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Trip Report Bangkok, Laos, Cambodia - A Wonder at Every Turn

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Finally! SE Asia made it to the top of the short list!

Thank you Fodorites for the seemingly effortless way you all produce wonderful trip reports, and give thoughtful feedback constantly. I so have enjoyed reading, and re-reading your posts. The planning process would be cumbersome at best without this forum and all its contributors.

A small bit about us. We are mother and daughter, my mother of a certain age, and myself in my mid-40s, and live in Arkansas. We love travel, and focused our last two huge trips on Kenya/Tanzania. Since we work the 24/7 world all year long, we are able to close our business for a month, and getaway for a very decent amount of time. We like to stay a bit longer in some places, and not push too hard, as you might see in the schedule below.

I failed miserably in posting any semblance of a report in the past. For the record, I have not even sorted my photos from Kenya taken a year ago. I live with the shame and hope the Africa Forum will someday forgive me.

So this trip, I decided to take a different approach and post from the road. Thank you in advance for bearing with me, all the misspelled words and potentially the disjointed train of thought that could occur. The internet seems very reliable so far, and I hope that continues, so I can give this report its due attention.

Itinerary:

Chicago-Istanbul - overnight in Istanbul to get a break from flying.
Istanbul, Turkey to Bangkok, Thailand
2 nights at the Amantara Riverside
Bangkok to Luang Prabang, Laos
5 nights split between the Mekong Riverview and the 3 Nagas
LP to Siem Reap, Cambodia
6 nights at the Pavillion D'Orient
Driving Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
4 nights split between Circa 51 and The Pavillion
PP to Bangkok, Thailand
4 nights Ariyasomvilla
BKK to Istanbul
4 nights Empress Zoe
... and home.

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    I'm glad you've finally found the time for S E Asia. It's a marvelous travel destination! I visit Bangkok about 4 times a year, so I can vouch for the great people there. The Anantara will be a nice 'calm' place for your 2 nights, after flying for what seems forever! Enjoy!

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    Flights and the Anantara

    We flew Turkish air, which always gets my vote. They do a very nice job, the onboard ammenities are usually a step above. Huge movie selection as well as decent food service, delicious Cherry juice as an option, plus foot rest. They also give you a little "overnight" bag - socks, eye cover, ear plugs and a toothbrush.

    Istanbul-Bkk we were on Malaysia Air. Had heard top notch things about them, 5 star ratings. My expectations were high, but they did not live up to them. The food was mediocre. ( I know air food is a pretty low quality anyway, but Turkish Air gives me hope for the others). Service on Malaysia was very good and the staff super helpful and nice, but otherwise it could have been Delta.

    Delayed at Istanbul with heavy snow falling, de-icing on the runway. Not great for those of us who are nervous flyers. The delay put us past our connection time in Kuala Lumpur. Finally, we took off on the only runway that had not been closed due to snow, and continued without incident. We arrived in KL right as our connection should have been departing, but due to the number of passengers on our flight headed to Bangkok, they held the flight! Made the connection, as well as our luggage, and arrived in Bangkok without further incident. Nice one, Malaysia Air. They ticked up a notch in my book.

    After careful deliberation during our final prep for leaving, I decided to take a regular metered taxi from the airport. I asked Anantara to send us the hotel and address in Thai, which they did. We went to the very organized taxi desk, gave them the directions, they quoted us a price 600 baht (I think) and we were loaded and gone. Perfect.

    Wonderful, crazy city - traffic was not too bad for mid day, great roads, chaotic lane switching. We were fatigued, but excited.

    Checked in to the Anantara Riverside Resort.

    The good stuff: Lovely decor and atmosphere, riverside location with shuttle boat, comfortable beds and pillow selection. Gorgeous landscaping and water features. The Italian restaurant on site was wonderful. Perfect service and my pizza (yep, I had a pizza our first night in) was perfection. Or maybe it was the fatigue that made it seem perfect. Either way, in my mind, delicious.

    The not-so-good stuff: everything had a price on it. I'd forgotten what it was like to be nickel and dimed to death. The mini bar, any service we wanted, exorbitant spa prices. We were nervous to touch the robes in case there was a charge for using them. The pool was okay, super crowded which is expected in high season, but there were no where near enough chairs or loungers for the large number of people.

