Sep 25, 2014

Day 4: Angkor Wat

We woke up at 5 am to catch the sunrise at what is often called a wonder of the world, the Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and the sun didn’t show up until around 8 am. The reason that sunrise at Angkor Wat is so hyped is that unlike most monuments, the Angkor Wat is built facing the west, so the sun rises from behind it. The reflection of the Angkor Wat falls on a lake in front of it. The Angkor Wat is not a stand alone temple and is part of the Angkor Thom, a large complex of temples. Many people spend up to 3 full days there. The sad side to that is that Angkor Thom is now private property and charges $20 per day. The complex is so large that you need to either bike or take a tuk tuk to get from one temple to another. There a small route and a larger route depending on how many temples you want to see. Florence and I took the smaller route. 

The temples at Angkor Wat went far beyond the temples I have ever known. They are more like historical ruins, with a few statues of Buddha here and there (though it was originally built for Hindu use). The colour of the walls is beautiful, mainly dark grey with tinges of green moss and the occasional red sandstone colour. There is no functional use of the temples we saw in the religious context. Its mostly a tourist spot where people walk around. Unlike other temples I’ve seen, the temples at Angkor Wat involve a lot of exploring and getting lost, much like you would in an ancient palace. The Angkor Thom is multi storey and very big in itself. After many stairs and galleried floors, you reach the core central area where there are three stone structures resembling stupas/mountains on top. This place is filled with rocks and tourists sitting on them. 

We spent over an hour exploring the Angkor Wat before we moved to the next temples. Most of them were similar in that they all had similar structures and materials with which they were constructed. They varied in size and complexity. Some temples were quite small and didn’t play as much with my sense of direction. There was an element of mystery in many of the temples. Some of them had unknown faces carved, like the Bayon, which was personally my favourite temple. Others were still incomplete for unknown reasons, likely to be the death of the creator. There was reconstruction work going on at every other temple we went to. Other countries’ governments were helping in conservation efforts such as the Indian and Chinese government. 

The Bayon temple was one with multiple mountain like structures with faces carved on them. You could go up to it and see the faces up close. 
Some of the temples in construction were a blend of old and new, not in a nice way. One of temples for example, had white concrete, red sandstone, grey rock and green moss all together, which definitely reduced the beauty and authenticity of it. 

Another interesting temple was one which was such a maze that it was very common for tourists to get lost inside. It also had many trees with roots outside the ground. (I wish I could remember the name of the temple) 

While driving from one temple to another, we came across some great architecture. There were stories told through depictions on walls and statues built on railings, as if welcoming tourists. 

We conversed with our tuk tuk driver for a while. Turns out that he only recently started earning through a tuk tuk, as he was a chef earlier. He worked at an Italian restaurant, but apparently that paid less than driving a tuk tuk and had more work. His salary as a cook was $100 a month. 

By noon, we were both exhausted and ready to go home. We had spent 7 hours walking around temples and the sun was getting to us. After spending a few hours napping, I went to the night market for dinner.   

I ate khmer curry, a coconut based curry with pumpkin, carrots and your choice of meat.
I also tried a cashew milkshake, something that seems fairly popular here. It was interesting, that’s all I can say. I think mine had far too much added sugar for me to enjoy the shake.

I got a $3 back massage after dinner. I almost got a khmer massage but I was told that its similar to a Thai massage in which they beat you to pulp. Later I discovered that it isn’t as brutal as the Thai massage and is more about pressure points on your body. 

I bumped into the night market's art center, an area selling handicrafts among other types of souvenirs

Sep 24, 2014

Day 3: Night Market at Siem Reap

Our bus ride to Siem Reap took 3 hours longer than expected. We were under the impression that Siem Reap is 3-4 hours away, but it took over 7 hours in the end. The bus was pretty comfortable. It was air conditioned and they gave us bottled water, breakfast and wet towels. During the ride, we got to see many villages and rural areas of Cambodia. Apart from abandoned houses and dusty roads in functional villages, houses on stilts above water were a common sight. 

