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Trip Report IBostonGal's Southeast Asia Trip Report, in bullet form

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First off, like many others, I cannot thank the experts here on Fodors enough for all your advice and suggestions and recommendations. Lord only knows what my trip would've ended up like without the power of knowledge that I "borrowed" from this site.

Rather than go into a painfully long trip report, as I'm apt to do, I'll list my itinerary, then go through highlights and lowlights.

ITINERARY:
Flew Boston-London-Hong Kong on BA
Hong Kong - 2 nights at Mandarin Oriental
To Bangkok on Cathay
Bangkok - 3 nights at Plaza Athenee, A Meridien Property
To Chiang Mai and back on Air Asia
Chiang Mai - 3 nights at Baan Orapin
To Siem Reap via Bangkok, Air Asia and Bangkok Airways
Siem Reap - 3 nights at Hotel Be Angkor
To Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines
Hanoi - 3 nights at Hanoi Elegance 2
Halong Bay - 2 nights aboard the Jasmine
Hanoi - 1 night at Hanoi Elegance 2
To Hong Kong on DragonAir
Day-long layover in Hong Kong
Hong Kong - London - Boston on BA

Itinerary Comments:
We love to move around a lot, and this itinerary ended up working out perfectly, except for 2 small things. I needed an extra day/night in Chiang Mai, and I could have done without all that time in Hanoi.

Itinerary details:
We went through our trip, for the most part, on our own without guides. The few tours/guides/group outings/activities we did book are the following.
1) Tour with Tong - Half Day floating market with Tong's staffmember Kung (Tong was in the hospital at this point), who was so wonderful, and who I wanted to pack in my suitcase and bring home with me.
2) A Lot of Thai - cooking class
3) Patara Elephant Farm - elephant owner for a day
4) Ponheary Ly - half day tour of a school and Banteay Srei
5) Hotel Be - photography package that included a half-day with professional photographer John McDermott
6) Ethnic Travel - full day excursion to the Red River Delta

I always like to hear the bad news first, so, the lowlights (in chronological order):
*Coconut Palm, Bangkok restaurant
*MBK mall in Bangkok (I can't believe I lasted even four minutes!)
*Doi Suthep (wish we instead spent time in Chiang Mai old town)
*Ponheary (ducking as people throw stuff at me left and right. I was so disappointed in Ponheary herself. She just rubbed me the wrong way and gave an odd and uncomfortable vibe. HOWEVER, the school visit was incredible)
*Angkor Wat (of all the wats, this was my far my least favorite)
*Preah Palilay, for having their signature feature, the 3 huge trees, being chopped down within the last month (booooooooooooooo)
*Sunrise at the temples (there is no need to wake up at 445am, as there is no "sunrise", it just gets light. Sleep in and get there by 7ish!)
*Hanoi. The entire city.

And now, the highlights:
*Reclining Buddha, Bangkok
*cheap massages, Bangkok
*Tongue Thai, Bangkok restaurant
*the train-track market that Kung brought us to
*A Spicy Affair, Bangkok restaurant
*the 25-minute cab ride from Bangkok hotel to airport (nearly unheard of!!)
*cheap massages, Chiang Mai
*outlandish massage at Oasis, Chiang Mai
*Yui at A Lot of Thai
*Patara Elephant Farm (OHMYGOD I can go on forever about this place, but this day was one of the top ten in my 31 years)
*School visit with Ponheary (I get choked up just thinking about that day)
*Photo excursion with John McDermott, and all the hidden, out of the way temples he took us to
*Bumping into a monk during the back-alley temples and being graced by his presence and participation in some photo scenes
*cheap massages, Siem Reap
*Blue Pumpkin (especially for shakes), Siem Reap restaurant
*Viroth's, Siem Reap restaurant
*cheap massages, Hanoi
*Tamarind, Hanoi restaurant
*Kayaking caves in Halong Bay


All in all, an INCREDIBLE trip. I cannot wait to return to Thailand and Cambodia. I left my heart in Cambodia, and when I go back to retrieve it, I'm taking all the people home with me. They are simply amazing.

Thank you again for all your input. I welcome questions and am happy to elaborate on anything. I just didn't want to bore you with a 90 page novel - honestly, my trip report takes up half a brand new journal!

