Traveling Business Class

After our visit to the Bakong temple outside Siem Reap, our tour guide Vanna and driver Hour took us to the Siem Reap International Airport to catch our continuing flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. For this leg of the trip, we decided to fly Vietnam Airlines as they were the only airline that flew direct from Siem Reap to Hanoi. Our other options for that day were either flying AirAsia with transit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Bangkok Airways with transit in Bangkok, Thailand. Both options would essentially require us to leave early in the morning and travel the whole day, and we would risk getting stranded if for whatever reason we couldn’t make the connecting flight. So we didn’t want to take a chance, and decided to go with the Vietnam Airlines option. For that day, there were two flights we could consider, and we decided to take the earlier flight so we could get to Hanoi earlier in the evening, and also to have a fall back option in case there is anything wrong with the scheduled flight. When we booked the flight, we found out that the only seats available were in business class. We decided to go with those even though obviously they were pricier than the economy class, as the business class price was still within our budget and making the schedule was important to us given what we had planned the next few days in Vietnam.

When we arrived at the Siem Reap International Airport, the check in process was quite smooth and nice as we could go through the business class line. When we got to the counter, however, we found out that our flight was delayed by at least an hour. Not a good news to hear, but since we’re flying business class, we were given vouchers that would allow us access to use the Executive Lounge at the Siem Reap International Airport to wait for our flight.

Another thing we learned at check in time was that there was a USD $25 airport tax per person that we had to pay to depart from Siem Reap. We had that taken care of by the time we reached the security check area, but we had to wait for few minutes as a group of Japanese tourists that were in front of us reached the front of the line and found out about the airport tax there. Since they didn’t know before hand, they tried to argue with the officer at the security checkpoint to no avail. Fortunately we were not in a big hurry as our flight was delayed anyway, so waiting for the argument to finish didn’t have any negative impact to our plan.

We went to the Executive Lounge, and it was pretty nice to relax there and waited for our flight. They had complimentary snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and drinks available for the guests, and the seating area was quite comfortable as well.

We ended up spending more than two hours there until our flight was finally ready to go. Ironically the other Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi ended up leaving within ten minutes to our flight’s departure time.

The actual flight to Hanoi was about two hours, and it was quite a pleasant flight. We had a nice light dinner on the way there; it was pretty good but nothing especially memorable; they served westernized dish with some touch of Vietnamese/Asian flavors, clearly considering the typical western travelers who go on this particular route.

The photo below was taken while we were waiting at the Executive Lounge for our flight. You can see the nice ambience inside the Executive Lounge. I guess this was what we ended up paying extra for.

Executive Lounge

Wealth Equals Happiness?

While waiting at the foot of the Bakong temple when my cousin Kristi went up to the top of the towers, I had an interesting discussion with our tour guide Vanna. He asked me at one point about my background, and I told him about growing up in Indonesia but then continuing my education and now living in the United States. He said I must be very fortunate and it must be ‘living the dream.’ He also said that it must be nice living in a wealthy country like the United States as you don’t have to deal with the poverty like in Cambodia. That when I told him that while I certainly agree that I feel blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to get to where I am today, life in the United States may not be as ‘nice’ as it might seem to be to those looking from the outside. It has its own set of problems.

I told Vanna about some contemporary issues that we’re dealing with in the United States. I live in the area of the country that was ranked highest in the list of counties in the United States based on the median household income (in comparison, that number is almost 40 times the average annual income of people in Cambodia). On the surface, it’s a very nice area with many single-family homes, well manicured lawns, nice cars on the street, and people seemed ‘happy.’ But the reality is that a lot of the people here are living beyond their means, and their under heavy debt to finance such nice living. About 1 in every 1,000 homes in the area received foreclosure notice in the last year (and Virginia is actually not doing as bad as many other states in the US like California or Nevada). When I asked Vanna if he’s ever heard of the term foreclosure, I drew a blank stare. Even after I explained the concept of people borrowing money from the bank to purchase a home, and then if they couldn’t pay up, the bank would reposess the home, that idea was such a foreign concept to him that he was very surprised to hear that such ‘wealthy people’ would be in financial trouble like that. I also told him about one of the executives of a large company that manages the home mortgages committing suicide after being under heavy stress on the job. Also, the fact that there are so many broken homes in the United States — divorced parents, the concept of ‘blended family’ with the step parents/children/sibling — a lot of things that was foreign concept in Cambodia. Basically, my point was that even in ‘wealthy country’ like the United States, there are problems, and simply making more money does not really make it problem free — just different kinds of problems.

