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Trip Report Trip Report: Thailand/Cambodia- Exhilirating Trip!

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Thanks to all the help from the friendly folks on this board, we had an amazing trip in December/January. We had never been to SEA and I was nervous about whether we could do all the planning ourselves but it was really a breeze. We stayed on the beaten path and hit some real highlights. We couldn't have asked for a smoother trip.

The only thing I would change is that I would remove a day from each location and rework those three days into somewhere else. Make no mistake, we were never bored but we did feel like we could have added one more destination if we cut day from each place (Bangkok, Siem Reap, Chiang Mai).

Here's how the days worked out--I will add more details to the comments on the itinerary:

Itinerary:
12/20-12/25 - BKK

20 TUE - Check in Baan Sukhumvit Inn Soi 18, http://www.baansukhumvit.com/Soi18/rate.aspx (nice hotel, helpful receptionist, quiet at night)

21 WED - http://wandeetours.com/tours/ pickup by Fon Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Trimitr, Wat Arun (quick email replies, last minute guide change)

22-THU 8:00 a.m. pickup by Jerry, King's Summer Palace and Ayutthaya Day trip - Tour with Tong (quick email replies)

23 FRI -Konchanaburi - Erawan Park and Bridge on the River Kwai by Taxi hired for the day

24 SAT- BKK - Jim Thompson House, Suan Pakkad Palace museum, Chinatown, Wat Traimit

25 SUN- Fly to Siam reap, Bangkok Airlines

12/25-12/28 - Siam Reap

25 SUN- Check in River Village Manor http://rivervillagemanor.com/accomodation.php (good email communication with Matt, quiet location, not great but not bad) (Tour arranged with Kim San but changed to Pov)

26 MON - Angkor Wat biking

27 TUE - Angkor Wat, Silk Farm, Artisans Center, Siem Reap Museum

28 WED -Fly to Chiang Mai

12/28-1/4 Chiang Mai

28 WED- Flight to Chiang Mai, Check into Raming Lodge: http://www.raminglodge.com/

29 THU- Elephant Nature Park http://www.elephantnaturefoundation.org/go/park (my favorite day of the trip!)

12/30-1/1 FRI-SUN - trek to tribes: : http://www.activethailand.com/ (booked online with Pai: excellent and fast with email, Tan (guide) was simply outstanding)

1 SUN p.m.- relax post-trek

2 MON -Visit to BaanTawai woodworking area for shopping.

3 TUE: Biking http://www.clickandtravelonline.com/tours/CNX_CLFS.html (quick email replies, cash payment only, terrific guide "Nye" or "Nyne")

4 WED: Return to BKK then Return USA on 5 Jan.

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    Hotels

    Bangkok
    Baan Sukhumbit Inn Soi 18 I raved about this place on Trip Advisor after our stay. It's a small, modern hotel that was convenient to the Skytrain. It took about 5 minutes to walk to Asok station (if that long). We felt welcome and relaxed staying here. It included breakfast and was in a quiet soi. We'd stay here again in a heartbeat. Every staff member was gracious and friendly. The manager helped arrange a taxi for our Kanchanaburi trip. The room was spacious and decorated in a pleasing mix of modern and traditional style. The bed was hard, but we liked it. The hotel was close to plenty of great restaurant options, including my husband's favorite of the trip, P. Kitchen. The place isn't close to any tourist attractions (well, except shopping like MBK and Paragon) but that wasn't a problem for us as the Skytrain is easy and cheap.

    Siem Reap
    River Village Manor There were mixed reviews on trip advisor, most of which seem to revolve around opposing opinions on Matt, the owner. Leaving him aside for a moment, the hotel was nice, inexpensive, and we had a spacious room and breakfast with our rate. The downside was that the pet parrots in the lobby are loud and our room, room #2 was right at the top of the stairs so we heard them when they got up (not a problem for us since we were also awake then). We found Matt friendly and helpful but he isn't the gregarious inn owner one usually meets so I can see why he's a bit polarizing. The other negative/positive is that it is away from the main downtown of Siem Reap. This meant it was quiet in the streets at night (for the most part), which we liked. You can walk to downtown in about 20 minutes or take a quick and cheap tuk-tuk (we paid $3 each time).

    Chiang Mai
    Raming Lodge: This is an utterly forgettable hotel but some of my other choices weren't available (De Naga, for instance). I was getting frustrated making hotel inquiries, it was high season, and I asked the woman from Active Thailand for her recommendation and she mentioned this one. It was perfectly fine--clean, friendly, included breakfast and had a reasonable rate. It's just bigger than where we would normally stay. It's very close to walk to the Old City and the Night Market but the street is a nightlife street so it's loud. The hotel compensates by having a guitarist/singer perform nightly. He mostly performed 70s folk. We liked him but this might not suit everyone's taste and you can certainly hear him from your room. The other downside on this place is that everything required a coupon--breakfast, the massages that were included in the room, the dinner that was included. It just makes me feel cheap to present a coupon every time I want to use one of the things supposedly included in my rate.

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    Activities

    Bangkok

    Day Tour: Wandee Tours I booked a City Highlights tour (there are a few variations) with Wandee by email well in advance of our trip. I was therefore a little put out when we arrived and she said another gudie, Fon, would be meeting us. This turned out to be fine as Fon was enthusiastic, informative, and funny and we had a terrific day with her. Wandee was very quick with her email replies. I think a Bangkok highlights tour is essential for a first timer to get an overview of the culture, the main attractions, and a feel for getting around in the city. We saw The Grand Palace and Temple, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, a longtail boat ride, and had a buffet lunch. The lunch was unremarkable except that it highlighted how sweet Fon was--when I told her I was vegetarian she made sure to point out which dishes I could eat and brought me special things she especially wanted us to try (coconut pancakes, soup, etc.). The day ended with a trip to Gems Gallery, which was actually fine with us as we were curious about gemstones in Thailand. We didn't buy anything there are weren't pressured to in the slightest. We did the whole day in a private sedan and were provided cold bottled water and "refreshing towels" regularly. I recommend this tour.

