Lakwacha with my KRM loves or why travelling with peers may be a better option

Almost a decade ago, my flatmates and I decided to have a weeklong break in Phnom Penh and Seam Reap in Cambodia, Bangkok in Thailand and Bintan in Indonesia.

It was what at the National University of Singapore (NUS) calls the Reading Week, a weeklong break for students to do what else is expected of them: read. Students are expected to read past lectures and read lessons in advance. But the reading week for us at KRM had a different meaning: lakwacha (engage in an adventure via travel).

We named our flat Kent Ridge Mansion, a.k.a. KRM because the apartment (in one of the popular shophouses near the Kent Ridge Terminal and just across the Kent Ridge Park) is located at the edge of Kent Ridge district. The insertion of mansion? Ah, that’s because we thought of ourselves as members of the altasociedad (rich people) from the Philippines. Besides, we were in fact rich: rich in friendship and rich in love, #charot!

On 10 September 2010, we left Singapore’s Changi Airport via a budget airline and we arrived early morning at Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Right after we left our luggage at the hotel, we started our tour to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center via a carriage similar to our tricycle back home except that the passengers area was larger where up to eight individuals could even fit inside (versus two individuals inside our tricycle).

The experience at these sites was memorable (in an eerie and a sad way).

We listened to stories of the survivors via the documentary film featured at the Genocidal Center. We paid respect to those who were tortured and killed at the Genocide Museum. I was specifically moved by the narratives of the artists-survivors. I remember how I wept while listening to the stories probably because I was also imagining myself stepping on their shoes during the time of their capture and torture.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Photo: SAPT)
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Photo: SAPT)
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Photo: SAPT)
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Photo: SAPT)

The next day, we visited the Royal Palace, one of Cambodian structures in Phnom Penh dressed with classic Khmer roofs and other lavish decoration. Located near the riverfront, the Palace bears a remarkable likeness to its counterpart in Bangkok (which we also visited). We were told by our driver-guide that the palace is home for the royal family since the 1860’s. The Palace is a complex of buildings with 4 main structures: the Silver Pagoda, Khemarin Palace, the Throne Hall and the Inner Court. Though half of the compound is considered the king’s residence and is closed to the public, the Silver Pagoda and Throne Hall compounds are popular attractions in Phnom Penh and can be explored freely.

In the afternoon, we visited the National Museum to learn more about the history of Cambodia. I remember how I learned from that visit the reason for changing the name of the nation from Kampuchea to Cambodia. I also learned from that museum visit how Kampuchea isolated itself from the rest of the world in the 1970s.

Solo photo taken by one of my flatmates; on the background is the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace of Cambodia (Photo: SAPT)
Khmerin Palace, where Apsara and other Traditional Cambodian Dances are performed (Photo: SAPT)
One of the collections displayed at the National Museum (no, not me – the stupa-like figure)
A view of the facade of the National Museum taken from the exit gate. (Photo: SAPT)

We travelled to Seam Reap on 14 September via a local van and we arrived at our hotel after seven hours on the road. At Seam Reap, our first agenda was to experience Khmer cuisine and traditional dance (Apsara).

We booked a table for five at Koulen Restaurant. As our feet touched the grounds of the restaurants, we were not disappointed. It was a night of Khmer culture through the performing arts and food.

A performance of the Apsara Ballet at Koulen Restaurant (Photo: SAPT)
This is us, while waiting for our food and the performance on stage
Me, posing before the traditional orchestra
Joining the performers for a photo-opportunity

We rested well afterwards to prepare ourselves for the Angkor experience the next day.

The Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. In 1992, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention inscribed the temple of Angkor Wat, the Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple as World Heritage Sites using criteria i (to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius), ii (to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design), iii (to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared), and iv (to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history) as bases.

For a long time, my only knowledge about the Angkor was based on the movie Lara Croft, which starred Angelina Jolie. But as time passed by, my interest on the Angkor grew larger and larger. My graduate course on Asian Theatre way back in 2004 made me want to travel to Cambodia, particularly in Seam Reap hoping to see performances of Apsara in one of Seam Reap’s temples.

Then in February 2010, in a module/subject titled “History, Memory and Performance” at the NUS, me and my classmates were required to see this contemporary performance of a Khmer Ballet through the Amrita Performing Arts Group at the Studio of the Esplanade. During the post-show conversation, one of the dancers revealed that his grandfather was one of the tortured artists during the Pol Pot regime. His grandfather did not survive but his father kept the memory of his grandfather via continuously performing the traditional ballet in Seam Reap.

The main gate of the Angkor Complex (Photo: SAPT)
Angkor Thom (Photo: SAPT)
One of the many faces at Angkor Thom (Photo: SAPT)
The Angkor Wat (Photo: SAPT)
Photo opportunity inside the Angkor Wat
The Angkor Wat, a view from inside (Photo: SAPT)

We stayed in Seam Reap until 17 September 2010, Friday. On the same day, we travelled to Bangkok via border crossing at Polpet (Cambodia) and Aranyaprathet (Thailand). We arrived in Bangkok after almost 12 hours of land travel.

In Bangkok, we followed the usual trail of tourists.

We were suddenly feeling the stress of our land travels. We went to see the Grand Palace, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho (or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha).

An imposing statue inside the Grand Palace Bangkok (Photo: SAPT)
A magnificent hall inside the Grand Palace Complex Bangkok (Photo: SAPT)
The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho (Photo: SAPT)

We travelled back to Changi in Singapore early morning on 19 September 2010 (Sunday) and decided to continue our break via a day-trip to Singapore’s neighboring Indonesian island of Bintan. We arrived back at KRM at exactly 12 midnight of 20 September 2010. I remember the struggle because I had a class the afternoon of 20 September.