Fish Amok, a traditional Khmer (Cambodian) dish. I was
pleasantly surprised by the perfect spiciness and texture. 
At one point, we stopped to pick up stranded passengers whose bus had broken down an hour ago (apparently, this is quite a frequent thing in Cambodia). What was most interesting was that the bus conductor just pulled out seats in the standing space that runs down the middle of the bus and the new passengers sat on them for the rest of the journey. Since this was the end of the festive season, many of the travellers were families with small kids who kept crying. We got to Siem Reap around 4 pm and took a tuk tuk to our guest house. The owner of it was chinese and Florence was able to use her language skills effectively to help us figure out our plans in  Siem Reap for the cheapest possible prices. 

Night Market Adventures
Our photographer, a friendly old woman pretended that she was
going to run away with our camera just after she took this
Our guest house is quite close to the  night market and pub street area, which is super touristy and filled with street sellers, bars, massage parlours and food stalls. Its much safer here than Phnom Penh and we can walk around at night without worrying about safety. But once again, this is probably the most upscale area of Siem Reap. We saw some of the non fancy parts of town on our way to the guest house, and they looked very much representative of a developing country. Even on pub street, prices are quite cheap. Florence and I ate local food just outside of pub street for $3 per person. There are loads of money changers and ATMs. People speak english. 

We enjoyed the night market. We got fish massages, but I refused to put my feet in for more than a few seconds at a time. The fish biting was a strange sensation. 

Sep 23, 2014

Day 2: A more local Phnom Penh

Today was a chilled out day. We woke up quite early and went to breakfast at 9 am. After a laid back breakfast and great conversation we strolled back to our hotel and spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon there.  We left for lunch at around 2 pm after which we went to the royal palace, which turned out to be closed for the festival unfortunately and then to Aeon mall, which is in another part of the city, to meet a friend. 

Florence and I spent some time in Aeon mall where we discovered some interesting local food. We didn’t see many tourists here and observed the locals. We met Florence’s friend at the mall and went with her to dinner to a nearby island called diamond island. Its an artificial island with restaurants by the riverside, amusement parks, hotels and apartments. Although it sounded like Sentosa to me, I was surprised to discover that it was more of a local hangout than a tourist destination. 

I learnt a lot about Cambodia from Florence’s friend. She said that people start learning english quite early on and in private schools, kids communicate in english, as they do in India. Quite a few foreigners are in Cambodia these days running NGOs. There aren’t a lot of multi national brands which have set up in Cambodia yet. Aeon mall is one of the only four malls in the city. 

We ate some local food over dinner which was really yummy and followed it up with some frozen yogurt. Tomorrow, we depart for Siem Reap. 

Sep 22, 2014

Day 1: Phnom Penh

Khmer architecture, dominant around Phnom Penh
Cambodia is much like India, with motorbikes on the road and the need to haggle with anyone you're paying. The country seems quite laid back-restaurants and tourist spots close at random times. There are people hanging out in the streets talking to each other. The city is fairly low rise giving me the impression of a small town or rather a city like kyoto. 

The appearance of cambodian people is quite unique and striking to me. They come off as a mixture of Chinese and Indonesian people. The locals are generally friendly and helpful, but their constant efforts to rip off money from tourists makes me feel like a complete outsider. 

We flew into the Phnom Penh airport, which is surprisingly close to the city. Options for transport included taxis and tuk tuks. Tuks tuks, much like the auto rickshaws in India, cost half the price of taxis (even though the tuk tuk drivers cite double the price to foreigners). Although we managed to bring down the price of our ride to $5, we later discovered that tuk tuk drivers are generally paid a flat rate of $3 per ride. A lot of trade here takes place in USD. Although Florence and I converted our Singapore dollars to the local currency, we found restaurants and tuk tuk drivers citing their prices in dollars and accepting USD notes. 

It took us a while to get to our hotel, mostly because we got lost and the tuk tuk driver wasn't sure of the location of our hotel either. We noticed that the streets here are pretty badly organised. The numbers of streets aren't in chronological order and we ended up at the wrong hotel of a similar name, from where we had to take another tuk tuk. The upside of it was that we got to see much of the city during the ride. We saw a lot of universities and exotic buildings. The architecture is very impressive and archaic. Lot of government offices, museums and universities appear lavish with pagodas, colorful walls and golden decor. The streets weren't very crowded, but we heard that there's country wide festival going on at the moment which is why much of the trade and commerce is closed for the next two days. 

By the time we got to the hotel, we were tired of tuk tuk drivers on the roads asking us if we needed a ride or a tour around the city. We were already primed to not trust people and found ourselves bargaining with the hotel manager. 

