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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)'s Spoiling Through Coffee Shops and Pho's

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

Our last day in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) last March 22, 2010 was one devoted to understanding its culture and lifestyle through our taste buds and the stomach - eating and drinking.

Coffee Shop

My Vietnamese friend,Ha Ngo, said that we really should not miss coffee shop as it is an important part of Vietnamese lifestyle and culture and without visiting garden coffee shop of Vietnam, we might not be able to understand Vietnamese well. So she arranged for us to meet her friends Mr. Dat,Mr.Dung and V at the Trầm (at 100 Tran Huy Lieu street, Phu Nhuan district) which is not far from where we were staying. Since Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of coffee,it is a paradise for coffee-loving visitors because coffee shops abound. But no worries for non-coffee drinker like me and my friends since although Vietnamese call them coffee shop, you can order many kinds of drinks there.

I really liked the ambiance of the coffee shop - a sanctuary filled with soothing sounds (from the pond and the sound of the night) and caressing aromas. It is a unique environment and one-of-a-kind facility that gives ample time to relax while engaging in a nice conversation over a cup (of coffee or other drinks) after a day's work.

Pho (Soup) Resto and Dining

We learned from the two Vietnamese we met on the plane that when it comes to food, you're spoiled for choice in Saigon, which offers the country's largest variety of Vietnamese and international food. Authentic local food at bargain prices is one of the glories of Vietnam so the 50,000vnd I brought with me can actually purchased 12 bowls of Pho, - a Vietnamese national dish that is amazingly tasty and nutritious noodle soup.

Of course, Vietnam isn’t just about noodles. We have enjoyed great dishes like soy and rice cakes at local budget resto during our stay. Then on our last day,we went to Rat Hue at the Ben Than market area which our host Mai Lei recommended. The food there are flavorful and satisfying.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Phnom Penh (Cambodia)'s Sunset Cruise: A Must-Do Experience

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

Since Phnom Penh is situated at the confuence of three great rivers - Mekong,Tonle Sap and Bassac- a river cruise is not to be missed while over there. Short river cruises and sunset cruises are easy to arrange and offer an interesting view of the city for $10-$15 for the whole boat with a standard tour itinerary. A cruise typically takes about 1-2 hours and runs up the Tonle Sap river along the central riverfront area providing a picturesque view of the Royal Palace, National museum and parks and Phnom Penh skyline,and then across the Tonle Sap and up the Mekong river to view floating fishing villages.

But we are really lucky to enjoy the boat cruise for less and more fun! It is through the Couch Surfing Phnom Penh Group which I am a member.

Got the group post from Niall,which I quoted below, accompanied with some pictures taken during the Boat Cruise last March 21, 2010 from 3:30pm - 6:00pm. One of the best experience to date and shows the real spirit of Couch Surfing!

Hi guys,

My parents have been visiting me here for the last few weeks and they depart back to the UK on Monday. As a nice send off, and to show them the spirit of couchsurfing I thought I would organise a boat trip on Sunday afternoon, followed by sunset drinks at the wonderful Snowys bar ("Maxine's") across the river in Phnom Penh.

Meet at 3.30pm Sunday along the riverside where the boats depart (this is quite a way north along the riverside these days, I believe next to a khmer restaurant called something like restaurant tonle sap - will confirm later) - its where all boats go from so should be easy to find. Boat name to be confirmed.

We'll spend an hour and a half or so on the river and then over to the other side of the river for Snowys bar and an unrivaled sunset view back at Phnom Penh from an amazing balcony.

The boat will have a cool box so feel free to bring drinks and snacks. A donation of a dollar or two toward the boat hire would be appreciated but thats all.. Snowys is fairly inexpensive and does a nicely chilled bottle of beer lao for $1.50

Let me know if you can join so I know numbers. Friends welcome. You can msg here or contact me on +855 (0)89392921

See ya then


And as I wrote back to Naill,'we are joining the boat trip in order to get to know many friends during the Phnom Penh leg of our trip and though we do not drink alcohol,we know how to have fun time with friends!,this picture and other tales of the 17 people who were there proved it right!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Phnom Penh (Cambodia): Feeding Sambo, the Elephant

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

After seeing the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, it is refreshing to see and feed Sambo ,the elephant at Wat Phnom. Sambo, a 10-foot-tall, 4,000-pound elephant who spends her days giving rides in Cambodia's capital city is the last remaining elephant in Phnom Penh,having survived the machetes of the Khmer Rouge.Sambo is in her sixties now along with her owner Sorn.

