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Trip Report Travels in Tumultuous Thailand, languid Luang Prabang & Smiling Siem Reap

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Preparation and planning:

We had a wonderful 3-week trip to Southeast Asia, going to Bangkok/northern Thailand; Luang Prabang; and Siem Reap and taking the 2-day slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Without the many members of this board whose trip reports I devoured, and who gave advice, suggestions and recommendations, I never could’ve come up with such a plan, which went almost completely without a hitch. I took to heart many of the comments I read on these boards in my planning.

After returning from our trip one year ago from India, I was smitten with the East, and I convinced my husband, M, that another trip was essential, this time to Southeast Asia. While a 3-week vacation is a generous amount of time when working, it meant making difficult choices about what to include and what not to include. Reading the many travel reports on this board made it difficult to eliminate places, but I reminded myself that we will (!) get back some day!

The suggestion to include the 2-day boat ride down the Mekong had me going back and forth for quite a while before I decided to do it, and we both were very pleased that we did. Although it was 2 full days out of our “touring time”, there was something wonderful about viewing the landscape and river life in a slow, leisurely way. We also enjoyed the people we met on the boat (more later).

I generally consider myself a “value” traveler – a former budget traveler, now as I get older, I do like my comforts and indulgences, particularly when it comes to hotels, so we generally do a mix of places.
Of course, my “indulgence” is a boutique-style hotel that costs $130-or $140/night; the low end places were about $25/night!

Transportation:
International airline was a no-brainer for me – I chose Korean Airlines because of the option to fly into Bangkok and out of Siem Reap. While not the least expensive flight, it remained one of the lower-cost flights I researched for the months leading up to the ticket purchase.

I loved Korean Airlines and Seoul/Incheon Airport. JFK (my home airport) should be on the bottom of anyone’s airport list, and Incheon is near the top of mine now. There is amazingly quick, free WiFi, and on the return trip, I discovered the sleeping lounges. Love it.

The long flight from JFK to Seoul definitely had more legroom in the economy than other flights. The food was fair. The only disappointment we had was the limited movie selection. For a long flight, it could make a difference, although this was not a problem for us. Overall, we were very happy with the airline.

Hotels:
Bangkok (4 nights) – Centre Point Silom – Very good hotel, great location. Recommend.
Chiang Mai (4 nights) – Baan Orapin – beautiful oasis in great location. Highly recommend.
Chiang Rai (2 nights) – Baan Malai – great little guesthouse in convenient location. Recommend.
Chiang Rai/Maesalong (1 nite) – Little Home guesthouse – Simple but warm and welcoming. Recommend.
Chiang Khong/Teak Garden Hotel (1 nite) – unexpectedly good for transfer town. Recommend.
Houi Xai, Laos/ Phetsokxai Hotel (1 nite)– basic, adequate hotel (part of Nagi of Mekong boat trip).
Luang Prabang/Apsara (3 nights) – Elegant small hotel, great location and view. Highly recommend.
Siem Reap/Golden Temple Hotel (4 nites) – Wonderful small hotel, warm and welcoming staff. Highly recommend.

All hotels are reviewed with more detail on Trip Advisor.



Bangkok

Despite all the planning, of course, it turned out we were traveling to Bangkok just as the political situation had been heating up, and my husband and I were arriving shortly after the planned Bangkok shutdown. For weeks before our planned departure, I was scouring the blogs (Richard Barrow and others) and trying to decide whether or not we would be safe to travel to Bangkok. As we got closer to the date, it became more unclear, and there was a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not we would actually go to Bangkok. There were weeks of planning for “Plan B”.

I’d been in touch with Fodorites yestravel and Hanuman, as we were planning a mini-GTG in Bangkok. I’m truly appreciative of all the feedback Hanuman gave us, and also of the ongoing contact yestravel and I had before we left. It was great to have someone to share the uncertainty and to communicate with someone who was also trying to make a decision about the trip. This made the period leading up to the trip more anxiety-provoking than usual, and until a few days before we actually left, I really didn’t know whether we would go to Bangkok or not. It wasn’t until yestravel sent me a brief reassuring email me that I was certain we were going.

So the trip, at last!

We left Saturday, Jan. 18 at 00:50AM and arrived on Sunday, Jan. 19 in the early afternoon. Arrival at the airport was uneventful and surprisingly quick. We picked up SIM cards (AIS) at the airport for our i-Phones. We didn’t really end up using the phones much except in Bangkok, but it was still nice to have. Somehow, my phone couldn’t connect to the internet, but M had no problem with his phone. It was frustrating to see these texts in Thai and not be able to make sense of them! We did travel with an iPad (WiFi only), so this really was no problem, as all hotels had WiFi, so I generally had as much access as I needed.

We got a taxi from the airport to our hotel, Centre Point Silom, which has a great location near the Chao Phraya River and the BTS. Staying by the river made all the difference – the protest areas were mostly along Sukhumvit, but we had no awareness of them where we were staying. There was no traffic coming in, either, and we got in quickly (30 minutes or so).

We had gotten the taxi from the line at the airport where there are notices explicitly stating that cabdrivers must use the meter. However, once we were in the cab, our driver essentially demanded something like 400 baht, and we felt somehow trapped. It was an unpleasant initiation.

We arrived at Centre Point Silom, but my requested room was not ready yet. I had gotten the hotel with miles, but requested an upgrade, which they were charging me a nominal fee. The manager then kindly eliminated the fee since the room was not yet ready.

Finally settling in, with a (partial) view of the Chao Phraya river from our room, we at last felt that we had arrived! The evening was hazy, but we arrived during an unusual cold wave in Bangkok, so the first few days were downright cool, requiring a light jacket or sweater.

First adventure – we found the Sathorn (Central pier) ferry terminal and took the free ferry to Asiatique, the riverfront market and restaurant complex. We walked around a bit, but mostly loved the experience of getting on the ferry and getting oriented to the river. We are really in Bangkok!

From there, we hopped one of the tourist ferries, and was truly pleased to realize we could take it one stop further to the Oriental hotel, where we were able to find the wonderful restaurant, Tongue Thai (thanks, Bob, this was on my “must” list for months!).

We had a lovely dinner and were actually able to walk “home” to our hotel – a perfect “first” day!

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