TRAVEL: One Week in BANGKOK


Perhaps one of the easiest and most convenient cities to visit if you’re coming from Singapore, is Bangkok. And probably the most versatile as well, because you simply won’t run out of things to do and places to discover in and around this densely-populated city. Temples, check. Shopping, check. Food, ohmygoodness check! Clubs and restaurants, check. River cruise, check. Great massage, check. And why not sex and booze while we’re at it. Whether you’re a first-time traveler or you’ve visited many a time, Bangkok will always have something special in store for you.

We were in Bangkok for one week last month and though it wasn’t totally for vacation as Hubby had to run some business type of errands (and I was his perpetually-hungry-because-heavily-pregnant assistant!), we still managed to get some touristy things done and scored heaps of pampering points in the food and massage departments.

So, you know that there are a few things Bangkok can never go wrong with. And these are some of those things, as far as we are concerned.

1. FOOD. Thailand is considered a certified heavyweight when it comes to food. In Bangkok, every visitor is spoilt for choice, both in local and international cuisines. Among those that we’ve tried and thoroughly enjoyed were:

Chapter 31. Chapter 31 is one of those happy places we go to each time we’re in Bangkok and in need of a good foodie treat at a great value. Located along Soi 31 in Sukhumvit, Chapter 31 stands out against all the other restaurants in the area (some of which are also fantastic in their own specialties) in its simplicity, yet packs a wallop in taste especially in their homemade cakes and pastries. They serve mostly local food with a twist and some western-style dishes as well. On our first visit during this trip, we ordered rib stew with red sauce and this northern Thai chicken dish which came with small bowl of cut up tropical fruits and a delicious traditional sauce and they were both insanely tasty! And because this restaurant is even more famous for its cakes, we tried out their Café Latte cake and as usual, we walked back to our place incredibly satisfied! Whatever dish you order, you can always complement it with any of their refreshing drinks – my favourites are tamarind juice and lemongrass juice. I noticed that they now serve wine as well, but we didn’t try them. When it comes to price, Chapter 31 is very, very reasonable. Not stump change, but definitely well worth the food and more. They also have some of the nicest staff who will take your order and serve them to you with a gleeful smile.

Pork spareribs in red sauce.
Pork spareribs in red sauce.

Jones the Grocer. Located at the swanky new EMQuartier along Sukhumvit, Jones the Grocer aims to wow foodies not only with its delectable range of cakes and pastries, but also with a lot of delicious dishes – from pasta, to burgers, to pizza and then some. We ordered the Superfood salad (lentils, pumpkin purée, quinoa, etc) and seafood risotto for our healthy late lunch and we thought that the serving looked small at first glance, but really just enough for a normal adult appetite. The risotto was perfectly creamy and cheesy and really delicious! There was enough prawns and squid in there as well to satisfy your seafood craving, but the highlight of our lunch was the dessert. However, once in front of the counter display with all those colourful and desserts and pastries staring back at you, making a choice – or two – gets a little bit tougher. I was so tempted to order so many because they all looked mouth-watering, but I managed to restrain myself and just settle with their lemon tart and rainbow cake. The lemon tart was so good and has just the right amount of lemon tartiness and sweet to it. The rainbow cake, I have to say, was a little dry (could use some good ol’ moist in its texture) and a bit too sweet for my taste – but would’ve blended nicely with a cup of tea. It was my first time to dine at Jones the Grocer and overall, I think the experience was good (service is commendable, too) and price was okay/mid-range.

Rainbow Cake.
Rainbow Cake.

Mezzaluna. Mezzaluna seems to have taken the concept of fine dining to a whole new level of fabulosity – from its top-notch location at the 65th Tower Club of the legendary Lebua State Tower in Silom Road, to the opulent décor of the restaurant and all the way down to the exquisitely decadent cuisine prepared by world-renowned Chef Ryuki Kawasaki. To celebrate our wedding anniversary, my husband and I had an amazing dinner at Mezzaluna, which turned out to be a beautiful symphony of flavours, aromas and textures. We even got a bonus serenade by their lovely violinist and served a special anniversary cake. Of course, the overall experience would not have been as magical without the outstanding service of the restaurant staff who pampered us with their hospitality and warm smiles as they took us through a wonderful gastronomic journey with each course served. As if the wondrous food isn’t glorious enough, try looking out of the glass window for an unobstructed view of Bangkok City laid out below in a blanket of lights and cacophony of sounds you know no other place in the world can give you as intensely – and you’ll know what I mean. Mezzaluna is an expensive restaurant but after the top-rated dining experience we were served with, I’d say it’s worth every single Baht.