Our Couchsurfing host, Elma, is committed to feed Sambo every Friday. She brings bananas, mangoes, apples, pears, sugar cane and watermelon. Because we wanted to see this Phnom Penh's most visible cultural icon, she allowed us to feed Sambo as part of our itinerary for March 21, 2010 (Sunday).

We had a wonderful experience seeing Sambo grasps the offering with her trunk, gobbling the entire bunch in one bite. Although she appears for tourists from 7 am to 4 pm everyday and give rides,we are content to just see her get fed as she needs food around the clock. Her owner sits next to his lifelong partner each day, to monitor Sambo's condition in the heat, hose her off, and make sure she gets her 150 pounds of sugar cane and bananas.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Phnom Penh (Cambodia): Just a Short Look At The Killing Field

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

I hesitated writing this blog entry and thought it is too brutal to write about.But as the very purpose of why the structures are kept in existence in Phnom Penh, Cambodia - displaying the poignant agonies during the war and Khmer Rouge history - so that the atrocities will never be repeated,I am including a rather short entry.

Our visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Field)
last March 21, 2010 was brief,but not as short as the reign of the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge regime which controlled the whole of Cambodia (then known as the 'Democratic Kampuchea' from April 17, 1975 until January 7, 1979.The Khmer Rouge was headed by Saloth Sar, who went by the nom de guerre Polpot and responsible for the horrific killing of the two and a half million Cambodians.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament of the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school compound with several classroom buildings.During the Khmer Rouge reign, they converted it to a prison and interrogation facility called S-21. Inmates at the prison were held in tiny brick cubicles and systematically tortured to extract desired confessions, and after that the victim was executed at the killing field, Choeung Ek,outside the facility.

Choeung Ek Memorial (The 'Killing Field') is one of the killing fields around the country.It is a group of mass graves,killing areas and memorial stupa containing thousands of human skulls and bones.Prior to 1975, the Choeung Ek just outside of Phnom Penh was an orchard and a Chinese cemetery.But during the Khmer Rouge regime the area became one of the infamous killing fields. The 17,000 men, women and children who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime ended up dumped in this killing field.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Phnom Penh (Cambodia): Foodie Haven

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

Traveling for me means a 'tour of tastes', a satisfaction of my gastronomic pleasures! But unlike others who are hygienically adventurous,I normally do not sample unknown cuisines or try street foods without strong recommendation and assurance from a local of its cleanliness.

Phnom Penh does not necessarily stand out for its sightseeing options but I find it as a place to relax, view the street life and absorb the local color and flavor. One of the main tourist attractions of Phnom Penh is the wide array of restaurants.

Phnom Penh offers an amazing range of cuisines and dining venues. The emphasis is of course on Khmer (Cambodian) food, but Asian and other European cuisines are also well represented, including Thai,Italian, Vietnamese,Chinese, Korean,Japanese and of course,French. Given Cambodia's long relationship with France,it is no surprise some of the finest venues offer French cuisine. I am glad to have our CouchSurfing host Elma,a Filipina entrepreneur who is married to a German and living in Cambodia for almost 8 years. Having lived in a number of Asian countries and hosted different nationalities through CouchSurfing,she made our food adventures in Phnom Penh an experience to tell our mom about!

Sugar cane Juice

Our official welcome drinks when we arrived in Phnom Penh is dteuk am bpoh or sugar cane juice in a 'to go' somewhat over - sized plastic bag(double that of soda plastic bag used when I buy a Sprite 'to go' back home. I am very familiar with sugar cane but never before I drank it as a juice.It was amazing how much water the sugar canes have! A freshly squeezed lime juice is added into the sugar cane juice for some tartness.Served with a straw,with tons of ice in a plastic bag, we had a refreshing afternoon Cambodian drink costing only $12.5 cents(half that of a soft drink like Coke).

