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Trip Report Cambodia, Laos and a bit of Hong Kong - 5 1/2 weeks (Jan.24-March 4, 2013)

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Background This was a first trip to Asia for myself and my husband. When friends of ours, who have traveled extensively in Asia, invited us to join them on a trip to Cambodia we were eager to take advantage of their cultural navigating skills as long as we could add Laos into the mix.

We all hoped that it would work out to have Hong Kong as an entry point and it turned out that a Cathay Pacific flight through Hong Kong to/from San Francisco was the best combination of price, onward booking, and short lay-over times. Cathay booked us on Dragon Air flights from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh and out of Chiang Mai back to Hong Kong where we had a short lay-over before continuing on to San Francisco. As we planned to work our way from south to north it made more sense to use Chiang Mai as our springboard home than to get back to Phnom Penh. All other flights were on Laos Airline-- all of which were on time and in new planes.

We left the bulk of the itinerary planning up to our friends, while I worked on booking accommodations. (I used a combination of Trip Advisor, Agoda and Fodors trip reports.) We used a combination of independent travel and tours. My husband and I had never used a tour company before, and I am not convinced it is the way for us, but I will admit that we got to parts of each country that we may not have gone to easily on our own. My husband has business school friends who live in Cambodia and have worked with the Sam Veasna Center which arranges visits to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary on Tonle Sap Lake so we made sure to include that in our plans.

Itinerary
4 nights - Hong Kong
4nights – Phnom Penh
4 nights – tour of Mondulkiri with Diethelm
1 night – Phnom Penh
3 nights – Siem Reap
1 night – Prek Toal Village with the Sam Veasna Center
3 nights – Siem Reap
2 nights – Battambang
1 night – Pakse
4 nights – tour of Champassak area and 4,000 islands with Inter Lao Tours
1 night – Pakse
2 nights – Vientiane
4 nights – Luang Prabang
2 nights – Chiang Mai

For the most part this itinerary worked well for us. We would have liked an additional night in Battambang, not because there is that much to do there, but because our accommodations were wonderful and provided a much needed rest at that point in the trip. The days on tour tended to be quite long with very early starts, and even though they were private tours it was difficult to build in any flexiblity in the schedules. Our traveling companions’ previous experiences with tours was that the guides’ relationships with tribal people greatly enhanced their visits. This was not to be the case and I will offer more detail further on.

Hong Kong
Highlights Lunar New Year decorations, Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong History Museum, Peak Tram (go first thing in the morning to avoid lines), Star Ferry at night.

Empire Hotel Well located in WanChai, comfortable enough, no smaller than most large city hotel rooms although an overweight person would have trouble getting into the bathroon, no heat in the room, no place in the lobby to hang out. We stayed here as it had worked for our traveling companions on previous trips and we got a good deal through Agoda.

We found a good spot for breakfast about ½ block from the hotel on Lochart Street called Tsui Wah. Egg dishes were available, but I fell for the shrimp dumplings in fish broth. The only noteworthy dinner we had was at Tanyoto on 129-135 Johnston Rd. We chose the non hot pot menu items and enjoyed them all. In addition we had a great lunch on Lamma Island in Yung Sue Wan at the last restaurant you reach before the ferry terminal.

We found the residents to be pleasant and helpful. Whenever we pulled out a map to get oriented we were asked if we needed assistance. Twice my husband and I were seated promptly in a restaurant and promptly ignored. Both times nearby diners called the waiter over and sent him to our table after what sounded like a stern talking to.

I was impressed with how well Hong Kong works. At least while we were there the buses and taxis moved smoothly, pedestrians can travel on elevated walkways and through office complexes, escalators whisk one up hill, and boy do they ever want you to shop! The metro is clean and efficient. There is a free hotel shuttle from the Central Station, and bags can be checked with the airline at Central before taking the train to the airport.

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    (Continued)
    Cambodia

    Overall impressions The people we encountered were lovely, ever smiling, helpful and seemed happy that we were there. By lovely, I mean in spirit as well as physically beautiful. We used U.S. dollars everywhere except in the markets and English is widely spoken. However, the poverty, corruption, environmental destruction and trash wore me down. I realize that we visited well into the dry season and that there might have been prettier landscapes and less burning had we gone at a different time.

    Phnom Penh
    The traffic ballet from the airport to our hotel was a choreography of every imaginable wheeled vehicle, all moving apparently in sync, never a horn or a screeching of brakes to be heard. I was impressed, especially when I noticed a small tot teetering backside to the roadway. As if controlled by one guidance system the traffic formed a pocket around him and then gracefully regained its previous position in the flow.