Amadei Toscano chocolate light mousse with caramelized hazelnuts and Madagascar vanilla ice cream.
Amadei Toscano chocolate light mousse with caramelized hazelnuts and Madagascar vanilla ice cream.

The Capital by Water Library. On our last night hanging out in Bangkok with friends, we made plans to try out The Capital as recommended by one of our friends who only had the greatest things to say about the food and service in this restaurant. It was a Saturday night and the building where the restaurant’s located was almost deserted. Except for a few, we had the place almost to ourselves – which was more than a welcome change as we’ve already spent much time moving through an ocean of people out in the streets, the malls, etc in the last 7 days that we were in the city. The Capital has a classy interior, provides amazing service (restaurant staff were very attentive and no faux pas at all with our orders), delectable food and a good selection of wine/cocktails at a quite reasonable price.

Friends at The Capital.
Friends at The Capital.

2. MASSAGE. Because we are too stingy to pay 60 SGD for a decent foot massage in Singapore, we racked up on massage points by getting a foot massage every night before heading back, for only 150 Bht for 30 minutes. That’s almost a tenth of what it would’ve cost us in SG!

3. CULTURAL DISCOVERY. With the exception of Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (which I’ve been to once before), I visited Bang Pa-In and Ayutthaya for the first time.

Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). It’s my second time to visit this phenomenal Buddhist attraction and yet again, I found myself in awe of it. Located adjacent to the Grand Palace, the Reclining Buddha has been drawing thousands, if not millions, of visitors for many years and when you stand before the massive 46-meter long reclining buddha sculpture, it’s not so difficult to understand why. Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is located behind the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and considered one of the largest temple complexes in the city. It is a definite must-visit for both first-time visitors and Bangkok travel veterans. There is a fee of 100Bht to enter the complex and you get a small bottle of water for free. Don’t worry if you are wearing sleeveless tops or shorts for they will provide you with a robe to cover yourself up before entering the temple. This place is so popular that there’s always a ton of tourists roaming around at almost any given time of the day. So if you don’t particularly relish the thought of snaking your way through crowds in the debilitating Bangkok afternoon heat, try to come in the morning, just as the temple opens. When there, don’t content yourself with just taking photos of the reclining buddha. Instead, spend some time exploring the temple complex as there are plenty of beautiful things to see and admire around there. Word of caution, if you are fond of taking taxis, flagging one in this area will cost you a few more extra Baht for taxis here normally don’t go for meter charges, but will instead charge you a fixed rate to your destination.

Obligatory shot at the Wat Pho.
Obligatory shot at the Wat Pho.

Bang Pa-In (Royal Summer Palace). The Bang Pai-In or the Summer Palace as it stands today is largely the work of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who is credited with the expansion of the area into a Versaillesque garden filled with trademark European-style buildings. Last restored in the early 2000s, the palace and its grounds are still being used on special occasions by the present King and his royal family for holding grand receptions and banquets. We came here as part of the full-day tour package of the Ayutthaya and Bang Pa-In was our first stop. The palace grounds are kept immaculately clean and beautiful that you are almost tempted to just pick out a spot on the manicured lawn, or perhaps near the lake/pond, to just sit for hours to ruminate or have a picnic (neither is allowed, by the way). The grounds are not too large to be covered on foot, but they have golf carts to rent if you are too lazy to walk. There is a small convenience store adjacent to the royal mansion where you can buy cold drinks and ice cream to cool off from the intense heat. There is a much bigger shop at the entrance/exit where you have more snacks and drinks selection, as well as, souvenir items for friends and family back home. There is an entrance fee of 100 Bht for visitors but it’s already included in our tour fees. As at all royal sites, proper dressing is required/observed, but you can you can borrow a wraparound skirt or button-down polo at the entrance with a deposit of 200 Baht, which will be given back to you when you return the clothing item after your tour. One thing you will also enjoy, apart from the leisurely walk around the palace grounds, is feeding the fishes and turtles in the pond which serves as the marker separating the outer and inner courts of the palace. In the middle of this pond is where you will see the elegant Thai-style pavilion which they call “The divine seat of personal freedom” built by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) which now houses a statue of him built by his son. Another interesting building in the inner complex is the Chinese-style temple residence given by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to then King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). This place is open to the public but you must remove your shoes to enter and enjoy the ebony and red lacquer interior. You can look at the living room/bedroom chambers from outside but taking photographs is strictly prohibited.

At the Summer Palace.
At the Summer Palace.