    Things that peeved me: only 30 minutes free internet in room. I had picked the Anantara for it's location and the fact that it had free wifi. No where did it say only 30 minutes worth. Not on the website, not on my confirmation. The next issue was bigger. I had chosen a more expensive room with a river view. The room was on the fifth floor, but looked out onto palm trees. And a small glimpse of the pool. And some more palm trees. The Anantara has three buildings in a "U" shape. Our riverview room was at the bottom of the "U," furthest away from the river and all views seemed permanently blocked by the nice, full palm trees. On my next run down to the lobby, I mentioned this error to the very nice people behind the front desk.

    Hello, yes, ummm, I was supposed to have a riverview room? My room number is 540?

    The desk gal works on her computer a minute and says "yes, riverview" and a big smile.

    Well, ahhh, no. It's not a riverview. It's a palm tree view. I can't see the river. I would like a riverview room, please.

    She smiles even bigger, and says "Yes, riverview room. Very nice." Smile.

    And this exchange continued without progress, until I caved in, smiled, said "Thank you!" and headed back up to learn to appreciate palm trees.

    Next: the hunt for Gifted Hands

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    I am sorry that you were less than pleased with your room placement... In fact that block of rooms is the most cherished.. I have stayed in that room several times and loved it.

    Nichel and dime??? All mini bars charge? MoSt bkk hotels charge for Internet.... Shamefully...

    We find pool only crowded on weekends

    Hope things get better... Look forward to reading more. Bob

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    You are right about mini-bars, Bob, but there were prices on things on the desk, in the bathroom, and then the robes. The robes were nice, but no logo. I guessed the price was for taking it with you, but with all the other notes and bits, we were cautious in using the slippers and robes, thinking it was a use charge :)

    Into the City:

    Even though we were eager to see the city, it was a slow start. Lovely breakfast buffet with more options than I can name.

    Our game plan started out very ambitious, with a list of shopping and sight-seeing places, but as we got our the door at 10:30, and we began feeling the heat, we eased off the pedal. We focused our goal on finding Gifted Hands. After seeing it mentioned by a few posters (Bob, this was one of your recommendations I think?) I googled it and found Gifted Hands listed in on Conde Nast under things to see and do and shop in Bangkok. Perfect! It gave an address - 172/18 Sukhumvit 23

    We took the shuttle boat for a pleasant ride across the river, found the skytrain (super easy), navigated getting a ticket and helping a few other fellow travelers with the process, and we were on our way. We left the train station, headed in the right direction (I love maps!) Found Soi 23 in Sukhumvit, and the hunt was on. I remember someone (Bob I think?) saying it was just a small shop in their home, first floor. After a couple blocks, we began asking folks. The numbers were only going up to the 30's and 40's. I flagged down a taxi thinking that would be the easiest way. We jumped in and showed the driver the address. Then things got interesting. He drove half a block, then jumped out saying he would get a friend to help. So his friend with an ipad, the driver and myself poured over the map, the ipad, the map again. No luck. And neither spoke hardly any english, so we were all gesturing in vain to indicate our next move.

    Then the driver, bless his heart, now decided we needed to go around the block, back onto Soi 23, and I agreed. The shop just had to be there. So as we got to the end of the street, where it stops at a school (just a guess here) the numbers were not even in the 70's. We were all stumped. But determined, the driver even more so than we were. In the next 20 minutes we talked to a police officer, two other dudes on the street, the receptionist at a hotel (this is where the driver and I ran inside, leaving mom in the car with the hazards blinking) The receptionist sent us to their concierge. Still no go.

    I was feeling so bad for our driver. He was trying so hard. We changed tack, and I told it was okay we didn't find it. We would try later, but could he take us to Jim Thompson's Museum. I thought this would be super easy for him. No. He had no idea what I was talking about. I showed him the map - straight drive on the main road we were on.. Poor guy, he asked another 2 people on the roadside... and we were off. What a hoot!

    Made it to JT's, had lunch while we waited for our tour to start. I wasn't super keen on visiting this museum, but it turned out to be a nice surprise. The restaurant was fine, we were hungry and it was easy. The houses and art collection were beautiful. The art was quite special. I couldn't believe this seemingly priceless art was exposed to the humid air and varying temperatures! We both enjoyed the tour.