    Highlight We happened to be in Phnom Penh in the days leading up to the final mourning and funeral procession for the Father King. We felt it was a great privilege to witness this part of Cambodian and Buddhist culture. We watched as the park next to the royal palace gradually transformed into a stunning space where the cremation would take place: seemingly hundreds of workers building, paving, painting, landscaping, and steam cleaning the surrounding streets. No detail was left undone. One man spent the afternoon with a small paintbrush touching up the surrounding walls where they met the sidewalk. We watched as the final touches were put on the string of golden float platforms that would carry the casket, members of the royal family, monks, and a stack firewood.

    Finally, we walked with thousands of others to watch the funeral procession as the casket was moved from the royal palace, through the streets of Phnom Penh, around the Independence Monument and into the transformed park where the cremation was to take place. Foreigners were asked to dress in black and white, or attire appropriate to their own culture. There were road blocks set up, with valet motor scooter parking, and we were asked to remove our hats. The crowds were quiet and polite. Free water and fans were available. We were able to get close enough to see quite well, and we often checked to make sure that no one was behind us who should have been in front. Many people were visibly grief stricken. Once the Father King’s body passed, the crowd was allowed to join the procession. Those who didn’t jammed the streets to make their way back to the multitude of large, open bed trucks they had ridden in from the countryside.

    While these days of mourning meant that streets around the royal palace were closed to traffic, many shops and restaurants were closed and there were limited hours for museums, we would not have traded this experience for anything.

    Hotels
    Our friends stayed at Eureka Villas one block from the National Museum. This happened to be on a street that was closed to traffic in the days leading up to the cremation, but other than needing to meet our tour guides on the corner, rather than at the door of their hotel, it posed no problem for them. I did not see their room, but they were happy with its size and the made-to-order breakfasts.

    We stayed at the 252 Hotel in a deluxe room for $60/night including a very nice breakfast. We were quite pleased with our large room overlooking the pool. There was plenty of storage space, the mattress was firm, the bathroom was large, the place was clean, the staff were great, the little restaurant was nice, the bar drinks were lovely. We were met at reception with ice cold cloths and yummy limeade . Even though it was on a block-long street, it was just off the main Monivong Blvd. and it was easy to find a tuk-tuk (remork) at the door. The 252 is about a 12 minute walk to the area of the National Museum and Royal Palace, requiring crossing busy Norodom Blvd, but we were able to walk along it until we came to a signal crossing.

    Restaurants
    Many restaurants along the quay and in the area of the National Museum and Royal Palace were closed, but we still ate very well.

    Sugar Palm – very good, reserve a table upstairs on the open verandah. Order fish amok
    Tom Yum Kung – very good Thai. Our friend said it must be good if the Khmer are eating here.
    Khmer Sandoval – out tuk-tuk driver took us here one lunch when Khmer Borane was closed for the funeral. We had a great lunch of amok, curries and beer.


    Activities

    None of us wished to visit the Killing Fields or go to the Tuol Sleng Museum.

    Other than the previously mentioned funeral, we toured the National Museum, the Central Market, ventured into several wats (Wat Ounalom, Wat Lanka), walked along the quay, window shopped (Mekong Arts)and waited for the Royal Palace to open. Visiting hours were limited, and unpublished, due to the mourning period. We were fortunate to be walking by the temporary ticket gate one afternoon just as they announced it would open in 30 minutes. Our visit was limited to the southern section of the royal complex (Sihanouk’s body was laying in state elsewhere in the palace grounds) but this is the section with the Silver Pagoda.

    Another day we asked Eureka Villas to arrange a driver to take us to Tonle Bati. We were fortunate to have Bond, perhaps the slowest, most cautious driver in all of Cambodia. His Toyota Landcruiser was impeccably clean with wonderful AC. Bond is a wonderful young man with 4 children. Like many, his grandparents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. His father was forced into the army at an early age and became an abusive alcoholic. Bond headed to Phnom Penh on his own when he was 11. He learned English and is now a driver working long hours during the tourist season in order to send his children to private school. He was open enough with us that we felt comfortable asking him how Cambodians viewed Sihanouk’s alliance with the Khmer Rouge. He said, “Everybody makes mistakes. It was a big mistake, but everybody learns from mistakes.”

    The ruins at Tonle Bati were, perhaps, a good first glimpse of Khmer ruins, but the highlight of the day’s outing was our lunch on a pavilion built over the lake. We ordered fried fish, sautéed vegetables and roti chicken on shore before walking along rickety bamboo planks out to a thatch covered pavilion where we waited for our lunch in the lovely coolness of the lake’s breeze. As we waited, an occasional food vendor would make her way out to entice us with some little delicacy such as steamed coconut cakes in palm, or a boat would pull alongside offering up fruit, drinks or steamed rice sweets. This is the type of experience I doubt we would have found on our own. Sure, it is written about in Lonely Planet, but I know that on our own we would have taken one look at the dusty, hot scene and the muddy lake and would not have bothered to find out how to go about ordering a lunch and renting a pavilion.

