The Reluctant Stylista

I brought my laptop with me to my trip to Siem Reap last week so I could write about the trip in real time. I wish I hadn’t bothered—Nymeria, my purple Samsung NP305 now has this black crack running the entire length of the screen (I don’t know how it happened, though it started out as a blob on the rightmost corner before spreading out) and I still hadn’t managed to dredge up a word or two about the trip until now. (I always have that difficulty because there always seems too much to write about the trips I take that I neer know where to start. Then I end up not doing it at all.) But forget about that. Despite all my whinings (and Nymeria isn’t actually the only gadget that I damaged during my vacation), I came home feeling like the trouble was all worth it. I loved Cambodia, and I’m trying to remember if I ever felt this way about a country I’ve visited before—I think I haven’t. I don’t think I can come up with the exact words to express what a fantastic experience it was overall, I had a wealth of emotions during and after the trip—but I can be pretty mouthy so I’m sure I’ll try my best anyway. I apologize in advance as I know I’ll get carried away with the storytelling.

The moat around Bakong

The moat at Bakong

Banteay Srei

Sculptures and carvings at Banteay Srei (The Citadel of Women)

Preah Ko (Roluos Group)

Shrine guardian at Preah Ko

At Beng Melea

At Beng Melea, where a sturdy branch was hanging low enough to sit down on

 

So some of my friends and I, during a trip to Singapore earlier this year, briefly touched on the idea of traveling to either Cambodia or Bangkok together. Sure, traveling anywhere is always a welcome suggestion, but it’s not really something you formalize right away given that most of my friends have regular 9-6 day jobs and are required to file vacation leaves. And while I have more freedom in handling my time, abundance in funds for me is pretty seasonal, too.

 

A childhood dream come true

 

Originally, I got started into the planning frenzy for Cambodia due to fashion business-related issues. Those plans eventually had to be abandoned as I found out too late that some things weren’t going to jive with our schedules, but I wasn’t too upset. I realized I was going to be in Siem Reap, the door step to seeing the Angkor Archaeological Park. Suddenly, planning the trip had taken a whole new meaning for me: one of my earliest childhood dreams was to be an archaeologist. Of course, you change your mind about a million times as you grow older and become an adult, and along the way, some things start appearing too fantastical or flimsy to pursue (especially when you discover, to your disappointment, that you live in a place where it’s not a viable option—as a study or a career). But sometimes I do find myself wondering why I never considered a career in history, at least, when I’ve obviously loved it for as long as I can remember (I guess maybe because I didn’t know any careers that employed history majors, and it was more like a hobby than anything serious. Growing up, it was more normal to aspire for engineering, law or medicine). My interest in the arts came later, and fashion was even more recent. Funny how these younger interests connected me to what may have been my first love. I felt like a kid again, reading up on temples like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and having this almost fanatical relationship with the Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Cambodia. It never left my side the whole time I was planning our trip and it was beside my pillow every night. The funny thing is, it wasn’t even mine, and I scoffed at the idea of spending for a guidebook when I’ve always planned trips based on reviews and write-ups I can find online (read: free). So it was my travel buddy who bought it. But once I started reading, I was loathe to part from it. I kid you not, one time I accidentally left it at home, I became restless and agitated. My friend started teasing me about being an itinerary monster, but that was just scratching the surface—I couldn’t concentrate on my work properly and I was spending my nights reading instead of sleeping.

 

Lonely Planet's Guidebook to Cambodia 2012 edition

Yes, I was reading it even during the blackout in Las Piñas

Lonely Planet's Guide to Cambodia 2012 Edition

The book when it was newly bought and was still in pristine condition. My obsession with it has made it a bit…battered.

Cambodia preps

I had several spreadsheets in a Google document.  I posted this particular one in Facebook because I thought it was funny.  But mostly people thought it was really OC of me.  They had no idea that this was the simplest sheet I had.  I was seriously planning even the small details in our trip, even down to our manicures.  (Btw, you don’t need a Cambodian visa if you’re from an Asean country.) My friend and I had an exchange in Google Talk that went like this:

Aliza: wag siguro magbright color sa cambodia noh? i mean sa nail polish (maybe we shouldn’t wear a bright color in cambodia, you think? I mean for nail polish)
Alex: bakit hindi? gusto ko nga magbright color ng nail polish eh :P (why not? I want to wear bright colored nail polish)
Aliza: okay..oa siguro kako sa respeto sorta sa temples
haha baka ayaw nila ng happy colors (I thought maybe it’s going overboard, as respect for the temples, you know. Haha they might not like happy colors)
Alex: dude yung monks nga naka orange robes
they know how to accessorize, okay? (Dude, the monks are wearing orange robes)

 

Slightly imperfect manicures

Traveling as a Twosome

 

Another thing that eventually got me excited was the chance of traveling with just one other person in the party. I’ve always traveled in a group, be it with friends or my family. Sure, I traipsed around China when I was a little girl with just a tour guide to take care of me for a couple of days (to keep me busy while my mom was working), but that was way different. I wasn’t really alone, and I never had to worry about money running out, and I didn’t plan for all the places I was taken to. While we initially started the planning with more people in our group, the number eventually dwindled down to two. I think I could’ve invited two or three of my cousins to come along, but I realized I wanted to have a different travel experience this time around. That was one of the best decisions I made for this trip, especially since Siem Reap is one of those places that can be explored alone or with a friend (I’ve always balked at the idea of traveling alone or without a guy friend in tow. Hey, I’m Manileña and I am naturally suspicious—plus, I’ve seen Taken, okay?).