So what was the point of all of these? I think it shows that sometimes we think ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and seeing life is better elsewhere. After seeing the difficult life that they live in Cambodia as they are rebuilding from the years of civil war, I can’t fault them for wanting to have what others elsewhere in the world have. However, it’s important also to think that having the material riches does not make life trouble free, and there are also other things in life that contributes to the sense of happiness like the relationships one have, the belief that one has about the meaning of life, etc. In fact I thought it’s interesting to hear frequent comments from visitors to Cambodia about coming to the ‘land of smiles’ where they seem to be greeted with friendly faces everywhere in the country, even when meeting people who may not have much materially. You don’t hear that kind of comment from people visiting to a ‘powerhouse’ city like New York City, for example (in fact my initial impression of New Yorkers from the first business trips I made there was that they are very cold, individualistic, and it didn’t seem to be a friendly place to be around).

As a visitor who is fortunate to have the means to be able to travel and visit places like Cambodia, my lesson learned is to appreciate the gift of life that I have and be grateful of the circumstance I’m in (even though at times life is also challenging/difficult even when you have things materially). I think it’s also important to not be a snob, feeling entitled, and looking down at the locals who may not have as much materially. These folks may have other things that we don’t have (for example, a closer-knit family, or wisdom and contentment that come from perseverance through hard times), and in general I think we should respect the people we’re visiting as we’re merely guests at their home. Also when considering such difference between the income level there and where we come from, I think we should be generous especially when we’ve been provided with great service. And sometimes the gratuity does not have to come in the form of money — it can be in the form of souvenirs/keepsakes from our home country, or even just simply doing something nice for those who serve you, like inviting them for a meal during your trip. You’ll make wonderful friendship (and memories) that way.

The photo below was taken by Kristi from the top of the Bakong temple tower. You could see some locals — looked like they’re female monks — coming to the temple as a group to worship. It’s probably a good example of something rich that they have (culturally, spiritually) that you may not see in other places where the emphasis is more on material things.

Worshipper at Bakong

Bakong

Bakong is another temple in the Roluos area near Siem Reap, Cambodia. This temple was the first temple built with a temple mountain design (where the temple has tower(s) that symbolizes Mount Meru in Hindu mythology). This design was then used in constructing many of the temples in the later era in the city of Angkor, including the famous Angkor Wat. Another aspect of the design is to have a moat around the temple complex, symbolizing the ocean surrounding Mount Meru.

Today Bakong is still used for worship. There is a working monastery on the grounds of the temple. When we visited the temple, unlike other temples we visited, we actually saw more locals coming to worship than tourists coming for sightseeing.

This was the last temple we visited, and by that time in the afternoon, I was already pretty tired and I didn’t really feel like climbing the steps up to the top of the temple tower. So I decided to just wait down there with our tour guide Vanna while Kristi went up to see the scenery from up there.

The photo below was taken on the way into the temple complex, after we passed the bridge crossing the moat. You can see the tall temple tower in the distance, and the shape of the tower is similar to what you can find at the Angkor temples like Angkor Wat.

Bakong

Preah Ko

Preah Ko is a temple in the Roluos area outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was the first temple built in the ancient city of Hariharalaya, the seat of the Khmer Empire before it moved to Angkor. Similar to Lolei, the temple was built using bricks rather than sandstone. In the recent years, it had undergone restoration project. When you visit the temple, you could tell, however, the old and new bricks on the temple towers; it’s interesting to see the difference on one side seeing the original structure and on the other side seeing the new, restored structure that gives you an idea what the structure would look like back hundreds of years ago. Some of the intricate sculptures were still there. You could also see some inscriptions on the wall that helped the archaeologists to understand the ancient Khmer culture.

We went to Preah Ko after our visit to Lolei. When we arrived there, there were not many visitors around either. At the entrance, we saw several young children standing and waiting for visitors to come. We saw a lady accompanied by a tour guide walked in, and the children greeted the lady with a bow, saying ‘Hello’ and hoping that the visitor would give them a little cash. For us, they thought Kristi and I were Chinese (well, they were somewhat correct) and they said ‘ni hao!’ Vanna smiled and told them that we actually spoke English, so then they changed to say ‘hello!’ Our tour guide Vanna discouraged us from giving money to these kids, as that would encourage them to pursue the wrong way to earn a living.

Later on we saw a tourist doing something that I thought was pretty admirable. He knew that the poor kids would come and approach him for money. But instead of giving them money, he had balloons in his pocket that he would blow and give to the kids. In the end, kids were kids.. and they were equally happy being given balloons by this gentleman rather than money. I took the photo below as I observed the interaction between the tourist and the children when he gave them the balloons. His travel partner watched and took a photo of that interaction as well.

Tourist handing out balloons

Vanna the Tour Guide

In many of the previous posts I mentioned our tour guide’s name, Chea Vanna. Having him as our private tour guide definitely made a great difference to enhance our experience exploring Siem Reap. He was very knowledgeable about the history and cultural background behind many of the places that we visited, and he was quite personable and engaging. I thought I would write a blog post about him as I’m closing in to the conclusion of the Siem Reap part of my Southeast Asia trip.

