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Luang Prabang, Angkor, Sri Lanka, Bangkok trip report

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I posted this a few hours ago. Apologies if it ultimately shows up twice...

Given all of the helpful advice I receive from this site, I wanted to offer some impressions from our recent trip to Asia. Rather than give all of the gory details, I thought I would try to hit on some of the highlights/lowlights as well as some of the things I wish I had figured out ahead of time. I’m happy to provide greater detail or to answer any questions.

To provide some context, this was probably my sixth or seventh visit to Thailand (my wife and I got engaged in Thailand and also spent our first anniversary there) but the first in fifteen years. I have traveled to 70+/- countries so would consider myself a relatively seasoned traveler. There were six of us on the trip – my wife and I and our four children (15, 12, 11, and 6).

I’ve broken this down into the following sections so people can ignore parts that are of no interest:
Airlines (specifically ticketing on Bangkok Airways and Singapore vs. Thai nonstops from EWR/JFK)
Chiang Mai (Tamarind Village)
Luang Prabang (Pansea Residence Phou Vao)
Siem Reap (Shinta Mani and Ponheary)
Jack the Tailor (and Ratt)
Sri Lanka (including Amanwella, one of the new Aman resorts)
Bangkok (Peninsula)
Random:
Departure Taxes
Rainy season weather and raincoats

AIRLINES
The impetus for this trip was 1) a desire to return to Asia, and 2) an even stronger desire to use up a chunk of USAir frequent flyer miles before they disappeared on their own. Using Star Alliance miles, I was able to get tickets to/from Luang Prabang with a stopover in Bangkok (which allowed us to go to Cambodia and Sri Lanka). On the outbound, we flew on Singapore Airlines’ nonstop from Newark to Singapore and connected to Thai to Bangkok and then connected again to another Thai flight to Chiang Mai, where we spent a night before continuing the next day to Luang Prabang, also on Thai. (Because we were in Chiang Mai for less than 24 hours – we were there for 22 – it did not count as a stopover. We then took Thai back to Bangkok again via Chiang Mai, Bangkok Airways to and from Siem Reap, Sri Lankan to and from Colombo, and then the Thai nonstop from Bangkok back to JFK. All flights were fine and more or less on time.

Bangkok Airways – I purchased both the Sri Lankan and Bangkok Airways tickets on their respective websites. Sri Lankan issued e-tickets, which was great. With Bangkok Airways, however, I actually had to go to their ticket window and have the tickets issued. This created a bit of a time crunch as they also cancelled the flight we were booked on and moved us to an earlier flight without telling us, thus creating a very tight connection. They were incredibly friendly in regard to calling ahead from the domestic to the international terminal, getting us a special car to the plane, etc. but the bottom line, though, is to make certain you allow plenty of time to accomplish the ticketing if you arrange for tickets on the web (as we did).

Singapore vs. Thai non-stops to/from New York - We found the seats and entertainment to be very good and roughly comparable in both business and economy (my wife and I were in business and our children were in economy). On the outbound, I went to sleep over Nova Scotia and woke up over the Black Sea. Fantastic! On the amenity front, Thai wins. In business class, they pass out Hermes toiletry kits and Guy Laroche pajamas (not that I saw anybody changing into them). Singapore passed out a much more basic socks and eyeshades. On the service front, though, perhaps it was just the crews on our specific flights, but we found Singapore significantly better. It wasn’t that Thai was bad, but we felt like the crew was just going through the motions. On a relative basis we found Singapore’s crew friendlier and more responsive. They truly anticipated everything. For example, our water glasses were constantly refilled without our asking. On Thai, an empty water glass would be picked up and never be replaced unless we asked. One time they gave my wife a dirty (filthy) glass. Singapore has snacks constantly and readily available. Thai doesn’t. One final example: for dinner on Thai I requested lamb and my wife requested sea bass. I finished my first course before my wife and was served the main course. It didn’t look like lamb, but I took a bite to be certain. It was the sea bass. They then brought me lamb, but when my wife was ready for her main course they offered her a choice of the sea bass which I had taken a bite out of (now cold) or something entirely different. For business class, I thought this was pretty poor.