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    Welcome home!

    This is a great start and we would love to hear more.

    Not to belabor the negative experiences, but what soured the Hanoi experience for you? It would be helpful to others planning trips. Was it the cultural tone -- too abrasive and intrusively entrepreneurial? -- or the sights, or the hotels/restaurants, or some combination of factors?

    Also, did you have the chance to do anything special in Hong Kong or did that brief time serve more to get you on local time?

    Thanks for any thoughts on these topics and other facets of your trip.

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    My main interests are feedback on places I've been to (Siem Reap, Bangkok) and places I'm going to (Hanoi, Halong Bay). Feel free to answer my questions with a 90 page novel - I will read and savor every detail.

    Specifically,
    1) What didn't you like about Doi Suthep? (most everyone that goes here enjoys it)
    2) What about Ponheary rubbed you the wrong way? (she does have a strong personality - and you are about 20-25 years younger than she)
    2a) Which school did you go to with Ponheary and what did you do there?
    2b) Please post your photos from Siem Reap and elsewhere.
    3) What did you do in Hanoi and what did you not like about it - details, please - we're going there next month
    4) Tell us more about A Spicy Affair (Bangkok-this is a new one for this board, I think) and why you liked Tamarind in Hanoi
    5) Please provide details on your Halong Bay Jasmine cruise - most only do one night and you did two - any advice re: kayaking (which we plan to do) and anything else that we should know regarding a cruise
    6) I assume that the cooking class and elephant farm were in or near Chiang Mai - what do you feel you missed and wished that you had spent more time doing?
    7) How was the Plaza Athenee?


    Many, including us have reached Bangkok in 25 minutes from the airport, just depends on the time of day.

    Welcome home - Jeane and I hope to meet you at the next Boston GTG in October.

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    I'm glad you had a good trip.

    I'd be interested in what you didn't like about Hanoi (as I really enjoyed it) and what you did like about Chiang Mai (yawn). We're all different and I appreciate seing these places from another's point of view.

    Also, most people like Coconut Palm (I haven't been there myself), so what didn't you like about it? And I don't know A Spicy Affair - so tell me more.

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    Agreed. Would love to hear more.

    Actually had a similar experience with Hanoi. We've been all around SE Asia, and it's the one place we planned a lot of time in (back in 07) and felt like we saw and did everything we wanted to in 2 days. I seriously could've done without 5 days there myself, so I can relate. I really did not enjoy the city at all.

    Surprised to hear that about Ponheary--would like to know more about your experience with her.

    LOVE Yui! We finally got to take a private class with her this past December (been waiting 3 years!) and fell head over heels in love with her and her family.

    Also, tell us more about your experience at Halong. We were on the Ginger in 07...the Jasmine was still being built...but dying to know how it was. We really enjoyed the Ginger (albeit extremely expensive!)

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    Glad you enjoyed SEA! I, too would be interested in what turned you off Hanoi, as I loved it the first time (2002), and thought it was a bit too overrun with motor scooters the second (2004). But I am another vote for the Tamarind.

    I'd also be interested in hearing more about your photo excursion.

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    and i need to know what you did not like about coconut palm...we thought it was fantastic, but then we went there with tong and she ordered most of the food...we thought it was clean, the food very fresh, a great assortment of food---some way too hot for us....?????

    also interested in your impression specifically about hanoi....there are not a great deal of sites, but the vibe is fantastic, imo....

    and yes hope to meet you at boston GTG on oct 10....

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    You Said "Ponheary (ducking as people throw stuff at me left and right. I was so disappointed in Ponheary herself". What was being throwen at you.

    Enjoyed reading your report.

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    Scotters I think the OP is afraid all those who have enjoyed Ponheary's tours might throw something in response to a negative report, which is silly. No tour guide on the planet is the perfect fit for EVERYONE.

    I was also underwhelmed with Coconut Palm although that Lemongrass Lemonade thingy is worth the trip. Maybe next time I should call Tong and ask her what to order.

    What did you think of Hotel Be? Did you eat at Aha? How was it?

    Welcome home and would love to see your photos if you're so inclined.

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    Don't know why, but I too had visions of Ponheary ducking as people threw stuff at the BostonGal. :-)

    I agree, not every guide is the right fit for everybody and while Ponheary certainly is an amazing woman with a big heart, she may not be the best fit as a guide for everyone.