    Tour with Tong, Ayutthaya Day Trip: I booked this shortly before we left. Originally I was going to do Ayutthaya on our own but since I wasn't sure about the post-flooding situation I contacted Tong and she said it was open and we could book. Jerry picked us up promptly and was a wonderful guide. We stopped at the King's summer palace, which I thought was going to be an "as-long-as-we're-here" but turned out to be a fascinating highlight for the day. We enjoyed seeing all the temple ruins as well as Wat Phanan Choeng. It was nice to get out of Bangkok for the day, too. Jerry was friendly and knowledgeable; we enjoyed chatting with him.

    Konchanaburi: Erawan Park and River Kwai - OOPS! This was a day planned by mistake. We mis-read the guidebook as saying that Erawan park was an hour from Bangkok when it's an hour from Kanchanaburi. D'oh! It's about 3.5 hours from Bangkok. The hotel arranged for us to have a taxi for the day to get there and back. Erawan was just beautiful. The waterfalls are like a fantasy. People were swimming but we didn't as the water was too cold for us and my husband's not a big swimmer. We enjoyed it as a hike and a site. The Bridge on the River Kwai is exactly that. The more interesting site is the Death Railway museum. FYI: Do not be fooled by the phoney "JEATH" museum a short distance from the bridge--it is an imposter, the real one is further away (I know this because we were fooled, BTW). In any case, the Death Railway museum is across from the cemetery. I toured the upstairs with tears in my eyes I was so moved. The museum was outstanding; it was so moving as it was filled with memorabilia from POWs and included letters, objects, and handwritten notes that they or their children sent to the museum with their donations of these objects. The cemetery is also peaceful and beautifully maintained. The return ride to Bangkok seemed endless as the taxi blasted air conditioning like he thought he was chauffeuring penguins. Overall, an "oops" day that turned out to be great but would be better as an overnight from Bangkok.

    More soon...

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    Hilarious that there's a faux museum - a near death experience? I googled it and Wikipedia says that "the acronym JEATH stands for the nationalities involved in the construction of the railway: Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland." 'Holland'(rather than Dutch)is clearly a stretch.

    Excellent report, really well organized. We were in Thailand and Cambodia at the same time of year several years ago, and wanted to do a multi-day trek, but chose elephant camp in the Golden Triangle instead. Looking forward to hearing about the trek because we want to to return at some point. Also curious about the furniture buying - something I wanted to do while there, but my husband reigned me in.

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    I was led to beleive that JEATH referred to the country names rather than "nationality". If you read it as Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand, Holland...it makes more sense.

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    Do I understand correctly that you would have taken a day from each place in order to add a destination? But you only had one full day at the temples at Angkor... was that really all you wanted? As a temple fanatic, I find that incomprehensible.

    I understand about taking time away from Chiang Mai as I'm always bored after a couple of days there.

    We're all different. But now you know what you would want to do/not do next trip.

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    When I have visited this board I noticed that people have generally encouraged others to write trip reports more so than on other boards and I can see why—it’s most rewarding to have all these replies! I like writing trip reports anyway but the reward is tenfold when you friendly Fodorites are so responsive.

    Yes, I really would have shortened time in other places to add one more. Our travel style is very fast and furious. We get up early each day and I have almost every day planned before we even set foot in our destination. This is quite contrary to so many Fodorites who view this as a “checking-it-off-the-list” type of travel (no amount of protest from me will assure you that it isn’t , I know). We enjoy this type of travel—as they say “different strokes.” The world is huge and we want to see as much as we can.

    So, with that in mind I will try to address this question: “Why did we feel satisfied with the little time we had in each place?”

    Bangkok - We enjoyed Bangkok but did not feel like there was a lot more for us to do there. Also, the city is so polluted that I felt dirtier walking around for a day than I did when we came back from our three-day trek in Chiang Mai. We’re from a rural area and enjoy a big-city visit (e.g. NYC) for about the duration of a weekend before we are ready to move on. Shopping is not a huge draw for us and we also are not gourmet eaters (as will be evident from my restaurant reviews). Once we had seen the very main sites the city didn’t hold much allure for us. Exploring little-known temples or fabulous restaurants isn’t a reason for us to linger in a big city.

    Siem Reap – We really had three full days at the temples. We arrived at the airport at 9 a.m. the first day and had bought our passes and begun our touring of the archeological complex by 10:30. Then we had a second full day on bikes and our third day was again at the complex by car and we didn’t feel rushed as we didn’t leave until the next day. And I admit it, we “templed out.” I utterly dismissed temple fatigue when I heard others mention it. After all, we visited four, yes, four, Mayan ruins when we were in the Mexican Yucatan and Teotihuacan in Mexico City and I never grew bored with it. But at Angkor Wat we were not versed enough in architecture to have a real appreciation for the differences in the temples and by day three we were doing a lot of “Oh yes, another apsara. Hm, yes, that image is well-preserved compared to the many others we’ve seen.” I don’t mean to be dismissive of all the beautiful architecture and carving. It was astounding and for two days I was enthralled with it. But if I am going to be in the midst of crowds that large for hours on end, there needed to be more variety by day three. Siem Reap convinced us we want to return to Cambodia, just not this particular destination.

    Chiang Mai - This is actually a place we could have spent more time. The consensus seems to be that this board isn’t as keen on Chiang Mai as other cities but we loved it. It had the feeling of Antigua, Guatemala or Pucón, Chile for us. That is, a jumping off point for a huge variety of outdoor activities. We love biking, trekking, wildlife, nature, and outdoor activities of all kinds. Chiang Mai offered that as well as a city that was walkable and tourist-accessible without being in-your-face. I felt like the city had a laid-back feel and a welcoming air. I would have cut a day here only in order to give another destination enough time, not because we were “done” with Chiang Mai.

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    I like the laid-back feel of CM too!! I am another person who would get "templed out" at Angkor, I think. I'm proud of you for lasting 3 days there! I'd probably be ready to do something else after 2 (maybe even 1!)... but I've not been there so I don't know that for sure.