Ayutthaya Historical Park. Founded in the 13th century, the historic city of Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom. Once considered among the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas and a center of global diplomacy and commerce, Ayutthaya enjoyed its golden period from the 14th century before the city was attacked and razed by the Burmese army in 1767 who burned the city to the ground and forced the inhabitants to abandon the city. Today, Ayutthaya is an archaeological ruin, conferred with a UNESCO World Heritage status, characterised by the remains of tall towers and Buddhist monasteries of monumental proportions, clearly giving visitors an idea of how massive and prosperous the city was before. We came here a few weeks ago on a whole-day tour which we booked through our hotel. We first stopped at Bang Pa-In, another important attraction in the province. If you have visited the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, you will most likely find Ayutthaya much smaller and a little less elaborate/opulent but it doesn’t take away from Ayutthaya the distinction of being among the most cosmopolitan area during its time. One of first things that you will notice as you walk around the area are the headless buddha statues, which again, was the result of the attack of the Burmese army. A few of the buddhas have had their arms and heads reconstructed recently. One very famous landmark here is what they call the buddha tree. It’s some several hundred years old tree with the face of buddha embedded on its trunk. And if there’s one selfie photo you’d like to have in Ayutthaya, it would have to be this one.:) We went to Ayutthaya around noon and let me tell you, the heat can easily drive you mental! My advice is that you wear super comfortable clothes – shorts, tank tops, etc are allowed as the old city is mere ruins now so you don’t have to be donning a sarong or anything to cover arms and legs. A pair of comfortable shoes or flip-flops would be ideal as well for all the walking that you will be doing. The area is not as massive as the Angkor Wat so you need not spend so much hours around here. There is an entrance fee, of course, but ours was prepaid through the tour that we booked. Make sure to bring a bottle of water to keep yourself hydrated. Apply sunscreen and use an umbrella over your head if you cannot stand the heat. There are a few food and souvenir stalls just by the entrance where you can grab some water and munchies if you ever feel hungry. There are toilets for your use as well. Make sure to visit this amazing historical park next time you’re in Bangkok.

At the Ayutthaya Historical Park.
At the Ayutthaya Historical Park.

4. LUMPINI PARK. I love parks and living so close to Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, I’d say it’s a little tough to find something so dramatically beautiful, even if man-made, elsewhere in Asia. Having said that, I must admit I wasn’t completely taken with Lumpini Park. Although I think it does a good job of providing a lovely patch of greenery to residents and visitors in Bangkok, for when pollution and crowd fatigue syndrome gets a little too overwhelming. The park itself is quite big and nice enough for a stroll, jog, or leisure cycling. We particularly like the lake in the middle of the park and you can rent a small boat/duck boat for 40 Bht for a 30-minute spin around the lake. It’s very relaxing to just be floating away in the water, especially on a hot day/afternoon. Look out for the big lizards lazing on the banks or swimming across the water. I was a bit scared because some of them look like baby crocodiles! There are drinks/snack stalls just outside the park so make sure you buy a bottle of water – or two – if you intend to stay in the park for more than an hour. The park can get pretty crowded in the late afternoon towards early evening so picking out a spot to just sit and ruminate might be challenging. In this case, you’re better off taking a stroll or a slow jog – both good exercises for the heart.

Ducks in a row.
Ducks in a row.
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TRAVEL: The Weekend Bali Disappointed Me


On our sixth visit to the island that holds a very special place in our hearts – if only for the fact that hubby and I were married there two years ago (in July) – we landed in, and left Bali physically exhausted and unspeakably disappointed. Okay, truth is, I was more vanquished about the weekend trip than my forever-chill husband, Chris. No, the island had absolutely nothing to do with it, because as far the whole world is considered, Bali is, and will always be one of the most mystical travel destinations. It was the blasted heavy downpour that greeted us the moment we arrived and carrying on every single day until the day we had to fly back to Singapore, that cast a long, dark shadow upon one of my anticipated summer trips, and which I am unable to shake-off until today. So much so that I keep telling my husband we need a rebound beach trip, and preferably somewhere that would give me all the sun, intoxicating beach feels, and course, fantastic food that my chubby little human body can absorb. Some place that has yet to disappoint us. Yes, Phuket, looks like we will be seeing each other again pretty soon. You have always been like a dirty little addiction for which we haven’t yet found a cure.

But back to Bali. Thing is, when you’ve had somewhat of a winning streak in your past holidays, you tend to slip into this weird zone of entitlement in which you start thinking and behaving as though every other holiday that you will have in the future will be perfect and happy. Maldives, Australia, Abu Dhabi, PhuketAvoriaz, Bordeaux, Krabi, Phnom Penh, etc. and yes, even rainy Paris in February – all these places we’ve traveled to during the last few months, have been nothing short of fantastic. And so I thought, Bali will be as consistently wonderful as it had been for us since our very first visit back in 2010. I was wrong.