    We were treated to some interesting scenes on the way back to PP. A man was washing his cows in a stream while 3 little boys frolicked behind him. When we stopped for a photo, the little guys really started hamming it up. We were constantly amazed at the loads the motos took on. At one point we followed a moto with a casket strapped onto the back, wobbling down a bumpy road demonstrating remarkable balance on the part of the driver.

    (to be continued)

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    Excellent and extremely well written report with great detail. I can understand people not wanting to visit Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields but I found both places to be extremely moving and a salutary reminder of man's inhumanity to man and the west's inexplicable capacity to turn its back on genocide.

    Looking forward to reading more, particularly your impressions of Si Phan Don, probably the most relaxing place I have ever stayed.

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    I'm loving this report and waiting for more. In the future, please check off "trip report" when you begin a report. It makes it easier to find for those looking for reports.
    Turkey is wonderful - you'll live that trip as well. And yes...Vietnam is also a great destination! So many places to visit.

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    My apologies for those readers who are trying to get trip planning advice from this much delayed travelogue. Here is another installment.

    Mondulkiri or the Wild East – Diethelm Tour
    The next 5 days/4 nights were spent on a tour with Diethelm. Our traveling companions, who have booked many private tours in the past, felt that this would be a good way for us to venture to smaller villages and to hopefully spend some time experiencing rural life. To sum up our experience, I felt the tour was over-marketed, over-priced and under-delivered. The under-delivered feeling could easily have been based on our own expectations and our companions’ past experiences. The positives: someone else was doing all the driving, logistics, hauling of luggage, negotiating in the markets, as well as providing multiple answers to our multiple questions. The negatives: total inflexibility in schedules and activities, a somewhat beat-up van (but the AC worked), and a driver who felt compelled to sound the horn constantly. It was also quickly apparent that our guide had developed no personal relationships in any of the villages.

    Knowing what we now know, we would have skipped Mondulkiri. Much of the forest on the way to Sen Monoram has been clear cut. Some of the forest has gone to lumber smuggling and others to vast rubber plantations. Several wildlife sanctuaries and forest preserves appear on the map, but we were not to see any. Highlights of our tour were watching elephants bathe in the river, touring a rubber plant (who knew?!), spending time on the water looking for the Irrawady river dolphins, and our all too brief stay at Rajabori Villas on Koh Trong Island. If we had a “do-over” we would go straight to Kratie and hang at Rajabori Villas for several nights which would give us time to explore the island.

    Day One This was a long driving day. Our guide met us at the hotel and we were on the road by 8 a.m. , arriving in Sen Monoram around 5 with a few stops and lunch in between. As soon as we crossed the river out of Phnom Penh we stopped in a bustling village to take a look at the moto buses villagers use to get to market and school. These buses consist of a tractor pulled trailer fitted out with slats for seats – 5 people across and 5-10 slats deep. We continued on to Skuon and its lively market known for fried spiders, crickets and frogs. We looked, but did not eat. Many small children selling fruit surrounded the van as we pulled up, “Please buy so I can go to school.” This market and the Angkor Wat complex were the only places we encountered children peddling to tourists.

    The next stop was Wat Nokor a 12th century temple with a modern one built inside of it. Here we purchased our “good luck” bracelets of brightly colored threads to be worn until they fall off. The last time we checked, one person still had theirs – 7 months later.

    Lunch time found us in Kompong Cham at Smile Restaurant where they train young people for the service industry. Our meal was good, although somewhat tamely seasoned. We continued down the road past mile after mile after mile of rubber plantations and dusty little shacks. The shoulders were lined with casava root set out to dry, and we passed many overloaded trucks and saw two overturned trucks misloaded with bags of the root.

    We finally arrived in Sen Monoram and our stay for the next three nights, the Hotel Mondulkiri where the mattress was firm and the sheets were clean. No attention had been paid to the dust in and on every surface, and the bathroom was dim, gray and came complete with a broken tile placed over a smelly drain. There was a considerable wait for hot water, but it did eventually come and lasted through our showers. We were taken to the hotel’s restaurant, “the best in Sen Monoram.” Our guide helped us order off the menu, had us place our lunch order for the next day, and then bid us goodnight. The food was just ok, served in a dimly lit, empty space. It is the only meal of the entire trip that I remember as being just so-so. Our breakfast options consisted of plain omelet or noodles. Overall, this was not the most comfortable of stays and if on our own we would research staying at one of the guesthouses in town.

    The evening was pleasantly cool and the stars were brilliant.