    We headed back on the skytrain to our boat, and had a easy buffet dinner.

    We then had the concierge call Gifted Hands, and patiently the gal took down all the very specific instructions in Thai, then hung up and gave us the directions, with diagram, in English. Super helpful and we tucked the details away for our return to Bangkok.

    Off to Luang Prabang in the morning!

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    The shop as I remember is on a sub soi off of soi 23 but on a Parnell street and all the way to the end of the street... Just a tiny sign out front..

    Reading along and enjoying it

    Bob

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    Left for the airport mid morning. BKK is easy to manage and we strolled the concourse filled with very high end retail and duty free shops for entertainment.

    Bangkok Airways flight left on time. During the planning, we took advantage of the Discovery Pass. Booked our flights by email. Only took a couple days of back and forth confirming to take care of it. Easy.

    Important: make sure you read everything they send you by email and follow the instructions. There was more than one thing that needed printing off to give us our boarding passes, and I almost overlooked it.

    Bangkok Airways severed a nice little meal, pleasant crew, and we landed on time 2 hours after departure. The Luang Prabang airport is small and easy to navigate. Got through the visa line, and through customs pretty easy. By luck, we were at the front of the line, which was nice. Even though there was not a lot of people, and the airport only handles a few flights in and out all day, the line was slow moving.

    Grabbed bags, saw our driver out front - only about 6 drivers with signs and a few taxis and tuk-tuks. Super smooth. Less than 15 minutes later we were greeted at the front steps of our hotel by lovely staff, given a cool drink as our luggage was unloaded, and the wonderful Hedvig gave us a run down on what we needed to know. Mekong Riverview is perfection. I mean it. Mom and I are innkeepers and we only can strive to be this good.

    The room was on the second floor, balcony overlooking the river and the street. It's a quiet street, which we learned to appreciate later. A nice selection of soda and water in our fridge for the taking, a very large safe so you could just throw your hand bag or back pack and not have to dissect your bag. Absolutely great welcome binder with all the information you need on sight seeing, etc. A couple books on Luang Prabang. TV and movies if you so desired. Robes, bath amenities, and a wonderful shower with a rain shower head. Two sinks, magnifying mirror. And the beds...oh my gosh. We had a twin room, but these were wider. Maybe 4 feet wide. The topper on the firm mattress was soft and comfortable. Wonderful cotton duvet. Soft feather pillow. Good reading lights, lots of lighting, and lots of electrical outlets for charging. And then I notice an extra remote control on the bed. With cautious experimentation, we discovered the bed is adjustable - head and feet. No need for extra pillows to prop you up for reading or watching tv. (we did not watch tv. way too much to see and do). Laundry was provided, and I have to recall, but may have also be included in the rate. Breakfast was included - nice selection, seating was on the opposite side of the street over-hanging the river. Bikes are also part of the stay, and well-serviced bikes at that. This was a mid-range priced place. Many places double the rate we paid for this luxury. Oh, and free, good wifi throughout.

    Free one way golf cart rides are another cool feature. Yes, tuk-tuks are easy to find, but the quietness of the cart, and always being about to walk out the door and get a lift up town - great. The owner has 2 more coming soon, and is amazed that no one else has bought one.

    When we met the owner, we realized why so much thought had gone into the rooms. He has been in the hotel business for years and years, and after retiring in Sweden, decided to un-retire by opening a small hotel in Luang Prabang. So glad he did. He is also the only on-site owner of a hotel (not small guest house) who lives on site and loves what he does. There was even a nice meet and greet wine thing we went to one night. Almost all other lodgings in LP are corporately owned now.

    The map that seemed to be standard issue in town was well done. The Mekong Riverview is on the tip of the small pennisula of the historic part of town, overlooking the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers, where they flow together. There are close to a billion places to choose from when deciding where to stay. (only slight exaggeration) Even though I had my eye open for a pool, I wanted to be on the historic peninsula, and very glad we chose that location. There are no pools within the historic area, and being across the river would have been very inconvenient. Walking everywhere was the charm of this town.