DD Ubud Villa_vickyras

We stayed at this quaint little traditional villa in the Ubud tropics called DD Ubud Villa, which is a good place to hie-off to if you just want to disconnect/unplug from the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle life you’ve been living. The place is far from luxurious. In fact, what they have are very traditional wooden little houses with basic amenities and a small balcony where you can just sit, relax, or have your meals. It is situated right in the middle of the woods so expect to hear cricket (and probably other small animals/insects) sounds day in and out. Depending on which house you get assigned to, expect to walk up and down 60 to 80 steps – so be careful, especially when it’s raining and the steps can be quite slippery. Better yet, ask for the casita close to the breakfast or pool area.

There's just something utterly sexy about outdoor baths, don't you think?
There’s just something utterly sexy about outdoor baths, don’t you think?

I liked the outdoor bath which is quite spacious. There is a bathtub, toilet and a shower, with a working hot water supply (except on our last day in which we didn’t have hot water). I thought it was pretty neat taking long, hot showers late at night with the cacophony of sounds coming from the forest’s little inhabitants. The resort has a tiny natural pool, which looks bigger in photos but really isn’t and the water is perpetually cold – especially the weekend we were there and it rained nonstop from Thursday. So we didn’t really get to try it out. In any case, it shouldn’t be that bad during hot summer days when, hopefully, the water is tepid enough for a decent dip. The place does not have it’s own restaurant, but they do have a menu where you can choose from and they order it from a partner restaurant. We tried a few of the dishes and they weren’t that bad either. Food is quite tasty and the price is pretty reasonable. Last orders are taken at 7:30pm, so if you are having your meals at the villa, take note of this because you will have a very hard time looking for food after. Chances are, you will end up paying extra for a transport to Ubud town centre or the nearby restaurant. If you are staying at DD for a few days, make sure you buy and stock big bottles of mineral water as there are no nearby store to buy supplies from. They do provide complimentary water everyday, but these are small 250ml bottles only.

Because we were unable to 'let the room breathe or let the sun shine in', so to speak, as there was only heavy downpour the entire time,  the room had this musty scent which wasn't that bad, really.
Because we were unable to ‘let the room breathe or let the sun shine in’, so to speak, as there was only heavy downpour the entire time, the room had this musty scent which really wasn’t that terrible.

You may also request for massage service in your room and the masseuse were quite good and I really liked the soft flower-scented oil they use for the massage. It doesn’t leave you feeling like a greased-up pig during or even after. Given the villa’s location, moving around can be such a pain. The only solution is to book transport for your tours. We did a morning tour the day after we arrived and opted to go on a whole day tour again on our last day – in which we ended up going to only two places because of the torrential rains that made the travel somewhat unbearable. We literally spent 7 or so hours inside the van moving from one place to another in what seemed like an exercise in absolute futility because of the terrible weather. At the end of the epic fail of a tour, all I got was foul temper and a sore bum. All things good and awful considered, our stay at DD Ubud Villa wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t fantastic either and to be fair, it was mostly due to the terrible weather in Bali that weekend. Oh, they do have free wifi but the connection is intermittent and often very slow, which we didn’t really mind that much because we were there to sort of disconnect.

Be that as it may, we couldn’t spend the whole weekend moping so we visited a few places which I would recommend you do the same, hopefully, on a much better weather situation. Here they are:

1. Visit the Pura Tirta Empul. A UNESCO-protected world cultural and natural heritage since 2012. This Hindu temple is where you will find the holy spring where believers bathe and offer prayers to cleanse their weary bodies and troubled minds. This spring is said to carry healing powers. You pay Rp 15,000 (US $1) to enter the temple grounds.

Entrance to the holy spring.
Entrance to the holy spring.
Looking to purge your body and mind of all negative influences? A dip in the holy spring just might give your troubled soul a reprieve.
Looking to purge your body and mind of all negative influences? A dip in the holy spring just might give your troubled soul a reprieve.

2. Visit (or in our case, view from afar) the legendary Mt. Agung. Still considered an active volcano occasionally belching smoke and ash, Mt. Agung is the highest point in Bali and had its last eruption in the year 1963. They have trekking tours being organised regularly if you are into that sort of thing. We would love to trek one of Indonesia’s volcanoes one day but on the weekend that we were there, we had to content ourselves with feasting on delicious local Indonesian fare for a fee of Rp 120,000 (US $9) per person for the lunch buffet at a restaurant overlooking the mountain. Before you reach the viewpoint, you will have to pay an additional Rp 30,000 (US $2) per person.