After our tour of the Royal Palace grounds and the Silver Pagoda,our taste buds (and Elma's recommendation) brought us to the "f" for a sampler of Khmer delicacies.
FCC or Foreign Correspondents Club along the riverfront,north of Royal Palace has served a storied cast of journalists and photographers,diplomats, movie stars and intrepid world travelers since opening its doors in 1993. As Phnom Penh's favorite meeting place, FCC's open balcony provides a spectacular view of the convergence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.The FCC kitchen offers a good selection of nicely prepared contemporary,modern, and traditional Khmer and western dishes. And its latest offering is a Happy Hour from 5-7pm,where all drinks are half the price.

For dinner, Elma brought us to Khmer Surin Restaurant for us to try the most popular Khmer dish for foreigners,the Amok. Amok is a yellow coconut curry,usually made of fish (but because I have a fish allergy we had pork and chicken amok instead).Traditionally amok is cooked and served in a fresh coconut. But at Khmer Surin, however,the amok is served in breast-like platter (as described by Elma).
Khmer Surin Restaurant in Phnom Penh is one of the finest Asian restaurants. In the heart of a busy area, full of apartments and bars, Khmer Surin serves real Khmer cuisines and dishes in a cozy and relaxed atmosphere. The restaurant has 3 floors - the bottom floor is where the restaurant is, the 2nd floor has seating arrangement on the floor in Thai style and the 3rd floor is the rooftop to enjoy the outside view. We were at the 3rd floor enjoying a romantic candlelight dinner. The menu has good explanations in English for the international travelers.

Pork and Shrimp Fried Rice for Breakfast

For breakfast,Elma brought us to her favorite restaurant. I had Bai lieng sach krup muk (Deluxe Fried rice - pork and shrimps)while Jean and Arlene had rice porridge (which resembles our arroz caldo). Cambodian breakfast usually consists of noodle soup (kui-teo) or fried meat with rice and pickled vegetables.

Dumplings for Dinner

Chinese food is also very popular in Phnom Penh and the city has a goodly number of Chinese restaurants and dining places.For our last dinner in Cambodia, we had dumpling and dimsum to our heart's content.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Getting Around Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

Wow! Being in Phnom Penh after experiencing the chaotic moto taxis (xe om) ubiquitously plying the streets of Saigon is a great relief! Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh is a fairly easy place to get around.Though traffic is getting more congested during the day, you can still travel the length of the city in less than 30 minutes and get in between most popular tourist destinations in less than 10 minutes. There is no in-city bus system but there is always transportation available. We are very lucky to have a host (Elma)who has a Lexus car to bring us around. But when her driver is not available (since our visit fell on his days' off),she would hire a tuktuk for us.

Tuktuks (Motorcycle trailers or moto-romauks)

'Tuktuks'have become quite popular in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian 'tuktuk' offer a quiet, windy, pleasant ride. $1-$2 for short trips and $10-$15 for the whole day. Prices vary depending on the number of passengers and where you pick up the tuktuk. Make sure to keep your bag toward the middle of the tuktuk to protect against bag snatching.

Motodup (Motorcyle Taxi)

Just like the ubiquitous 'xe om' in Saigon, its counterpart 'moto'is the most common and fastest form of public transportation in Phnom Penh. Motos can be found virtually everywhere in town,but because more Khmer and tourists like me are realizing the unsafe travel,being more prone to accidents and bag snatching of the motos,its number is becoming lesser than what it used to be. For those who have the heart, motos cost $6 - $8 per day.Prices go up at night and for multiple passengers.


Another namesake vehicle common to both Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh is the humble bicycle rick-shaw known locally as the 'cyclo'. Slow and relaxed, cyclos are easier on the nerves than motos and can be a romantic,even practical form of transportation,if you are traveling alone and time is not a factor. The canopy offers a drier, cooler ride and the sitting in front provides a much better view of the passing street scenes. Since we are four,we have not tried this French iconic vestige fixture so I just bought a miniature-cyclo as a souvenir. A cyclo ride should cost about the same as the moto.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Crossing Borders: Vietnam-Cambodia-Vietnam

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

It has always been my approach in maximizing the cost of plane tickets to do border crossing to nearby countries of the country I am visiting. I did it in Hongkong to Macau, then Singapore to Malaysia and this time Vietnam to Cambodia.

Vietnam has over a dozen international overland border crossings. These allow overland travel to Cambodia via five crossings, the most popular of which is the Bavet / Moac Bai. This was the first crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia to open to foreign travelers and it remains easily the most popular. Daily buses regularly ply the Saigon - Phnom Penh route and the service is both fast and affordable.

