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Trip Report TRIP REPORT: Bangkok, Angkor, PhiPhi (2 weeks in rainy season)

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BACKGROUND:
A perk of working abroad is the chance to travel: from Abu Dhabi this year, we’ve visited 10 countries as of September, excluding work travel. Usually these trips are under a week and too brief to write up, but for longer ones, both more research goes into the planning, and afterward there are more experiences and recommendations to share with other travelers.

ABOUT THE REPORT:
To make this report accessible, there’s a separate post per destination and headers for activities/sights/food etc. for skipping through to read parts of interest.

ITIN:
DAYS 1-3: Bangkok
DAYS 4-7: Siem Reap
DAY 8: Transit via BKK to Krabi
DAYS 9-13: Ko Phi Phi
DAYS 14-16: Bangkok

SIGHTS/ACTIVITIES:
BKK: MOCA, Chatuchak, Chinatown Street Food Tour, Thonburi, Nana, Rooftop Bars, Nahm, Soi Cowboy
SR: Angkor, Riverside, Biking, Cooking Class
PP: Review of Outrigger Resort, Viewpoint Hiking, Kayaking
ALL: hotels, food, spa, shopping

Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoy, and hearing of your experiences is always welcome for future visits :)

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    BANGKOK

    ORIENTATION:
    Bangkok or 'Krungthep' to Thais (Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok, popnopharat ratchathani burirom ubonratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit to note the full name) is easily my favorite city in Southeast Asia. Immediately upon entry, I feel electrified by the city’s energy, and end up sleepless for the sake of maximizing every waking moment there. This was my husband’s first time, and he soon got the bug: the morning after arriving, yet to see much but the AM commute bustle, his verdict was, “Can we look for jobs here?”

    GETTING IN/AROUND:
    A word on transport: Suvarnabhumi International connects via train link to downtown, with transfers to the skytrain (BTS) and subway (MRT). It’s easy, cheap, clean and much faster than sitting in BKK’s infamous rush-hour gridlock. We used public transit/walking to get everywhere, except for a few late-night tuktuks (which our expat friends, despite their inebriated state, haggled to 150 baht for about a 15 min ride; the daytime fare would probably be less).

    HOTEL:
    For its central location, we stayed at Novotel right outside the Ploenchit BTS stop. It was no better or worse than any business hotel, that is to say, charmless. The breakfast was an insipid line of fried stuff and machine-dispensed coffee; we ended up getting coffee at Dean & Deluca next door in the mornings. Next time, hope to try a boutiquey place, like the Mode Sathorn or VIE. There are oodles of hotels in BKK – would love to hear of any standouts you’ve stayed at?

    DAY 1: SHOPPING
    On our first morning, true to the Emirati spirit, we thought to get souvenir shopping out the way. I’d read that Celadon House is ‘the’ place for buying celadon pottery. Accordingly, had booked massage appointments at nearby Urban Retreat Spa, across from Asok BTS stop. We circled around the address a couple times until learning from a neighbor vendor that sadly, the shop had closed, but that we could find celadon pottery at Chatuchak weekend market. To kill time, we stepped into Terminal 21 mall, which, in addition to brand stores, had a plethora of tiny, cute boutiques. Walked off a quick noodle bowl there, then crossed the skytrain ramp to Urban Retreat.

    DAY 1: MASSAGES
    I am a Thai massage fanatic, and as such, not an easy customer. Such is my ardor that I took a month-long Thai massage course in Chiang Mai years ago, resulting in further prickliness about differences between the good, the bad, and the bliss-inducing. Fortunately, I lack the professional critic’s judicious memory, and tend to recall all massages as “pretty good” in hindsight – even when initially peeved if a therapist drills her elbows in without warming up the muscle, or applies bruising pressure on a bone, or chafes the skin, or jumps around randomly without establishing rhythm and symmetry, or … Inevitably, most therapists will work better on one body part, and botch up other parts. So rather than suffer through frustration, I specify my preferences, e.g., focus on stretching moves, deep back work, and lap-cradled head massage. So, my two baht on this issue is: be vocal! And with these prices, there’s not a lot of room to complain. Urban Retreat charges THB 600 for 90min (US $15) – an average range falling between the unsanitary-looking street shops and the swanky hotel spas.