With Aliza at Banteay Srei

With my friend Aliza, at Banteay Srei (The Citadel of Women)

It was only during this trip that I realized you’re much more open to a whole new cultural experience when you’re traveling in a small party. With a group, you always have your own little bubble everywhere you go. When left to your own devices, you get to interact with people more—and while my introverted self would have naturally shied away from this some years back, now I was craving the adventure and encountering new faces. I was chatting up people left and right the whole time—I think I’ve never been so friendly in my life. I’m pretty sure my family wouldn’t have recognized this social butterfly I’ve become, had they seen her.

 

But it’s easy enough to be friendly in Cambodia.

 

The Khmers must be one of the warmest people on earth. I wonder if this is how foreigners feel when they’re around Pinoys, because I often hear that being said about us, but I never actually shared the sentiment. It could be true around the provinces, I suppose, but being from Metro Manila, again, I’m quite used to unsmiling service and irate people behind counters and desks. The thing is, I look Khmer, too, as I’ve been told a dozen times during my stay in Siem Reap, so they’re not actually “obliged” to act nicer to me just because I’m a foreigner. I believe they really are just a nice, cheery lot with the friendliest smiles and words.

With the kiddies

With our tuktuk driver’s kids, Panya and A Liza

With A Liza

Pov, our driver, warned us that his daughter A Liza might cry at first (as she usually does when she first encounters foreigners or new people), but that she’d eventually warm up and be really sweet.  The first time we met her, she was already all smiles.  Maybe because we look Khmer and not like total strangers.

The two Alizas

A Liza and Aliza finally meet

 

That’s another thing that I noticed with the Khmers, they’re very expressive with their appreciation. Everyone is effusive with their welcomes and their thank you’s. I have to admit, though, that my favorite, hands down, is how generous they are with the compliments. Be it man, woman, young or old, even the language barrier is no issue—they’d come up to me or our tuktuk driver telling me “s’aat”, the Khmer word for “beautiful”. Usually, this came with the question if my friend and I were Khmer, since they think we look Cambodian I also got stopped more than a couple of times, some of them teens, gesturing to my hair, saying that I have a “cool and modern style” in a very complimentary way (although I remember one tuktuk driver jokingly tell me that someone stole my hair, while pointing to the shaved part). I don’t think I’ve ever been plied with so many compliments in the span of one week, and it can get anybody in a cheerful mood, I tell you. Not that I’ve ever lacked for appreciation back home, but over here, most people’s idea of pretty girls are the Forever21 clones and those who look like K-pop stars. The other tourists that we encountered were just as appreciative, though I’ve always attributed this to the fact that Southeast Asians in general look beautiful and exotic to them. And normally, I wouldn’t be so flattered, but it’s a different kind of attention you get from say, passing by Cafe Havana in Greenbelt where it just scares the heck out of you. I’m a little weak at checking other guys out (hah! I’m usually quicker to notice the hot girls, though), or even remembering names and faces, but while in Siem Reap, my friend assured me that there were plenty of lookers around. Just check out Pub St. and you won’t be disappointed.

 

I was just one in a thousand of tourists who pass by Siem Reap everyday.

 

Let’s face it, you’re all there to see and experience the same things. But I wanted to take home something from the trip that wouldn’t normally be in most tourists’ plans. At first I was excited to take a whole lot of architectural and landscape photos, the same kind that my friends aren’t usually interested in during our outings (they say I take too little photos of people and of us having fun. But I think everyone else’s cameras are for that, right?). But I know when it all piles up later on, they’re not going to be that personal and they’re not really “moments”. My friends kind of have a point there—pictures like those I love taking could have been taken by anyone. Hell, I was going to be in the temples of Angkor, I might as well have something to prove I was really there the year I turned 28. But I also didn’t want to bring home a bunch of touristy shots, either (you will NEVER catch me doing things like pretending to be picking up a temple with my forefinger and thumb). So I brought these pair of yellow 4.5” inch heels for props and, well, you can see for yourself what I did.

At Beng Melea

At Beng Melea

Shirt and pants Oxygen / Shoes Parisian

At Kbal Spean

At Kbal Spean (The River of a Thousand Lingas). This was the most difficult to do. Though there were only a few tourists walking up the mountain, I wasn’t standing on a flat surface.  Plus, the effort to get there had made my legs a little more tired than usual, so I was wobbly.  Whenever someone would pass by, I’d sit on the rock and hide my feet on the other side of the stone so they wouldn’t see my heels.  They were all probably wondering what the heck I was doing on top of that enormous rock (that I had to climb on all fours and with bare feet).

Top and pants Greenhills

At Pre Rup

At Pre Rup

Jumping high-heeled shot at Angkor Wat

I couldn’t possibly go home without trying a high-heeled jumping shot with the most famous Angkor temple in the background, Angkor Wat!

Top Greenhills / Pants Oxygen / Shoes Parisian

It was damn good fun—not exactly easy nor the safest and we had to hide a couple of times from other tourists who were quite few at the far temples and at this time of the year. While we were at Beng Melea, though, our tour guide for the day, Ratanak, gamely took photos as well (and was even art directing, haha!)  More of these photos and behind the scenes in later posts.

 

To be continued.

 

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