View of Mount Agung on a rainy, gloomy afternoon in Bali.
View of Mount Agung on a rainy, gloomy afternoon in Bali.
Lunch buffet with a view.
Lunch buffet with a view…of my visibly scarred thunder thighs. LOL.

3. Visit one of the organic cocoa and coffee plantations in Kinatamani for Luwak (and other variants of) coffee-tasting.  Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of the plantation, but we did have a lovely time going around the property and I even tried my hand at manually grinding the coffee beans from the civet cat’s poop. We bought organic Bali Ginseng Coffee and organic Bali Cocoa. Personally, I think our Pinoy tableas (Filipino hot chocolate) taste much better than their cocoa. A cup of Luwak coffee costs Rp 50,000 (US $3) at the plantation and we were told that it’s more expensive outside.

Coffee beans from the civet cat poop being roasted.
Coffee beans from the civet cat poop being roasted.
Hubby enjoying his Luwak coffee.
Hubby enjoying his Luwak coffee.

4. Visit Ulun Danu Bratan. The temple complex is located on the shores of Lake Bratan, whis is the main source of irrigation in Bali. This temple complex is the site for offerings ceremony to the Balinese water, lake and river goddess Dewi Danu, due to the importance of the lake to the island.

Hindu temple by the lake.
Hindu temple by the lake.
Placid.
Calm waters of Lake Bratan.

5. Visit the famous Pura Tanah Lot. Arguably one of Bali’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting over a million of visitors from all over the world each year. It is also considered one of the holiest grounds on the island to worship the Balinese gods. At the base of the rocky islet where the temple sits atop, venomous sea snakes are believed to guard the temple from evil spirits and intruders. The offshore rock where the temple rests has been shaped continuously over the years by the roaring ocean tide. During low tide, people can walk up to the temple area, however, most of the time, when the tides are high, people are not allowed to get near the temple. They say Tanah Lot is most beautiful during sunset so we braved the inclement weather hoping it will clear up by the time we get there. Unfortunately, the rain pressed and the sky remained ominous grey.

The mystical Tanah Lot temple.
The mystical Tanah Lot temple.
Tanah Lot selfie.
Tanah Lot selfie.

TRAVEL: Weekend in PHNOM PENH


I first heard the name Pol Pot in our Asian history class back in high school, many years ago. I vaguely remember the details of what made him and the Khmer Rouge notorious, but they did very bad things, we were told. The thing is, when it’s something you have not experienced first-hand, it is not easy to claim full knowledge or even deep understanding of a situation, no matter the multitude of books written or documentaries made about it. I remember watching the film The Killing Fields some years back, the clumps of tears and snot-soaked tissues on the floor that resulted from it, and me making some vague promise to visit Phnom Penh one day, if only to retrace this part of history. Sort of.

Team Altaie discovering Phnom Penh.
Team Altaie discovering Phnom Penh.

Two weekends ago, that promise came into fruition. Chris and I traveled to Phnom Penh with only the fuzziest recollection of history and a compromise to just shoot the breeze when we get there, given that it was our first time traveling to the city. But what we saw, heard, and tasted of Phnom in a just one short weekend has driven us into a maelstrom of very strong emotions ranging from deep despair, some feeling of Asian allegiance, huge respect for what Phnom Penh has blossomed into after years of struggle that pressed on even after Pol Pot’s reign of terror has ended, and a sense of delicious wonder in large part due to the scrumptious Khmer cuisine.

We had a wonderful time in Phnom Penh, thanks to our friends Seima and Vite, for making sure we experience as much of the city and its history, even with our very short stay. Chris and Seima went to the same Graduate School in Thailand some years back and have not seen each other since graduation – until two weeks ago. So it really was a happy reunion with the two of them trading fond memories of their AIT days, usually with a feast of the most amazing local food laid out on the table before us.

So here it is, our weekend in Phnom Penh, in photos and lucid ramblings.