    And yes, the Asia board members love to read/reply to trip reports! It makes us all feel as though we are 'travelling with you' when you describe familiar places! Keep it coming.

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    Activities Continued

    Bangkok
    Jim Thompson House /Suan Pakkad Palace Museum /Wat Traimit /Chinatown - Our last day in Bangkok we debated between these activities or time at the National Museum and we opted for these because of geography. It was easier to do more in a small geographical area if we eliminated the museum. Jim Thompson’s House is an oasis in the city and was worth touring for that alone. Of course, the collection and the houses are intriguing and we had a wonderful time visiting there. The Suan Pakkad palace museum was suggested by the hotel manager as a nice, small museum in close enough proximity to Jim Thompson’s that we could do both. It was, indeed, a nice small museum. Again, there was an interesting example of a Thai dwelling (albeit for royalty this time), and the collections within the museum were nice and quite varied, from seashells to musical instruments to dance costumes. We walked from the museum to the tallest building in Bangkok and thought about going up but decided against it and walked around the shopping area near there instead. This didn’t suit us and we got lunch then took at cab to Wat Traimit. We’d been curious to see its huge gold Buddha after hearing the story of its rediscovery and calculating its astronomical worth in today’s gold prices. Finally, we walked from Wat Traimit for a wander through Chinatown. Wow! That was intriguing. We always enjoy strolling through local markets and this did not disappoint us. The variety of things for sale and on display was remarkable and fascinating. It was also here that I was able to buy durian (this was the first place we saw vendors for it), which I will talk about more when I review food.

    Thai Massage - I went to a place called Yardpet Massage because it was about 50 feet from the hotel. There were three such shops all next to each other and we had been asked many times by the women sitting there if we wanted a massage. When I finally tried it all I could say was, “I love Thai massage.” I beg my husband to practically dismantle my scapulae in order to get a good deep relaxing rub and he steadfastly refuses to do this. So when the woman at the corner massage place jammed her elbow into my upper back I was in heaven. Thai massage was like being pleasantly squished. And at an hour for 200 Thai Baht I thought that alone could be reason to move to Thailand. This place was like the cheap massage shops you see all over Bangkok. There was a downstairs area where people were sitting in chairs in the window getting foot massages. I was led to a mat upstairs and given loose-fitting clothes to change into. I promptly put the pants on backwards (the ties go in the back, FYI, and are brought around to the front to tie) and was kindly redirected by the masseuse in how to wear them. She started with my feet and squished, rubbed, and stretched me into a state of total relaxation. I had two more massages later in Chiang Mai and was happy with each one. One weird thing for me, though, is how cheap massages are. I can’t afford to get massages in the U.S.A. and it seemed in some ways wrong to be able to get such an enjoyable and intimate service so cheaply (nothing sexual, of course, but touching someone in a soothing or relaxing way certainly feels somehow intimate since it is something we often do for a spouse or child—paying someone less than $10 for an hour of this seems weird in a way I cannot properly explain).

    Siem Reap

    Official Guide, Mr. Nov Pov
    I made arrangements for a guide to be with us throughout our time in Siem Reap. I communicated with Kim San before the trip and agreed that he would be with us for our three days. He was great at email communication—incredibly fast with responses coming at all hours. He also confirmed with me about a week before we arrived, which was a change as I am usually the one doing the confirming. As with Wandee/Fon, I was a thus bit dismayed to be met at the airport by someone other than who I had made all the arrangements with. And as with Wandee/Fon, it turned out to be great anyway as the guide who came, Mr. Pov, was terrific.

    He is an independent guide that Mr. San contracted with so Pov can be contacted directly for booking himself: novpov2007@yahoo.com --he speaks both English and German. We paid $210 for the three days of guide services. We paid separately for the Angkor Wat passes ($40/ea), the boat ride ($20/ea), and our meals. Pov spoke excellent English and is an officially licensed guide. His license was actually checked at one of the sites, a guy who looked like a tourist came up and spoke with him and he showed his license; he explained that this had actually been a police officer making sure licenses were up-to-date. Pov had a nice habit of repeating what he had told us a few different ways throughout a day so that if we missed it the first time, we caught it later. He had a very laid-back attitude. He was quiet and a bit reserved (compared to our driver who talked a mile-a-minute; it was hilarious to hear their conversations because the driver would talk to thirty-seconds-straight and then Pov would say something short, prompting another long speech from the driver). He let us know that we were the decision-makers about where to go or what to see even though there was a planned schedule. He also had a clear love for history and the ruins and conveyed that whenever he told us about them. Also, he used to be a farmer and was therefore informative about rice farming, with which we were completely unfamiliar and therefore about which we had many questions.

    Angkor Wat Archeological Complex
    We had three wonderful days touring the temples. It was very crowded everywhere with tourists as well as with peddlers. Now, we have perfected the dead-eyed zombie stare in several locations, honing our skills to a professional level in Morocco. We were therefore surprised and delighted to find that a quiet, “No, thank you” actually stopped the ever-present “Lady, you want postcards/hat/coca-cola” etc. that met us at each location. Granted, we said “No, thank you” endlessly, but it’s so much nicer than ignoring someone outright as we have had to in other places where “No, thank you” just confirms that (a) you speak English, (b) you are alive and, therefore, no-doubt, in desperate need of souvenirs.

    Day 1 was the Rolous group. It included Preah Ko , Lolei and Bakong Temple. Pov pointed out all the intricate relief work on the temples. It was quite extensive and generally Hindu since the temples were founded as Hindu. They evetually became Buddhist. We went to Preah Ko first, which had sacred cows in front of each of the temple buildings. We next went to Bakong and finally to Lolei. Lolei has wires holding it up. Both it and Bakong are right next to contemporary monasteries.