    BostonGal, I really want to hear more about your day with John McDermott and Halong Bay and Hanoi.

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    Oh boy, thanks for reading everyone! I WILL get to everyone's questions and will elaborate on all requests, and as Craig said, it just might end up being a lengthy novel. Forgive me if it takes me some time. But you never know, I may procrastinate all my work and focus just on this before the weekend. Stay tuned!

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    BostonGal - Can't wait to hear more. I also am especially interested in your comments on Hanoi as Vietnam is on our to do list. And I am dying to see your pictures after spending time with John McDermott. We tried catching a sunrise, but like you, it was a waste of time. Does John McDermott have anything to say about that?

    Craig - I too thought that Doi Suthep was a disappointment. Perhaps it was because there is so much scaffolding around the Wat. We took the lift rather than the stairway and thought in retrospect that it may have been one of the reasons for our disappointment - not quite as dramatic. Our thoughts at the time though were that Doi Suthep was just not that grand after seeing the Grand Palace and other Wats.

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    BostonGal - thanks for acknowledging our posts

    dgunbug - I think I would have been disappointed if there had been scaffolding around Doi Suthep, and while I appreciate the exercise and have climbed many stairs in Asia, on a very hot day the lift was just fine for me and did not detract from my Doi Suthep experience. We took the steps down though :-)

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    Marya_, Gpanda, Craig, Kathie, filmwill, thursdaysd, Bob/rhkkmk, offwego, Kristina, dgunbug - I combined all themes and will address them as best I can, but please let me know if I missed something or you still need more details. Am more than happy to spread my newfound wealth of knowledge! :)

    Hong Kong - the point of beginning in HK was because that's where I was meeting my husband, and I wanted to easily step into this new continent while at the same time adjusting to jetlag. No problems with either!! We did have some time there, and we spent it doing a couple things. Did dinner in Kowloon the first night, Peak Tram and Ladies Markets the following day, then went out in Lang Kwai Fung. Then we headed to Bangkok the next day. During our day-long layover, we stored our luggage at the airport and went to see the big buddha and back to the ladies markets for last minute haggling for bargains.

    Plaza Athenee - we stayed here ala Starwood PG points. I hardly stay in chain hotels, so I wasn't particularly excited about this place. But, it ended up being alright. I think if we were to have spent more days in Bangkok, I would have preferred the Sheraton Royal Orchid area, but for 3 nights, this was perfect. We had the opportunity to take taxis, the subway, tuk tuks right from the hotel, and the awesome night market (Suan Lum I think is the name) was a 2 minute tuk tuk ride away. The big surprise that had me thanking our lucky SPG membership was the day we went to the MBK mall, thinking we'd kill an hour or two, and then promptly walked out after seeing it. It caused us to take a peek at the Athenee's pool, and I'm quite certain we both danced a gig when we saw it. Gorgeous! On the 4th floor roof, the pool had nearly 360 degree views, was decorated in Lanna style, and was just amazing and serene. Is the Sheraton's pool as fabulous?

    Coconut Palm - this is kind of a funny story. I had it written down that Tong liked to take clients here and that she would order a bunch of stuff and everyone really enjoyed the place. So I made it a point to arrange our itinerary one day so that we'd end up near the Grand Palace at lunchtime so we could try it out. It was our first full day, and the only other authentic meal was the night before at Tongue Thai, one of the best meals of any trip we've ever taken. I had high hopes for Coconut Palm. But then we got there and I remembered what a stupidly limited eater I am. I can't eat shellfish, and the only meat I eat is chicken. I started with the papaya salad, not realizing it came with prawns. So when it came out, I ordered something else. I don't remember what it was, but I didn't like it. I love spicy, so that wasn't it, it must've been the quality of the chicken or something. So then I ordered something else. I must've ordered 5 different things, trying to find one I liked. I took a bite or two of each and didn't finish. I hate waste, so it made me sad to waste all that food, but I couldn't eat any of it. In the end, I bought a huge bag of chips at the nearby 7-11 for lunch.