We booked our Saigon - Phnom Penh -Saigon trip on March 20-22, 2010 via The Sinh Tourist Bus Company (at 246-248 De Tham Street, District 1 HCMC). Each way per person is $10 (inclusive of bottled water and wet tissue) on an A/C bus, with or without CR depending on which bus is assigned for the trip you booked. Departure time is at 6:30 am, arriving in Phnom Penh at 12:30 since the whole travel time on the bus plus the time at the exit point (Bavet) and entry point (Moac Bai)is six (6)hours.

We had a cheap, hassle -free travel since Filipinos do not need visa to enter Cambodia and re-enter in Vietnam unlike other foreign tourists like Americans and British. That saves us $20 for visa to Cambodia and another $20 for visa to Vietnam.

At the Bavet exit point, you will need to get all your luggage out of the bus and have them scanned at the immigration while getting your departure stamp. Taking pictures at this point is not allowed (but you can after you pass by the immigration officer). While on the bus, the conductor will hand out Departure Card forms which you will have to fill up and give back to the bus conductor along with your passport. The bus conductor hands All the departure cards to the immigration officer so you only have to wait until the conductor (who stands near the Immigration Officers) calls your name. This is the same situation in entering Vietnam.

Entering and leaving Phnom Penh through Moac Bai is a lot easier and faster because you do not need to bring your luggage to the immigration counter.

I really like my experience at the Bavet /Moac Bai border, both going to Phnom Penh and coming back to Saigon. For once, I feel lucky that I am a Filipino!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Phnom Penh (Cambodia): More Than Just A Killing Field

by: Mhe-anne L. Ojeda

When my friends and colleagues learned that I am going to Phnom Penh, Cambodia,they immediately remarked that I am going to the "killing fields". It seems that the horror created by the Khmer Rouge period from 1975-1979 has kept Phnom Penh as ghost town in the minds of the people for years. My recent visit to Phnom Penh last March 20-22, 2010 proved otherwise. I have seen Phnom Penh as an adventure destination with its sights largely historical and cultural as part of the experience and exotic shopping, unique dining, indulgent spas, boat cruise and a bit of night life complete the experience.

Historical and Cultural Experiences

Wat Phnom
A small hill (phnom) crowned by an active wat (pagoda - a small temple) marks the legendary founding place of the Phonm Penh. The hill is the site of constant activity, with a steady stream of the faithful trekking to the shrines. The legend of the founding of Wat Phnom is tied to the founding of Phnom Penh. Legend has it that in 1372 Lady Penh fished a floating koki tree out of the river. She built a small hill (phnom) and a small temple (wat)at what is now Wat Phnom. Later the surrounding area became known after the hill (Phnom) and its creator (Penh), hence the name of the city "Phnom Penh'

Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda - Entrance Fee: 25,000 riel ($6.25)

The Royal Palace serves as a residence of the King, a venue for court ceremony and as a symbol of the Kingdom. The Chanchhaya Pavilion , also known as "Moonlight Pavilion" dominates the facade of the Palace on Sothearos Blvd. The pavilion serves as a venue for the Royal Dancers, a a tribute to the king when addressing the crowds and as a place to hold state and Royal banquets.

The Silver Pagoda (Wat Prea Keo Morokat) is unique among the pagodas. So named for its tiled floor, it is where the king meets monks, royal ceremonies are performed and it houses a collection of priceless Buddhist and historical objects including the 'Emerald Buddha". And, unlike most pagodas, no monks live at the pagoda.

National Museum

The National Museum housed over 5000 objects on diplay including Angkorian era statue, lingas and other artifacts.

Pagoda grounds inside the Royal Palace compound.

Over 95% of the Cambodian population is Buddhist and in Phnom Penh you are never far from a Buddhist pagoda (wat). Pagoda grounds are colorful photogenic places and most are open and welcoming to the general public. Aside from the pagoda grounds of the Royal Palace, we also visited Wat Botum, one of the original five wats established in the 15th century and still functioning. Wat Botum compound is crowded with ornate and colorful stupas, including the towering "Buddha Relic Stupa".

Independence Monument

The Independence Monument was inaugurated in November 9, 1962 to celebrate Cambodia's independence from foreign rule. The Monument now also serves as a monument to Cambodia' war dead. It is the site of colorful celebrations and services on holidays such as Independence Day and Constitution Day.

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