    Day 2 was our favorite, both because we visited the main tourist attractions and because the whole day was conducted by bicycle. Matt from our hotel warned us that although some guidebooks mention biking around the complex, this isn’t very enjoyable unless you are an enthusiastic cyclist because you end up being fatigued by the ride and not enjoying the temples. This was fair warning that was not borne out by our experience but if you haven’t ridden a bike in 15 years, this wouldn’t be the day to get back on one as it is indeed quite a bit of riding. The terrain was flat, though, and the reason we liked biking was twofold (1) We weren’t contributing to the outpouring of exhaust from sedans and tuk-tuks like we did on other days because we rode our bikes directly from the hotel (2) It was more peaceful than hopping in and out of a vehicle; there were quiet moments and we were able to spend time enjoying the layout of the complex by riding around it. We saw Angkor Tom: Bayon, Baphuan, Ta Prohm, Royal Palace, Chausay Tevoda, Elephant Terrace, and Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, the main Wat is under restoration so we couldn’t get an iconic photo without the green tarps in it. No problem, though, as the whole day was filled with fabulous photos. The carvings and architecture were enthralling. It was almost beyond my imagination to think what the place would have been liked when it was in use! Bayon was my favorite part of the day.

    Day 3 was my day to be “templed out” as I explained above. I thought Neak Paen was fascinating because it was so different from anything else we had seen. We also visited Banteay Kdai and Pre Rup. Pre Rup was quite grand. We also stopped at another place where a tree was growing over a doorway at Ta Som gate. I liked seeing that because of the beauty of the strangler tree and the stone. But as for the other buildings, they were beginning to run together a bit for me. Pov suggested that if we wanted to pay the driver additional money we could see more temples further out but we opted to end the day as we had planned rather than extend it.

    Boat Ride on Tonle Sap
    This was an expensive attraction that was worth it once we understood everything we saw. It cost $20 each for us to take the boat through the currently-shallow lake to see the floating village and floating forest. I wasn’t actually sure what the boat ride entailed when we booked it and for the first twenty minutes of trolling through a mangrove alley I was wondering what the heck we’d just paid $40 to do. Then the floating village came into view and we were fascinated. It is a completely different way of life where people live in houses on stilts with no electricity, running, water, etc. – even the police station, school, and temple were on stilts in the water. The floating forest was quite beautiful as well. And once we were through all this and onto the expansive lake we got a full appreciation for how important this body of water is to Cambodia. I was all the more glad to have done this when later, talking with Matt, we learned that the whole lake may be changing dramatically in the next few years due to Laos damming the river that feeds it in order to harvest hydro-electric power.

    Silk Farm and Handicrafts Village
    These are run by the same company. Supposedly they offer local people a chance to learn a skilled trade (including some handicapped people) and then work at these two locations. I say supposedly not because I have reason to doubt but because I have learned that places learn what tourists like to hear so there’s no real way to tell if it’s doing local good but I certainly hope so. In any case, we enjoyed seeing the entire silk process from silkworms to gathering silk to dying and weaving it. It is an intense process! And the handicrafts village was interesting, as well, as we were able to see silk painting, laquerware work, woodworking, and silver/metal working. We bought a small silver box in the shop at the handicrafts place, it was only $10 and we noted that all the prices were reasonable if slightly higher than in shops on the street.

    Angkor Night Market
    This was a good place for souvenir shopping. It’s just a bunch of typical souvenir stalls but prices were cheap and there are clean bathrooms and a bar. It says it’s open from 4 p.m. until the wee hours but really we got there at 5 p.m. and little was open. No matter, we had a couple drinks and waited for things to get rolling. After a few, my husband, who had derided Dr. Fish Foot Massage was perfectly happy to stick his bare feet into the pool of fish with me for them to eat away the dead skin. I am well aware that we are lucky not to have gotten any gross foot fungus (we washed our feet as soon as we returned to the hotel) but it was damn fun. It cost us $3 each to sit as long as we wanted and it included a beer. Certainly don’t stick your feet into the fish pool if you have open sores or anything.

    Siem Reap Archeological Museum
    We paid $12 each to go to the museum after our third day of temple touring. We asked Pov to drop us off at the Siem Rep museum because he had mentioned many times that objects like Buddhas, Shivas, Lingas, etc. had been moved there (and the museum in Phnom Pen) from the Angkor complex. The museum was ok but not wonderful. It was mostly the stone figures from the complexes and very little in the way of everyday artifacts. We still enjoyed seeing it.


    Coming up…
    Still on the way are my reviews of our Chiang Mai activities and all my food reviews. I think I will get to all this before mid-week but if you have any burning questions before you get to Chiang Mai, yestravel, let me know and I will try to answer them --when are we going to coordinate our destination for next year? ;-)

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    Thanks for your comments on how much time you spent each place and how you might have done it differently. We are all different. I spent a week In Siem Reap, and get bored in CM after 2 days. You got templed out and would have enjoyed more time in CM. I think it helps other travelers to read a variety of opinions about how long to spend places.

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    So right Kathie. I could spend months in Bangkok. Last time I spent 3 weeks in Siem Reap without entering a single temple. and never got bored!

    I'm enjoying your report schlegal1. Looking forward to the Luang Prabang section, as I'm thinking of going there next month.

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    You'll be waiting a long time on Luang Prabang since we didn't get to Laos this trip. Sorry. Maybe someone else is heading there or was recently there?

    And don't hold your breath for my restaurant reviews, we had bad, bad luck in Siem Reap (probably because we didn't follow the advice on this board--there's a really nice thread I pulled up where a Fodorite reviewed tons of Siem Reap restaurants; I found the thread while we were there but my husband was confident we would find something good just walking around[grumble, grumble]).

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    Activities Continued

    These are more detailed because our experiences at some of these were more individual than visiting a temple so I am lifting these entries straight from my trip journal.

    Chiang Mai

    Elephant Nature Foundation
    As I mentioned above, this was my favorite day. It was elephants, elephants, elephants! If you want to get up close and personal with eles in a humane environment, this is the place to do it! The only downside is how horrible it made me feel when we visited a regular elephant camp as part of our trekking package. Elephants! Elephant Nature Foundation picked us up from our hotel and we were in a group of about 10 for the day.