    A Spicy Affair - I'm not surprised this hasn't come up in any recommendations, because it's in the 'backpacker' Banglampoo area, just parallel to Khao San Road. We were drawn to A Spicy Affair during a very hot afternoon. It had shade, it had fans, and it had water pipes. Hubby and I love to smoke sheesha, we actually have a few water pipes of our own that we purchased in Morocco last year, so this was right up our alley. As we sat, smoking the turkish tobacco (just wanted to clear that up, in case you're not familiar with sheesha), we took a peek at the menu and under the glass tabletops, where diners leave their reviews of the place on post-it notes. Of course, they were all glowing reviews, as they were very clearly displayed for all to see. So when we found ourselves in the area the next night, we decided to try out the food. It's a small place, with maybe 4 tables downstairs, and then you go up a fairly steep set of stairs to get to the second floor, where you have to take your shoes off and step onto a little landing covered in plush, silk covered pillows. We sat and had one of the best Indian meals we've ever eaten. If you find yourself in this part of town, looking for something other than Thai, definitely check it out!

    Doi Suthep - I'm sorry if I misled anyone. It's not that I didn't like it, I just wish, especially after seeing a bunch of incredibly ornate (and on the verge of tacky) temples, that we had opted to spend time in town instead. I enjoyed the temple, thought it was beautiful, but wasn't overly wow'd. Maybe I was templed out by then? Which then leads to why I wish I had more time in Chiang Mai… I felt we missed out a lot since the only time we spent any time there at all was at night, and there's only the Night Bazaar. We missed Old Town, the winding streets, what the scene was like during the day, etc… I just loved the feel of Chiang Mai, and thought I would've liked to have more daytime there.

    Ponheary - I know many people are quite fond of Ponheary, and I can't exactly pinpoint what it was that didn't sit right with me, but for some reason she rubbed me the wrong way. I don't *think* it had anything to do with the age difference (hubby and I are in our early 30s), but perhaps from her perspective it affected her. I well understand she's had a tough life, and I can imagine it difficult to balance wanting to better the lives of the locals and dealing with the negative aspects of tourism. But to me, she seemed very condescending and holier than thou throughout the afternoon. In addition (just a little thing that rang a bell at the end of the day) she saw that we are amateur photographers, and seemed offended when we didn't take a picture of every single thing she pointed out at the temple. She would practically insist that we take a particular shot, but if it didn't inspire me, or if I went to get it from a different angle, she seemed angered, which struck me as odd. And even at the school, we aren't used to visiting local people in this setting, handing out food for them and their families. We weren't sure how to go about doing so, we weren't sure if there were particular customs or things we should do to show our respect. I thought she would brief us a little bit, and even after we asked a couple questions about what we were doing, she kind of just threw us in there clueless on what to do. In the end, it didn't matter, because the experience was so moving, and the kids so grateful and wonderful, but it would have been nice to have some 'prepping' (for lack of a better word). Perhaps she was having a bad day, I don't know. Perhaps she expects all clients to do their homework/background work before touring with her, I don't know, it was never mentioned in our emails… I can't remember the school that we visited, but it was on the way to Banteay Srei. There were 2 buildings, about 5 classrooms in all, each holding about 40 kids.

    Hotel Be - First off, oops! I meant we dined at Aha twice, not Meric. Meric is the place at la Paix, I believe. The hotel in the end was great. I was hoping it would be a bit cleaner - it wasn't dirty, per se, and again, I'm not a picky person at all when it comes to lodging, but for the money, I was thinking it was going to be spotless. The floors were a bit gritty, even though we all removed our shoes upon entering, and the shower seemed a bit grimy/grubby/in need of redoing. The other thing was that whenever we left, we turned the a/c way down to conserve energy and not waste it. But every time we returned to the room, we found the a/c completely off and it positively stifling in there. Luckily, the system worked well and after about 20mins it was nice and cool. The service more than made up for it. We felt like king/queen. Very personable, very friendly, anything we asked about or needed, they took it upon themselves to take care of without question. There are some tripadvisor comments about how the staff was found asleep in the morning of checkout. You have to understand the hotel is 3 rooms, with a restaurant attached and a bar across the street, and there is the same staff to take care of it all. They live at the hotel when they work. They probably don't go to bed until everyone is out of the bar, out of the restaurant, everything all cleaned and all guests in their rooms. They were sleeping the morning we got up for temple sunrise, and the morning we left, too. But it didn't matter. Our tuk tuk (temple morning) and car (departure day) were outside, ready for us to go, so I'm not sure what the people were complaining for. I'd definitely stay there again. Apart from the service, the location cannot be beat! I'm so thankful for dogster for passing this gem along, and that we chose this over la Paix.