The section above is a throwback and a celebration of my beautiful friendship with my housemates which started accidentally as Filipino scholars in the tiny-red-dot city of Singapore but later developed and bloomed into a necessity. In short, this friendship became a family that even after finishing our respective programs, our love for each other continued to grow.

Below, I will outline some reflections about travelling with the barkada (peers).

First, getting lost in a foreign city is often scary. But the stress becomes manageable if you are travelling with a group of friends. We were backpacking. It was a first time for all of us. After a sumptous dinner at Koulen in Seam Reap, we decided to stroll around the city and we realized we were already far from our “main camp.” While there was a growing tension, since all of us were “tired” after a long-hour of travelling on the road, we still managed to laugh at our stupid mistake of navigating the map. After an hour and a half, we were able to get back to our hotel and bid everyone a good night’s rest.

Second, someone in the group will emerge as a leader despite someone already performing the role. All the five of us have strong personalities – we were leaders in our own ways. However, one of us was a silent type albeit still very strong personality. Before the trip, we knew what we wanted to do and what we wanted to see. We had discussed this during our planning stage. But in situ, my silent type flatmate emerged as the travel leader. He was making arrangements for all of us: from our tuktuk rentals to restaurant reservations. He knew very well what to visit first and which site to go next. In other words, we were able to check our individual wish-lists because he studied very well the roads and streets plus the distances of one site going to another. The engineer in him worked very well on this trip.

Our transportation service in Phnom Penh

Third, emergencies happen. On our first night at Phnom Penh, one of my flatmates collapsed while we were resting on a coffee shop. It was a tiring day – imagine, arriving early dawn and then went to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. The day was overwhelmingly “heavy.” While someone was commenting on the traumatic experience that Cambodia faced during the Pol Pot regime, my flatmate suddenly fell from her chair. We all rushed to her. Someone went inside the kitchen to ask for drinking water. Someone took a fan from his bag and began fanning her. Someone took her hands and massaged her. She was awakened after 30 seconds. Thank God we were all alert and we immediately knew what to do. I mean, think of a similar situation and you are alone. How can you possibly survive such tremendous situation?

Fourth, someone acts as the keeper of the time. In this travel, it was me who performed that task. It was not an imposed responsibility but I took the job because I am a morning person. We were never late on our planned itinerary. I usually woke up one hour ahead of the wake-up call. After my morning shower, I would start knocking on everyone’s door.

Fifth, sharing is love. In 2010, my total expenditure in Bangkok including accommodation, meals and transportation amounted o almost PhP 18,000.00 (roughly USD 360.00). On my solo travel to Bangkok in 2014, my total spending was almost PhP 45,000.00 (roughly USD 870.00) including accommodation, meals and transportation. The same hotel and the same number of days were spent on both travels. Eating in a restaurant was equally divided to the five of us. Renting transport system was equally divided to the five of us. Room sharing in hotel was also divided by the five of us (the total of two rooms was divided by five).

Just recently, my colleagues and I from the Department had a trip to Shanghai and Suzhou. Had I not convinced my colleagues to join me, my total expenditure would have been around PhP 120,000.00 (roughly USD 2,400.00). But since three of my colleagues joined me in this trip, we spent around PhP 40,000.00 (roughly 800 USD) each for accommodation, meals, transportation and sight-seeing in Shanghai and Suzhou.

When we asked for our bill after eating lunch at a posh restaurant at Phnom Penh, the total bill was almost 40 USD. Divided by five, each of us spent around 8 USD only. By the way, the food was super great.

Sixth, taking photographs becomes easier. Millenials would argue for selfie as the latest fad and easiest way. But for non-millenials like us (except for one who was born in 1986), travel photos meant two things: to capture the moment and to photograph the site as the main subject of the photo. Of course, we wanted to do some poses but we would also want to look good on our photos. Our barkada would always be there to tell us that our pose was good, great or “one more time.”

Seventh and finally, your barkada would always be there to cheer, support and challenge you in various adventures and misadventures. In Seam Reap, I wanted to ride an elephant going to one of the wats (temples) but I was super scared to do it. One of my flatmates joined me to feel comfortable with the adventure. Then the rest of the gang were there to cheer and support me to let go of personal fears.

In Bangkok, we had a very unforgettable (not in a good way) experience in a bar. We were extorted. The bar billed us 17,000.00 Baht (roughly USD 560.00) for food and services which we did not take and ask. Even if we divide it by five, it was still too much! We were scared. There was tension among us – trying to blame everyone but still we supported each other. Together, we fought what was rightful to a point of wanting to call the police station. In the end, our actual bill was served: it was only 5,200 Baht (roughly USD 170.00).

My Kent Ridge Mansion days ended in 2012. I had to go to Manchester for a fellowship, which would be followed by my fieldwork until August 2013. Two of my flatmates graduated in 2011. One colleague had to transfer to another apartment due to work. Another stayed but had to leave in 2013 to conduct fieldwork in the Philippines.

Since my graduation in 2014, I have returned to Singapore four times and never had a chance to return to KRM. In August this year, I will return to Singapore. Even if it will be an official trip, I made sure I have a day to do some personal meetings with old friends and old places.

I have already prepared myself to visit KRM. I do not know if KRM remained a house for NUS scholars. I heard there were plans in 2016 to renovate the entire block into new shophouses. One thing is certain though: I shall pass by the KRM, smile at the door and remember the happy times with my KRM family!

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