    We drove to the sanctuary a bit outside of Chiang Mai and on the way Bee, our guide, played us a DVD about Lek, the woman who founded it and runs it. There are 34 elephants, 31 females and 3 males. There are also around 200 dogs because Lek allows strays to stay there and has also been rescuing them from Bangkok’s flooding.

    The sanctuary is lovely, set within the surrounding mountains. There was even a sun bear in a tree as we drove up! The first thing we saw is the elephant kitchen--a stock area filled with pumpkins, watermelons, and bananas.

    We first met Lanna, an older ele and her partner, who was disfigured by a hip that was broken trying to force her to breed. We fed bananas directly into Lanna’s mouth--it was hilarious and slimy! I petted her trunk, scratched behind her ears, and loved every minute.

    Next was feeding time for the family that has babies. We stood behind a barrier and handed them pumpkins and watermelons, which they took with their trunks. The baby I was feeding was a picky little eater and kept tossing the pumpkin but eating the watermelons! Also, her dexterity was not as well developed as the adult elephants so she dropped things much more--just like a little human.

    We then fed some other elephants the same way but they walked right up to the deck of the sanctuary to get their food. We got to feed Jokia, the girl who was blinded by her previous handler. You have to show the ele’s that their basket of food is empty or they keep asking for it; to tell blind Jokia that hers was empty, the kwan tapped it on her head. This prompted her to open her mouth, into which he scooped the remaining scraps.
    The day included lunch for us, too, which was a delicious Thai buffet --lots of vegetarian options and everything was really fresh.

    After lunch was the most exciting part of the day--lots of interaction with elephants. First we got buckets to bathe them in the river. They waded in and we went after them, throwing buckets of water over them. This was fun, especially when one started sucking water into her trunk and throwing it up on her back as we stood next to her.

    Next came the naughty boy, Hope’s, bath. He is a bit aggressive so he wears a bell so you know where he is and he doesn’t interact directly with visitors. We watched from the skywalk as he rolled in the river and then came out and sprayed us with his trunk. Lek rescued him as a baby and everything he does was taught only through positive reinforcement. He lifted his feet for us and then crunched on a whole pumpkin like we would an apple; holding it in his trunk and taking loud bites from it.

    We went back down and watched the family with the baby girl eat some fruit. Then we stood next to the baby girl for a photo. Then we stood while her older sister gave us all a “kiss” with her trunk. It was a strange feeling like she was a vaccuum nozzle sucking in our cheeks. Then we went over to the mud hole area while the family played in the mud and rolled in it and threw it up onto their backs. It was sweet because even Bee enjoyed watching them at play and she's been working there for years--I love when people love their jobs.

    We watched a video about Lek and her mission that was filmed by National Geographic. It was a great piece and included a really sad portion about how people “break” a young elephant in a “crush” by stabbing at it and torturing it. It was truly horrible and one woman in our group was just sobbing by the end.

    We were able to feed the elephants again after the video and then we headed back into town. It was one of the most amazing days we have ever had getting to know these sweet and gentle girls.

    Three Day Hill Tribe Trek with Adventure Thailand

    Sgt. Kai was already booked when I contacted him in October so I researched other good options for this type of trek. I wanted to avoid the "human zoo" experience.

    This company was fast and accurate with email replies. As I mentioned, the woman who does the emailing actually made the hotel recommendation for us in Chiang Mai. The trek was terrific. Our guide has been guiding for twenty years and he was absolutely excellent. The only negatives are that the package includes an elephant show before the trek (thankfully we missed this) and an elephant ride at Mataeman Elephant Camp and after going to the Elephant Nature Foundation I would have preferred that my dollars didn't support such a camp even as part of a package(of course, it's more complicated than that but that's where my personal preference landed).

    Our guide, Tan, met us right on time and the trek was more strenuous than your average tourist trekking. One thing we didn't learn until after Day 1 is that we didn't need to carry ALL our gear; a truck took our food to our sleeping locations and, therefore, anything we wouldn't need during the day could be driven to our destination in the truck.

    Day 1

    When we started on our trek we immediately started ascending. The jungle is lush and gorgeous. Tan stopped often to identify local flora on the trail. There were all kinds of trees and plants including touch-me-nots that withered when touched, papaya trees, wild figs, gum trees, and banana trees--we got to eat little bananas right off of one! We also saw agricultural areas. The government has gotten the hill tribes to stop growing opium and encouraged them to grow tea and coffee so we saw those bushes as well as avocado trees, which are not native to the area. We walked through a Lahu village where a group of boys were playing soccer, running around, and playing. They interacted with us a bit, hiding from us and each other in a huge, beautiful snarl of a strangler tree. They followed us a ways down the path.

    We stopped on a bamboo platform for a lunch of Pad Thai with tofu that was terrific. Tan did not cook this but he did fix our other meals. As we walked, he pointed out some tiny chilies growing on a bush and said we could taste them, which we did. They were hot but really tasty. The heat pepped us up as we kept hiking. Tan picked a big handful for our dinner.

    We arrived at our homestay for the night, which had hot water and electricity. Tan left us to ourselves to get situated and enjoy the area. As we started to walk around to explore, my husband and I were stopped by an older, tiny Thai woman who gestured to us and spoke in Thai. We couldn’t figure out what she wanted until she started posing--she liked to have her photo taken and then look at it on the camera! She was so tickled by it it was adorable. The other guy in our group came up and said, “oh, yes, I also played this game of Thai charades.” I have played my share of foreign-language charades and normally you get the gist of things but there was clearly some other impediment here because she just kept taking us around, showing us things and saying things in Thai. Even when I said basic Thai words back to her (I did Rosetta stone before we left), it didn’t seem to register. It became apparent that the language barrier was not the only issue; she clearly had mental issues. She was nevertheless delightful to interact with. She took us up in the property of one of the nice houses in the area, she “helped” my husband down a hill (He was helping her but then realized she thought it was the other way around) and posed for pics with me and the other woman. She also could not stop laughing at how tall the other man is (6’7”) compared to her (easily under 5’)

    When we got back to the house she went into her house and the other man tried to teach us to play euchre. We all bought beers to relax with. He was having mild success at teaching us when our new Thai friend returned, showered, made up, and wearing pajamas. She was a bit of a distraction from the game so we just chatted with her some more and soon dinner was ready--a feast. We ate stir fried veggies, pork with eggplant, tom yum with chicken, and mushrooms with tofu. All cooked by Tan. Our friend wandered back after dinner and after a bit more laughing and goofing around we all went to bed quite early. We did get a chance to talk to Tan and learn more about Thailand, too. He also confirmed that our friend was the homeowner's sister and that she was mentally unstable (probably dementia)--info that would have been nice a few hours before. We slept under mosquito nets on the upstairs platform of the house. It was a rough sleep because the local dogs broke into a fight in the middle of the night and the local rooster started crowing at 5 a.m.