1. Tuol Sleng. The minute you step into the grounds of Tuol Sleng aka the S-21 concentration camp, you immediately get a sense of foreboding so acute that somehow tells you something utterly terrible and tragic has happened there. And that sinking feeling only gets more and more pronounced as you walk from cell to cell, scanning thousands of nameless faces captured in photographs, and some preserved fragments of bones and pieces of clothing that once belonged to Cambodians who were mercilessly tortured and starved, before they were put to death in what is now known as the Killing Fields, during the malevolent regime of Pol Pot and his savage Khmer Rouge. This is not the kind of place that would evoke jubilation as in most tourist attractions we know of; and perhaps we may never truly understand the kind of evil that was at work in the minds of those who carried out the genocide of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at that time (for that kind of evil is, I think, only something the devil himself would know), but it is important that we know so that our generation would know better than to allow something like this to happen again. The images, writings, and documentary that you will see at Tuol Sleng are gut-wrenching, so be prepared as some of those images will linger in your head long after you have walked away from the place. When we were there, we met Chum Mey, one of the ONLY 7 survivors (out of the 7, only 2 remain alive today) of S-21 concentration camp. He is now almost 84 years old. He is usually found sitting in a small booth surrounded by copies of his memoir – written in French and English – which are being sold for charity. His story is perhaps only one out of the 3 million that have suffered and died during Pol Pot’s reign of terror, but unlike millions of others like him, he lived to tell the harrowing tale. There are volunteers who conduct the guided tour a few times a day. If you’re lucky to visit when a tour is being organised, it would be great for you to join. Otherwise, the documentary video will provide you with more insights into Cambodia’s darkest period in history. Vite’s family is actually among those working very hard to preserve Tuol Sleng. Her father interviewed the survivors and wrote their account in Khmer, while Seima helped with the English translation.

The 'Rules and Regulations'  imposed by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng.
The ‘Rules and Regulations’ imposed by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng.
This is one of the few cells at the ground floor of one of the buildings. This type of cell was reserved for the 'VIP' prisoners tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. VIP prisoners constitute mainly of the high-ranking officials of the government overthrown by the genocidal regime of Pol Pot.
This is one of the few cells at the ground floor of one of the buildings at Tuol Sleng. This type of cell was reserved for the ‘VIP’ prisoners tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. VIP prisoners constitute mainly of the high-ranking officials of the government overthrown by the genocidal regime of Pol Pot.
The Gallows. This was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside down and dunking their heads into the big pot of water until they are drowned.
The Gallows. This was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside down and dunking their heads into the big pot of water until they are drowned.
Chum Mey's cell. Chum Mey was one of the only 7 survivors of S-21.
Chum Mey’s cell. Chum Mey was one of the only 7 survivors of S-21.
Meet Chum Mey. He survived because he managed to fix the typewriter used by the Khmer Rouge at S-21 and from there, he became an all-around handyman. he is almost 84 years old now.
Meet Chum Mey. He survived because he managed to fix the typewriter used by the Khmer Rouge at S-21 and from there, he became an all-around handyman. he is almost 84 years old now.
These are the people RESPONSIBLE for the genocide that obliterated one fourth of Cambodia's population in the late 70's. These spawns of the devil led the extermination of Cambodia's educated people, women, children and even babies.
These are the people RESPONSIBLE for the genocide that obliterated one fourth of Cambodia’s population in the late 70’s. These spawns of the devil led the extermination of Cambodia’s educated people, women, children and even babies.

2. Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (The Killing Fields). Truth be told, we were expecting a different Phnom Penh than the one that greeted us when we got out of the airport. The city, while sweltering hot and dusty on perhaps the hottest time of the year, is now visibly on its way to progress and development. Something the nation has been denied for several years by a regime so violent, so brutal, so inexplicably evil that it wiped out nearly a quarter of its population in mere four years. What we saw at the S-21 museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (aka the Killing Fields) were images so gruesome it would have been inconceivable that humans were capable of launching such atrocities against another – if the skulls, bone fragments, torture and killing tools, weren’t there staring back at us, as though daring us to go ahead and forget. The second you step into the Killing Fields, you are overcome by a sense of foreboding so chilling that it would not have been possible for you to just close your eyes and steel yourself from the pain. Nope, there is certainly no escaping the terror once you see the skulls, torn clothes, barbaric weaponry used to torture and kill. The evil regime responsible for the mass murder had left in its wake nearly 3 million people wiped out from Cambodia’s history. Artists, lawyers, doctors, educators, monks, children, wives, etc – people that could’ve propelled Cambodia to a higher stature in the ASEAN. That Cambodia, Phnom Penh especially, has emerged from this dark period to get to where it is today, poised for economic spurt, is in itself a miracle.

There is a fee of $3 for foreign visitors and also an audio guide for those who would like to know more of what really transpired in this small piece of land turned mass grave. At the center is a stupa where the skulls that were excavated were reverently stored, so visitors can offer prayers for their resting souls. There is also a museum within the compound. I would say Cheoung Ek is not for the weak of hearts but it is something that you must see for yourself when in Phnom Penh.