In any event, both flights are definitely the way to go from a time perspective, and if one is going to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, or Burma, it probably makes sense to fly Thai regardless of my comments.

CHIANG MAI
We arrived in Chiang Mai in remarkably good condition and checked into the Tamarind Village, which we found to be well located and good value for the money although probably not where I’d want to stay for an extended time.

After a brief swim, we walked around town a bit and had an unremarkable dinner at the Riverside Restaurant – a restaurant I remembered (I think) from 15 years ago. We then made a quick visit to the Night Market, where our children enjoyed their first experiences bargaining for fake Rolex’s, Lacoste shirts, etc.

I had very fond memories of Chiang Mai from several previous trips there long ago, but whether it was the limited time we spent, our jet lagged status, or the rainy weather I was not enthused about it this time. Keep in mind though that we didn’t do any sightseeing so this conclusion may not totally be fair. However, I don’t feel a burning desire to return.

LUANG PRABANG
We arrived in rainy Luang Prabang and checked into the Residence Phou Vao (formerly the Pansea). We really liked this hotel. The common areas reminded us somewhat of Amandari. Our rooms were very large and very comfortable with lots of wood. The swimming pool was delightful and was a great place to return to after sightseeing. We unanimously voted the breakfast the best of anyplace we stayed on the trip (including the Peninsula). Believe me, lunch was not necessary after this daily gorging. On top of all of this, we found the service at the hotel to be exceptional.

After depositing our bags we ventured into town for a late lunch/early dinner at the Villa Santi. They have a set Lao menu, which we really enjoyed and was a good introduction to Lao food. After eating we walked around the town and received our first exposure (of many) to one of the more creative beggars I have seen on any of my travels. It was my children who ultimately noticed that the person who kept approaching us in different outfits in different places was in fact one and the same person. The outfit which ultimately extracted some money from me was when he showed up by my side in an army uniform with a pistol in his hand.

The next couple of days were spent doing the normal tourist things: getting up early to see the monks, visiting the wats, Pak Ou caves, etc. The one thing which we did which we really enjoyed was to hire a driver to take us to a Hmong village. This village was roughly an hour and a half out of town, the last hour up a rutted dirt road. It was easy to tell that our arrival in the village was a big event and that tourists were very rarely seen there. We were invited into one of the huts to share a meal, which was a highlight. My children also enjoyed being local celebrities.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed Luang Prabang and Laos. Notwithstanding the increase in tourism which has clearly occurred, we still found it to be an incredibly laid back place with a great vibe. Although totally different and much smaller the atmosphere made me think of a Cuzco, Salvador, or Kathmandu. We would definitely like to return, stay longer, and hopefully visit more of the country.

SIEM REAP
After connecting through Chiang Mai and Bangkok, we arrived in Siem Reap and were met at the airport by the delightful Ponheary, who took us straight to the Shinta Mani. While the rooms at the Shinta Mani (I think we had Superior Pool rooms) were smaller than any other hotel we stayed at on the trip, the warmth of the staff more than compensated for it. A quick note regarding the Sofitel: I had been under the impression that it was way out of town, which was one of the reasons we stayed at the Shinta Mani. We drove by it each day on the way to the temples, and it really didn’t seem that far. I wish I’d paid it more attention. Ponheary can get people good rates at primarily Cambodian-owned hotels. It would be worth asking her.

There’s not much more to add to all of the comments on this forum about Angkor Wat. It is magnificent. We were there for two full days and a morning, which seemed about right for us. We also visited Artisans d’Angkor and took a boat trip through the floating villages on the lake. I’m not certain whether this is a touristy trip or not, but we went late in the afternoon and we were the only tourists there. It was fascinating seeing all of the life along the water.

Ponheary was great and I couldn’t recommend her more highly. Before our trip, I made our older children read “First They Killed My Father” and watch “The Killing Fields” because I wanted them to have an appreciation of the people they would meet as well as an appreciation of exactly how lucky we all are. Ponheary’s tales of her life under the Khmer Rouge were mesmerizing. On top of that, she was incredibly well versed in everything concerning the temples.