    Day 2

    This was our long day of hiking. We ate breakfast around 8:30 or so--eggs, papaya, watermelon, toast, croissants, yogurt, and the local tea. I discreetly fed my eggs to the dogs and enjoyed all the rest. The dogs followed us all day on the hike.

    We got going a bit after nine and hiked a while. There was a lot of steep downhill parts. We stopped after a lot of downhill for a snack of incredibly sweet mandarin oranges. Along the way we had chatted with Tan and learned her has been a guide for twenty years. He also served eight years as a local official for a group of villages. He did not know any English when he started working as a porter but picked it up through the years. His English was excellent.

    A little farther along we started to get close to the river. There was a pipe running along the path near it for farmers irrigating their crops. The other man accidentally kicked a pipe open and water came gushing out. He couldn’t fix it quickly and Tan helped; then the farmers came down the path because they noticed their sprinklers had stopped! We got to their field, which was a grove of mandarin oranges and saw what they meant, the sprinklers were weak. The field was lovely, with some big gum trees standing in it. One of them had one of the very tall ladders that Tan said is used for people to climb up and get bees' nests.

    We stopped at the river for lunch and took our shoes off to cool out feet. Tan sliced up a watermelon he’d been carrying for us then got out the meal. He had made us fried rice this morning, everyone else’s had chicken in it but mine was veggie. It was so much that neither my husband nor I could finish our bag. Tan gave the leftovers to our dog hiking companions, Red Dog (the alpha that stayed with us until the end), Wolfie, and Little Fox. The water was beautiful and refreshing.

    The rest of the hike included a lot of uphill again and we crossed through one village where the dogs got after a boar that was loose in the fields. She was a huge animal with lots and lots of babies that she was intent on protecting. We had to move on quickly to get the dogs away from her; the local farmer was mad and didn’t want them to get the babies.

    We walked through the jungle and across a beautiful cascade. It was so refreshing to listen to but a little bit tricky to cross.

    We arrived in another Lahu village for the night, which does not have electricity but did have running water. The houses here had thatch or corrugated metal roofs and flattened bamboo slats on the walls. We slept on a house on a platform with the thatch roof and bamboo sides and on sleeping pads under mosquito nets.

    The sunset here was fantastic. Absolutely gorgeous over the mountains. We watched it and visited with the livestock--some boars, including a runt that was pink with black spots while all the others were just black.

    Tan cooked us another amazing dinner--fried pork, stir fried veggies, Indian curry with potatoes and chicken, and mushrooms and peppers. We all had beers and moved over to the fire pit to chat. We sat and Tan brought out champagne for us to toast with because it is New Year’s Eve! What a sweet surprise! Tan joined us and told us about his life, life in Thailand, and just chatted in general. It was a terrific way to end 2011!

    Day 3

    Another early morning with the rooster crowing. We ate eggs again (Red Dog got mine) and there was pineapple and toast and tea. As we ate a local woman brought out some goods to sell but we browsed and weren’t interested in any of it.

    We set off through the village around 9:00 and passed through agricultural areas where people grow corn and cabbages and other food crops. We stopped in the main area of the Lahu village and looked at the houses and school and people. Lots of them had coffee beans out to dry.

    We continued walking downhill for a few hours. It was pretty easy going though parts were very overgrown. We got down into the valley and crossed the river four times and passed an elephant camp.

    We finished our walk at the Active Thailand camp by the river. We waded in the water while Tan prepared a delicious noodle lunch. It was like fancy ramen noodles.

    We next went to Mataman Elephant Camp for our elephant ride. I didn’t like the experience after having been to elephant Nature Foundation. We didn’t witness any cruelty but it was clear the elephants were just livestock toting tourists around all day. We crossed through the river on the ele and that was the most fun part of it.

    After the elephants we floated in a bamboo raft down the slow moving river. It was very relaxing, though a little hot. We sat on benches on the bamboo and floated slowly while two guys poled us along. One of the rafts ahead of us got stuck on some rocks and wedged in the river so that water started rushing over the raft and all the passengers got out on land. We made a stop at another boat where a man with a cooler sold us some beers.

    That was the end of our adventure and we drove back to Chiang Mai. I absolutely recommend this trek!

    Click-And-Travel Full Day Bicycle South of Chiang Mai

    We love biking and I found this company online. Etienne, the owner, was quick with email replies to my booking inquiries. The equipment for the ride was in good shape, properly sized, and included helmets. The trip was outstanding and our guide was fabulous.

    Nye (or maybe it was Nyne) met us around 8:45 to begin our cycling. She explained what the signals were that she would use to tell us to turn or slow down or stop. We rode through the city briefly and then into a more quiet country area.

    Our first stop was a Chinese Temple known for its particular architecture. We walked through a dragon building that was painted with murals illustrating the Buddha’s life. Nye explained the aspects of the mural to us as we walked through.

    We rode on to a former leper colony. There are still some people living there who have lerousy but it also houses elderly people or those who have physical disabilities. It was a quiet place with nice grounds. There is a handicrafts workshop for the people who can work to do so and their crafts are sold in a shop there. We bought some of the greeting cards.