    Day Two Another early start to the day beginning with a long wait outside of the hotel’s restaurant for our packed lunches. These were freshly made and we assumed they would go into a cooler. That was not happening, and as the temperature was in the 90’s I made a decision right then and there to forego potential food poisoning. I know this sounds like I am a prima donna, but I had avoided food issues so far and I wanted to keep it that way. Leaving meat out for 5-6 hours is not a great way to avoid bacterial infection. Just saying.

    We began at the town’s market which was quite large and interesting. The smell of sauteeing bananas and waffles was enticing, and we asked for some even though we had just eaten at the hotel. The waffles were made from rice flour, coconut and duck eggs, baked in a cast iron griddle over charcoal. Our vendor made some to order for us, even though she already had a stack ready to go. They were heavenly, and my husband and I took every opportunity to eat similar items for the rest of the trip.

    We then drove to the small village of Phoun where our expectation was that we would meet with people who would talk with us about their farming, weaving and other livelihoods. Essentially, we drove up to a what appeared to be the only remaining non-Kmer style house along the road, but if any meet-up had been planned, no one knew about it. To be fair, the Diethelm brochure stated that most villagers would be out in the fields working, and the meet-up was a story we may have told ourselves. The Lonely Planet guide states that each guesthouse has a preferred village that it sends travelers to as a way to spread the wealth, so perhaps that is another advantage of staying at a guesthouse.

    On to the elephants! I’m not a big fan of the concept of riding elephants. I think they should be doing elephant things off on their own. Before the trip this phase of the tour had been discussed and I was told, “wait and see.” I had hoped that we could swap out the elephant ride for a visit to the Elephant Valley Project, but when we broached the subject with the guide we were told it wasn’t allowed as a four-wheel drive was needed to make the visit. Oh, well. There’s a first time for everything, and this was my first elephant ride. These particular howdahs were four-sided and the inside was an inverted “vee” shape meaning there really was no way to keep from getting lodged into the bottom corner of the howdah. The elephants seemed more interested in heading off into the bush in search of casaba than sticking to the steep downhill path we were on. I was thankful that the mahoots were not using hooks, just lots of flailing legs and loud voices. The river was finally reached, and the best part of the entire day was getting off the back of the elephant. We sat on a raised platform to eat lunch (bananas for me) while watching the elephants bathe and cool off. Three of us walked on the way back, and while it was very hot, I was glad not to be atop the elephants and I think they probably were glad for it as well.

    We had dinner at the Outback Bar which was ok and many steps above the hotel’s cuisine.

    Day Three Another 8 a.m. departure with a quick stop to get fruit at the market for snacks so that we didn’t have to backtrack to town for lunch. After gathering up more waffles and bananas we were off to Bou Sraa Waterfall a double-drop falls that I believe is the largest falls in Cambodia. Our guide told us that the owner of our hotel also owned the toll road leading to the falls as well as the falls themselves.

    Along the way we stopped in one of the “wealthier” villages at a school where the children were out at recess. The two teachers came to speak with us and we learned that they had over 200 children, many who did not have the money for uniforms. We were told that teachers make such a small salary that many hold other jobs and may not be able to be at the school the full day. This was not the only time we were told this. I wished that we had been prepared with something to offer the school, and we resolved to make a donation to an appropriate agency when we could research.

    Our guide told us not to take photos in the village as the reason it had a bit more wealth is that the villagers illegally clear cut the old teak and smuggle the lumber over the near-by border with Viet Nam, hence the corrals of large, unmarked SUVs and trucks. The concern was that photos may be taken back to government officials who would come asking for a kick-back to turn a blind eye.

    On to the falls which must be spectacular earlier in the season. We spent quite a bit of time watching two small boys casting nets at the lip of the first fall. They were catching exceedingly tiny fish – perhaps for soup or to dry? We also heard some lovely music by 2 men playing instruments made of cans, scrap wood and line.

    On the way back to town a car sped past us incredibly fast only to see it stopped a bit further along the road. The passengers were piling out, a woman with a child in her arms, at a small medical clinic “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” Perhaps the long arm of their money saved a child that day.

    Lunch was a return to the Outback Bar. We had done some meal related research and asked our guide to take us to Kmer Kitchen but we were told it would be no good as it was a stopping place for vans and buses. We’ll see if we can win this fight for dinner. As it turned out our lunch at the Outback Bar was quite good. My husband and I shared a crispy fish with ginger that was perfectly cooked, well seasoned and delicious. We did end up at Kmer Kitchen at dinnertime and it was fabulous. I think the guide’s opinion of it being “no good” may have meant that it was too crowded at lunchtime.

    The next day we move on from Sen Monoram. I would not return to this part of Cambodia in the dry season, perhaps never. The clear cutting and burning, the economic necessity to do so, the lack of a safety net for people who are injured, unemployed, etc. is hard to witness day after day. We have a month ahead of us still. Siem Reap, in a few days, will be a bit of a buffer.

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