    DAY 1: REDLIGHT NIGHTLIFE
    Our Aussie friends M & P, career expats working out of Bangkok the past few months, had lots of suggestions where to eat. The plan was to go to ladyboys shows in Nana Plaza, so they recommended drinks & dinner on Soi 11, a lively stretch of bars and eateries off BTS Nana. Started with sundowners at Above Eleven, one of BKK’s numerous rooftop bars with spectacular views over the evening skyline (see others here). Followed with dinner on the same street, at one of M & P’s go-to spots, a crowded pub that turned out unexpectedly good bistro fare, served in miniature Dutch ovens (or big ramekins??). Already tipsy by this point, we walked the few blocks to Nana, and moved from bar to bar and show to show until told that, since the coup there’d been a crackdown on the ‘ping pong’ shows, which are now only available underground, i.e., ‘off-Silom.’ So we piled into a tuktuk and arrived at a seedy backdoor, paid a modest cover charge of 500 baht, and were soon witness to astonishing theatrics by the talented ladies and gents of the night, including some Cirque de Soleil-esque acrobatic feats. Anyhoo … we circled back to Soi 11 for last drinks at a cute bar called Apothke before calling it a (memorable!) night.

    DAY 2: MOCA
    Bangkok’s Museum of Contemporary Art is a MUST for art fans. It is glorious and as yet unfrequented, perhaps because it’s recently opened and located out past Chatuchak (a ten-minute taxi ride from the BTS Mo Chit – keep the museum number on hand in case the driver needs directions). We had no idea how huge it was, and didn’t have time to see all six floors of the permanent collection plus the ground level exhibitions. But we were wowed by what we did see, just piece after piece that made you stop and stare and move on only to be compelled to look back. Our one grievance: the gift shop did not sell prints 

    DAY 2: WEEKEND MARKET
    After the museum we met our friends again at Chatuchak, said to be SEA’s largest market. Good to print out a map! It being noontime, M led the way to a row of food stalls, and ordered a half dozen small plates. Everything tasted fresh and had the ‘five spice’ interplay going for which Thai cuisine is famous: spicy, salty, sweet, bitter, sour. My favorite dish was the Larb, a salad of minced meat marinated ceviche-style, which when done right, hits a tingling balance of citrus and heat. (Compare this, to later island-resort meals watered down for the Foreigner to one-dimensional blandness, only-spicy or only-sweet, losing all those layers of flavor).

    Did I mention Chatuchak is big? Found celadon in the pottery section, admired the nice pieces in the furniture section which sell back in UAE for triple the price, laughed at baby monkeys in the pet section, and after all the walking in the sun, slurped icy juices (think fresh-squeezed rambutan, mangosteen, lychee) in a shaded café in the art section. Wanted to browse the graphic tees section, but – never enough time! Had to jump on the MRT and take it to the last stop: Chinatown.

    DAY 2: CHINATOWN STREET FOOD TOUR
    When booking this, it didn’t occur to me that filling a 10AM to 9PM day back to back with walking activities (museum, market, street food tour) might not be the brightest idea. Despite our aching feet, we joined our guide and group of two Finns, eager to be enlightened on Where to Eat Street Food. The 3-hour tour included ten samplings along Chinatown’s main street, Yaowarat, in its middle strip called ‘the belly of the dragon’ believed auspicious for the restaurant business. While the tour was informative as an introduction for newbies like us, if you know that a) vendors set up their carts on this ‘Belly’ and its side-alleyways, and b) anywhere crowded means the food is good, you can graze at your own pace and eat whatever takes your fancy. I did appreciate that it pointed out items that might otherwise pass unnoticed, but the tastiest dishes came with a tellingly long queue. The best one was a seafood spot on the corner (you’ll know when you see it), which had chili prawns that will stalk my dreams …


    Next up, Siem Reap. I am writing this from Phi Phi, and we return to BKK tomorrow. So, stay tuned for more!

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    Another Bangkok-lover! It's been my favorite city for a couple of decades.

    In terms of hotels, I prefer to stay along the river. I never tire of the river traffic and it is great to take the water taxis to wats. There is also a sky train station at the river and all of the river-front hotels have a shuttle to take you to the sky train stop. I usually stay at the Royal Orchid. I've never seen a Bangkok hotel with a terrible breakfast buffet like you describe - usually there are endless choices.

    Looking forward to more of your report.

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    Great start to your report! I'm very familiar with Phloenchit area... but prefer Sukhumvit, between about soi 8 and Asok. Any number of fine hotel choices.

    Hope you are enjoying Phi Phi.

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    Kathie, thanks for the tip, we'll try riverside next time. Already planning to return in 2015 for a group trip!

    MI need to update my profile; we went to Java and Lombok in January, again partly alone and partly with friends living there (my husband's high school teacher actually!). Most of my Jogja tips came from your report! I'll revisit it now in retrospect of my own experience to compare notes :)

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    SIEM REAP


    DAY 3: BKK TO SIEM REAP
    Left our larger luggage at Novotel, since we’d paid for just one checked bag on BKK Airways. One-hour flight on a prop plane later, we landed at noon, thankful for a third day of cloudless sunshine.