    Photo excursion - I arranged the photo package tour with Hotel Be. We had to wait for John to confirm his availability - only about a week before our arrival - and if he was not available, we would have been credited accordingly. One of John's galleries is attached to the hotel, and it shows not only his works but of other local artists as well. His work is phenominal. We met him around 2pm at a café, chatted a bit about our style of photography and what we hoped to get out of the session. He is so laid back and friendly, I would work with him again in a heartbeat. He drove us to off the beaten path temples, away from people (that's what we requested) and shot with us, showing us his favorite bits, and answering any questions we had. We swapped lenses a couple times (we both work with the Nikon D series), which I thought was pretty incredible. We were with him until sundown, about 6pm, and lucky for us, we caught a surprisingly amazing sunset. It doesn't happen often, and it was our lucky day to have it with a pro at our side. We had already gone through about 10 gigs of memory, and were in need of purchasing more memory for the remainder of our trip. But he took all our used memory cards, burned them onto discs for us (making 2 copies), and dropped both the sticks and cd's off the next day so we didn't have to buy more memory. Pretty incredible, indeed. If anyone has specific questions, let me know.

    Hanoi - I'm not sure what kind of crack I was smoking when I did research for this segment of the trip, but for some reason, all along, I thought it was going to be kind of a chill way to end the trip. I knew it was a lively city, but I had heard from so many people (fodorites and colleagues/friends) how cool and fun it is. I was kind of picturing, a Vietnamese version of, let's say, San Fran. I know the difference between Hanoi and Hoi An, and so it's not like I confused the two, but it seems I was expecting more Hoi An than Hanoi. Instead, I was greeted with Hong Kong, Bangkok, NYC, Vegas all combined and on 7 different kinds of speed. I'm sure it was my expectations that killed my vibe and feel for the city, but I just did not like it at all. I found the tone and way of life charming at first, but then it was like fingernails on a chalkboard hearing those horns all day long. It was our own fault for sticking to the old quarter where our hotel was, and where all the madness congregated, but by that point, we were looking to just walk around and hang out. We didn't want to do any museums or anything. So even though I know they're must -sees, we didn't do any museums or the mausoleum. We did visit the Hanoi Hilton, which was interesting. And I'm sure the fact that the first restaurant we went to made us both sick didn't help either…

    Tamarind - we loved this place! It's a vegetarian restaurant, so I was surprised that hubby liked it so much. Loved the décor, loved the monstrous menu, loved what we ate, loved the service and how friendly the staff were. And LOVED the upstairs massage place, where we visited both nights we dined there for some post-dinner foot rubs.

    Halong Bay Jasmine - Most people only do a 1-night Halong Bay cruise, but we opted for 2, and I'm so glad we did. The weather was crappy - cold, cloudy and misty/rainy for most of the 2 days - but the views and serene setting more than made up for it. We arrived in Halong Bay and hung out in the waiting area with everyone else going out on a boat. We used tender boats to transfer to the boat, got a little briefing on the itinerary, and then checked into our room. Gorgeous room and bathroom and nice outdoor balcony. We got a welcome drink and then we had lunch, which was all seafood. You can easily ask them for a non-seafood lunch. Stopped at the surprise cave, which, if you've ever been to any other cave, is just 'eh'. It's just another cave. Then there was a chance to visit a local fishing village, but we napped and played cards instead. Meals are included, but drinks are not. And we ended up spending a bit of a bundle on drinks. Like the hubby said, we were treating it as if everything was included, so we drank as much as we wanted. During dinner, we realized that living in this kind of style was kind of like how the Titanic was, on a much smaller and not as elegant scale, of course. The next morning, when everyone else got off the boat to do tai chi on the beach and climb to the top of the mountain, we transferred to our own private boat for the day. There were the two of us, plus the boat staff of about 6, I'd say. We sailed to the bottom of Cat Ba Island, went out on kayaks for a couple hours, going in and out of different caves, which was SO COOL. I wish it was warm enough to enjoy the swimming, but it was awfully chilly that day, and dreary as could be. I can only imagine how incredible the scenery is on a nice sunny day. We had lunch on board (we had to pay for all drinks here, too, even water), and then around 4 we met up with the Jasmine again to meet up with the new group of 1-nighters. They were a much friendlier bunch, so we did a bit of socializing before dinner. The next morning we all did the tai chi and mountain climb before heading back to the pier for our return transfer to Hanoi. I'm not sure what the difference between Ginger and Jasmine was, apart from size. I will say the service was something to be desired (not that it was bad, it just wasn't all that great. The HE2 gave stellar service, and I expected the same out of a small boat like this), apart from our private boat and tour on day 2.