I never got much of a feeling for the town of Siem Reap but wasn’t wildly impressed with what I saw. Unlike LP, it didn’t strike me as a great place to stroll around in. In addition to the Shinta Mani, we ate at the Red Piano and the FCC. All were very good.

On to Sri Lanka via Bangkok, where we had our first encounter with Jack.

JACK THE TAILOR

Based on the glowing recommendations (especially Bob’s) regarding Jack at Money il Sarto, we had arranged our flights so that we would have time to visit his shop, select fabric, and get measured. We had arranged with Ratt to have her husband pick us up, take us first to Jack’s and then to Jim Thompson’s house and back to the airport. Unfortunately, he was an hour late picking us up, which cut into our schedule a bit, but back to Jack –

I can’t say enough good things about his service, product, and prices. At the end of the day, we were so impressed we kept adding things to our order until I had to cut my wife off. I’m not certain how he got it all done, but he did get it done and on our schedule. When we returned to Bangkok at the end of our trip, he made multiple trips to the Peninsula for fittings and to drop samples off. He was truly awesome.

After spending a decent amount of time at Jack’s there was just enough time for a quick visit to Jim Thompson’s house before heading to the airport again for our flight to Colombo.

SRI LANKA

It’s about three hours from Bangkok to Colombo, and we arrived at about 10:30 in the evening (tip: at this point there aren’t any ATM’s in the Colombo airport). We were met by Siroshan, who was to be our driver for the next week. With the exception of Amanwella, which I arranged on my own, Siroshan and our accommodations were arranged by Lindsay at Boutique Sri Lanka (www.boutiquesrilanka.com). I was very pleased with Lindsay’s service, especially since we were able to stay at a couple of very special bungalows/villas that I never would have found by myself.

First off, for one’s sanity and safety I would consider a driver to be an absolutely essential part of traveling around Sri Lanka (assuming one is not simply going to a hotel on the beach and hanging out). We paid roughly $350 for a week with a van and driver including gas. I know we could have done it for less, but I thought this was great value.

Our first night was spent in a villa on a pineapple plantation approximately an hour from the airport (towards Kandy) called Hideaway. I have Lindsay to thank for this. It was absolutely fantastic (with open air bathrooms an Aman resort would be envious of). My only regret was that we got there late at night and left early the next morning.

On the road to Kandy we made two stops. The first was at the Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage, where roughly 60 orphaned elephants reside. If you show up at the right time, you can watch the baby elephants being fed with giant bottles (or for a tip get to do it yourself) and then watch as all of the elephants walk down the street of the tiny town to bathe. This was great entertainment.

Our second stop was at a spice farm. At first I thought this was going to be a typical driver scam. However, it was very educational seeing examples of and learning the uses for various spices. Our children particularly enjoyed watching a demonstration of the ointment which removed hair. At the end of the day I walked away with $50 worth of concoctions which I’m relatively certain I’ll never use (including one which increases metabolism).

Kandy was probably the biggest disappointment of our entire trip. We stayed at a place called Helga’s Folly. Take my advice – don’t follow in my footsteps here. Yes, it is one of kind. Yes, there’s all sorts of interesting (and bizarre) art. Yes, there may be a certain charm. But take away the art and it reminded me of the kind of place I might have stayed when traveling around India on a budget. Other than the Temple of the Tooth we didn’t find much to write home about in Kandy and were happy to leave early the next morning.

As we left Kandy, the road started climbing and the views of tea plantations, waterfalls, and green hillsides kept getting better and better until we arrived in Nuwara Eliya. At 6,000 feet, Nuwara Eliya is hardly what one thinks of when they think of the tropics. The weather is delightfully cool and in the architecture, one can clearly see the British colonial heritage. In fact, one could easily picture the place we had lunch, The Hill Club, as a turn of the century gentleman’s club in old England.