    Blue Lagoon was the dinner choice the first night. Excellent. They have a nice wine selection, too. On our walk back to the hotel, we got a small taste of the night market. Huge let down. We would spend very little time here in the next 5 nights. It was identical items for booth after booth, a large amount not made in Laos, but made in China, tags cut off. Nothing that we could find was made by the gals selling the items. We found out that one vendor might hire multiple booths and gals to sell the same items. I couldn't help but think that if one person actually made the wares they were selling, some unique items, they would stand out and do very well for themselves.

    We were told many times that LP has changed rapidly. And more is to come, not all for the good. There are some pretty strong rumors of a high speed rail line from China coming. But sometime these things don't happen (let's hope). Some of this not-so-good change we would see the next morning when we went to watch the giving of the alms.

    On our walk back from dinner, the town just drips charm. The historic buildings mixed with eye-popping temples and welcoming cafes - we were both captivated.

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    Pak Ou Caves and the Mekong

    I thought I would just jot down some impressions I had about this well-covered trip.

    Our driver let us stop at the weaving/papermaking village just 10 minutes up river from LP. Not sure if this is standard fare or not. Was a easy place to stroll the dirt lanes and have an opportunity to photograph a more village atmosphere, without the fear of getting run over. Chickens, looms, kids, gardens, motorbikes. The wares for sale were still very touristy, but I found a couple scarves that I really liked and the quality was nice.

    The boat could have fit 18, but with took just the three of us for about $45 (we took Hedvig from the hotel with us since she had not been yet). The river was fast moving, and very scenic. Took about 2.5 hours up river, not including our stop at the weaving/paper village. 1 hour downstream and we happen to hit sunset. I would not want to be on the river after dark, as it doesn't look like most boat have any lights.

    I was prepared to be un- impressed by the caves, as many reports mentioned they weren't that interesting. So having low expectations was perfect. They were cool. Both upper and lower caves, each in their own way. Plus, the WC was a new experience for us, so we got a laugh. The upper cave is large, and the light does not penetrate all the way back, not even close. I think I got some nice flash photos of the buddhas and shrines at the back of the cave. I brought a headlamp, which helped. The steps are a beast to the upper cave, and nothing to sneeze at for the lower. The rustic boat dock was almost worth the whole trip, as well as the view of the cliffs across the water from the cave.

    We had a nice day - left about 1pm got back just at dark, 6ish. We did take our time in the village. I'm sure travel time depends on the river level.

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    Kuang Si Waterfalls and Bears

    Easy 45 minute drive from LP. Nicely paved road. Scenic countryside - some nice photography options as you drive the winding road in the mountains.

    Very classic over-touristed scene when you get to the gates at the entrance to the falls. Lots of stalls, selling both food and gift items. Entry was 20,000 kip ($2.50)

    Our expectations were low - some people had written they weren't that impressed with the falls. We were more interested in seeing the rescued bears and learning about the non-profit www.freethebears.org.au

    Loved the bear rescue. The enclosures are better than expected, well designed, and the bears seem to have things to keep them engaged. They look really healthy. You can't miss the rescue center as the trail to the falls goes right through the enclosures. If you are not interested, no prob. Nobody stops you and you can just keep going to the falls.

    The first lower pools of the falls were enough to make the trip worth it. They are crystal blue. Lots of people were swimming and using the rope swing. Beautiful place. I'm so glad our driver said to make sure to keep going up the hill. What a treat. The crystal blue falls keep appearing around each trail curve, each one so beautiful. We came to the cafe where you could get a snack and beverage and enjoy the forest and sounds of the water. We kept climbing, and finally came to the huge falls, tumbling off the top of the jungle mountain. This was not the end of the trail. It looked like you could climb up to the top on a very steep, but marked trail. Way too much climbing. Up until this point, it was an easy walk.

    By the number of people that were there on the rainy day we went, I can imagine this place is packed at times. Still seems worth it. Very unexpected and for us it was just icing after seeing the rescue bears.

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    Enjoying your report. We love LP & thought the falls lovely too -- we were there on a Sunday in FEbruary and it was mostly filled with Lao families and not overly crowded.

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    Hi yestravel! It was raining the day we went there, and it was still busy. The only people swimming were the tourists. It wasn't cold, but not super warm to be in the water. Love your trip reports!

    It looks like a friend of mine will be moving to LP. She just visited, fell in love with it, and has a very flexible lifestyle. So envious.

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