    SAMAR VILLAS
    Checked into Samar Villas Resort & Spa (www.samarvillas.com/en/), as recommended by our BKK friends. Second the recommendation! Located midway between Siem Reap town and Angkor park, it has eight suites with charming decor, a small but lovely pool, and pleasant staff. The French owner has just opened a second branch in Bali.

    The restaurant turns out excellent French-Cambodian dishes, very reasonably priced. Standouts were the catfish carpaccio, salt-crusted river fish, caramel pork, and banana-blossom salad. You can take a Khmer cooking class with the restaurant’s chef, who has trained at Raffles Angkor and in Vietnam. If we’d left a morning free, we’d definitely have taken it as we heard it was fun, but we only had two full days after today’s arrival.

    They offer one free ‘facial for the lady’ and a daily free ‘shave for the gentleman,’ however, the girl I had for the facial was either a novice or just careless, and I asked her to stop after the first few minutes. The staff manager apologized and offered a free massage instead, assigning their ‘best’ therapist who gave a very good massage.

    Samar also owns Fou-Nan opposite (themed as ‘Belle Epoque Indochina’) which has an Aspara dance performance with a set menu dinner. Unfortunately, it was closed during our stay coinciding with Cambodia’s 3-day national holiday.

    Overall, Samar Villas is a great choice for staying in a quieter spot.


    PUB STREET VS. RIVERSIDE
    Pub St is the Khaosan Rd of Siem Reap – a supertouristy area jammed with hawkers, gap-year-ers, tour groups, garish bars, pizza-pasta menus, etc. Further up on Sivatha Blvd, we tried ‘Khmer massages’ at two spots, Prince d’Angkor and Lemongrass Spa. Both were terrible – stay away! The only non-hotel spa that looked like it might be good was Thai Herbal Association, which has 5 branches in Bangkok and specializes in herbal compresses.

    Far more pleasant was the riverside area. We had beers at the Foreign Correspondents Club (fcccambodia.com), then went next door to a photography gallery (mcdermottgallery.com) which has handsome silver-gelatin prints of Angkor (postcards $2, small prints $35). The Samar manager had recommended a riverside restaurant that opened earlier this month, called Chanrey Tree, a few blocks from FCC. It was our most memorable meal in Siem Reap. An ambient garden setting with pretty food to match. To try Khmer staples, we had the Bok Svay green mango salad, Amok fish soup, and Lok Lak beef, which comes with an amazing peppery garlicky limey sauce. (This loklak spice mix is sold at the Artisans d’ Angkor shop, which has an outpost at the airport, if you don’t have time to go in town). Ended with a nightcap across the river at Palate, which features art by local young artists.A quick note, on the next nights we stayed at our hotel for dinner; we wanted to try Wat Damnak, rated highly for ‘modern Khmer’ but it too was closed for the holidays.

    Please do share, any of your memorable meals in Temple Town! As we say in Farsi, “vasf-e aysh, nesf-e ayesh” meaning, “description of a pleasure is half the pleasure” i.e. vicariously :)

    Coming up, me and Glen’s take on how to do Angkor … (or rather, how not to!)

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    ANGKOR

    Confession: Glen and I are not temple junkies. The big ones, we have the sense to appreciate (favorites to date are Java’s Borobudur and Dambulla’s cave temples) but can pass on the smaller ones. In hindsight, one day would have been enough for us at Angkor – we could’ve skipped Banteay Srei (‘Lady Temple’) which takes time to get to, esp. as its pink sandstone this time of year is not as glitteringly pink as in dry season.

    I’ll leave temple descriptions to the guidebooks ... Clearly, the Angkor complex is magnificent, and should be one everyone’s bucket list (morbid term!). Due to the holiday, the moat was dotted with picnicking Cambodian families, whereas usually, our guide said, only students hang out there.

    TAKEAWAYS
    If we could do it again:

    1) We’d start at dawn at Ta Prohm (‘Tomb Raider Temple’), when most visitors will be at Angkor Wat catching the popular sunrise. Ta Prohm was the highlight for us, with its otherworldly spung trees growing over mossy ancient walls. I imagine it would be best to experience its beauty in the early morning light and calm, without dozens of cameras popping all around.

    2) We’d spend only a day on temples and a second day biking the verdant lanes around Angkor's vast archaeological park. White Bikes (thewhitebicycles.org) gives part of the $2 rental fee to local NGOs.