After lunch, we continued on to Netherbyres, which is a bungalow located high on a tea plantation near Heputale. Although certainly not the most luxurious place we stayed, my children thought this was the best. They enjoyed the great views, the walks through the tea plantation, and all of the animals. They also enjoyed running around and playing soccer on the large lawn. It was a little disconcerting when we heard a series of gunshots just after we went to bed. It turns out that it was the security guards shooting at wild boar. In any event, the great thing about staying at a Netherbyres or Hideaway is that you have your own staff to prepare whatever you want to eat, your own schedule, and total privacy. On a future trip we’d love to spend more time at both of these special places.

After breakfast, we began the drive down the hill to the coast at Tangalle, where I had made reservations at Amanwella, one of Aman’s two new hotels in Sri Lanka. Three nights here was to be our (and our children’s) reward for all of the forced marches and sightseeing. As one might expect, this is a great spot. The rooms are gorgeous (although we didn’t find them as fantastic as Amandari or Amankila). The beach and the pool are both beautiful. Indeed, were it not an Aman, were it not that we had such high expectations, and were it not so expensive (even at 50% off) we would have absolutely no complaints. However, it didn’t feel quite ready for prime time. Unlike other Amans we have stayed at the service did not “hum”. Although everybody was lovely and well-intentioned, it was very slow. Every meal was a long wait for menus, for our order to be taken, for our food to come, etc. Sometimes our wine glasses were refilled. Sometimes we’d have to do it ourselves. On more than one occasion, they did not have what we ordered even though the selection was very limited to start with. One evening I went into the bar to order a drink for my wife and me. Even though I was the only person there, it took almost twenty minutes to get the drinks (the person manning the bar was not the bartender, the blender in the bar was broken, etc.). I think it’s only been open for 3 or 4 months so presumably some of this will get worked out with more practice. And even with the flaws it was a tough place to leave.

It’s about a six hour drive along the southern coast from Tangalle to the airport in Colombo. We broke the drive with a stop in Galle (visiting both Amangalla and the Galle Fort Hotel) and with dinner at the Blue Waters Hotel. Our flight left Colombo at 2:30am and we arrived in Bangkok just before 7.

BANGKOK
Like a lot of people on this forum, we obsessed about the Peninsula vs. Oriental question. Ultimately we selected the Peninsula. If there was any one thing that steered us in that direction it was probably what I perceived to be an unyielding dress code at the Oriental. I simply didn’t want to have to spend my vacation worrying if it was ok to wear shorts or not (or to have to fight that battle with my children). In any event, if we had any hesitations before they were erased when we were met at the door and escorted to our rooms (it was only 8 in the morning). We had been upgraded to a Grand Deluxe Suite connecting to a Grand Deluxe Room. It’s all been covered elsewhere in this forum extensively, but I thought the rooms were fantastic and the views alone were worth the price of admission. We also found the short commute across the river to be a plus, not a minus. The boat ride was both relaxing and fun.

We spent one morning sightseeing at the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. We had been warned about the common scam of telling tourists that the palace was closed, so we were somewhat prepared for this. However, the seeming heartfelt veracity as well as the multiple people who tried this ploy on us and the consistency of their stories almost had us believing. In any event, we pressed on.

Other than this brief sightseeing expedition we simply relaxed and shopped. In addition to multiple fittings with Jack we also made the trek to the Jim Thompson Outlet via Sky Train and taxi (if you go, make certain you get the concierge to write the address in Thai to give to your taxi driver). I also had several pairs of eyeglasses made. My son was very excited to find a pair of cleats at the Nike store in Siam Square for $100 less than at home until he discovered that the largest size carried was 3 sizes smaller than his (rather large) feet.

Too tired one evening to venture out, we enjoyed an excellent dinner at Thiptara, the Thai restaurant at the Peninsula. We thought the atmosphere here was really wonderful and the prices reasonable. The only caveat to this and a warning to those following in our footsteps is to only drink water in moderation (drink beer instead!). Our waitress was quite diligent in offering us bottles of Evian. This was great until I looked at the bill and discovered that they were $9 each. I’m a big boy and appreciate that water is a profit center, but I thought $9 for a mid-sized bottle of water to be a bit excessive.