When we started our sightseeing on the first day, Vanna introduced himself and told us a little bit about his background. He grew up in a village near Phnom Penh. After graduating from the university, he worked in an office job for a couple of years, and then decided to switch career to become a tour guide. He learned English and read a lot on the Khmer history, and then he went through the certification process to become an official tour guide (you have to be licensed in order to serve as a tour guide in the Angkor Archaeological Park area). When he guided us, he had been a tour guide for around three years, and he said he loved his job as it allowed him to meet people from around the world and learned about other cultures from his customers.

I asked Vanna if he was employed by Derleng Tours, the tour company that arranged our visit to Siem Reap. He said he did tours for Derleng quite frequently, but he was actually an independent guide. He worked with a couple of other tour companies in addition to Derleng Tours. He said he liked working with Derleng as it was a locally-owned company; he preferred that than some big tour companies that are foreign-owned.

During our tour there were times when Vanna excused himself for having to check his phone for text messages. That’s how he arranged bookings for future tours. Typical engagement was similar to ours, about three days. Sometimes it’s as short as only a day trip, or as long as a whole week. The size of the group he led varied from small group (2 people) like ours to larger group (15 people). I asked him if that pretty much made it a full-time job. He said yes, though there were days when he purposefully left open on his schedule so he could rest and volunteer teaching English at a local school. I thought that’s great that he used his knowledge and skills to help others to also improve their lives.

During the three days that we spent in Siem Reap, I enjoyed visiting to the places and having conversations with Vanna along the way and learned a little bit about life in Cambodia. In turn he also asked me about how life is like in both the United States and Indonesia, and it’s quite an interesting conversation comparing and contrasting the life and culture as we knew them.

I took the photo below when we were exploring the Terrace of the Elephants inside Angkor Thom. Here was Vanna explaining about the three-headed elephants to Kristi.

Vanna the Tour Guide

Lolei

Lolei is one of the temples in the Roluos group of temples in near Siem Reap, Cambodia. These temples were part of the city of Hariharalaya, the seat of the Khmer Empire prior to the move to the nearby Angkor area. The temples built during that era were different than those at Angkor as they used bricks as material. Currently only the ruins of Lolei’s four towers remain, though there is an active monastery still operating nearby.

We visited Lolei after our snakehead fish lunch. When we arrived at the temple, it was pretty quiet and the only other visitors we saw were a couple who happened to eat lunch at the same restaurant where we ate and sat next to our table, and a gentleman who came alone on a chartered tuk-tuk. The couple was met by several young Cambodian girls who tried to sell souvenirs to the lady. Her husband took photos of her and the girls as she peruse the goods that they offered her. The lone gentleman came by himself and went straight into the temple to observe the ruins. We went there around the same time. As we passed him, our tour guide Vanna said hi to him and asked him where he came from. He said he was from Spain, and after a short conversation, he moved on to observe the details of the temples alone.

I took the photo below from a distance. It was the Spanish gentleman looking at his guidebook and observing the ruins, and there were a couple of young Cambodian boys sitting on the remains of a naga sculpture and observing the tourist checking out the ancient ruins. I thought it’s interesting to have a tourist coming from far away to check out the ruins of an ancient civilization, and here were two boys who lived around these ruins and not caring much about the significance of the ruins, but more interested in seeing foreigners coming in.

Lolei

Snakehead Fish

I first heard of the snakehead fish about ten years ago, when it made news in Washington, DC, area where I lived. The snakehead fish, which is native of Africa and Asia, was found spawning in a pond in Maryland not far from the Potomac River. The snakehead fish is a priced delicacy in Asian countries, so someone tried to grow them in the US and then released them to the wild. The snakehead fish is known to be a ‘top-level predator’ meaning it doesn’t have natural enemies outside its natural habitat. They also have the capability of surviving out of the water for up to four days, and by wriggling their bodies and fins they can ‘walk’ on the land up to 1/4 miles. So there was fear that the fish would cause havoc to the ecosystem at the nearby Potomac River if it had made it there. The National Geographic Channel had a short video about the snakehead fish as the ‘fishzilla.’

After visiting the floating village of Chong Kneas, we went to a restaurant to have lunch before continuing our sightseeing in the afternoon. When we looked at the menu, we found out that this particular restaurant served steamed snakehead fish (which is quite common as delicacy in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia). Neither Kristi nor I had ever had this fish before, so we decided to give it a try.

The photo below was our steamed snakehead fish dish when it was served on a fish-shaped metal dish. The fish was indeed very tasty; no wonder this was such a priced delicacy.

Steamed snakehead fish