    One other thing I forgot to mention - but I didn't find the pollution/smog to be bad at all. After reading many reports, I was expecting it to be awful in Hong Kong and Bangkok. Maybe we just got lucky and had good days? Not sure.

    As for the 3400+ photos I/we took, I'm lucky I've had time to get them all on the computer, nevermind sorting through them yet. Once I do, I will upload them to flickr and will post links. History shows that for a trip with this many photos, this can very well take me a couple months.

    Boston GTG - I hope I can make it! I'll poke around for more details soon.

    Thanks again for your time and questions, and let me know if I can add anything else.

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    Thanks for the detailed response, BostonGal. I thought the infestation of motor scooters in the old town might be the problem with Hanoi. I loved it the first time, but I found it was getting a bit noisy when I went back, and sounds like it's only gotten worse since.

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    Yes, as to the noise and chaos of Hanoi's Old Quarter seeming to grow worse, at least that was my impression based on visits in 2006 and 2008. During our leisurely (17 night) stay in Hanoi last summer, not a day went by that I didn't actively fantasize about what it would be like to experience the city, particularly the Old Quarter, when there were more bicycles than motorbikes. I wonder if planning for the big Hanoi birthday celebration in 2010 includes giving thought to making areas more pedestrian friendly. (One can only walk around Hoan Kiem so many times...) Agreed that the Tamarind Cafe offers a very peaceful respite though.

    The little time that we spent time with elephants while at the Anantara in northern Thailand marked one of the great highlights of travel for everyone in my family. It is a pleasure to read of your enthusiasm.

    Thank you for your delightfully expanded answers to our questions.

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    Thanks so much for responding to our questions.

    Your point about Hanoi being so different from your expectations is a good one. Sometimes we go to a place looking for a particular vibe and when it isn't there, we can't shift mindsets to enjoy it. Hanoi certainly isn't a laid back kind of place! And while a trip to the Temple of Literature would have been a lovely respite, you weren't into going out to explore it or other quiet areas of Hanoi. You've also described the downside of staying in Old Quarter... we were glad we opted to stay a bit away from all of that.

    Your comments about Doi Suthep remind me how different people are from each other. Given that I've never met a Wat I didn't like, it's hard for me to comprehend getting templed out after a couple of wats in Bangkok and a visit to Doi Suthep. But it's a good reminder that not everyone is enamored of wats or Buddhism as I am.

    I'm glad you enjoyed my favorite part of the world.

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    Thanks for all of the details, BG. We'll have to cope with the Hanoi noise - at least we know what to expect - we've broken up our 5 days there with an overnight at Halong Bay and 3 nights (not including train to and from) in the Sapa area. Enjoyed your perspectives on the other places you visited - as for Ponheary, in my original post I had hoped that you would understand that the age difference was probably an issue for her, not for you. I am glad that the school experience was a highlight. The fact that you were just thrown in there is no big deal - sometimes you just gotta wing it - heck you're giving these people FOOD - how can you possibly offend them? Ponheary had an attitude with us about the Hotel DLP being foreign-owned and wasn't pleased that we were staying there but we just rolled with it. Everyone has their passions.

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    Thanks for these comments, BG, especially the observations about Ponheary. We had similar problems over 4 days with her brother Dara: his withdrawal or lack of direction in difficult situations and his badgering insistence on particular photographic vantage points. But that's the least of it. I'm working on a trip report, "3 Countries, 3 Guides." Some of it runs counter to the prevailing views on Ponheary/Dara and on Tong, but I'll press on with it.

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