I didn’t know any of them prior to this trip.

Our flight to Phnom Penh that afternoon was unfortunately delayed by 15 minutes. We finally took off at around 3:30pm and things went smoothly for the first hour. We started to encounter turbulence around the time we crossed the Gulf of Thailand and the flight got a bit bumpy then. It didn’t help that we had the noisiest bunch of aunties and uncles sitting in the front of the plane. They were all talking in Mandarin at the top of their voices virtually all the way much to the annoyance of everyone else on the fully booked flight. The turbulence we encountered didn’t even disrupt the card game that this group had going the moment the plane left the ground. I don’t think that I have been on a flight that was as noisy as this ever in my life.

We finally touched down to slightly overcast skies in Phnom Penh. Due to the time zone difference, we gained an hour as we set our clocks back to 4:30 pm local time. The Phnom Penh International Airport was quite quiet the day we arrived with our flight being the only one arriving at the time. We didn’t have to wait long before we could pass through immigration and collect our luggage. We met up with our local guide, Ustaz Farid Hosen from the Cambodian Muslim Intellectual Alliance (CMAI), who would be traveling with us during the trip.

On clearing customs, we loaded up our bags into the charted minivan that would be our main method of conveyance for most of our trip. As our merry group made our way from the airport into Phnom Penh, we had a short welcoming speech and trip briefing from our guide as well as tour leader. The drive into Phnom Penh was a bit slow thanks to the end of the day rush hour. It didn’t help that it also rained quite a bit as we made our way through the throng of cars, motorcycles, tuk tuk and bicycles. We soon reached the Holiday Villa Hotel at Monivong Boulevard where we will be staying in for the duration we were in Phnom Penh. Thanks to the rains and the late arrival, we decided to check into our rooms to rest before dinner.

(View from inside the charted van as we drove from the airport into town)

(L: We saw many people riding 3 to a bike in Cambodia, R: Cambodian version of the tuk-tuk)

Our first dinner in Cambodia that night was at the City Cat Bubble Café which was owned by a Malaysian businessman. A combination of local and non-Cambodian fare were listed in the menu which had only pictures of what they looked like, their name and not much else in terms of information. It was also funny trying to figure out what something was made out of based on the name of the dish. The menu listed some decidedly strange things like a hot pudding drink that tasted like really runny custard and egg soda which I’m assuming is eggs beaten into sweet soda water. We finally decided to let our local guide to order for the group.

Thanks to the owner being a Muslim, all the food served in this restaurant was Halal. A lot of the workers at the restaurant were also local people from the Champa community who were able to understand Bahasa Malaysia to varying degrees. Some more than other because they have worked in Malaysia before coming back to their homes in Cambodia. We would later encounter many such people in our journey.

While waiting for our food to arrive, I took note of the surrounding as it was fairly strange looking. Having high partitions topped with artificial plants did give an impression of being in a forest while you dined in one of the open tables. There was also small private rooms off to the sides of the restaurant for hosting small dinner parties. The most eye catching details however has to be the tacky pink inflatable hearts that were placed on each pillar. I have no idea what would have prompted anyone to put those pink hearts on the wall.

(L: City Cat Cafe exterior, R: Interior of the cafe)

(L: Side rooms with green lights that were used to call the waiters, R: The pink hearts on the pillars)

We didn’t have to wait long for our dinner to arrive. I didn’t know much of Cambodia food to tell if what we were having was something uniquely Cambodian. If it was then it did look and taste like a milder version of Thai cooking. We had planned to drive around town after we finished our dinner but it was still raining and the group decided to take an early night in. Once we reached the hotel, my traveling companion and I decided to walk around the block to see what was around close to the hotel. First order of business was to figure how to safely cross the road since traffic in Cambodia seems to be coming from all sides all at once. Not wanting to risk our lives trying to cross the wet road without being able to properly see the incoming traffic, we decided to just walk around the block. Other than the street stalls, bakery and pubs, there was not much opened at that hour near our hotel.

(Busy traffic at Phnom Penh after dark)

We got back to our hotel after our short walk and got called to help sort the items that was brought from Malaysia to be given out to the people that we will be meeting on this trip. Most of the items were clothes donated from the group in Malaysia as well as school supplies. After chipping in to help organize the care packages, we went back to our rooms to retire for the night as we had a really early morning the following day.

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