    The next part of the ride was through the countryside and Nye was really excited for us to try a few local foods that we had not yet sampled. We stopped and saw a family making sticky rice in bamboo stalks. They were all working on it together, cutting the bamboo, stuffing with with sticky rice, coconut milk and sesame seeds and then putting banana leaves into the ends, cooking it, and then stripping off the thick outer layers of bamboo. Once it is in that form vendors from the city come buy it to sell as a snack. We were able to sample one of the sticks and it was delicious but as my husband noted, pretty filling for a day when we were riding bikes in hot weather.

    Nye nevertheless stopped a short while later and gave us banana muffins, rice crackers, and cold water as a snack because she said lunch would be a while. She also wanted us to taste banana fritters and another type of sticky rice so we stopped again and got the fritters before lunch even though we were really getting full by this time. The fritter vendor made them fresh and while they cooked Nye showed us around the market. Her English was so good that I asked her if she had lived abroad but she said she learned it just by guiding.

    We rode on to Baan Tawai for our actual lunch. As we approached we saw many houses where people were actually engaged in woodcraft or had the tools and products stacked outside. There is a restaurant in the main part of the shopping area that was so crowded we actually sat on a table near the coffee shop below it. Nye hustled to get us our lunches as quickly as possible, but it was really no rush as we weren’t hungry. Worried that we perhaps hadn’t had enough to eat(!), she brought us three packets of banana-leaf wrapped sticky rice; two with banana and one with sweet potato. I could only manage to sample one if there was any hope of eating lunch. I got veggies and noodles for lunch and my husband got chicken. It was small portions (perfect) and very tasty. Nye told us to ask her if we needed more--no way!

    We rode our bikes off to the woodworking shops just outside the village gates because they had some pieces that attracted our attention. We looked into a couple and saw things that were much more our style than what we looked at the other day and finally went into a shop that was perfect! It was called Amata. There was a woman there who spoke perfect English (English lit major at Chiang Mai University) and helped us as we went through the shop. We spent all our shopping time there and picked out a table, chairs, coffee table, two end tables and a buffet table. The price wasn’t too high, even with shipping, and the owner threw in another end table with the deal since we were buying so much. They are acacia (monkey wood) and we are so excited about it. The shipper, Uthai, came over and gave us the shipping price and assured us he would get the wood panel and nickel piece we bought yesterday in there, too.

    We met Nye again at 3:30 for the ride back to Chiang Mai. It was a relaxing return to the city along some backroads. We saw rice fields and houses as we rode. We stopped at a crematorium so that Nye could explain to us how people perform cremation in Thailand. There was both a modern cremation oven and an open air area. She said traditionally, people build a small paper and wood “house” to hold the body, which the family decorates and then brings to the crematorium. The entire thing is then burned after being set between what look like two short sets of stairs to nowhere with a gap between them for the “house.” The family waits there while the body burns and then collects the ashes. The modern oven is just like any other but can’t accomodate the traditional houses so Nye said that it is a less popular option.

    We then went on to Wiang Kum Kan ruins to see the ancient temples. We stopped at a Buddha image that is still surrounded by water from October’s flooding and then at the main temple. At the main temple my husband and I both sounded the gong three times for good luck.

    We rode back into Chiang Mai right on schedule and were pleased with what a great day we had.

    Shopping in Baan Tawai

    A taxi took us to the woodworking village, waited three hours while we shopped and then returned us to Chiang Mai for 800 Baht. We got there pretty quickly and started shopping. There were many shops that weren’t open but enough were that we got a sense of a few pieces we really liked.

    We bought a panel of an elephant carving and also a nickel piece of Chinese zodiac symbols. We were able to see the metal worker actually at work where we bought that piece.

    Prices here on all the wood pieces were significantly cheaper than in Chiang Mai--there are lots of Thai people shopping there in addition to tourists so that's usually a signal that prices aren't too inflated, right?

    Night Market
    This is a bunch of souvenir stalls like any other tourist market. It's fun to browse if you are shopping for souvenirs but I am not sure why proximity to it seems to be a selling point for the local hotels as it wasn't anything extraordinary.

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    Love your report! Your time in CM sounds great. I feel as u did about the ruins in SR. after 2 days they started to become a bit of a blur for me. I enjoyed the two days, but it got to be too much.

    Re next winter trip...I think I'll wait and c wher u decide to go next year!

    Lcuy, we just left Luang Prabang after spending 5 lovey days there. It's a great town to kick back and just take it as it comes. It was also blissfully cool.

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    Really enjoying this report.

    "And don't hold your breath for my restaurant reviews, we had bad, bad luck in Siem Reap (probably because we didn't follow the advice on this board--there's a really nice thread I pulled up where a Fodorite reviewed tons of Siem Reap restaurants; I found the thread while we were there but my husband was confident we would find something good just walking around[grumble, grumble])"

    Yep, happened to us many times, thats why I always research and have a list. Would you mind sharing the link you spoke of re eating in Siem Reap?


    Also wanted to add I really appreciated the Bold headings. I've never done this in a TR but boy it really helps with reading and also going back to the relevant headings for planning.

    Thanks :-)

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    Food

    Sorry for the delay! As I said, we aren't gourmets and so food isn't part of my planning--we generally eat based on what we find close to our hotels or wherever we are when it is lunchtime.

    Bangkok

    P. Kitchen- Thai Food
    This was a two minute walk from our hotel and the receptionist recommended it. This was my husband's favorite meal of the trip. It was an unassuming little place that just looked like a generic small restaurant--no real decor. The food was outstanding, though and really fresh.

    Lean on Tree- Thai Food
    Also a short walk from our hotel. There is a nice garden and fountain here so the atmosphere was really nice. The food was great.

    Saras - Vegetarian Indian Food
    This was also pretty close to our hotel and the sign calls it Indian Fast Food. It was a bit hard to find--we were actually considering going into Basilico but then saw this and wandered closer to see what it was. What a find! One of the best meals of the trip. It is fast food in the sense that you order at a counter and get a number and your food is brought there. Other than that it's not like fast food at all--everything was fresh, hot and delicious. We were the only non-Indian people eating in there so it's not a typical tourist stop. That means no explanations on the menus as to what things are. Since we don't live near an Indian restaurant at home, we got some guidance from the cashier on ordering. Yum. Everything on the menu is vegetarian.