    GUIDE
    Our guide was Ara, referred by a friend, a personable freelancer. She kept us entertained with Ramayana stories depicted on the murals and local lore (apparently, cupping a feel on an Apsara dancer’s chest brings wealth or fortune, I forget which). We added 25% gratuity to her $50/day fee. You can contact her at: makaratravels@gmail.com


    WEATHER
    Day 12 into the trip, we’ve had uninterrupted sun. We woke to the sound of rain on a couple nights but not a drop during daytime – not even an overcast day yet! I guess it’s lucky for rainy season, though was hoping to see Angkor under rain. This may be an anomaly, so we won’t assume this weather next time, but then, living in a desert climate, we don’t mind showers and consider it well worth the low-season prices.

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    KO PHI PHI

    Ah, the Andaman Sea! Those limestone karsts are just too gorgeous. The ferry was slow going, outpaced by all the speedboats whizzing by. At Tonsai pier, switched to a longtail and 20 minutes later pulled up at the Outrigger.

    This was our first resort experience, and we felt blissed out pretty much on arrival. The rooms were individual pavilions on stilts with thatched roofs and a wooden deck. Ours was at the back of the grounds (thanks, Booking.com), with the silver lining that all the walking helped counteract the sinful calories from downing beers starting at 10AM!

    Second confession: G & I are very lazy when it comes to aquatic activities. My phobia of animals rules out diving and snorkeling, and both of us get bored by hours-long boat tours. Kayaks were cheap to rent (300 baht/hour) but the tide was in at the most scorching time of day (10:00AM–3PM) and burning under the sun didn’t sound too appealing. Or that’s my excuse …

    We did try to hike to the nearby Viewpoint on the first day, but didn’t think through the hotel's advise that the path was flipflop-friendly. In fact, they were no match for the prickly vegetation, darting lizards, sharp rocks, and muddy steep incline of jungle terrain. We gave up halfway up, sweaty and out of breath, not seeing any sign of a summit.

    Slightly abashed to say, all we could be bothered to do, from sunup to sundown, was lay out by the beach & pool, swim, read, drink, eat, drink again ... My biggest energy expenditure in the past five days, has been managing to open the laptop to write this report! We did get beachside massages every other day, which the sound of the surf made even more relaxing.

    We were so zonked out, that when we tried to book a morning boat back out to Krabi, the reception girls began conferring among themselves in Thai, and we caught the words, “early checkout.” Had totally lost track of what date it was – still had another day left!

    Today, we do have to say goodbye. It is raining finally. It’s a credit to the Thai capital that leaving the island is made bearable by looking fwd to being back on Bangkok’s streets.

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    Glad you enjoyed your beach stay. You know, there is no requirement that you participate in water sports, take tours (which are mostly awful) or anything else. Relaxing is a perfectly acceptable vacation activity!

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    Kathie, Glen says, 'thank you!' for backing his view :)

    Back in BKK and plan to start our last full day with breakfast in your part of town, at the Oriental. Not yet left and already missing this place! Read your 2006 TR, sounds like you & Cheryl found some great food spots. And how fun that you met Fodorites in person!

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    Another note on BKK before our flight tonight back to reality ...

    SATHON NIGHT OUT
    I love the Sathon's leafy street of luxe hotels and residences, although like any upmarket area it feels like a bubble apart from the rest of the city.

    On our last night, I wanted Glen to see Moon Bar, on the 60th floor rooftop at Banyan Tree. The 360 view of BKK at night is a dramatic sight. I'd eaten before at the adjoining Vertigo, which if you are seated by the roof deck's glass walls, really does give a sense of 'dining in the sky.'

    This time, wanted to try Nahm, next door at the Metropolitan having heard alot about its Aussie chef's inventive Thai. Happily, it lived up to the expectations. Attentive service, and svelte decor esp. the outdoor seating overlooking the pool. We ordered the set menu, which at 2000 baht pp included all the canapé selections, your choice of each menu category of starter, salad, soup (2 choices there), relish, mains, and dessert (again 2 of those). Plus, two "compliment" small dishes at the start and end. Generous portions that had us unable to finish dessert. The food was indeed fantastic, particularly the smoky-tasting grilled mussels, hot & soup soup, duck curry, and softshell crab. I am getting hungry just remembering! Definitely recommend a meal there.

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    Time to say "sawasdee" to dear Bangkok ... with plans to return in 2015 for sure, given that Etihad our airline out of AD, flies here for just $600 (it's cheapest destination in this region).

    On our list for next visit: biking at Bang Krachao (Bangkok's 'green lung' island across the river), art galleries in funky Thonburi (missed it this time), Jim Thompson house, more browsing at Chatuchak and checking out an antique shop recommended in Kathie's TR, and just, FOOD (this blog has been useful: eatingthaifood.com).

    Also look forward to reading & hearing your recommendations, BKK lovers, with thanks!

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