Entrance to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre aka The Killing Fields.
Entrance to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre aka The Killing Fields.
The stupa where skulls and bone fragments of those mass murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are stored, along with recovered weapons used to kill them.
The stupa where skulls and bone fragments of those mass murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are stored, along with recovered weapons used to kill them.
The truck stop. This is where prisoners to be killed were dropped-off by truckloads. They say that at the peak of the genocide, the Khmer Rouge were killing up to 300 Cambodians per day.
The truck stop. This is where prisoners to be killed were dropped-off by truckloads. They say that at the peak of the genocide, the Khmer Rouge were killing up to 300 Cambodians per day.
The Killing Tree. This trunk was where babies and small children were being smashed against by the barbaric Khmer Rouge.
The Killing Tree. This trunk was where babies and small children were being smashed against by the barbaric Khmer Rouge.

3. Independence Monument and the statue of His Majesty the King Norodom Sihanouk, known as the Father of Cambodian Independence from the French rule that spanned almost a century. The Independence Monument was built in 1958 as a symbol of Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It stands on the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard in the city centre.

The Independence Monument.
The Independence Monument.

The statue of King Norodom Sihanouk was erected only last year to honour the late King who guided the country to independence from France and through two wars before backing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in a bid to retain power. The statue is said to have cost around US 1.2 million to build.

Photobombing the statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodia's Independence from France.
Photobombing the statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodia’s Independence from France.

4. The Silver Pagoda. This pagoda houses many national treasures including gold and jewelled Buddha statues. Most eye-catching is the small 17th century Emerald Buddha and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds, the largest of which weighs 25 carats. During King Norodom Sihanouk‘s pre-Khmer Rouge reign, the Silver Pagoda was inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles and some of its outer facade was remodeled with Italian marble. However only a small area of these tiles are available to be viewed by the public on entering the pagoda as the rest of floor is covered with carpet.

The Silver Pagoda. Photos are not allowed inside.
The Silver Pagoda. Photos are not allowed inside.
Hello from the Silver Pagoda!
Hello from the Silver Pagoda!

5. Royal Palace. This complex of buildings serve as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. The Silver Pagoda is among the many structures within the palace complex. There is a fee of US $6 per visitor. Wearing of sleeveless tops and short, shorts are not allowed in the palace grounds. So we ended up buying a US $3 XL-sized t-shirt for me to wear as they don’t allow shawl as cover-up either.

The Throne Hall.
The Throne Hall.
At the Royal Palace grounds.
At the Royal Palace grounds.

6. Wat Phnom. Buddhist temple built in 1373 and is also the central point of Phnom Penh. According to legend, a wealthy widow called Penh found a large koki tree in the river. Discovered inside the tree were four bronze statues of the Buddha. Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill made by the people living in the village to protect the sacred statues. This site will eventually become the place for prayer and worship for buddhists.

Wat Phrom.
Wat Phrom.

7. Eclipse Sky Bar. Located atop the Hyundai Tower, one of Phnom Penh’s popular skyscrapers, Eclipse Sky Bar gives its loyal customers and infrequent or first-time visitors a grand view of the burgeoning commerce and palpable growth opportunities below. Phnom Penh, no doubt, is poised for an explosive debut in the region, after the long painful years of civil war. There is usually an acoustic band playing and the music/sound coming out of the fancy Bose speakers is just at the right decibel to be both soothing and conducive for proper conversations. The price of drinks is certainly not cheap but you do get an awesome view with it, so it’s not such a bad trade-off if you ask me. Eclipse Bar is definitely one of the hottest places in Phnom Penh so if you can, it is best to book a table before coming – especially if it’s Friday/Saturday.

Beautiful 360-degree view of Phnom Penh from up here.
Beautiful 360-degree view of Phnom Penh from up here.
With our wonderful hosts, Seima and Vite, hanging out at Eclipse Sky Bar.
With our wonderful hosts, Seima and Vite, hanging out at Eclipse Sky Bar.

8. Exquisite Cambodian Cuisine. Arguably one the oldest living culinary styles in the world, dating back at least a millennium, and nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the Cambodian cuisine is a succulent combination of flavourful herbs and spices and various textures. Almost similar to Thai cuisine in many ways but distinctively different in some. Thanks to Seima and Vite, we feasted on so many local dishes including the famous signature dish called fish amok, green mango salad, papaya salad, majew prai (country-style green soup), and some traditional dessert as well.

Papaya salad.
Papaya salad.
Crab meat fried rice.
Crab meat fried rice with a side of duck spring rolls.
Mango salad
Green mango salad
Majew prai.
Majew prai.