    Street Food
    I couldn't be adventurous as a vegetarian but the fruit and fried ice cream I got were tasty. My husband was able to try lots of different things from various carts and enjoyed all of it. The trick to getting tasty, fresh food was finding a place near a school because when the kids get out, they swarm the vendors for snacks. In our case, it was at Benjasiri park several blocks from the hotel (which is a delightful park, busy with locals) that we found lots of carts and lots of delicious kebabs, sausages, chicken, etc for my husband.

    Local Fruit
    Since I couldn't be adventurous at the carts, I had my adventure with fruit. I bought rambutan, mangosteen and jackfruit at the supermarket and had fun opening the fruits and tasting them. I also tried durian, which I bought in Chinatown. I didn't find the smell repellant at all--more like very overripe and tangy fruit. The taste was fine but not something I loved and the consistency was like pudding. The funniest part of the adventure was that I planned to eat it closer to the hotel (outside) but when I went to board the subway, the security guard called me back and pointed to my durian (wrapped entirely in plastic and inside a plastic bag) and said "no." Oops! I should have known I couldn't take it on the subway but forgot since it was all wrapped up.

    Cabbages and Condoms-Touristy Thai Food
    We were just going to visit the shop since we know it's a bit of a tourist trap but we ended up eating here and it was good (if expensive for Bangkok tourist fare). It was a fun atmosphere, a cause we consider worthwhile, and an extensive menu of Thai items.

    There was another vegetarian Indian restaurant near the tallest building and shopping area of the city but I can't remember the name. We had excellent luck with Indian food throughout the trip.

    Siem Reap

    As I mentioned, we had bad luck here because we didn't plan on where we would eat. The most frustrating part was that service was slow as molasses in every restaurant (except Curry Walla). The servers were hustling but there just wasn't sufficient staff. It became a running joke how long we waited for service and meals.

    On the days we were in the park Pov took us to the tourist restaurants there for lunch. They were fine but on our last day the one we went to was so crowded that we left after having waited for 45 minutes for Tom Yum soup to arrive. I would have rather packed a box lunch to enjoy in the park so if you can arrange this, somehow, I think that would be better than mediocre tourist fare within the park's restaurants.

    Raja Angkor Khmer Food - Khmer/Thai/International Food
    The service here was unbearably slow. I had to actually get the menus ourselves and flag down staff to order. I had a Khmer curry and my husband had chicken soup with preserved limes. We never got the water we ordered and had to ask to have it removed from the bill (which was a debacle). The food was fine but not fabulous and the poor service kind of ruined it.

    Cocktail Restaurant-Khmer food
    We picked it because it was really, really cheap. Again, service was abysmal. But the set Khmer menu (springrolls, Khmer amok, and grilled bananas in palm sugar syrup) for $5 was a bargain and by this point our expectations for service were LOW. Drinks were really cheap, too. And the fruit smoothies were delicious.

    Curry Walla - Indian Food
    Since we'd had luck with Indian food so far we decided to risk this place on the main drag. We laughed when we saw that it's sign said "reviewed by Frommers"---ok, but what did the review say? Well, it probably said this place was great because it was. The food was delicious, spicy, and service was terrific. We were so glad we came here.

    Barrio--French food
    We just had drinks here but the atmosphere was terrific and the owner is actually French so we had nice wine and relaxed at the bar.

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    Chiang Mai

    Kin Dee--Thai Food
    This place was wonderful. It was within walking distance of the hotel inside the old city. It's a tiny restaurant but it is very inexpensive and everything was wonderful. I had green curry for only 65 BHT (I could eat green curry every day and never be sick of it) that was fantastic. And they had tons of options for fruit smoothies/slushies/shakes.

    Moxie--Upscale Thai
    This is the name of my husband's business so we picked the restaurant just for the fun photo op. Well, it was terrific. It is inside the Dusit hotel, which has a very modern look. The restaurant is expensive by Thai standards but is probably the cost of a family-style chain restaurant in the States. But the food is prepared in a manner more suited to a very fancy place in the US--it all came out looking like art and tasting like heaven. There were some interesting twists on typical Thai dishes and they had some more "exotic" items like wild boar. The cocktails were great and the service was friendly. For about $70 US we felt like we'd had a meal fit for a king.

    The Antique House
    Is not there anymore! We followed the Fodor's book and didn't see it --a hotel receptionist explained that it is now called Antique House 2 and located somewhere else. So check online if you want to try this place. We ate elsewhere. I emailed Fodor's to tell them of the change.

    Senor Diablo's Nachos - Tex Mex Food
    This was great. We almost always get a craving for Tex Mex when we travel and we've had our share of really bad and really weird nachos, etc. This place was pretty authentic and they make their guacamole fresh everyday. We split nachos and a half pitcher of margaritas (which was huge). We almost went back a second night we liked it so much.

    The Gallery -- Thai Food
    You are paying for the view/atmosphere at this riverfront restaurant. There are a number of restaurants along the river and all are about equal in price. The food here was exactly the same as what we got in cheaper places but in a nice location. That was fine, but there's no real difference between 65 Baht green curry and 200 Baht green curry. And we really got eaten up by mosquitoes being near the river.

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    We were thinking of eating at the river in CM when we return there on Sunday. given your report of the prices and being "eaten up by Mosquitos" I think we'll skip and stay with our cheap eats elsewhere.

    we also ended up at Condoms and Cabbage at the end of a long day in BKK. It was just a few blocks from our hotel. Was surpsied to find the food good.

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    I highly recommend Moxie in CM; no view, though.

    Also, the couple we were with on the trek ate at a place called Chedi (a hotel and restaurant, I think). They raved about the food and it's on the river and they said the restaurant brought them mosquito repellant cream that smelled nice.

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