The location of our hotel is quite nice. It is near the river side and the royal palace (which is where the king lives) , but the street it is in is quite isolated and quiet. So we get the best of both worlds. For lunch, we went to the riverside where there are many restaurants. Much of the food here is vietnamese and thai. The local food, called khmer food, is also available but we didn't come across a single purely khmer restaurant at the riverside. Most restaurants are pretty cheap, even by the riverside and meals are easily under $5 per person. 

Unexpectedly bumping into our friends Maggie and
Rohan at the New Market
For lunch, we ate mango salad and glass noodle salad. Later, we visited a pagoda, the Russian market and the New Market. The Russian market seemed like any other local market selling clothes. Some were branded shops, others were roadside hawkers. None of the brands were multinationals, interestingly enough. We spent a few minutes there and then moved on to the new market. The New Market was much nicer in that it was livelier and had a bigger variety of things. There were fruits, coconuts, clothes, souvenirs, etc. 

There are more tourists here than I expected, but not half as many as I saw in Penang or Japan. Phnom Penh is cleaner than I imagined. Although I've heard a lot about poverty in Cambodia, I haven't yet seen much of it. I've seen a few beggars on the street and some children selling cheap trinkets, but I know for a fact that I'm in a well off area of Phnom Penh which is probably one of the richest and poshest places in the whole of Cambodia.

 By this time, we were tired from the heat (it's quite hot here) and the lack of sleep. Although it was only 3 pm, we had already had a 12 hour day and went back to our hotel for a nap. We managed to catch a glimpse of the independence monument and the the grand residence of the prime minister and the government on the way back. 

The Royal Palace of Cambodia at night
Later, we went to a restaurant near the riverside and got some delicious and cheap vietnamese pho for dinner. On the way back, we walked past the lit up royal palace. I'm not sure if it was lit up for the festive season or if its lit up every night, but either way it was beautiful. 

Sep 7, 2014

A Newbie's Lessons from the Game Industry

I was never a full time gamer, but after watching a talk on game design by Jane Mcgonigal and a few lectures by Kevin Warbach, I started thinking about projecting education through games. People are always talking about how information needs to be converted to a consumable format, and so far that consumable format has been videos. But videos just change the format in which information is presented, it doesn't change the interaction people have with the content. While I think videos are far more affective than books and texts, I also think that games are far more affective than videos.

The problem is that so far, it hasn't been done right. Games are still mostly for entertainment, and we still face the challenge of making games educational without losing out either the game element or the educational element. I have been trying to create a game on cultures and have learnt several things about the game industry in the process, with the help of mentors and experienced professionals:

a) No money: The game industry is facing the problem of how to monazite games in the face of competition from free games. Some of the best games have had to be made free of cost, because people aren't willing to pay. Game designers are encouraged to incorporate the monetization in their game early on and not leave it for later. At the same time, the audience for video games is increasing as more people use electronic devices and the nature of games diversify.

b) Competitive and high failure rate: There is a 95% failure rate among games that are produced and the competition is severe. The number of games on the IOS and Android market are testiments.

c) Easy to produce: Producing a game isn't so hard any more. There are several softwares that are available for non coders. Some good ones I have come across are Unity, Game Maker Studio, Adventure Studios and Game Salad.

d) Making games vs thinking of them: Thinking of game ideas is easy, and it may be appealing in your head. But when you actually start making the game, your ideas suddenly aren't as fun as they were in your head. So its a good idea to start prototyping asap. (This may sound obvious to any entrepreneur or businessman, but I think it applies even more so for games than anything else I've come across so far)

e) Prototyping: From my experience so far, some prototypes don't even make it to the customers, because you notice problems and change it before its fully complete. (This may not be a good idea though, since you could be overly self critical) Prototyping video games has been very different from other kinds of prototyping I've seen or done. It can be anything from drawing on paper to actually coding the game.

f) B2B educational games: A lot of educational games are sold to institutions like schools or businesses who need very specific type of information to be taught to their students or employees.

So far, the game makers I've contacted have been very approachable and friendly. They have been willing to fix meetings without knowing me directly or indirectly. This may be a characteristic of the gaming industry or Singapore, I'm not sure, but either way I have been very lucky with regards to talking to the right people.