I’ll preface our next restaurant experience by saying “shame on me” in more ways than one. I never even realized I’d been scammed until after the fact. I will also post this separately for those who don’t make it to the end of this tome. I’ll call it the Bangkok Taxi Driver – Restaurant Scam. It started when the concierge at the Peninsula made reservations for us at The Mango Tree and gave us a card from the restaurant with a map, the restaurant’s name and address in Thai, etc. Outside the Peninsula pier, I gave this card to a taxi driver and asked if he were familiar with it. He assured me he was. “Thai and seafood” he said. I questioned which way he was going at one point (provoking laughter from my children) but he told me he knew exactly where he was. Sure enough, he pulled up in front of a restaurant and announced that we had arrived at the Mango Tree. There wasn’t a sign (first giveaway) so my wife asked the person at the door if this were the Mango Tree. “Yes, this is the Mango Tree.” My wife wasn’t totally convinced (I think it was the dirty tablecloth), so to settle matters I asked our waitress if this were the Mango Tree. “Yes, this is the Mango Tree.” OK, honey, you heard what she said. Anyway, when the bill came, rather than handing it to me our waitress held onto it and typed 3800 into a calculator she was holding. Seemed expensive for what we had ordered. When my credit card slip came, though, it was only 3400 baht. The waitress explained that service was not included on the credit card and that I needed to leave 400 baht in cash for service. At this point, I got suspicious and asked to see the itemized bill. Of course, the 3400 baht included service, taxes, etc. Basically, the waitress was trying to extort an additional 400 baht from me and, were it not that the bill already seemed too high for what we had ordered, I almost went along with it. When we returned to the Peninsula, I stopped by the concierge desk to recount our experience. He immediately picked up the phone to call the Mango Tree. Guess what? We never showed up for our reservations. I pulled out my credit card slip. We in fact had eaten dinner at a place called the Phuntong Garden. Given that the restaurant was full of westerners, I am guessing that there are a lot of people who still think they ate at the Mango Tree (or some other Thai restaurant). My two pieces of advice: 1) don’t ever eat at the Phuntong Garden. Any restaurant that resorts to tactics like this shouldn’t be patronized and 2) pay more attention than I did. Make certain you are, in fact, where you want to be.

Our flight home didn’t leave until after midnight so we thought a fitting last evening activity would be to take a dinner cruise. I know there have been several negative/neutral comments about these dinner cruises, but we really enjoyed it. We booked the Loy Nava, which is a relatively small converted rice boat. We thought the food was very good and the atmosphere was great.

Finally, here are a couple of random thoughts:

DEPARTURE TAXES
This is something I wish I had figured out ahead of time. Because of the way I planned our trip, (1) seven hour stopover in Bangkok to visit Jack, 2) connecting to Siem Reap via Chiang Mai and Bangkok, etc.) This latter one, in particular, was painful since all we were doing was connecting. It presumably could have been avoided had we been able to fly direct to BKK from LPQ. Anyway, I just wanted to alert people to this. There were also entry/visa fees in Laos and Cambodia and departure taxes from Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka.

RAINY SEASON WEATHER AND RAINCOATS
We went in the rainy season because it was the only time schedules allowed. Maybe we were lucky, but we really didn’t feel that the sporadic showers and/or downpours hindered our activities at all. We actually preferred the overcast days as it tended to keep the temperatures down. Sri Lanka actually has a strange weather pattern, and we were there during a lull in one of the rainy seasons. As mentioned earlier, the weather there was delightful.

Tip: Given that we were traveling in the rainy season, we all took rain coats. Because of the heat and humidity, though, we never put them on. We relied instead on little travel umbrellas. Next time, we’ll leave the rain coats behind.

At this point, I’ll stop rambling. We had a fantastic trip, and I was especially pleased to be able to expose my children to Asia. We’re already thinking about the next trip (next summer to Burma and perhaps Laos again and/or Ladakh). If anybody has any questions, I would be more than happy to answer them. Thanks to everybody for all of their helpful suggestions on this forum.

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