TRAVEL: Top Things To Do in ARCACHON and La TESTE-de-BUCH


Located some 55kms from Bordeaux is another arrondissement called Arcachon which sits on the banks of the Atlantic coast. Compared with most towns in France, our friends at Wikipedia say Arcachon is fairly young at around 150 years old. Prior to it being officially acknowledged by Emperor Napoleon III as a town, Arcachon is said to be just a sprawling forest of pine, oaks, and strawberry trees with almost zero road links. Today, however, Arcachon is fast becoming famous for its fine beaches, the remarkable Arcachon houses so unique in architecture, great seafood, while neighbouring La Teste-de-Buch is home to the famous Grande Dune du Pilat. After spending the previous day gallivanting around Sauternes, my In-Laws took us on a road trip to these two arrondissements and what we have seen there certainly confirmed raves by tourists.

1. Arcachon Beaches. In Arcachon, you will find a long stretch of fine sandy beaches that has become so popular with beachcombers and surfers, too, especially during summer. As it was winter when we came here, we saw only a handful of people braving the icy cold temperature. There are restaurants and bars along Boulevard de l’Ocean, as well as private properties lucky (or wealthy) enough to hog a slice of this natural beauty.

I love the beach, even in winter.
I love the beach, even in winter.

From here, you can also take the boat for a tour around the Birds Island.

Up for some bird watching? You wouldn't want to skip this one!
Up for some bird watching? You wouldn’t want to skip this one!

Or simply roam around the city centre and take photos.

Fresh fruits at the local marché
Fresh fruits at the local marché
Picturesque Arcachon.
Picturesque Arcachon.
Walk the world one city at a time.
Walk the world one city at a time.

2. Grande Dune du Pilat. When my in-laws told us that we will pass by the Grande Dune du Pilat after our trip to Arcachon beach, it didn’t really occur to me that it would be as astonishing as the one that greeted us when we arrived at the site. First of all (and pardon me for my ignorance), I didn’t really think that there could be a sand dune in Europe and one as tall as this one in Pilat. My husband and I have been to the Red Dune in Dubai, and though Le Grande Dune du Pilat is nowhere near it in terms of size and the fine quality of the sand, it more than made up for its lack with the fantastic view of the Atlantic Ocean and Arcachon Bay from the top and the verdant forest in surrounding areas. They say that the dune is about 118m above sea level and stretches up to nearly 3kms, making it the highest sand dune in Europe.

The largest sand dune in Europe.
The largest sand dune in Europe.
Dune du Pilat offers a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, Arcachon Bay and the surrounding verdant forest.
Dune du Pilat offers a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, Arcachon Bay and the surrounding verdant forest.

The climb up can be a little challenging but like I said, totally worth the spectacular view from the top. It was very cold the afternoon that we visited with the wind occasionally blowing in freezing gusts, making the climb all the more fun. I can only imagine how even more beautiful it can be up there during summer! There is no fee charged for visitors and there’s one or two snack shops at the base of the dune if you ever feel the need to snack or hydrate before and after the climb. There are toilets and souvenir shops as well. This is definitely a great place to visit when in the region.

The Atlantic Ocean down below.
The Atlantic Ocean below.

3.  (Sea)Food trip. Arcachon takes pride in being recognised as one of the top four places for best oysters in France, alongside Normandy, Brittany and Marennes-Oléron. I must confess that we didn’t exactly have our seafood trip in Arcachon but rather, at this port-side restaurant in La Teste-de-Buch called Restaurant du Port.  Which, if my non-existent geographical knowledge is to be trusted, is really just next to Arcachon. It was still low tide when we got to the restaurant but the water quickly rose to cradle the little colourful sailboats up in its arms, lending the whole scene a slight touch of romance (because we all know France really goes hand-in-hand with romance).

View from Restaurant du Port.
View from Restaurant du Port.

We ordered from the menu escale and got a plate of oysters each for starters and they were truly fresh and delicious! We tried Loubine à la plancha, Pavé de Boeuf and Parillada plus crême brulée and tarte aux noix for desserts – all top-notch in terms of taste and portion.

Les huitres!
Les huitres!
Loubine à la plancha
Loubine à la plancha
Tarte aux Noix
Tarte aux Noix

If I’m not mistaken, the set meal costs around 20 euros, which is quite reasonable given the quality and taste of the food. Overall, this is a great restaurant to visit and you must not leave without sampling their seafood dishes (oysters, especially), which is what they are mainly known for. C’est très delicieux!